by Jim Powers
This column isn’t specifically about abortion. But I’m going to frame it with an example from the current abortion debate.
If you believe that human life begins at conception, and that a fertilized egg is a person, then you are right to believe that abortion is murder.
If abortion is murder, then anyone directly involved with an abortion is guilty of murder and should be imprisoned for that murder.
The only conclusion, then, would be that the doctor who committed the murder, and the woman who paid the doctor to commit murder, should be imprisoned for their actions.
You probably don’t advocate that, though. In my experience, most people who oppose abortion want to treat the woman as the victim, who in her weakness was influenced by the “abortion industry” to terminate her pregnancy and shouldn’t be personally punished for her actions. That’s ridiculous. (To be clear, I do not advocate this position. The government should stay out of a women’s uterus.)
If a woman paid someone to kill her one-year-old baby, she would end up in prison. If you believe abortion is murder, then what’s the difference whether the victim is one year old or one day old?
This kind of inconsistency in belief and outcomes is dangerous. In the case of abortion, the kinds of laws that result from equating abortion with murder have resulted in other countries with women imprisoned for 30 years for miscarriages because they could not prove it wasn’t a self-induced abortion. The law often lacks subtlety.
Human beings are notoriously inconsistent. We all have strongly held beliefs, presuppositions about right and wrong. And we all fail to lead lives perfectly consistent with those presuppositions for a few reasons. First, we are often wrong in our beliefs, and when we are confronted by the real world, discover that those beliefs are inconsistent with the way reality works. We then either change our beliefs or give up on reality and construct a fantasy world consistent with our false beliefs. Secondly, we are often guilty of letting our self-interests override our deeply held beliefs. And, finally, acting ethically in a consistent way is hard…ethical decisions can be complicated.
I prescribe to an ethical framework called Preference Utilitarianism. When making ethical decisions, the preferences of everyone effected by the decision should get equal consideration. It’s basically summed up in the biblical, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
In practice, though, it isn’t simple at all because we must define who “everyone” is.
If I want to build a house and excavate the land for the house, I’m going to violate the preferences of a lot of bugs and small animals because wouldn’t their preference be to not be crushed and hacked to pieces by an excavator? Clearly, we need a more exclusive definition of “everyone.”
Most Preference Utilitarian’s would narrow that definition to include only sentient creatures. If a creature is sentient, he can experience feelings and is responsive to sense impressions. But that’s not the whole meaning of sentience. Sentient beings experience positive emotions like happiness, joy and gratitude, as well as negative emotions like pain, suffering and grief. Some add the ability to remember the past and have hopes and dreams for the future. (I don’t personally believe the last quality is relevant for sentience, which is why I oppose speciesism).
Sentience is the only acceptable boundary to determine whose preferences are important in ethical considerations because any other boundary is completely arbitrary. It’s also dangerous and discriminatory. Should we exclude people’s preferences who are unintelligent or irrational, or of a different race or ethnic background?
Being human, I confess that, despite how deeply held my ethical framework is, I don’t always live consistently with it. It’s a process. Behaving in a consistently ethical way throughout our life is hard. It’s hard because, regardless of how much we have considered how we would react in different situations, life doesn’t fit into neat scenarios.
You are driving along a four-lane city street on a lovely spring day when suddenly you see behind you in your rear view mirror a truck careening toward you at high speed. On your left is an elderly couple in their pickup, on your right is a young family of four in their small sedan, in front of you is a crosswalk filled with school children. If you do nothing, you will kill a bunch of school kids, if you swerve left, the elderly couple die, if you serve right, the young family dies…but, if you slam on your breaks, you may stop the careening truck, save the school kids, but you will surely die. You have milliseconds to react.
What do you believe? You better figure it out.
If we look at the New Testament’s much more concise version of Preference Utilitarianism, then we can make our choices much clearer. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you believe that’s a good basis for an ethical system, then you erase from your life a lot of “isms” that plague our country. By treating someone of another race badly, you are saying that you want to treat you badly because of your race. By treating women badly, you are acknowledging that you want to be treated in the same way. By denying LGBTQ+ folk’s basic human rights, you’re signaling that you want your own rights denied.
Inconsistency in your beliefs is dangerous. It leads to bad outcomes for everyone.
Don’t hurt people, and don’t take their stuff.