Francis Beckwith

Postcards from the Marriage Wars (Part One): The Golden President Turns on the Golden Rule

On May 9th, President Obama told a TV interviewer that he supports same-sex marriage (SSM). This came soon after his Vice-President, Joe Biden, said he was quite comfortable with the notion. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the President’s revelation. He himself has said that his views on gay marriage have been evolving. Right now, he appears to have reached the end of that evolution, though one wonders if his VP’s comments gave him a nudge in that direction. Whatever the case, my point is not to interrogate Obama’s reasons for revealing what he did at this time (some candour on this issue is rather refreshing, actually). Instead, I want to examine the the President’s rather lazy use of the so-called “Golden Rule”, which he pressed into service as a kind of secular theological way of justifying his position. Here are his exact words:

“…the thing at root we [Michelle and Barack Obama] think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated”. (David Gibson, “Obama Backs Gay Marriage: Golden Rule Informs American Religion”, Huffington Post, May 11th, 2012. Emphasis mine).

That teaching is drawn from a portion of Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Mount: “…do to others as you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12). Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Perhaps we should treat others as we would want to be treated when it comes to the thorny, and divisive, issue of SSM. That way, we can all get along. It also seems superficially plausible: if we want to get married, then why should we deny that to others? The Golden Rule, it appears, commits us to this position – and all with the imprimatur of divine authority. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the President’s would-be Christian justification.

Most obviously, Obama’s reasoning falls flat due to a basic error. Taken to its logical extension, one might be able to advocate for just about anything, provided one was a supporter of the act in question. This is patently absurd. As Catholic philosopher, Francis Beckwith, has written, the Golden Rule “is not a quid pro quo for preference satisfaction reciprocity. Otherwise, it would mean that if one were a masochist, for example, then one should inflict pain on others” (“The President, Jesus and the Golden Rule,” Catholic Thing, 11th May, 2012).  Conversely, if one simply didn’t want to get married personally, one would have grounds for reversing Christ’s maxim and denying same-sex couples what President Obama clearly thinks is a sacred right (or rite) demanded by Christ himself. I mean, if I am treating others as I treat myself, and I don’t want to marry, then refusing gay couples the opportunity to do so is consistent with the logic of the President’s preference-based interpretation. If Obama can cite this verse to support SSM, one can easily cite it based upon one’s own, contrary preferences. Thus, any superficial usefulness it might have possessed collapses into incoherence.

Indeed, The President didn’t seem to realize that the Golden Rule, when used in such a lazily secular manner, does not settle the issue of the moral status of SSM. Employing Christ’s maxim as Obama did only works if one is already committed to the rightness of SSM. One first has to establish that something is a good before it can be said that the Golden Rule impels one to extend that good to another. The problem lies in the fact that President Obama used this verse as a foundational reason for his support of gay marriage (note his words above: “…the thing at root…”). It is question begging, since it already assumes – without reason or explanation – the normative status of SSM. Now, one might argue that SSM simply represents the extension of marriage to include those who want to marry a person of the same sex; if this is so, and we think marriage is a type of good, then surely we should treat others the way we want to be treated? However, it is precisely the meaning and essence of marriage (and therefore, whether it is proper to extend its meaning to embrace same-sex couples) that is contested ground. The Golden Rule, on the other hand, assumes some shared vision of what is good for a person or people. Debate over SSM, which goes to the heart of the meaning of marriage as an institution, is not within its purview. And since the Golden Rule says nothing about SSM – nothing at all – then appeals to it as the most basic grounding for support of the concept are meaningless.

Obama seemed also to misunderstand the nature of Christian ethical teaching. It is not the case that one can use a verse, completely shorn of its context, to make a point. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the President did. He neglected to mention that Christ’s maxim was a summation of the “Law and the Prophets” (part of the very same verse). What this means is that the Golden Rule is integrated with the rest of the Scriptures; it does not stand alone, in splendid isolation, ready to do the work of anyone who wants to justify anything on the basis of reciprocal preference. It is grounded in a particular theological context that says nothing at all about SSM, but which upholds the ideal of marriage as a union between a man and a woman (see Genesis 1:27; 2:23-24). What’s more, Matthew 7:12 is integrally tied to the rest of Jesus’ teaching – teaching which makes plain the fact that he upheld the creational ideal found in the Bible’s premier book. In fact, just twelve chapters after uttering the Golden Rule, Jesus pointed to the fact that “at the beginning” marriage was created as a union between a man and a woman (Matt. 19:1-6). Now, one might object that these verses don’t say anything about SSM either. Two things can be said in response. First, Jesus’ citation of the Genesis text implicitly ruled out sexual unions that lie outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage. His citation, I submit, assumed exclusivity of scope. Second, Jesus was an observant Jew, steeped in the OT, and living in the socio-cultural matrix of first-century Judaism. Support for homosexual acts – and therefore, advocacy of SSM – would have been highly unlikely, to say the least.

The upshot of all this is that President Obama has – unwittingly, perhaps – pitted Jesus against himself. One cannot believe what Jesus taught in Matthew 19, and yet use Matthew 7:12 as a way to advocate for SSM. Either that, or it appears the President has implied that not even Jesus taught in accordance with what the leader of the free world thinks is a proper interpretation of the Golden Rule. For Obama, who states that he and his wife Michelle are practising Christians, something is seriously amiss. How, pray tell, would he reconcile his reading of Matthew 7:12 with Christ’s teachings on marriage (found in the very same gospel)? If it’s true that Christ upheld the ideal of heterosexual marriage, and regarded homosexuality as a sin (as any observant Jew of his time would have), how would the President be able to maintain his religious and theological justification for SSM when it brings him into jarring conflict with the central figure – and the ethical model – of the faith he professes?

As one can see, several problems abound with Obama’s tortured, and tortuous, theological reasoning – and all this before we arrive at an exegesis of the passage in question. Looking at it in context, it’s clear that Matthew 7:12 can only be used as a justification for SSM advocacy by way of imaginative sophistry or intellectual laziness. It comes as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which, although beloved by people who say they admire Christianity (but cannot really commit to all of its teachings), is actually directed towards disciples. This is made plain at the beginning of the section, in Matthew 5:1. Rather, it is an “in-house” sermon, directed towards those who already followed Jesus. Even if Obama’s interpretation were hypothetically plausible, it still would not warrant support for a change in public policy (true, Obama stated his stance on SSM as a personal view. But as President of the United States, and thus that nation’s leading public figure, his personal views cannot easily be disentangled from his public stance on issues).

Everything I have mentioned – the various layers of context within which the Golden Rule sits, Obama’s lazy and undiscerning application, and Jesus’ own recorded stance on the question of marriage – leaves one dubious about the prospect of Christ’s maxim doing all of this theological and intellectual heavy lifting. However, if we move on to the immediate context of Matthew 7:12, that prospect seems even more remote. Just before he uttered his famous words, Jesus spoke of asking (God, presumably) for one’s needs to be met. He then used his present audience in an analogous manner to show them that God could be trusted to supply their needs (Matt. 7:9-11). Moving from the lesser to the greater, Jesus concluded that if sinful human fathers would nonetheless liberally supply their children with everything they needed, how much more would one’s Heavenly Father supply one’s own needs, and work for one’s own good? Reading verse 12, it is apparent that Christ’s “Golden Rule” exhortation was the direct implication of God meeting the needs of his disciples. In like manner, they are to treat others in the same way, with the way one treats oneself (defined in a basic, commonsensical manner) acting as a yardstick. Their lives are to be characterized by a regard for others’ good that mirrors God’s regard for theirs’. In view of what Jesus preached just one chapter earlier – exhorting his disciples to refrain from worrying about the basics of life, precisely because of God’s provision (Matt. 6:25-34) – it seems one has some details regarding the kinds of goods and the sorts of needs one might meet when treating another as oneself. As I noted earlier, such a specific, and contemporary, concept/issue as SSM was never within the purview of Jesus’ teaching at this point.

It is sad to see someone of such intellectual acuity commit such an elementary blunder in an effort to “reconcile” the teachings of Christ and the church with modern-day concerns that are diametrically opposed. We can be thankful that President Obama has at least shown enough candour on this issue to be forthright and honest. As a lawyer, however, one thinks he would have been able to do better. But hey, I suppose that’s what you get when you try and please two groups whose disagreement over this issue could not be sharper. More seriously, it shows us that there are times when Christian ethical teachings simply will not submit to secular concerns, no matter how much one may try. Not even a President, powerful as he is, can reconcile the irreconcilable. 

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The “Ethics” of Fourth-Trimester Abortions

I work in organisations that care for, and support, some the most vulnerable people in our society – those with a disability, and those with a serious mental illness. As such, I have the good fortune of being able to routinely witness some fine examples of human nobility. Nevertheless, there are moments when I am shaken out of my reverie and reminded that all is not well (to say the least) with our culture.

One such moment occurred a couple of weeks ago, when I perused an article in The Age newspaper (Henrietta Cook, “Abortion Paper Led to Death Threats”, March 2nd, 2012). As many of you are aware, the story concerned outraged responses to an academic paper arguing for what the authors termed “post-birth abortions” – in other words, infanticide (perhaps the authors momentarily realised the savagery of their suggestion. Hence, the euphemism “post-birth abortions”). It was, I must admit, the sort of read that made my stomach churn. Here were two “ethicists”, Francesca Minerva and Alberto Giubilini (hereafter, G & M), arguing for the legitimacy of the killing of infants if they became an “unbearable burden” to their families. What’s more, their arguments were published in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Medical Ethics (“After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”, 23rd February, 2012). It’s difficult to articulate the horror one experiences when confronted with the sober reality, the monstrous nadir, of our moral undoing. Claims that this was simply a theoretical discussion, not meant for a general audience, are, I would argue, beside the point. The fact that they were suggested in a mainstream intellectual forum forces me to come to grips with, not only the ethical decrepitude of the principal authors, but also the present nature and future trajectory of our culture – a culture that has enabled such views to be aired and sponsored.

It is of course tempting at this juncture to lean on Leon Kass’ notion of “the wisdom of repugnance”, and leave it at that: some ideas are so intuitively abhorrent that opposition to them needs no defence. I sympathise deeply with that response, to be sure. This particular idea, that newborns can be killed in certain circumstances (something I shall interrogate below), is a legitimate target for such revulsion. Indeed, to suggest such a course of action is to offend our deepest, most basic sense of right and wrong. But to simply rest on an inarticulate sense of moral outrage is, I believe, inadequate. No view, regardless of how demonstrably evil it may appear, should be espoused with impunity. If for no other reason than to expose philosophical fallacies and academic depravity, I shall attempt to engage with the ideas, assumptions and premises that underlie G & M’s argument.

Our ethicists commence their piece by suggesting that, in some cases, the birth of a child may be intrinsically unbearable for the mother. Later, they suggest that some children constitute an “unbearable burden” for families and society. Given that society already permits abortion within the womb, G & M argue that the same conditions ought to apply to newborns. This, they seek to defend on the grounds that newborns and foetuses are not persons, and should therefore be treated similarly when questions of abortion arise.

Leaving aside the authors’ conception of personhood for a moment, it is clear that G & M begin their paper with a tenuous, nay completely unsupportable, premise. Their argument that there are certain instances where the birth of a child is intrinsically unbearable – not because of disability or deformity, but because the act of giving birth to, and raising, a child is itself unbearable – is unwarranted. Now, there are some things in this life that truly deserve to be described as such: a man attempting to uphold a 15-tonne container is, according to basic science, engaging in an unbearable act. But having a child cannot be seen as unbearable prior to doing so. No one can predict with certainty that doing so will present an impossible task for the prospective parent(s), even after a few days or weeks. How can it be argued that raising a child will present an insufferable burden for those who have the responsibility of doing so? That is what the word “unbearable” suggests – an absolute certainty about the nature of a situation.

The problem is that one cannot posses this level of knowledge prior to, or just after, the birth of a child. We are historical creatures, bound by time and the flow of events. What may seem to be unbearable at a certain point will not necessarily be so days, weeks or years down the track. As William M. Briggs, a professor at Cornell University, has remarked, “since [the] birth and…subsequent care of a child is a contingent event, we cannot claim that any birth and rearing is unbearable in advance” (“Academics – Who Else? – Call for the Killing of Babies”, 28th February, 2012). Moreover, making this kind of prediction groundlessly assumes that the reality of an impossibly burdensome newborn is an exclusive one. In other words, the notion of the “unbearable” implicitly suggests that a newborn could be nothing else but a burden – and an insufferable one – to its parents. According to this view, it could not, at the same time, be a joy, a challenge, an enriching experience and an embodied example of the gift of life. Most people reading this will likely agree that such a view is demonstrably false. And so, we see that G & M have already built their argument on a fallacious assumption.

Even more serious is the inconsistent case G & M try to mount in order to reduce the moral status of newborns. Our authors argue that a child just born is on the same moral plane as a foetus, largely because neither can be called persons. G & M ground this assertion in a certain conception of personhood – namely, that one first has to have the ability to formulate aims and appreciate life. Only then can one be called a person and have a moral right to the life they possess. What one notices, however, is that G & M themselves appear to be confused about the essential nature of a newborn baby. For instance, in developing their argument for the non-personhood of newborns (and therefore, the lack of harm done to them if they are intentionally deprived of life), our authors suggest that they are “not persons in a morally relevant sense”. I’m not sure if what they wrote was a slip of the tongue (or pen, or keyboard), but they still grudgingly admit that, in some sense, a newborn is a person. According to G & M, a newborn child may not be a “person” in relevant moral terms, but they cannot escape using that word to describe it. Perhaps our authors still have an incipient awareness that a human baby is a person; indeed, to use that word is to make an implicit declaration about the subject in question. Maybe G & M, on some level, still recognize this.

In any case, I’m unsure at this stage how to interpret their statement regarding newborns, personhood and moral relevance. Do they mean to argue that a newborn is a person, but in a morally irrelevant sense? If so, what does that signify? If their definition of personhood is the sine qua non of the concept, then a newborn child is no person at all. Indeed, I think this is what they mean by “morally relevant”. Nevertheless, their inability to escape the fact that a newborn is in some sense a person is reflected in their compulsion to use the word. Later, however, G & M make a startling admission: if someone asked them if they would had been harmed if their parents had decided to kill them as newborns (or foetuses), they would have replied “no”. And why? Because there would have been “no one” in existence to be harmed. It’s difficult to reconcile this concession with the abstract definition they offered earlier. And, apart from a chilling statement of self-condemnation (or an example of perverse courage, depending on how you look at it), the authors seem to be unaware of a very important fact: the newborn baby is hardly “no one”; it is very much “someone”, even if G & M have trouble unambiguously affirming its personhood. It is patently absurd to describe a crying, writhing infant as “no one”, as if no one existed. Of course, our authors would have to admit that something does “exist” – but if not a person, then what? How would one categorise a newborn if not to use the concept of personhood to describe it? It seems that our authors are ignoring embodied evidence that, at the very least, weakens (further) their strident claims.

Nevertheless, G & M insist that a newborn is not a person, and that to deprive it of life does not constitute harm. However, their confused argument does touch – briefly – on a fundamental issue that forces them into such an inconsistent view of a post-natal baby. Whilst denying it the status of personhood, our ethicists admit that it is hard to determine exactly when a human baby becomes a person. That is precisely correct. Personhood is not a static concept, and it would appear to be a notoriously difficult task for an external observer to definitively state when an individual “becomes” a person. No matter: our enlightened pair skate over this minor detail on their way to a confident affirmation of the newborn’s non-personhood. One is left agog at G & M’s seeming insouciance in the face of life-and-death issues. They largely ignore the crux of the issue – namely, the apparent moment someone enters the realm of personhood – which leaves their argument in tatters. If it is so difficult “to determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’”, is it wise to make such bold assertions about its moral rights (or lack thereof)? It appears that G & M have condemned their argument with their very own hands.

Here, we reach the heart of the matter – and the centre of the debate between advocates of abortion and those who venerably oppose it. G & M, perhaps unwittingly, have given us a glimpse of the basic philosophical problem: just when does a human subject become a person? Of what does personhood consist? Our ethicists would argue that one becomes a person upon attaining some measure of value for life, and an ability to formulate aims. Personhood as a concept and personhood as an epochal stage of human development are, for our authors, indissolubly linked. But again, I would argue that they are working with a deficient definition of the person. Implicit in their argument that newborns are non-persons is the idea that one has to have actualised all the attributes of personhood in order to possess the rights thereof. Yet this ignores the unfolding nature of the concept. Personhood is, I submit, an emergent phenomenon. Now, as a Christian, I believe that the creation of human life results in a person from the moment of conception. However, it is also true to say that this does not become apparent at one moment in time, fully formed. From the moment of conception – and on, through all the stages of life until death – a person is a cascading genesis of human development. A foetus and a newborn are potential persons, in that they contain within themselves the seeds of their own individuality. Now, G & M explicitly eschew the notion of “potential personhood”. But why? Why should their static, actualised version win out over a philosophical model that seems to fit better with “facts on the ground” (so to speak)? A newly born infant (or a foetus) may not have highly developed goals, or a sophisticated appreciation of the value of life. But the capacity for developing those goals, and appreciating life is intrinsic to the newborn. It is not something that is imposed, externally. It resides within the individual, and emerges, gradually, over time. Moreover, it continues to develop over an individual’s life course. It could be said, then, that the project of personhood is an unfinished one. G & M concede that the moment of personhood (as they define it) is hard to determine. And so it is, if one adopts the narrow, actualised conception upon which our ethicists seem to rely.

In suggesting that a newborn is not harmed if deprived of life because it does not count as a person (according to their narrow conception), our authors fail to appreciate the intimate connection between the post-natal infant and the more developed individual. They ignore the fact that the two are inextricably linked – if I were not an infant, for example, I would not be here now. That much is absurdly obvious, but the value G & M ascribe to existing persons is based in part on qualities that were already present, though not yet actualised, in the infant (and even the foetus). Again, they may appeal to the non-actualisation of qualities as a way of arguing their case. I would argue, however, that there is something decidedly curious about arguing for the value of so-called “actualised” persons, over-against newborns, when the two are developmentally inseparable. In writing about the unborn (though the quote is equally relevant when concerning newborns), Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith writes that they are “…actively disposed to develop into a mature version of [themselves], though never ceasing to be the same being” (emphasis mine). Despite the many and varied changes a person undergoes throughout his life; despite the unfolding nature of existential reflection he might experience; despite the historical perspective he will eventually develop: he is still bound to his earlier, infant self. That is why there is nothing odd, for example, about referring to myself at the age of two weeks as “me” or “I”. Suggesting that no harm is done to a newborn, and that it can therefore be killed, inadvertently devalues and relativises the more mature life that grows organically from it.

Even if G & M’s definition of personhood were accurate in an exclusive sense, how do they know that newborns fail to meet the relevant criteria? For instance, how do they know that a post-natal infant has no aims? Now, it’s true that an individual at this stage of life does not possess the more sophisticated aims that one might attribute to someone older. A newborn obviously does not dream to be a professor or an astronaut, to write music or to work with disabled children (how can it, when any hope of formulating goals supposedly worthy of the right to life is snuffed out by our authors’ suggestion?). Nonetheless, we can say that it most certainly does have aims of a more basic nature. A newborn aims to eat, to sleep, to be close to its parents, to experience love and intimacy, and to absorb whatever information it can about the world around it. One might even say that a newborn is actively developing towards the point at which it is able to self-reflect and actualize its appreciation for life. These are plainly goals, and though the newborn may not be able to articulate them, they deeply challenge one particular dimension of G & M’s conception of personhood.

Chillingly, personhood, as defined by our authors, risks sliding down the so-called “slippery slope”. Now, it’s true that many progressives hate the slippery slope argument. And, of course, it’s difficult to argue on the basis of something that hasn’t happened (yet). Still, in addition to representing the latter stages of one slippery slope, G & M’s paper stands at the head of another. It opens up the possibility that not just newborns, but also others who don’t fit their definition of personhood, are theoretically liable to their recommendations. If it’s so difficult to pin down the moment of personhood, how long does the pre-personhood stage of human development last? Two weeks? Two months? Two years? What about people who are profoundly disabled intellectually? Those with late-stage Alzheimer’s? Those in a coma who may never emerge? What about people who simply don’t think a lot about their lives, and what they mean? (OK, that was more in jest). These categories of individuals evidently fall outside the authors’ philosophical zone of personhood. Can they be deprived of life if they become a burden to their families and society? This line of reasoning may appear extreme, but once the absolute right to life is removed, then there is no logical reason to stop. Indeed, the authors argue something rather similar, in that they justify the notion of post-birth abortions on the current reality of pre-natal abortions. My rhetorical questions above simply extend the horrific logic further.

G & M’s paper, awful as it is, represents the final stage of a cold, logical process. The authors argue that this debate has been raging for several decades, and in this they are correct. The question of personhood – or its commencement, at least – has been debated with alacrity and vehemence as a consequence of organised advocacy of abortion. Once the attribution of personhood to the foetus was challenged, it was only a matter of time before the boundaries of the concept, along with the rights that went with it, were pushed further out. More to the point, once the objective moral status of the foetus (grounded in the “concrete” distinction between life and non-life, before and after conception) was abandoned, any demarcation between person and non-person was always going to seem arbitrary. Our authors have, in some ways, exposed that arbitrariness. But they have also offered us a ghastly utilitarian ethic that coldly pits the interests of the family against the needs of our society’s most vulnerable members.

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To conclude: one wonders whether, in the words of columnist Barney Zwartz, our authors are “…allow[ing] thuggish thinking to smuggle in the desired conclusions of the premise” (“Killing Inconvenient Infants, The Age, March 7th, 2012). Indeed, our authors seem intent on reducing the moral status of newborns in order to uphold a brutish recommendation. Whether this is certainly the case is ultimately unanswerable. What is not unanswerable is the question of what this paper reveals about the present state of Western culture. Most people are bound to feel some sense of moral outrage if confronted with these suggestions, and rightly so. I wonder, however, if we shouldn’t also feel some collective sense of shame. Although the reasons for cultural, social and philosophical shifts are sometimes difficult to delineate, I would argue that this paper also represents a particularly extreme example of what happens when a society loses hold of certain perspectives that once underpinned the nobility of human dignity and value. In this case, it is the Judeo-Christian notion of the imago dei that has been lost – or rather, spurned. It is clear that the absolute dignity of life, whether in the womb or just beyond it, has been founded upon the metaphysics of Judeo-Christian thought. It is equally clear that we have lost that mooring, to our own detriment.

But our predicament is one of our own making. The fact that such thoughts and ideas could be entertained in a serious journal of ethics ought to compel us to reflect upon what we have done – or failed to do – to prevent our society reaching such a point. Ideas do not develop within a vacuum; rather, they constitute the climax of historical and philosophical processes that take place within, and between, societies. As some ideas are lost or rejected, others take their place, offering us a culmination of incremental trends. The idea that it might be morally justifiable to kill a newborn is one such culmination. It has had its genesis over many years of thought and reflection – not just in the rarefied arenas of academia, but also on the ground, in the street and in the home. We are complicit in the emergence of this particular idea, because we have failed to arrest the trajectory of a culture that has led to its promulgation and dissemination. And for that, we should be ashamed.