I wish to be very clear up front about what I am not doing in this post, as well as its basic underlying assumptions.
First, here is what I am not doing:
In this post, I am not going to tell you that you should be for or against abortion. This is an important ethical issue to discuss, but I do not have the space in this post to tackle the issue fairly.
I am also not going to address stock issues surrounding the abortion debate like the right to life or a woman’s right to choose. These issues are also important but, once again, I do not have the space in this post to tackle those issues fairly.
I am also not going to address these issues because they are actually not pertinent the topic of this post.
That claim may seem surprising, so let me explain.
Some Basic Assumptions
A basic assumption underlying this post is that many people, either rightly or wrongly, oppose abortion because they believe that they are morally and ethically obligated to do so.
A second assumption underlying this post is that some (if not many) people who oppose abortion, rightly or wrongly, feel strongly guided by their conscience to do so.
These two assumptions (i.e. people often feel morally obligated to oppose abortion and feel strongly guided by their conscience in doing so) are pretty unremarkable and uncontroversial.
In fact, it is because they are pretty uncontroversial that even folks who are pro-choice believe that people have the right, theoretically, to protest abortion and that at least some forms of these protests are are guided by ethical motivations.
Nevertheless, even though almost everyone would agree that some forms of abortion protest are guided by ethical considerations, this does not mean that all people who protest abortion are acting ethically when they do so or that all forms of abortion protest are ethical.
(When I use the word protest in this post, I am referring to any instance in which someone speaks out against or criticizes abortion–either formally or informally.)
And in fact, it is the case that some forms of abortion protest are unethical and that some people act unethically when they protest abortion in certain ways. And that is the topic of this post.
In this post, I wish to argue about the ethics of how some people protest abortion, and there is a very particular reason I am doing so, which I will discuss shortly, and which pertains to all of us.
What Does it Mean to Behave Ethically?
To understand why some forms of abortion protest are unethical, it is important to note what it means to act ethically.
People who act in an ethical manner act consistently from ethical principles that aim at some kind of higher human good both for themselves and others. For example, here are some of the most famous ethical principles that ethicists have developed over the years:
Act in a way that demonstrates virtues like faith, hope, love, courage, generosity, and kindness.
Don’t make yourself the exception to the rule.
Act in a way that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for the most people.
Show compassion to everyone and do all you can to reduce their suffering.
Treat others how you want to be treated.
School of Athens, Raphael
Christianity and Ethics
Some people may say, “I don’t need ethics. I just do what the Bible tells me to do.” or “I do the Christian thing.”
I am a Christian, and so I understand these claims. It is important to note, however, that even when Christ walked on the earth, people (including Christ’s followers) disagreed about how to behave well.
And Christians today, even the most reasonable and committed ones, frequently disagree about how to implement basic biblical principles. For example, no Christian doubts that the Bible says “Do not kill.” Christians do disagree, however, on how to apply this principle. (For instance, almost all Christians justify killing in self-defense, although some do not. Some Christians believe the capital punishment–a form of killing–is ethical. Others do not.)
The point is that if we want to behave in a good and ethical way–Christian or not–we must choose an ethical standard (or standards), and practice applying the standard in all areas of life.
I use the word practice because acting consistently in an ethical way takes continual effort, thought, and some trial and error.
Ethics Takes Practice
For instance, let’s say that someone decides that she will live by the ethical standard, “Treat others how you want to be treated.” It is quite simple to apply this rule in certain situations. For example, we can readily see that it is wrong in almost all situations to hit other people because we don’t want them to hit us. (The exception would be in instances of self-defense.)
However, it is not so simple to apply this ethical standard in other issues. For example, how do we apply this ethical standard to the issue of immigration? Certainly if we were immigrants fleeing our country because of dangerous conditions, we would want another country to allow us to seek shelter there. But does this mean we must allow all or even most immigrants to enter our country because that is how we would want other countries to treat us?
Perhaps it does. We must consider that possibility. But perhaps not. Perhaps there are other factors that govern the extent, and in what cases, we can treat others the way we wish to be treated in the issue of immigration. Or perhaps there are a variety of ways we can apply this principle, and we must figure out the best way to apply it.
My point here is that it takes careful thought and practice to be a consistently ethical person and that there are often certain factors in life that influence the way, or to what extent, we we apply an ethical principle.
This is especially the case when two ethical principles conflict with one another. For instance, almost everyone knows that it is unethical to steal. But what about a father who lives in a war-torn country whose family is on the brink of starvation?
In this scenario, the father has been unable to receive help from anyone for his family, even though there are many people around him who have plenty of food to share. While we think stealing is generally unethical, we also think it is unethical to allow people to starve. We have two ethical principles in conflict in this situation.
Therefore, we would likely excuse or have compassion on the father who stole food from others who had plenty to prevent his family from starving.
These examples illustrate that applying ethical principles well takes careful thought and that there are at least some instances when ethical standards collide and in which we may permit certain actions we would normally deem unethical in other situations.
From these two examples alone, it is clear that ethical reasoning is tricky and complex and that it is possible that two people who earnestly desire to be ethical people may reach different ethical conclusions about the same issue.
Because our ethics are so important to us and often touch on matters of life, death, and the ultimate good, it can be unsettling when people reach ethical conclusions different from our own. In the best of times, ethical disagreement can cause confusion and frustration. In the worst of time, they can engender feelings of rage and hate.
Nevertheless, given how important our ethical code is to us, it is important that we realize that other people’s ethical code is also extremely important to them and often a matter of conscience.
To demand that people immediately reject their own ethical code and adopt ours could cause people to violate their conscience and cause profound suffering. It can also weaken their critical and ethical reasoning, which I will discuss shortly.
Therefore, in the matter of ethics, it is imperative that we learn to live and work with people who have different ethical views than our own. I will call this skill Acting Ethically with Our Ethics. Its opposite is Acting Unethically with Our Ethics.
In this post, I am specifically focusing on how we act ethically with other people whose goal is also to act ethically but who reach different ethical conclusions than our own.
We could also examine how to act ethically with people who do not care about ethics and who have no ethical compass. Acting ethically with people who have no ethics is a different matter, and I will not be addressing that in this post.
Acting Ethically with Our Ethics
In order to Act Ethically with Our Ethics, we must follow several basic principles:
One: We must try to be ethical in all areas of our life, not just one.
For instance, in developing our ethical code, we cannot decide that only some ethical issues are important and others are not. Ethics applies to all areas of life.
Two: We must not demand people have the same ethical priorities we do in all situations at all times.
It is reasonable for us to have certain ethical issues that we care about more strongly than others or that are a greater priority to us because of our life situation or experience. It is not reasonable, however, for us to demand that everyone focus on the same ethical issues we do, to the same extent we do, at all times.
For example, it is normal for people to prioritize different ethical issues at different times, especially if their job demands it. For example, a teacher and a veterinarian and a firefighter, by the nature of their jobs, will have different ethical priorities at different times.
Every job touches on some ethical domain of life. Human beings necessarily have limited attention and energy, and even people who are trying to be ethical in all areas of their life cannot focus on every ethical issue to the same degree at all times.
If we really care about ethics, we will applaud and support people in all of their ethical endeavors, while still promoting the ethical issues we care about. We will also do so in a way that allows people to focus on the ethical endeavors necessary for their job at the different times they are necessary.
Ethical living is a team effort.
Three: We must recognize it is possible for ethical people to reach different ethical conclusions about the same issues.
All ethical people aim for the good. However, no human being has complete comprehension of the what the good is because no human being is God. Therefore, we have differing ideas about what the good is and how best to achieve it.
Since we must use careful thought and practice to develop our ethical conclusions, we must also allow other people the same space to develop their own ethical conclusions. Ethics is not a mathematical formula. For any ethical principal or application of that principal, there is room for interpretation.
If we assume that only people who think like we do and reach our same conclusion are ethical, we treat ethics like a mathematical formula, and that is a misunderstanding of the discipline of ethics and how people develop strong ethical reasoning.
Four: We must remain humble and pay special attention when ethical people reach different ethical conclusions than we do. We may be able to learn from them.
In our ethical pursuits, we must remember that we are not God, and that even when we deeply desire to do the right thing, we must always remember that our ethical reasoning could be flawed.
If we remember this, we will be extra careful to avoid careless reasoning that could hinder our progress in ethical reasoning. We will also be willing to listen to other ethical people who conceive of the good differently than we do or who believe different means for achieving the good are necessary.
For instance, all ethical people care about creating a just society. However, it is possible for ethical people to reach different ethical conclusions, even when reasoning in a thorough and careful way, about how best to create this society.
Thus, if we care about being an ethical person, we will show respect and kindness to other people who disagree with our ethical conclusions, especially people who are doing their best to be ethical.
Disrespect and unkindness never help people become more ethical and can, in fact, damage their ability to be ethical and reason well.
Five: Our goal in ethical discussion should be to pursue the truth, not to win the discussion.
Sometimes people weaponize ethics or one particular ethical subject to dominate, control, shame, or assault other people verbally, and “win” arguments. This is a prime example of Acting Unethically with Our Ethics. Our goal with ethics is not to win but to pursue the truth with other people.
If we truly care about ethics, we will realize that we can never create a more ethical world through unethical methods, and we will recognize that weaponizing ethics or any ethical issues is always inappropriate.
Given all this, I would suggest that people Act Unethically with their Ethics when they…
Focus on one or two ethical concerns to the exclusion of all the others.
Demand that other people always focus on the ethical issues they care about the most, while ignoring other people’s ethical concerns.
Demand that people reach the same ethical conclusions that they do at the same time and refuse to permit other people to reach their own ethical conclusions on their own timeframe.
Assume that their ethical system is complete and perfect and, in some cases, the same as God’s.
Weaponize ethics or ethical issues and dehumanize other people who are trying to be ethical, merely for reaching different ethical conclusions. They may do this by shaming, slandering, mocking, engaging in character assassination, and verbally assaulting people in various ways.
How Does This Relate to Abortion Protest?
This post was inspired by several events that occurred in in my home state. But I believe they have universal application.
First, some background information about Kentucky where I live:
Our Kentucky governor, Andy Beshear, gives daily press briefings about the Coronavirus. The are usually a half hour, and he uses this time to provide people with up-to-date information about how to stay healthy and safe and how to get the unemployment benefits they need to survive during this time. He also takes time every day to mourn all Kentuckians that have died from the Coronavirus and to celebrate the extraordinary ways Kentuckians are thriving together despite the pandemic.
Governor Beshear has won widespread bi-partisan support for his compassionate, practical handling of the pandemic, as well as his care for all Kentuckians regardless of their political party. Indeed, Kentucky appears to be doing a better than average job flattening the curve, despite being a state that typically has some of the worst health outcomes nationally. Thus, he is an example of someone doing his best to behave ethically in an extremely difficult situation.
Here are four related events that inspired this post:
One: While Governor Beshear has won widespread bi-partisan support for his ethical governance, in the last few days I have read a half-dozen people online call him a hypocrite or and even a monster for being Democrat (and, ostensibly, pro-choice).
Two: There were abortion protestors at the Kentucky capitol yesterday who felt that the governor’s daily Coronavirus briefing was the appropriate time to protest abortion. Their protest interrupted Governor Beshear, as he tried to provide life-saving information to Kentuckians.
Three: An acquaintance of mine, who is a Christian and pro-life, was called a pro-abortion murderer for expressing support of Governor Beshear.
Four: I read another conversation online in which a person excused a politician’s egregiously unethical behavior because at least he was “pro-life”.
An Anti-Abortion Single Ethical Focus (AASEF)
What all of these four scenarios share in common, I believe, is that the people involved hold what I will call an Anti-Abortion Single Ethical Focus. (I will abbreviate this AASEF)
People with an AASEF generally hold to at least several if not most of these tenets:
1. Abortion is more important than all other ethical issues.
2. Abortion should be the deciding factor of one’s politics.
3. The only ethical view of abortion is that it is always (or almost always) unethical and should be illegal (i.e. criminalized).
4. People who are pro-choice have no ethical grounds for their pro-choice stance and, thus, are automatically unethical.
5. The ethical concerns of people who are pro-choice don’t matter.
6. People who hold a pro-choice stance are automatically unethical and immoral, and any dehumanization of them is justified.
It is important to note that not all folks who are pro-life have an AASEF. Many folks who are pro-life hold none of the AASEF tenets as a part of their beliefs.
However, I would argue that most people who hold an AASEF act Unethically with their Ethics for four main reasons.
One: They treat abortion the only ethical issue, or the only one that matters at all times, and they demand others do the same.
While the issue of abortion is an extremely important ethical issue, it is not the only ethical issue, and there are most certainly times other people must focus on other ethical issues.
For example, during a pandemic, it is practical, wise, and ethical for a governor to focus on how to protect people from a dangerous virus. To demand that leaders focus on all ethical issues equally in a time like this is unreasonable, unwise, and not Acting Ethically with Ethics.
Two: An AASEF assumes that to be ethical, one must both be anti-abortion in all situations and that criminalizing abortion is the best way to reduce abortion rates.
There are many ethical and religious people in the world who care deeply for both mothers and children but who believe either that abortion is necessary in many instances to protect women’s health (and even their lives) or that criminalizing abortion is an ineffective way to reduce abortion rates.
To demand that everyone reach the same conclusions about abortion in all situations, as well as the criminalization of abortion, is to ignore legitimate ethical reasons for reaching different conclusions or to deny that there may be several different ways to achieve the same ethical goal. This denies ethical people the ability to follow their conscience.
Three: An AASEF downplays or completely ignores other ethical issues that may actually be connected to and reduce abortion rates.
No political issue exists in a vacuum, just like no person exists in a vacuum. If we truly care about ethics, we must not only be concerned about people making ethical choices. We must also be concerned about what causes people to make choices we deem unethical, and we must examine both personal and social factors that cause people to act in ways we deem unethical so that we best know how to support them (if we can) in making ethical decisions.
When people have an AASEF, they often fail to recognize how issues of inequality, poverty, education, and social safety nets are deeply connected to the reasons women have abortions.
Because of this, people with AASEF often fail to recognize or support political policies that support their own ethical principles, and they often support politicians who also have an AASEF but whose political policies do very little practically to address the reasons women have abortions.
Four: People with an AASEF frequently, either consciously or unconsciously, weaponize the abortion issue and aggressively shame people who reach different conclusions. This damages critical thinking and ethical development.
(Trigger warning: This discussion requires me to use some disturbing language about abortion. I apologize to my readers in advance.)
People can use any ethical issue to shame people. I will call this ethics shaming. But in my own personal experience (yours might be different), I have witnessed the most egregious instances of ethics shaming around the issue of abortion.
I will call this abortion shaming.
When people abortion shame they may do things like use verbal or actual images of aborted fetuses to shame people who disagree with them, to shut down dialogue, or to win political discussions they feel like they are losing.
People also abortion shame when they use names like “baby-killer”, “monster”, or “nazi” to silence people who reach different ethical conclusions about abortion or the criminalization of abortion
Both of these examples are also examples of people weaponizing the abortion issue. Once again, when we weaponize an ethical issue, we use it to dominate, control, or assault another person.
I am an ethicist, political philosopher, and Christian, and abortion-shaming, as well as the weaponizing of the abortion issues, greatly concerns me.
I teach ethics every semester. My goal is not to get students to believe what I believe but to help them develop their own ethical code based on solid critical and ethical reasoning.
I believe that the best way to help students be ethical is to help them discover the strongest arguments possible for their claims while also being aware of the potential weaknesses of their claims. If students learn how to do this, they will eventually reason themselves out of poorly reasoned ethical beliefs.
So, here is my concern.
I have discovered that it is difficult for many of my students to practice careful and critical reasoning around the issue of abortion because they have been abortion shamed and are afraid of holding any ethical opinion on abortion that diverges from the AASEF
As a result, they really struggle to make an ethical argument about abortion that contains consistently clear, ethical reasoning, and they often struggle to recognize weaknesses in their argument, even if their argument contains significant factual errors and logical inconsistencies.
This concerns me because how we reason ethically in one area of life greatly influences how we reason ethically in all areas of life. In my experience, teens, students, and people in general who have been abortion-shamed or who have had people weaponize the abortion issue against them struggle with ethical reasoning, and this makes it extremely difficult to Act Ethically with Ethics.
If we cannot Act Ethically with our Ethics, it extremely difficult for us to dialogue with people who have different ethical views than we do. This makes it extremely difficult to have productive political discussions. By the way, it also makes it extremely difficult to have productive work, church, marriage, and friend discussions, too.
To anyone who has every been abortion-shamed or had abortion weaponized against them: I am so sorry this happened to you. Your feeling of fear, confusion, anger, etc. are completely justified and legitimate.
And This Brings Me to My Final Point
I have made an Anti-Abortion Single Ethical Focus (AASEF) the topic of this post. I did this because, as I mentioned, I recently witnessed some egregious online abortion-shaming and because in my own personal experience (yours might be different), I have frequently witnessed people Acting Unethically with Ethics around the issue of abortion.
However, I would like to apply this discussion briefly to our politics in general. It is possible for anyone, Democrat or Republican, to adopt a Single Political Focus or to behave Unethically with Ethics in the ways I have described above.
It is also possible for anyone to weaponize any ethical or political issue.
When we do this, we weaken our collective ethical reasoning and make it nearly impossible to reach productive ethical solutions together. The way to move past this problem is not to engage in fruitless arguments about who ethics shames more–Republicans or Democrats–or who weaponizes ethics more.
Rather, the way we move forward is to make a firm commitment to Act Ethically with Our Ethics; to stop ethics-shaming any person on any topic; to refuse to weaponize ethical issues; to reject Single Political Focuses, as they inevitably lead us to Act Unethically with Ethics.
One of the best ways we can do this personally is to adopt ethical principles that are grounded in kindness, compassion, and respect. And one of the best ways to do this politically is to support our political leaders when they engage in ethical endeavors.
When we do that, we are always headed in the right direction.
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