Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue is one of the most widely read and influential academic books of the past 50 years. It begins with a chapter entitled “A Disquieting Suggestion,” in which the author asks the reader to imagine a future society in which there has been a cultural catastrophe that led to the destruction of science as we know it. In the wake of this event, people have retained only fragmentary knowledge of how experiments were conducted, without an understanding of theoretical frameworks in which the results would have made sense; they are left with parts of scientific books and pages from articles, torn and charred. MacIntyre uses this dystopian scenario as a parable for the state of moral discourse in the modern world. There has been a catastrophe in the realm of ideas, an explosion into competing ideologies and philosophies, and a consequent loss of a functioning shared moral vocabulary among intellectuals and within society in general. In this chaos the competing camps can do no better than to shout shrill slogans at each other that betray a lack of reflection and little to no capacity to engage meaningfully with those in other camps.
Allow me, if you will, to attempt a similar exercise. Imagine that you are watching one of the many dystopian movies that seem to be so popular these days. The setting is the year 2190; society has become peaceful; one does not hear about another mass shooting every week; the problem of global warming has been solved through technological advances and changes in human behavior; the human population of the planet has stabilized, and everyone has sufficient food and medical care; there are no wars or horrific terrorist attacks; people in general are kind to others, and crime is very rare.
This sounds like the opposite of a dystopia, but there is a catch. No one seems to know what happened between the years of 2132 and 2147. This fifteen-year period is never mentioned in any history book, or in any publication of any kind. Of course, what we call a “book” will not exist in that future time, but there is still communication about various subjects through various electronic forms in the context of education and social life. Students are never told anything about what happened during those fifteen years, and they are taught never to ask about them. They have a vague sense that something terrible happened then, probably involving the mass killing of human beings, but it is a very dark subject that they prefer not to know about. The peaceful society they live in seems to have arisen out of the ashes of the catastrophe, and it is best to let that sleeping dog lie. Those adults who are old enough to remember the dark times maintain a strict code of silence about it. There is a sense of menace hanging in the air, because they know that if they speak or write about what they know in any way, they could be “disappeared” by the government’s secret police; after a period of time, they would return home with their memories erased and their minds reprogrammed to be obedient citizens.
What is the government’s motive for enforcing this blackout of a period of historical knowledge? It seeps through the movie’s plot and dialogue that the government does not want people to truly know the evil that human beings are capable of. It wants people to have positive self-esteem and to live by an “I’m okay, you’re okay” mindset. In Star Wars lingo, knowledge of the dark side of the Force is a very dangerous thing that must be kept at bay. Evil must always be viewed as external to the self, as residing somewhere else, in other people, and in an earlier time. The notion that the line dividing good and evil runs through every human heart is the one piece of deep understanding that must never be allowed.
As the movie unfolds, however, the viewer is gradually let in on the reality that the year is not actually 2190, but 2090. All of the state-issued watches, computing devices, and even the free calendars distributed in churches say that it is 2190; there are only a tiny number of government officials who know the true date. Yes, there are churches in that society, though the percentage of the population that attends regularly has fallen to about 5 percent. The believers are tolerated, not persecuted. Most people are content to say they believe in a vague Higher Power or Transcendent Source of the cosmos, but they don’t give much thought to it. The lost years of historical memory are thus actually 2032 to 2047. The hero, or heroine, of the movie is a young person who learns this forbidden truth and seeks out knowledge of what actually happened during those dark years, always staying barely one step ahead of the secret police. The viewer of the movie, however, comes away from the experience with the realization that the moviemakers have crafted a parable of our time. We are like the happy, contented citizens of the society depicted in the movie. The gap in our historical knowledge is precisely the Holocaust and Nazism: 1932-1947. How can this be, you ask, when there have been thousands of books written about the Holocaust, and the major cities of the Western world all have their Holocaust museums? School children learn about that terrible event, documentaries and dramas depict it, and there is no menacing government forbidding us to know anything about it. And yet . . . and yet There are many high government officials today who zealously advocate that “Roe v. Wade should be codified as national law.”
Pro-life advocates sometimes argue that there is a substantive parallel between slavery, the Holocaust, and legalized abortion. The simplest way of putting this is that slavery was based on a dehumanizing interpretation of the Black slaves, the Holocaust was based on a dehumanizing interpretation of Jews, and abortion-on-demand is based on a dehumanizing interpretation of the unborn child. There are, of course, more sophisticated ways of unpacking this argument that one finds in the pro-life literature, but the simplest way of putting it suffices for our purposes here.
The politicians who support the legalization of abortion must, of necessity, reject this argument of historical analogy. It stretches one’s imagination to the breaking point to try to conceive that a person could think this analogy to be valid and say: “But I’m still pro-choice.” President Joe Biden, in his geriatric befuddledness, cannot be expected to understand the contours of this issue, but there are many pro-choice advocates who have attempted to address it, usually employing one of two approaches. They either say that the analogy is inapt because fetuses do not have the same mental capacities that the slaves and Jews had, or they turn the argument around and assert that it is actually pro-life advocates who have a way of thinking similar to the defenders of slavery and the Nazis. The anti-choicers dehumanize women by not affirming their full moral autonomy, they say.
The first approach fails immediately, because it is based on a straw man. The claim is not being made that the slaves, the Jews, and unborn children are all identical to each other as victims of mistreatment; rather, the claim is that a dehumanizing interpretation is being placed upon the three classes or groups of human beings by those who are in a position of power over them. To assert that “fetuses are inferior and should not have rights” does not disprove the analogy, it demonstrates it in action.
The second approach is no more successful, because it requires pro-choice advocates to claim that physicians who chemically poison, or purée with a vacuum tube, or dismember a child in the womb are today’s analogs to the abolitionists. Gloria Steinem climbed out on a limb that could not support her weight when she argued that pro-life advocates are similar to Hitler because he forbade German women from having abortions, so that the Reich could be built up as quickly as possible.
The real issue at play here is: What does it mean to truly learn the moral lessons that history teaches? We can know the facts about the Holocaust, but if we have not grasped the meaning of the events and allowed ourselves to be changed by that understanding, then we don’t really know history. True knowing entails conversion and growth in moral maturity. If such growth is precisely what we are avoiding, then we will repeat the moral mistakes of our ancestors, but through different behaviors in different cultural circumstances. In the academic world, there is much talk of “othering,” which means interpreting a group or class of human beings as different from and inferior to the one doing the interpreting. “Othering” is a horrible thing in academic circles, but the thought that cannot be thought there is that slavery was based on a Great Chain of Being concept of vertical othering, the Holocaust was based on a group identity horizontal othering, and abortion is based on an individualistic temporal othering. In our time, the discrete individual is the key to all moral and political thought, and those individuals who are older label themselves as “persons” while turning around and labeling unborn children as “nonpersons.” I say “turning around” because at the heart of the pro-choice worldview is an unavoidable forgetfulness of being; one cannot take seriously the reality that each adult was at one time an embryo in his or her mother’s womb.
That we are avoiding growth in virtue and understanding is precisely what Alasdair MacIntyre was arguing when he said in his “Suggestion” that the language of the order and disorder of the human soul and its potential growth toward virtuous maturity has been lost in our merely pseudo-enlightened age. The academic curriculum of history and other subjects cannot bring into articulation the nature of the cultural catastrophe we are living in, because the form of the curriculum is itself a product of that catastrophe. For those readers who are familiar with the high-level analyses of modernity found in authors such as Eric Voegelin and Charles Taylor, this is all obvious and laid out in great detail. Among the many additional authors who could be mentioned, I will limit myself to just one; I highly commend to your reading Chantal Delsol’s The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century.
My disquieting suggestion, to sum up, is that the politicians who support abortion in the Western world, and the millions of voters who place them in office, are seeking to fend off a particular form of knowledge, namely, their own participation in evil. Inwardness, self-examination, awareness of one’s own capacity to participate in the “crowd that is untruth” are just as prevalent in our time as they were in Kierkegaard’s. We have not turned the corner on evil and moved into a new utopia; evil is simply not in our field of vision because it is always hiding in the back of our minds, while the drumbeat din of self-righteousness sounds in the front of our minds, drowning out the voice of authentic conscience. The pro-life marcher holding up a sign that reads “Stop calling violence feminism” understands this; the pro-choice marcher does not.
Charles K. Bellinger is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School / TCU and the author of several books. His latest is The Tree of Good and Evil: Or, Violence By the Law and Against the Law (Cascade, 2023).