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February 24, 1980


Jeffersonian Humanism for Today


By Myriam Miedzian Malinovich

It has become a commonplace by now to speak of the late 1960s and the '70s as a period of moral breakdown in American society. But I first became aware of that breakdown in the early '60’s.

I was teaching Introduction to Philosophy to undergraduates at a large public university. We were discussing the justification of moral judgments when one of my students raised his hand and asserted: "You can't justify moral judgments; you can't even say that Hitler killing millions of people in concentration camps was really wrong. I'm repelled by it, but that doesn't mean that there's anything really immoral about it."

I expected an uproar of protest from his 40-odd classmates, many of whom were Jewish, but a majority agreed with him. "Values are relative," they seemed to chant in unison. "Just because we value human life doesn't mean that it's really valuable."
"Are there any conditions under which you can &8Y that something is morally wrong?" I asked the answer. "If you believe in God and think that the 10 Commandments were handed down by Him, then disobeying them would be really immoral. But since we don't believe in God, we can't make ethical judgments."

As the decade progressed, that attitude became more and more prevalent. "If it feels good, do it," became the adage of what has since been dubbed the "me generation." More generally, the weakening of religious and traditional morality left many students unable to find much meaning in such concepts as responsibility, obligation, duty, right, wrong, moral, immoral.

Paradoxically, this period of moral chaos corresponded with n period of unprecedented confrontation with a variety of ethical issues. The Karen Anne Quinlan case brought wide publicity to one such issue. Should parents, children, physicians, or the patient have a right to have life-supporting systems disconnected when the sick person will be "a vegetable" or will, if kept alive, suffer intense pain from an eventually fatal disease?

Besides the right to die, there was concern with civil rights, women's rights (including the right to abortion) rights of the handicapped, rights of the mentally retarded, rights of the mentally ill, students' rights, children's rights, prisoners' rights, right to pornography, human rights abroad.

How could we as a nation begin to deal adequately with these and other problems when so many of us seemed to be incapable of making any moral judgments at all?

We could not and did not. Instead of grappling with the moral issues involved, we sent our problems off to the courts, in particular the U.S. Supreme Court. While some problems involved in these issues could be resolved by the courts, many could not. However, we chose to view them as legal issues to be decided on the basis of our Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights. Having lost our faith in the Bible, many of us seemed to want to turn the Constitution into a new bible. Supreme Court justices became our high priests.

Our Constitution was never intended to serve as a bible. The founding fathers were well aware that future generations, faced with completely novel problems, would not find in it all the answers to them. "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind," wrote Thomas Jefferson. "As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the time. Let us provide in our Constitution for its revision at stated periods."

If there is anything resembling a bible among our national documents it is the Declaration of Independence with its assertion of those humanistic values upon which the Constitution and our nation were to be baaed. The deepest influence on Jefferson, its author, was 17th-Century British philosopher John Locke's theory of natural law and natural rights.

This theory is the primary source of the "inalienable rights" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as well as the belief that "all men are created equal." But unlike a true bible in which values are codified into an absolute, unchangeable .et of God-given rules, the Declaration of Independence gives us only basic guidelines by which to make our moral and political judgments. As Jefferson saw so clearly, each generation still faces the problem of how the humanistic values of life, liberty, happiness and equality can best be applied in its own social context.

If our nation is built on humanistic rather than religious values, why have we so thoroughly lost sight of the possibility of basing moral judgments on these same values?

I think that as the humanistic values underlying the American Revolution became embodied in legal documents, they came to be thought of increasingly as legal rights and their moral basis tended to be forgotten. When in the late '60s and the '70’s traditional religious influence dwindled to a new low, we were unaccustomed to any other basis for making moral judgments-morality had come to mean the absolute religious morality of our Judeo-Christian tradition. So while we turned to the law-in particular to the Bill of Rights.-to give us answers to our moral dilemmas, we failed to realize that these laws themselves 'were intended as guarantees that the humanistic values upon which our government was based would in fact be respected.

By avoiding grappling with today's problems we have done ourselves considerable damage as a nation. For we are left with having to abide by unsatisfactory court decisions on issues of major social importance. We also leave ourselves open to being unduly influenced on basic moral issues by lobbying groups which often represent the interests and beliefs of small groups which should not be in a position to determine legislation affecting the entire nation. Besides which, transferring moral issues to the legal realm does not make the underlying moral problems go away.

This was clearly brought home to me when I recently interviewed a large number of people working in abortion clinics and pro-abortion agencies. In spite of the Supreme Court's decision, in spite of these people's deep commitment to abortion rights, I found many of them to be morally disturbed and confused about several aspects of abortion. Repeat abortions and late abortions seem to be particularly troublesome to them, despite the fact that these represent a relatively small percentage of the total number of abortions performed.

"The fetus's cranium must be broken and all the limbs removed piece by piece in second trimester D&C abortions," the executive vice president of one of the nation's largest pro-abortion agencies explained to me at a private meeting. "The physician must then reassemble the fetus in order to make sure that nothing was left in the uterus.
"How can you justify doing something like that?" he asked me.

When I indicated that I considered this a serious moral problem and would find it difficult to justify such abortions except in cases where required by the mother's health, he abruptly changed the subject.

1 was somewhat prepared for this highly ambivalent behavior by the remarks made to me earlier by a particularly frank longtime member of the board of the same organization.

"You ought to witness our board meetings," she had told me. "As soon as people touch on their gut reactions – their real feelings about late abortion, repeat abortion, teenage sexuality - they switch on to something else. They can't deal with these feelings at all."

One source of their discomfort and ambivalence, I believe, is that while they feel what can only be described as moral discomfort with certain aspects of abortion, they do not know how to connect those feelings with making moral judgments. These "gut feelings” then take on the quality of being weaknesses or disloyalty to the movement. After all, late and repeat abortions are legal, how can they be wrong?

Again and again I was told, "I don't know what morality could mean outside of a religious context." What would it be like to think through a moral issue such as abortion from the perspective of a humanistic value system?

In one of his letters Jefferson writes that "nature has constituted utility to man, the standard and test of virtue." The principle of utility, also known as the "happiness principle" has played a long and important role in the history of moral philosophy. What Jefferson and others have meant by it is that the criterion by which we must judge an action moral or immoral is its ability to increase happiness and reduce pain. As Jefferson saw it, such a moral principle permits some flexibility in making moral judgments - depending on the social context, a particular course of action might increase or decrease happiness. This is why he believed that "institutions must. . . keep pace with the time." The only absolute in Jeffersonian humanism is a fundamental respect for the natural right of human beings - without such respect it is impossible to have a society that promotes human happiness.

In the Preamble to our Constitution the Happiness principle takes the form of a commitment to "promote the general welfare." This concept complements the human rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. We need the happiness principle to make moral judgments because however absolute our respect for human rights, these rights can never be unlimited. Our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness do not include the right falsely to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, throw garbage on our neighbor's lawn, or dump dangerous chemicals in our rivers. The unavoidable conflicts between the rights of citizens must be resolved by reference to the happiness principle of the promotion of the general welfare.

Returning to these humanistic values as guidelines for making moral decisions on abortion or any other issues will not make our task an easy one. For while asserting a set of basic values is relatively easy, applying them to concrete situations can be enormously difficult. And the abortion issue is perhaps one of the most difficult because the conflict between the rights of the pregnant woman ant the fetuses particularly intense and the concept of "life" so difficult to define. Unlike the simplicity of ethical relativism which states that if a women wants an abortion there is no way we can say that it is wrong for her to have one, or Catholicism which bases its concept of right or wrong on God-given laws, not on people's wants, Jeffersonian humanism is based on a delicate balancing of the various wants and rights of the individuals involved - as well as a consideration of the broader social impact of a particular course of action.

In the case of abortion, this means weighing the fact that for many women having a child they do not want is the equivalent of ruining their lives.

Where the relativist has no way of taking the fetus's life into account since the fetus does not yet have any desires he can express, and the Catholic, on the basis of religious dogma, holds that life begins at conception, the humanist is stuck with the problem of deciding at what point the fetus's right to life outweighs the mother's right to liberty. Clearly there will be something arbitrary about the cutoff point-unlike a religious ethic which offers clear-cut, God-given answers, a humanistic ethic can offer only imperfect human decisions.

As Jefferson points out, these decisions may well have to be altered "as new discoveries are made, new truths developed." In the case of abortion this might, for example, involve new discoveries about the fetus's neurological development."

Besides the balancing of the rights of the mother and the fetus, the humanist must also weigh the social impact of abortion. In speaking to pro-abortion activists I came away with the distinct impression that at least part. of what disturbed them about repeat abortion was a certain moral insensitivity implicit in a woman using abortion as a contraception substitute.

In the case of late abortion, it seems to me the routine performance of this gruesome operation would tend to lead, on the part of those involved, to a certain degree of desensitization. Jefferson believed that human beings to varying degrees possess a moral sense which can be developed or can atrophy, depending on external conditions. It is essential to a society based on the happiness principle that moral callousness be discouraged and that its citizens' moral sense be developed as highly as possible. If the routine performance of late and repeat abortions contribute to such desensitizing then it may well be necessary to regulate them more stringently.

In England where abortion at up to 28 weeks has been legal since 1968, there is now before Parliament a bill based on moral concerns limiting abortions to 20 weeks. In other Western European countries which have legalized abortion, unregulated abortions are permitted for the first 12 weeks only.

I think that humanistic concerns require some such limitations in this country as well.

While the life-and-death issues surrounding abortion seem to have become the cutting edge of the moral dilemmas of our time, many other problems cry out for a discussion of their moral, rather than legal, foundations. Among them are the rights of the retarded and physically handicapped. As medical and technological advances have increased the numbers and life spans of such people, a lessening of prejudices has led to the idea that their lives should be as normal as possible.

Parents of retarded girls sometimes want them sterilized. Should they or institutions caring for the retarded be given the right to deny retarded women the right to bear children?

For the American Civil Liberties Union, the answer is clear. In the ACLU handbook, "The Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons," author Paul Friedman writes that the retarded, including those institutionalized, have exactly the same rights to marry and have children as any other citizen. "Involuntary sterilization statutes are unconstitutional because they contemplate intrusion upon mentally protected rights to privacy, liberty, and procreation."

It is nowhere stated in our Constitution that its guarantees of personal freedom do not include mentally retarded people's right to have children. It seems extremely unlikely however that the founding fathers intended retarded people to have that right. I would imagine that the question of whether they should or should not never occurred to them. That it occurs to us grows out of one of these changes in "manners and opinions" that Jefferson refers to when he argues that provisions should be made for the revision of the Constitution.

From the point of view of a humanistic ethic, any answer to the question of the retardeds' right to have children would involve applying the happiness principle so as to balance the rights of the groups affected. Since the retarded are either completely incapable of caring for their own children or require extensive outside help, we would have to weigh the degree of happiness that having a child would bring to a retarded person against the degree of unhappiness it would bring to the retarded person's parents, already overburdened by the care of their own retarded child, or to citizens overburdened by high taxes.

Unlike the humanist whose primary concern is with a just balance of rights in the light of the happiness principle, rights advocates rarely deal with the obligations and effects that the rights of one group will entail for another or for the general welfare. There is certainly no discussion of this problem in the ACLU's handbook on the mentally retarded. The implicit assumption is that a group's rights may not be curtailed because of the effects on others. This has become such a common assumption that even groups favoring involuntary sterilization statutes for the retarded will argue that this must be done only in the interest of the retarded, never because it will be in the interest of their parents, of the institutions that care for them, or the general welfare.

Rights activists have focused exclusively on the Bill of Rights to justify their demands, to the exclusion of the Constitution's commitment to "promote the general welfare." The Bill of Rights, taken by itself, fits right in with the unlimited demands for economic and personal self-realization of the late '60s and the early ‘70s. On the other hand, the promotion of the general welfare requires an acceptance of limitations on our freedom so that the rights and freedoms of others may co-exist with our own.

The economic abundance of the '60s and early '70s made it possible for rights activists to avoid dealing with the fact that, for most of us, harsh economic and social realities are a constant limitation on our freedom.

That these issues have been viewed as legal rather than moral has been. Another major factor in the limited focus of rights advocates. Our legal system is an adversary system. An attorney who is defending the rights of a particular group is not concerned with arriving at a just solution for all those involved; the attorney is not guided by the happiness principle. The attorney wants to win the case.

By relegating moral issues to the courts we have permitted decisions to be arrived at through a system that is not geared to finding just solutions to fundamental moral and social issues. By doing this, we have avoided grappling with the difficulties of working out a just balance among rights, obligations, and the public welfare.

Yet this problem is in dire need of being dealt with. For while the rights of our Constitution are civil and political rights that guarantee freedom from interference by government, "rights" has today come to include social and economic rights. The contemporary assumption is that government has a moral obligation to care for those in need. While a majority of Americans accept this expanded concept of social responsibility, they are at the same time crying out for an assessment of how far their economic and social obligation should go.

The failure to deal with these questions can lead to hasty legislation that is not thought through-as in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which led to HEW regulations demanding that all federally funded public transportation and facilities be made accessible to the handicapped. Many of those who voted for the Rehabilitation Act did not realize that it would cost billions and billions of tax dollars to put this measure into effect.

The only way that we can begin to work out a just social policy for the handicapped, the unemployed, the elderly and other needy groups is by dealing with issues from a humanistic moral point of view rather than from an adversary legal one. A carefully thought through humane policy would in the long run be far more beneficial to all than hastily enacted legislation or inadequate court decisions that lead to backlash reactions among taxpayers.

Once one gives up slogans and pious pronouncements, once one begins to think through moral issues in all their complexity and in the context of the psychological, social, and economic realities which limit our choices, we become painfully aware of how imperfect the decisions we make will be.

It is perhaps in part because we are afraid of taking responsibility for such imperfect decisions that we avoid dealing with the moral dilemmas discussed here as well as the numerous others that confront us. But sooner or later, like it or not, we will have to deal with the increasingly complex and novel problems that grow out of the technological and social developments of the 20th Century.


Myriam Miedzian Malinovich has taught philosophy at several universities, including Rutgers and the City University of New York. She is vice president of Programs in Public Philosophy, a nonprofit educational institution.

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