Friday, 9 April 2010

Killing People Part 2

Here's a distressing further thought on my post on abortion. I mentioned there that to sort this out ethically you would first determine whether an embryo is human, and if it is, in what circumstances it is OK to kill a human being.

You will be aware that in the US (and no doubt here as well) doctors who run abortion clinics regularly receive death threats from people saying they are pro-life, and that on rare occasions they are even victims of murder or attempted murder. My first reaction is that the people who make such threats are probably quite disturbed and the threats or acts of violence are a sign of their mental illness.

This may well be the case. However, the really disturbing thing is that their behaviour can be easily fitted in to my framework. As pro-lifers, they assess that the embryo and the doctor are equally human. Why not respect the doctor's life, then? Well, the most obvious answer is that the person making the threats is a believer in capital punishment for serious crimes. Because embryos are fully human, a doctor who has performed multiple abortions is morally equivalent to a serial killer and deserves to die, while the embryos are innocent and therefore should be allowed to live.

The immediate objection to this line of reasoning is that capital punishment is a perogative of the State, not the individual. The individual is entitled to a fair trial and then, if guilty, to punishment by a properly constituted court. To which your doctor killer will reply that in their society there is a law which protects the murderer and betrays the helpless innocent. Since the doctor's guilt is clear (he even advertises it) it is therefore OK for the righteous citizen to take the law into his or her own hands.

Although the logic is impeccable, the conclusion is obviously wrong. A line of ethical reasoning that justifies murder can't be right. My question is, where is the flaw?

I think the first part of the answer is that this reasoning doesn't take account of the person's intent. The doctor clearly does not intend to murder - he doesn't regard the embryo as human, just as a collection of cells, and therefore sincerely believes that there is nothing wrong with the abortion. In this he is backed up by the law of his country. If he thought that it was human (as many doctors do) he wouldn't conduct abortions. Hence his act of abortion is not morally equivalent to that of the person who kills him, because the murderer is quite clear that the victim is human and the killing is conscious and deliberate. The moral equivalent for the doctor would be an act of accidental killing, like killing someone in a car accident - it's distressing, but you're not to blame.

The strongest argument against this is that it sounds like moral relativism - it's only wrong if you and/or your society think its wrong. Hence the second part of the answer - the distinction between individual behaviour and systemic behaviour. If indeed abortion is wrong, then the wrong is at a systemic level. We have ordered our society in such a way that abortion is easy to obtain and widely tolerated. This is a collective problem, and needs to be solved (assuming it does) by a re-ordering of society - our legal systems, the way we care for children and support families, and so on - rather than by blaming and attacking individuals who play particular roles in the system.

One of the problems of our current ethical landscape is that we are so immersed in individualism that we find it extremely difficult to comprehend and respond to systemic issues - not just abortion but poverty, war, environmental damage, almost any big issue you care to name. In the absence of this analysis we are left pointing the finger at individuals. Killing the doctor will not prevent a single abortion - it's just one more death on the list, and the violence and hatred spiral on.


Pykle said...

Ted - it is interesting to see that many of the anti-abortion websites are also pro-capital punishment and pro-gun ie there is an underlying assumption of the rights of the individual over the rights of the State. It is this aspect that most troubles me, as it leaves open coercion and fear as the only means of gaining social cohesion. Not surprising that cultures so based have such high levels of urban violence.

Jon said...

Yes indeed. It's not only on abortion that that kind of violence gets an outing. I remember reading how Philip Yancey was threatened and vilified after he wrote that Christians needed to show grace and love towards gay people rather than condemnation - and he wasn't even saying he thought homesexuality was right! There's a mindset which I really struggle to understand which resourts to threats and vioence over any difference of opinion.

The Borg said...

Yes, it is disturbing that pro-life folk might also be pro-capital punishment, but it's a position that makes more sense to me than pro-abortion, anti-capital punishment. (I'm not pro-capital punishment btw)

My reasoning is not that sophisticated, but fairly simple, fairly boiled down. If the fetus is innocent, doesn't it make more sense to protect the life of an innocent human than a guilty one? This makes more sense than supporting the termination of innocent life and protecting that of the guilty.

Just say'n.

Jon said...

Shi that takes care of the punishment side, but what about the avoidance of suffering?