Posts Tagged ‘morality’

A justification for abortion

Sat Sep 24, 2011 3:45 am by Aught3

The most common justification for abortion that I hear is to explain the differences between a foetus and a normal person. If a foetus lacks the important and distinguishing features that make killing a person wrong, the moral issue surrounding abortion is rendered null. While I so think personhood arguments provide valuable support for the legalisation of abortion, I also struggle when it comes to setting the actual legal limit for acceptable abortion implied by this argument. The limit could be wet at eight weeks when the foetus become recognisably human, or around 20 weeks when most of the personhood criteria are met, or some time after birth when full personhood is obtained. The first option is hardly different from a total abortion ban, the second leaves a period of pregnancy when abortion is outlawed, and the third justifies some types of infanticide. Because of these difficulties I prefer the dependence justification for abortion.

Basically, I would argue that while the foetus is absolutely dependent on the mother for nutrients, oxygen, and a safe environment she should be allowed to withdraw that support. The resulting death of the foetus, while predictable, is not murder because it results from the withdrawal of sustenance. I also add an extra requirement of exploring reasonable options that could avoid the need for an abortion but since current technology does not allow aborted embryos to survive and develop independently from the mother, abortion should remain legal.

However, over on M and M (New Zealand’s most popular Christian blog) I found a few counter-examples to my favoured arguments which gave me pause. While some are easy to answer others are a little trickier.

Example 1: “A hiker who breaks her leg a week’s walk from a road will die if her companions do not bring help.’

In New Zealand and other common law jurisdictions there is no duty to rescue. While we might look down on people who leave people to die rather than rescue them, it is not prosecuted as a criminal homicide or any other felony. See this example of mountain climbers being left to die on Everest. I would prefer the general principle that people attempt to rescue others if they are able to do so safely but I also don’t want to force someone into a potentially dangerous action if they are unwilling. This is consistent with my position on abortion. I would prefer if the potential mother to explore all options but if she is unwilling to go through the pregnancy, I would not force it upon her.

Example 2: “An elderly woman may be totally dependant on her children looking after her.’

This is similar to the problem above, there is no legal duty placed upon children to take of their parents in old age. It may be the respectful thing to do, but I do not want the law changed to force children to be responsible for their elderly parents.

Example 3: “A newborn is totally dependent on its mother if it happens to be born in an isolated area where there are no other lactating women and there are no means of bottle-feeding.’

This example I find harder to answer. One point to make is while the above two scenarios are realistic this one is fantastical and unlikely to occur in everyday life. There are always plenty of people around who could look after a new baby if required. Never-the-less, I think this scenario requires an answer: would it be acceptable for a mother to refuse life-sustaining support for her own child? There is a duty to rescue in a parent-child relationship and to refuse aid would be negligence at the least. The expectant mother and the foetus do share an approximation of the parent-child relationship so perhaps the pregnant women does have some duty to provide a life-sustaining environment for her offspring.

I throw it open to you. Is there a relevant difference between the two cases that doesn’t rely on a personhood argument?

A plea to theists: well I guess it is too late for you

Sat Sep 03, 2011 2:48 am by Aught3

One of the greatest ironies in life is watching theists try to reason about moral philosophy. The mess of contradictions produced makes for some laugh-out-loud reading and can be terrific fun to unpack. Working through this kind of fractal wrongness can also help us to clarify our own moral reasoning and shows us why secular morality is superior to that of the religious.Exhibit A is Rabbi Moshe Averick’s A Plea to Atheists: Pedophilia Is Next On the Slippery Slope; Let Us Turn Back Before It Is Too Late. I’ve picked out a few of the major problems and given my response to them.


Averick’s main beef with atheistic morality is that is subjective:

“For the atheist, morality is simply a word that is used to describe the type of system that an individual or society subjectively prefers. Each society establishes, maintains, and modifies its values to suit its own needs.’

While some atheists do see morality as subjective there are also moral philosophies based on facts and a shared understanding of reality (i.e., objective). Rabbi Averick also thinks it is a problem that moral philosophy can update itself as new arguments are made and accepted. As someone who works in the sciences I am comfortable with knowledge improving as new facts are discovered and new ideas developed. There will be setbacks, aberrant paths that are found to be wrong, but on the long view a gradual improvement is continuously made. In modern social democracies can we really doubt that we are better off today than in the past? We have more freedoms and more rights than ever before. This is not the result of mere subjective whims that happened to go the right way, but a recognition that some actions of the past (e.g., slavery) were wrong and should no longer be permitted in our society. Dogmas, on the other hand, do not update and are stuck in our less enlightened past.


Peter Singer
Averick spends a significant chunk of the article attacking Peter Singer for his views on consequentialist utilitarianism. Which is an objective moral system. The Rabbi doesn’t seem to recognise that his criticism of moral subjectivism doesn’t apply to Singer but he continues regardless:

“Singer went on to explain that he is a “consequentialist.’ For the benefit of the philosophically challenged let me explain “consequentialism’ in a nutshell: If you like the consequences it’s ethical, if you don’t like the consequences it’s unethical. Thus, if you enjoy child pornography and having sex with children it’s ethical, if you dislike child pornography and having sex with children it’s unethical.‘

What Singer’s philosophy actually entails is the evaluation of harm that results from an action. Utilitarianism considers happiness to be desirable and harm to be deleterious. This means that when assessing an action for its morality you should look at the consequences in terms of the people harmed and the people helped. So if enjoying child pornography and having sex with children harms someone then it is unethical. Since paedophilia often has traumatic effects on the child involved, their parents, and the wider community Singer would most likely find most cases of paedophilia morally wrong. So much for the slippery slope argument.


Averick claims that since we resulted from slime (or from dust if you are Jewish, I guess that’s better?) that means we are morally bereft. The fact that we evolved from primates does not degrade humanity. It is thrilling to think that all species on this planet are interrelated though the process of evolution. What makes humans different, more significant than our jungle dwelling relatives, is our ability to reason. When we exercise our unique intelligence we get to make our own decisions about meaning, value, and morality. Atheists aren’t handed their morality from on high, we have to think about it, and thanks to evolution we have that ability. After spending most of the article decrying the ability of secular philosophers to reason about ethics, Averick engages in the most dishonest part of the article. He simply throws out a bunch of ethical rules without giving any justification for his claims.

  • All men are created in the image of God and are therefore inherently and intrinsically precious.
  • All men have been endowed by God with unalienable rights and among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Thou shalt not murder.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery, incest, or bestiality.
  • Thou shalt not have sex with children, and if you do you will be looked upon as a disgusting and contemptible criminal and will be treated as such.
  • Thou shall teach these laws to your children.

Fortunately, we can recognise the source for some of these claims, and they don’t come from a god. The ones about unalienable rights are from the American Declaration of Independence and the rules about murder, stealing, perjury, and adultery are from the Torah. These moral rules aren’t from God but from the men who wrote the documents. But where do the other bits and pieces come from? Since Averick hasn’t demonstrated God is the moral author, we have to conclude they come from Averick himself. The Rabbi simply prefers it to be the case that paedophilia is immoral and so claims that it is a divine command. This is merely Self-Projection As God. After spending an entire article railing against subjective morality we find that the only justification Averick has is that he just feels paedophilia is wrong (and God agrees with me!) Unfortunately for Averick the main point of his article is that atheism leads to paedophilia. It is rather easily countered by the mention to two religions: Catholicism and Islam. Both of these theistic beliefs have managed to rationalise and accept (respectively) the sexual molestation of children. If theistic societies are also capable of accepting paedophilia then Averick’s point is moot and it seems that God does not totally agree with our hapless Rabbi on the immorality of pedophilia.

Irony, it’s everywhere.


Wed Jul 28, 2010 1:21 pm by Aught3

In a futuristic American city, Firemen no longer put out blazes – they start them – and the prime target for their arson are the great works of literary history. In the society of Fahrenheit 451 people fill their days by driving recklessly, watching wall-to-wall television, and listening to music through their portable iShell’¦er’¦Seashell radio sets.  The pervasive nature of vacuous entertainment is such that the citizens of this dystopian city have become wholly apathetic to the literal holocaust of the great authors carried out by Firemen. Book-burning is a repellent act and ought to be opposed by every civilised person. Not only is it a public display of censorship, something we all find offensive, but it also represents the destruction of ideas – an attempt to erase important concepts from public knowledge. No one who claims the inheritance of the enlightenment could support such an act.


You can’t be good without sci-fi

Mon Jul 12, 2010 12:43 am by Aught3

Science fiction provides the perfect backdrop for exploration on the borders of morality because it creates alternate realities which are limited only by the depth of our imagination. Promising technologies can be created, controlled, and finally be seen to unexpectedly turn on their former masters. New planets can be discovered and explored for ancient civilisations or exploited for basic resources. Alien species can threaten our planet with annihilation or they can teach us what it means to be human. In the world of science fiction all these possibilities can occur; new worlds, galaxies, and alien species can be created and destroyed over and over in myriad combinations – then it can all be written again. The remoteness of these new galaxies and the unfamiliar forms of alien species allows for an ethical discussion of current events in a way that does not threaten the personal identity of those directly involved. Science fiction allows a lot of nonsense to be bypassed and lets the viewer to look directly into the heart of important subjects1.


Moral Castles Made Of Sand

Fri Feb 05, 2010 9:16 pm by Th1sWasATriumph

Here’s a riddle for you.*

Is it better to have flexible, socially contextual morals that may dip below what many people view as laudable behaviour as a result of free will and personal choice . . . or is it better to have a uniformly high moral standard followed, in part or even in whole, as a result of fearing the perceived consequences of not following it?

Of course, you might say that I’ve used Wordification to bias the issue somewhat – and because I have no higher power to feel accountable to I’m perfectly happy to lie, and say that I didn’t bias the point in the slightest.

The question, I suppose, is how worthy or altruistic can a high moral standard be truly taken to be when it’s prescribed rather than acquired? It becomes little more than Utilitarianism if your moral compass is constantly aware that behaving immorally will result in hell, or a few lost brownie-heaven points from God. You’re not acting morally, you’re just protecting your own skin – which is exactly what I would do, of course.


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