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Jonathan Haidt on the Righteous Mind, and the Catholic Anti-Abortion Crusade (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 21, 2012: In my lifetime, the debate about legalized abortion has raged. The Supreme Court of the United States legalized abortion in the 1973 decision known as Roe v. Wade. But the debate about legalized abortion rages to this day -- more than three decades after the Supreme Court decision.

Now, for the purposes of focusing the present essay, I am going to focus on the debate about legalized abortion in the first trimester. My own position is that legalized abortion in the first trimester is morally acceptable. Abortion in the second trimester and the third are separate issues that should be discussed in separate essays.

Recently Jonathan Haidt's new book THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: WHY GOOD PEOPLE ARE DIVIDED BY POLITICS AND RELIGION was published. (Haidt is pronounced "height.")

Long ago, I had come to the conclusion that both opponents of legalized abortion in the first trimester and supporters of legalized abortion in the first trimester could be characterized as being righteous about their respective positions. To put it mildly, both the opponents and the supporters of legalized abortion in the first trimester think that they are right: They each understand their position to be right and the opposing position to be wrong.

At first blush, the title of Haidt's book makes it sound like it will contain important information that I might be able to use if I want to argue against the opponents of legalized abortion in the first semester. So I'd better check what Haidt has to say.

Now, Haidt says, "Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places" (pages 316).

But this is exactly and precisely what the Catholic tradition of so-called "natural law" moral theory regarding sexual morality claims. I am here categorizing the church's opposition to legalized abortion in the first trimester as part of the church's sexual-morality claims. (Disclosure: I come from a Roman Catholic background. For a number of years in my life, I was a seminarian in the Jesuit order, so I have studied Roman Catholic moral theory.)

But nowhere in his book does Haidt give any indication of understanding, or even knowing about, the centuries-old Catholic tradition of "natural law" moral theory. So has Haidt actually studied this tradition of thought, or not? If he has not, then he is making a sweeping generalization about something that he has not studied seriously. But if he has studied this tradition of thought, then shouldn't he provide some evidence that he has studied it before he dismisses it in such a sweeping way?

But let me return to the abortion debate. If I were to follow Haidt's advice to "[b]eware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places," then I would not engage in debate with, say, the Catholic bishops about legalized abortion in the first trimester, because they base their objections on the Catholic tradition of "natural law" moral theory. But if I beware of them because of the moral theory they hold, then I will not debate with them about legalized abortion in the first trimester. Hmm.

It seems to me that if I don't debate with them, I am thereby removing myself from the public arena of debate about abortion. This seems to me what following Haidt's advice would seem to mean.

Haidt also says, "But anyone who tells you that all societies, in all eras, should be using one particular moral matrix, resting on one particular configuration of moral foundation, is a fundamentalist of one sort or another" (page 316). But just how is this way of categorizing people supposed to help those of us who would like to see Catholic fundamentalists change their position regarding legalized abortion in the first trimester?

By Haidt's definition of a fundamentalist, Pope Benedict XVI, the American Catholic bishops, and most conservatives American Catholics today are fundamentalists, including Catholic "natural law" moral theorists who hold doctoral degrees in Catholic moral theory and who teach undergraduates and graduate students Catholic moral theory and publish articles and books about Catholic moral theory.

But shouldn't Haidt at least tip us off that he does know just how extensive this Catholic tradition of thought is among American Catholics today, if he does know? And if he doesn't know, just how is his freely given advice supposed to help us address the abortion controversy in the United States today, a controversy in which conservative Catholics play a major role?

Now, when Catholics learn Catholic doctrines (or teachings) based on this tradition of thought, they are being indoctrinated in this tradition of thought. Catholic doctrines are taught in Catholic grade schools, Catholic high schools, Catholic colleges and universities, and Catholic seminaries to seminarians studying for the priesthood. As a result of the extensive indoctrination of American Catholics in Catholic doctrines based on the Catholic tradition of "natural law" moral theory, many American Catholics today are among the most zealous antiabortion zealots in the United States. But Haidt does not seem to know anything about this well-established, centuries-old tradition of moral reasoning. Nevertheless, he is willing to caution us to beware of people who says the kinds of things that Catholic "natural law" moral theorists do as a matter of fact say.

As noted above, if we were to follow Haidt's advice and beware of fundamentalist Catholics, then the argument used by the Catholic fundamentalists would not be joined.

But if their argument is not joined, then we could presumably present our own line of argument in favor of legalized abortion in the first trimester. Our line of argument might win support. However, our line of argument is not likely to win support from Catholic anti-abortion zealots. So if our line of argument does not manage to reduce the number of Catholic anti-abortion zealots by winning them over, then they will continue their anti-abortion campaign.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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Jonathan Haidt's new book THE RIGHTEOUS MIND will ... by Thomas Farrell on Thursday, Mar 22, 2012 at 7:27:38 AM