Tuesday, 2 June 2009

George Tiller: irony, error and paradox

Apart from the tragedy of the death of someone who was clearly a good man, I was particularly struck by three aspects of the killing of abortion doctor George Tiller in Kansas: irony, logical error and paradox.

The irony is that he was killed in the entrance of a Christian Church by a man professing Christianity. He presumably considers himself a better Christian than Tiller. Central to Christianity is forgiveness of those who trespass against us, as well as the older principle in the commandment against committing murder. Add to this the fact that the murderer was no doubt acting out of ‘Pro-Life’ belief, and how much more irony do you need?

The error of logic is what I always used to think of as the excluded middle. The expression isn’t apparently fashionable among logicians any more but, hey, who ever heard of fashion in logic? It would be as ridiculous as suggesting there is logic in fashion.

The excluded middle is the kind of argument that presents just two options, one of which is impossible, in an attempt to force the other person to choose the one you favour. It’s like a card trick: there are fifty-two to choose from, but you’re going to end up picking the jack of spades if that’s what the magician wants you to have.

Politicians aren’t as clever as conjurors so they keep the options to just two. Gordon Brown is probably trying it on right now, telling his ministers something like ‘back me or face a landslide defeat which will keep you out of office for the rest of your careers’, which excludes the middle, such as ‘replace me by Alun Johnson and perhaps you’ll only be out of office for one parliament.’

Even less skilful politicians – or do I mean more skilful? – propose only one option. Maggie Thatcher’s hallmark word was ‘Tina’, which wasn’t half as attractive as the singer of that name. It means ‘There is no alternative’ so the impossible option is actually non-existent. ‘Agree with me or get nothing at all’ she was saying. Brilliant stuff. It worked, too: there are still people who admire the old bat, not realising that she was the impossible option herself and any of a wide range of other choices would have been preferable to the poll tax, the attempt to outlaw gay writing in schools or the privatisation of British Rail.

More recently George Bush declared in November 2001 ‘If you’re not with us you’re against us in the fight against terror.’ At first sight, he seems to be ranging anyone opposed to his policies, such as the invasion of Iraq with all the benefits it has brought, in the camp of appeasers; but it’s probably worse than that, saying that opponents are actually siding with the terrorists.

That excludes any opinion between the extremes, such as the view that though Bush’s policies were less repugnant than terrorism they were still catastrophic and even, when they led to civilian deaths, hard to distinguish from terrorism.

Which leads us to another group which makes painfully frequent use of excluded-middle arguments. I mean the Israeli government and most apologists for Zionism. You either profess undying, unqualified support for Israel or you are (a) if non-Jewish, an anti-Semite or (b) if Jewish, a self-hating Jew. The excluded middle covers those who just don’t like, say, collective punishment of people based on their ethnicity and like it just as little whether it’s carried out by non-Jews on Jews or by Jews on Palestinians.

The abortion debate also involves an excluded middle. After all, those of us who oppose the anti-abortion brigade are what? For abortion? I’ve never met anyone who is in favour of abortion. The women I know who have been through an abortion have never done so lightheatedly or without a lot of soul-searching beforehand. What we’re defending isn’t abortion, it’s a woman’s right to choose.

The anti-abortionists tend in any case to use another label: they call themselves ‘Pro-Life’. So are we anti-Life? Pro-death? Does being pro-death mean anything? And if it does isn’t it the same as being pro-life? After all, no life is possible without death, and there is certainly no death without life.

So here we are at last in the land of paradox.

The murder in Kansas was carried out by a man proclaiming the sanctity of life. There used to be a piece of graffiti that declared ‘Fighting for peace is like fucking for chastity’. So what do we say about killing, because life is sacred?

Curiously, it’s my understanding that most people in the States who are against abortion are also in favour of the death penalty. They loathe the legal quasi-murder of a foetus; they favour the legal murder of an adult individual. A pretty paradox.

Unfortunately, that’s an argument that can be turned just as effectively against me and I’ve never found a satisfactory argument to defend my own position. I find the death penalty obscene, but I favour the availability of abortion as a choice for women, though it undoubtedly ends a life. I justify my position on the grounds that a group of undifferentiated cells aren’t a human being, but in all honesty I don’t find my own argument entirely convincing: they are after all human life.

Perhaps that just reveals something important about moral judgements. They’re difficult to make, they belong to the domain of the grey rather than black and white, they can’t exclude the middle between extremes. They depend on judging where lines are drawn and it’s never easy to say whether the lines shouldn’t be moved a little further one way or the other. And they can lead to strange paradoxes, with which we just have to live.

As, tragically, George Tiller has been denied the opportunity to do.


Davide said...

Another terrific entry David! I feel like my wisdom has gone up another notch - thanks!

David Beeson said...

Thanks, Davide - this is the kind of issue where we could all do with a little more wisdom, I fear

Anonymous said...

I think you are equating between a human being who has experienced life and a foetus which at the stage he/she/it is in, has not had a single thought yet. Or again, can we not assume that?

PS I am San the anonymous because when I try to use my name somehow the system refuses to function

David Beeson said...

Yes, it is maybe the start of thought that is the key differentiator. So the line drawing exercise concerns when we think that point is, and then setting a maximum time that is well within it.

But nothing will make these decisions easy ones, don't you agree?

Awoogamuffin said...

Death to women who ovulate without conception!

Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob said...

Well done, Mr. Beeson.

I don't have the answer to this moral problem either, but I might add to your thoughtful points one more: to give up to a government entity the right to make choices about one's own body is particularly onerous.

Former President Clinton's dictum that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare" might be as good as we're likely to hear.

David Beeson said...

Thanks, Bob, for your comment. I'm going to return to the issues around George Tiller shortly.

In the meantime, you're absolutely right with your quotation from Clinton. It's a perfect summing up in a handful of words.