The power of a simple story

The power of a simple story

I was recently writing an academic paper on medical ethics, based on the parable of the Good Samaritan as related in Luke 10:25-37. As I researched this parable, I was amazed at its influence, and began to wonder, has any story as simple as this had the reach and power of this parable? It would have taken Jesus just a few minutes to relate, but its influence has reached the corners of the globe over the last 2000 years. Let’s look briefly at some of the ways it has become deeply embedded in our culture.

Firstly, the term ‘Good Samaritan’ is well used by law-makers. Good Samaritan laws are laws that give legal protection to those who help a stranger in need of aid in emergency situations. They prevent rescuers from being prosecuted for wrongful injury or death, and are common around the world – all because the parable teaches us to help those in need. 

The term ‘Good Samaritan’ is also widely employed in the name of many medical facilities, as a quick Google search will reveal – healthcare centres, hospitals and hospices. In fact, Gerald Arbuckle describes the parable as ‘the ultimate founding myth of healthcare’. 

There are also numerous charities that use the term – in the United Kingdom, the Samaritans is a charity dedicated to helping those struggling with emotional issues and those at risk of suicide. Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization. 

Finally, philosopher Charles Taylor describes the parable as ‘one of the original building blocks out of which our modern universalist moral consciousness has been built’. We all know what being a Good Samaritan involves – a sacrificial act to help someone in need.  The lawyer in the parable wanted a precise definition of his neighbor so he knew who he should love, and who he wasn’t required to. After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks him, ‘which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’. The answer was obvious – neither the lawyer, nor any of us need to be told. In just a few simple sentences, Jesus sums up our obligations to others in a way no-one has ever been able to improve on. 

 

An evening with Tom Holland

An evening with Tom Holland

The PA recently attended Tom Holland‘s lecture at the British Museum (13 September, 2019). Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster, and has a new book out called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It explores the enduring impact Christianity has had on the west, and promises to be a fascinating read. This lecture was associated with the launch of Dominion, and there was a book signing afterwards. It’s worth noting that Holland is an agnostic: he seems sympathetic to Christianity, but is not a believer.

Holland began his lecture by explaining the origin of his fascination with history: as a boy, seeing an exhibition at the British Museum called the Wealth of the Roman World, AD 300-700. He recalled being attracted by the violence and savagery of the Romans, and being resentful that Christianity had hastened the Roman Empire’s decline, which had well advanced by AD 700. This visceral thrill as a child led to his channeling his inner nasty child into first writing about Rome and Greece!

Gradually, however, Holland became unsettled by the slavery and killing, eventually finding the Romans and Greeks frightening. He began to wonder why he found them so strange, and how we were so different. The Romans were terrifyingly alien – he wondered what transformed society’s ethics?

Christianity began with the crucifixion, and Holland pointed out its horror – it was the proper fate for scum, rebels and slaves. It was extraordinary that the Roman world would come to worship someone who suffered this fate – Paul realised it was a ludicrous proposition. The crucifixion was folly to gentiles – slavery is freedom, torture is liberation and defeat is victory – the antithesis of what the Romans believed. It was also a stumbling block to monotheistic Jews who worshipped God only, and the idea of a new covenant for all mankind did not fit their exclusivity. Moreover, Christianity claimed to dissolve all differences – there was no male or female, Jew or Greek. To the Romans, the Son of God was Caesar, but Paul writes that all are children of God. It introduced the idea of conscience – we can improve, be better people.

Moving to the recent past, Holland noted that Nietzsche was horrified at the cross, at the idea that the weak and poor could have importance. The Nazis didn’t believe that all people were equal either – some races were superior. After the Second World War though, the need for Christianity declined. The horror of Nazism made it unnecessary – the world didn’t need reminding that we were all equal and that obligations were owed to those in need.

Holland described how he visited a town called Sinjar when ISIS was still active. Here the Yazidis had been targeted by ISIS: women enslaved, and men and children killed. He described the horror of standing in a town where people had just been crucified, realising that crucifixion meant nothing to ISIS other than an instrument of torture. Here, he felt closer to appreciating the scale of the transformation that Christianity has wrought.

To conclude, Holland then answered some audience questions. One person asked if he thought Christianity was irrelevant now. Holland pointed out the explosion in Christianity in Africa, noting that because the supernatural is familiar there, it is working well. But in Western society, it has worked too well and has now seceded power to the secular.

The final question was more of a statement, and one that the questioner kept repeating: Christianity’s ethical teachings were already around, and the myth of a dying god was a familiar one – Osiris for example. Holland was very clear on his reply: yes, Christianity was the fusion of several philosophies, but the fusion resulted in something radically new. Jesus the nobody, crucified as a criminal to be worshipped as God? That was revolutionary. Every human being is equal and made in the image of God? There was nothing in Greek philosophy like this.

An informative and enjoyable evening!

Hear Tom Holland with N.T. Wright on the Unbelievable? program here. And a great article by Holland on how our society is saturated with Christian concepts here

 

 

The problem of miscarriage for pro-lifers

FeaturedThe problem of miscarriage for pro-lifers

It isn’t widely known, but a high proportion of human pregnancies end in miscarriage, also known as spontaneous abortion. The majority of these miscarriages occur very soon after pregnancy, often before the pregnancy is known, and for this reason, precise figures are difficult to obtain. Estimates for the rate of miscarriage vary widely, but many are in excess of 60%. These estimates are usually based on some very old studies, together with data obtained by observing in vitro fertilisations (IVF), which may not reflect what occurs in nature.

Let’s tentatively accept a 60% rate of miscarriage. What’s the main issue for the pro-life position? Many philosophers have pointed out that this means hundreds of millions of human beings are dying by miscarriage, and according to pro-lifers, these are all human beings with moral value equivalent to any adult. But these numbers are far in excess of any other cause of death. In fact about 56 million human beings die each year, while perhaps 200 million miscarriages occur. The question has been asked, why don’t pro-lifers care about this huge loss of human life? They are certainly concerned with preventing induced abortions, which account for far few human lives, about 56 million. But their lack of concern about the 200 million deaths from miscarriage seems to indicate they don’t really believe their own claims about the moral value of embryos and fetuses. In fact, their stance has been criticised as ‘morally monstrous’.

It’s an important question for pro-lifers to answer, and the PA and Daniel Rodger have just published a comprehensive reply in The New Bioethics entitled The Problem of Spontaneous Abortion: Is the Pro-Life Position Morally Monstrous?. I’ll summarise our response below. If you don’t have access to academic journals and would like a copy of this paper, please request it from here.

The underlying question is what moral obligation do pro-lifers have towards combating miscarriage, and how does this obligation compare to their obligation to oppose induced abortions. Certainly, on a pure numbers basis, there is a prima facie obligation to do something about miscarriageit certainly seems to trump induced abortion in this regard. But we identify two important considerations that should influence our obligations:  the preventability of death and the moral badness of death. If deaths are not preventable, this reduces our obligation towards these deaths, and if certain deaths are morally worse than others, we should prioritise them.

Preventability of miscarriage

It is too simplistic to directly compare deaths by miscarriage to deaths by, say, cancer, or even induced abortion. Miscarriage is not a cause of death, but rather refers to all natural deaths prior to birth, irrespective of cause. It has a variety of underlying causes, and these must be examined to determine which are the most prevalent. The most common cause of miscarriage turns out to be chromosomal abnormalities, accounting for perhaps 70% of all miscarriages. These abnormalities are mostly aneuploidies, an abnormal number of chromosomes in cells, and they are rarely compatible with life. Aneuplodies cannot be preventedthis would require gene-editing of embryos, which is not currently possible.

There are a variety of other lesser causes of miscarriage, such as uterine abnormalities, thrombophilias, immunological and immunogenetic causes, and acute maternal infections. Certain lifestyle factors have been implicated in increasing the risk of miscarriage, including smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and obesity, and finally increasing maternal age is also a factor.

Killing vs Letting Die

Some pro-lifers have claimed induced abortions are far morally worse than miscarriages, and that this justifies concentrating efforts on fighting induced abortion. The problem with this claim is that even if there is a moral distinction between deliberate killing (induced abortion) and letting someone die (miscarriage), it’s not clear that this matters. To explore this, let’s assume there is a moral difference—that it is far worse for someone to deliberately kill someone rather than letting them die, say by failing to rescue them. The issue for pro-lifers is that as far as they are concerned, it seems that induced abortions are also a case of letting die—they are not directly involved in killing themselves, and so they are bystanders with respect to induced abortions and miscarriages. Unless pro-lifers wish to make nebulous claims about induced abortions contributing to more evil in the world, it seems there is no good reason to prioritise opposing induced abortions over miscarriages on the grounds of moral evil.

Here Thomas Pogge sheds some light on the issue, stating that with regard to induced abortions ‘we are responsible for helping to bring these deaths about by participating in maintaining and enforcing a legal system that, by permitting abortions, foreseeably results in these extra deaths’ (Pogge 2010, p. 127). Citizens in the United States prior to 1860 were all responsible for laws permitting slavery, irrespective of whether they owned slaves themselves. Similarly, all citizens in a democracy permitting induced abortion bear some moral responsibility for these deaths. So if induced abortions are morally worse than miscarriages and all citizens bear some responsibility for them, this is a strong reason to oppose it.

In ethics, the killing vs letting die distinction is widely debated. Intuitively, most of us feel there is something worse about deliberate killing compared to allowing someone to die, but it is difficult to pin this down. Philosophers are very good at coming up with counter-examples to accounts of this difference. We take the approach of looking at a comparison that is as analogous as possible (on the pro-life view) to most induced abortions and miscarriages: the deliberate killing of a newborn baby who could be expected to live a normal life, and allowing a newborn with a fatal and incurable chromosomal disorder to die. It seems clear that letting the newborn die in this case may not be morally problematic at all, while killing a newborn baby is always gravely wrong. We conclude that similarly, it is far worse morally to deliberately kill a fetus than to fail to save it.

Conclusion

Even though the number of deaths are much higher for miscarriages than induced abortions, they both represent tens of millions of deaths of morally valuable human beings, according to the pro-life position. If we allow that our moral obligations with regard to these deaths are influenced by what can be done to prevent them, and that induced abortions are morally worse than miscarriages, then it seems reasonable for pro-lifers to concentrate on opposing induced abortions. If we consider prenatal deaths by preventable causes, induced abortion is by far the most preventable cause of death.

It is important, however, for pro-lifers not to ignore miscarriages. Although much medical research is dedicated towards the problem, the scale of deaths means the issue should be discussed widely in pro-life circles and consideration given to what might be done.

 

 

 

 

Artificial wombs and violinists

Artificial wombs and violinists

The most well-known argument for the permissibility of abortion is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist analogy, described in ‘A defense of abortion‘. Here, she imagines someone waking up to find themselves kidnapped and a famous, unconscious violinist plugged into their body. The violinist needs the use of their body for nine months to survive, and unplugging the violinist would kill him. Thomson claims the victim would be under no obligation to keep the violinist plugged in, and likewise a pregnant woman is under no obligation to continue providing life support for her fetus. Yes, it would be nice if she did so – performing what Thomson calls a ‘Good Samaritan’ act – but she is not obliged to.

Thomson’s argument is important because it does not rely on the moral status of the fetus. She claims that even if the fetus is regarded as a person in the moral sense – possessing the same moral status as an adult human being – her argument is still valid. Of course, there are various objections to Thomson’s reasoning, and debate is ongoing. A thorough and recent evaluation can be found in Kate Greasley’s excellent Arguments about Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law. But for those who rely on Thomson’s violinist as support for their pro-choice position, a distant storm is slowly brewing.

That storm is the relentless advance of new technology: the artificial womb is coming, and it may eventually have a significant impact on Thomson’s violinist. It has been mooted for a long time, but in 2017 it was announced that premature lambs were kept alive for four weeks in bags of fluid. They appeared to develop as normal, and those that were brought to term were removed and bottle-fed, and were doing well. As the technology improves, it should eventually be available for premature human babies. It’s a long way off, but it’s even possible that IVF embryos could be brought to term entirely in artificial wombs, a process known as ectogenesis. No female womb required.

So what? Well, a crucial point of Thomson’s argument is that she does not think there is a right to the death of the fetus. Her argument is that there is a right to extract the fetus to end its use of the mother’s body for its life support. For Thomson, the death of the fetus is an unfortunate byproduct of ending the pregnancy. Ectogenesis alters this situation dramatically. If we assume that the technology also includes the ability to safely extract the fetus at any stage of pregnancy (yes, this is a big assumption), then Thomson’s argument (as far as she is concerned) is no longer an argument for abortion, but rather for ectogenesis. The fetus gets to survive.

This possibility is rather awkward for the pro-choice position. There aren’t any other significant arguments that grant the permissibility of abortion in the case that the fetus is regarded as morally equivalent to an adult. Thomson’s argument has allowed pro-choice advocates to sidestep arguments about moral status. Ectogenesis will bring these arguments to the forefront, and they are controversial. Moreover, even if the fetus is not regarded as having the same moral status as an adult, killing a viable human being that is not reliant on its human mother is very different to abortion. Ectogenesis might mean a seismic shift in the abortion debate.

Some philosophers have anticipated this possibility, and tried to counter it by claiming that there is, in fact, a right to the death of the fetus. We (the PA and Daniel Rodger) examine (and reject) three of the most popular arguments in our recent paper published in Bioethics.  This paper also provides a detailed look at Thomson’s violinist and ectogenesis for those who are interested. Contact the PA if you’d like a copy.

 

Abortion legalised in Queensland

Abortion legalised in Queensland

Sadly, the state parliament in Queensland, Australia, has voted 50-41 to legalise abortion. Abortion is now legal for any reason up to 22 weeks gestation, and at any stage provided two doctors can be found who agree it can be performed. As we have previously discussed, this gives Queensland some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. It is a significant change in what was once regarded as a very conservative state. We must now wait to see what impact this has on abortion rates.

There’s three aspects of the reaction to this decision that I want to comment on.

Firstly, the cheering. According to this report, there was ‘loud cheers in the legislative assembly chamber’ when the vote succeeded. I suppose if you are convinced that a woman’s right to end the life of her child is crucial, then the vote is something to celebrate, but this should be tempered with sadness that firstly, many women are forced to make this decision, secondly that abortion is used worldwide to discriminate against women by sex selection, and finally, that abortion kills innocent human beings. Unless you think a fetus is a bunch of cells no more important than a fingernail (and hardly anyone does), that last fact should result in sober reflection. It is likely this decision will increase the numbers of abortions in Queensland. Cheering seems inappropriate for a decision that has such serious consequences.

Secondly, the references to the age of the previous laws. They have been variously referred to as ‘archaic’, needing ‘reform’ and being ‘119 years old’ in an attempt to cast them as hopelessly outdated. This was an important part of the campaign to remove them. And yet the vast majority of our criminal code is old. The age of legislation does not necessarily mean it needs to be jettisoned. Our 119 year old code also includes section 201, ‘Indecent treatment of children under 16’, section 219, ‘Taking child for immoral purposes’ and section 242, ‘Serious animal cruelty’. Are these also archaic? Traditionally, the law is meant to protect the most vulnerable members of society. In Queensland, this is no longer the case.

Finally, the references to abortion as ‘access to healthcare’. Abortion is not healthcare. The vast majority of the time it kills healthy human beings in a healthy mother, and provides no health benefits. It is expensive, and forces many healthcare providers to be complicit against their moral convictions, even if it is by referral. By almost any definition of healthcare, abortion does not qualify¹.

Of course, this setback does not mean pro-life supporters will give up. Laws have been changed, but they can be changed again. I’ve recently been reading William Hague’s excellent political biography of William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner. Wilberforce was a consumate politician who fought for 18 years against sometimes overwhelming odds to pass his bill abolishing the British slave trade, and then for the rest of his life to abolish slavery altogether. His opening speech to parliament in 1789 is regarded as ‘one of the greatest ever in an age of eloquence’. It’s an inspiring read, and lends hope after a such demoralising defeat for the pro-life cause this week.

 

1. Thanks to Calum Miller for this argument.

What is metaethics?

What is metaethics?

The word ‘meta’ means ‘beyond’ or ‘about’, and as a prefix means a higher level of abstraction of the topic at hand, which is ethics. So metaethics is not concerned with making moral claims – that’s the realm of normative ethics. Metaethics involves making claims about the nature of moral claims.

Let’s take the claim that ‘we ought to keep our promises’. This could be expressed as a moral fact: ‘it is the case that breaking our promises is wrong’. Metaethics asks if moral facts such as these actually exist, or are they merely statements about how we feel about moral issues? If they do exist, what kind of thing are they? Moreover, can we ever know what these facts are? Of course, there is all manner of views about the answers to these questions, and the purpose of this post is to classify them in a way that is comprehensible.

Moral realism

The most important question is whether moral facts exist at all. Moral realists think they do, and so these moral facts make our moral judgments true or false. If I claim that it’s okay to break my promise, and it is a moral fact that ‘it is the case that breaking our promises is wrong’, then my claim is false. Conversely, moral anti-realists reject that there are such things as moral facts (sometime they are called irrealists).

Moral realism is a broad church – there are a wide variety of opinions about what kind of thing moral facts are, and disagreement about the facts themselves. It might even be that moral facts exist, but we have no way to determine what they are – a position known as moral skepticism.

The most important question for moral realists is whether moral facts are objective: whether they exist independently of human beings or not. Moral relativism says moral facts are true or false relative to some human standard. Relativists point to the diversity of moral values across cultures as evidence for their views, and believe that this diversity shows objective moral facts are unlikely. If moral facts aren’t objective, is moral relativism really a form of moral realism? Some philosophers believe it is, while others argue that moral relativism is actually an anti-realist position.

If moral facts are objective, a position sometimes called moral absolutism, what kind of thing are moral facts? Those who hold to naturalism – the belief that only features of our universe exist are natural ones, i.e. those amenable to study by empirical science – must believe moral facts are natural, a position called naturalistic moral realism. There’s a problem with this view though, which faces an objection known as Moore’s Open Question Argument. This argument led Moore to non-naturalistic moral realism, which concludes we must admit the existence of unique non-natural properties such as goodness. There are two options here: either these properties are supernatural, attributable to God or gods in some manner, or they are non-natural and non-supernatural, a position known as non-natural non-theistic moral realism and ably supported by Erik J. Wielenberg. I discuss Wielenberg’s ideas here.

It’s time to mention cognitivism, a term often encountered in metaethics. It’s a theory that says moral claims are expressions of beliefs that can be true or false. This sounds like moral realism, but it’s broader than this (especially if you think moral relativists are not realists). Moral relativists are cognitivists, yes, because they believe moral claims can be true or false. But you can be a cognitivist and believe all moral claims are false. In this case you are what’s called an error theorist – there are no moral facts, it’s all nonsense and you believe all talk of morals is hugely in error. J. L. Mackie is the most famous advocate of this view.

Moral anti-realism

Recall that anti-realists reject that there are things such as moral facts, and so error theorists are also anti-realists as well as being cognitivists! But most anti-realists are noncognitivists: like error theorists, they don’t believe there are such things as moral facts. But unlike error theorists, noncognitivists thinks people who accept moral claims don’t actually have real beliefs about these moral claims, but instead are expressing their attitudes or desires. One form of noncognitivism is called emotivism, where moral claims are said to express our emotions. For this reason it is sometimes known as hurrah/boo theory. and is also a form of expressivism.

I haven’t yet mentioned an important anti-realist position known as moral nihilism, which is that nothing is morally wrong. Nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who was not only a moral nihilist but a nihilist about any values at all. This doesn’t sound much different to error theorists, and indeed error theorists are often thought of as moral nihilists.

It should be apparent by now that metaethics is a deep rabbit hole to explore. One useful tool for navigating the topic is the chart shown below, which I believe is the work of David Faraci. You’ll see that there are numerous other metaethical views not mentioned in this overview.  Fortunately, there are many good introductory texts on metaethics, one being Alex Miller’s An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics which I have seen recommended, as well as Metaethics: An Introduction by Andrew Fisher.

metaethics

 

 

What is ethics?

What is ethics?

Ethics is a field of study that attempts to answer questions of how we should live and act.  As rational creatures who make conscious choices in our actions, we use ethics to decide what is the right and wrong thing to do in particular situations. It’s a vast and important area of enquiry, and involves a wide range of questions. To understand ethics, it’s helpful to divide ethical questions into three main categories.

Metaethics examines the nature of our moral judgments. What do we mean by right and wrong? Are moral judgments statements of fact, or are they just our preferences?  If they are facts, what kind of facts are they? Can we even know what they are?

Normative ethics is the study of moral theories that tell us how we should act – they help us determine whether our actions are right or wrong. There are many moral theories, and they don’t always give the same results. Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of our moral character, while consequentialism evaluates actions on the basis of their consequences. Deontology is based on rules that we should follow rather than considering the consequences of our actions.

Finally practical ethics, or applied ethics, is concerned with how we should act in real-life situations. This can range from bioethics, which examines the ethical issues associated with advances in medicine and biology, such as abortion, euthanasia and cloning, to environmental ethics, which ask how we should act to preserve our planet.

In my next post, I’ll be looking at metaethics. I’ll try to classify the better known metaethical theories that are out there, and explain how they differ from each other.