Jun 25, 2022

acknowledging a hard problem

Of the many stunning scenes in Benjamin J. B. Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics, the one that stays with me most is in the aftermath of a 1948 debate between Anscombe and C.S. Lewis on the nature of belief and rationality. The consensus, Lipscomb reports, was that Anscombe came out the “winner” of the debate.

But Anscombe was above all committed to recognizing a difficult philosophical matter as such. Seeing hard problems as hard was more important than any display of cleverness that might appeal in an ordinary debate. She re-examined the same matter in 1960, saying that only then had she addressed “the actual depth and difficulty of the questions being discussed.” And she never forgot their exchange. Decades later, in 1981, she wrote that as she reread her own remarks from the debate, she remained convinced by them. “It seems to me that they are just,” she wrote. “At the same time, I find them lacking in any recognition of the depth of the problem.”

She had by all accounts won in an exchange with a great thinker! But there was little satisfaction in that judgment for her, absent a full treatment of the issues. Lipscomb concludes that “glibness, for Anscombe, was the great intellectual vice; recognition that a problem is hard, the great virtue.”

It’s June 25, 2022, and I only want to talk with people about the overturning of Roe v. Wade if they’re the kind of people who can fully assent that the weight of the issue is hard. Questions about the act of abortion itself, for a small unit of affected people and for a society; the role of the elected or judiciary branches in adjudicating anything about the matter; the theories of liberty at play here, including the full dimensionality and not the sound byte dismissal of originalism; the practices all around family-making that are asymmetrically meted out on women. A problem like this cannot be “won.”

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