“Bias Makes You Stupid,” an Ethics Alarms slogan so perpetually relevant that it has its own topic category, has seldom been so tragically demonstrated than by Garry Wills’ embarrassing op-ed in today’s New York Times titled “The Bishops Are Wrong About Biden — and Abortion.” Wills is one of America’s most prolific and provocative public intellectuals. Now an emeritus professor of history at Northwestern, he has written more than 50 books on such diverse topics as Richard Nixon, John Wayne, and the Gettysburg Address. I’ve read those three and a couple of others; he’s an unusually good writer for a historian, rigorous in his scholarship and fair in his selection of references. But Wills is also a Roman Catholic and an academic liberal and progressive, so he is apparently plagued by guilt and cognitive dissonance. It is most depressing to watch this man whose analysis I have so often admired descend into the most hoary of logical fallacies, rationalizations and worst of all, intellectual dishonesty in order to defend, of all people, Joe Biden, who in a game of Scrabble with Wills would be placing words like “CAT” on the board while the historian was laying down SYZYGY on a triple word score.
Progressives feel they have to defend abortion to stay on “the team,” and frequently get themselves into the worst logical traps when they try to do so. Here’s how desperate Wills is: he actually wrote this: “The opponents of abortion who call themselves “pro-life” make any form of human life, even pre-nidation ova, sacred. But my clipped fingernails or trimmed hairs are human life.” A lie AND a ridiculous analogy! Only the most extreme and radical of “pro-life” activists argue that a fertilized egg that fails to adhere to the uterus is the equivalent of a human life; that is not a mainstream position of opponents of abortion, since such pre-fetuses are self-aborting. And as Wills well knows, his fingernails and hair will never develop into a human being if nature is allowed to take its course. That argument is signature significance for a biology ignoramus or a con artist, yet Wills is neither…or wasn’t, until his pro-abortion bias made him stupid.
Most of Wills’ essay delves into the irrelevant history of how famous figures in literature, philosophy and theology thought about abortion in eras when nobody had a clue about the biological processes of conception, gestation and birth. This is appeal to authority at its worst: appeal to authorities that didn’t know anything about the subject at hand. Among the “authorities” that Wills cites to support the contention that abortion isn’t the taking of a human life are Dante, Moses, Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinus, and Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC.) Tellingly, Wills never mentions the Sixth Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” which many thoughtful individuals before much was known about pregnancy thought covered the matter of abortion.
Throughout his op-ed, Wills makes debatable leaps that are uncharacteristic of him in his other works. For example, he writes, “The cult of the fetus goes even farther down the path of nonsense. This cult, which began as far back as the 1950s, led to debate over whether, in a pregnancy crisis, the life of the fetus should be preferred to that of the mother.” Using “cult of the fetus” is the unethical device known as “poisoning the well:’ it’s beneath him, or was once. Moreover the question of whether a new life should be given priority over an older one is a valid moral and ethical conflict, one that mothers have often decided in favor of their children. For Wills to call that decision “nonsense” is self-indicting.
Incredibly, this usually brilliant man makes no credible argument defending abortion at all, though there are some to be made. The essay peters out to this sad justification: “Some women of my own extended family have had abortions and still consider themselves Catholics.” Oh! Well I’m convinced then, professor; thanks for the erudition.
What’s going on here? It seems clear that Wills, trapped in the progressive bubble of academia, lacks either the courage or integrity to approach the abortion issue with the same open-minded rigor he has applied to every other topic. I suppose it is much easier to criticize Richard Nixon or John Wayne when all of your peers are Democrats than to find holes in “pro choice”doctrine. Insisting the Catholic Church is “wrong” to condemn abortion also relieves him of having to reconcile his faith with inconvenient truths.
Wills’ piece has one important contribution to make: it proves that bias can make even the most brilliant of us stupid. The problem is that the product of Wills’ bias-induced stupidity will undoubtedly be cited by others as authority to make lesser minds stupid as well.
11 thoughts on “From Garry Wills, A “Bias Makes You Stupid” Cautionary Tale”
The “cult of the fetus” is all you should need to hear to tell you this is going to be nothing but hackery. Some people think they are being clever or edgy with lines or headlines or page names like that (“Occupy Democrats” and “Arm the Poor you Fucking Coward” are two such pages that come to mind), but in reality all they are doing is signaling that they deal not in thought or analysis, but in ranting and insults, and once you’ve done that, your credibility goes out the window. I know, I’ve dealt in some of the same rhetoric, like referring to the “Muzzie Brotherhood” or to Obama as “Hussein,” but trash talking is trash talking.
For some reason, “a woman’s right to choose” is the dividing line between Lefty allegiance on the one hand and absolute perdition on the other. It is probably the principle, bed rock article of Lefty faith. It’s beyond blasphemy to so much as have a doubt about its efficacy. Lord knows why.
This reminds me of that ridiculous “Gotcha” example did a couple years back; The Case of The Burning Fertility Clinic.
There is a fertility clinic, and it’s on fire. You are standing in a hall and you can see into two room, both actively burning. In one: a five year old child, in the other: a cooler with 250 fertilized eggs. You can only save one, which do you save? Dun dun DUUUUUUN.
Pro-Death Activists… Anti-Life Activists…Pro-Choice activists were trying to pretend that 1) Anti-Abortion activists would be confused by this. 2) That choosing the child proves that we devalued unborn life too. (or) 3) That choosing the cooler proved that we were crazy (and) 4) That this won the argument for all time.
And yet… I haven’t heard it in years. Why? Because the answer was easy and defeated their case: You save the kid. Every time. There is still a difference between the child and the 250 lives in the test tubes. That doesn’t mean that the test tubes lives are rutabagas or tumors or rocks. But in reality; pregnancies fail, fertilizations fail so often that clinics usually implant three eggs in a session hoping one of them takes, meanwhile, the child in front of you is alive, scared, and feels pain. Save. The. Kid. This is something the church has actively considered and is clear on, and it happens to intersect with the secular argument. Heck, there is even doctrine that specifically says that if you’re in a situation where the doctor has to choose to save the mother or save the child, the doctor should save the mother, even if it means actively killing the child, and does not incur sin by doing so.
These kinds of trolley-car exercises have been considered by secular and non secular people the world over. I actually think it was more telling that abortion proponents thought this would be dispositive: Obviously, this was the first time they thought of the exercise, because they were so excited that they finally won the argument that they went miles over their own skis on it. I guess they thought their opponents were as dumb as they were. At least in that moment, because bias makes you stupid.
I explained this really poorly upon re-reading it… Not all life is equal, but all life is life, and regardless of what burns, you’re looking at a tragedy. Just because you save that kid 100% of the time doesn’t mean you don’t grieve the loss of lives you couldn’t save.
People that live by religion are presented with and deal with these moral grey areas on a constant basis… And they’re constantly lectured to by, generally, people that have never considered the question past their really easy, comfortable moral absolutes; In saying that Abortion is a right, they’re also following that up with saying abortion is good, and something to be proud of…. That’s just…. toddler logic.
If we are speaking from the Catholic perspective, every element of IVF is already immoral. Fertilizing the extracted eggs is immoral, as it creates new life outside its natural context; implanting embryos conceived outside the body is the immoral for the same reason. The fact that many fertilized embryos will die during attempted implantation is a secondary moral concern; it would be immoral even if it had a 100% effectiveness, with no wasted embryos.
Saving the 5-year child is the moral course of action. The death of the embryonic children is the unjust but unpreventable result of the immoral circumstances of their creation. They cannot be prioritized over a fully developed child.*
The stockpile of unused embryos is considered a problem without a truly moral solution. The children should never have been created in the first place, but implanting them, even if they survived, is immoral. Discarding them or experimenting on them is directly immoral in the same way abortion is. Many theologians have applied utilitarian balancing to resolve this issue; donating embryos to women otherwise unable to conceive is argued to be the least immoral option and most charitable to the child; but this option still participates and indirectly encourages new IVF cycles.
*There is one further complicating factor from a moral perspective; it is unknown and perhaps unknowable if freezing the embryo kills the original child, sending its soul to the mercy of God (unfreezing the embryo may then attach a new soul, so the unfrozen embryo is technically the sibling of the original). The inadvertent cremation of the deceased embryos (through no direct human intervention) might ironically cause further harm to the fewest souls.
There’s some admirable clarity. Thank you.
I think I was about a quart low on coffee this morning, Jesus the typos.
Regardless, to your point, I’m not here so much to explain or defend the church’s doctrine (they have their own people for that) so much as to point out that the policy makers in the church aren’t rhetorically inept. They’re obviously familiar with trolley car problems and the variations on the theme.
There are intelligent people inside the church that have spent a lot of time thinking and arguing on the topic, and to have the unmitigated ego to belittle decades of thought when something whiney happens across your twitter feed without doing even cursory research into the topic is just… I called it toddler logic, and that’s probably right. The people doing that are steeped in ignorance, and projecting their ignorance onto their political opponents because they can’t imagine that someone that disagrees with them might have a solid basis for their ideas. I don’t know how to engage with that.
Garry Wills is either pompously ignorant of the theological topics he purports to write about, or he is lying.
His article is scatter-shot, meant to intimidate and confuse unprepared Catholic Apologists who might attempt rebuttal. It offers so many arguments that it is difficult to cohesively refute because it changes topic so quickly. Yet, it touches each topic so quickly because its analysis or portrayal of the content is blatantly distorted or outright wrong. It falls apart entirely upon any sort of careful review.
I shall address it point-by-point, rearranging it slightly to form a more logical, cohesive rebuttal.
Matthew portrays Herod as a monster for slaughtering the young children of Bethlehem. Luke has the infant John leap for joy in Elizabeth’s womb in the presence of Mary (obviously, Luke would approve of injecting saline into the fetal John’s heart to end his nascent life…). Most importantly, no Pharisee attempted to trap Jesus by asking whether he approved of abortion.
Early Christians did not disagree on abortion, so it was not addressed in scripture. Saint Paul writes extensively about the disagreements in the early church. No one wrote to him asking if abortion were permitted, so he did not need to address it.
Other early Christian writings, however, did address the topic: the first century catechism, the Diache, specifically condemns abortion and infanticide. Many over the centuries have argued abortion should not be condemned, but never denied that the Catholic Church taught it was a grave sin from the beginning.
That is not an argument for abortion. It is pathetic to represent it as such. St. Augustine knew what the Church taught since the first century, and attempted to explain it. That he could not find the specific answer to when life began in scripture cannot be construed in anyway as endorsement of abortion. Again, scripture did not address the issue, because it was not under contention.
Again, St. Thomas knew the church’s teaching. St. Thomas attempted to explain the teaching against abortion using an Aristotlian framework. Based on ancient Greek understanding of biology, he concluded it was not a sin of murder prior to the infusion of the “rational soul”. He then provided an alternative explanation for why it was immoral to abort a fetus with a vegatative or animalistic soul. He never endorse abortion, or claimed the church was wrong to oppose it.
Isn’t it cute how modern theologians use a modern understanding of biology when appropriate?
(As an aside, for those who want to make a purely religious argument for abortion, one must consider a vision given to a Russian abortionist, where Saint Thomas appeared to him, renouncing his outdated understanding of biology, and encouraging the abortionist to repent.
This is of course irrelevant to the ethical discussion, but Wills already cited public prophecy documented in scripture to try to explain why the bishop’s were wrong, so private prophecy contradicting him cannot be excluded out of principle)
One might also point out that every single human being currently alive will eventually die. The natural death of a preterm infant is tragic, but not equivalent to deliberately killing the child.
This is actually the official teaching of the Catholic Church, so is fair to bring up.
This is patently absurd. Once the hair to nail clippings are removed, they are no longer alive. You cannot kill a toe clipping, so it is irrelevant to the abortion debate. To expand upon this as a Catholic example; if we had a sample of Jesus’s hair, we would venerate it as a holy First Class relict, but we would not consider it equivalent to the living Body of Christ in the Eucharist. (Some church’s claim to possess Jesus’s foreskin (EWWWW!); sure enough, it is not worshiped like the Eucharist.)
Excellent analysis and critique.
I was hoping for this. Just posted as a COTD. Bravo.
Okay, admittedly late to the party, but I have to add something since no one else did.
“But my clipped fingernails or trimmed hairs are human life.”
THIS IS COMPLETELY FALSE.
Hair and nails are hardened protein, but do not contain human DNA. The living cells are the hair follicles inside the skin which produce the hair and send it out through the skin. (The nails, of course, work the same way.)
What amazes me is that he could have just as easily used something like spit instead and been able to make a stronger case for what he was saying. (Not enough to make a STRONG case, mind you, but better than hair and nails!)