What Adam Smith can teach the pro-life movement

Sometimes moral intuitions are on the side of the pro-life movement. Sometimes a person like Abby Johnson will perceive, in a flash of insight, that abortion really does end a human life. Sometimes getting people to trust their instincts is more effective than complicated logical arguments beginning with the premise that we know what an apple is.

Sometimes, though, it seems like intuitions work against us. Sometimes people look at a seven-day-old embryo and say, “But I just don’t feel like that’s a baby.” Sometimes women procure abortions and feel just fine afterwards, with no apparent remorse for having killed.

Why does abortion, especially in the first trimester, seem intuitively innocuous to some people?

Adam Smith’s writings on the nature of empathy–which he termed sympathy–can shed some light on this issue. For Smith, sympathy isn’t automatic. It’s also not abstract. It’s not some nebulous feeling that we instinctually share with every human being–rather, it’s a reaction to particular people and their particular circumstances. In order to understand the behavior or feelings of others, we must picture ourselves in their place: “the spectator must, first of all, endeavour, as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance . . . He must adopt the whole case of his companion; and strive to render as perfect as possible, that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded” (Theory of Moral Sentiments 1982, 21). It is through projecting ourselves into their situation that we develop sympathy with them. If we don’t physically see and interact with a person, we have trouble vividly imagining his circumstances. Intimacy brings sympathy: we are more easily able to sympathize with a friend, whose person and circumstances we know very well, than with a beggar on the street. This is why we don’t weep for the tragedies of distant people we’ve never met, though we may, through imagination, be able to conjure up some small degree of sorrow for them:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would . . . express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people . . . When all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened . . . If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren. (Theory of Moral Sentiments 1982, 136)

A child hidden in the womb, whose cries we cannot hear, whose face we cannot see, whose state of life we cannot remember experiencing, is therefore a person with whom we find it difficult to develop sympathy.

How do we fight against this natural difficulty? One answer, obviously, is the wider dissemination of ultrasound images. I personally had never seen an ultrasound until I was 8 weeks pregnant with my first child–and when I saw her, I was amazed at her budding human form and her ability to move, having been told before that such a young fetus was merely a passive ball of cells. Disseminating more ultrasound images to the general public, and requiring women seeking abortions to look at their child first, is a powerful way to promote sympathy for the unborn.

Another way to encourage sympathy is through narrative. For instance, this article from Priests for Life describes an ad that seems to have been effective in lowering abortion rates:

[A young woman sits by a fireplace, facing the camera.] “You know, I used to be pro-choice, and then something happened to me-I had a baby of my own. When I was pregnant I finally realized that all this little kid was trying to do was make it, just make it, just like all of us.”

The woman situates her unborn child in a larger narrative about the human struggle to survive. She draws attention to what we have in common with the unborn in order to make it more familiar, more sympathetic.

But both ultrasound and storytelling are imperfect methods. There are, after all, pro-choice parents: people who have watched their children develop from shadowy ultrasound images to squirming newborn while still refusing to admit the humanity of the unborn.

According to Adam Smith, such a failure of moral imagination occurs because of a defective culture. He lamented the horrors of infanticide: “Can there be greater barbarity . . . than to hurt an infant? . . . Yet the exposition, that is, the murder of new-born infants, was a practice allowed of in almost all the states of Greece” (Theory of Moral Sentiments 1982, 210). These civilized nations allowed such a horrible practice because it had become the custom: “Custom can give sanction to so dreadful a violation of humanity . . . Such a thing, we hear men every day saying, is commonly done, and they seem to think this a sufficient apology for what, in itself, is the most unjust and unreasonable conduct” (Theory of Moral Sentiments 1982, 210). Humans, being social creatures, naturally imitate those around them; and if we see that these people, especially if they are otherwise good people, commonly engage in a certain practice, we easily come to believe that it can’t possibly be so bad.

Those of us in the pro-life movement, then, know what we must do: build a culture of life to counteract the prevailing cultural sentiments. This is easier said than done, but often we can help just by making our voices heard. In certain social circles–particularly the well-educated urbanites–being pro-choice is taken for granted. Pro-lifers are “the other.” They are thought to live in far-away places like Kansas or Utah, where they chain their ever-pregnant wives to the kitchen stove (for all pro-lifers are male, of course, and just want to control women’s bodies) and read the maladictory Psalms aloud to their 18 children. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Showing pro-choicers that pro-lifers are real people–that we’re their friends and co-workers and neighbors–can help dispel the myth that abortion must be right because all normal, right-thinking people are in favor of it. It’s harder to demonize the pro-life movement when they know us personally and have come to sympathize with us.

If your reaction to that last paragraph is “I don’t know anyone who’s pro-choice, so mentioning I’m pro-life won’t do any good”–well, that’s a problem. It’s easy to withdraw from the culture of death, but harder to transform it. We need to meet people on the other side, listen to them, and love them. After all, it is hard to fight evil if we lose our own sympathy in the process.

13 thoughts on “What Adam Smith can teach the pro-life movement

  1. Good article, Vita.

    “We need to meet people on the other side, listen to them, and love them. ”

    I must say, that is very difficult to do. I have a tendency to see this as a zero-sum Kulturkampf and that makes it hard for me to love my enemies like Christ commanded.

    “After all, it is hard to fight evil if we lose our own sympathy in the process.”

    Nietzsche: He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

    Btw, did you used to be a liberal of sorts before your conversion?

  2. I was a hardcore liberal. Pro-choice, vegetarian (well, still am), agnostic, dabbler in Buddhism, etc. My own conversion is a constant reminder to me of the human capacity for change–a reminder not to give up on anyone.

    • Ahh, before I came to faith I was an alt-rightist, meat-eater(still am as well, heh), nihilist, and I dabbled in neo-paganism. Now, I’m a paleoconservative and Catholic, but some aspects of alt-right and nihilistic thinking have stuck with me. The ladies over at TC have accused me of taking Conservatism more seriously than my faith and I think that I do that at times. It’s a habit, I guess that I’m trying to shake. Still find it unbelievably hard to love my enemies. Oh well, atleast I read Chronicles(Christian paleocons) now instead of Alternative Right. I’m trying.

      Btw, I’m just curious, why are you still a vegetarian and why did you decide to be one in the first place?

  3. “Showing pro-choicers that pro-lifers are real people–that we’re their friends and co-workers and neighbors–can help dispel the myth that abortion must be right because all normal, right-thinking people are in favor of it. It’s harder to demonize the pro-life movement when they know us personally and have come to sympathize with us.”

    One thing about this article. I live in Texas. Being pro-life here IS normal, while being pro-“choice”/death/whoredom is obviously not. You must live in an unbelievably liberal part oof the country.

  4. I like your point about witnessing to Pro-Choicers that your friends, allies, teachers and family members are pro-life. I think this makes it difficult for those who hold a pro-choice viewpoint to dismiss pro-lifers as ignorant, irrational, women haters.

    This is especially true when people tend to normalize their viewpoint. I once had a student, who found out I was Catholic, say to me, “But your a thinker, how could you be Catholic?” I think that kind of surprise goes a long way.

    • Alot of the great thinkers were Catholic or other types of Christians. The rest were pagans or Jews. None were post-Christian secular liberals.

      I remember Silas Reinagel, a Christian blogger in the Manosphere, talking about how someone asked him a similar question: “you’re so smart, why are you Christian?”

  5. Vita,
    Perhaps you should write a blog entry where you discuss how your vegetarian views are well aligned with your faith. I think there are many readers who would love to read that.

  6. Haha Svar, here’s a passage from the Screwtape Letters on the dangers of using Christianity for a political end:

    On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”. You see the little rift? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game,

  7. I do live in a solidly Democratic city. But I think that higher education in most places tends to slant liberal, regardless of the political culture outside of the college. Hence college towns, even in places like Texas, are little islands of blue in seas of red.

  8. I don’t have “vegetarian views”–only vegetarian sentiments. I’m vegetarian because I have strong emotions about animals–especially cute, helpless little animals like sheep–not because I think it’s morally wrong to eat them.

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