The Abstract and the Concrete, or, the Road to Fascism

I was thinking about the way in which the anti-abortionists justify their views. I have always said that “Pro-Life” is a misnomer. Instead of being pro-life, they are pro-potential life. In order to protect potential lives, they ignore the needs and rights of those who have actual life – the women who cannot for whatever reason carry that bunch of cells, usually smaller than the smallest skin tag one might have burned away, to term. It doesn’t matter what their reason is, whether medical or moral or simply personal; they lose their bodily autonomy because of what might happen to grow from those cells. In short, the abstract possible living person gets priority over the actual concrete living person.

This preference for the abstract over the concrete is something I have often noticed in political and religious contexts. Consider the following issues:

  1. Race – while there are geographical variations in human populations, “race” is as clearly a social construct as it is possible for a category to be. And what is more, it is so abstract that it almost never is realized in actual people. But on the basis of that abstraction, actual people are treated with less respect, given less freedom, and are demonized. The abstract notion trumps (yes, pun intended) the concrete individuals.
  2. Religion – religion has a number of abstractions that are used to justify the abuse or dehumanization of real people. The obvious one is God – our God tells us that you aren’t fully human in some manner unless you follow him/her/it. But really this is about acceptance of our institutions: hierarchies, beliefs, practices and (usually) ethnicity. Any religion that allows or encourages its adherents to treat nonbelievers in a lesser fashion than themselves is using abstractions to do it.
  3. Nation – nations are a relatively recent invention, due to imperial powers amalgamating a number of cities and their surrounding regions under a single identity. They require an abstraction of national character or identity to maintain the loyalty to powerful. The Romans, of course, even had a slogan (from Horace): Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”). And yet, the natural loyalties of people are to kin, community and one’s local territory. Nationalism requires overcoming that practical and concrete connection by means of the apotheosis of the abstractions “monarch”, “nation”, or “state”, especially “state” in recent years (think about “national security” for example, or “borders”).
  4. The Economy – ever since Adam Smith characterized “the market” as an entity that emerges from the uncoordinated activities of self-interested individuals, the economy has been treated as a real thing. And yet, consider that money, the primary indicator of economic activity, is a fourth-order abstraction (it represents the perceived value of the trade of goods and services), and so The Economy is itself a fifth-order abstraction. In the name of The Economy, real people are marginalized, exploited, harmed or (another pun) devalued. This applies equally to the so-called conservatives as it does to the so-called progressives (or liberals, as Americans call them).
  5. Civilization – the notion of there being such things as “civilizations” is really just a cover for cultural superiority. In recent years, politicians have spoken of the “western civilization” as superior to the “Islamic civilization”, and yet, westerners include Muslims of all kinds (and have for centuries), and non-western societies often behave in ways on a par with the values of the so-called west. Civilization is an abstraction that is used (and very probably designed to be used) to assert dominance of political groups.
  6. Gender – The very notion of there being essentialist kinds of genders allows those whose gender fits some abstract norm to exclude, control and demonise those who don’t.
  7. Political ideologies – No matter the reason why individuals might adopt a political creed, whether for individual rights, justice or morality, eventually it is the mere acceptance of the creed that is counted rather than the people who are supposed to be served, as wonderfully satirized by Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

There are many more such abstractions; this is just off the top of my head. As a philosopher of science, I deal with these kinds of abstractions (including “kinds”) all the time. Abstractions are not bad things (for a given abstract value of “thing”); they are necessary for us to gather together the blooming buzzing confusion that is experienced reality. But for values, especially human values, the individual must take priority over the abstraction. People have rights, interests, and value. Abstract corporations, and corporate entities like states, religions, ethnicities, have value only as the aggregate of the individual values that comprise them.

In short, we have got this arse-backwards. As the very old English philosophical pun has it, we have put Descartes before the Horse. We prioritize our abstractions more than the actual people we are abstracting. I find this offensive in the extreme. Class, party, and nation do not come before actual physical people. The generalizations should in fact serve them.

Which brings me to fascism. The recent “alt-right” movement that has taken over what had previously seemed fairly sensible democracies is just fascism on social media. And every troll who attacks women, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, etc., in the name of their preferred fascism is prioritizing abstract ideals (for them, at any rate) over the real people they are trolling. Every politician who touts “family values” over actual (but maybe gay or unconformist) families does the same.

It would be nice to think that the progressive side of politics avoided this trap, but history shows the left is able to justify authoritarianism and de facto fascism quite easily in the name of Class or The Oppressed. Again and again, real people become tools or pawns in the Game of Abstract Objects.

Maybe libertarianism? Sorry, no. Libertarians defend The Individual over real people. And of course, The Individual happens to match them and their kind, devil take the others.

All these are a kind of fascism: the marriage of corporate entities to control people. What is the alternative? To give my view, I need to resort to metaphysics.

In a debate that has come to be known as the Natural Kinds debate, there are two main positions (and a host of finer distinctions I don’t need to discuss now): Conventionalism and Platonism. Platonists think that abstract objects are real things (as Plato held was true of Ideas). Conventionalists, sometimes also known as Nominalists, hold that general terms (like “nation”) are just words that gather together similarities. For a conventionalist, to treat a general kind as a thing is to commit the Reification Fallacy: to misleadingly ascribe reality to abstract nouns.

I am a conventionalist in most things, particularly in the context of social institutions, although I would not go as far as Maggie Thatcher and declare that there is no society. It’s just that society is comprised of individuals, their interactions, conventions, expectations and environment. In social science, this is referred to as Methodological Individualism, but social sciences must deal with abstractions if they are to explain what happens in society. Instead, I prefer to call this Moral Individualism, as it is a moral claim I am making here. Monarchies, states, religions, genders and ethnicities have no rights; people (who may or may not fall into these abstract classes) do.

Why is it then, that people are so keen to treat other people as objects? Why do capitalists treat workers as interchangeable units? Why do moral crusaders treat women as objects of control? Why do ruling ethnicities treat minorities and foreigners as less than fully human? Why do religious authorities declare anyone who is not orthodox and submissive to their religious views and institutions to be less than fully human, for that matter?

It is not because we fall, as human beings, into discrete classes of those who empathise and those who do not. This is itself a reification fallacy. If society is made of people, and people vary more or less continuously, then we have a distribution curve:

At least half the people (in a normal distribution) will tend to be empathetic to some degree towards people who are not family or friends. But far fewer will be empathetic all the time (the left side gray area). And given the right stimuli (usually xenophobia or disgust responses), even those who would be empathisers can be tricked into callousness towards others by unscrupulous figures of perceived authority (in the right side gray area). This is how “nationalism” can be sustained even if most people will be decent most of the time otherwise.

Why then do leaders and authorities act callously? Often they do not. For a period from around 1960 to the 1980s, leaders were expected to observe the niceties of politics, to rule (ostensibly) for the benefit of all. But under the baleful influence of Friedmanesque economics, moral values became “immoral” under capitalism. As the conservative pundits fought back to regain the control they had lost since Word War I and the time of the robber barons (who nevertheless endowed public libraries and hospitals), the conditions for rising into an authority encouraged callousness. Consider, for example, the “Prosperity Gospel” movement: the Christian’s duty is to acquire wealth, which may have come as a surprise to their founder.

Such is the context in which individuals prosper; by denying the moral value of people in general in favour of those who are “our kind”. And this is how an open and free society becomes a fascist society. And this is what we have seen rising for thirty years, and did nothing about (myself included).

What to do? I have no idea, except to stand up for the rights of all when you can. And hope like hell this doesn’t eventuate in another world war.

17 thoughts on “The Abstract and the Concrete, or, the Road to Fascism

    1. I just generally call them “anti-choice”. I don’t see why I should hand them the unearned rhetorical victory of allowing them to use even the thinnest of positive labels for themselves.

  1. I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about the metaphysical assumptions of pro-lifers, but my conclusions have been informed by the experience of taking care of my sister in her last year. Watching somebody I love cease to be gave me an existential appreciation of how hard it is to understand coming to be, the other mysterious transition—it’s no accident that arguments about abortion and arguments about euthanasia mirror each other and have similar politics. A person either is or isn’t or so we would like to insist, but plainly there is a process of passing away and therefore also a process of coming to be. A zygote pretty obviously isn’t a somebody and a child pretty obviously is a somebody, but there is point on the road between the one and the other that unambiguously marks the arrival of a you from an earlier it. We’re stuck with coming up with reasonable ethical and legal rules to deal with this fact, but what upsets the anti-abortion folks is not the extent to which such rules are social conventions, but the scandal of epigenesis that makes them necessary.

    Speaking of epigenesis. I’m struck with how pro-lifers often appeal to a sort of preformationist embryology to justify their position. I’ve often been told that it is unscientific to support the legality of abortion because the fertilized egg contains all the DNA of an adult human being. In effect, the people who make this argument think of the genome as if it were the little man that the early microscopists imagined they saw curled up in the head of the spermatozoon. Of course gene sequences don’t contain enough information to specify an organism. The list of ingredients isn’t the whole recipe—you’ve got to cook the dish in the right way in the right pot—and, anyhow, nucleic acid isn’t the only ingredient. People are eager to find the essence of things, I guess, but genes are not essences anymore than words have meanings in themselves. You can’t use ‘em to assert the real presence of the soul in the ovum.

    1. Yes, I think DNA has very much replaced Classical accounts as the seat of “essence of humanness” (and even: seat of individual identity), at least among those who want to buttress their position with something more modern sounding.

    2. I tend to take the line that ‘let’s grand that a embryo is a human for arguments sake, and all humans have the right to bodily autonomy and no human has the right to subsist off the body of another human, from there you get that no woman, being human, can be coerced into being a life-support system for another human, fetus’. It’s obviously drawn from my understanding of the ‘In defense of abortion’ argument by Judith Jarvis Thompson.

      It has the benefit of avoiding drawing a line where a clump of cells becomes a person. It rests on the abstract notion of Human rights, but human rights is the abstract notion used by anti-choicers to get their argument going, to sauce for the Goose and all that.

  2. As a Bahá’í, and as in most issues, individual Bahá’ís come to these decisions by reading and meditating upon the Writings and consultation with others, whether Bahá’ís or experts in other fields, and it is not enforced by some higher authority other than the Revelation of its Founder which each believer investigates and comes to their understanding.

    Now, our Writings say that once the unique elements come together for a human being, there is an attraction that draws the rational soul. I imagine that most Bahá’ís would consider that conception then attracts the soul. But Bahá’ís, also believe, science can purify religion of superstition and outdated doctrines. Maybe science can clarify the moment all elements have
    come together to be a human and that would be the moment the soul is attracted.

    Also, Bahá’í Faith, as a religious institution, takes no stand in the wider society, trying to thrust upon others our views. We teach, if someone is interested.

  3. “I have always said that “Pro-Life” is a misnomer. Instead of being pro-life, they are pro-potential life.”
    John, I’m surprised that a philosopher, particularly a philosopher of biology, would speak like this. Fertilization produces a new living individual human being. He or she is actually alive, not potentially alive (and of course is human, not any other species). This new life certainly has great potential, but cannot therefore be designated as mere “potential life.” The new life does require special protection and nourishment, but so does a one-year-old. So do some of us older folks.
    There is no true border line that you can specify, at which the preborn child would turn from “potential life” to “actual life” because life is a continuum of growth and development from zygote to adulthood. The child in the womb, though small, is nothing like a skin tag on the mother. He or she has different DNA, may have a different skin colour, and is often a different gender from the mother.
    Should innocent human beings be subject to arbitrary killing merely because of their size, level of development, or place of residence?

  4. “we have put Descartes before the Horse.”

    Given the historical examples you have deployed “we have retrospectivly placed descartes before the Horse” would be my tag.

    Mead drinking, herioc verse, the kings hall, the mead bench. The actors involved here are traditional creatures of the tribe. The king, the poet and warrior are all traditional agents of the tribe.

    The novel feature is the hall and the mead bench.

    Poet and king coming together, living under one- roof and under the control of the king rather than scattered amongst the tribe.

    Its a response to changes in the scale and nature of violence. About as physical an activity as you can get.

    Kingship is not static and in regard to the development of ethnicity on the fringes of Northern Europe this is one of the first detectable moves on the dance floor I think.

    I can’t see any reason to wonder if the same retro processes are not a factor in the construction of modern identities.

  5. I don’t think I would get hung up about abstract processes being real. But I am not so good at philosophy and don’t mind not being fully aware of contemporary issues and identity here.

    These forms of abstraction do seem to have a very distinct sense of time. Which we then retrospectivly alter to look as if they stand outside of such processes.

  6. These things are as abstract and concrete as the future, which is the implicit basis underlying all biological activities, and which in humans and their cultures is taken up consciously and knowingly. Philosophical arguments that we owe future persons “nothing, because they are an abstraction” seem to be missing the point. And if one claims abstractions such as ethnicity, money and gender are somehow peripheral to long term survival of me as an individual, and of future humans who will be causally related to me (genetically or culturally), then again I think a point is being missed.

    Now I’m trying not to sound too much like a Natural Law proponent here, since to this way of Consequentalist thinking there is a certain amount of exchangeability or fungibility regarding eg a current pregnancy.terminated with the idea of a later born child with better outcomes.

  7. State formation in a scattered non-urban enviroment like my backyard relied on the control of long distance trade. Avialibility of high value exotic items allowed for a stratified social class to develop and assert its difference by what it consumed and what others could not consume and had no accesses to.

    It allows a value system to develop that allowed and facilitated differing levels of consumption.

    This is the significant economic and political social shift that allows us to identify the development of the state in non-urbanised rural enviroments.

    It allows for a particular class in society to grow both verticaly and horizontally in to the bureacracy of the state and develop further specilized instituations.

    High value moral objects in this case female bodies look little different here. The issue may be not that we over value the abstract but we know exactly what a system that controls and regulates the market value of imagination has to offer us as individuals and as social groups.

    in this case social control borne on the backs of women.

  8. “religion has a number of abstractions that are used to justify the abuse or dehumanization of real people”

    This is odd, given that the defense that missionary Dominican friars and Russian monks gave of Native Americans against traders was that they were essentially human beings and so deserving respect as images of God. It’s also odd that you write this so shortly after characterizing the fetus as “a bunch of cells,” which I think is a dehumanizing tactic.
    Overall, I question the explanatory value of the “abstraction mentality vs. concrete mentality” notion. If it explains anything, it does so only for those who already hold the same positions as you. The pro-life person could just as easily say that you privilege abstract ‘Choice’ over a living human (i.e., the embryo/fetus). Now, of course you don’t agree that the embryo/fetus is an actual human life, but you have to show this first!

    Jim Harrison and Steve Watson have interesting comments on what makes a human being. I first would caution against saying that a zygote obviously isn’t the same as a child. What matters is whether a zygote has the same nature as a child. Of course, they look very different, but then again so do ice and steam. It also might be helpful to add that some Catholic authors (e.g., Norman Ford, William A. Wallace) still hold that the conceptus is not yet a human, but that it only develops to be so after a few weeks. This was in fact the belief in the Christian West for a very long time (held by Augustine, Jerome, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas), probably following Aristotle. But note, despite this, that those Catholic writers who take this view still think it is wrong to kill the ‘pre-embryo’ (except perhaps in extremely grave cases such as rape). The Christian East however has mainly held that the human being is formed at conception (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor).

    1. It’s only dehumanising to say a fetus is not human if you grant, as I do not, that the fetus is human. And “nature” is a vague form of essentialism that has little place in biology if any.

      As to “the” Christian view of the formation of human beings, it used to be the “quickening” (around 14-17 weeks) so even in “the” Christian tradition there is no unanimity (pun intended) about when a fetus becomes a human being. I would say the onus is on you to show that it is, not me to show it isn’t.

      I will post something more substantial and directly on the topic of abortion in a while.

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