When we recognize that there is uncertainty in a debate, such as the debate about whether or not abortions should be banned or prohibited, we should realize some fundamentally important things. In this respect I have learned a lot from the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. This is the principle that he stood for:
“In the sphere of practical politics, this intellectual attitude has important consequences. In the first place, it is not worth while to inflict a comparatively certain present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good. If the theology of former times was entirely correct, it was worthwhile burning a number of people at the stake in order that survivors might go to heaven, but if it was doubtful whether heretics would go to hell, the argument for persecution was not valid. If it is certain that Marx’s eschatology is true, and that as soon private capitalism is abolished we shall all be happy ever after, then it is right to pursue this end by means of dictatorships, concentration camps, and world wars; but if the end is doubtful or the means not sure to achieve it, present misery becomes an irresistible argument against such drastic methods. If it were certain without Jews the world would be a paradise, there could be no valid objection to Auschwitz; but if it is much more probable that the world resulting from such methods would be a hell, we can allow free play to our natural humanitarian revulsion against cruelty.”
The Russell principle, if I may call it that, is that it is wrong to inflict a certain harm to achieve a dubious good. The more uncertain the future goal one is trying to achieve the less must be the harm one employs to obtain it. It is permitted to inflict violence to avoid a certain greater harm, but it makes no sense to inflict a certain harm to avoid an uncertain future harm unless that future harm is much worse than the means. It has to be so much worse that the risk of inflicting unnecessary harms is justified in order to avoid such a catastrophic harm.
This requires a rational analysis of the probabilities. The more dubious the future goal the more gentle must be the means employed to obtain it. The problem with the modern utopians is that they inflict a certain substantial present harm to achieve not just a dubious future goal, but an impossible goal! As a result, since banning abortion inflicts a certain harm on the mother by removing her ability to choose abortion, we are not entitled to do that because we might be wrong. Perhaps the foetus is not a human life until birth when it is severed form the mother. Then it would be wrong to punish the mother.
I have explained why I think it is not rational to claim certainty in the abortion debate. Some think abortions are evil because they required the killing of a human being. Others think abortions are justified because the life at stake is the mother and she should be the one to decide what she should or should not do with it. The mother has autonomy to decides.
John Locke, the first of the great British empiricists, that Russell saw as his mentors, held that our knowledge is always uncertain and this fact should always be taken into consideration when we contemplate any action. When we are uncertain of being right or wrong we should take what Russell called the “liberal creed.” That is the philosophy of live and let live. We should not be fanatical. As Russell said, “The genuine Liberal does not say ‘this is true’, he says ‘I am inclined to think that under present circumstances this opinion is probably the best.” For example, he believed in democracy but even there he insisted on taking a limited and undogmatic view of democracy, because he might be wrong. He would advocate the same approach for the abortion question.
That was why Russell was more concerned with procedure than outcomes, when it came to political thinking. He urged the adoption of a political approach rather than a political dogma. Russell put it this way,
“The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment. This is the way in which opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way in which they are held in theology.”
Russell argued in favor of neither dogma nor absolute scepticism. He thought his views were somewhere between the two opposing positions. He called his political views Liberalism born from empiricism. The most important premise of that point of view is that all ‘knowledge’ is to some degree doubtful. Some of course more doubtful than others.
That is a perfect summary of my own political philosophy that I have drawn from Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus, John Gray, Michael Oakeshott and other political thinkers. Russell pointed out that if one could be certain that heretics would go to hell where they would suffer eternal torment, it made sense to burn heretics so that they would not lead others astray. If on the other hand it was doubtful that heretics would go to hell then persecution of them would not be justified. Doubt leads directly to toleration; certainty to persecution. If you know that you are fighting for God’s camp, any measures, no matter how awful are justified. As Bob Dylan put it, “you don’t count the dead with God on your side.” As Albert Camus said in his brilliant book, The Rebel, we must “refuse to be a god.”
I accept this approach. Since it is doubtful whether or not abortions result in the death of a human being, we should be modest in our actions—because we might be wrong. Inflicting certain harm on the mother is not justified until we can be certain we are right and that the harm we inflict is less than the harm we avert as a result of the imposition of the harm. Our duty is to choose the course of action which will inflict the least harm and promote the greatest good.