Abortion and Moral Relativism
I was reading an article on abortion on another website recently. One commentator said about the issue, “At the end of the day, the question of abortion is a subjective question, given that there is no such thing as objective morality.” While it was nice of her to be so candid about where she is coming from, her remark of course is dangerous in the extreme.
Just consider what she is really saying here: morality is subjective – pure and simple. There are no independent, objective standards of morality. There are no universal rights and wrongs that apply to all people in all places at all times.
Instead, according to this commentator, morality is merely a matter of personal opinion, or subjective taste. Some people like thin and crispy pizza crusts, some like thick and chewy. It is just a matter of personal preference. There is no right or wrong opinion about the kinds of pizza one enjoys, and there is no right and wrong when it comes to killing unborn children.
Of course under such an extreme version of moral relativism – where all morality is a matter of subjective tastes – then of course all tastes are of equal value. No one taste can be better than another, because taste has to do with subjective personal preferences and that is all.
So if it the preference of one person to help an old woman walk across a busy street, while it is the preference of another person to push that woman in front of an oncoming truck, that is just the way it is. We cannot say one person was right and another person was wrong. If all morality is subjective, then personal taste rules the day, and there is no independent umpire to say that one preference is better than another.
Such sloppy thinking is not confined to sophomoric bloggers however. Unfortunately politicians running for office often display the same mushy moralising. Remember former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, and his famous line, “I personally am against abortion, but I think it should be up to a woman to decide,” or words to that effect?
Recently former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said something quite similar. (What is it about New York politicians? Is it something in the water?) While running for the Republican nomination for President, he has said a number of times that he personally thinks abortion is bad. He has even said he hates it and that it is “morally wrong”. But even though he personally opposes abortion, he does not think it should be legally restricted, and he supports a woman’s “right to choose”.
At least one other commentator besides me finds such reasoning to be awfully silly. Ken Connor, writing in townhall.com (May 20, 2007), takes Giuliani to task for such a morally stunted position. He puts it this way:
“The question that arises is, what makes abortion hateful in Mayor Giuliani’s mind? Why is it morally wrong? If it is simply a medical procedure in which a ‘mass’ is removed from a woman’s womb, what’s so bad about that? Giuliani is certainly suggesting, by saying he ‘hates’ this procedure, that he thinks abortion is more than a typical medical procedure. The fact that he says he is personally against it and feels that it is morally wrong suggests that he knows that abortion ends a human life. Why else would he be against it? But, if Giuliani truly believes that innocent life is destroyed by abortion, then it is odd that he feels there is nothing the government should do about it, or that he would call such killing a ‘woman’s right.’ A right to kill innocent life? Isn’t protecting innocent life a primary responsibility of the government?”
To help understand what is going on here, consider another controversial moral situation: “These are difficult questions, questions Giuliani has rarely been forced to confront. At the recent GOP debate in South Carolina, however, Fox News reporter Wendell Goler tried. He asked the mayor: ‘You have said that you personally hate abortion but support a woman’s right to choose. Governor Huckabee say’s that’s like saying, “I hate slavery, but people can go ahead and practice it.” Tell me why he’s wrong’.”
In response to this question, all Giuliani could come up with was this: “Well, there is no circumstances under which I could possibly imagine anyone choosing slavery or supporting slavery. There are people, millions and millions of Americans, who are as of good conscience as we are, who make a different choice about abortion.” Rudy, puh-leeese. Spare me such foolishness.
Says Connor: “The problem with Giuliani’s answer is obvious. There was once a time in America where millions of people found the choice of slavery not only imaginable, but entirely acceptable. There was also a time in America when few people would have openly said that it is a woman’s right to kill her unborn child. In recent years, however, positions have reversed. Everyone now agrees that slavery is morally abhorrent, but there is plenty of disagreement over abortion. Clearly we should not judge what is right and wrong by shifting public opinion.”
He continues, “Giuliani missed Huckabee’s point. If slavery is morally wrong, then it is always wrong no matter what public opinion polls say. Moral principle demands that we oppose slavery. Likewise, if abortion is wrong, moral principle requires that we oppose it. As Abraham Lincoln said, people do not ‘have a right to do wrong.’ Gov. Huckabee was right; it makes little sense to say you hate slavery but then leave it up to personal opinion.”
Connor concludes, “If Giuliani did believe that slavery should be left up to personal opinion and that the government had no right poking its nose in this area, would this moral lapse be significant enough to call into question his whole candidacy? And if he does believe that thousands of human lives are being systematically destroyed by the abortion industry, but yet is unwilling to stop it, can that sort of moral equivocation be overlooked?”
If moral relativism is true, what one feels about abortion is merely a matter of personal taste, like the kind of pizza one prefers. And slavery will also be just a matter of personal taste. Nice theory, but the reality is far different. Try telling millions of unborn children, or millions of black people, that morality is subjective and there are no moral absolutes.
13 Replies to “Abortion and Moral Relativism”
So true, Bill.
I especially like the hypothetical situation with the old woman. Most liberals will say that a situation like that is totally different from the abortion dilemma, but they’re either deluded or lying on purpose.
James Swanson, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA
We never hear pro-abortionists say, “I’m personally in favour of abortion, but won’t impose my view on the unborn human being”…
Yes, good point Michael.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Good article Bill.
Should we take the illustration of slavery further? What should we do if we found out our next door neighbour was having slaves? Do we simply argue on opinion sites that what he is doing is wrong? Should we make sure our legal powers – courts, parliamentary representatives, etc – know it is happening and plead them to stop it? Do we arrange protest marches to raise public awareness of the immorality of slavery?
I think the slavery issue illustration is a good one but it’s not entirely accurate. One day in the life of a slave is not a ‘Life and Death’ matter. Perhaps an example like … “If you knew your next door neighbour was about to murder their two year old” What would you do then?
With a family to support, I need to think very seriously about what action I should take as people end up with prison terms for obstructing abortion clinics. However, the lobbying and protesting about the moral argument just doesn’t seem adequate.
(By the way, this is no criticism of your efforts, Bill, nor anyone else who has worked in such ways to fight abortions. But should we be doing more?)
Bill, the illustration of the old lady crossing the road is not fanciful. I remember in 2001 a case of a man, in Britain, driving his car at an old lady crossing the road, and being begged by his passengers not do it; but he did it all the same – just for the buzz. Since then, in Britain, and I am sure elswhere, we are daily seeing violent crimes committed against people simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Francis Schaeffer’s prophetic words have become concrete reality.
But on the point of “If all morality is subjective, then personal taste rules the day, and there is no independent umpire to say that one preference is better than another,” I would like to suggest that there is an idependent umpire and this is emergence of unelected commissioners set up by governments like the Commissioners for Equality and Human Rights, in Britain. What is emerging in the chaos of equivalence and relativistic thinking is totalitarianism. Modern, consumerist society is driven on to satisfy its insatiable appetites and the need to experience ever stronger stimulation, whilst it unthinkingly conforms and marches in step to whatever is the consensus of consumer opinion, or as the communists call it, collective thought .Without any fixed point of reference, like a ship without a captain, society drifts in a sea of relativity and changes its attitudes and values according to the political climate. The only moral compass is a constantly changing political correctness. The government takes over the intellectual, moral and spiritual reigns. It becomes the supreme authority; it becomes that than which no greater can be thought (parody of Anselm’s definition of God as the “Being than which no greater can be conceived.”) Our freedom to think, to reason and to engage in dialogue is taken away; we are only allowed to believe that which the state oppressively dictates. What might be shocking and completely unacceptable behaviour can almost overnight become respectable and what was previously considered to be decent and responsible behaviour can become criminal. Morality is completely turned on its head. Without any fixed, absolute point of reference, human nature has a way of accommodating and becoming comfortable over a period of time with a state of hell. It can gradually sleep walk into becoming hardened, desensitised to cruelty, barbarism and evil, until what was considered abnormal or deviant becomes the acceptable norm, as happened in Nazi Germany, Russia, China, Cambodia and now with alarming rapidity in Britain.
David Skinner, UK
Excellent article, Bill. You’ve articulated exactly the problem with all moral relativism. It struck me as I read your comments about all tastes being ‘equal’ under moral relativism, that this is the same argument being used to push the multicultural agendas which seek to elevate every religion, every culture to the same level. Surely a culture which has institutionalized sadistic killings or slavery cannot be considered equal to one that has institutionalized protections and safeguards for freedom based on a strong Judeo-Christian foundation. It’s funny how, as we accept that all cultures and religions are equivalent, we’re losing that which made our own unique in the world in terms of morals, human rights, success, prosperity and freedom.
Mayor Giuliani, like yourself, is against abortion. He, like yourself, thinks its morally wrong, he, unlike you, does not impose his opionion on the world and expect everyone to submit to his value system. We can’t make everyone like what we like, value what we value, and do what we do.
If a woman wants an abortion, its her life, its her choice. Not yours.
Of course that is as helpful as saying, “If a man wants to own slaves, its his life, its his choice. Not yours.”
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
You’re all for freedom of choice and women’s rights. Well if women have the right to abort their babies, we have the right to oppose it.
It’s not as simple as ‘her life, her choice’. It’s not her life, it’s her child’s life. She just gets to choose whether or not she wants to end it.
In my country, Denmark, a memorial park for the unborn victims of abortion has been ruled unlawful, because it offended the ethics of abortionists. But I believe that accepting abortion on grounds such as euthanasia (“It´s better for a child to be dead than to be adopted or live with unfit parents”) or pro-choice (“It is the mother´s body, not the child”) puts us on the same level as the Nazis killing “unfit humans”. However, the nazis were cruel, but honest. How can we critisize unfit dictators around the Third World, if we keep killing our own unborn babies?
Lars Munk Sørensen, Denmark
An unborn child is conceived the moments the sperm penetrates the egg. After that, it will evolve until it is a grown old person who dies a natural death. Any humanly planned deadline, before which it is lawful to kill it, is arbitrary: 5 seconds after that line, it is murder to kill it. 5 seconds before, its lawful in my “civilized” country of Denmark …
Lars Munk Sørensen
Excellent post, spot on the mark.
“Mayor Giuliani, like yourself, is against abortion. He, like yourself, thinks its morally wrong, he, unlike you, does not impose his opionion on the world and expect everyone to submit to his value system. We can’t make everyone like what we like, value what we value, and do what we do. If a woman wants an abortion, its her life, its her choice. Not yours.”
The attitude of “morally neutral” (everyone make up their own mind) is self-defeating and incomprehensible.
You say that it is her choice, leave her alone. Yet then you tell others to abide with your moral choice, to leave everyone to their own choice. Inconsistent?
(And yes, the attitude “let everyone make up their own mind, to not force your opinions on others” IS forcing your opinion on others. People can make up their own opinion AS LONG AS it doesn’t affect me/others is forcing your opinion).
Tristan Ingle, Sydney
People attempting to justify taking the life of an innocent, unborn child frustrate me. By all accounts women do have a right to make choices with regard to their bodies. However, the choice about your body should begin with the choices that you make which put you in the position to even be contemplating an abortion. If you do not want to be pregnant then utilize birth control. Furthermore, if you are not willing to face the potential consequences of having sex, which, pregnancy does pose as a possibility, then maybe you should not be having sex. You want to have choices and be in control of your body, then take control and make responsible choices with your body and then you avoid unwanted pregnancies. Lastly, if a woman should have rights and should be able to make choices regarding her body, why then does the unborn baby, whose voice cannot yet be heard, have no rights to their body? The unborn baby’s heart starts beating between 18 and 25 days after conception, well before a woman even knows that she is pregnant. It has little arms, legs, hands, feet and all organs are there. It is a whole little human being, who only needs to grow and be given the opportunity to be, to live, and to fulfill its purpose in life……