“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.