The Mirror-Image Counterpart of the Selfish Society
by Richard Stith
This 1978 article was originally entitled “What it Means to be Pro-Life: Toward a Political Theory for Our Movement.” It appeared in The New Human, Vol. VII No. 2, March–April 1978, a publication of the National Youth Pro-Life Coalition.
It’s been lightly edited.
Does being “pro-life” mean something more than being against abortion? Every pro-lifer would, of course, answer “yes.” But exactly what else it means is not quite clear. Does it mean one is against all killing, and thus that one must also work against euthanasia, capital punishment, and war? Does it mean that one is searching for “positive alternatives” to killing, especially in the case of the unborn? Or does it mean that one is an all-around “pro-people” good guy, working to help everyone in every way?
Probably, it means all of these things to some extent. But I think it also means something more exact. I think that there’s a quite specific role that the pro-life movement has undertaken to perform. . . .
I want to argue that the specific role of our movement is to be an exact mirror-image counterpart of the “selfish society.” That is, our job is to be a kind of counterbalance to the selfish tendencies in human nature and in politics—so that we ought not to try to do all the good things, but rather only those things which we think selfishness is least likely to take care of.
In order to make my point clear, let me first outline a model of a selfish society and of the rights which it recognizes. The role of the pro-life movement will then be simply to further those rights which self-interest leaves unprotected. I’m not saying that modern society is entirely selfish, but only that it is to a large extent selfish. Therefore, we can expect it won’t ignore matters affecting self-interest. However, it may ignore matters of human dignity which it thinks not relevant to self-interest, and so it’s in these matters that the pro-life movement is most needed.
A Model of the Selfish Society
Even a totally egotistical and selfish person will grant some rights to other human beings. For example, he or she will agree in general that people shouldn’t kill each other. Why would the person agree? Simply because the person doesn’t want to be killed, and realizes that other selfish people won’t promise not to kill him or her unless he or she also promises not to kill them. Similarly, the selfish person will grant other people rights to property, because he or she wants them to respect his or her property. So even in a society made up of wholly selfish egoists, certain rights will be recognized (or at least public lip-service will be paid to them).
But will a rational selfish person extend these rights to all people? No. For if his or her motives are wholly selfish, he or she has no reason to grant any rights to someone who’s too weak to do him or her harm. Such a person will be interested in “making a deal” only with those who have something to offer to that person. For example, if someone else is too young or too weak to kill him or her, why should he or she agree not to kill that person? The selfish person has no reason at all to make such an agreement. A selfish person will recognize the rights only of those who are strong enough to hurt him or her.
We should add two additional points:
First, strength may be measured by group rather than by individual. So, for example, a selfish person will acknowledge the rights of even a very weak person, if the latter is a member of a group (say, racial, ethnic, family) which is strong enough to retaliate effectively. Or conversely, a selfish person will not grant rights even to a very strong individual, if the former belongs to a group which is strong enough to suppress the latter. So, for example, an individual slave may be very clever and strong and yet have no rights, if the combined group of selfish slave-owners is strong enough to crush any rebellion. [Editor’s note: the same applies to condemned prisoners.]
Second, even selfish people have their likes and dislikes, and they may like some other people. The can’t love these people (because love, as self-giving, is necessarily unselfish), but they might like having certain others around, because they’re pleasant or useful. Thus even selfish people, for example, may want to protect their own children, because they find them cute, or helpful, or a status symbol, or because of some other self-interested reason. Thus, even though young children are too weak to be a danger to their parents, their parents may protect them insofar as they’re “wanted” (have no handicaps which make them not pleasant or useful). Similarly, their parents may insist other adults not kill them, and in return they may agree not to kill the wanted children of other adults.
So our conclusion must be that pure self-interest will do a good job of recognizing the rights of the strong or the wanted (individually or by group). But selfish persons won’t care at all about those individuals or groups who’re both weak and unwanted.
Caring without Selfishness
Just as selfish persons are concerned about others the more they are strong or wanted, so pro-lifers ought to care about others the more they are weak and unwanted. Now, there’s no other class of human beings weaker than the unborn, and so whenever these children are also unwanted, they are totally ignored by our selfish society. It’s for this reason, I think, that pro-lifers have rightly concentrated so much on protecting the unwanted unborn child. That child is the underest of underdogs, so to speak, and so is both the most defenseless and the most oppressed (no other person today being totally killable on demand).
Pro-lifers, in other words, don’t think the unborn are more valuable than other persons are. Unlike the pro-abortion people, who give no rights to the unborn, we believe that all persons’ lives are equally worthy of reverence and protection. However, self-interest will and does take care of the rights of the strong or wanted, and so the help of the pro-life movement is less needed.
Now, with this model as a guide, I think the special vocation of our movement can be truly discerned. We’re called upon to help those who would otherwise be without help—not those who already have plenty of help.
For example, I don’t think the pro-life movement should be involved in trying to stop recombinant DNA research, even though this research, in my opinion, is a clear danger to the survival of the human race—because of the simple fact that the rights of the strong are here as menaced as are those of the weak. The strong don’t want to be wiped out, and so we can assume they’ll do a good job of limiting such research for the sake of their own self-interest—without the help of the pro-life movement. Pro-lifers shouldn’t fight against all dangers to life. They should mainly oppose the killing of the weak and unwanted.
But we must go beyond protecting the right to life of the victims of selfishness and aim at protecting all their human rights. So, for example, pro-lifers should protect not only the right of Down Syndrome kids to survive, but also their right not to be purposely or accidentally neglected—insofar as selfish adults don’t give a dam.
Obviously, this is all a matter of degree rather than of absolutes. There’s a kind of social spectrum along which we all fit. At one end are those of us who are both very strong and very wanted. These are not the concern of the pro-life movement. At the other extreme are those both very weak and very unwanted. These are our chief concern. But we ought to be more concerned to fight for others as they near the point where they have no significant defenses against more powerful individuals and groups.
One last crucial point: If such is our vocation we can’t ever expect to be popular. For we shall always be found on the side of the unwanted—the “niggers” or “fetuses” of every age. Even if, for example, we succeed in getting selfish persons to “like” unborn kids (say, by showing pictures of them cutely sucking their thumbs) or in getting them to see their own self-interest at stake (because, say, of a declining population or of a growing disrespect for all human life) we won’t become “socially acceptable.” For to the extent that the unborn become wanted, they become no longer our chief concern; and we must struggle in defense of those individuals and groups who have now become the most oppressed victims of a selfish society. As soon as our work is approved, it’s finished, and we are called to struggle elsewhere.
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