JFK on the Topic of Neutrality

January 13, 2009

I ran across a quote from John F. Kennedy, former President of the United States.  In interpreting Dante’s Inferno, John F. Kennedy is said to have stated: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”

The neutrality angle apparently is taken from the following language in the Inferno:

Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries
were echoing across the starless air,
so that, as soon as I [Dante] set out, I wept.

Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voice shrill and faints, and beating hands –

All went to make a tumult that will whirl
forever through that turbid, timeless air,
like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.

And I – my head oppressed by horror – said:
“Master [Virgil], what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?”

And he to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.

The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them –
even the wicked cannot glory in them.”

And I: “What is it, master, that oppresses
these souls, compelling them to wail so loud?”
He answered: “I shall tell you in few words.

Those who are here can place no hope in death,
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.

The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.”

And I, looking more closely, saw a banner
that, as it wheeled about, raced on – so quick
that any respite seemed unsuited to it.

Behind that banner trailed so long a file
of people – I should never have believed
that death could have unmade so many souls.

After I had identified a few,
I saw and recognized the shade of him
who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.

At once I understood with certaintly:
this company contrained the cowardly,
hateful to God and to His enemies.

These wretched ones, who never were alive,
went naked and were stung again, again
by horseflies and by wasps that circled them.

The insects streaked their faces with their blood,
which, mingled with their tears, fell at their feet,
where it was gathered up by sickening worms.

I wonder what JFK would think about the current typical American discourse on abortion (assuming his use of the Dante line wasn’t just pretty language reserved for useful instances).  For instance, “I oppose abortion, but I believe that ultimately the government should leave that decision to a woman and her conscience” (Rudy Giuliani), and “I think that whether you are looking at [the issue of what point a baby get human rights] from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade” (Obama).  On that issue at least, neutrality seems to be a pretty popular position, even if it is an incoherent one.

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12 Responses to “JFK on the Topic of Neutrality”

  1. Motspur Says:

    Sometimes neutrality, in the way you have described it in your final paragraph, is a good thing. I’m not hugely morally against abortion as such, but if I was, I would still believe we should not make laws banning abortion. Abortion is a very sensitive, subjective, and case-by-case different moral issue. I believe we should simply not pass laws on something like this because it is not a decision that we should make for other people. Even if I believed abortion was murder, I would fight for a woman’s right to choose whether she wants to have a baby or not, and I would not condemn her choice to have an abortion, because I have not been in her position.

  2. Sara Says:

    What the above argument is basically advocating is situational ethics. What’s right sometimes is not right at others. I have a huge issue with this. It is the lack of moral absolutes that leads to the breakdown of society. If right is not always right, and wrong always wrong, we don’t have any solid ground to stand on in punishing crimes and maintaining order. Sooner or later people could argue and justify their way out of anything.

    God created absolute truth and basic morals which always hold true. Do not murder (Exodus 20) is one of them. Abortion ends the life of a human being. It’s murder. No matter the circumstances of conception. Do I have sympathy and compassion for a woman who becomes pregnant and doesn’t want to be? Yes, absolutely. But even if her baby was conceived through rape or incest, a second wrong of killing the baby will not make it right.

  3. Motspur Says:

    It’s a little different for those of us who do not believe in a god who created absolute truth and basic morals. I do not believe in those, so we will have to agree to disagree. I believe there are some – not many, but some – cases when killing is okay. But I do admire your moral standpoint and think you are a good person.

  4. thenaturallawyer Says:

    All law is a decision we make for other people, unless a law is passed by unanimous referendum. When can we make such decisions and when can we not? More importantly, why can we not? Is there some transcendent moral standard, some inherent right, that the government must respect? Or is it just your preference?

    The statement “I have not been in her position” screams for a discussion of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens. I’ll try to remember to post on that…

  5. Motspur Says:

    I’m fairly utilitarian. The purpose of laws (or what should be the purpose of laws) is to provide protection for the people, to make life easier and not dangerous, and to try to make it fairer. To provide happiness to the greatest number of people. In regards to the issue of abortion, I do not think we have the right to make this difficult moral decision for a woman.

    Something like “no murder” is an obvious law to make, for the protection of many people. On the other hand, something like abortion, so hotly debated all around the world, is much much more subjective to things like the individual situation, personal morals & ethics, health issues, scientific standpoint, religion, etcetera. I don’t think it is the sort of thing we can make a sweeping law to cover, because it’s not a decision I think we should make for other people. I would rather leave it up to the woman involved to decide, because I don’t think I have the right to decide for her. Her having of an abortion will not negatively affect many except for the foetus, possibly a father if that father was attached to the idea of the baby-to-be. Making a law to ban abortion will not protect anyone but foetuses, and it’s a matter of personal opinion as to whether unwanted foetuses are really worthy of protection. Also, making a law to ban abortion would put many women at risk, women desperate for abortions who, regardless of the laws, would have “backyard” abortions and put at risk their own health & safety. This is a case wherein not making a law will not really harm anyone (subjective to one’s opinion on foetuses) but making the law would put many at risk.


  6. “Something like “no murder” is an obvious law to make, for the protection of many people.”

    Agreed.

    “On the other hand, something like abortion, so hotly debated all around the world, is much much more subjective to things like the individual situation, personal morals & ethics, health issues, scientific standpoint, religion, etcetera.”

    Like slavery?

    “Making a law to ban abortion will not protect anyone but foetuses, and it’s a matter of personal opinion as to whether unwanted foetuses are really worthy of protection.”

    Is it less of a personal opinion whether a slave is worthy of protection?

    “Also, making a law to ban abortion would put many women at risk…”

    Allowing abortion is equally, if not moreso, fraught with health risks, as demonstrated in the following website:
    http://www.afterabortion.org/physica.html
    The alleged health risk to a person performing an illegal activity should not outweigh a greater health risk to someone performing a legal activity. If a manufacturer recalls spoiled meat, you don’t encourage stores to keep it on the shelf because someone might intentionally eat the spoiled meat after they find out it’s been recalled…

  7. Motspur Says:

    re: My second quote there… I don’t think it is like slavery, no. Because this is about one woman’s ability to make a decision for herself, not one person’s ability to make a decision about other people.
    The third quote & your response however is true. Everything is a matter of opinion. But it’s much less debatable whether a slave is worthy of protection (or a human being, or whatever) because they are already a living, breathing person, alive in their own right, with their own feelings, dreams, etc. It is much more of a contestable issue as to whether a foetus, being not much more than a tiny blob of tissue, can be considered a full human being with its own rights.
    As for the risks thing – that site, in the first paragraph, cites a bunch of statistics (which I don’t trust in the first place) but no actual details. I’d be interested to see the actual causes of death for all those women. For things like suicide, homicide, etc… can we consider that abortion is not the cause of their deaths, but rather one piece in a large puzzle? I’m not saying this is the case, merely theorising, but there may be a higher rate of abortion in poorer areas, where people perhaps do not have adequate access to sex education, contraception, or medical help, and in these areas abortion would be at a higher rate, and so might things like homicide, dangerous activities which can cause injury, etc. Also consider that abortion is without doubt often a traumatic and emotion-filled experience for many women. This could explain some of the suicides – not because they killed themselves because they had an abortion, but because they may be suffering from many psychological stresses. And if they procure an abortion which others vehemently disapprove of, this could also explain some homicides.
    Statistics are not really helpful as they can be twister by anyone with an agenda, and they really don’t show the whole picture.
    The other thing to consider is, if all this information came exclusively from legal, professionally performed, safe abortion procedures? Or is some of it reflective of the danger of “backyard” abortions? And, if it all came from legal abortions, and a professional, safe-as-possible abortion is this dangerous, consider the implications of just how much MORE dangerous an unprofessional backyard abortion might be!! The mind boggles. Backyard abortions & their results are so incredibly horrific. I would never wish to condemn a woman to that fate. Abortion must be legal and easily accessible at a professional, clean, safe doctor’s surgery, to protect the lives of women everywhere who might otherwise drink crushed glass boiled in cola, or other terrifying methods of “abortion”.

  8. Motspur Says:

    Ugh, sorry for the lack of paragraphs there. WordPress ate my spacing.

    Also, hello 🙂


  9. Motspur: Welcome back! Sorry I also took a month to respond to your post…

    I don’t think it is like slavery, no. Because this is about one woman’s ability to make a decision for herself, not one person’s ability to make a decision about other people.

    Well now that’s sort of begging the question don’t you think?
    Me: abortion is the murder of a human being (“person”) so it should be illegal.
    You: no, a woman should be allowed to decide for herself whether she’s murdering a child.
    Me: that’s the same justification as in slavery, where a person decides whether another person is a person.
    You: it’s not like slavery because an unborn child is not a person.

    But if a child is not a person, then that is your real answer to my first question. It has nothing whatsoever to do with a woman’s choice. The very foundation of your argument is that an unborn child is not a person, and you are willing to force this fact on unborn human organisms. Without this “fact” (an unborn human is not a person), your argument falls apart.

    The question of whether this fact is “more debatable” is beside the point, because you’ve wholly assumed the premise that an unborn human organism is not a person and on that built your argument. Just like slave owners did.

    Your “backyard abortion” argument is a red herring. For someone who wants to discard statistics, you have no empirical evidence that these take place or to what degree they take place. Furthermore, perhaps they will not occur in great degree because rational women will stop doing stupid things like sleep around with every guy in the men’s dormitory.

    But even if they aren’t rational, and then they continually get these even-more-dangerous abortions, as far as I’m concerned that’s the moral equivalent of mass-murder. I probably wouldn’t punish these murderers as mass murders (more likely manslaughter, though I’d punish the “doctors” more severely), but we wouldn’t ever justify keeping murder illegal because to make them illegal would justify “back alley murders.” If someone is going to commit murder, they ought not feel safe doing it in a public murder shop. It’s a crime.

    I’m going to address your “it’s all opinion” argument later than this. Just remember that it was the slave owners’ opinion that slaves were not human. Is your opinion equal to theirs or superior? I’d argue it’s superior because it’s in accordance with reason, which is not a matter of opinion but of objective fact.

  10. Motspur Says:

    Okay. I think your argument is well-founded and logical. However in practical terms, there is currently no way of deciding once and for all whether a foetus counts as a “person”. It will continually remain a matter of opinion. And as such, I would rather not put any law in place to prevent women procuring an abortion, because it’s not up to me to make the decision for her. I would never force any woman to carry a baby to term that is the result of rape, or incest, or even just inconvenient. Women are not incubators.

    I’m pretty sure we’ve reached our going-to-have-to-agree-to-disagree point on this particular subject.

    Personally I’m not on either side of the “blob of tissue vs baby” argument… to me they are both… yes a foetus is a blob of tissue… but I am also a blob of tissue, albeit more grown. Yes, a foetus is human tissue and at some undefineable point becomes a human baby. But a removed appendix is also human tissue (although it never becomes a baby, lol). The point is moot to me, because honestly I don’t really care – if the baby can’t survive outside the womb at the point at which a woman wants to have an abortion, there is no way in hell I am going to force a woman to carry in her body a foetus OR a human baby she doesn’t want. Babies die all the time, as do grown people, it really doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to me. The world doesn’t NEED more human beings. It could do with a few less, honestly. And I have no business telling any woman that she HAS TO HAVE A BABY.

    “Furthermore, perhaps they will not occur in great degree because rational women will stop doing stupid things like sleep around with every guy in the men’s dormitory.” Sorry, but I find this comment really offensive. The pro-life view that “all women who have abortions are huge sluts who should have kept their legs closed” is offensive, discriminatory, and untrue.

    Apart from that, I enjoyed this debate.


  11. I’ll respond to your comment a little later, but want to address this part now:

    The pro-life view that “all women who have abortions are huge sluts who should have kept their legs closed” is offensive, discriminatory, and untrue.

    First, that’s not a pro-life view. The problem isn’t that all women who have abortions are “sluts” (I would imagine that a great percentage of them are married women aborting their husband’s children), but that abortion is used as an excuse for “slutty” behavior. Taking away abortion takes away the rationalization that sleeping around is no big deal.

    The “keep your legs closed” thing, to the extent pro-life people refer to it (however crassly), is mainly to point out that abortion is almost always the result of two choices, not one. Rape babies are really, really, really, really rare because of the violent nature of rapes. Many pro-choice people refer to rape cases even though they want to legalize all abortions, the great majority of which are twice voluntary.

  12. Motspur Says:

    “I would imagine that a great percentage of them are married women aborting their husband’s children” – I find this a bit offensive, too, just the way you worded that. They are the women’s children as well, not just “their husband’s children”. And if a woman doesn’t want to have a baby, I don’t think her husband or the father of the child should have any say in it anyway. It’s not him who has to go through the pregnancy and childbirth.

    I apologise that I generalised, I know not all pro-life people think all women are sluts. Unfortunately a lot of them do.

    “abortion is used as an excuse for “slutty” behavior. Taking away abortion takes away the rationalization that sleeping around is no big deal.”

    Well, actually, in my opinion it IS no big deal. I think any adult should be able to have whatever sex life they wish, whether that be with multiple partners or only one, and should not be judged as “slutty” because of it. As long as sex is consensual, and practiced safely, I have no problem with it. Of course it is irresponsible and stupid if someone doesn’t bother to use contraception while having sex. I don’t believe abortion should be used as one’s only form of birth control. But we can’t just say “abortion is allowed unless you weren’t using contraceptives” because that wouldn’t be doable and then they’d just lie anyway… so I’d rather make abortion available to everyone, rather than no-one.


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