Biden Principled (Though Wrong) on Abortion

Fellow Patheos blogger Timothy Dalrymple has suggested that Joe Biden’s response to the question on abortion in the VP debate was incoherent. If he truly believes Catholic doctrine on the matter, he argues, it is not coherent to refuse to impose that view on others through the law. consistency would require, he believes, an attempt to coerce others to abide by the consequences of his beliefs, whether they share them or not:

If you believe, as the Catholic church does, that a sacred human life begins at conception, you simply cannot do nothing.  What you are asserting (sacred human life begins at conception) is not a matter of subjective taste.  It’s an assertion of fact.  And if you are truly convinced of that fact, then there is nothing noble or tolerant or praiseworthy, or even remotely thoughtful or ethical, about standing by while those innocent human lives are extinguished.

Dalrymple is wrong, because he assumes Biden is making an “assertion of fact” when it seems clear he is making an “assertion of faith”. It is perfectly consistent (though I would argue wrong-headed) to say “I believe X on the basis of my religious commitments, but since I cannot justify my religious commitments to you to such an extent that I can expect you to come to hold them, I cannot expect you to abide by the consequences of X”. The clue is in Dalrymple’s later statement:

“Biden is saying: “I believe what the Catholic Church believes, that preborn children are sacred human lives — but I will simply stand by while anyone who wants to do so kills them.” [emphasis mine]

Clearly, if you understand the sacred differently or reject notions of sacrality altogether the argument presented has no force against you.

Biden’s is a modest position because it recognizes that deeply-held religious commitments do not have the same level of justification as other sorts of commitments, and it is a civil position because it does not lead to Biden having to impose the consequences of his religious beliefs on others. The logical consequence of Dalrymple’s position, in fact, is that every lawmaker who has sincere religious beliefs which govern human activity should, at all times, seek to enact those beliefs in law, because not to do so would be incoherent.

Does anyone truly wish to live in such a society? Luckily, most lawmakers (like Biden, and unlike Paul Ryan) recognize that justificatory standards for public policy are different to those used when assessing the truth of their faith.

About James Croft

Dr. James Croft is the Outreach Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and completed his Ed.D at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.