The Value-Free Society

Human Life Review, Spring 1982 — If most people retain anything of their first philosophy course, it is likely to be the convenient distinction between “facts” and “values” that was fashionable during the heyday of logical positivism. According to this still popular doctrine, we cannot derive “ought” from “is.” An impassible gulf separates them. On one side are provable, objective realities; on the other, merely subjective preferences. Or: on one side science, on the other religion, esthetics, ethics.

In these terms, a notable change has occurred in the abortion debate. The advocates of legal abortion used to claim the facts. While their cause was in the ascendant, their constant theme was that “the question when life begins is essentially a moral and religious question, not a scientific one.” Nobody could say, they held, when, as a matter of fact, life begins.

This is no longer so. The ardent feminist of the New York Times editorial page, Soma Golden, has recently written: “It is not the facts of life that divide the country; it is the value of life from its earliest moments.”

Miss Golden was ridiculing the Senate hearings on the Human Life Bill; she called it, on her own authority, “constitutionally questionable and intellectually vacant.” But her words were actually a tacit confession that the hearings had succeeded in making the point — the factual point — they had set out to make.

Indeed Miss Golden was forced to fall back on the dogma of positivism that facts have nothing to do with values — a dogma which, as its critics have always pointed out, fails its own test. Is the statement, “facts have no relation to values” a statement of fact? If so, how can it be proved? It is, in truth, a metaphysical statement, one which transcends physical evidence; and unfortunately for the positivist, it is not a logically necessary truth.

Not that Miss Golden was inhibited by such thoughts. She proceeded stubbornly. If the anti-abortion side had won the factual debate, she was quite prepared to admit en passant what the pro- abortion side had denied so vehemently for so long, and to adopt the strategy of doubting whether human life itself has any intrinsic value.

“Neither the bill nor the committee” of Senator John East, she wrote, “gives any sign that the members recognize this subject as one that great thinkers have pondered over the millennia.” She was apparently unaware that Senator East himself, before entering politics, had made his reputation as a student of great thinkers over the millennia. Wrong he may be; ignorant he is not.

Assuming, however, her own intellectual superiority, Miss Golden went on: “Aristotle, for instance, couldn’t decide the question. He cautiously approved of abortion, if done before ‘sensation and life’ had begun.” He also approved of infanticide, even after sensation and life had begun, and of slavery. He knew little of fetal development, and his views on these subjects are made in the way of political prescription, from what he conceived to be the standpoint of the good of the polis — a mode of analysis of dubious relevance and even more dubious morality.

If Aristotle was uncertain, Miss Golden didn’t appear so, and the facts of sensation and life appear not to cloud the issue for her. Few advocates of legal abortion have faced up to the sheer suffering it often inflicts; perhaps none have done so unless their opponents have forced them to. When the columnist George Will raised the issue (citing Professor John T. Noonan’s article “Pain in the Unborn,” in the Fall 1981 Human Life Review), one of his readers, with a sort of heated sneer, likened the pain of an aborted human fetus to that of a severed earthworm.

Tone is the immediate expression of values, and the tone characteristic of abortion advocates is that of the sneer. And for a natural reason: their position is reductionist, value-denying. It intentionally minimizes the worth of the incipient human life; and let us bear in mind that for a long while it minimized the facts themselves. It is a prejudice, in the fundamental sense that it springs from the will in advance of any knowledge; it is not a conclusion from the available evidence, nor a perplexity caused by inordinate communion with complexities or “great thinkers.” The pro-abortion forces resisted and resented the Senate committee’s very effort to gather and present evidence. They did not sit down before the truth as a little child; they preferred not to hear about little children.

When they ingeniously devise new arguments, we ought to recall some of their old ones; their cynical appeal to anti-Catholic sentiment, for instance. The reductionist style was afoot there too. What had Catholics to gain by stopping legal abortion? What interest did they have in doing so? None. The pro-abortion side, however, did its best to imply that a simple exercise of Catholic power was somehow an attempt to increase that power.

A very different tone was sounded by Newsweek in its January 11, 1982 cover story “How Life Begins.” Written by Sharon Begley, it began:

“If newborns could remember and speak, they would emerge from the womb carrying tales as wondrous as Homer’s. They would describe the fury of conception and the sinuous choreography of nerve cells, billions of them dancing pas de deux to make connections that infuse mere matter with consciousness. They would recount how the amorphous glob of an arm bud grows into the fine structure of fingers agile enough to play a polonaise. They would tell of cells swarming out of the nascent spinal cord to colonize far reaches of the embryo, helping to form face, head and glands. The explosion of such complexity and order — a heart that beats, legs that run and a brain powerful enough to contemplate its own origins — seems like a miracle. It is as if a single dab of white paint turned into the multicolored splendor of the Sistine ceiling.”

Miss Begley went on to speak of the abortion question as “scientifically unanswerable,” and yet she implicitly answered it herself, in her accents of stunned wonder. The very facts of fetal development, far from inducing value-free detachment, inspired her to remarkable eloquence.

Her whole article, though merely descriptive, was suffused with the reverence of a mind free of self-interest and absorbed by the unfolding reality before it. Reading it one felt that rare and sublime sensation of beholding, of sharing the intellect’s love of its object. “The five-week embryo, only one-third of an inch long, is a marvel of miniaturization: limb buds are sending out shoots whose dimples mark the nascent hands and feet, and the hindbrain has grown stalked eye cups.”

Stalked eye cups! This is not a “pretty” description, but an enthralled one, and it takes a certain nerve to insist, in the face of such data, that description has no bearing on prescription, or that the thing described is no more than a “blob of protoplasm.” And we allow such things to be killed. They are destined to be men and women; they are what we once were. Is not our indifference to them, our official denial of our kinship with them, a judgment on ourselves?

As if to balance the undeniable import of Miss Begley’s article with a kind of moral disclaimer, Newsweek supplemented it with a shorter piece titled “But Is It a Person?” “It is unquestionably alive,” wrote Jerry Adler, “a unique entity . . .” But, he continued, “The question is one for philosophers, not scientists; . . . the problem is not determining when ‘actual human life’ begins, but when the value of that life begins to outweigh other considerations, such as the health, or even the happiness, of the mother. And on that question, science is silent.”

From the heights to the depths. This was pretty near absurdity. Science, in the sense of physical analysis, is silent on every moral question, for the simple reason that science is not ethics. Science can’t say whether a child ought to kill its mother, either-or, as Mr. Adler might put it, science can’t say at what point the life of the mother ceases to outweigh the convenience of the child. (Should the question be left to the conscience of the individual child?) We might, following the method of Miss Golden, make a case for matricide by conjuring up Heraclitus, Plato, Hume, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre to intimate that great thinkers have never achieved a consensus about such weighty matters, so who are we to say?

The clear rhetorical thrust of such pseudo-agonizing is to minimize the value of the unborn. One thinks of the yokel in Swift, who, after listening to the elaborate philosophical arguments of the skeptic, comes right to the bottom line: “Why, if it be as you say, I can drink, and whore, and defy the parson!” The reductionist style can be applied to absolutely anything, and it is amazing that in the age of the Gestapo and the Gulag, people should fail to see the pitfalls of this sort of easy-and easily penetrable-sophistry. We have seen enough grisly consequences from specious thinking that we should never allow mere verbal evasions to nullify ancient, though precariously established, moral traditions. But it is so fatally easy for anyone who has had an introductory philosophy course to pose as a bold questioner of conventional wisdom; far harder to regenerate the wisdom so glibly renounced.

“Value dwells not in particular will,” says Shakespeare’s Hector. But when values are thought to have no relation to “facts,” they can hardly dwell anywhere else. The new conventional wisdom of the semi-educated has it that certain values (arbitrarily selected, according to the convenience of the speaker on a given occasion) exist only in the consciousness of the subject, so that it is presumptuous (and therefore wrong?) for society to violate the freedom of its members (their freedom is a value mysteriously exempted from the reductive glare) by imposing its own standards of right and wrong on them. The assumption is that the values ascribed to “society” are merely the preferences of those in power, as subjective as those of the individual. The reductive approach de-legitimizes authority well enough; but we are never told why it doesn’t also de-legitimize individual freedom.

Science, after all, can’t say whether individual freedom is good, or whether the poor ought to be fed, or whether war ought to be avoided. It is only an accident that we have not yet had a right-wing philosophy of nihilism to question the tacitly agreed-on values of the “progressive” nihilists. It is not as if all the great thinkers had been liberals. The real case is that most of the liberals have engaged in selective debunking.

G. K. Chesterton remarked that the murderer is the supreme spendthrift, wasting in a moment what he cannot re-create in a life-time. The freedom confusedly derived from the divorce of facts from values is like that: the abortionist destroys a thing he is incapable of reproducing, the skeptic breaks a tradition he could never have begotten. Most of the recently constituted freedoms we now enjoy — or pretend to enjoy — are not the measured liberties of human beings who understand their own nature and limits, but unmeasured irresponsibilities with immeasurable consequences. They are freedoms to renounce. We have begun to declare our independence of our own actions and choices, a declaration that militates against all those accumulated habits summed up in the word character. Hustler: The Clinton L... Joseph Sobran Best Price: $13.32 Buy New $18.93 (as of 07:10 UTC - Details)

If this is freedom, it is not human freedom. It may be canine freedom. Santayana said that the only thing the modern liberal wants to liberate man from is the marriage contract; and this comes dose to the hidden agenda of the progressive nihilist. Philosophically, one can doubt anything. One can doubt God, one can doubt matter. With such a rich field of options for doubt, it is instructive to notice which things the modern nihilists have chosen to doubt.

The animus of reductionism is specific; it is against chastity, or sexual virtue — of all words the surest to evoke sneers. They are also the words that express the highest human refinement except charity. Even the licentious Romans respected chastity, and honored virginity even when they apparently had no virgins. Today the word chastity is almost taboo, except as a joke, because it affronts the values of those who profess to be value-free; it expresses a view of human nature, and of human perfection, that we are implicitly forbidden to act on. There is something almost risque nowadays in reminding people that character is most basically shown in the use of the body, and that the body’s properly human use must be directed to something beyond promiscuous animal desire.

When the Reagan Administration recently launched a campaign to include the advocacy of chastity in its sex education program, it was greeted with progressive hoots. Progressives still uphold the fiction that sex education is, can be, and ought to be value-free. In actual fact, of course, they are using sex education as a vehicle for their own moral code, and the Administration’s action threatened to convert the whole thing into the very opposite of what they intended it to be.

It is easy to see what they had in mind. They never wanted to destroy marriage or the family, as some of their critics charge. But they thought these could be demoted to the status of mere options among many other “lifestyles,” which is to say, sexstyles. And they saw no harm in sexual perversion and promiscuity, so long as the young were told how to avoid certain practical consequences. Sex education, to their minds, meant simply accepting the whole field of sexual behavior and preparing the young to choose intelligently. They utterly failed to see that this in effect meant adopting more or less officially a whole theory of human nature and destiny — one which, if false, would have disastrous results.

It may be as well for dogs to mate as the inclination seizes them. The male has no responsibility to his offspring. With human beings it is different. Moreover, human beings know it. The act of sex naturally has a much richer meaning for them, even if they are too naive to realize it may result in children. They need an entirely different emotional orchestration, and it is also naive to affect ignorance of this.

Real human freedom, as against the canine sort, requires permanence. If there were no rules of property in land we might pitch out tents where we liked and pull them up when we liked; but we would not be free to build houses. The permanence we need also requires sustained intentions, and mutual guarantees of such intentions, which is why Chesterton called the promise the most basic human institution. How can a man keep his soul, he asked, when he cannot even keep his appointments? Chesterton also reminds us that the old English ballads celebrated not lovers, but true lovers. Even a wedding vow is a vow of chastity, a promise of fidelity to one’s spouse and restraint toward all others.

People have always assumed that chastity is preeminently a woman’s virtue. To dismiss this as a double standard is to miss the point that the masculine and the feminine differ in more than simple physical form. All societies are organized around the womb, the source of progeny and therefore of society’s future, and a woman’s body therefore demands both special consecration and especially strict conduct. The very people who complain of the double standard, however, are most derisive toward the idea of male chastity, and the day is past when a Milton would hotly defend himself against a charge of sexual levity — a charge that gave much of its sting by implying that he had used women dishonorably, that is, had been willing to bed them without the decency to wed them. His supposed unchastity would also be a form of uncharity. The other side of the double standard was that a man’s honor depended heavily on his respect for women’s honor.

The institution of marriage and the code of chastity, now derided as middle-class morality, actually served to protect women, including the poorest, from exploitation, to give them a publicly supported right to say No. All of us deserve love, really human love, and since human nature shows no automatic tendency to supply the need at all times — as witness the facts of desertion, divorce, and abortion — social order consists in guaranteeing certain minima of respect.

“Values” are not really vague entities arbitrarily superadded to “facts”; the distinction is artificial. In an essay renowned among professional philosophers, John Searle used the promise to show how to derive “is” from “ought.” A promise, he argued, constitutes an obligation. It is something quite distinct from a statement of intent. Intentions may change; promises should be kept. Or there is no such thing as a promise.

It is interesting that Searle should have chosen the same action Chesterton named as basic as a fulcrum for reconstructing the values recent philosophy has done so much to debunk. But as we all realize, at least in practical life, there are some acts with built-in obligations, whether an actual promise is made or not. To have a child is to have duties as a parent. To have sex is to have duties toward one’s partner. Such duties spring from what we as human beings are and what as human beings we can foresee. It is no good pretending we are quasidogs, conscious only of “facts.”

Yet that is pretty much what we officially pretend nowadays. Society no longer dares to expect virtue, especially sexual virtue, from its members. At the level of law this may seem like a happy increase in freedom, and a welcome decline in busybody government. And certainly government should be modest about enforcing virtue.

But by an unfortunate development, not only government but all of society has grown modest — morbidly modest — about even recognizing virtue. I had a personal glimpse of the truth recently when a young woman, upon two hours’ acquaintance, confided to me that she was having an affair with a man slightly older than herself; and it transpired that she wanted badly to marry him and have children, but didn’t dare raise the issue. She was miserably afraid he would eventually leave her, as he had left the woman-slightly older again than he — who had formerly been his lover and her best friend. In short, she wanted some assurance of constancy — a vow — but had not the least sense that she had any right to expect it. Though highly intelligent, she took for granted that in the modern world we are, as Sartre put it, condemned to be free. Or, to paraphrase it a bit, condemned to be value-free. We live, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has put it in a brilliant book, “after virtue” — having abandoned any “concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function.”

Neither men nor women have a clear sense of identity, unless they manage to achieve it more or less on their own; at any rate society can’t tell them what they are. And now it even transpires that the abortion debate isn’t really about facts at all. It turns out that we can agree that a human fetus is a human being. But unhappily, we can’t agree on what a human being is.


This article is one of 15 essays in a collection of Joe Sobran’s articles from Human Life Review titled Single Issues: Essays on the Crucial Social Questions.