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Life Arts    H4'ed 3/22/12

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

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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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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; 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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