The source and certainty

Desmond Clarke, an emeritus professor of philosophy at University College Cork, explains why religious moral certainty is out of place in discussions of abortion law. In particular, he says that

those who are absolutely certain about their ethical views – which are evidently not shared by many others – should reflect on the source and certainty of their convictions.

Those who do so reflect and do so independently of religion tend to bump up against some version of the harm principle. First do no harm. That’s the core of the little list I drew up the other day – don’t do genocide, don’t push children into traffic, that kind of thing. There are complications, but my point was that you can make the claims short enough and obvious enough that it’s difficult to be skeptical about them – at least I think it is. Except for people with broken empathy, which is why I made an exception for psychopaths.

Archbishop Eamon Martin spoke recently about Catholics “putting faith into practice” and not leaving “our faith ‘outside the room’” when they discuss legislation. No one can argue with faith. The history of religions shows that sects have held the most irrational and misogynistic beliefs, and have attributed them to a god.

And attributing them to a god means getting to go around the normal inhibitions on violence and cruelty, and doing so with a clear conscience.

Of course, non-religious people have held equally implausible beliefs, but they cannot protect them from examination by appealing to faith.

I’m not sure we know that. I’m not sure it’s true that non-religious people really have held equally implausible beliefs.

But that’s a quibble. It’s the second part that matters. That’s the point we ended Does God Hate Women? with – that that’s how religion makes misogyny much harder to address and get rid of – it sanctifies it and shields it.


  1. aziraphale says

    I’m decidedly pro-choice, but I must point out that “First do no harm” is question-begging here. Abortion certainly harms the fetus. We have to weigh that against other possible harms.

  2. says

    No, aziraphale, we don’t. No more than we have to weigh ‘kidney failure’ harms a person against the ‘possible harm’ done by harvesting a kidney from someone against that person’s will. Or even how we have to weigh ‘mopping the kitchen is a pain in the ass’ against the ‘possible harm’ of slavery.

  3. Jenora Feuer says

    Except for people with broken empathy, which is why I made an exception for psychopaths.

    In some ways, the really scary part…

    On one of the other blogs I frequent, where moral and social justice issues often come up, one of the regular commenters is a self-declared sociopath. (Diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, to be more technical.) From his writing, you do definitely get the feeling that yes, this is someone who doesn’t have the same levels of empathy as others, in that he doesn’t always understand exactly where the lines are that most people seem to consider uncrossable.

    That said, he’s also one of the more interesting commenters, because unlike most people, he has had to actively consciously think about morals and ethics. He has spent a great deal of time in self-reflection, philosophy, and figuring out his positions. Even when you disagree with what he says, he’s generally capable of giving an understandable reason as to how he arrived there.

    He also occasionally despairs at the fact that some of these very vocal and supposedly moral people make him, as a diagnosed sociopath, look like a model of ethics.

  4. says

    That is really interesting. I think I think that a working sense of empathy is crucial…and yet…I also know it’s not sufficient, even if it is necessary, and if it’s not sufficient I start to wonder if it is even necessary.

  5. Jenora Feuer says

    In many ways, a working sense of empathy is a shortcut, making decisions based on reducing harm somewhat like reflexes.

    If you don’t have that, you do have to spend a lot more time consciously thinking about this sort of thing; unfortunately, many people are lazy and prefer not having to think that much. Also, people without empathy have to actively consider the needs of people other than themselves to think of the long-term results of their actions rather than the short-term. Again, not easy. But necessary if the person without empathy wants to actually get along with the rest of society, and don’t have the money and resources to put themselves above most of those concerns.

    Of course, people with empathy can often be more easily side-tracked with appeals to emotion and some forms of propaganda. This is especially true with things like the abortion debate, which is why the propaganda is all about the ‘babies’ and goes to lengths to eliminate the woman from the public discussion, using empathy to push all concerns to one side of the ‘debate’.

    On the flip side, society seems to need for the great majority of people to have empathy in order to function, especially once you get to anything larger than a small village, as a certain amount of trust is required. I seem to recall people have looked at this using game theory principles. (Though the applicability of that to the real world is still debatable.)

    Sorry, rambling a bit here.

  6. says

    The ability to do moral reasoning can lead to ethical decisions, as can empathy. I think of them as redundant bridge supports. If one fails…

  7. quixote says

    aziraphale, if you’d like another angle with the same conclusion as WTM: the mother provides full life support to the fetus. Even assuming the fetus is a person (which is an absurd assumption in many definitive ways, but let’s assume it), that does not give the fetus more right to requisition life support from another person than it gives to me, for instance.
    If my kidneys are failing, I can’t collar people on the street until I find a tissue match and demand that person’s spare kidney. Merely the fact that I will die does not ever give me or anyone the right to force life support from others.
    Except when the situation involves fetuses and women. And the only reason that’s the exception is because women are such non-persons in too many people’s minds that their humanity is invisible. If one views women as incubators, then requisitioning those things makes sense.

  8. aziraphale says

    quixote, I don’t wish to get involved on the wrong side of this argument, since I generally agree with you. I simply quibble with the assumption that “First do no harm” is an unproblematic argument for abortion.

    Your arguments would seem to justify abortion right up to the moment of birth. If they don’t, why not?

    Saying that a fetus is not a person one minute before birth, but becomes a person shortly after, seems to me as absurd as saying that every fetus is a person. I think there are degrees of personhood, and corresponding degrees of harm.

  9. opposablethumbs says

    aziraphale, quixote and others have already made it clear – it actually doesn’t matter whether or not the foetus is a person. What matters is that the woman incontrovertibly is – and as such is entitled to full bodily autonomy. No other person (even if the foetus is a person, which is by no means conceded) has the right to the use of her body.

  10. octopod says

    aziraphale: The reason that this argument doesn’t “justify abortion right up to the moment of birth” is because at some point during a pregnancy’s duration, it becomes possible to keep the fetus alive while still removing it from the woman who doesn’t want to provide it life support anymore. At the gestational age where inducing parturition becomes a feasible alternative to inducing abortion, this argument ceases to apply.

    (To reiterate, as others have said above: The argument is not that “a fetus is not a person one minute before birth, but becomes a person shortly after” at all — the question of whether it’s a person is not relevant to the argument. The question is whether it has a right to the woman’s body, and the answer is an uncomplicated “no” — and that’s true whether the fetus is ethically equivalent to a rock, a cat, or a fully grown human being, because none of those have a right to be supported by your body without your informed consent.)

  11. aziraphale says

    octopod: I am unhappy with framing this in terms of rights – and yes, I am familiar with the “famous violinist” analogy.

    Suppose a woman and her newborn child are alone with no access to anything the child can digest, except her breast milk. Does the child have a right to be breast fed (i.e. to life support requiring the use of her body)? Possibly not. Would it be morally wrong for her to refuse it? Arguably yes.

    Re: the possibility of keeping the fetus alive. If you allow that as a consideration, you must have already decided that the fetus at that stage is a being with interests which can be harmed. If then, why not at an earlier stage? So “First do no harm” is not an unproblematic argument for abortion, which is all I set out to claim.

    I confess that when I read “First do no harm” my immediate thought was how a pro-lifer would reply: “Yes, first do no harm to the fetus“. That is what prompted my comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *