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Hadley Arkes started teaching political philosophy at Amherst College on Sept. 15, 1966. This semester, 50 years later, he will teach his last course there. The author of First Things and many other books, Arkes has been a pro-life advocate for decades. Here are edited excerpts from our July 19 interview.
What’s the major way students have changed in 50 years? One notable change: They have trouble doing sit-down exams and giving an account of what they’ve read. They have not been required to read closely. How does the writer’s argument move? What are the supporting points of evidence? How does he reach the culmination? They can’t do that, except the very best.
Would both major presidential candidates get an F on one of your exams? I don’t think I could get from Donald Trump a precise account of anything he reads. Hillary Clinton would give me the party line: Whatever the subject, we need gun control.
You say we have a choice between “the brutal sure thing,” Hillary Clinton, and “the wild card,” Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton is not a question mark. For her and the left, the “right to abortion” is the first freedom, displacing freedom of religion and freedom of speech anchoring axioms.
‘We wouldn’t take the life of a person because he’s deaf. Why take the life of an unborn child because he has a disability?’
You’re for the wild card, particularly because of Supreme Court appointments? I am, but it’s not merely about replacing justices. With Clinton, the lower federal courts that handle most of the cases—the points of first entry—will be filled with characters from the academic left who favor theories that ordinary folk take as bizarre.
Such as … Considering sexuality as something made up and not anchored in any truths about human nature. Killing whole industries by demanding extravagant environmental measures.
Why would Trump be better than Clinton regarding these appointees? The Republican Party is the pro-life party even though it has many people who are not enthusiastically pro-life. Trump has a good chance of finding his judges through The Federalist Society and conservative circles he respects.
Does he care about judges? I don’t think he cares overly much about the courts and the Supreme Court. He certainly hasn’t troubled to read much about them. He depends on other people. That’s one of the hazards here.
You like Trump’s positions? He favors policies that will get us out of the doldrums. The Obama administration seems to think: We can lead a constant war against business and yet generate the wealth that will support all these wondrous things we want to do.
Is Trump an erratic person prone to jump at things? Obvious Clinton ad: Trump’s finger on the nuclear button? He goes into these antics, but I find it hard to believe he’d be that way when things are really on the line. At that point he listens to people and there are all kinds of bureaucratic constraints. Yes, he will go with his intuition, but he will quickly learn that if he slaps high tariffs on Chinese goods that will raise prices for ordinary people at Walmart. I can’t see that he would produce more disasters than Obama has produced with the eight years he’s been there.
If you could be a questioner at the next debate, what would you ask Hillary Clinton? I ask liberal friends, “What are the most central issues for you?” If they say, “unemployment, or the environment,” I say, “Whose unemployment? Everyone’s health? Even people you don’t know? Why should they merit your concern?”
What’s the response? They say, “Because they’re human beings.” I respond, “Why doesn’t your concern encompass those small human beings who are killed every year by poison or dismemberment?”
What if they say there are more important issues? If 1.2 million members of a minority group are lynched, killed every year without the need to render a justification, without the restraints of the law: Is that in importance below the question of interest rates?
When the Supreme Court killed the Texas law on safety requirements for abortion businesses, Justice Breyer opined in essence that the legislation had a different primary purpose. Our friends in Texas, the legislature, were constrained. They couldn’t speak the words at the heart of the matter so they had to profess to be operating for the woman. But they weren’t simply trying to regulate a business: They wanted less of this business. Of course the court saw that.
So the flank attack did not work. Alito said in dissent the goal was to avoid situations like Gosnell’s in Philadelphia. Breyer said that facility in Philadelphia was never inspected: If that’s your concern, have inspections.
If we talk about the unborn child’s pain, the other side can say, Use anesthetic? That’s right.
Given the failure of these efforts but the unwillingness of the Supreme Court to grapple with the central question, are more legislative flank attacks futile? What do you advise? Measures that at least have the coherence of directing our concern to the core of the matter, scaling back this freedom to abortion. For instance, we wouldn’t take the life of a person because he’s deaf. Why take the life of an unborn child because he has a disability? Kennedy might be willing to sustain these things, but not to go along with a charade, a device to deprive people of the “right” he is willing to sustain. If we keep shifting our focus away from the innocent child being killed, that is no longer the central moral fact.
In your best-known book, First Things, you refer to the Ferris wheel in that 1949 movie, The Third Man. The character Harry Lime, profiting from adulterated serum in Vienna, is at the top of the Ferris wheel in Vienna. A friend asks, “Have you ever seen what your victims look like?” Lime says, “From up here those people look like little dots. What if I told you I’d give you $20,000 for every dot, tax-free? Would you figure out how many of those dots you could afford to give up?” But when you come from the top of the arc to the bottom those dots turn into real human beings. What you think is a dot in an abortion will become the figure you recognize clearly as a baby.
Six years ago you professed faith in Christ. Two years ago your wife, Judy, died. You had been married for 53 years. What difference did your fairly new faith in Christ make? My Christian convictions give me the hope that I will be with her again. My friends are convinced I’ll see her again and she can hear what’s going on.
What happened on Sept. 3, 1978? Judy had misplaced her wedding ring. I found it, but I didn’t tell her I’d found it. I kept it in my pocket and waited until the daughter of a friend was getting married and the groom put the ring on the bride’s finger. At that moment I slipped the ring back on Judy’s finger.
How did she react? I’ll reserve that to stay within the veil of my marital privacy.
For the story of how Arkes moved from Judaism to the Roman Catholic Church in 2010, please see our April 2015 interview.