My wife and I are shortly due to have a baby, and this experience has brought home to me the remarkable way our society treats its unborn children. For one woman, or couple, a fetus can be something astonishingly precious, to be protected and defended at almost all costs, while for another, it is something unfortunate, that can legitimately be “terminated”.* Many have pointed to a sense of deep incongruity here.
The thing is, though, there is in fact a logic that holds these two perspectives together: it is the logic that what matters is the woman’s choice. (You’ve heard the arguments about “a woman’s right to choose”.) The woman’s choice is what determines how the fetus is to be treated, whether as a precious person, or as something much less than that. The name of this approach to thinking about the world and moral choices is “voluntarism”. It is the view that the will (Lat: voluntas) determines reality.
Of course, as soon as you say it out loud, the limits of this view appear. No one is happy for voluntarism to apply universally. No one would agree that it was okay for someone to treat them as a disposable object just because that person chose to see them in that way. Rather, we constantly bump up against a reality beyond our will, impinging upon us and demanding our attention and respect.
Yet in certain ways, such as in regards to the treatment of fetal life, voluntarism exercises remarkable sway in our society. We believe people ought to have the right to their choice being able to determine, in some ways, how things are.
One of the things that allows the fiction of voluntarism to have some power is technology. For it is technology that enables us to transcend our natural limits, to shape the natural world in previously unimagined ways. So we can choose to treat a fetus as either a person or not, without ever having to look it in the eye; and we can marginalise natural reproductive methods and allow children to be born apart from the personal presence of a father; and we can modify the genetic code of plants in order to improve their productivity.
The limits of this technological voluntarism are, however, pressing in on us at many points. The reality of limited natural resources and the spectre of a dramatically changing global climate are a reminder that we cannot simply make of the natural world what we will. We are being reminded that there is a world that is simply there, apart from what we imagine it to be.
The question is not, though, whether technology is bad or good. The natural order is in fact manipulable (to an extent), and the solution is not just to go back to treating it as if it isn’t. The question is about what kinds of manipulations are legitimate and what kinds are not. Voluntarism answers this question radically by exalting choice. But the fact that no one would be happy to be a consistent voluntarist — you and I simply are something precious and that cannot be pretended away — should make us pause: reality, at one level or another, demands respect. We cannot without grave guilt simply make of it what we will.
Finally, I just want to point out that these issues lie behind the current debate in Australia about same-sex marriage. When all the nonsense is seen through, the heart of this debate, it seems to me, is the question of whether marriage is something, i.e. a natural structure of the world we find ourselves in, or whether we can choose for marriage to be something different. Those who believe the idea of same-sex marriage is a mistake (and I am one of them) do so because we believe that male-female marriage is a basic structure of this world that ought to be acknowledged and respected. It’s not the only way someone can live, nor is it the only admirable form of life. But it is an untruth to call a same-sex relationship a marriage.
Those who reject this argument do not actually reject it entirely. The very desire to grant the name marriage to same-sex relationships suggests a recognition that a marriage is a something that is good. What is denied is simply that this something can only exist where there is a male and a female. It is worth noting, in conclusion, that technology has made this position much more believable. Because technology has (sort of) hidden the rather obvious fact that the bearing of children requires a male and a female. The possibility of children is, typically, one of the things that has been fundamental to the concept of marriage. Now, however, technology has made it possible for children to be “begotten” apart from an actual relationship between a man and a woman.
Well, sort of. Let’s not exaggerate technology’s effects. There is still (at least at this stage) a man and woman involved in any pregnancy. Technology can manipulate biological reality, but only to some extent. In other ways we keep continually bumping up against a world that is there apart from us and before us—and in some aspects of life we’re realising that almost too late (or perhaps, too late). Technology has made the fiction of voluntarism seem believable; but a fiction it still is. Life has a natural order to it that we ought to recognise and respect (even though that is a complex thing to do). We are not doing anyone any favours if we abandon the task of seeing things for what they really are.
*Not all abortions are like this, of course; and I realise this is often an appallingly difficult experience for many people. I simply want to comment on the way “society” tends to think.