Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, recently took time to speak with Catholic Exchange about his new book, Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy on the Life Issues, and the subject it addresses: how the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision had to violate the foundational principles of civilization in order to legalize abortion. You can read Part 1 here.
The principle of nonmaleficence, which you refer to as “the silver rule,” is addressed at length in the book.
The principle of nonmaleficence is really simple: don’t do a harm to others that you don’t want done to you. Even Hobbes said this is the foundation of ethics; if we do not agree to this, life will become even more brutish, ugly, and short.
The principle of nonmaleficence is the foundational principle of ethics; you cannot have a society of any kind, you can sign a social contract, if you’re not going to agree that unnecessary harm to others is off-limits. This is the minimum of civility on which society can rest.
The principle of nonmaleficence is a restatement of the principle of justice, but justice goes a little farther: I’m not going to take from you what belongs to you, and I’m going to give back to you what was taken from you. If I take something from you that belongs to you, without reason, I am doing you an unnecessary harm; if I do not give you what is owed to you, and it’s in my power to do so, I’m doing you an unnecessary harm.
There’s a concomitant principle that goes along, like a corollary, with the principle of nonmaleficence: when you’re in doubt about whether you’re going to do grave and unnecessary harm, you should avoid that action; if you act on it in your doubt and you do cause grave and unnecessary harm, you have violated the principle of nonmaleficence and ,by definition, you are unjust. For instance, if you are out hunting with your buddy, your buddy goes in one direction and you go in another direction, and then you hear a rustling in the bushes, you think, “That could either be a deer, or it could be my friend—I’ll take a chance; I’ll shoot.” Then you find out it was your friend, and you’ve killed him. People will say, “Why did you shoot when you weren’t certain? We’re holding you responsible for the death of our friend and family member, you complete idiot.”
So in Roe v. Wade , the Supreme Court was shooting into the bushes?
In the Supreme Court case, this is the most remarkable set of deductions. They establish a specious distinction between personhood and human being, then ask a bunch of people—who are completely confused by the distinction—when personhood begins, and come to astounding conclusion we don’t know—and then we sanction a grave and unnecessary violation of principle of nonmaleficence. Are you kidding me?
This is the same logic as in the Dred Scott decision, [where the question was] are black people really human beings. “Remember, they came over as slaves, and so we’re not sure, because they’ve got—as it were—a bad portfolio. Now let’s go ask some people. Well, people are unsure whether black people are full human beings.” So what did the Supreme Court unanimously do? Declare them subhuman.
It’s just like personhood v. human being, only now it’s human being v. subhuman.
Because people were uncertain, we should sanction that “the Negro” be subjugated to “the superior race?” Astounding!
These are the kinds of hypocrisies and logical failings you have to go through when you want to violate the principle of nonmaleficence.
How does the Declaration of Independence play into the prolife movement?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident.” It’s self-evident truth that people have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they have an inalienable right not to be killed, not to be enslaved, and not to be deprived of the ordinary and respectful course of pursuing their happiness.
A right is what everybody owes to everybody. This “owing” is like a debt, almost; it’s like something that belongs to us by our very nature. We are owed are life; we are owed sufficient respect to be autonomous, such that we can’t be enslaved; and we are owed the ordinary pursuit of happiness. I owe it to you, you owe it to me, we all owe it to everybody. Everybody owes everybody the right to life.
What did the Supreme Court do in Roe v. Wade and the Dred Scott decision? They had a mental vaporlock. They forgot natural rights—they didn’t even think about them. You will not find any mention of the natural right or the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; you will not find it anywhere in those decisions.
One just has to ask the reason why natural rights—which were considered to be self-evident, and the very founding principles of the Declaration of Independence—how could they have forgotten them? Gee, I don’t know. If they forgot them unintentionally, it shows profound ignorance of the law and their duty; if they forgot them intentionally, then what we call that is culpable ignorance: they can be blamed for the harms that their intentional harms brought about.
The Court doesn’t have within its purview the right to declare and cancel all rights. It can’t, by its very definition, cancel inalieanable rights, because they’re more fundamental than the Court and its laws; they are the foundation pillars upon which the power of law rests. Everything’s backwards, right?
In the book, you point out that even the set-up of the court case Roe v. Wade was backwards.
In order to capitalize upon its slumber, its forgetfulness, its daze, the Court now makes its own methodology plain: it basically shifts the burden of proof from one of proving that human personhood or human life doesn’t exist, ever so subtly, to now the defendant must prove that it does exist (the defendant was Texas in this case). Even the Court admits if the fetus was really proved to be a person, then the case would automatically fall apart; [they’d] have to defend the life of the unborn. Notice the subtlety on that declaration? What’s the burden of proof? If Texas could show that a fetus is a person. That’s not right; the burden of proof should be on the Supreme Court to prove that it’s not a person. If you’re going to sanction the killing of a human being, at last you should have the burden of proof.
Just like the Nazis, and just like the slave-traders, they had to use every specious argument they could, completely ignoring the natural rights of people. When you see all this accumulating, you’ve got to start saying to yourself, this doesn’t pass the smell test.
You also point out that in both court cases—Roe v. Wade and Dred Scott—the rights of some people trump the rights of others.
When the fetus’s right to life is subordinated to woman’s right to privacy, it’s completely illogical. The right to life is always subordinate to the right to liberty. The Dred Scott decision said the same thing: the property rights of white people were more fundamental than the liberty rights of black people; therefore we get the astounding decision that white people can own black people.
Just because women are bigger and have lived longer than fetuses, that doesn’t mean that one person has more rights than another.
Going through the decision step-by-step with these principles in mind makes one wonder how such a faulty decision has been able to stand so long.
If it weren’t so tragic—honestly, it’s laughable. But the tragedy trumps the folly. We should all have a good laugh—and then change it.