On October 19, 1745, Jonathan Swift, the Irish author, died at age 78. Swift is famous for writing Gulliver's Travels. It is often considered a book for children, with Gulliver visiting first a land where he is a giant among the Lilliputians, and then a land where he is himself a miniature in a land of giants. But adults recognize the satire striking nearly every pretense of Swift's society and, for that matter, our own.
Jonathan Swift was a man who became increasingly morose and unhappy with human company as he grew older. He seemed to sour quite completely after he lost the love of his life to death. But he was not an unkind person. He gave generous gifts to needy associates and, realizing that he was himself plagued with some sort of mental affliction, he bequeathed most of his own fortune to found a hospital for what were referred to in his day as "idiots and lunatics" — those who we today would call the mentally disabled and mentally ill.
Knowing these things about Swift helps us to evaluate a work of his that was highly controversial and misunderstood in his day. It was published under the title, A Modest Proposal and was a thorough-going study of how to rid Ireland of poverty by killing, and selling as food, the one-year-old infants of poor Irish Catholics. From a literary standpoint it is a masterful satire. But its gruesome content was not found amusing by many of his contemporaries. Why did he write it?
He wrote it in order to perform what is called in argumentation "a reduction to the absurd." Here is how it works: You take a position that you believe to be incorrect and then follow it as far as you can down the length of its implications, its logical consequences. Your intention is to come to some point where the consequences are so patently absurd that even the proponents of the position will recoil from them.
Well, who was it that Swift was trying to shock then? It was the upper classes in Ireland and England who talked and wrote about the poor as though they were a mere statistical economic problem: there are just too many of them and they breed like rabbits. What Swift did was take this analysis, purely statistical and viewing human beings as means rather than as ends, to its logical conclusion, capping it with his own brilliantly barbed wit.
This was two centuries before the Nazi holocaust, when people could still be shocked by barbarous proposals. Perhaps we are beyond that.
In his book, Freakonomics, published a couple of years ago, economist Steven D. Levitt theorized that the violent crime rate had gone down in recent years because there were fewer violent criminals and there were fewer violent criminals because Roe v. Wade had gotten rid of a large number of people who would have turned out to be violent criminals. Levitt didn't say that his statistics (which other economists have marked as flawed) should be used to support abortion, so it leaves the question open. If we find that legalizing abortion really does cut crime, is that a good argument for it?
What if legalizing abortion cut poverty or some other social ill? Would that be a good argument for it? Well then, what if aborted fetuses could supply us with products — I mean really useful products? Or not merely useful products, but necessary products — life-saving products? What about that, huh? That would make it okay, wouldn't it?
What if we find out that if we wait just a little longer until those fetuses have become infants and then harvest the life-saving products that the life-saving products are even more effective and save even more lives? I mean, after all we were going to harvest them anyway. What difference does a few months make?
Don't look at me like that. After all — it is just a "modest proposal."