Abortion is more important than torture

February 20, 2010 § 14 Comments

Given the foregoing series of posts, one might get the impression that I think torture, and specifically waterboarding, is a more grave issue than abortion.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

For the person actually doing it, and for any persons formally cooperating with it, appeals to the greater gravity of abortion carry no water. Tu quoque or “less evil than the competing brand” isn’t recognized as sound moral reasoning in any serious ethical theory of which I am aware, let alone in Catholic moral theology. When an act is evil we ought not do it, and we ought not formally cooperate with it, by the nature of what is meant by “evil”; no matter how venially evil it happens to be, and no matter what consequences follow from not doing it. That is what “evil” means.

Nevertheless different evil acts, though evil as pertains to category, do differ in their moral gravity. We should never perform an evil act; but some evil acts are worse than others.

Still we are comparing apples to oranges, because the pro-choice position is that abortion should be legal, not that it is not immoral. Lets stipulate.

The problem though for Catholics who approach it that way is a little document called Evangelium Vitae. Evangelium Vitae makes it astonishingly clear that it is also gravely wrong to support the legality of abortion; and furthermore, that there is a grave positive duty to oppose its legality as enshrined in a legal pseudo-right.

Failing to oppose the legality of abortion, in the will and intentions if not always in particular acts, is also gravely wrong. Our day to day behavior will inevitably reflect whether our will and intentions are where they should be on the matter.

As stated above, there is a difference between whether an act is wrong and how gravely wrong it is. Furthermore, the abortion holocaust and the torture regime are not individual acts, but whole ensembles of vast numbers of acts and social implications: what Pope John Paul II referred to as “structures of sin”. As I mentioned recently in a previous post, and in many places in times past, the gravity of the abortion holocaust as a structure of sin is immediate and vastly larger than the gravity of the torture regime. As tacticians or strategists looking from the outside in, opposed to both, it is clear which is the higher priority.

Suppose there are two switches on the wall, on opposite sides of the room. One switch will permanently end the “right to abortion”. The other will permanently end state-sanctioned waterboarding of prisoners. The switches are only active for the next fifteen seconds, you are standing in the middle of the room, and you’ve gotta start moving right now.

The priority is manifest.

We do have to be a little careful with the word “priority”. Each of us as individuals has a vocation or vocations, and just because opposing the “right” to abortion is a vastly higher priority in general than torture, because of our circumstances, that doesn’t imply that every individual must make abortion his highest priority. Not at all. It is really a false choice. And it also would be easy to underestimate the gravity of the torture regime because, unlike the abortion regime, it is in its infancy.

But when Horatio stands on the bridge of legal abortion, it is one thing to oppose the torture regime because it is evil in itself and because of the harm it is doing to him; it is another to use it to knife him in the back.

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§ 14 Responses to Abortion is more important than torture

  • Zach says:

    Excellent clarity, Zippy. Thanks.

  • JohnMcG says:

    I would also add, that for most of us, micro-issues like how we treat our families, how we respond to the people in need who appear in front of us, and how much we exhibit a trust in God is going to have much more impact than our activism in macro-issues like torture and abortion.

    And I think our work on the micro-level is ultimately going to be what changes the culture to reject these evils.

    It's important to be right on these macro-issues, and do what we can to witness effectively against these evils. But it probably starts at the retail level.

  • Tom says:

    Stipulate that it is morally OK to throw either switch.


    If you aren't sure that it is morally OK to throw either switch, then it's not a very helpful illustration.

    Even apart from that, I don't think it's a helpful illustration, as it reinforces the “either/or” mentality that animates those who argue that abortion is more important than torture.

  • Tom, I respectfully diagree. It's plain as day for me: I'd throw the switch to end abortion. It's not either/or because it isn't suggesting that because I threw it, that we can't use other means to fight torture. It just means we don't have the magic switch to do it anymore.

  • Zippy says:

    No, it is a fair criticism, because I stated in stark game-theoretic either/or terms what is really a point about priorities arising from the differing gravity of different threats to the common good. I'll fix it.

  • zippy says:

    Though I should say that I take Scott's point too — the switches aren't stated to be the only means at our disposal. But hopefully the tweaked version is more helpful.

  • Fair enough. I see what you did to it, and it is better. You have a limited amount of time and you want to pull both and might even have enough time to do so, but you might not, so you prioritize and go for the abortion switch first and hope for enough time for the torture switch.

  • Jeff Miller says:

    The argument really is a false argument in the first place with its either/or dichotomy when in reality the situation does not exist. We should oppose both because otherwise as a prudential matter we undercut the argument of human dignity. Politics love hypocrisy and the support of intrinsically evil torture makes it easier for people to rationalize their support of evil.


    He therefore that shall break one of these least commandments, and shall so teach men, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But he that shall do and teach, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

  • Tom says:

    I like the updated thought experiment much better, for what that's worth.

    I'll also say that I doubt many of the Catholics who have been blogging about torture would ever have said torture is a more grave issue in our country than abortion.

  • Zippy says:

    I'll also say that I doubt many of the Catholics who have been blogging about torture would ever have said torture is a more grave issue in our country than abortion.

    There is certainly danger in crafting a straw man, especially if I were to make attributions to particular persons. But I think it is still worth raising and discussing the issue in these terms, since a false perception of this particular issue appears to sometimes present a barrier to right thinking about torture.

  • Zippy says:

    Sorry, there is certainly a danger of crafting a straw man… etc etc

  • JohnMcG says:

    I agree that I don't think anyone would claim that torture is a larger issue than abortion.

    I do think that a plausible argument could be made that in an vote, torture may weigh as a larger issue.

    This is due to the ability/willingness of the elected officials we elect to translate their stated positions into policy.

    If we elect a pro-torture president, we're going to get torture. If we elect an anti-torture president we're not.

    If we elect a pro-life president? We'll get some policies on foreign aid reversed, and hopefully a could of (wink, wink) “strict constructionist” Supreme Court Justice nominees.

    And not to sound like a dotCommonwealer, but we have other points where we can influence whether actual abortion happens (which doesn't address the injustice that some are not protected by the law), whereas the elected Administration is solely responsible for determining if torture happens.

    There is also the matter of what evils torture will be used to justify.

    In the current political landscape, the analogy is one switch that ends torture, and another one that stops the growth of abortion and gets us to play another round of the game.

    I don't know if this would mean you always pull the “no torture” switch, but I don't know that the abortion one is a slam dunk either.

    In any instance, let's work for us not being faced with a choice of one or the other.

  • zippy says:

    Aye, voting etc is a whole 'nother can of worms. That is why my thought experiment included clear, simple, comprehensive means, and an exactly equal capacity to carry them out: to illustrate the point about priority without begging any questions about real world means or circumstances.

    Once we know the priorities, deciding what to do in reality is a whole 'nother deal, because reality is not a neat thought experiment. Heck, if we change the thought experiment by saying you are really close to the torture off switch and the abortion off switch was looking pretty out of reach, that by itself might change the particular prudential judgment.

    What that shares with the original thought experiment, though, is “run!”

  • “Furthermore, the abortion holocaust and the torture regime are not individual acts, but whole ensembles of vast numbers of acts and social implications.”

    This has surely been noted before, but the habits begun and hardened by defending either torture or abortion will have moral, psychological and cultural consequences. Defenses of either action encourage complicity towards “doing evil that good may come of it.” Silence about those defenses encourages indifference.

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