This is for pro-lifers interested in the debate on Incrementalism vs. Purism, hereafter known as Prudentialism vs. Absolutism, brought to the fore by the Open Letter to James Dobson a couple weeks ago.
These are notes from a speech today, “Prudence vs. all-or-nothing: lessons from Lincoln and Wilberforce on the morality of imperfect legislation,” by Clarke Forsythe, president of Americans United for Life, at its legal institute:
We all want to make a difference, but we are tempted to think sometimes anything less than the perfect is a compromise. That is not true. That is not prudent. That is inconsistent with the real world we live in with its constraints, limits and obstacles – the teaching of prudence.
augustine.jpgPrudence is an intellectual and moral virtue dating back to Plato and Aristotle. It was incorporated into Christian ethics by Augustine in The City of God, the “first comprehensive statement on politics” by any church father, according to Kraynak.
Prudence is “wisdom plus,” or wisdom in action. Prudence is about making the right decisions and implementing them well.
For politics and legislation, prudence boils down to four questions:

1. Is the goal worthy?
2. Are we exercising wise judgment as to what’s possible in a situation?
3. Do we successfully connect means to ends? Can we connect means and resources to achieve those goals?
4. Do we preserve the possibility of future progress when all the good is not immediately achievable? Do we avoid a final or total compromise?….

Prudence is not pragmatism. Pragmatism is amoral. Prudence applies to the moral good, but it does not dictate the perfect good. It forces us to aim for the greatest good possible given the constraints and obstacles.
Prudence is not incrementalism. An increment is a step. Incrementalism is a step-by-step approach. By itself incrementalism does not define goals. It doesn’t supply the moral purpose; it doesn’t supply the end I’m trying to achieve. In any situation, incrementalism may be what is needed, but it is a tactic, not a strategy.
Prudence is not compromise. The definition of compromise is, “A settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions.” The term “compromise” s used as a political epithet to attack people. But one has to consider whether there were concessions by both sides. We use the term way too casually. If you’e not conceding anything, you haven’ compromised. If you concede and the other side doesn’t; you’re not compromising. You’ve been blocked.
The aforementioned four questions lead to the concept of “legal fences.”
wilberforce.jpgI cannot think of a time over the last 34 years when pro-lifers attempted compromise. They have simply attempted to erect legal fences.
To explain, if your neighbor owns pit bulls that run wild, and you build a fence around your yard to protect your family, you are not aiding and abetting pit bull violence by so doing.
Thinking of abortion, we try to fence it in due to constraints outside our control, when prohibition is not possible.
We aren’t the first generation to address these questions. Wilberforce dealt with them all the time.
Wilberforce put legal fences around the slave trade before the final push. By the time the final push was made in 1807 to abolish the slave trade, slavery had been reduced 75%. Then it took another 25 years to prohibit slavery altogether.
lincoln.jpgThe Republican position that slavery could not be spread, i.e., they fenced it in, was what led to secession, nothing more than that.
Despite this long prudential tradition, despite the successes of Wilberforce and Lincoln, there are still ethical objections to this approach.
Many people ignore legal and political limits and constraints, and this is not prudent. This is moral absolutism. It does not lead to effective progress, and it is simply not responsible.
What do we do with absolutists?

  • Try to reason with them.
  • At some point move on.
  • Continue to discuss prudential reasoning with those who have not been persuaded.
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