The Arts of Persuasion
Reno, R. R., The Human Life Review
How do we defend the sanctity of life in the public square? Should we appeal to the truths of faith? Or should we limit ourselves to secular reason? These are not easy questions to answer, and that's because they limit us to a false choice. What moves the public varies widely, and we cannot know in advance what will trigger social change.
The struggle against slavery, which shares important features with the struggle against abortion, provides a good example. For a long time many in the anti-slavery North adopted something like the attitude we find today toward abortion. Prominent politicians and opinion leaders felt that slavery, however regrettable, was a fact of national life that had to be accommodated. After all, it was allowed by the Constitution, and in any event abolition seemed impossible. Slavery was too entrenched and the prospect of its elimination too traumatic.
However, the abolitionist cause did not stagnate, but instead gained ground. Those "personally opposed, but . . ." began to shift their stances, recognizing that they could no longer temporize. Nobody found new arguments against slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. The cases against slavery, some based on natural right and others relying on theology or the Bible, were often repeated and well known. Instead, it was the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's tale of the human toll of slavery, Uncle Tom 's Cabin, that together with Fredrick Douglas's autobiography shifted public opinion. These stories put a human face on moral evil.
The story of the pro-life movement has not been all that different. By the end of the 1970s, the arguments against abortion were well rehearsed. Everything turned (and still turns) on who counts as a human person worthy of the full respect and protection of law. With the philosophical terrain well known, the two sides became entrenched in their positions, marshalling arguments to defend them. Then the use of sonogram imaging became widespread, and we could see the face of the fetus, a more eloquent testimony to the humanity of the unborn than any philosophical or theological argument. It was our Uncle Tom 's Cabin moment. Now polling data shows that more and more people are opposed to abortion.
Novels, autobiographies, and sonogram images. These are the sorts of things that tend to be "game changers." That's to be expected. For the most part we make arguments to justify positions we already hold; when our arguments are refuted, very, very few of us are brought up short. Instead, we tend to retreat, regroup, and find new arguments. This is not to say that there is no place for the arts of persuasion - some closely linked to rigorous argument - or that there are no changes of heart. There certainly are, as we all know. But what induces such change tends to be concrete, more a matter of people and images than syllogisms.
We need to keep this fact about human psychology in mind when we think about how we should intervene in the public square. For the most part, the notion of "public reason" applies to the justifications for laws and policies. We can say, for example, that there is no secular reason to support a law requiring church attendance, for only revelation allows us to know that Jesus is the Son of God. We do not rely on uniquely theological foundations when we propose laws limiting and (eventually, we hope) prohibiting abortion. As Wesley Smith and many others have shown, there are philosophical reasons to think that the unborn should be counted as human persons. Indeed, one can give sociological reasons: A creative utilitarian or committed nationalist might interpret the demographic crisis in Europe as sufficient reason to prohibit abortion. It would increase the birth rate!
These justifications, however important, need not be the sources of our convictions or the motives for our advocacy, as many wrongly imagine. For example: Asked why I think we should reform our social- welfare programs, I'm perfectly capable of rehearsing Charles Murray's arguments about the ways in which they currently encourage a debilitating culture of poverty. But if asked why I make it a priority, I'll start to tell stories about my experiences as a young person working as a volunteer for my church summer camp in Baltimore, and if pressed I'll begin to draw on biblical passages that seem to capture the problem we face. In other words, although the justifications I give ought not to conflict with political and moral motivations I have - it would be a sign of intellectual dishonesty if they did - they need not be the same. In fact, as I've suggested, they are very unlikely to be the same. We tend to use our skills in logic and analysis to find the reasons why we believe what we believe; we rarely reason our way to important moral beliefs.
The important difference between justification and motivation needs to be kept firmly in mind. Wesley Smith urges us to "base" our public policy on secular foundations, including our efforts to defend the sanctity of life. In response, W. Ross Blackburn argues that secular arguments fail to engender a strong moral presumption in favor of the sanctity of human life. It is quite possible that both claims are true, because they aim at different targets.
A metaphor such as "base" can generate confusions. Smith surely does not want to rule out sermons designed to motivate the faithful to make the pro-life cause a priority, or for that matter sermons that use the Bible and Christian tradition to illuminate the intrinsic dignity of the human person. His goal, it seems to me, is to make sure that religious believers have clear ideas about how their public advocacy, however motivated, however initiated, however clarified and strengthened, can be justified by reasons widely accessible to those who do not share their faith. To accept this obligation reflects the respect due to our fellow citizens as citizens rather than as coreligionists.
However, these secular reasons need not be compelling, as Blackburn wrongly glosses the standard of public reason (and not without encouragement from many secular advocates of public reason who are keen to gain control over the public square). When it comes to the sanctity of life, he writes, "a secular argument cannot do the heavy lifting." Here is another metaphor that generates confusion, not the least because there are no arguments, including theological ones, that are capable of doing much in the way of "heavy lifting," if by that image we mean persuading people to change their minds and motivating them to make personal or political sacrifices to defend the sanctity of life.
Arguments are important, and I do not wish to be read as dismissing them. It is very hard to convince someone to believe something for which one cannot give cogent reasons, which is why we need to be ready to give reasons on behalf of the sanctity of life. However, cogent is not a synonym for compelling. Once one leaves the seminar room and enters into the public square, it becomes clearer and clearer that the debate about abortion, and about the sanctity of life more broadly, turns on very deep intuitions about the meaning and purpose of our lives, intuitions that are largely insulated from and unresponsive to carefully framed inferences, no matter how nicely formulated and cogently argued.
The relative impotence of reasoned argument stems from the fact that our minds follow our souls, and our souls are made for loyalty. Our hearts have reasons that reason cannot know, as Pascal famously said. And our hearts are shaped and formed by hopes and fears, by images of human flourishing and dire pictures of suffering, which is why Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel was so effective, as has been the sonogram.
Contemporary secular society encourages us to prize our autonomy above all, and this forms our moral imaginations in ways that tend to transform the world into material for our self-directed purposes. Nobody thinks we can simply use everything as we please. Secular society imposes limits: We're to respect the autonomy of others, and there are many utilitarian reasons to prevent us from compromising the resources available for others. But the tendency is clear: The lines of moral limitation are to be drawn as narrowly as possible, giving us ever greater scope for the free exercise of our wills. That's why so many think that we can dispose of ourselves (doctor-assisted suicide) and that the unborn should not limit a woman's choice.
The examples Smith gives of new threats to human dignity amount to more of the same: redrawing the lines ever more narrowly so that still more of the material of human life is available for us to do with as we see fit. The recently born become disposable. Cloned fetuses serve as organ farms. The nearly dead are redefined as actually dead so that their organs can be used. In each case bad moral arguments provide justification, and to be sure they need to be refuted. But we need to be clear about the challenge we face: It's the way in which our moral imaginations are formed by modern secular society that makes us receptive to these arguments.
Formation under the authority of divine revelation - even formation under the metaphysical pressure of belief in a supreme being - works against the secular mentality, which is why religious convictions play such a decisive role in sustaining a robust defense of the sanctity of life, as we know from our practical involvement in the pro-life movement. This is not because revealed truths provide key premises in pro-life arguments. Instead, religious faith encourages us to see our lives as oriented around service to God and our neighbors rather than around autonomy. This in turn encourages us to enlarge the circle of respect for life, making us more receptive to pro-life arguments of the sort Smith and others make.
Here Blackburn is surely correct to push back against any effort to refocus the moral imaginations of believers around secular principles, as some overly enthusiastic proponents of "public reason" tend to do. The last halfcentury has seen the drastic decline of Christian influence over important segments of American society. It's this that has made our society receptive to arguments that all too conveniently define the young, the sick, the handicapped, and the elderly as non-persons. Let's be vigilant. It's very important for the cause of life that we not allow this secular mentality to control public debate. For it wants to minimize the formative influence of religious ideals, ideals that dislodge us from the center of reality and make room in our imaginations for those who live on the margins of the human family.
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Arts of Persuasion. Contributors: Reno, R. R. - Author. Magazine title: The Human Life Review. Volume: 38. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2012. Page number: 56+. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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