Monday, September 10, 2007

Beckwith: Defending Life, #2 [SK]

Previous posts in this series:
Defending Life #1

In my first post on Frank's book Defending Life, I presented the core argument he defends:

1. The unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community.
2. It is prima facie morally wrong to kill any member of that community.
3. Every successful abortion kills an unborn entity, a full-fledged member of the human community.
4. Therefore, every successful abortion is prima facie morally wrong.

To refute this standard pro-life argument, you must do one of two things. 1) You must show that the argument is not valid, meaning the conclusion does not follow logically from the premises. 2) You must demonstrate that the argument is unsound, meaning the truth of one or more of the premises can be falsified.

In chapter 1, Frank deals with the nature of moral reasoning. Specifically, he notes the tendency of some abortion-choicers to skip the hard work of refuting the pro-life argument by changing the kind of claim the pro-lifer makes. That is, instead of refuting the pro-life advocate's moral claim about the nature of the unborn and the wrongness of elective abortion, they simply change it to a preference one they like better.

Suppose I said, "Chocolate ice-cream is better than vanilla." You might well reply (rightly), "Ha! That’s true for you but I like vanilla better." In this case, I’m really telling you what I prefer, not what’s right or wrong, true or false. Problem is, many people today confuse claims about ice cream with claims about truth. They simply don’t know the difference between moral claims and preference ones.

Consider the popular bumper sticker: "Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one!" Notice what’s going on here. The pro-lifer makes a moral claim: "Elective abortion is wrong because it unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being." The abortion-choice advocate responds by changing that moral claim into a preference one he likes better, as if the pro-lifer were talking about what she likes rather than what’s right, regardless of one's preferences. Now, perhaps the pro-lifer is mistaken about her claim (we will grant for the sake of discussion), but we should never confuse the type of claim she is making. She’s not saying she dislikes abortion (maybe she likes it); she’s saying its wrong even if she prefers it. To refute this moral claim, abortion-choicers must present evidence the pro-lifer is wrong rather than changing the type of claim the she is making.

Why do abortion-choicers confuse moral claims with preference ones? The culprit is "relativism," the belief that right and wrong are determined by one's own personal preferences or one's own society.

Relativism fails for several reasons. 1) Cultures may not differ as much as we think. Sometimes the differences are factual not moral. For example, a co-worker may agree with pro-lifers that humans have intrinsic value, yet support early abortion. He does so because he thinks that the unborn are not distinctly human until later in pregnancy. He’s factually mistaken on this point, but he holds the same moral belief as the pro-lifer, namely, that humans have intrinsic value in virtue of the kind of thing they are. This is not a moral difference, but a factual one. 2) Even if cultures do in fact differ, the absence of consensus does not mean an absence of truth. That is, the cultural relativist is guilty of the is/ought fallacy: It does not follow that because people disagree we ought to assume that nobody is correct. 3) If morals are relative to culture or the individual, there is no ethical difference between Adolph Hitler and Mother Theresa; they just had different preferences: The latter liked to help people while the former liked to kill them. Who are we to judge? But such a view is counterintuitive. 4) Relativism, in any form, cannot say why I ought to be tolerant of other cultures. Suppose my culture decides not to tolerate minorities. Now what? 5) If morals are relative to one’s particular society, moral reformers like Martin Luther King and Ghandi are by definition evil. 6) Relativism--and this is the key point--is ultimately self-refuting. The abortion-choicer who says to pro-lifers "you shouldn't force your views on me" just forced his view on them.

For more on relativism, see Beckwith and Koukl here and Hadley Arkes here.


  1. Great series Scott. I'm waiting for my copy to arrive any day. I'm looking forward to cleansing my palate with the truth after investing much time into reading pro-ESCR stuff!

  2. I'm not convinced that this is relativism. I doubt most pro-choicers are relativists. They think it's immoral to force women not to have abortions. I don't think very many people are relativists at all, as a matter of fact. Most people have objective moral standards. They're just not the ones the people calling them relativists hold to. But having different moral views doesn't mean relativism. Most people criticizing relativism are usually really opposed to something else, usually some kind of consequentialism, often just egoism.

    What's most likely in this case is that these particular pro-choicers just don't think abortion is all that bad, and they think someone should be free to do it. If that's their view, it's not surprising that they would see opposition to it as a faulty preference, one not based in any real moral principle. But that doesn't mean they're assuming relativism. It in fact assumes the opposite. They see this as an inappropriate moral (and therefore as merely the expression of the person's preference).

  3. Jeremy,

    I think that you are confusing your terms. People can not have objective moral values that differ from mine. You may argue that objective moral values exist and that one or both of two conflicting groups have failed to properly apprehend them, but not that we are operating on two different sets of objective moral values. Objective moral values are true for all people at all times and we either correctly apprehend/apply them or we do not.

    If you are saying that most people believe in objective moral values and that we are seeing a difference in the apprehension of those values then we disagree. I do not think that the majority of people are operating under the belief that a set of objective moral values exists, they are absolute, and true for all people at all times. A Barna survey taken in 2002 (admittedly a little dated) seems to demonstrate that is not the case as well. Here is a brief excerpt from the study on pure statistics:

    “In two national surveys conducted by Barna Research, one among adults and one among teenagers, people were asked if they believe that there are moral absolutes that are unchanging or that moral truth is relative to the circumstances. By a 3-to-1 margin (64% vs. 22%) adults said truth is always relative to the person and their situation. The perspective was even more lopsided among teenagers, 83% of whom said moral truth depends on the circumstances, and only 6% of whom said moral truth is absolute.

    The gap between teen and adult views was not surprising, however, when the adult views are considered by generation. While six out of ten people 36 and older embraced moral relativism, 75% of the adults 18 to 35 did so. Thus, it appears that relativism is gaining ground, largely because relativism appears to have taken root with the generation that preceded today's teens.”

    If you wish to say that there has been a radical shift in this line of thinking since 2002, then you have seen something I have not. The question on this poll was pretty straightforward. 1,010 adults and 604 teens were asked the following:

    “Some people believe that there are moral truths that are absolute, meaning that those moral truths or principles do not change according to the circumstances. Other people believe that moral truth always depends upon the situation, meaning that their moral and ethical decisions depend upon the circumstances. How about you? Do you believe that there are moral absolutes that are unchanging, or that moral truth is relative to the circumstances, or is this something you have never really thought about?”

    So I do think that there is strong evidence that the belief that objective moral values do not exist and that we all have the right to determine what we believe to be the right path relative to our circumstances is strongly rooted in our culture. More, I think it ought to be obvious that such an ingrained belief would have an unavoidable impact on how Americans view the issue of elective abortion. It is not necessary that this is universally true for it to be generally indicative of the current climate on the abortion debate.

    I agree that the overwhelming majority of people would not claim to be relativist. That fact is probably more an indication that they do not understand the difference between an absolutist and a relativist. At the functional level, it appears that the majority of Americans are skewing toward relativism whether they articulate that or not.

    If you think that the pro-choice position is predicated on the belief that bodily autonomy supercedes the natural right of a human being to live in an objective moral sense, then you miss the opposition’s argument all together. They have consistently argued that the value of the unborn life is determined by the circumstances of the mother and the mother’s opinion. If the mother thinks the life is of value then the life is of value. If the mother thinks that the life represents a burden or a risk to her then the life has no value. How is that not relativism? How does that fit into a system of objective moral values and absolutes? It is functionally subjective to the whims, fears, and needs of the mother.

    It appears to look like, smell like, and act like relativism


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