"Right to define the Universe"?

Related to my recent blogging on the right to hold your own opinion, true freedom, and the motto of “sentire cum ecclesia”, is this statement from the U.S. Supreme Court (PLANNED PARENTHOOD OF SOUTHEASTERN PA. v. CASEY, 505 U.S. 833 (1992)):

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

May I humbly submit that the degree to which you believe that statement represents the degree to which you are not yet ready to begin “thinking with the Church”?

And may I further submit that it also represents the degree to which you are unable to come to terms with the sheer objective nature of reality?

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6 responses to “"Right to define the Universe"?

  1. Athanasius

    Quite a good choice of quote, and it’s no coincidence it’s an extract from an abortion case.

    This is Kantian autonomy in its most potent form, and an idea whuich is pervasive and almost unquestioned in our society. And we all bend the knee to it to some extent, whether we realise it or not.

    To escape this Babylonian Captivity we need to recognise that we are indeed captive. Then in humility we must move from “thinking with Kant” to Sentire Cum Ecclesia.

  2. Schütz

    Yes, it really struck me as pertinent not only to the current abortion debate, but also to the Catholica diatribe against SCM. It articulates the core of the problem with a terrifying baldness.

  3. Past Elder

    Unaccustomed as I am to agreeing so much over here, I agree.

    It is not at the heart of liberty for me to define my own concept of existence and the mystery of life such that Africans and people of African descent are not fully part of that and therefore may be bought and sold as slaves like property rather than people. In fact it’s, gasp, illegal!

  4. Peregrinus

    “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

    Well. of course, our reading of this quote is coloured by the context from which we know it comes, as Athanasius has already pointed out.

    But reading from the context cuts both ways. This is an extract from a judgment of a secular court. When it talks of liberty, it means political liberty; when it talks of rights, it means rights [i]as against the state[/i]. This in fact is abundantly clear from the very next sentence in the judgment: “Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”

    So the court is not saying that (say) Peregrinus can define any moral reality he likes, and his reality is just as valid as the next bloke’s, and that there is no objective moral reality. On the contrary, the whole point of the judgment is that the state – and this includes the court itself – cannot tell the citizen what to believe about moral reality. In short, not “there is no objective moral reality” but “the state cannot define and determine objective moral reality”.

    If the court’s statement about the right to define one’s own concepts of meaning etc had been made in a case vindicating the free exercise of religion, as it very easily could be, I have no doubt that it would receive the ringing endorsement of the readers of this board. Context is everything.

  5. Schütz

    You are bending over backwards to defend the indefensible, Perry.

    A. The context IS everything, I agree. And the context (in this case defending legalised abortion up to the time of birth) spells out the meaning of the judgement. What is the outcome of this judgement: Legalised abortion anytime up to birth. Is this therefore a dangerous judgement? Yes.

    B. Since when can and does the State NOT define and determine “objective moral reality”? What was this judgement doing but defining “objective moral reality”? Was it not saying that it is not objectively morally wrong to abort babies up until the time of birth? To be sure, it gives you the freedom to believe otherwise, but it shakes its head and says “this, however, is the objective moral reality”. The entire purpose of the Law is to decide what is right and wrong and to compell all citizens to abide by this code for the sake of society as a whole.

    Perhaps it is accurate to say that everyone is free to form their own concept of existence etc. – but that does not mean that one has the right to act upon that concept. It certainly does not give one the right to demand that the state allow you to act upon that defined concept.

    For eg. I may so define existence in my head that I think driving at 150km/h past a school at drop off time is objectively moral. The law will say to me: Whatever is going on in your head, we say that it is objectively wrong of you to do this, and we will take away your licence for life and make you do community service for twelve months.

    And this is where Freedom of Religion comes into it. Freedom of religion is not only the right to form one’s own idea about God etc, but also to act upon it. Freedom of religion goes beyond the definition of concepts into the way in which one lives one’s life.

    And yet even then, the whole notion of freedom of religion becomes a bit fuzzy – does that mean that if my religion demands the sacrifice of children to Moloch, I should be free to do it?

    I think not. I think the State would then come in and say that this is morally wrong, no matter what ideas I have formed in my head.

  6. Peregrinus

    “You are bending over backwards to defend the indefensible, Perry.”

    I don’t see myself as defending it; I’m exploring it.

    “A. The context IS everything, I agree. And the context (in this case defending legalised abortion up to the time of birth) spells out the meaning of the judgement. What is the outcome of this judgement: Legalised abortion anytime up to birth. Is this therefore a dangerous judgement? Yes.”

    Oops, a variety of consequentialism. We don’t accept the conclusion, therefore every step in the reasoning which leads up to it must be wrong? No, it doesn’t follow. As I’ve pointed out, exactly the same principle can be invoked in support of the argument that we each have the right to choose our own religious denomination, or lack thereof. if you accept that conclusion, does it follow that the principle relied upon must be correct? But it cannot be both correct and incorrect.

    B. Since when can and does the State NOT define and determine “objective moral reality”? What was this judgement doing but defining “objective moral reality”? Was it not saying that it is not objectively morally wrong to abort babies up until the time of birth? To be sure, it gives you the freedom to believe otherwise, but it shakes its head and says “this, however, is the objective moral reality”. The entire purpose of the Law is to decide what is right and wrong and to compell all citizens to abide by this code for the sake of society as a whole.

    At most the state can attempt to define and determine objective moral reality, but Catholics should be the first to assert that the attempt must be fruitless. The notion that the state can do this is just as silly as the notion that the individual can do this. The whole point about objective reality is that it does not depend on determination by any individual or group.

    Note that the judgment is not saying that the individual is free to determine meaning, reality etc, but that the individual is free to determine his concept of meaning, reality, etc. So, for example, the state cannot tell me that material reality is the only and ultimate reality, and that I must therefore abandon my belief in transubstantiation; I get to decide this for myself. Equally the state cannot tell me that the ultimate reality is spiritual reality and I must therefore accept transubstantiation; I get to decide that too.

    When it comes to abortion, what this principle means is that the state cannot tell me either that I must, or that I must not, regard the unborn as a “person” (yes, we’re back to person language again). That’s a moral, philosophical or ethical judgement which the state simply has no right to impose on me.

    ”Perhaps it is accurate to say that everyone is free to form their own concept of existence etc. – but that does not mean that one has the right to act upon that concept. It certainly does not give one the right to demand that the state allow you to act upon that defined concept.”

    I think this is the point; the state cannot regulate beliefs, but there is a legitimate (and large) sphere where the state can and should regulate actions, even actions based on or flowing from personal beliefs.

    Sadly, this is an unhelpful principle when it comes to abortion, because it cuts both ways. I may believe that the unborn has the moral status of any other human being, but it does not follow that I have the right to act on that belief to the extent of impeding you from having an abortion.

    At the risk of oversimplifying, we generally take the view that my freedom of action is or may be limited when my actions significantly impinge on you. So, I can hunt wild ducks (say), but I can’t shoot chooks that belong to you.

    When it comes to abortion, if the only two people involved are you and me, the issues are pretty simple. if I can prevent you from having an abortion based on my beliefs, this impinges very seriously on you, your freedom and your life. On the other hand, if you have an abortion based on your beliefs, it’s hard to see, in the absence of special circumstances, that this impinges very much on me, my freedom or my life. So, on these principles, your freedom to abort is a no-brainer.

    But, of course, “if the only two people involved are you and me” is a highly contentious assumption; that’s the whole point. On the basis of my beliefs, there is a third, unborn person involved and, if you’re free to act on the basis of your beliefs, that person is affected in the most fundamental and terminal way possible. And, given my beliefs, the conclusion that you should not be allowed to abort become a no-brainer.

    in terms of outcomes, there isn’t really a neutral position here; the state either allows you to abort or it does not. But in terms of a basis for a decision, there are actually three positions which the state can adopt:

    (a) It can endorse my views, and forbid abortion.

    (b) It can endorse your views, and permit abortion.

    (c) It can refuse to endorse either view, which is in fact the stance taken by the majority judgment in Casey.

    Now, at first glance, we can ask if there is any difference between (b) and (c). If the result of (c) is to permit abortion, is it any different from an implicit, rather than explicit, endorsement of (b)?

    I think there could be a difference. The conclusion that stance (c) lead to the permission of abortion follows only because of the rights-based terms in which the argument has been framed. But maybe it doesn’t have to be framed that way – and, prudentially, maybe it shouldn’t be.

    The current round of abortion discussions started when Nancy Pelosi made her comments about the Catholic position on the personhood of the unborn. She suggested, if I recall, that the view that personhood starts from conception is only about fifty years old (which would mean, ironically, that it dates from about the time of Vatican II). That’s almost idiotically wrong; criticising this is, as the saying goes, like shooting fish in a barrel.

    But this may have distracted us from what could in fact be a teachable moment. Her time-line is all wrong, but she is basically right to suggest that, for a very long time, the mainstream theological position would have been that personhood was something that came at a later point.

    Now, two qualifications must immediately be made. First, the theological position was based on a factually flawed understanding of human reproduction. The current theological consensus is much better informed. Secondly, when I say what the mainstream theological position used to be on this point we should understand that this wasn’t a point which interested previous generations of theologians nearly as much as in interests us. We’re talking about a period when the concept of “human rights” had not been developed, and when human rights certainly didn’t feature in the discourse about moral theology. I think if you’d asked most theologians to consider when human personhood begins, they would have given you an Aristotelian answer, as Aquinas did, but this wasn’t a question that they asked themselves very much, and it didn’t have the implications for them that it does for us. So this may have been the consensus, but it wasn’t a particularly strong consensus.

    And this leads me on to a point which I think has been overlooked. Despite accepting or assuming that a human person comes along at some point well into a pregnancy, the Catholic tradition has always unambiguously rejected abortion as gravely wrong at any time after conception. And this means that the moral argument against abortion does not, or at least need not, rest on the assertion of the human personhood of the unborn from the moment of conception.

    And I think this could be worth exploring. However strongly we may be convinced about personhood-from-conception, we also need a compelling argument as to why the state must accept this view and, in effect, enforce it on those who do not share it. But this is not something which is susceptible of empirical proof, and it depends on an ontological understanding of existence which, so far as I can judge, is not held by a majority of the citizens in either the US or Australia. And, plainly, in a democracy, the argument that this view must be accepted by the state because it has been divinely revealed/is infallibly taught by the church is going nowhere. We could argue on democratic grounds that the state should accept this view if it is held by the majority of citizens, but (a) this would imply that the state should not accept it if a majority rejects it, which I think is not something we would want to concede, and (b) I don’t think a majority do accept this view.

    These difficulties, coupled with the conspicuously counter-productive results from relying largely on the rights-based argument over the last forty years, lead me to suggest that the older and deeper traditions of the church, which do not depend on the personhood of the unborn, must be worth exploring.

    It’s worth noting that the link you give to Casey includes, if you scroll down, the dissenting judgment of Justice Scalia. He starts, not by arguing that the state should accept a particular view of meaning, existence, etc, but by dismissing the whole question as irrelevant. He didn’t carry the day on that occasion. Nevertheless, I think he may be on to something.