Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Howard Dean on Abortion and Tolerance

Howard Dean explains what the abortion debate is all about:
"The issue is not abortion," Dean told the closed-door fund-raiser. "The issue is whether women can make up their own mind instead of some right-wing pastor, some right-wing politician telling them what to do."
In a nutshell, that’s what’s wrong with the mainstream pro-choice position: it turns the issue of abortion into another issue altogether, e.g., women’s rights. But these issues have nothing whatsoever to do with the moral permissibility of abortion. They’re merely red herrings that play to the prejudices of those who think that making abortion illegal is tantamount to suppressing the rights of women.

To make this clear, the argument--

Women have the right to make up their own mind about abortion.
Therefore, abortion is morally and legally permissible.

--is invalid. The truth of the premise neither guarantees the truth of its conclusion, nor lends probable support to it. In a word, it’s a non sequitur. A woman in fact does have the right to decide whether abortion is or is not morally permissible, but this has nothing to do with whether or not abortion actually is morally permissible. I have the right to decide whether or not yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is morally permissible, but I do not necessarily have the right to actually yell “fire” in a crowded theater. One doesn’t get me the other. Hence much of the pro-choice position is logically invalid.

Note well: one can be firmly pro-choice and accept the point I’ve made here. I am merely arguing that the typical pro-choice arguments are invalid; not all pro-choice arguments are invalid. For example:

If the fetus isn’t a person, then it is morally permissible to kill it.
The fetus isn’t a person.
Therefore, it is morally permissible to kill it.

This is a logically valid argument, and it addresses the main issue regarding abortion. It has two false premises, but that’s another story …

Dean had some other things to say:

And Dean told the Hiebert fund-raiser that gay marriage was a Republican diversion from discussions of ballooning deficits and lost American jobs.
It’s a diversion unless Democrats want to talk about it. Then it’s the Vitally Important Civil Rights Issue of Our Time.™
"Moderate Republicans can't stand these people (conservatives), because they're intolerant. They don't think tolerance is a virtue," Dean said, adding: "I'm not going to have these right-wingers throw away our right to be tolerant."
So moderate Republicans are intolerant of the intolerance of conservatives, and Dean is intolerant of those who threaten his right to be tolerant. Herein lies the paradox of tolerance: one either tolerates everything, in which case, one is tolerant of intolerance; or one is intolerant of at least one thing, say, intolerance, in which case, one is intolerant of one’s self. I suppose one could be opposed just to certain kinds of intolerance, but this means, as rational people know, that tolerance is a limited virtue, subordinate to other virtues, such as justice. We shouldn’t tolerate unjust acts; so it follows that tolerance is not a prime virtue. The problem is that liberals often treat virtue as the prime virtue when impugning those who putatively don’t demonstrate this virtue; yet they retreat to the rational view of tolerance as a limited virtue when their own intolerance is manifest.

The upshot of this is that liberals should drop the pretense of universal tolerance. Everyone is intolerant of something. I’m not tolerant of white supremacists, and I suspect that Dean isn’t either. Why? Because white supremacy violates our basic notions of justice and equality, and we should rightly condemn any ideology that flouts these basic virtues. Hence there isn’t anything inherently wrong about intolerance. The conventional, sophomoric view that white supremacy violates the virtue of tolerance and is to be condemned for that reason is woefully misguided; it unwittingly leads to the absurd conclusion that our intolerance of white supremacy is not virtuous because it, too, violates the virtue of tolerance.

The charge of intolerance, then, is usually pointless. I may very well be intolerant of x, and you may be tolerant of x; but my intolerance of x may also be a justified form of intolerance. Just plug in “white supremacy” in place of x. To be sure, my intolerance of abortion and gay marriage is a more controversial matter, but the same point applies: merely pointing to my intolerance says nothing about the correctness of my position. To say that a man is intolerant is neither to say that he is doing something wrong or holds a false belief.

And concluding his backyard speech with a litany of Democratic values, he added: "This is a struggle of good and evil. And we're the good."
Many conservatives will find the above remark offensive, but I’m offended only by the double standard that runs: conservatives are bad because they’re intolerant and divisive; but it’s alright for liberals to intolerant and divisive, as Dean is here. Again, it’s not Dean’s intolerance that offends me—it’s refreshingly honest—it’s his pretense that he somehow nonetheless exemplifies the virtue of tolerance. He doesn’t, and he should stop trying to score ideological brownie points by pretending to be.

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