Cory on Abortion and Immigration

Therese Scarpelli Cory has out an interesting article arguing that Catholics should be more worried about immigration restrictions than many are. Her basic claim is that some Catholics see abortion as inherently evil but immigration restrictions purely as a matter of prudential concerns, a distinction that doesn’t hold up.

This is a little strange for me to address because (besides the fact that I’m an atheist) I think a) abortion is not inherently evil but that b) restricting the rights of peaceable persons to migrate (in normal circumstances) is inherently evil. We share a basic skepticism of a sharp moral/prudential division.

An explanation here: The reason that some things are “prudential” is that they are wise or not to pursue depending on a person’s circumstances. For most people eating peanut butter poses no prudential concern; for someone with a peanut allergy, it does. But, I’d say, there’s also a moral dimension to someone doing the prudent thing. It is not only prudent but moral for someone with a peanut allergy to take reasonable steps to avoid eating peanuts.

A note: Prudential matters can be very hard to rationally evaluate. One can easily be factually wrong about what would be the optimal (most prudential) move. Therefore, the proper standard of evaluation is, did the person honestly seek to make the most reasonable decision possible given limited information?

Another note: Some things genuinely are optional, in the sense that one might as well flip a coin. Let’s say I want to watch a film with my family. There is no morally right answer as to which film we should watch. Some films are definitely in and some are definitely out, but within the range of appropriate films, watching any of the films would be equally moral.

Here is a key passage from the essay: “[U]nder the linguistic shroud, it [the ‘intrinsic/prudential’ distinction] is simply the pale ghost of a widespread individualistic moral theory, in which objective moral ‘oughts’ are viewed as constraints on intellectual and moral freedom that reduce the sovereignty of the individual, and that therefore should be kept to an absolute minimum. Avoid violating that small set of oughts—representing a small, universally-recognized set of especially heinous acts—and then ‘do what you will.’ As long as one is not violating the basic oughts, one’s actions can be shielded from scrutiny, as indicated by the slogan that ‘reasonable people can disagree.'”

This is a totally wrong view of individualism. Individualism does not hold that nearly any action is moral merely because the individual wishes to perform it. Individualism does not mean moral subjectivism. Rather, individualism means that the individual is the fundamental unit of moral consideration, as contrasted with collectivism, which holds that individuals and their rights may properly be sacrifices to group interests. Although it is true that deep strains of moral subjectivism run through libertarianism, an individualist can perfectly well hold that morality is objective and that it extends to all personal actions. That basically describes Ayn Rand’s view as well as my own.

Of course, individualists also (very reasonably!) think that not everything that is immoral should be outlawed. Hence, we individualists maintain two levels of evaluation, one for individuals, one for governments. That is, it can be (and often is) immoral for government to ban immoral actions. There’s nothing odd or inconsistent about this view.

Of course “reasonable people can disagree” about many things, but so what? Reasonable people cannot disagree, for example, that government should permit murder. Reasonable people can disagree about whether (say) the moderate consumption of alcohol is a good idea. And there government properly is silent. Indeed, on the matter of alcohol consumption, government is properly silent (excepting cases of drunk driving and the like) even about the choices of unreasonable people.

Although Cory at one point recognizes “juridical” distinctions, she also makes the simple error of confusing that which is immoral with that which is properly illegal. Me saying “a person has a right to do X” does not imply that X is a moral choice. Those are simply two different issues. But surely Cory would not wish to argue that everything that is immoral should be outlawed! That is a recipe for totalitarianism.

Because Corey confuses what is moral with what is legal, she completely misses the (main) point of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s essay on abortion, which focuses (mainly) on the question of (legal) rights. Now, Thompson also asserts, and I agree, that abortion at least in the early term is not immoral. I’m not rejecting objective morality in making this claim; rather, I am claiming that Corey is simply wrong on this matter, as a matter of objective moral truth. So not only does a person have a right to get an abortion (at least in the early term), a person can be morally right to do so.

Corey then has a long discussion about why the moral/prudential distinction (which she calls the “intrinsic/prudential” distinction) is not a sharp line. “All evil actions are intrinsically evil (and all good actions are intrinsically good), and prudence governs all human actions, not just a certain subset,” she writes. I think the term “intrinsic” is loaded, but if we substitute “inherent” or the like I accept the formulation.

I agree with Corey that objective morality is possible and that it applies to all human action. The fault I find with Corey is that she does not actually advocate a theory of objective morality; she merely pronounces that she does while falling back on the fundamentally subjectivist orientation of religious faith. But that discussion takes us far afield from the essay at hand.

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