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. And they do so because they believe that they are morally and ethically obligated to do so.
And a second assumption underlying this post is that some (if not many) people who oppose abortion feel strongly guided by their conscience to do so.
These two assumptions 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 they believer further that at least some forms of these protests proceed from ethical motivations.
Nevertheless, this does not imply that all people who protest abortion are acting ethically when they do so. In addition, it does not imply that all forms of abortion protest are ethical.
(When I use the word protest in this post, I refer to any instance in which someone speaks out against or criticizes abortion. They could do this formally or informally.)
And in fact, it is the case that some forms of abortion protest are unethical. A some people act unethically when they protest abortion in certain ways. 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.
Ethical people act consistently from ethical principles. Such principles aim at some kind of higher human good both for themselves and others. For example, here are some of the most famous ethical principles 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.
The question is, do all people need ethics and ethical principles? For instance, what about people who are Christian (like me) or otherwise religious? Perhaps we don’t need ethics because our religion already guides us.
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.”
It is important to note 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 easy 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 situations. 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.
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.
Our ethics are important to us and often touch on matters of life, death, and the ultimate good. Because of this, it can be unsettling when people reach ethical conclusions different from our own.
In the best cases, ethical disagreement can confuse and frustrate. In the worst cases, they can engender feelings of rage and hate.
Nevertheless, just as our ethical code is important to us, other people’s ethical code is very important to them.
To demand that people immediately reject their own ethical code and adopt ours could cause people to violate their conscience. It can also weaken their critical and ethical reasoning, which I will discuss shortly.
Therefore, in the matter of ethics, we must 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 it is reasonable that some ethical issues 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. And we can do this 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. For we may be able to learn from them.
In our ethical pursuits, we must remember that we are not God. And even when we deeply desire to do the right thing, our ethical reasoning could contain flaws and errors.
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, in fact, these vices can damage people’s ability to be ethical and to 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. They do so 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 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.
Or demand that people reach the same ethical conclusions that they do at the same time. And then deny people the opportunity to reach their own ethical conclusions on their own time frame.
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. He also celebrates 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. He has also earned praise for 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: 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 interrupted Governor Beshear, as he tried to provide life-saving information to Kentuckians.
Three: Someone called an acquaintance of mine, who is a Christian and pro-life, a 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. And 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. And there are many of these same people who believe either that abortion is necessary in many instances to protect women’s health (and even their lives). Or they believe 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. It also denies that fact 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. This helps us 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 support political policies that further 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 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. They also use such images 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”. They use such names 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. As such, abortion-shaming, as well as the weaponizing of the abortion issues, greatly concerns me.