Forty years ago, in “A Theory of Justice,” the late philosopher John Rawls made the phrase “veil of ignorance” part of America’s intellectual lexicon.
As part of his discussion on justice and morality, Rawls proposed a thought experiment: Imagine that “no one knows his place in society, his class position . . .social status . . .fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like.”
Then ask yourself: What kind of society would you want to live in then? Rawls argued that this “veil” would lead people to favor a more fair and equitable society that avoided privileging one class of people over another.
Rawls’ “veil” has its share of critics, but its appeal to fairness resonates with many Americans, especially liberals. The idea that anyone should be at a permanent disadvantage because of factors beyond their control is anathema to modern liberalism.
But all of this makes the modern liberals’ “selective compassion” toward the unborn ironic.
“Selective compassion” is a phrase coined by Fr. Anthony Kelly, a Redemptorist priest who teaches at Australia’s National Catholic University. Writing for the Australian Broadcasting Company’s website, Fr. Kelly noted that “the recognition of endangered species calls forth prompt and effective protection.” A 30 percent causality rate among “Black Cockatoos or Great White Sharks” would be considered “unacceptable.”
At the same time, the fact that “up to a third of the next [human] generation is being terminated” in Australia “seems to have slipped under our guard.” The same society that experienced a “dramatic ethical development” when it comes to the death penalty, “violence, rape, racial prejudice and the corruption of children” is “tongue-tied” when it comes to abortion.
The values that Australians, and the rest of the West, cite when it comes to these areas are deemed to be immaterial, if not irrelevant, when it comes to the unborn.
And it isn’t only Australia. The United States also exercises selective compassion when it comes to the unborn. If anything, it’s significantly more selective: Whereas abortion is regulated in Australia and generally unavailable after 20 weeks, a federal court recently overturned a similar limitation in Arizona.
As in Australia, the unborn here are the great exception to the pattern of expanding the circle of those deemed worthy of inclusion and protection in American society. We have just witnessed a collective conniption over the possibility that eating the wrong brand of chicken sandwiches might be a kind of “homophobia” and, yet, even saying that abortion is the taking of human life is beyond-the-pale in many circles.
All of this despite that fact that we don’t need Rawls’ thought experiment to imagine what it is like to be an unborn child. All of us, by definition, were unborn at one point. And every one of us born after January 22, 1973, could have been killed for any or no reason at all.
Our selective refusal to imagine the vulnerability of the unborn gives the lie to claims of “compassion” and “inclusion.” In the end, it’s all about freedom-as-autonomy. If a person or a Black Cockatoo does not impinge on our freedom, we welcome them into our circle of compassion. But if, like the unborn, they do impinge on our autonomy, well, as we say in New York, fuhgettaboutit.