Abortion debate unearths a frightening truth about post-modern conceptions of humanity

“There is no absolute truth.”

This is just one of the many zingers Ms. Nadine Strossum, first female ACLU president, launched at UNC students at Tuesday night’s CSFL-sponsored debate.  Both Strossum and her counterpart, Mr. Scott Klusendorf (president of the Life Training Institute), are renowned as formidable figures in the heated abortion controversy.  Tuesday night, however, Ms. Strossum’s argument simply did not hold.  Perhaps it was the fact that she bemoaned the widespread problem of “tragic” unplanned pregnancies, yet made known her advocacy for the “benefits” of pornography, a practice that has been proven to increase the amount of violent or irresponsible sexual acts that gives rise to such problems.  Perhaps it was the myriad of logical fallacies that reared their heads throughout the night, including the ever-popular bandwagon appeal—the fact that numerous religious people have accepted abortion as a viable option validates the act.  Or, possibly, it was the fact that she emphasized her respect for “life in all its many manifestations” and shared a personal anecdote about how she refused to kill a housefly, but fully accepted the extermination of a human life, even if just a “potential” one.

Yet most absurd of all was her following claim.  Ms. Stossum alleged that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define your own concept of existence.”

It is chilling to imagine a world in which fallible individuals are permitted to define the nature of personhood for themselves.  If the definition of personhood were to change based on the individual, it becomes clear that abortion is a non-issue; it is simply a decision to be made based on personal circumstance.  But were personhood to be accepted as nebulous at the prenatal level, post-birth would not be a far cry away—this is an eerie prospect.

Moreover, acknowledging this ambiguity denigrates the value of the human person.  Deciding on what defines a person should not be on the same level as choosing a profession or interpreting a piece of art.  What a human being IS does not change capriciously.  To say that a person’s choice to define what he IS surpasses his value is logically unsound and entirely nonsensical.

Further, Ms. Strossum declared, with certainty, that there is indeed “no one absolute truth.”  This, I suggest, represents the crux of many deep-seated issues.  To assume that nothing is absolute or certain leaves room for unsettling ambiguities like the question of personhood.

An ancient oracle at a temple in Delphi, Greece reads: “KNOW THYSELF–” a phrase today employed generally in sappy leadership trainings, but which holds a serious weight.  Know yourself—know first what you are.  At the very least, pinning down this essential fact is crucial to having a sound perception of our frequently turbulent world.

27 thoughts on “Abortion debate unearths a frightening truth about post-modern conceptions of humanity

  1. pyelena Reply

    i'm confused. isn't CSFL- Carolina Students For Life? Why are you all hosting people like this? Was someone co-hosting? Who is the Anti-Life group on campus anyway? (lol)
    And what about her opponent's (Klusendorf's?) arguments? did she have anything worthwhile to say? I know nothing of either of them, or even of this event that went on….

  2. cwjones Reply

    Indeed. If knowing ourselves "is crucial to having a sound perception of our frequently turbulent world", then "man is the measure of all things" and we are on the way to moral and cultural relativism.

    However, knowing what a human being is is something different. If we can't decide what is and is not a person, then it's hard to adopt a moral code. For example, concepts such as why it's acceptable to kill and eat a chicken but not another human get fuzzy when we cant' define what is a human and what isn't.

    • Jonathan Pattishall Reply

      "If we can't decide what is and is not a person, then it's hard to adopt a moral code."

      I agree entirely. The pro-choice side of the abortion debate, in my opinion, has not adequately addressed the definition of life. I would like to point out, however, that post-modernism, humanism and agnosticism do not require or imply relativism. It is perfectly reasonable to construct, articulate and maintain human standards of morality without the pretended delusions of metaphysical objectivity. In fact, we do it everyday, and humanity has been doing it since the beginning of ethical philosophy, because that is all the study of ethics is: a study of human standards. Anti-foundationalism, in short, does not equal relativism.

  3. Jonathan Pattishall Reply

    "If we can't decide what is and is not a person, then it's hard to adopt a moral code."

    I agree entirely. It seems painfully obvious to me that the fundamental issue in the abortion debate is whether or not you define a fetus as a person. The pro-choice camp is, in my opinion, mostly unwilling to talk about this in a straightforward manner.

    I would just like to add, however, that we can reject metaphysical conceptions of objectivity and still maintain human standards of ethics. Anti-foundationalism does not imply the post-modern nightmare of free-for-all relativism. Just because "man is the measure" does not mean that there is effectively no measure at all.

  4. Duke Cheston Reply

    Bravo Alex! In response to Ms. Strossum's declaration that "there is no absolute truth," I pose this question: is that true? Obviously, it can't be true absolutely… It's amazing that the ACLU hired someone this thick to lead their organization.

    • cwjones Reply

      And the simple answer for an anti-foundationalist would be that yes, the statement that there is no absolute truth is not absolutely true.

    • Jonathan Pattishall Reply

      Chris is right about the anti-foundationalist response. I would merely add, by way of supplement , that the anti-foundationalist doesn't need something to be absolutely true in order to find it useful for constructing ethical standards. Anti-foundationalists reject metaphysical absolutes because we have no evidence that they exist, and because they are utterly unnecessary to the purposes of philosophy, morality, governance, art, and just about every other important human endeavor (all but, perhaps, religion). By extension of these principles, when an anti-foundationalist says "there is no absolute truth," they are clearly not saying "it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth." (Turek's argument here is one degree of intellectual dishonesty beyond a straw-man.) The anti-foundationalist is actually saying "we do not find sufficient reason or utility to justify the assumption of metaphysical ethical absolutes."

      • cwjones

        A better question would not be "do you believe in absolute truth?", it would be "Do you believe reality exists independently of our perception of it?"

  5. Alex Reply

    No I'm not new and yes, I am a female.
    I invoked the reference to Delphi as a connection to the question of personhood, not the abortion debate solely. It is quite pertinent in the increasingly unstable view of exactly what defines humanity.

  6. Jonathan Pattishall Reply

    Monotheistic religion demands introspection of a particular kind. For Christians, "knowing thyself" is not an end in itself. The individual exists in the context of a creator and a larger creation; you must know yourself in order to become closer to God.

    For the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, or at least for the historically significant interpretations of the saying (i.e., the enlightened humanist's), knowing oneself is the telos. As I indicated above, the oracle doesn't say "Know Thyself in the Context of God," or "Know Yourself for the Greater Glory of God." There is not even an indication of a theistic power in the saying. And that's fitting for a people whose gods were anthropomorphic. They saw man as the ideal (as indicated by the elevation of man's form into godhood), and therefore as the measure as well.

    • Jonathan Pattishall Reply

      There is clearly no "holistic" truth to the meaning of the Delphic oracle's saying, because there was no real "oracle" at Delphi. Oracle's are good old fashion make believe, as you and I both know. No priestess muttering gibberish at Delphi was ever a real conduit between real humans and unreal gods.

      The sayings of oracles are valuable in our human interpretation of their meaning, and our interpretations are more valuable in direct proportion to our increased awareness of the value of human, rather than divine, interpretation. Tautological, I know, but still very much true. This is why the farther we move away from the barbarism and superstition of the past, the better we are able to glean the wisdom of the ancients out from the great mass of their stupidity. Therefore, the secular humanists of the Enlightenment have so much more convincing and helpful understandings of the oracle's saying than the ancient Greeks, specifically because the secular humanists knew that the oracle was no oracle at all, but only a regular old human being.

      • mseelingerjr

        First, I think it's ironic that you made reference to the "barbarism" of the Ancient Greeks. Considering the etymology of the word "barbarian," this does seem like a rather peculiar statement.

        I also think that in dismissing their mythology as mere "superstition," you miss a key aspect of Greek culture and the importance their religious beliefs had as an expression of that culture. To impose the world view of the secular humanist on the Greeks is to ignore a fundamental element of Greek culture, which culture continues to impact Western Civilization today. It is impossible to understand that culture (and what it means for us) without a proper appreciation for what those gods, oracles, etc. meant for the Greek people.

        I am also curious as to their "great mass of stupidity" was. Since you referred to "gleaning wisdom" from it, I figured that this great mass must be rather large, and therefore obvious to see. But I have come up short in my attempt to understand what you mean by that phrase.

      • Jonathan Pattishall


        I'm glad you caught that ironic reference to barbarism, because it was certainly intentional. As you know, the Greeks called people who spoke other languages "barbarians" as an onomatopoetic insult: when they heard foreigners speak other languages, it sounded like gibberish to them. So the term "barbarian" passed into their speech as a reference to any non-Greek speaking person; as an epithet, it assumed that someone who did not speak Greek, and therefore did not share in the superiority of Greek culture, was ignorant, brutish and primitive. Now this prejudicial distinction that many (though admittedly not all) Greeks made is obviously itself ignorant, brutish and primitive: to equate the speakers of a foreign language with mental and social handicap is an unfounded linguistic and, by extension, cultural pride of the greatest kind. It is the entering wedge of xenophobia, and in Greece it has a rather sordid connection to slavery. It is an Us-Them worldview. In short, it is a philosophy fit for a dark age. One might call it "barbarian." Pretty ironic, huh? But the irony is not inherent in my reference; it is inherent in history.

        As for understanding the place of the gods and other clearly superstitious elements in Greek culture, surely it is important. It is also, however, important to understand that these things were all convenient religious fictions. I don't believe for a second that you live under the delusion that Apollo ever was or is a real spiritual force. But I am also sure that you are capable of understanding the significance of the Apollonian world-view. My whole argument is that we can understand the philosophy of the Greeks better than they could themselves, because we can look at them historically and not religiously. It's part of the advantage of historical perspective that moderns enjoy; we don't deserve an iota of credit for it, obviously, but its nice to know that we don't share in the limited mental horizons of the ancients. (See, for instance, the ancient Greek theory of why some babies are born male and others female, as one example from their great mass of stupidity.)

        I'm not saying that moderns live in a post-historical intellectual utopia, or that we have it all figured out, or that we don't have anything to learn from the ancients. Quite the opposite actually. I stand with Hobbes on this issue, and will let him speak to the point himself.

        "Lastly, though I reverence those men of ancient time that either have written truth perspicuously or set us in a better way to find it out ourselves, yet to the antiquity itself I think nothing due. For if we will reverence the age, the present is the oldest. If the antiquity of the writer, I am not sure that generally they to whom such honor is given were more ancient when they wrote than I am that am writing. But if it be well considered, the praise of ancient authors proceeds not from the reverence of the dead but from the competition and mutual envy of the living."

      • cwjones

        Can we really call such superstitions of the Greeks "a mass of stupidity"? I mean, the word stupidity tends to imply that someone is ignorant and should know better. Considering that the ancients had far less knowledge than we do, especially in scientific matters, one cannot fault them for believing such stories given the evidence that they had available to them.

        But that's not why we value the ancient authors. We value Greek philosophers not because of the specifics of what they thought but because of the mindset of rational inquiry that they promoted.

        As for belief in the Olympian gods, skepticism was not unheard of in the ancient world. Plato, Xenophanes and Socrates used reason to reject the anthropomorphic gods of Homer and Hesiod and instead argued for a monotheistic view of God as the Ultimate Being. Others such rejected religion altogether. After all, it was the Greco-Roman Pantheon that Seneca was referring to when he said "religion is viewed by the common as true, by the wise as false and by the rulers as useful."

      • Jonathan Pattishall


        You're right, we cannot fault the ancient Greeks for their scientific lack of understanding. The great "mass of stupidity" that I refer to is not the specific baggage of Greek superstition and ignorance, but is the general problem of all pre-modern cultures. They all have a fair amount of wisdom that can be appreciated by modern people, but it still has to be gleaned from a greater mass of stupid ideas that ancient people formed in their ignorance. It's not a moral statement about the ancients; it's a mere historical fact: knowledge accumulates. It's hard for some people to admit, especially classicists, but even the most famous and wise of the ancient Greeks accepted many things that were wrong, both factually and morally. To truly appreciate what they got right, we need to be honest with ourselves about all the many and serious things they got wrong. I'm picking this bone because I think that too many people, especially conservatives, don't actually value the Greeks for their mindset of rational inquiry, but, like the sometimes painfully feeble-minded monarchist Burke, merely "procure reverence…on account of their age: and on account of those from whom they are descended." (Surely Dent will recognize that quote.) Hence my quote from Hobbes about not "reverencing the age" of the ancients.

        And certainly, too, there was skepticism and agnosticism and atheism in ancient Greece. I'm quite a fan of all this.

      • cwjones

        And I'm just saying that we can't really use the term stupidity to describe a situation where people couldn't know any better. You're not stupid if you don't know better, just ignorant. Stupidity is when you could know better, but don't.

        As an ancient historian, I can accept that there are many things that the Greeks and Romans got wrong, both factually (heliocentrism, polytheism) and morally (slavery, the Roman Empire, ethnocentrism). But we study Greece and Rome not because they are a guide to how to build a better civilization but because they are what we came from. So in a way, we do revere the ancients "on account of their age", not because of what they said but because they are ancestors of our modern culture.

      • Jonathan Pattishall

        The Greeks were ignorant in their lack of understanding. It was when they drew moral conclusions from their own ignorance that they breached the realm of stupidity. As in the claim of barbarism, for instance. Their lack of understanding of other languages was ignorance. Their foolhardy assumption of cultural superiority drawn from that ignorance, on the other hand, was plain old stupidity.

        As for your approach to ancient history, I respect where you're coming from, but I don't share your sentiment at all. The greatest value of the past is what it says for us, against us, or about us. But primarily, it is what it says. On a side note, if you're really interested about "what we came from" you could study things much more profitable than the classics. African, Celtic and Germanic folk cultures, for instance.

      • cwjones

        I agree that there is great value in studying Celtic, Germanic and African cultures to understand American and Western culture. I'd like to add studying Jewish and Native American cultures to that list. Which is why I said classical cultures were an ancestor of our culture, not THE ancestor of our culture.

      • Jonathan Pattishall

        In ways, we certainly should. I have no problem with updating the thought of Enlightenment thinkers on issues that they too got wrong, and there are plenty of those. (For instance, many enlightened thinkers might be willing to exclude women from scope of the saying. Do we know better? Certainly.) But the Enlightenment's basic approach to the Oracle's saying, in terms of its purely secular origins, has not to my knowledge been supplanted by a more convincing or helpful interpretation. It's been augmented, certainly, by the methods of evolutionary biology and psychoanalysis, but not actually overturned. If you can make an argument that we should interpret the Oracle's saying in a context other than the secular humanist's, and you can make it more convincing than the secular humanists of the Enlightenment, then I'm all ears.

  7. ___0_ Reply

    "But were personhood to be accepted as nebulous at the prenatal level, post-birth would not be a far cry away—this is an eerie prospect."

    Are personhood, moral agency and legal standing not already a bit nebulous at the prenatal level? If babies were grown in vats then maybe you could define whatever you want, but this pregnancy thing tends to complicates efforts at moral absolutism. Plus: the whole point is that birth is what separates (intellectually and physically) the pre-birth from post-birth person…. you're not actually making a case here that post-birth personhood would become nebulous.

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