Politics and Love

The Ethics of Abortion, Part #1

I teach two ethics classes every semester, and I consider it a privilege because in these classes I help my students develop their own moral and ethical code.

My goal is not to make students believe the way I believe. Rather, my goal is to help them understand the basics of good moral and ethical reasoning so that they can examine their own beliefs and make sure that they have good reasons for believing as they do.  

To help them do this, we cover classical moral theories at the beginning of the semester (as represented by the moral theories of Aristotle, Kant, and Mill—you can read more about this here.) We then apply these basic theories to a variety of practical ethical problems like animal rights, euthanasia, torture, and abortion.

What is Morality and Ethics? 

Moral theories pertain to our foundational views of what goodness is in general. What is the good? Is it flourishing? Is it doing one’s duty no matter what? Is it maximizing pleasure or minimizing pain for the most people? Is it living a life of maximal virtue? Is it behaving like a fully virtuous person would behave? Is it something else?[1]

As you can see, if we want to be good people, we need to have a general idea of what the word good means.  

Photo by Jennifer Martin, courtesy of Unsplash

Ethics, on the other hand, pertains to the way in which we apply our concepts of the good to every day practical situations. For example, if we believe that the good is doing our duty no matter what, we also need to know what exactly our duty is in specific situations.  

We especially need to know what our duty is in ambiguous moral situations. Morally ambiguous situations are ones in which it is difficult to know the right thing to do—often because there are conflicting goods involved.                

For example, we might think it is our duty to tell the truth. But what about situations in which the only way we can protect someone’s life is to lie? In these situations, is it our duty to lie? This is a morally ambiguous situation because there are two goods involved: the good of telling the truth and the good of saving a life. These two goods are in conflict in this situation, and so it is hard to know the moral thing to do. 

As another example, we generally believe that people should not steal. But what about a situation in which a mother has lost her job and cannot find another one, no matter how hard she tries? She has no family or close friends; her government support has run out; and there are no churches that will help her. She has a young baby she needs to feed. Is stealing the right option in this situation? This is a morally ambiguous situation because there are two goods involved: the good of respecting people’s property and the good of a mother caring for her baby. These two goods are in conflict in this situation, and so, just like the lying scenario, it is hard to know the moral thing to do. 

These are important moral and ethical issues to examine. Also important is the difference between morality and legality. Morality and legality are not the same thing, although some aspects of these two spheres of life overlap.  

Morality and Legality 

There are some moral matters we regulate legally, and there are some we do not. For example, stealing and fraud are moral issues, and we regulate these matters legally to some extent. On the other hand, infidelity and incivility are also moral issues, but generally we do not regulate these actions legally. For instance, we don’t put people in jail for cheating on their spouse or being crabby and rude.  

Moral considerations are a part of any good society, but so is individual freedom and choice; we are continually balancing these two important social goods.  

Because we believe in such a balance, most of us believe that to protect individual freedom, the law cannot intrude into certain areas of an individual’s life, even if that person is behaving immorally. On the other hand, we believe that to promote morality, there are at least some actions which the government must regulate for the good of society.  

Furthermore, we know there are some actions that are legal but are not necessarily moral. For example, it is legal for people over the age of twenty-one to drink alcohol. Nevertheless, at least some instances of drinking alcohol are immoral. For example, if people’s drinking habits were destroying themselves or other people, this instance of alcohol consumption would be immoral in that it failed to achieve the good.[2]

As another example, at one point in the U.S., slavery was legal, but it certainly was not moral.  

Lastly, we recognize that there are some legal problems the solutions for which must move beyond the legal realm. Such problems often must be addressed by society showing compassion and care in some way. 

A good example of this is the problem of people stealing because they are starving. As mentioned above, we generally believe stealing is immoral. And generally, we believe that the government must regulate (i.e. punish) actions involving theft. Nevertheless, we recognize that someone, through no fault of her own, might be put into a situation in which she must steal food to survive. We would likely believe that the solution to this issue is not legal punishment or incarceration but providing social services or support to the impoverished person.  

We recognize that some people are pushed to desperate acts because of vulnerability and desperation and that legal punishment is not the right way to address these problems.  

Photo by Giammarco Boscaro, courtesy of Unsplash

About the Ethics of Abortion 

Back to my ethics class: As I mentioned, one of the ethical issues I discuss in my class is abortion, and I am glad I have the opportunity to do this.    

For decades now, abortion has been one of the most controversial issues in the United States. People on both sides of the issue have extremely strong views both about the morality and legality of abortion, and it has become an extremely polarized topic. 

Whenever issues become extremely polarized, they become surrounded with a lot of fear, hate, anger, and shame. When these emotions dominate our thinking about an issue, it becomes difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, to think about the issue in a just, loving, and compassionate way—I call the just, loving, and compassion way the politically wise way. 

If we cannot think and talk about an issue in a politically wise way, it is hard for us to make moral and ethical decisions about the issue.[3]

Why I am Writing This Post 

And that is why I am writing this post: to help people be politically wise about the issue of abortion. My goal in this post and the ensuing ones is not to make you to have a particular view on abortion because I can’t make anyone have a view on anything.   

My main goals in this post, rather, are the same ones I have for my students: 

One: To help you understand different ethical viewpoints pertaining to abortion.  

Two: To help you make sure you have good reasons for believing what you do.  

Three: To help you consider possible weaknesses of your view.  

Four: To help you understand why moral and intelligent people hold different views than you do 

Five: To help you develop understanding and charity towards other people who, like you, want to behave ethically regarding the issue of abortion and who think differently than you do about the matter.  

Six: To enable you to engage in civil and productive dialogue about this issue with people who think differently than you do about it.  

An Analogy to War 

To help illustrate why I think it is important that people develop a better understanding of the ethics of abortion, I would like to use the analogy of war.  

Most people, if they care about morality and ethics, do not like war. And rightly so. War is violent, brutal, and bloody. Innocent civilians—including children (as well as men and women) die in every single war.

Many soldiers also die in every war. Frequently these soldiers had no choice to be in the war (e.g they were drafted or had no other means of income) or they joined out of a desire to protect and serve their country.  

To make matters worse, sometimes leaders launch wars under false pretenses. For instance, they might suggest a war is necessary for the country’s self-defense, but the war is actually motivated by greed, hatred, power-hunger, and prejudice. Such wars are especially reprehensible because they are unjust wars, initiated in deception, that cost thousands of innocent people their lives. 

And yet, despite the horror and the sometimes unjust uses of war, there are situations in which war is absolutely necessary and morally justified. For example, certainly in cases of self-defense, war is justified. War is also sometimes justified in cases in which a country is providing aid to another country defending itself against unjust aggression.

Protesting War 

People may protest war and want war to be illegal. But simply protesting war or simply desiring that war be made illegal does nothing to analyze the various causes of war; to understand why people go to war; to understand times when war is necessary and times when it is not; to create a world in which people do not feel so vulnerable or threatened that they feel they must go to war; or to actually stop wars from occurring.

For instance, most people tend to respect the law or, at the very least, to fear the punishment they will incur if they break the law. However, there are times when people’s situation becomes so desperate that it is actually worse than the penalty they would incur if they break the law. For example, if someone is staving because they cannot find work or help, they are more likely to steal because any penalty they would incur from stealing is less pernicious than the pain of starving to death.

Thus, one way to actually prevent people from stealing is to make sure they recourse to earning money or receiving help they need to feed themselves or their family. A simple anti-stealing stance will do very little to stop starving people from stealing.

In reference to war,  a simple anti-war position can be an understandably attractive position to promote because of the violent and destructive nature of war. However, such a position lacks a nuanced moral understanding and does little practically to to solve the problem of war.  

By the same token, there are people who are very quick to advocate war and who do not think carefully about the moral implications of war. These people also lack a nuanced moral understanding of war and often do little to solve the problem of war as well.  

Photo by Ben White, Courtesy of Unsplash

How Does the Analogy of War Relate to Abortion? 

I use the analogy of war because 1) both war and abortion involve issues of killing; and 2) because, like war, the issue of abortion has become so polarized, people in both the pro-life and pro-choice camp often lack a nuanced understanding of the ethics of abortion. This is not surprising because political polarization inspires fear and often shuts down people’s critical thinking. However when people bring a non-nuanced understanding to abortion debates, they often create more problems than they solve. 

Coming to a Blog Near You 

Right now I am working on a variety of posts for the next few weeks. Several of those are posts in which I examine various ethical issues surrounding abortion. To do that, I am going to share ideas in four ethics articles pertaining to abortion that I read in my classes each semester. Some of these articles that are pro-life, some are pro-choice, and several take a more nuanced position. Stay tuned.

Here is the second post in this series:
The Ethics of Abortion, Part #2



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You might also like this post:
Is It Possible to Behave Immorally While Protesting Abortion?


[1] Even people who are Christian or otherwise religious need an ethical code because religious people disagree on the way to approach various ethical situations. Even Christ’s disciples disagreed about ethical issues. Having a clear ethical code can help people better adjudicate ethical disputes.

[2] We can recognize that someone is behaving in a less than moral way and still have compassion on them.

[3] Any person in any political party can learn to behave in a politically wise way, unless their party or leaders is inherently driven by fear, prejudice, and hate.

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