Politics & Policy

Pro-Life Voting: A Friendly Response to Aaron Sibarium

Pro-life activists carry a banner during the the 47th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., January 24, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
What Sibarium gets wrong about the moral choice we face at the polls

Having profited from Aaron Sibarium’s writing in various venues recently, I was interested in his Twitter essay offering “friendly philosophical pushback” to my recent article with Robert P. George on the obligations of Catholic and other pro-life voters. I think his criticisms rest on misreadings of our article. While I speak here only for myself, I’ll attempt to clarify.

Why Abortion Shouldn’t Be Tolerated

We write that abortion takes the life of human beings who are entitled to protection from violent assault and that “natural reason,” unaided by revelation, is sufficient to reach this conclusion. “So,” we say, abortion is not the kind of wrong that governments should tolerate.

Sibarium misreads that “So.” He thinks we’re saying that it’s the mere fact that reason can reach the conclusion that abortion is wrong that makes it unworthy of toleration. That can’t be right, as he notes. It would leave Catholics (including George and myself) with no ground for tolerating the professing of atheism, believing as we do that unaided reason can arrive at theism. It is not the case that abortion should be prohibited because right reason concludes that it’s wrong; it should be prohibited because right reason concludes that it is, as we said, “the sort of grave injustice and violation of fundamental human rights that it is a central duty of law and the state to prohibit.” The case for toleration might prevail if the wrong were of a different type or lesser gravity or (though this would raise interesting questions) if revelation were required to ascertain its wrongness.

Abortion and Self-Evidence

Sibarium may be taking us to be saying that the wrongness of abortion is self-evident and that the case for prohibition follows from its self-evidence. He denies that its wrongness is self-evident on the ground that smart people disagree about it. I don’t think that’s the best way to think about self-evidence. But the wrongness of abortion doesn’t have to be self-evident in any sense for it to be right to prohibit it. The grave injustice of abortion need merely follow from premises that are themselves correct (such as the human embryo’s being a living member of the human species). In this respect, at least, the argument for banning abortion is just like nearly every other public-policy argument.

Abortion and Other Threats to Human Life

George and I argue that voters should give greater weight to abortion than to other policy issues that involve threats to human life. Whoever is right about climate-change policy, on no side of that debate are there advocates who “argue for the direct killing of, or the permission to kill, large numbers of people because they belong to a disfavored class.” Sibarium disputes this claim. He notes that many people do believe that climate change (for example) will kill a lot of people who belong to a disfavored class: the class of people who will be trying to survive in the future.

Here he is being insufficiently literal-minded. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a policy of inaction on climate change will, in the “but for” sense, cause the death of many people. That’s a very good reason to avoid that policy. But nobody who dies as a result of the failure to take action on climate change will die because someone else has directly killed him. Nor will he die because the law has said that it’s ok for someone else to kill him, on the ground that he doesn’t count as a person whose rights others must not violate. In that respect, the person who dies as a result of inaction on climate change is like the person who dies because the highway speed limit has been set at, say, 65 rather than 40, and neither is comparable to the unborn victim of abortion.

Voting and Willing

Sibarium writes, “In voting for X, you are not endorsing everything X WILLS. You are making an all-things-considered judgment that X would be /preferable as president/ to Y.” The first sentence is correct and compatible with everything George and I wrote. The second sentence simultaneously goes too far and not far enough. You can reasonably vote for X without preferring him to Y. (In a multi-candidate race, you may have reached the judgment that Y would be a better president but has no shot, while X is much preferable to Z, who could win.) But voting for X necessarily means willing that X be president. If X favors, and promises to work to advance, a serious injustice, one can vote for him without willing that injustice. Voting for X in that case does, however, require willing that someone who favors that injustice be president; which is to say it involves tolerating that injustice. This brings us to our last point of disagreement.

Voting and Injustice

Sibarium concludes, “‘Don’t vote for people who support injustice’ strikes me as an untenable standard.” That’s probably right. We did not say or suggest otherwise. But here’s a way of characterizing what we do say: “Avoid voting for people who support injustice and are pledged to act in ways that expand and entrench injustice; and the more grave and large-scale the injustice in question is, the stronger your reasons for voting for a supporter of it had better be.”

Here ends my friendly pushback on Sibarium’s friendly pushback. Perhaps, after all this friendly pushing back, we are not so very far apart.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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