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21 October 2010

Subjectivism and Relativism in Arguments about Personhood

By Diana Hsieh

Advocates of "personhood" for zygotes often claim to be opponents of the subjectivism and relativism that dominates the left. In fact, they're good friends -- in two ways.

First, the Christians pushing personhood are advocates of a specific form of religious morality, namely Divine Command Theory. They hold that right and wrong is not based on any objective facts of reality, but rather God's commands. So if God decrees the stoning of a blasphemer (Leviticus 24) or the sacrifice of a man's only and beloved son (Genesis 22), then that's morally obligatory. Such is subjectivism: the content of morality depends on the arbitrary decrees of divine will, rather than facts of reality.

Second, the subjectivism and relativism of the left cannot articulate or defend proper principles of ethics or politics -- as Ari Armstrong and I discussed in the section on Today's 'Pro-Choice' Rhetoric in our policy paper, The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life. To many people, the pseudo-secular arguments of "personhood" advocates seem substantive and perhaps even compelling in comparison to the silence of most "pro-choice" advocates.

However, the more perfect exemplars of the subjectivism and relativism of the left are not merely silent on basic questions about the nature and basis of rights. They're downright hostile to any definitive claims. A dramatic example of that view was just published in the Denver Post, in a column by Susan Greene: Personhood extremes born of nonsense. She claims to be pro-choice and opposed to Amendment 62, yet she portrays "personhood" advocates as wholly sympathetic, with logic on their side:

If you're old enough to know how babies are made, you'd be disingenuous to deny a certain logic in proponents' belief that an undeveloped fetus is a form of life. At least as an intellectual exercise, it's not a leap to equate life, more or less, with personhood.
Meanwhile, the opponents of "personhood" are, in contrast, boorish extremists wholly lacking in good argument.
Opponents [of 62] would do better sticking to that point than pretending to know when personhood starts. They offer up a cast of walking wounded like Jen Boulton, who, after three failed pregnancies, asserts that an undeveloped fetus is "no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree."
With that, Ms. Green only confesses that she's ignorant of the importance of actuality versus potentiality in the debate about "personhood" and rights.

Frankly, I couldn't imagine a better way to undermine abortion rights than with a column like that of Ms. Green. And that's why the subjectivism and relativism of the left is the best friend of the religious zealots crusading for Amendment 62. Her viewpoint concedes everything to the religious crusaders, even logic itself.

Happily, I see a silver lining in her column: Ms. Green reports that she was "booed by pro-choice veterans when making some of these points at a recent luncheon."

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