BREAKING DOWN CARL SAGAN’S LOGIC ON ABORTION Part 16 “If we are forced to choose a developmental criterion, then this is where we draw the line: when the beginning of characteristically human thinking becomes barely possible” (My 1995 correspondence with Sagan) Francis J. Beckwith vs Carl Sagan

The last few posts have dealt with material from Adrian Rogers and Francis Schaeffer, But today Bernard Nathanson testimony is given.

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Francis Schaeffer and Adrian Rogers


Carl Sagan pictured below:

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Recently I have been revisiting my correspondence in 1995 with the famous astronomer Carl Sagan who I was introduced to when reading a book by Francis Schaeffer called HE IS THERE AND HE IS NOT SILENT written in 1968. 

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Francis Schaeffer

I was blessed with the opportunity to correspond with Dr. Sagan, and in his December 5, 1995 letter Dr. Sagan went on to tell me that he was enclosing his article “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. I am going to respond to several points made in that article. Here is a portion of Sagan’s article (here is a link to the whole article):

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Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan pictured above

 “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”

by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

For the complete text, including illustrations, introductory quote, footnotes, and commentary on the reaction to the originally published article see Billions and Billions.

The issue had been decided years ago. The court had chosen the middle ground. You’d think the fight was over. Instead, there are mass rallies, bombings and intimidation, murders of workers at abortion clinics, arrests, intense lobbying, legislative drama, Congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, major political parties almost defining themselves on the issue, and clerics threatening politicians with perdition. Partisans fling accusations of hypocrisy and murder. The intent of the Constitution and the will of God are equally invoked. Doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes. The contending factions call on science to bolster their positions. Families are divided, husbands and wives agree not to discuss it, old friends are no longer speaking. Politicians check the latest polls to discover the dictates of their consciences. Amid all the shouting, it is hard for the adversaries to hear one another. Opinions are polarized. Minds are closed.

 

Is it wrong to abort a pregnancy? Always? Sometimes? Never? How do we decide? We wrote this article to understand better what the contending views are and to see if we ourselves could find a position that would satisfy us both. Is there no middle ground? We had to weigh the arguments of both sides for consistency and to pose test cases, some of which are purely hypothetical. If in some of these tests we seem to go too far, we ask the reader to be patient with us–we’re trying to stress the various positions to the breaking point to see their weaknesses and where they fail.

In contemplative moments, nearly everyone recognizes that the issue is not wholly one-sided. Many partisans of differing views, we find, feel some disquiet, some unease when confronting what’s behind the opposing arguments. (This is partly why such confrontations are avoided.) And the issue surely touches on deep questions: What are our responses to one another? Should we permit the state to intrude into the most intimate and personal aspects of our lives? Where are the boundaries of freedom? What does it mean to be human?

Of the many actual points of view, it is widely held–especially in the media, which rarely have the time or the inclination to make fine distinctions–that there are only two: “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” This is what the two principal warring camps like to call themselves, and that’s what we’ll call them here. In the simplest characterization, a pro-choicer would hold that the decision to abort a pregnancy is to be made only by the woman; the state has no right to interfere. And a pro-lifer would hold that, from the moment of conception, the embryo or fetus is alive; that this life imposes on us a moral obligation to preserve it; and that abortion is tantamount to murder. Both names–pro-choice and pro-life–were picked with an eye toward influencing those whose minds are not yet made up: Few people wish to be counted either as being against freedom of choice or as opposed to life. Indeed, freedom and life are two of our most cherished values, and here they seem to be in fundamental conflict.

Let’s consider these two absolutist positions in turn. A newborn baby is surely the same being it was just before birth. There ‘s good evidence that a late-term fetus responds to sound–including music, but especially its mother’s voice. It can suck its thumb or do a somersault. Occasionally, it generates adult brain-wave patterns. Some people claim to remember being born, or even the uterine environment. Perhaps there is thought in the womb. It’s hard to maintain that a transformation to full personhood happens abruptly at the moment of birth. Why, then, should it be murder to kill an infant the day after it was born but not the day before?

As a practical matter, this isn’t very important: Less than 1 percent of all tabulated abortions in the United States are listed in the last three months of pregnancy (and, on closer investigation, most such reports turn out to be due to miscarriage or miscalculation). But third-trimester abortions provide a test of the limits of the pro-choice point of view. Does a woman’s “innate right to control her own body” encompass the right to kill a near-term fetus who is, for all intents and purposes, identical to a newborn child?

We believe that many supporters of reproductive freedom are troubled at least occasionally by this question. But they are reluctant to raise it because it is the beginning of a slippery slope. If it is impermissible to abort a pregnancy in the ninth month, what about the eighth, seventh, sixth … ? Once we acknowledge that the state can interfere at any time in the pregnancy, doesn’t it follow that the state can interfere at all times?

Abortion and the slippery slope argument above

This conjures up the specter of predominantly male, predominantly affluent legislators telling poor women they must bear and raise alone children they cannot afford to bring up; forcing teenagers to bear children they are not emotionally prepared to deal with; saying to women who wish for a career that they must give up their dreams, stay home, and bring up babies; and, worst of all, condemning victims of rape and incest to carry and nurture the offspring of their assailants. Legislative prohibitions on abortion arouse the suspicion that their real intent is to control the independence and sexuality of women…

And yet, by consensus, all of us think it proper that there be prohibitions against, and penalties exacted for, murder. It would be a flimsy defense if the murderer pleads that this is just between him and his victim and none of the government’s business. If killing a fetus is truly killing a human being, is it not the duty of the state to prevent it? Indeed, one of the chief functions of government is to protect the weak from the strong.

If we do not oppose abortion at some stage of pregnancy, is there not a danger of dismissing an entire category of human beings as unworthy of our protection and respect? And isn’t that dismissal the hallmark of sexism, racism, nationalism, and religious fanaticism? Shouldn’t those dedicated to fighting such injustices be scrupulously careful not to embrace another?

Adrian Rogers’ sermon on animal rights refutes Sagan here

There is no right to life in any society on Earth today, nor has there been at any former time… : We raise farm animals for slaughter; destroy forests; pollute rivers and lakes until no fish can live there; kill deer and elk for sport, leopards for the pelts, and whales for fertilizer; entrap dolphins, gasping and writhing, in great tuna nets; club seal pups to death; and render a species extinct every day. All these beasts and vegetables are as alive as we. What is (allegedly) protected is not life, but human life.

Genesis 3 defines being human

And even with that protection, casual murder is an urban commonplace, and we wage “conventional” wars with tolls so terrible that we are, most of us, afraid to consider them very deeply… That protection, that right to life, eludes the 40,000 children under five who die on our planet each day from preventable starvation, dehydration, disease, and neglect.

Those who assert a “right to life” are for (at most) not just any kind of life, but for–particularly and uniquely—human life. So they too, like pro-choicers, must decide what distinguishes a human being from other animals and when, during gestation, the uniquely human qualities–whatever they are–emerge.

The Bible talks about the differences between humans and animals

Despite many claims to the contrary, life does not begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain that stretches back nearly to the origin of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Nor does human life begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain dating back to the origin of our species, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Every human sperm and egg is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, alive. They are not human beings, of course. However, it could be argued that neither is a fertilized egg.

In some animals, an egg develops into a healthy adult without benefit of a sperm cell. But not, so far as we know, among humans. A sperm and an unfertilized egg jointly comprise the full genetic blueprint for a human being. Under certain circumstances, after fertilization, they can develop into a baby. But most fertilized eggs are spontaneously miscarried. Development into a baby is by no means guaranteed. Neither a sperm and egg separately, nor a fertilized egg, is more than a potential baby or a potential adult. So if a sperm and egg are as human as the fertilized egg produced by their union, and if it is murder to destroy a fertilized egg–despite the fact that it’s only potentially a baby–why isn’t it murder to destroy a sperm or an egg?

Hundreds of millions of sperm cells (top speed with tails lashing: five inches per hour) are produced in an average human ejaculation. A healthy young man can produce in a week or two enough spermatozoa to double the human population of the Earth. So is masturbation mass murder? How about nocturnal emissions or just plain sex? When the unfertilized egg is expelled each month, has someone died? Should we mourn all those spontaneous miscarriages? Many lower animals can be grown in a laboratory from a single body cell. Human cells can be cloned… In light of such cloning technology, would we be committing mass murder by destroying any potentially clonable cells? By shedding a drop of blood?

 

All human sperm and eggs are genetic halves of “potential” human beings. Should heroic efforts be made to save and preserve all of them, everywhere, because of this “potential”? Is failure to do so immoral or criminal? Of course, there’s a difference between taking a life and failing to save it. And there’s a big difference between the probability of survival of a sperm cell and that of a fertilized egg. But the absurdity of a corps of high-minded semen-preservers moves us to wonder whether a fertilized egg’s mere “potential” to become a baby really does make destroying it murder.

Opponents of abortion worry that, once abortion is permissible immediately after conception, no argument will restrict it at any later time in the pregnancy. Then, they fear, one day it will be permissible to murder a fetus that is unambiguously a human being. Both pro-choicers and pro-lifers (at least some of them) are pushed toward absolutist positions by parallel fears of the slippery slope.

 

Another slippery slope is reached by those pro-lifers who are willing to make an exception in the agonizing case of a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. But why should the right to live depend on the circumstances of conception? If the same child were to result, can the state ordain life for the offspring of a lawful union but death for one conceived by force or coercion? How can this be just? And if exceptions are extended to such a fetus, why should they be withheld from any other fetus? This is part of the reason some pro-lifers adopt what many others consider the outrageous posture of opposing abortions under any and all circumstances–only excepting, perhaps, when the life of the mother is in danger.

By far the most common reason for abortion worldwide is birth control. So shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions. Instead, the United States is far behind other nations in the development of safe and effective methods of birth control–and, in many cases, opposition to such research (and to sex education) has come from the same people who oppose abortions.continue on to Part 3

For the complete text, including illustrations, introductory quote, footnotes, and commentary on the reaction to the originally published article see Billions and Billions.

The attempt to find an ethically sound and unambiguous judgment on when, if ever, abortion is permissible has deep historical roots. Often, especially in Christian tradition, such attempts were connected with the question of when the soul enters the body–a matter not readily amenable to scientific investigation and an issue of controversy even among learned theologians. Ensoulment has been asserted to occur in the sperm before conception, at conception, at the time of “quickening” (when the mother is first able to feel the fetus stirring within her), and at birth. Or even later.

Different religions have different teachings. Among hunter-gatherers, there are usually no prohibitions against abortion, and it was common in ancient Greece and Rome. In contrast, the more severe Assyrians impaled women on stakes for attempting abortion. The Jewish Talmud teaches that the fetus is not a person and has no rights. The Old and New Testaments–rich in astonishingly detailed prohibitions on dress, diet, and permissible words–contain not a word specifically prohibiting abortion. The only passage that’s remotely relevant (Exodus 21:22) decrees that if there’s a fight and a woman bystander should accidentally be injured and made to miscarry, the assailant must pay a fine.

Neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas Aquinas considered early-term abortion to be homicide (the latter on the grounds that the embryo doesn’t look human). This view was embraced by the Church in the Council of Vienne in 1312, and has never been repudiated. The Catholic Church’s first and long-standing collection of canon law (according to the leading historian of the Church’s teaching on abortion, John Connery, S.J.) held that abortion was homicide only after the fetus was already “formed”–roughly, the end of the first trimester.

But when sperm cells were examined in the seventeenth century by the first microscopes, they were thought to show a fully formed human being. An old idea of the homunculus was resuscitated–in which within each sperm cell was a fully formed tiny human, within whose testes were innumerable other homunculi, etc., ad infinitum. In part through this misinterpretation of scientific data, in 1869 abortion at any time for any reason became grounds for excommunication. It is surprising to most Catholics and others to discover that the date was not much earlier.

From colonial times to the nineteenth century, the choice in the United States was the woman’s until “quickening.” An abortion in the first or even second trimester was at worst a misdemeanor. Convictions were rarely sought and almost impossible to obtain, because they depended entirely on the woman’s own testimony of whether she had felt quickening, and because of the jury’s distaste for prosecuting a woman for exercising her right to choose. In 1800 there was not, so far as is known, a single statute in the United States concerning abortion. Advertisements for drugs to induce abortion could be found in virtually every newspaper and even in many church publications–although the language used was suitably euphemistic, if widely understood.

But by 1900, abortion had been banned at any time in pregnancy by every state in the Union, except when necessary to save the woman’s life. What happened to bring about so striking a reversal? Religion had little to do with it.Drastic economic and social conversions were turning this country from an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. America was in the process of changing from having one of the highest birthrates in the world to one of the lowest. Abortion certainly played a role and stimulated forces to suppress it.

 

One of the most significant of these forces was the medical profession. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, medicine was an uncertified, unsupervised business. Anyone could hang up a shingle and call himself (or herself) a doctor. With the rise of a new, university-educated medical elite, anxious to enhance the status and influence of physicians, the American Medical Association was formed. In its first decade, the AMA began lobbying against abortions performed by anyone except licensed physicians. New knowledge of embryology, the physicians said, had shown the fetus to be human even before quickening.

Their assault on abortion was motivated not by concern for the health of the woman but, they claimed, for the welfare of the fetus. You had to be a physician to know when abortion was morally justified, because the question depended on scientific and medical facts understood only by physicians. At the same time, women were effectively excluded from the medical schools, where such arcane knowledge could be acquired. So, as things worked out, women had almost nothing to say about terminating their own pregnancies. It was also up to the physician to decide if the pregnancy posed a threat to the woman, and it was entirely at his discretion to determine what was and was not a threat. For the rich woman, the threat might be a threat to her emotional tranquillity or even to her lifestyle. The poor woman was often forced to resort to the back alley or the coat hanger.

This was the law until the 1960s, when a coalition of individuals and organizations, the AMA now among them, sought to overturn it and to reinstate the more traditional values that were to be embodied in Roe v. Wade.continue on to Part 4

If you deliberately kill a human being, it’s called murder. If you deliberately kill a chimpanzee–biologically, our closest relative, sharing 99.6 percent of our active genes–whatever else it is, it’s not murder. To date, murder uniquely applies to killing human beings. Therefore, the question of when personhood (or, if we like, ensoulment) arises is key to the abortion debate. When does the fetus become human? When do distinct and characteristic human qualities emerge?

Section 8 Sperm journey to becoming Human (use Ernst Haeckel here) 

We recognize that specifying a precise moment will overlook individual differences. Therefore, if we must draw a line, it ought to be drawn conservatively–that is, on the early side. There are people who object to having to set some numerical limit, and we share their disquiet; but if there is to be a law on this matter, and it is to effect some useful compromise between the two absolutist positions, it must specify, at least roughly, a time of transition to personhood.

Every one of us began from a dot. A fertilized egg is roughly the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The momentous meeting of sperm and egg generally occurs in one of the two fallopian tubes. One cell becomes two, two become four, and so on—an exponentiation of base-2 arithmetic. By the tenth day the fertilized egg has become a kind of hollow sphere wandering off to another realm: the womb. It destroys tissue in its path. It sucks blood from capillaries. It bathes itself in maternal blood, from which it extracts oxygen and nutrients. It establishes itself as a kind of parasite on the walls of the uterus.By the third week, around the time of the first missed menstrual period, the forming embryo is about 2 millimeters long and is developing various body parts. Only at this stage does it begin to be dependent on a rudimentary placenta. It looks a little like a segmented worm.By the end of the fourth week, it’s about 5 millimeters (about 1/5 inch) long. It’s recognizable now as a vertebrate, its tube-shaped heart is beginning to beat, something like the gill arches of a fish or an amphibian become conspicuous, and there is a pronounced tail. It looks rather like a newt or a tadpole. This is the end of the first month after conception.By the fifth week, the gross divisions of the brain can be distinguished. What will later develop into eyes are apparent, and little buds appear—on their way to becoming arms and legs.By the sixth week, the embryo is 13 millimeteres (about ½ inch) long. The eyes are still on the side of the head, as in most animals, and the reptilian face has connected slits where the mouth and nose eventually will be.By the end of the seventh week, the tail is almost gone, and sexual characteristics can be discerned (although both sexes look female). The face is mammalian but somewhat piglike.By the end of the eighth week, the face resembles that of a primate but is still not quite human. Most of the human body parts are present in their essentials. Some lower brain anatomy is well-developed. The fetus shows some reflex response to delicate stimulation.By the tenth week, the face has an unmistakably human cast. It is beginning to be possible to distinguish males from females. Nails and major bone structures are not apparent until the third month.By the fourth month, you can tell the face of one fetus from that of another. Quickening is most commonly felt in the fifth month. The bronchioles of the lungs do not begin developing until approximately the sixth month, the alveoli still later.

So, if only a person can be murdered, when does the fetus attain personhood? When its face becomes distinctly human, near the end of the first trimester? When the fetus becomes responsive to stimuli–again, at the end of the first trimester? When it becomes active enough to be felt as quickening, typically in the middle of the second trimester? When the lungs have reached a stage of development sufficient that the fetus might, just conceivably, be able to breathe on its own in the outside air?

The trouble with these particular developmental milestones is not just that they’re arbitrary. More troubling is the fact that none of them involves uniquely humancharacteristics–apart from the superficial matter of facial appearance. All animals respond to stimuli and move of their own volition. Large numbers are able to breathe. But that doesn’t stop us from slaughtering them by the billions. Reflexes and motion are not what make us human.

Section 9 Sagan’s conclusion based on arbitrary choice of the presence of thought by unborn baby

Other animals have advantages over us–in speed, strength, endurance, climbing or burrowing skills, camouflage, sight or smell or hearing, mastery of the air or water. Our one great advantage, the secret of our success, is thought–characteristically human thought. We are able to think things through, imagine events yet to occur, figure things out. That’s how we invented agriculture and civilization. Thought is our blessing and our curse, and it makes us who we are.

Thinking occurs, of course, in the brain–principally in the top layers of the convoluted “gray matter” called the cerebral cortex. The roughly 100 billion neurons in the brain constitute the material basis of thought. The neurons are connected to each other, and their linkups play a major role in what we experience as thinking. But large-scale linking up of neurons doesn’t begin until the 24th to 27th week of pregnancy–the sixth month.

By placing harmless electrodes on a subject’s head, scientists can measure the electrical activity produced by the network of neurons inside the skull. Different kinds of mental activity show different kinds of brain waves. But brain waves with regular patterns typical of adult human brains do not appear in the fetus until about the 30th week of pregnancy–near the beginning of the third trimester. Fetuses younger than this–however alive and active they may be–lack the necessary brain architecture. They cannot yet think.

Acquiescing in the killing of any living creature, especially one that might later become a baby, is troublesome and painful. But we’ve rejected the extremes of “always” and “never,” and this puts us–like it or not–on the slippery slope. If we are forced to choose a developmental criterion, then this is where we draw the line: when the beginning of characteristically human thinking becomes barely possible.

It is, in fact, a very conservative definition: Regular brain waves are rarely found in fetuses. More research would help… If we wanted to make the criterion still more stringent, to allow for occasional precocious fetal brain development, we might draw the line at six months. This, it so happens, is where the Supreme Court drew it in 1973–although for completely different reasons.

Its decision in the case of Roe v. Wade changed American law on abortion. It permits abortion at the request of the woman without restriction in the first trimester and, with some restrictions intended to protect her health, in the second trimester. It allows states to forbid abortion in the third trimester, except when there’s a serious threat to the life or health of the woman. In the 1989 Webster decision, the Supreme Court declined explicitly to overturn Roe v. Wade but in effect invited the 50 state legislatures to decide for themselves.

What was the reasoning in Roe v. Wade? There was no legal weight given to what happens to the children once they are born, or to the family. Instead, a woman’s right to reproductive freedom is protected, the court ruled, by constitutional guarantees of privacy. But that right is not unqualified. The woman’s guarantee of privacy and the fetus’s right to life must be weighed–and when the court did the weighing’ priority was given to privacy in the first trimester and to life in the third. The transition was decided not from any of the considerations we have been dealing with so far…–not when “ensoulment” occurs, not when the fetus takes on sufficient human characteristics to be protected by laws against murder. Instead, the criterion adopted was whether the fetus could live outside the mother. This is called “viability” and depends in part on the ability to breathe. The lungs are simply not developed, and the fetus cannot breathe–no matter how advanced an artificial lung it might be placed in—until about the 24th week, near the start of the sixth month. This is why Roe v. Wade permits the states to prohibit abortions in the last trimester. It’s a very pragmatic criterion.

If the fetus at a certain stage of gestation would be viable outside the womb, the argument goes, then the right of the fetus to life overrides the right of the woman to privacy. But just what does “viable” mean? Even a full-term newborn is not viable without a great deal of care and love. There was a time before incubators, only a few decades ago, when babies in their seventh month were unlikely to be viable. Would aborting in the seventh month have been permissible then? After the invention of incubators, did aborting pregnancies in the seventh month suddenly become immoral? What happens if, in the future, a new technology develops so that an artificial womb can sustain a fetus even before the sixth month by delivering oxygen and nutrients through the blood–as the mother does through the placenta and into the fetal blood system? We grant that this technology is unlikely to be developed soon or become available to many. But if it were available, does it then become immoral to abort earlier than the sixth month, when previously it was moral? A morality that depends on, and changes with, technology is a fragile morality; for some, it is also an unacceptable morality.

And why, exactly, should breathing (or kidney function, or the ability to resist disease) justify legal protection? If a fetus can be shown to think and feel but not be able to breathe, would it be all right to kill it? Do we value breathing more than thinking and feeling? Viability arguments cannot, it seems to us, coherently determine when abortions are permissible. Some other criterion is needed. Again, we offer for consideration the earliest onset of human thinking as that criterion.

Since, on average, fetal thinking occurs even later than fetal lung development, we find Roe v. Wade to be a good and prudent decision addressing a complex and difficult issue. With prohibitions on abortion in the last trimester–except in cases of grave medical necessity–it strikes a fair balance between the conflicting claims of freedom and life.What do you think? What have others said about Carl Sagan’s thoughts on 

End Of Sagan Excerpt 

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Carl Sagan stated, “If we are forced to choose a developmental criterion, then this is where we draw the line: when the beginning of characteristically human thinking becomes barely possible.” Below Francis J. Beckwith shows there is a problem with this sort of relativistic reasoning of Sagan.

Philosophical Problems With Moral Relativism

Article ID: DA241

By: Francis J. Beckwith

Summary In moral debate in the United States today, many people resort to moral relativism. They argue that there are no objective moral values which help us to determine what is right or wrong. They claim “everything is relative.” In order to defend this position, the relativist puts forth two arguments: (1) Since people and cultures disagree about morality, there are no objective moral values; (2) Moral relativism leads to tolerance of practices we may find different or odd. These two arguments are seriously flawed. In addition, the moral relativist has a difficult time explaining moral progress, moral reformation, and clear-cut cases of moral saints and moral devils.

Ethical, moral, and social issues are beginning to dominate the headlines of major newspapers and the front covers of leading magazines. Unfortunately many today seem to assume that rationality and logic have no place in discussions of moral issues, and that there is no way such questions can be answered. Many assume that we are simply stuck with our opinions, and that all opinions are relative — having no basis in any objective or unchanging moral values. Should all values and opinions be accorded equal moral weight? The purpose of this article is to critically address the problem of moral relativism, which I believe impedes our ability as a people to critically and rationally discuss issues of great moral and ethical importance.

MORAL RELATIVISM

In his influential work, The Closing of the American Mind,Professor Allan Bloom makes the observation that “there is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative…The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated.”1 By dogmatically asserting that there is no truth, people have become close-minded to the possibility of knowing truth, if in fact it does exist. Consequently, lurking behind most of the moral rhetoric in America today is moral relativism, the belief that there are no objective moral values that transcend culture or the individual. This is why many people begin or end their moral judgments with qualifying phrases such as, “It is only my personal opinion,” “Of course I am not judging anyone’s behavior,” or “If you think it is all right, that is okay, but I’m personally against it.” Although such assertions have their place, we often use them inappropriately. Let us consider a few examples of how moral relativism affects the way many people approach public moral issues.

The Abortion Debate

Some abortion-rights advocates, in response to pro-life arguments, emote such bumper-sticker slogans as: “Pro-choice, but personally opposed,” “Don’t like abortion, don’t have one,” or “Abortion is against my beliefs, but I would never dream of imposing my beliefs on others.” These slogans attempt to articulate in a simple way a common avenue taken by politicians and others who want to avoid the slings and arrows that naturally follow a firm position on abortion. It is an attempt to find “a compromise” or “a middle ground”; it’s a way to avoid being labeled “an extremist” of either camp. During the 1984 presidential campaign — when questions of Geraldine Ferraro’s Catholicism and its apparent conflict with her abortion-rights stance were prominent in the media — New York Governor Mario Cuomo, in a lecture delivered at the University of Notre Dame, attempted to give this “middle ground” intellectual respectability. He tried to provide a philosophical foundation for his friend’s position, but failed miserably. For one cannot appeal to the fact that we live in a pluralistic society (characterized by moral pluralism/relativism) when the very question of who is part of that society (that is, whether it includes unborn children) is itself the point under dispute. Cuomo begged the question and lost the argument. The pro-abortionist’s unargued assumption of moral relativism to solve the abortion debate reveals a tremendous ignorance of the pro-life position. For the fact is that if one believes that the unborn are fully human (persons), then the unborn carried in the wombs of pro-choice women are just as human as those carried in the wombs of pro-life women. For the pro-lifer, an unborn child is no less a human person simply because the child happens to be living inside Whoopi Goldberg or Cybil Shepherd. Ideology does not change identity. Pro-choicers ought to put at least some effort into understanding the pro-life position. When they tell pro-lifers (as they often do) that they have a right to believe what they want to believe, they are unwittingly promoting the radical tactics of Operation Rescue (OR). Think about it. If you believed that a class of persons were being murdered by methods that include dismemberment, suffocation, and burning — resulting in excruciating pain in many cases — wouldn’t you be perplexed if someone tried to ease your outrage by telling you that you didn’t have to participate in the murders if you didn’t want to? That is exactly what pro-lifers hear when abortion-rights supporters tell them, “Don’t like abortion, don’t have one,” or “I’m pro-choice, but personally opposed.” In the mind of the pro-lifer, this is like telling an abolitionist, “Don’t like slavery, don’t own one,” or telling Dietrich Bonhoffer, “Don’t like the holocaust, don’t kill a Jew.” Consequently, to request that pro-lifers “shouldn’t force their pro-life belief on others” while at the same time claiming that “they have a right to believe what they want to believe” is to reveal an incredible ignorance of their position. Contrary to popular belief, the so-called “pro-choice” position is not neutral. The abortion-rights activist’s claim that women should have the “right to choose” to kill their unborn fetuses amounts to denying the pro-life position that the unborn are worthy of protection. And the pro-lifer’s affirmation that the unborn are fully human with a “right to life” amounts to denying the abortion-rights position that women have a fundamental right to terminate their pregnancies, since such a termination would result in a homicide. It seems, then, that appealing to moral relativism (or moral pluralism ala Mario Cuomo) to “solve” the abortion debate is an intellectual impossibility and solves nothing.

Censorship and the Public Good

Another example of how ethical relativism affects the way many people approach public moral issues can be seen in the arguments concerning the right to boycott products advertised on television programs which certain groups believe are psychologically and morally harmful. The usual argument in response to these groups is, “If you don’t like a particular program, you don’t have to watch it. You can always change the channel.” But is this response really compelling? One must point out that these groups are not only saying that they personally find these programs offensive, but rather are arguing that the programs themselves convey messages and create a moral climate that will affect others — especially children — in a way they believe is adverse to the public good. Hence, what bothers these groups is that you and your children will not change the channel. I believe that as long as these groups do not advocate state censorship, but merely apply social and economic pressure to private corporations (which civil rights and feminist groups have been doing for some time now), a balance of freedoms is achieved. Both are free to pursue their interests within the confines of constitutional protection, although both must be willing to accept the social and economic consequences of their actions. This seems to best serve the public good. Notice that this position does not resort to ethical relativism, but takes seriously the values of freedom, the public good, and individual rights — and attempts to uphold these values in a way that is consistent and fair.

ARGUMENTS FOR MORAL RELATIVISM

There are several arguments people have put forth to defend moral relativism. Of these, two are especially popular, surfacing again and again in our culture under different forms. The remainder of this article will be devoted to examining these arguments.

The Argument from Diversity in Moral Practice

Argument no. 1 states: Since cultures and individuals differ in certain moral practices, there are no objective moral values. Several objections can be made to this argument. First, the fact that people disagree about something does not mean there is no objective truth. If you and I disagree about whether or not the earth is round, for example, this is not proof that the earth has noshape. In moral discussion, the fact that a skinhead (a type of young Neo-Nazi) and I may disagree about whether we should treat people equally and fairly is not sufficient evidence to say that equality and fairness have no objective value. Even if individuals and cultures held no values in common, it does not follow from this that nobody is right or wrong about the correct values. That is, there could be a morally erring individual or culture, such as Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Another problem with this argument is that it does not follow from the fact that cultures and individuals differ in moral practices that they do not share common values. For example, the fact that some female islanders who live in the South Seas do not cover their breasts and British women do doesn’t mean that the former do not value modesty. Due to the climate, environmental conditions, and certain religious beliefs, the people of the South Seas have developed certain practices by which to manifest the transcultural value of modesty. Although cultures may differ about how they manifest such values as honesty, courage, and the preserving of life, they do not promote dishonesty, cowardice, or arbitrary killing. Second, sometimes apparent moral differences are not moral differences at all but factual differences. For example, many people who live in India do not eat cows because they believe in reincarnation — that these cows may possess the souls of deceased human beings. In the United States we do not believe cows have human souls. For this reason, we eat cows — but we do not eat Grandma. It appears on the surface, therefore, that there is a fundamental value difference between Indians and Americans. This is a hasty conclusion, however, for both cultures do believe it is wrong to eat Grandma; the Indians, however, believe the cow may be Grandma. Thus it is a factual and not a value difference that divides our culinary habits. Other examples can be produced to show why this first argument for moral relativism is inadequate.2 It should be noted, however, that the fact there are some common values among peoples and cultures does not mean all cultures share all the same values. Obviously certain peoples and cultures may have developed some values that others have not. Hence, the discovering of a unique value in a particular society does not in any way take away from my central thesis that there are certain values to which all societies either implicitly or explicitly hold. Third, the argument from differing practices puts an undue emphasis on differences while ignoring similarities, in addition to giving the mistaken appearance that all moral conflicts are in some sense insoluble. In discussing moral conflicts in the United States we tend to focus our attention on contemporary issues — abortion, euthanasia, affirmative action, and so forth — over which there is obviously wide and impassioned disagreement. However, we tend to ignore the fact that the disputants in these moral debates hold a number of values in common, that there are many moral issues on which almost all Americans agree (e.g., “It is wrong to molest six-year-old girls”), and that a number of past moral conflicts have been solved (e.g., slavery, women’s suffrage). Hence, by focusing our attention only on disagreements, our perception has become skewed. Philosopher James Rachels illustrates this point with an example from the sciences:

If we think of questions like this [i.e., abortion, euthanasia, affirmative action, etc.], it is easy to believe that “proof” in ethics is impossible. The same can be said of the sciences. There are many complicated matters that physicists cannot agree on; and if we focused our attention entirely on them we might conclude that there is no “proof” in physics. But of course, many simpler matters in physics can be proven, and about those all competent physicists agree. Similarly, in ethics there are many matters far simpler than abortion, about which all reasonable people must agree.3

The Argument from the Virtue of Tolerance

Argument no. 2 for ethical relativism states: Since ethical relativism promotes tolerance of certain cultural practices that members of Western civilization may think are strange, ethical relativism is a good thing. However, although tolerance often is a virtue, ethical relativists simply cannot justify their own position by appealing to it in this way. First, the value of tolerance presupposes the existence of at least one real objective (or absolute) value: tolerance. Bioethicist Tom Beauchamp makes this observation:

If we interpret normative relativism as requiring tolerance of other views, the whole theory is imperiled by inconsistency. The proposition that we ought to tolerate the views of others, or that it is right not to interfere with others, is precluded by the very strictures of the theory. Such a proposition bears all the marks of a non-relativeaccount of moral rightness, one based on, but not reducible to, the cross-cultural findings of anthropologists…But if this moral principle [of tolerance] is recognized as valid, it can of course be employed as an instrument for criticizing such cultural practices as the denial of human rights to minorities and such beliefs as that of racial superiority. A moral commitment to tolerance of other practices and beliefs thus leads inexorably to the abandonment of normative relativism.4

Second, tolerance can only be a virtue if we think the other person, whose viewpoint we’re supposed to tolerate, is mistaken. That is to say, if we do not believe one viewpoint is better than another, then to ask us to be tolerant of other viewpoints makes no sense. For to tolerate another’s viewpoint implies that this other person has a right to his or her viewpoint despite the fact that others may think it is wrong. To be tolerant of differing viewpoints involves just that — differing viewpoints, all of which cannot be equally correct at the same time. The man who supposes himself tolerant while at the same time he believes nobody is either right or wrong about any moral value is actually no more virtuous than the man who supposes his virginity is chastity even though he was born with no sexual organs. Consequently, real tolerance presupposes someone is right and someone is wrong, which implicitly denies moral relativism. It must be acknowledged, however, that there is a noble motive behind the relativists’ appeal to tolerance. They believe their view of tolerance will help us to better understand other cultures and people without being hypercritical about their practices. This in turn will keep us from using such criticism to justify the forced imposition of our own cultural practices on them, such as putting blouses on the bare-breasted women of the South Seas or forcing polygamous families to divide and become monogamous. I can sympathize with this view of transcultural tolerance. As I stated earlier, however, a cultural practice is different from a cultural value. It does not follow from different practices that people have different values. The local controversies surrounding the elimination of certain books from public school curricula and libraries is an example of how people can agree on values and yet disagree on practice. Those who favor more conservative guidelines, and who are often referred to as advocating censorship, usually propose that certain materials are not suitable for certain age groups. They argue that parents, not educational administrators, are best suited to know what is good for their children. On the other hand, their opponents, who are often referred to as advocating freedom of expression, usually propose that it should be up to the teacher and the educational administrators to choose what is suitable material, although they do believe that a line should be drawn somewhere. For example, none of these defenders of freedom of expression defend the placing of hard-core pornography in the hands of fourth graders. This, of course, makes the debate all the more interesting, since it means that both sides agree on the following general principles: a line must be drawn, certain materials are suitable for certain age groups, and education is important. Both advocate some kind of “censorship.” They just disagree on who should be the censors, what should be censored, and on what basis the decision should be made. Therefore, they both hold to many of the same values, but they disagree as to the application of these values, and the acceptability of certain factual claims. Although this distinction between practice and value helps us to be tolerant of unusual cultural practices, we are still able to make valuable moral judgments about others and ourselves. First, we are free to criticize those intolerable cultural practices that doconflict with basic human values, such as in the cases of genocide in Nazi Germany and apartheid in South Africa. Second, we are able to admit to real moral progress, such as in the case of the abolition of slavery. And third, there can exist real moral reformers, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and the prophets of the Old Testament, who served as prophetic voices to reprimand their cultures for having drifted far from a true moral practice based on basic human values. The above three points — each of which follow from a belief in objective transcultural values — do not follow from a belief in ethical relativism. That is to say, to remain consistent the ethical relativist cannot criticize intolerable moral practices, believe in real moral progress, or acknowledge the existence of real moral reformers. For these three forms of moral judgment presuppose the existence of real objective transcultural values. Although much more can be said about the justification and existence of certain values,5 the above is sufficient to demonstrate that ethical relativism is enormously problematic. It shows that we can rationally discuss and argue with each other about right and wrong without resorting to the claim that ethical judgments are merely subjective or relative and that all such judgments have equal validity. For to claim the latter logically leads one to the bizarre judgment that Mother Teresa is no more and no less virtuous than Adolf Hitler. I believe this is sufficient to show ethical relativism to be bankrupt. Moral relativism has been rejected by a near unanimous number of both secular and theistic ethicists and philosophers.6 Yet it is still popular to espouse this view in many of our secularized cultural institutions. It is thought to be more tolerant, more open, and more intellectually respectable than the old-fashioned “absolutism.”7 As we have seen, however, moral relativism is inconsistent with tolerance, closed off to the possibility of moral truth, and an intellectual failure. Francis J. Beckwith, Ph.D. is a Lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His latest books are Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Baker, 1993) and Are You Politically Correct? Debating America’s Cultural Standards (Prometheus, 1993).

NOTES

1 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 25. 2 James Rachels, “A Critique of Ethical Relativism,” in Philosophy: The Quest for Truth, ed. Louis P. Pojman (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1989), 322-23. 3 James Rachels, “Some Basic Points about Arguments,” in The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, ed. James Rachels (New York: Random House, 1989), 40. 4 Tom L. Beauchamp, Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 42. 5 For a philosophical defense of particular universal values, see C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 95-121; Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1984), chapters 1-5; Rachels, “A Critique,” 322-24; and J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), chapter 4. 6 E.g., see Rachels, “A Critique”; J. P. Moreland and Norman L. Geisler, The Life and Death Debate: Moral Issues of Our Time (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), chapter 1. 7 I think this is more accurately referred to as moral objectivism, since not all the values the absolutist holds are absolutely equal; some are better than others. See Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989). This article is a significantly revised version of a portion of chapter 1 of Francis J. Beckwith’s Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), 19-25. Reprinted by permission

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