Concept of freedom
The second reason why people are motivated to support abortion because it is the killing of the innocent has its roots in the predominant understanding of freedom in modern Western society.
There are subsidiary kinds of freedom that motivate people to be pro-choice. Abortion gives a kind of freedom in sexual behaviour, by enabling people to destroy the unwanted consequences of their sexual activity. It is also valued by feminist ideologues as freeing women from motherhood; Simone de Beauvoir stated that the destruction of the maternal role of women is the main reason why one should support the legalization of abortion.[v]
However, these are not the most important ways in which abortion extends peoples’ freedom. The most basic sort of freedom that is offered by abortion is freedom from moral imperatives. Such imperatives, when they clash with our deeply held desires or projects, are now seen by most people as impositions, that damage our psyches and inhibit our self-realization. The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is recognized as one of the gravest moral imperatives. The right to be able to break it is a decisive overthrow of any claim to control our behaviour that is made by the moral law. It makes supreme our right to be able to do what we want, by exalting this right over the value of human life. This freedom, unlike the kinds mentioned above, is obtainable through supporting abortion, not just through having abortions; it is thus achievable by men as well as women, and does not involve the suffering that actually having an abortion entails. People support abortion for the first reason, as discussed above, because it is killing; they support it for this second reason, because it is killing the innocent.
The conception of freedom that underlies this outlook originated in the Middle Ages. If we want to understand the modern conception of freedom, we must begin by understanding the conception that preceded it. In this earlier understanding, a free act is an act that is done with a purpose. Acting for a purpose is equivalent to acting for a reason. The reason for an action is the answer an agent would truthfully give to the question, “Why did you do that?” Not all beliefs about actions can provide reasons for doing them. We have beliefs that can motivate us to act, when we think that an act is in some way good. We do not have to believe that the act is good in every respect, we can even believe that it is evil considered absolutely, but we have to believe that there is something good about the act if we are to be motivated to do it.
If we are sane, our free actions fit into some kind of overall plan. We want not only to do particular actions, but also to live a particular kind of life, a kind of life that would satisfy us, and leave us with nothing further to desire. Such a life provides the ultimate goal around which we organize our choices. We believe that actions are good when we think they take us towards, or form part of, the good life. The good life is the life where the purpose of human existence is realized. Being human means having a purpose in the sense of an end, a telos, in the sense that an axe has the purpose of cutting. The end of man includes various subsidiary ends. A good man is a man who achieves his end, and a good act is an act that takes a man towards his end. We naturally experience physical desire for particular things which permit us to attain our animal purposes of living and reproducing. As rational beings, we naturally understand as good the kinds of things that enable us to attain our animal purposes of living and reproducing, and our non-animal purposes like friendship and knowledge. We don’t have to correctly grasp what our purposes are in order to have an idea of what it is good for us to do – that would require every free person to be a philosopher. We can make serious mistakes about what is good. We can value lesser goods, like sensual indulgence or political power, above greater goods like justice and friendship. But we cannot lose sight entirely of what is good, for that would mean that we would not be able to act at all.
On this understanding of freedom, there is no such thing as “moral goodness”, that is different from other kinds of human goodness. An act is morally good if it is good, period – if it is directed towards achieving our end. Eating a healthy breakfast is a morally good act, in a minor way. An act is morally bad if it is in some way directed against our end. Because an evil act is always done for the sake of its good features, a man who does an evil act frustrates himself. He is seeking, in that act, the very thing that he rejects in that act; he is, as the Bible says, a fool.
It does not make sense, on this understanding, to suppose that moral imperatives constrain or limit our freedom. Following an illuminating analogy of Fr. Herbert McCabe’s, we can compare a man to a hockey player. A hockey player, like a man, has a purpose, in the sense of an end; in the hockey player’s case, it is to win hockey games. A good hockey player, like a good man, is one who achieves his purpose. To be a good hockey player, one requires various skills, like skating, passing and shooting. These are the virtues of a hockey player, that are needed to achieve his end; they are comparable to the virtues of justice, temperance and fortitude in a man. A hockey player needs not only to be able to do these things, but to know when, where, and how to do them; this ability corresponds to the virtue of prudence, by a which a man knows what it is good to do in a given situation. All these hockey skills are exercised in the context of the rules of hockey. A player who follows the rules may play well or badly, but if he breaks the rules he is not playing hockey at all. The rules of hockey are the equivalent of moral imperatives like “Thou shalt not kill”, or “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. To break these rules is to act directly against the purpose of being a hockey player, just as to break one of the ten commandments is to act directly against the purpose of being a human being.
Now no-one supposes that the rules of hockey are a constraint on the freedom of hockey players. On the contrary; these rules are needed for there to be such a thing as hockey and hockey players, and as such are the foundation of freedom. Similarly, the fact that the ten commandments apply to us is what makes us persons. Nor does skill at playing hockey lessen the freedom of hockey players. The better a player can play, the more free he is. Even so, the better a man is, the more free he is. Virtues liberate, because they make us able to attain what we are really seeking. Vices enslave, because they prevent us from attaining the good that we ultimately seek in all our actions.