A brief time ago, in tribute to Ronald Reagan’s wit and humor as “The Great Communicator,” I posted a statement of his on SoloHQ.com. It reads, “I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born.” I was prepared for argument and criticism of the statement, given that I would be faced with an audience generally accepting of Ayn Rand’s pro-abortion stance. Yet what I had received greatly exceeded my expectations. An example of this is a response by one, Ms. Elizabeth Kanabe: “…to comment on the quote, it’s horrible. It’s like saying ‘I noticed that everyone here that opposes taxes still pays them…’ or ‘I notice that everyone here that supports the right to suicide hasn’t committed suicide themselves…’. You had no choice in being born, and you wouldn’t have ever known it if you weren’t born! I can support the right to choose an abortion, just as I support my parents rights to have aborted me if they had wanted to! I see no conflict there.”
I would like to focus on this statement, since it reveals some unsettling implications. Objectivism, the philosophy originated by Ayn Rand, holds that the life of the individual is the highest value that individual can pursue; nothing can trump that value. All of the individual’s rational and moral actions ultimately are derived from a single alternative: the choice to live or to die, with the choice to live emerging with triumphant consistency. This selfishness is derived from man’s nature as a volitionally conscious entity; man has the power to choose, to be aware of his surroundings, to act on his awareness, and to pursue goals. Man possesses the faculty of reason to accurately interpret the external world. Thus, he is best capacitated to use this reason in the preservation of his self. I consider myself a selfish individualist in this respect; I would not wish to perish for the sake of anyone or anything; nothing to me is of such value as my very acts of being and thinking. There are other selfish men who may disagree and put their lives on the line for the sake of quality of life; he who defends liberty against criminals and tyrants, he who risks his life to save his child, he who commits suicide in prison rather than be subjected to torture or a humiliating execution at the hands of unjust captors, all voluntarily risk their existence because, absent that risk, they would be unable to live the life proper to man. But there are no consistently selfish men who would grant others the right to kill them while they were in a perfectly healthy, comfortable, value-affirming condition.
Yet Ms. Kanabe does precisely the above; she concedes the right of her parents to have killed her very self while she was still in the womb. She has admitted that something, some prerogative, exists that would trump her own very right to life! What has she sacrificed that right of life to? A woman’s “right” to an abortion. Nevertheless, selfishness is a fundamental concept in Objectivism; it is the foundation of the Objectivist ethics, the subject of Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, and her book of treatises, The Virtue of Selfishness. On the other hand, the abortion issue is immensely peripheral in Rand’s thought. She had devoted a single paragraph to the matter in the 1973 essay, Censorship: Local and Express. She had written more thoroughly on related issues, such as birth control, but she mentioned abortion no further. (There exists the equivalent of a page on it in Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, but this is nowhere near a thorough philosophical treatment.) Nevertheless, SoloHQ members and numerous other Objectivists, especially of Peikoff’s closed-system denomination, treat abortion as a sacred cow. The consequence of the mere posting of an ironical commentary by Reagan was a string of accusations that my views were “anti-freedom,” “pseudo-Objectivist,” “religious-conservative,” and only “dressed up to sound Objectivist.” This amount of vehemence is atypical of an issue so remote from the core of a philosophy and indeed so insubstantial in the grand scheme of this philosophy’s structure, a truth that the philosophy’s very founder recognized via the time allocation she had devoted the subject. Despite all this, Ms. Kanabe is prepared to renounce her own right to exist and to tacitly but explicitly have given others the right to terminate her, ruling an extreme peripheral of greater importance than a profound fundamental.
I do not think that Ms. Kanabe rejects selfishness explicitly; rather, her consistent advocacy of selfishness with respect to the abortion issue has been obstructed by her all-too-consistent advocacy of abortion. This can only be so since the peripheral stance conflicts with the fundamental one. Such a situation can be termed obstruction by peripherals and occurs whenever a judgment on an issue far from the foundational truths in a philosophical hierarchy is held rigidly and carried to its full implications in a manner conflicting with the fundamentals of the same hierarchy. The only reason why the abortionist stance’s consistent interpretation clashes with consistent selfishness is because selfishness and abortion are incompatible. As Ayn Rand stated, far many more times than she had written in support of abortion, it is impossible for a truly selfish man to violate in others the same prerogatives that he himself has; the mentalities of her who is sacrificed and her who is the beneficiary of the sacrifice are but two sides of the same coin. If one is not prepared to acknowledge the right to life in all others, one will inevitably find one’s own claim to existence conditional at best, since questions of fundamental rights are answered universally for all men by virtue of their possession of volitional consciousness. Since it can only take place if the parents do not exercise their “legitimate right” to abort a fetus, the life of all men (who are all past fetuses), becomes a privilege, not a right, granted by the parents’ wish to grant it and no natural, universal, incontrovertible law. Since Ms. Kanabe was given this privilege, she may comfortably retain it for the rest of her life and proclaim, from the safe haven of the already born, the lack of necessity to give that privilege to others, seeing as giving privileges is not an obligation. Ironically enough, this is precisely the mentality that Ronald Reagan aptly identified and challenged in his statement. Nevertheless, in exercising this mindset, though she has not undermined her life at present, she has indeed damaged the right to life per se and renounced, unintentionally, the keystone principle of selfishness.
A year ago, discussing the abortion issue with another pro-life libertarian, I brought forth the observation that many of the persons who embrace abortion employ similar arguments to justify not merely voluntary euthanasia, but the involuntary termination of comatose or extremely ill patients at the authorization of doctors or families, a clear violation of those patients’ right to life. The response I received was a most enlightening quote from Aristotle, who seemed to foreshadow the notion of obstruction by peripherals by two millennia: “The least initial deviation from the truth gets multiplied later a thousandfold.”
If obstruction by peripherals is the problem, what is the solution? It is to cease treating the entire package of ideas as presented by a philosophy’s author as sacred, unquestionable scripture. An adherent of a philosophical system must retain fidelity to its fundamentals and apply those to peripheral matters. When fundamentals and peripherals conflict, it is the peripherals that must be rejected. Great and ingenious individuals are not perfect and err in certain ideas, Ayn Rand included. Rand’s error was slight, compared to her immense accuracy in the discovery of philosophical fundamentals and their generally consistent application. Moreover, Ayn Rand did not dwell on her error, a lesson that many of her intellectual heirs have not learned. Instead, the latter have been known to propose a disagreement on peripherals to be equivalent to treason to the entire Objectivist system. In the application of straightforward fundamentals to more complex and intertwined peripherals, however, individuals of fullest integrity may often disagree on their conclusions. There is no reason why this disagreement cannot be accepted, argued, and learned from rather than outright and cursorily rejected as a vile attempt at smuggling ideas or corrupting a skyscraper perfect to the rusty nail that hangs off the sill of the 39th floor window.
Most importantly, it is important to recognize that rational, persuasive, civil discourse, not excommunications, emotional agitation, spite, and name-hurling, is key to resolving obstruction by peripherals. I may not consider the abortionists’ views consistent with selfishness and the right to life, but I do not forget the fact that this inconsistency on their part is unintentional and does not undermine their worth as thinkers or their desire for consistent adherence to Objectivist principles. They, too, may not think my anti-abortion stance to be a consistent application of selfishness and the right to life, and are welcome to try and convince me, as some had already undertaken. Even if we end up on opposite sides of the issue at the conclusion of the debate, we still gain something from a constructive exchange of ideas. Moreover, we are Objectivists nonetheless and share a far deeper, fundamental commitment to the right to life, and, hopefully, the right of each man to independently use his own mind and his own reason to form his conclusions.