The Arts of Persuasion

By Reno, R. R. | The Human Life Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

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. …

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