Some admirers have recently hailed Sandra Day O'Connor because she doesn't "subscribe to an abstract judicial philosophy" on the Supreme Court. This is seen by many to be a great virtue. All it really means, however, is that she's a pragmatist. Indeed, most profiles of her describe her with exactly that term--and most even mean it as a compliment.
But to say that someone is a "pragmatist" is to say that she does whatever she thinks will work at any given moment. Notions of true and false and right and wrong and good and evil are abstract concepts--and a person who subscribes to no abstracts--in other words, a pragmatist--is by definition making decisions without regard to these things.
With her reasoning removed from any sort of transcendent philosophical framework, a pragmatist is unpredictable, since what will work in any given moment changes and her opinions about what will work also change. Many interpret this philosophical barrenness as intellectual depth, but in reality it is just the opposite--intellectual laziness. When Sandra Day O'Connor issued her pragmatic, what-I-think-will-work opinions from the bench, she was simply substituting her own personal opinions for those of the people's representatives and the framers of the Constitution, and enshrining them as law.
With yesterday's announcement, we see that Bill Frist, despite his coziness with pro-lifers, is, like Sandra Day O'Connor, simply a pragmatist with no real intellectual framework. Because there is no real philosophical foundation for his sometimes pro-life positions, they rest on nothing substantial and are eminently mutable.
According to the New York Times' account:
"I am pro-life," Mr. Frist says in the speech, arguing that he can reconcile his support for the science with his own Christian faith. "I believe human life begins at conception."This is an utterly astounding snippet. What Frist is saying here is, in essence, that an embryo is a real human life, and that sometimes it should be killed for the convenience of others. It's certainly a popular position, and one taken by most of the Democratic party. But whatever else it is, it's certainly not pro-life, nor is it intellectually defensible.
But at the same time, he says, "I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported."
The pro-life position is that life is inherently valuable, and as such deserves to be protected. Those who believe otherwise are not pro-life, even though they may happen to come to conclusions on some issues that align them with pro-lifers. Any who do not take the opinion that human life is inherently valuable will always reach a point of compromise where they are willing to accept the destruction of some lives for utilitarian purposes. Because human life is only relatively valuable (rather than inherently valuable), it can be destroyed if some "higher cause can be found." The only question then is when that point of destruction will be--mere quibbling over timing. What then results looks very much like the article I posted yesterday, where one utilitarian says "I think it's immoral to sacrifice a life past 14 days" and another utilitarian says "I think it's immoral to sacrifice a life after nine months." Both agree with the premise that it's okay to sacrifice the life. They simply disagree on when.
Yesterday, Bill Frist said "Cure today may be just a theory, a hope, a dream. But the promise is powerful enough that I believe this research deserves our increased energy and focus. Embryonic stem cell research must be supported."
With that pious-sounding quote, Frist demonstrated that there is no real philosophical difference between him and the infamous Peter Singer of Princeton, who says that children can be killed without committing a moral wrong even months after birth. Frist is saying that because its "promise" is "powerful," embryonic stem cell research "must be supported"--even though by his own reckoning the embryo is a real human life.
Both Frist and Singer agree that human life is not inherently valuable, and both agree that in some circumstances it is fine to sacrifice a child's life for utilitarian purposes. The only thing they currently disagree about is the timing. And the only ultimate difference between them is that Singer hasn't tried to fool pro-lifers into thinking he's one of them.
This is why you'll see me continuing to demand information about John Roberts' judicial philosophy. It is not enough that he frequently comes down on the same side of the political fence that I do. I want to know the why. Because without the why, there's no way to know what he'll do in the future. And everyone else without a clearly articulated why has failed us at every crucial point.