Personhood in the Age of the Theorist-Consumer

The basic problem with wanting to have it both ways.

The basic problem with wanting to have it both ways is that you usually end up with either nothing or (more often) the destruction of the good. We Americans, sadly, have a weakness for having it both ways—or at least wanting to have it both ways. This is highlighted, in philosophical terms, quite well by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, in a short essay, “On Abortion and Defining a ‘Person’”. Writing about the recent, failed personhood referendum in Mississippi, Gutting observes the rejection of the referendum” showed that many Americans — including many strong opponents of abortion — are reluctant to treat a fertilized egg as a human person. They are, in particular, unwilling to extend the full protection of our laws against murder to a fertilized egg. This might seem to be just a common sense reaction to an extreme position, but rejecting the personhood position has important consequences for the logic of the abortion debate.”

“The basic problem”, Gutting rightly points out,

… is that, once we give up the claim that a fertilized egg is a human person (has full moral standing), there is no plausible basis for claiming that all further stages of development are human persons.  The DNA criterion seems to be the only criterion of being human that applies at every stage from conception to birth.  If we agree that it does not apply at the earliest stages of gestation, there is no basis for claiming that every abortion is the killing of an innocent human person.

Those convinced that abortion is murder can, of course, maintain that this entire line of argument merely shows that we must hold that the fertilized egg is a human person: abortion is always wrong and it wouldn’t be if the fertilized egg weren’t a person. But what the Mississippi referendum showed was that many of those strongly opposed to abortion do not believe this.  They were not willing, for example, to forbid aborting pregnancies that result from rape or incest or that are necessary to save the mother’s life.  Many were also unwilling to charge fertility doctors who destroy frozen embryos with murder or to forbid after-fertilization birth control devices such as I.U.D.’s.

And so, if people are logical and committed to the integrity of the evidence and first principles (whether scientific or philosophical in nature), they cannot have it both ways. But, alas, they want to have it both ways—and, legally at least, do. “I am not claiming that those who reject the personhood of a fertilized egg have no grounds for opposing abortion”, Gutting writes, “But they cannot consistently claim that all abortions, even at very early stages or in special circumstances, are wrong.”

Phil Lawler, writing on about the referendum immediately after it was voted down, put it in blunt, caustic terms:

Yesterday the people of Mississippi voted not to amend their state constitution to declare that human life begins at conception. Nevertheless the scientific fact remains: Human life begins at conception.

Unless I am mistaken the Mississippi constitution is silent on the law of gravity. Perhaps at some future date the state will schedule a referendum on another proposed amendment, enabling the voters to declare themselves for or against gravity. The results, however, will be moot. No matter how the votes are cast, the law of gravity will remain in effect.

His analysis is excellent, as always, and includes this significant observation:

First, note that the Personhood Initiative did not ask the people to settle a scientific dispute. This was not the equivalent of asking the king to flatten a round earth. The scientific question is settled; the facts are beyond dispute. The referendum asked Mississippi voters to acknowledge a scientific reality and its necessary consequences. Abortion advocates threw all of their considerable resources into a campaign to persuade people that they should not examine the evidence, because the evidence damns their argument. The most unsettling thing about yesterday’s vote is the realization that a majority of voters were swayed by that crude propaganda campaign.

This brings to mind a section from Peter Augustine Lawler’s excellent new book, Modern and American Dignity: Who We Are as Persons, and What That Means for Our Future (ISI, 2010), in a chapter titled, “American Nominalism and Our Need for the Science of Theology”. Lawler (no relation, I think, to the above mentioned Phil Lawler) puts his finger on a strange dichotomy, or existential chasm even, found among many Americans: “It’s especially clear that we Americans see ourselves both more personally and more impersonally than ever. Virtually all sophisticated Americans claim to believe that Darwin teaches the whole truth about who or what we are. For Darwin, the individual human being exists only to serve the human species.”

After unpacking that remark a bit, Lawler than notes the whip-lash, illogical approach taken by these folks: “The same sophisticated Americans who pride themselves on being whole-hog Darwinians speak incessantly about the freedom and dignity of the individual and are proud of their freedom to choose. The particularly modern source of pride remains personal freedom from all authority, including the authority of God and nature. Our professed confidence in the reality of that freedom may be stronger than ever today. … We Americans, in fact, are so unscientific that we don’t even try to account for what we can see with our own eyes.”

Exactly right. This is very much in keeping with Walker Percy’s description of Americans as being essentially “theorist-consumers”: we like to employ various theories (usually draped in scientistic language) about nearly everything, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s really about our desires, our dreams, our right to choose and our freedom to consume. In the words of Percy:

Americans are the nicest, most generous, and sentimental people on earth. Yet Americans have killed more unborn children than any nation in history. … It is not “horrible” that over a million unborn children were killed in America last year [Percy was writing around 1989]. For one thing, one does not see many people horrified. It is not horrible, because in an age of theory and consumption it is appropriate that actions be carried out as the applications of theory and the needs of consumption require. (“Why Are You a Catholic?”, from Signposts in a Strange Land [1991])

In other words, we like to have it both ways. And if that means ignoring the truth about conception and the unborn and the dignity of human life, hey, we can mumble something about democracy and votes and the law. It sounds good in theory, but it is a lie that consumes the soul. And therein so often lies the wide road to the destruction of the good and the denial of God.

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.