Recently, while discussing abortion, my conversation partner raised a common argument: the unborn child might have a terrible life if he or she is born. Of course, abortion results in the certainty that the child will not have a terrible life; he or she will have no life at all.
In Plato’s Apology of Socrates, Socrates gives an account for why he has followed the pursuit of truth, a pursuit for which he runs the risk of dying at the hands of the Athenians. Having devoted himself to a life of philosophizing and examining himself and others, he questions why living or dying would be considered and not only whether one’s actions are just or unjust. Socrates then says:
For this fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance? And this is the point in which, as I think, I am superior to men in general, and in which I might perhaps fancy myself wiser than other men, – that whereas I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know: but I do know that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonorable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil.
Thinking about the pro-abortion argument that it is better for the unborn to be killed than to be born and experience a (potentially) terrible life sounds like a reverse pretense of wisdom. For the fear of life is indeed the pretense of wisdom and, of course, not real wisdom; since no one knows whether the continued life of the unborn, which some argue may be terrible, may not actually be awesome. It would be better not to fear or avoid a possible good (life) rather than commit a certain evil (ending a life by abortion).
Along with this conceit of thinking that life is the greatest fear when it might be the greatest good often comes the view that suffering is the greatest evil.
Turning to Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, Socrates argues with Polus about whether suffering really is the greatest evil. Polus suggests that a person who is put to death unjustly is “really pitiable and wretched.” But Socrates replies, “Less so than the man who kills him, Polus, and also less than the man who is put to death justly.” This surprises Polus and Socrates asserts that to do injustice is the greatest of all evils. Socrates would prefer not to suffer injustice or to do it, but if (and when) he has to choose between these, he chooses to suffer rather than commit injustice.
Arguments for abortion contradict the Socratic lessons both of humbly recognizing one’s own ignorance and of preferring to suffer injustice (or inconvenience) rather than commit it.