Before determining the morality of abortion, we must first reflect deeply on what a human person is, and when a human person begins. Last week I discussed the first issue. Secondly, when does human life begin? There are two ways to answer this question. They both come to the same conclusion, yet by different routes. Each has pros and cons, and we should use them in different contexts. Understanding this is essential in developing both our personal and our social ethic concerning this issue.
Two Ways to Approach This Question
There are two different approaches to answering the question of the morality of abortion, and they both reach the same conclusion. The issue can be approached philosophically, by reflecting on the nature of human persons. It can also be approached theologically, studying biblical revelation to answer the question.
The Theological Approach
Both approaches have value. The strength of the theological approach is that it provides a definitive answer to the question. Having a definitive answer is very helpful as one develops his or her personal ethic—personal moral commitments that guide one’s own choices.
The weakness of the theological approach is evident when engaging in social ethics—ethical reasoning in the “public square,” which includes discussions about the morality of abortion around the proverbial “water cooler” at work, in conversations with family and friends, when writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, or when asked to discuss this issue in a public venue.
Unfortunately many in the “public square” do not share our assumptions underlying this approach: that God exists and has revealed His mind on ethical matters in the Old and New Testaments. Therefore to take the theological approach in the public square would require first showing these assumptions are accurate through apologetic reasoning. Offering sound reasons to accept these assumptions can certainly be done. However, making the effort to do so makes for a much longer conversation, which is often not possible in public conversations on this (and other) moral issues. Therefore, this approach is best used in developing one’s personal ethic.
The Philosophical Approach
The strength of the philosophical approach it begins with assumptions that many either already accept, or can see are rational to accept without appeal to special revelation. Therefore those from a wide range of religious persuasions can more easily come to agreement on the morality of abortion. This result makes the philosophical approach much stronger in articulating a social ethic—engaging publically in conversations about the morality of abortion.
There is also a weakness of the philosophical approach. It is a conclusion based on the principle of “inference to the best explanation.” In and of itself this is not problematic. It is the approach underlying much of our knowledge, including scientific knowledge. In scientific investigation we run a number of experiments, and from the data collected we infer what the best (most rational, best supported) explanation of the data is.
The philosophical approach does the same thing, reasoning from the data to the best explanation (most rational and thus most moral position). However, in moral reasoning, one can always deny the conclusion by suggesting the data is inadequate (more or better data is needed), or that the data should be interpreted differently (leading to a different conclusion). Therefore the philosophical approach to moral issues is less definitive than the theological approach.
With that said, I still believe the philosophical approach is preferable in social ethics. If you argue that abortion is immoral based on philosophical reasoning, and someone raises one or both of these objections, you can offer good responses.
If one objects that we need more or better data before drawing that conclusion, we may say several things in response. Most importantly, this objection misses the point by implying the data is scientific data concerning the nature of the human person or when life begins. Thus the assumption is that as time goes on we will gather more of the scientific data needed.
Yet neither of these are scientific questions. What humans are and when life begins are philosophical questions whose “data set” answering these questions is robust and goes back to Plato and Aristotle. Therefore, the conclusion cannot be rejected because we need more or better data. We have over 2000 years of sound data helpful in our analysis. The one who persists in arguing this is a scientific question is assuming Scientism—the view that only science gives us knowledge. See here for a description and critique of scientism, and here for a discussion of physicalism (its associated understanding of what is real).
Likewise, one may reject the moral conclusion that abortion is wrong by arguing that one should interpret the data differently. However, this objection usually takes the “isn’t it possible” approach. In other words, to the arguments I’ll discuss below in the following weeks concerning this issue, one may say, “But isn’t it possible that you are wrong?”
This objection belies the assumption that I must be certain of a conclusion to claim I know it is true, and therefore the mere possibility of my being wrong is enough to reject my conclusion. Those who make this assumption do so based on an outdated (but still popular) understanding of knowledge as absolute certainty (drawing from Descartes, an Enlightenment thinker, and thus is referred to as requiring Cartesian certainty). I discuss this approach to knowledge and offer three reasons it is bankrupt here.
Therefore, we may respond to this objection by agreeing that we may be wrong, but that our conclusion seems to the most reasonable and therefore should be their conclusion as well unless they can provide a more reasonable conclusion. I do not believe objectors can offer a more reasonable conclusion without being honest about their underlying assumptions of physicalism and scientism (which, in turn, they cannot rationally defend).
My Approach, Though Not Everyone Agrees
For these reasons, I believe it is best to take the philosophical approach to discuss this and other moral questions in the public square. However, many in our churches today do not agree. Several times I have been criticized for taking this approach. For instance, several years ago I was invited to teach a course on “Ethics for Pastors” at a local seminary. The course was to prepare pastors to counsel parishioners on moral issues, as well as engage in public discussions on ethical issues. I was excited to teach this course and submitted my syllabus for approval.
My approach was much of what I outlined above: I would teach these future pastors to help parishioners make decisions of personal ethics via biblical revelation, as well as help them think through how to discuss ethical issues in the public square philosophically, based on the common ground these pastors would share with those outside the church.
A very prominent biblical scholar was responsible for reviewing my syllabus. He completely disagreed with my approach because, in his words, “The Bible is sufficient for all knowledge, and so we must proclaim it in the public square as well as within the church.” Though I agreed with his premise that the Bible is sufficient for all knowledge, I disagreed that it can be heard and evaluated fairly in the public square, given the assumptions many have which prejudice them against biblical revelation.
He represents many Christians who believe our discussion of ethics in the public context should begin and end with Scripture. (After much deliberation he agreed to let me teach the course as I saw fit.)
A Case Study of Approaches
The assumption and practice of only taking the theological approach is one important reason why Christians have less and less of a voice in public conversations. Reading the comments posted in reply to any news article dealing with an ethical issue bears this out (such as the comments to Ms. Northup’s article “Roe isn’t just about women’s rights. It’s about everyone’s personal liberty.” in the July 8 Opinion section of The Washington Post.)
For instance, in the comments section “James” simply replied, "Thou shalt not kill." I am certain he is a well-meaning Christian seeking to help others understand God’s heart on the matter. Unfortunately, his post was not well received. Two of the responses were:
Because of separation of church and state, you cannot use the Mosaic Law to promulgate secular law.
[If the courts] allow the religious to impose their will on the rest of us, they infringe on our rights to freedom FROM religion. Go be as religious as you want in your private life, but do not tread on us in our public life. Roe v. Wade is the tip of the iceberg on this issue, as no one can truly know when "human life" begins, and to impose the beliefs of someone which defines life clearly impinges on the rest of us.
Ultimately, his assumptions concerning God’s existence and the relevance of His Word to this public issue, while true and defensible, were not shared assumptions, and its insertion into the debate shut down dialogue. He was not effective in persuading others of his view, because he could not find common ground with them on the topic. Had James offered a philosophical argument for when life begins (addressing the assumption of the respondent that “no one can truly know”), he would have been able to further engage in the conversation.
The approach I will suggest in discussing the question of when life begins, and the implications for abortion and other biomedical issues will include both the theological and philosophical pathways.
For the Christian struggling to determine the morality of abortion or other issues personally, the theological approach should be primary (and the philosophical approach a helpful supporting line of reasoning). It should be prior because the believer has good reasons to believe the underlying assumptions that God has revealed His view of the issue in Scripture, which one can trust as authoritative. (If one does not think this to be the case, there is sound data to support these assumptions. See my bibliography for books, from introductory to advanced, offering substantial evidence that these assumptions are true.)
For the pastor, counselor, or other Christian believers responsible for helping others develop a personal ethic, the theological approach should again be primary (and the philosophical approach secondary) for the same reasons. Helping younger believers develop a robust biblical understanding of God’s revelation on these critical issues is an essential part of your calling as is helping them understand the supporting philosophical reasoning on the subject, which further reinforces and nuances the issues and their understanding.
However, as we engage in public discussions on moral issues, the philosophical approach must be primary (and often our only method). Again, this is not because it is any more true or defensible. Instead, it is a “tactical” move—it is the way non-believers can best hear the truth and come to proper conclusions concerning moral issues such as abortion.
Therefore in the next few weeks, I will walk down both the theological and philosophical pathways to the same conclusion concerning the morality of abortion.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading see Tim Muehlhoff’s Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World and I Beg To Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love