The pro-life/pro-choice debate is highly informative

I like the abortion debate, because it points to an important design flaw we need to confront. Our Constitution was designed by people who believed reason was supreme and that all problems have solutions. The founders were contemporary with Kant, whose 1781 publication of the Critique of Pure Reason would eventually change our understanding of the world. Had the founders internalized Kant’s world-changing ideas? In my view, they had not. The Constitution does not help us with practical issues that have no definitive answer, and this design flaw was bound to show up as electoral schisms around values-based issues that could not be decided by the procedures the Constitution put in place.

Abortion is the clearest example of an issue that cannot be decided by reason. Anybody who can see a fetus as a human being can understand why abortion should be considered murder. Anybody who can see a fetus as a pre-human tissue sample can understand why it is more important not to compel Americans to become parents. However, the issue is not objectively decidable. There is no way to know if a fetus is a human being. There can never be an objective, empirical, unambiguous, a priori definition of “human being”. A fertilized egg might have a soul, but that can only ever be an assertion of faith.

How should we handle issues like abortion?

Our founding fathers understood the dangers of factionalism, but within their zeitgeist they may not have fully appreciated the fragility of reason itself. For example, in the Federalist Papers #1 we see that Hamilton is aware of emotional biases in reasoning. However, he also considers emotional reasons to be incorrect, and he appears to think there is an absolute correct conclusion that all people can reach through correct reasoning:

“Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; … it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable — the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears. So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.”

Unfortunately, the truth about reasoning is that it is a very much more limited tool than people generally understood in the late 1700s. Hamilton views “these good men” as having false biases that led them to incorrect conclusions because they factored their own self-interests into their thinking about the constitution. Seeing they would lose power and money, they were against ratification. Hamilton calls this false reasoning, but it is not. They were probably right about the impact of the Constitution on their own interests, and there is no absolute hierarchy of reason that places the ratification of the Constitution (even if it was in the common good) above individual self-interest.

We want there to be some Highest Cause. We want the good of all society to trump the interests of the elite. It feels like the Good and the True should be necessarily aligned, and we may even be built by evolution to believe that, but it is not technically true. It requires a leap of faith to say that Might does not make Right, and wanting money and power is not objectively irrational.

There was no way to convince the slavers that their reign of terror was wrong. Our Constitution did not help us. Thankfully, slavery (though more common than ever) is illegal and reviled. Abortion is closely divided. It has been at 50% in favor of legality “under certain circumstances” for over a decade. The other 50% of voters have been split between always legal and always illegal positions.

Science will never make any progress whatsoever toward establishing the divinity of the fetus, but the practicalities of the issue are changing all the time. Abortion access is decaying rapidly as republican states attack women’s health care. Science will continue to make progress toward earlier ex-vivo gestation and safer, later-term, easily smuggled abortifacients. These trends will change the practical impact and available responses if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court.

We are often invited to let the states decide. What choice is there? If you think all problems have solutions, this looks like science — let each state try its own thing and eventually we’ll find the universally correct answer. We do not look at differences in marijuana laws and expect that the country will eventually end up with a patchwork. We talk about the states experimenting and expect an eventual country-wide solution.

Unfortunately, a patchwork is the right answer to a question that has no answer.

We need more ways to confront issues that cannot be resolved by reason. I intend to describe several examples that include a generalization of the idea of state’s rights, and

  • Differential taxation: Through social control of some aspects of the budget, the pro-life voters could provide more funds for adoption services and education while the pro-life voters could provide the funds to assist low income families with abortion counseling and other services.
  • Opt-in legal structures: If people selected the laws they were willing to follow, then we would have fewer fights over national laws.

Abortion is our best intractable issue, but not the only one. From taxing the poor to stamping out Democracy, the Republican Party has taken positions on issues are often rational approaches to serve values that democrats do not share. To reinvigorate our Union, it will behoove us to enhance our Democracy with new legal approaches and decision methods that allow for radically different values to coexist within the same polity.

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