Spirited Debate: Quakers For Life versus Dr. Baron


In a show of intellectual vigor, the Penn student pro-life advocacy group Quakers for Life debated psychology professor Jonathan Baron on the morality of abortion in the pages of The Statesman this month. Allow me to be the first reviewer to point out that it was awesome.

We are printing this spirited debate because we believe spirited debate is good for everybody, debaters and active readers alike. We believe now is as good a time as any to learn a little something about thinking deeply, pursuing highly productive yet stressful social engagements, and the practice of interpersonal respect.

It is happy news that this kind of conversation still exists on university campuses. It is all too easy for detractors from the intersectional post-modernist academic agenda to become disheartened and hole themselves up in corners of Reddit or beneath the warm UV glow of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Alternatively, it is equally facile for supporters of left-wing brand progressivism to grow comfortable in the Ivy League bubble and wish for the end to whole categories of vivacious discourse. That kind of silence and mutual ignorance breeds contempt and hostility, and it’s a festering problem in society in general.

But just when we thought the bubble was too thick-walled to pop and were preparing for non-argument to rule the land, a squad of Quakers soared in like majestic eagles over Center City to restore your hope in the freshness of thought and discourse on campus.

The majestic heroes are students and faculty who resisted the temptation of silence and decided to commit the resulting conversation to paper for us to read.

In “Quakers for Life debates Dr. Jonathan Baron on morality of abortion,” Quakers for Life (QFL) combine their efforts against Dr. Baron, who holds up quite well. Turns out, psych professor Dr. Baron is skilled, ladies and gentlemen, and he just helped teach you all a course in rational discussion.

QFL claimed a human fetus is a member of the human family, the killing of whom should be treated as equally wrong as killing any other young human; Baron claimed society’s utility could be maximized by allowing for abortion when it is used without creating net negative human experience, which he argues is true in most circumstances. The students retort that Baron’s moral compass would allow for the killing of newborns; the professor points out that QFL has not left room for any exceptions to the moral absolute, “abortion is wrong.”

Despite tackling a controversial topic surrounding anxiety-filled, potentially life-and-death situations, they managed quite easily to present clean, fair dialogue between dissenting agendas. I highly encourage the reader to check out their debate on the morality of abortion, presented on paper by your favorite publication ever. (Need I remind you so often?)

Found it? Finished it? Loved it? Good.

Me too, for several distinct reasons:

  • Each orator managed to resist waging ad hominem attack on the other.
  • Each used largely consistent logic and a largely polite, if fierce, tone.
  • From what I can tell, both QFL and Dr. Baron are trying hard to say what they mean and convince the reader of the validity of their beliefs.

These general facts make the rhetoric shared between the two extremely productive, not only for seeking the truth and sounder moral stances, but also for promoting rapport and community among people very different in worldview despite living in such proximity. That kind of fraternity is the fiber that will either bind Americans close in harmony or snap and give way to absolute chaos and violence. I applaud QFL and Baron for strengthening the bands of peace, not sawing away at them like so many around us who seek to create damaging conflict instead.

At the same time, no two interlocutors present the perfect debate. The abortion conversation may have an overall positive effect, but I will note a few key areas for improvement (because failing to complain is at least very boring, and probably also a mortal sin).

  • I call for a rematch: The pro-life group and the professor need to have this conversation not only in writing but also in person, with an engaged audience, looking each other in the eyes, and presenting a more thorough conversation. Doing so would also help the two parties to avoid debating the straw man.
  • QFL focused on its own positive proof for its position, while Dr. Baron spent most of his opening statement defending against expected rebuttals. QFL should make a point to anticipate holes in its arguments and dam them up as soon as they appear.
  • Dr. Baron never cited a source, neither academic nor personal. QFL cited one source. Both should wield meaningful data or scientific literature if possible, even when discussing such a philosophical topic. You can’t just be your own authoritative fact source; you should use empirical evidence. Oprah’s “Your Truth” does not directly apply to rigorous rhetoric.

But the down-to-Earth reader should not dismay. To preserve the moral fabric of society, you needn’t conduct such lofty debate as that between Quakers for Life and Dr. Jonathan Baron. As Wharton professor Adam Grant wrote in The New York Times last year, respectful argumentation is a healthy exercise in every context, from business team to classroom to courtroom, to the nuclear family or flying the world’s first airplane (it turns out the Wright brothers got so intelligent—and successful—by arguing with each other a lot). It makes you smarter, it makes you nicer, and most importantly, it makes society stronger. In case you haven’t noticed, humanity could use a little TLC. So get out there, and argue responsibly.

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