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William Wilberforce, Francis Beckwith, and Ad Hominem Attacks

William Wilberforce, Francis Beckwith, and Ad Hominem Attacks

Oct 28, 2009 / By: Jeffrey Jones
Category: Abortion Arguments

A few months a go I posted a blog concerning a certain pet peeve I have where abortion advocates attempt to discredit the pro-life position by accusing us of only caring about the unborn (and not the born) and/or only caring about one issue (and not caring about other issues). In some reading I've done lately, I have come across material worth sharing that relates to all this.

First, I've been reading a biography about William Wilberforce, the abolitionist responsible for ending the slave trade and slavery in Britain. In 1823 a slavery defender named William Cobett attempted to discredit Wilberforce's work to end slavery by claiming his concern for suffering among African slaves was hypocritical because he did not seem to equally care for the working poor in England. Cobett said, "You seem to have great affection for the fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing Negroes . . . [But] Never have you done one single act in favor of the laborers of this country . . . You make your appeal in Picadilly, London, amongst those who are wallowing in luxuries, proceeding from the labor of the people. You should have gone to the gravel-pits, and made your appeal to the wretched creatures with bits of sacks around their shoulders, and with hay-bands round their legs; you should have gone to the roadside, and made your appeal to the emancipated, half-dead things who are there cracking stones to make the roads as level as a die for the tax eaters to ride on. What an insult it is, and what an unfeeling, what a cold-blooded hypocrite must he be that he can send it forth; what an insult to call upon people under the name of free British laborers; to appeal to them on behalf of Black slaves, when these free British laborers; these poor, mocked, degraded wretches, would be happy to lick the dishes and bowls, out of which Black slaves have breakfasted, dined, or supped."

These charges were actually unfounded. Wilberforce worked to relieve harsh child labor conditions, to provide affordable food for the poor, to restrict the use of capital punishment, and to prevent cruelty to animals. However, even if Cobett's words had been accurate, that is, even if Wilberforce had only cared about abolition and cared nothing for the working poor, this did nothing to actually discredit the anti-slavery position. It was an attack against the character of Wilberforce, not an argument for or against the ethics of slavery.

This, secondly, brings me to another book I've been reading, Francis Beckwith's, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. In this book Beckwith attempts to deal with nearly every argument abortion supporters employ to make their case and prove why he thinkgs they fail. One bad type of argumentation employed against the pro-life position is what is called an ad hominem argument. Ad hominem means "against the man" and this sort of argument attacks the character of a the one holding a view rather than the view itself. This is what Cobett did against Wilberforce - he attacked his character in order to discredit his position on slavery. This is also what abortion supporters are doing when they accuse pro-lifers of only caring about the unborn and not the born, of only caring about abortion and not other issues, of not being willing to adopt "unwanted" children, etc. They attempt to discredit our view by discrediting our character. (Of course, a pro-lifer could be guilty of this too...)

Ad hominem arguments have been used to discredit moral viewpoints for a long time. They were used against Wilberforce two-hundred years ago. They are still used today. But the reason ad hominem arguments ultimately fail when it comes to ethics is because they do not address the real issue. Even if it is true that pro-lifers only care about the unborn, could care less about other forms of human suffering, and have no desire to adopt "unwanted" children, these things do not prove that abortion is therefore a good thing. While our character may be flawed and hypocritical (and sometimes it truly is), ther real issue is not our character but whether or not abortion wrongfully kills an innocent member of the human community.

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