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Will Saletan’s Moderation

June 1st, 2009 · 23 Comments

On the whole, I find William Saletan a sharp analyst and an engaging writer.  This column, however, is really profoundly revolting. Your first clue that something might be awry comes with the kicker headline: “Is it wrong to murder an abortionist?” Sane people do not regard that as an open question—or, for that matter, a distant cousin of an open question. I am not relieved that Saletan concludes the answer is “yes”; I’m horrified Slate‘s editors thought it would be cute and provocative to pose it as though it were in need of an answer, as though it were just one more of those questions on which reasonable people might disagree. I guess it worked—I clicked through—but I’ve also just shifted Slate significantly down the mental gradient stretching from The New York Review of Books to The World Weekly News. Normally, this kind of tacky sensationalism would just provoke an eye-roll, but as we’ve just been reminded that there’s an unhinged minority who do think it’s a serious question, there’s something a bit grotesque about indulging them, even for the purpose of a reductio.

I want to lay this one at the feet of the headline writers, but Saletan’s whole article is an exercise in using a cheap shock-schlock conceit to hook his longstanding crusade for a “third way” on abortion to the murder of George Tiller this weekend. It proceeds by drawing an explicit—and nauseating—moral equivalence between Tiller and his murderer. Both, as Saletan presents it, were men who “didn’t flinch” from following the logic of their positions to their extremes. But the comparison fails on multiple levels.

First, Saletan implies that Tiller was so rare in his willingnness to perform late-term abortions because—perhaps like a war veteran—he had the strong stomach required to do grizzly, morally ambiguous work. So widespread is moral revulsion at these procedures, we’re meant to think, that only a handful of doctors shared Tiller’s extreme commitment to the “cause.” Of course, more plausible reasons that Tiller is an outlier include the onerous restrictions most states place on later abortions and, perhaps more to the point, the very real danger that some psychotic will shoot you at your church if you provide those services. Given that fewer than 2 percent of abortions are performed after the 20th week of gestation, it’s not surprising that the majority of doctors, whether or not they have any particular moral qualms about it, don’t find it to be worth the trouble.

Next, Saletan argues that Tiller’s murderer “didn’t flinch” from the logical consequence of believing that abortion is, literally, morally indistinguishable from the butchering of full-grown people.  In the abstract, Saletan’s reductio makes a certain amount of sense: If you genuinely believed someone was murdering thousands of innocent people, and the government (for whatever reason) refused to put a stop to this slaughter, you would very likely conclude that it was morally permissible to use lethal force to do what the police would not. Ergo (runs the argument) professed pro-lifers who shrink from this conclusion must, at some level, not really take the rhetorical identification of abortion with murder literally.

I’d love to believe him, but the round of condemnations of the murder from prominent pro-life organizations have, at best, run something like this: “Killing abortionists gives us a bad name, even though strictly speaking we think they richly deserve it, and can’t quite restrain ourselves from saying so, but formally we’re required to disapprove as a tactical matter.” See, for instance, the loathesome statement put out by Randall Terry of Operation Rescue. I think probably Saletan understands this, and is hoping to use the public position pro-life groups are politically constrained to take, however disingenuously, as a lever to press the less fevered among them to adopt a principled view more consonant with this professed position. More power to him it if works, but I’m not holding my breath.

I really do get what Saletan is trying to do here—under other circumstances, I might even consider it a clever strategy. I’m sure he thinks he’s written a compelling pro-choice article that reaches out to abortion opponents by showing them how they don’t really embrace the extreme consequences of the principle they nominally espouse. With that cleared up, he’ll invite them to join the friendly, reasonable centrists who want to reduce abortion by more pragmatic means, in the friendly, reasonable middle ground equidistant from the chilling consistency of either George Tiller or his assassin.

If I genuinely thought this would be effective, I could almost hold my nose through the piece, telling myself that the insult to the memory of one physician was a small price to pay for getting a few zealots to channel their energies away from either prohibition or assassination, and toward the goal of reducing abortion by reducing unwanted pregnancy. Given how thinly those pro-life groups concealed their lust for vengance in their pro forma condemations, I’m not that optimistic—and so my revulsion at the implied parallel between a brave provider of needed medical services and an unrepentant murderer wins out. The problem with this sort of triangulation is that it puts you at the mercy of the extremists—if one side gets crazier, the “middle road” shifts to accomodate.  His focus here is about talking the most fervent abortion opponents down from the ledge, but it’s also—in the wake of an act of anti-abortion terrorism—a perverse offer to meet them halfway.

This is misguided as a matter of principle, and it’s bad strategy to boot.  Once you grant the premise that abortion is, if not exactly equivalent to the murder of a person, then some kind of moral evil in approximately the same ballpark, picking the optimal means of reducing it becomes a strictly instrumental question. Once you’ve gone as far as you can providing  education and contraception, what baffles and burdens and restrictions can you impose to make it practically very difficult even if you’re not throwing women in prison? More to the point, why should we think current polling numbers on abortion—which suggest that majorities are both convinced there’s something wrong with it and want to keep it legal—reflect some kind of stable popular view independent of the ongoing political debate about it? In the face of deep division over whether abortion is a moral evil, lots of people are prepared to say it’s too complex a question to legislate and, with some resignation, leave it up to individual women, families, and doctors. Saletan’s proposed compromise just shifts the “pro-choice” pole, making it that much easier for the next proponent of a “middle way” to suggest more vigorous means of limiting what, after all, everyone now concedes is a hideous moral wrong that we should all unite to reduce by one means or another. Treating Operation Rescue—which is consistent enough to caress the murderer they inspired with one arm, even the half-heartedly push him away with the other—as some kind of rational interlocutor invites a compromise far closer to their lunatic position than the modal American already is. Extending the olive branch now of all times amounts, as the hawks used to love to say, to an attempt to figure out how we can address the terrorists’ grievances.

Absent Saletan’s hope of forging this kind of stable compromise, I feel at liberty to just stick with my honest reaction: George Tiller was a brave physician who provided services few others would, and there was nothing remotely wrong with it. To make him the foil and flip-side of his own deranged killer for the purposes of a cutesy rhetorical flourish is obscene. I have no doubt I’m much closer to Will Saletan on this issue than to the zealots at Operation Rescue, but I’d rather he were less eager to hurl roses at their feet, and I’d damn sure prefer he didn’t feel compelled to implicitly slander a good man in the process.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Moral Philosophy · Privacy and Surveillance


       

 

23 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nicholas Weininger // Jun 1, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    It’s sort of sad that the NYRB is at the top of your mental gradient, as it is at the top of mine. I started responding by trying to name an obviously higher-quality mag, but I couldn’t. Sigh. I mean, the NYRB does publish a lot of great stuff, but it also publishes a lot of self-indulgent preachy leftist hot air and cliquish puff-piece circle-jerkery. One could easily imagine it much improved.

    Also, “grisly” not “grizzly”.

    Both of which are of course quibbles; with the central argument of your post I am in complete agreement.

  • 2 Arieh Smith // Jun 1, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    “George Tiller was a brave physician who provided services few others would, and there was nothing remotely wrong with it. ”

    There is little moral difference between infanticide and very late-term abortion. Neither is equivalent to murder, but I see no moral distinction greater than “baby is not in uterus.” If you argue that infanticide itself is not wrong, well, we part company there.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Jun 2, 2009 at 1:10 am

    I have argued as much in the past; insofar as we need a legal line, birth is a convenient one

  • 4 Greg N. // Jun 2, 2009 at 7:15 am

    The other, similarly nauseating “condemnation” from the pro-lifers is the “rule of law” line. It isn’t the taking of Tiller’s life that’s wrong, but the fact that the killer took the law into his own hands. Vigilantism, not the murder of an abortion doctor, is the real problem.

    Incidentally, as I mentioned on Twitter I was willing to give Saletan the benefit of the doubt on this one, but after reading the piece a few times I came away with the same take.

  • 5 Gary Fredericks // Jun 2, 2009 at 8:15 am

    “Given that fewer than 2 percent of abortions are performed after the 20th week of gestation, it’s not surprising that the majority of doctors, whether or not they have any particular moral qualms about it, don’t find it to be worth the trouble.”

    Perhaps a minor point in the scope of the whole argument, but I think this could easily be seen as backwards (and thus not a helpful fact): if the majority of doctors don’t find it to be worth the trouble, then it’s not surprising that fewer than 2 percent of abortions are performed after the 20th week of gestation.

  • 6 Chris // Jun 2, 2009 at 10:11 am

    “George Tiller was a brave physician who provided services few others would, and there was nothing remotely wrong with it. ”

    This is a hugely disappointing statement. I’m probably not the only regular reader whose rating of Julian Sanchez went in the Weekly World News direction after reading it.

  • 7 Todd Seavey // Jun 2, 2009 at 10:45 am

    I would think a former philosophy major would be a bit more comfortable raising a question such as “Is it wrong to murder an abortionist?” without having a venue-downgrading meltdown over it, Julian. (And you seem to have just given a lengthy analysis of this unspeakable question yourself.)

    Likewise, I’m not an animal rights activist, but I would not pretend that a question along the lines of “If animals have rights, can humans rightly use violence to protect them?” is shocking or unthinkable, not even very surprising. Who’s really being the dogmatist here?

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Jun 2, 2009 at 10:49 am

    I’ve openly held pretty much the same position on this for the lifespan of the blog; I didn’t think it would come as much of a surprise to any regular readers. And Todd, it’s not that I have a problem with raising any moral question per se, but I find Saletan’s schlocky use of it for faux-provocative triangulation all of a day after the murder of an actual abortion doctor (or “abortionist” as he insists) noxious.

  • 9 Steven Maloney // Jun 2, 2009 at 10:55 am

    If you want a pretty dark picture of Operation Rescue’s stance on murdering abortion doctors, I’d recommend you read Jerry Reiter’s “Live from the Gates of Hell.” Interesting book, I often wonder just how much of his speculation about Terry is true.

  • 10 Styopa // Jun 2, 2009 at 11:59 am

    I haven’t been reading the blog long, but I’ve enjoyed it immensely. It’s in the navel-contemplating tenor of all blogs, but with a intellectualism that is refreshing compared to most of the simplistic screeds that make up the bulk of the alternatives.

    Following hard on the ‘perils of pop philosophy’ article, I find it ironic that this commentary veers hard into the raw self-justificatory reductio that was lambasted only yesterday.

    Of course, the ostensible point of the blog entry is a faint outrage that Salon would stoop to the sort of sensationalism evident in Saletan’s article’s titling. Seriously? Either you’re being disingenuous, or you must have missed the last 10 years of headlines. I’m not sure when Salon got confused with actual Journalism, but it’s never been more than its roots: a tarted-up version of the more-than-Leftish SFO chatroom, The WELL. It’s name perfectly evokes the sort of rarified, uncompromisingly elitist, always-fashionable discussions of cloistered French intellectuals of the 17th century that also didn’t realize that they were irrelevant to 99% of contemporary lives. Sure, Salon’s got pretty pictures and a nicely salacious Sex section, so perhaps the tenor isn’t quite so rarified; then again, in our times vulgarity is practically de rigeur.

    Yet within a couple of paragraphs here, the camouflage is drawn, and we promptly toddle through a number of the EXACT rhetorical techniques I’ve so enjoyed reading Julian condemn in earlier posts:
    - appeal to experts: if only 2% of doctors perform the procedure, then it must be trivial; ergo, anyone getting so worked up over this (enough to commit murder) must therefore be a wingnut?
    - “George Tiller was a brave physician …” Bravery is meaningless in the sense of moral justification. It’s the same sort of ridiculous assertion that Bill Maher made when he said he admired the 9/11 terrorists’ bravery – for which he was rightly vilified. It is precisely this same motivation that allows the Antiabortion groups to secretly admire the murderer – ‘he’s enthusiastic, you’ll have to give him that!’. Bullshit. Intellectual enthusiasm is more often the hallmark of the certain, and if anything has been PERSUASIVELY argued in this blog, it’s that absolute certainty in complex questions is more likely a sign of ignorance than wisdom.
    -”…who provided services few others would, and there was nothing remotely wrong with it.” Intellectually and morally dishonest, with a side-order of hyperbole – almost as hyperbolic as Saletan’s title. Nothing? Not even remotely? Your moral certitude – on an issue which even the most fervent zealot would have to admit is subject to some dispute – is probably the source of most subsequent commenters’ angst. I’m not going to bother getting into the actual argument over abortion. If nothing else, it would be a waste of electrons as Julian has bluntly stated his (apparently incontrovertible) position. Suffice to say that this blog post is depressingly squishy, when compared to the firm intellectual ground trod so firmly in previous writings.

  • 11 Julian Sanchez // Jun 2, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    -It’s Slate, not Salon.

    -I have no idea what the “appeal to experts” bullet point is about. I’m pointing out that there are few doctors who perform later abortions partly because of state regulation, but also partly because there isn’t huge demand given that most people who are going to have one do it earlier on.

    -I’ve argued my substantive views on abortion at great (probably tedious) length, over the years on this site. I don’t think I hold that view with conspicuously more or less moral certitude than any other. I notice that people impute greater certitude, and get more upset about it, when the view is one they disagree with. You’re welcome to think that view is wrong, but it’s neither hyperbolic nor dishonest: I genuinely find nothing objectionable about Tiller’s practice. You’re welcome to poke through the archives if you want to find the argument for that position; I feel no great need to rehearse it again now.

  • 12 jre // Jun 2, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    I thought the phrase that so raised the hackles of Arieh, Chris and Styopa was refreshingly direct and honest, the high point of the post.

    In order to believe that there was something inherently and necessarily wrong with George Tiller’s practice you have to believe that in principle there are no morally defensible reasons to seek a late-stage abortion, or that in practice around two percent of all women seeking abortions are extreme procrastinators. Either way, the case for outrage breaks down in the face of the facts.

  • 13 Wilke // Jun 2, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    I read Saletan’s argument as two-fold:

    1) If you believe in medical access to abortion up until birth, then you must accept that there will be a George Tiller aborting very developed fetuses. These fetuses have large heads that, among other things, need to be collapsed to perform the abortion, and most American pro-choice people find this abhorrent.

    2) If you believe that abortions are morally equivalent to the murder of a human being, then you must accept that killing an abortionist specializing in procedures that few doctors perform will save lives. Most American pro-life people find this abhorrent.

    Ergo, since most people on each side of the argument find the extremes repugnant, then we all should recognize our more centrist positions and work together to promote less abortions via fewer unwanted pregnancies.

    Both of these points are certainly debatable, especially since – as you pointed out, Julian – pro-choice leaders don’t seem to find murder of abortionists all that abhorrent. And, even if pro-life people find late-term abortion procedures abhorrent, would they really compromise their position on medical access to them?

    I found the article compelling precisely because of its logical, ethical, and emotionally manipulative arguments. However, I agree, Julian, that it is a disappointing article, because of the false triangulation you mentioned. Saletan reduces both sides of the argument to their extremes, and introduces his centrist position as the only compromise between the two. Besides, everyone already agrees with Saletan, so what are we arguing about?

    Compelling, but disappointing. Just like this blog post. Instead of arguing Saletan’s points and introducing your own pathos into the discussion, you reduced your entire position to a sort of holier-than-thou, top-of-the-mountain argument. It’s great that you believe Tiller did nothing wrong, but what does that have to do with Saletan’s argument? Is your position a better position than his? Why? We still have capital punishment in America; why can we not entertain the question whether abortionists should be treated like murderers? And why shouldn’t they be?

  • 14 Jacob T. Levy // Jun 2, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    I’m surprised that you’re surprised. Saletan’s frequent writings on abortion *always* seem to me like cheap-gimmick schlock triangulation, though he’s often very good on other subjects.

  • 15 stras jones // Jun 2, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Saletan’s writing on abortion has always been as harebrained as it is irritatingly one-note. For at least half a decade now, he’s been harping on the notion that (1) abortion is squicky; (2) pro-choicers have to admit that abortion is squicky, because Will Saletan finds it squicky; (3) as soon as pro-choicers admit to the shameful squickiness of abortion, they will magically win over the likes of Operation Rescue and Focus on the Family, who will then happily abandon their prohibitionist aims and join forces with feminists to form a bipartisan coalition of safe-sex education and condom distribution. The fact that this is routinely packaged as tough, gritty “pragmatism” is what makes it Slate.

    I do miss the Weekly World News, though. Where have you gone, Bat-boy? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

  • 16 Ewe // Jun 2, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    It’s funny (peculiar) how different people can discern different motivation in the statements of different groups. The pro-life community has seemed positively contrite.

    One thing is clear: if the lunatic left had shown 1/100th of the level of regret at the murder of Pim Fortuyn or if even one Islamist had denounced the assassination of Theo van Gogh, we’d be way-the-fuck closer to even-Steven.

  • 17 Conventional Folly » Really? Nothing? // Jun 2, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    [...] infanticide. I find it kind of discomforting when people I tend to agree with on the issue say things like “I genuinely find nothing objectionable about Tiller’s practice.” Really? You [...]

  • 18 Barry // Jun 3, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Julian: “On the whole, I find William Saletan a sharp analyst and an engaging writer. ”

    First, he’s a Slate writer; that means that he should be judged warily. Second, he’s the editor of Slate, and so should pretty much be considered guilty until proven innocent.

    Remember his article on Rushton’s ‘research’?

    The man is a master of the school of debated characterized by “I didn’t really mean to assert what I asserted; I just want to, um, ‘explore’ some ideas”. He’s the sort of guy who excuses things with the word ‘controversial’.

    Ewe // Jun 2, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    “One thing is clear: if the lunatic left had shown 1/100th of the level of regret at the murder of Pim Fortuyn or if even one Islamist had denounced the assassination of Theo van Gogh, we’d be way-the-fuck closer to even-Steven.”

    Ah, the famous ‘even if one Islamist….’

    Julian, on a later post here, you expressed dismay at commenters on liberal blogs who were sexist at right-wing women. I said that you now know how liberals feel when they read ‘libertarian’ blog comment threads. Note the left-right breakdown here, and you have a much more libertarian set of commenters than most do – go over to Reason for a bunch of right-wing WATB’s who are still crying over their side losing the election (no matter how much they say that they’re not with the GOP).

  • 19 Barry // Jun 3, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    “George Tiller was a brave physician who provided services few others would, and there was nothing remotely wrong with it. ”

    Arieh Smith : “There is little moral difference between infanticide and very late-term abortion. Neither is equivalent to murder, but I see no moral distinction greater than “baby is not in uterus.” If you argue that infanticide itself is not wrong, well, we part company there.”

    Please read this, to find out what Tiller was doing: http://www.balloon-juice.com/?p=22002

  • 20 MQ // Jun 6, 2009 at 10:11 am

    “George Tiller was a brave physician who provided services few others would, and there was nothing remotely wrong with it. ”

    Nice to see the moral clarity from Julian in this post. This statement is clearly true.

  • 21 JD // Jun 6, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    I have argued as much in the past; insofar as we need a legal line, birth is a convenient one

    This is a remarkable view. The question isn’t whether birth is “convenient” (the 1 year birthday would be far more convenient, as it would allow time to decide whether one liked having a baby or not), but whether it is moral to kill babies right before birth. You seem to approve this practice — conflating morality with convenience — and moreover without limiting it to the handful of rare and drastic cases that arise. Wow.

  • 22 Reinhold // Jun 6, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Would you mind posting on why your position is closer to Saletan’s than to a pro-life one?

  • 23 Tim // Jun 8, 2009 at 2:19 am

    Julian- no extended consideration of John Brown?

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