Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Consequentialism and the Planned Parenthood videos—UPDATE

If you learn anything about the law — and I’ll freely confess I’m not a lawyer — you learn that the way a statute is written is very, very, very important. The simpler a clause is written, the more it leaves open to interpretation.

Katie M. Geary of the Becket Fund explains the problem in The Federalist. To make a simple explanation simpler: Abortion providers can’t perform what the law calls a “partial-birth” abortion, a procedure in which the unborn child’s head is manipulated into a breech presentation, then has its brain removed while stuck in the birth canal. On the other hand, stopping the heart with digitoxin before dismembering the child ruins fetal stem cells for research purposes. (See the footage and the transcript.) “These babies are being strategically maneuvered, crushed, and dismembered under ultrasound guidance — while still alive.

There are two legal questions: 1) Are the abortionists working for Planned Parenthood “altering” the abortion procedure within the meaning of 42 USC 289g-1(b)(2)(A)(ii)? 2) Are various Planned Parenthood employees abusing the “reasonable payment” loophole in the illegalization of the sale of fetal tissue in 42 USC 289g-2(e)(3)? Unfortunately, none of the pro-abort attempts to “debunk” the videos really reaches these questions; the one state government investigation to date — Indiana’s — was done with such indecent haste that we’re justified in wondering how much effort was really put into it. (As for the videos being “heavily” or “deceptively” edited ... well, the full-length videos from which the press-release “good parts” edits were taken are readily available both on the Center for Medical Progress’ website and on YouTube; so you can make that judgment for yourself.)

Whether or not Planned Parenthood has stretched the law past the breaking point is almost immaterial. As Ross Douthat argued in the New York Times, the videos aren’t simply icky. “It’s a very specific disgust, informed by reason and experience — the reasoning that notes that it’s precisely a fetus’s humanity that makes its organs valuable, and the experience of recognizing one’s own children, on the ultrasound monitor and after, as something more than just ‘products of conception’ or tissue for the knife.”

We live in a culture in which various people, in various media, for various reasons, encourage us to adopt a consequentialist view of morality: the only thing that really matters is whether the action achieves, or is intended to achieve, some Greater Good, or is meant to avert some Greater Evil. We’re asked to sacrifice the child for the sake of either establishing Utopia or averting Armageddon. The sacrifice isn’t merely desirable; it’s necessary. And if you show yourself reluctant to approve, you’re an enemy of mankind: you’re a misogynist, a backwards, mouth-breathing Luddite bent on throwing us all back into the 19th Century, an anti-intellectual opponent of the triune godhead Science, Technology, and Progress. Or, at least, you’re a “f**king idiot”. (“Boy, aren’t we edgy and honest! We must be telling it like it is if we’re cussing!”, he yawned.)

Ironically, the CMP videos are themselves products of consequentialist thinking. Such unsettlingly candid conversation could not have been gotten without deception and misrepresentation. As much as I’ve struggled to construct a “just lie doctrine”, the doctrine is essentially defensive in nature; like Lila Rose’s undercover exposés of four years ago, the CMP videos are provocative, not defensive. And I’m still not comfortable with it: it seems the nobility of the lie depends on who the “good guys” are. For that reason alone, I can’t defend the videos, regardless of how effective they turn out to be.

Nevertheless, politics, as I’ve said before, is not now, and never has been, about what you can prove or substantiate with facts; it’s always been about what you can make others believe with compelling stories — myths, in the classic sense. The real question is, “Who has control over the abortion narrative now: the pro-life movement or the pro-choice establishment?” If the pro-choice establishment still has functional control — as the recent defeat by filibuster of a Senate bill to de-fund Planned Parenthood shows — that control is crumbling.

The conscience of the mushy middle hasn’t been fully awakened, but it has started talking in its sleep. The problem with consequentialist thinking is that the consequence you want won’t necessarily be the consequence you get.

UPDATE: August 7, 2015
The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named has an excellent piece in the Catholic World Report on consequentialism in the context of arguing well, titled “The Most Popular Moral Heresy in the World”. His argument is particularly directed at Christians, because we’re specifically forbidden to use evil means to achieve good ends (cf. Romans 3:7-8). Here is a sample slice:

Now it will be noted that here, as with fallacious arguments, evil means can sometimes “work.” You can sometimes get the good end you sought by evil means. So, for instance, Judas actually did get the 30 pieces of silver he sought. Whoever rubbed out Jimmy Hoffa did so without being caught. Hiroshima and Nagasaki did end the war. Abortionists are often prosperous and happy.

Moreover, those who refuse evil means often lose. Things sometimes come to pass according to the word of the Prophet Durocher, and nice guys often finish last.

And therein lies the challenge: because evil means do sometimes work, it is tempting to use them, particularly since the devil fights dirty. But we cannot do so because (I repeat) we may not do evil that good may come of it. Does that mean we will lose sometimes? Well, look how the debate between Jesus and the Sanhedrin or Peter and Nero turned out. The faith of the Church is not the same as the creed of The Shadow (“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay!”). In this world, sometimes crime does pay and the guy with the biggest mouth or guns, not the best argument, wins. “In this world you have tribulation,” says Jesus, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

Tollete, legete. That is all. Carry on.