Essay / Philosophy

Two Empty Slogans for Kool-Aid Drinkers

A slogan can be helpful if it accurately summarizes a product or a campaign. But a slogan can also be harmful if it diverts attention away from the real issue or if it is a conversation stopper that falsely appears to resolve an issue. In this latter case, a slogan damages intellectual dialogue in two ways: It gives people the false sense of security that they have given an adequate answer to a problem that removes the need for further discussion. Additionally, it removes the felt need required to motivate people to continue to debate the topic in hand and get to the real, substantial issues at the core of the debate.

In these two ways slogans degenerate the level of our public discourse and delude the public’s understanding of the issues. In terms familiar to Bill O’Reilly observers (whether friends or foes), who needs Kool-Aid when one can choke down a slogan.

And empty slogans are demeaning to those against whom the slogan is used. To see this, just think of some political, religious or moral issue about which you care deeply. Now think of an empty slogan that was used by an opponent against your view. How did you feel? I’ll bet you felt demeaned precisely because the slogan was misleading, it made your view look silly and simplistic, and it directed attention away from important issues you think are being overlooked.

In such a situation, what are you to do? It would probably be too much to expect your dialogical opponent to suddenly convert to your position all at one go. More modestly, you should be able to share why the slogan is empty and misleading and, if the opponent is rational and civil, he or she should stop using the slogan and replace it with more substantial points relevant to your dispute.

Allow me to get specific. In the abortion debate, pro-choice advocates typically use two empty slogans that exhibit the harmful dialogical features mentioned above: “It’s a woman’s body, she owns it and she has a right to do with it whatever she wants.” And “Abortion should be a private choice between a woman and her doctor.” Let’s take these in order and see what’s so wrong and misleading about them.

The first slogan assumes that ownership of something justifies a right to use it as one wishes with, of course, certain limitations (I can’t drive my car through your living room window). For centuries, in Western ethics and law, ownership has justified use because ownership was obtained by one’s mixing one’s labor to gain that ownership. If one works to make something or to earn the money to purchase it, then one has the right of ownership over that thing. Now, if a Creator-God exists, none of us, including women, own our bodies in the sense relevant to right of use. God does. Since he made it, he owns it. Now renters have certain rights delegated to them by owners, but they do not have owner-rights just because they rent or use something. The same goes with our bodies. Just because we “rent” or use them, that does not give us the right of ownership. God has that right. If God does not exist, then there is no such owner. So the slogan is empty since it masks the real, fundamental issue: Is there a God who has ownership over our bodies, has he declared anything relevant to what renters can do regarding abortion, and how does one know the correct answers to these questions? This is where the debate should reside, not over misleading slogans about owning one’s body.

What about the second slogan: “Abortion should be a private choice between a woman and her doctor?” It is meant to imply that a doctor is the relevant guide who is competent to help a woman make the right decision for her. But this is nonsense. Doctors are experts in medicine, but not in sports, politics, or ethics. The debate about abortion is not medical, it’s ethical, and doctors are laypersons in ethics. They have no more ethical expertise than a welder or accountant.

There are such experts in ethics—moral philosophers, theologians, pastors and bioethics such as one finds on a hospital bioethics committee. I served on such a committee for eight years and I have a Ph.D. in philosophy and ethics. That does not make me a good person or right about all my views. But I know more about my field than a doctor or welder does. And these professionals are the ones qualified to state the relevant moral issues if one is making a moral decision. By adding “doctor” to “private choice between a woman and her doctor,” one gives the false and terribly misleading impression that the woman will be advised in her choice by a competent professional. That makes about as much sense as taking comfort in the fact that a friend is making a crucial financial decision in consultation with his gardener.

Regardless of what your position about abortion is, one thing is clear: The use of these empty slogans has got to stop. Reasonable and civil people should at least be able to agree about that.

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