I was interviewed by the Libertarian Christian Institute today and we discussed the polarizing topic of abortion. In it, I expressed briefly why I believed abortion is so emotionally charged and compared abortion, mass shootings, and vaccinations to each other. Here I’ll expand a bit more on what I said in that episode.
Abortion, Mass Shootings, Vaccinations
These three topics have some foundational things in common. Ultimately, they are ruled by various appeals to emotion, which keep us from having a productive dialogue about them. All three of these issues deal with an aspect of legitimate rights, potential and actual loss of life (particularly of children), and where our responsibilities lie in preventing loss of life.
In each of these issues, we’re dealing with very real rights, specifically with self-ownership and our right to preserve our life. Not only is there a concern for self-preservation, but there is also an aspect of advocacy on behalf of defenseless victims.
All people have a right to their body, and a right to make decisions concerning their body. All people have a right to defend themselves and justly acquire tools necessary to effectively do so.
But do we have a right to intervene in the decisions others make, even if those decisions produce a degree of risk to ourselves?
Potential and actual loss of life (particularly of children)
These three topics are at their peak of polarization because the lives of children are at stake. Whether it’s actual death, or a loss of quality of life from being permanently injured, in each of these issues the question is whether exercising one’s rights are leading to an unjust loss of life.
Does the right to life of the mother outweigh the right to life of her fetus? Do the rights of self-defense outweigh the right of school children not to be aggressed against? Does the right of a parent to choose (or not choose) a medical procedure for their children outweigh (potential) costs to other children who may be adversely affected by that decision?
Jordan Peterson speaks on how our culture has been so fixated on rights, that it hasn’t really dealt with responsibilities. In politics, if we speak about responsibility but in the context of what we owe to others; our responsibility to other people. But this isn’t what Peterson is getting at. He’s talking about responsibility for ourselves and our own decisions.
Any honest student of libertarianism knows that rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. In order to determine where our responsibilities lie, we must be able to identify what our rights are. After we figure out where our personal responsibilities are, then we can ask if we have responsibilities to others and what those they may (or may not) be.
It’s easy to say, “women have a right to make decisions about their own body,” including the decision to have sex. But what responsibilities are entailed in making that decision, especially since we know that sexual intercourse is not without consequence? What risks are women assuming in that decision? Are there any responsibilities she ought to be free from? Is there a market response that could reduce costs and burdens? What is the woman’s responsibility to her fetus should she become pregnant?
It’s easy to say, “I have a right to defend myself with a gun,” but what are the responsibilities entailed in that ownership? What risks are we assuming by owning (or not owning) guns or other weapons? Are there any responsibilities we ought to be free from? Is there a market response that could reduce costs and burdens? What is the responsibility we incur for having (or not having) a means of self-defense?
It’s easy to say, “I have a right to make the decision regarding the health of my children,” but does that right entail a responsibility to other children? What risks do we (as parents) assume in our decision? What risks are we foisting on our children in our decision? Do parents hold a greater responsibility for their children or to the community? Is there a market response that could reduce costs and burdens? Is there responsibility incurred by the parent if their decision has a detrimental effect on other children?
These are just rhetorical questions, I have no intention of answering them here. But it brings up a final question: in good faith efforts to respect the rights of others, do we hold a responsibility to prevent all negative consequences of exercising those rights?
Responsibilities in preventing loss of life
The first question we should be asking is, can we prevent all loss of life? The answer, of course, is no. Not all loss of life is preventable. But what we know about these issues is certainly a starting place for mitigating how many lives are lost or permanently damaged. The state is not an entity that is in a position to do this for various manifest reasons. But if the non-aggression principle is the self-evident foundational principle of justice in libertarianism, then it is incumbent upon us to carry on a productive dialogue concerning them.
And having that dialogue doesn’t automatically mean that the state needs to (ultimately) pass some law. In fact, the existence of the state notwithstanding, these issues are relevant to living peaceably together in (a free) society.
Authoritarian Mindset and Polarization
The complexity of these issues is compounded by political psychology. An authoritarian mindset prevents dialogue due to oversimplification and snap-judgments. Nonauthoritarians are much more willing to intellectually grapple with complex problems. This study on authoritarianism and polarization describes in detail how this is true.
Not all libertarians have a nonauthoritarian mindset. The philosophy certainly lends itself to one, but it’s up to each individual person to adopt one. If, as a society, we want to understand how to deal with complex problems, then it’s necessary to adopt this nonauthoritarian mindset, and critically examine the nuances of each issue.