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With the release of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion is back in the news, so much so that anything I could add to the subject would seem wholly superfluous. And indeed spending a few hundred words advocating for one side or the other would be pointless. (Should you wish for a few thousand words of such advocacy I would direct you to a couple of posts I wrote the last time the abortion debate flared up.)
No, I am not going to spend any time on whether one side of the debate is more or less moral, rather I am going to discuss moral debates in general—how they’ve played out in the past and how they’re likely to play out in the future.
The Reformation ushered in the age of large-scale debates on public morality. These debates really took off during the Enlightenment as ideas about individual rights came to the fore. You end up with very different answers to certain questions if everyone gets a say, than if only the priests, kings, and nobles get a say. As these debates intensified, certain subjects, which no one had given much thought to previously, suddenly became grounds for intense conflict, often culminating in bloodshed. The best known of these debates is the one concerning slavery, which was finally decided in the US after the long and bloody Civil War.
Other debates took even longer to resolve, but in the end they too were resolved no less decisively (and fortunately none with as much bloodshed). An example would be interracial marriage. In 1958 only 4% of people approved of it. These days it’s 94%. One could offer up other examples like child labor, public executions, and smoking—debates where if you just wait long enough the majority switches their opinion from one side to its exact opposite. However, abortion does not appear to be in this category:
As you can see the split was pretty wide in 1995, but since then rather than moving towards a majority being on one side or the other, it has instead just gotten tighter and tighter.
Tragically, guns and the Second Amendment are back in the news as well. Here again, while the graphs aren’t quite as stark, there is no evidence that a majority is solidifying around a particular position.
Why is this? Who do some questions of public morality eventually resolve into an answer the majority of people agree with, and why do some questions harden into two opposing camps? There are probably many reasons, but I would like to consider two that seem particularly important currently:
First, the passage of time distills out the true weight of arguments. In the time since the Enlightenment, some of them have turned out to be rather shallow, while some have turned out to contain surprising depth. Where deep principles exist on both sides of a question it becomes much more difficult to get a majority to unite behind just one answer. In the centuries since we started examining these questions in earnest shallow positions have fallen by the wayside, meaning that now, only deep conflicts remain.
Second, the modern phenomenon of internet echo chambers would also seem to be hardening opinions, creating opposing camps of passionate believers, which further exacerbates the difficulty of achieving a majority consensus.
I strongly suspect that abortion, gun control, and several other issues fall into that first category—debates where both sides rest on deep values—questions which are extremely difficult to reach consensus on even without the introduction of echo chambers and impossible now that they’re ubiquitous.
If I’m correct, if we have already reached agreement on all the “easy” stuff, and lost our ability to make progress on hard questions, just as those are the only ones remaining, then the future is bleak. It would mean that there is no end to our current political discord. It would also be a particular problem for our perceptions of progress, as it implies not only stagnation, but stagnation at a particularly contentious plateau. A future where consensus becomes more and more rare, where it doesn’t matter how long we debate the issue, unanimity will never be achieved. A future where the best case is fragmenting the nation into mutual hostile camps, and the worst case is violence and bloodshed.
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