Dueling ideas of reality
American disunity goes much deeper than politics
Given the very real possibility of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, progressives in California are already lobbying to make the state a safe-haven for women wanting to terminate their pregnancies.
California rarely disappoints when it comes to radical progressive overreaction, but on this matter the state is in one sense representative of the United States as a whole. Yes, the proposal is extreme and divisive; but as such it simply indicates what is going to happen when the Supreme Court decision on the Dobbs case is announced—the country will be radically divided in its response.
It is common today to hear that the United States is politically divided in a way that it has not been for many generations. Yet that claim, while arguably true, is also remarkably superficial. And responses to the Dobbs decision will demonstrate that fact.
The division in the United States may manifest itself politically, but it is much deeper than politics. And abortion exposes this division like nothing else in our contemporary context. Abortion is a debate about human personhood and that is, in turn, a debate about the nature of reality or, to use the philosophical jargon, metaphysics. Metaphysics is an opaque word but, to translate it into simple terms, it comes down to this: Does the world have a meaning that transcends the individual and which we as individuals must discover to know who we are? Or is the world just raw material from which we, as individuals, create our own meaning by acts of will and unconstrained choice?
When it comes to abortion, the question might be posed like this: Is the baby in the womb a person with meaning and reality, or is the baby in the womb just “stuff”? And if it is just “stuff,” then does it enhance my happiness (in which case I keep it) or inhibit my happiness (in which case I kill it)?
These are not simply political questions, such as those about basic rates of tax or those of state versus federal rights. These are questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human. And abortion is just the most obvious of these issues. When we think of how the matters of race, gender, and LGBTQ+ rights are currently tearing the country apart politically, we see again how the question of what it means to be human—a question of metaphysics, not politics—lies at the heart of so many of our political problems. To say we are politically divided is to miss the real problem: We have no agreed-upon understanding of reality upon which we can sustain a unified society.
America has always been a nation with a novel view of humanity and a distinctive, if often unconsciously assumed, philosophy of reality. As Michael Hanby has recently argued, it is a nation that created itself, that defined itself not so much by continuity with a past but by overcoming and breaking with the past. Its identity lay in freedom, and freedom defined by that historical break and by the pushing forward of the western frontier. Now, as the most technologically sophisticated nation on the planet, its pioneer imagination is fueled with visions of the crossing of new frontiers and of breaking even more radically with the past. After all, what is abortion if not a shattering of the authority of past actions? What is transgenderism if not the crossing of that most imperious boundary, the biologically determined body?
Notice how the language of “dehumanization” is used today. To raise questions about gay marriage is to dehumanize gay couples. To query the wisdom of transgender hormone treatment for young children is to dehumanize trans people. The logic at work here is obvious: to tell people that what they might be thinking or doing is wrong denies that they are human. That assumes a definition of humanity tied to the unbridled freedom of the individual to do or be whatever they choose.
This is the divide that is devouring the social coherence of the West in general and America in particular. We don’t simply disagree on tax policy; we no longer agree on what it means to be human. As Peter Singer, the radical Princeton ethicist, makes clear in his arguments for infanticide: The question of whether human beings are made in the image of God or not is decisive for the question of what it means to be human and for all ethical questions that are implied by that. The political divide over abortion rests upon a much deeper philosophical divide over what it means to be human. And that divide has significance well beyond the status of the child in the womb.
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