One can argue that there is a right to life (practically all the many recognized ethical systems ban killing, an implicit recognition of a right to human life). One cannot plausibly argue that life is a right, but that the necessities to sustain life are not. Killing people is killing people, whether it is by active means or passive, such as denying medical assistance.
Therefore, an argument against abortion on the basis of a right to life, logically precludes any argument that water, food, shelter and healthcare are not rights, but commodities, available subject to market forces and people’s means.
Logically inconsistent positions such as these, taken in a spirit of meanness, are the certain sign of an American conservative. Conservatism is all about denying rights. Conservatism is atavistic, illogical and wrong on every important question of history from slavery to women’s suffrage to same-sex marriage.
The conservatives have one thing correct, though, concerning rights: you don’t have any, except to the extent they are recognized by other people. If we agree that you have a right to live, then I’m not supposed to kill you. If we agree that I have a right to freedom, then you ought not enslave me. If we don’t agree on such principles, well, anything goes. That is why people are always trying to enumerate rights, and to separate human rights from legal rights, and to distinguish between rights and privileges and so on.
Without going further into undergraduate ethics (a man’s got to know his limitations), let’s just say that Americans are at a point of stubbing our collective moral toe against a primitive, cruel minority who seem entranced by the puerile musings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. Rand, particularly, enjoys a following among libertarians, conservatives in general and a growing audience of youngsters. It’s mystifying because it is so backward.
It is backward because it is an assault on civil society. The progress of civilization is measured in the expansion of recognized rights. The world took a great leap forward with the Magna Carta, another with the American Bill of Rights, another with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each of these documents was opposed by conservatives of its day. Each seeks to disperse power and elevate and expand the concept of rights. A philosophy like Rand’s objectivism worships power, denies altruism and discourages respect for anyone else’s rights. It perverts the very idea of rights by reducing rights to the individual’s prerogatives to run roughshod over others. As to the U.N. document, by the way, it was championed by America’s own Eleanor Roosevelt — reason enough for conservatives to despise it, even without reading it.
All this seems so terribly obvious, and it is disappointing to feel the need to write such a screed in 2014. But these people won’t go away. Neither will they change, for part of the essence of conservatism is a resistance to change.
That resistance, or moral inertia, seems to be a major element of human nature. Once in a great while – at the nation’s birth, for example, and during the 1930s and again in the 1960s, American society overcomes this inertia, adopts something of a liberal political agenda and makes a lot of economic and social progress. Then satisfaction sets in, and along with it, the old inertia that is the American norm.
We find ourselves caught at this moment in the most nakedly ironic possible posture. The conservatives who’ve been running things for 35 years are still whining about being victims and underdogs. They have a party that demands increasing dogmatic purity, but purity does not mean consistency; quite the opposite. Conservatives have to declare a reverence for human life, but oppose a society that would conserve it. If they actually respected life, they would support the idea of a right to a decent place to live, and a right to medical care.
If, by the way, they want to continue mixing up religion and politics, they’ll need to change either their religion or their politics to make them fit. No faithful adherent of any major religion would tolerate a society that tolerates homelessness, hunger and unnecessary sickness.
It’s acceptable, at least on a philosophic level, to hold any of the “conservative” positions. Just not all of them at once.