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To fail to stand by even one aborted human being, as a matter of will, is to fail to stand by the human race.


The late Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, used to say that he lost his commitment to the continued existence of the human race after he studied the Holocaust. Before the Holocaust, he said, it was praiseworthy for someone to care about whether we would survive. Maybe we should go to Mars and set up colonies there. Maybe we should prepare bunkers in case of a cataclysm. And so on -- to insure that some vestige of humankind would carry on. But after the Holocaust, he thought, it made no difference whether we continued to exist. We had so disgraced "our kind" through that murderous plan that it was just as well if we perished from the face of the earth.

I'm of two minds about Nozick's reaction. It's surely an understandable response: after all, God felt that way once, when for apparently lesser evils he "repented" of having created us, and all but destroyed us in a flood, according to the story in Genesis (6:6). And yet doesn't not caring that humankind perish come uncomfortably close to favoring that humankind perish? Obviously, the latter is worse than a merely genocidal intent, which favors only that a group within humankind perish.

I am trying to get at this matter of the will. The will, they say, is "intellectual appetite." What that old formula means, is that it is a siding for, or against, something which can only be grasped by reason, and which is regarded as good or not as so grasped.

An example can help make the point clear: the so-called "presentation" of food. Suppose someone serves me green jello for dessert in a perfect, cylindrical shape, in the center of a white circular plate. Compare that with the same jello just heaped in a mound on an irregular plate. Each dish satisfies my hunger or sense of taste equally well, but the former appeals also to my mind. The circular shapes, and the appearance of concentric circles, of the first dish are grasped solely by my reason (my dog, Lulu, does not care what shape her food has) and they are appealing as so grasped.

The will can recognize clean outlines, and it can side with, or against, or not care to side with -- also a matter of the will -- something regarded as having a clean outline. Aristotle said a long time ago that what distinguished hatred from mere dislike is that hatred was always for a kind; and a kind needs to be marked out. Genocide springs from such hatred: "the Jews, a people, are to be destroyed." This kind, this race, this ethnicity, this people, should perish. If there are no sharp boundaries, then hatred requires that they be imposed: one-quarter, or one-eighth blood puts you inside the circle.

My point is that Nozick's lack of care was a matter of the will, as much his prior care. "I stand by all members of this kind, the human race," "I stand against all members of this kind," and "I do not stand by all members of this kind" -- these are all alike in involving the will, and only the first brings the will into support of the human race.

Precisely because we do, in fact, have a will, the will becomes involved in our intentions (Jesus: our "hearts"), willy-nilly, "velle nolle." People who promote contraception, for instance, despite a belief about themselves, that they aim only to reduce future human beings, cannot help failing to stand by all living human beings. They inevitably move towards Nozick's attitude, regardless of what they merely want.

I was thinking of these things in connection with President Trump's references to infanticide in the State of the Union Address: "Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments before birth ... And then, we had the case of the governor of Virginia, where he stated he would execute a baby after birth."

In abortion debates (I do not say in this speech) infanticide is often introduced as the end of a slippery slope -- someday, if we continue along this perilous path, we'll be killing babies, too. And of course that is true. But it's not as though, if we slip down that slope, our will ever changes. It may be more grisly and gruesome to kill a baby, but squeamishness is not the same as the will. To fail to stand by even one aborted human being, as a matter of will, is to fail to stand by the human race. Abortion already was infanticide, and adulticide, and geronticide. Mother Teresa put this philosophical consequence in plain language: "If a mother can kill her unborn child, I can kill you, and you can kill me."

What is called the "right to privacy" was never more than a legal fig leaf invented to shield the eyes of the will, a futile attempt to place an obscene act off scene. We pretend that if we cover an abortion with a right, then the will does not need to reach to the act. "We will the liberty, the autonomy, the self-determination, the empowerment." No: you will those things, only after having willed not to stand by us.

You have removed yourself from what is most distinctively human, viz. standing by our own, "kind-ness," what the ancients called, simply, philanthropy.

- Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.

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