Posted by: John Adams | March 9, 2010

An Ethical Dilemma

(Note to those reading from Facebook: I am not using Facebook except on Sundays. If you want to have a conversation, please click through to the blog and post your comments there.)

This is an imaginary dialogue that has been running inside my head for quite some time now. Aspects of it might be a bit controversial to some readers. You are welcome to agree or disagree in the comments.

B: Are there some issues that disqualify a particular candidate automatically from receiving your vote, regardless of what their stance might be on any other issue?

A: Such as?

B: Well, OK, let’s say that a particular candidate had a wise, balanced foreign policy, took a reasonable approach toward environmental issues, understood economics well, and had proven him (or her) self as a competent, fair-minded leader. Let’s say that this candidate enjoyed the approval of a broad swath of the electorate and demonstrated the ability to reach across party lines and reconcile various political factions. The candidate had the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, was a visionary leader, and aspired to the brightest possible future for their constituency.

A: So far, so good. Is there a catch?

B: Yes, there is one small catch. The candidate happens not to believe–how do I put this tactfully?. The candidate does not believe that a certain demographic of the country are actually people.

A: What demographic might that be?

B: Well, it’s not that the candidate doesn’t consider these people to be people…it’s just that…

A: Who are you talking about?

B: Well…Jews.

A: What on earth do you mean? Of course Jews are people.

B: Well, obviously the candidate believes Jews are people once they turn 18.

A: Not until they turn 18? Are you crazy?

B: Yes, once they turn 18, they start paying taxes, serving in the military, going to college, running for office. All of these things look like things that real people do. Before that, however, they’re kind of an inconvenience.

A: Are you serious?! An inconvenience? How so?

B: Well, yes, they tend to make things inconvenient for people who would rather they didn’t exist. I’m sure you understand.

A: I assure you most sincerely I do not.

B: Well, many of the respected academics and media elite would disagree with you. They would say that morality is socially defined and is relative to the ethical context of the situation.

A: What does that mean?

B: Basically, it boils down to the idea that the right thing to do is whatever a majority of people, or the people in power over a majority of the people, want to do is right. So if a majority of the population decides that Jews under the age of 18 should not be legally defined as persons deserving of legal protection, there is nothing to say that that majority isn’t right.

A: But what about the fundamental human rights of those Jewish minors? You can’t just brush those aside!

B: “Human rights” is really just a fancy way of saying “things that we believe are true about human beings because it makes us feel good to do so.” In a world of limited resources, it is the strongest who will survive. In order to ensure a strong and healthy society, it is necessary sometimes to eliminate those who represent a drain on the system.

A: But…what about what those people would be able to contribute to society if allowed to flourish into the prime of their lives?

B: You’re being a moralist, and I’ve never understood why you moralists are so concerned about minors? You don’t seem to care all that much about the millions of adults who need health care, education, and social support. Why should children, especially children unwanted by the majority of society, receive government support that could go to supporting people who are more functionally viable, and more capable of making a direct contribution to society? Don’t adults deserve all of these things, too?

A: I’m not against providing these things for adults. But you can’t just go killing Jews  because you want more resources to go to Caucasians, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc. The end doesn’t justify the means!

B: Doesn’t it? Admittedly this is a complex issue, but the end justifies the means in all kinds  of messy ethical situations–cops shoot robbers if it looks like they’re pulling a gun, armies routinely kill civilians in bombing raids meant to kill terrorists, and most people would shoot an intruder into their home if it meant protecting the lives of their family members. Doesn’t the end justify the means in all of these situations?

A: Well…maybe in some situations. But I still believe that in the case of Jewish minors, who pose no threat to anyone, and have done no wrong worthy of death, the government should intervene on their behalf to protect them if their rights are violated.

B: Clearly, we have differing perspectives on this sensitive issue. The candidate I mentioned to you earlier understands how sensitive and delicate this issue really is to some people. That is why he has prepared a carefully calibrated statement that recognizes both perspectives in this important debate.

A: Are you seriously suggesting a compromise on killing Jewish kids? This really is not an issue we can compromise on. That would be murder, and murder is always wrong.

B: Why is murder always wrong? Is that a rationally held belief or a religious belief?

A: Well, I do believe that murder is wrong because the Bible says so. But it’s also just irrational to kill people just because…

B: First of all, please keep your religion out of the public square. Religious dogmas have no place in formulating public policy in a pluralistic society. Second of all, it may be irrational to you to kill merely because of who they are, but the millions of citizens of this country who consider co-existing alongside Jewish minors an unnecessary hardship that they should not have to endure would disagree.

Millions of people differ with you on this issue. It doesn’t look like everyone will agree on this issue anytime soon, which is why my candidate has proposed a compromise solution. Do you want to hear it?

A: I still think this is despicable, but go ahead…

B: My candidate strongly believes that this is a deeply personal choice. He respects the strong convictions of people of both sides of this issue. For those who would object to the pro-choice position, the best solution would be simply agree to disagree. If you don’t believe in getting rid of Jewish minors, then don’t get rid of them yourself, but don’t try and impose your views on others who do want to exercise that choice. The new healthcare plan coming into effect within the next few months will exercise the same principle of choice.

A: What does that mean?

B: Basically, it means that there is an opt-out policy. If you don’t want the option of covering or supporting the coverage of other people who want to have Jewish minors terminated with your tax dollars, no problem.

A: But the option is still open to people who do?

B: Yes. The option is still open to people who do. A balanced, fair and reasonable approach, to be sure. So…will you support my candidate?

A: Absolutely not.

B: Why not?

A: Because the candidate supports legalized murder of human beings.

B: Well, he supports the choice to exterminate an unwanted portion of the population if a person so chooses. Besides, this is really just one of a host of issues confronting our nation today. Even if you disagree with my candidate at this point, can’t you at least give us your vote in support of the overall position we represent?

A: No. The candidate’s support for the murder of human beings is an atrocious evil, and I would never vote for such a candidate.

B: I can’t believe you’re being so narrow-minded about this. Are you really just a single-issue voter? Aren’t there other issues to worry about besides this one (admittedly controversial) issue?

A: Of course there are other issues, but this candidate’s support of such an evil renders their position on every other issue superfluous. They will never receive my vote.

B: Well, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

A: I guess so.

Obviously, I’ve cast this in very extreme terms. Still, I would like to know how you believe this differs (if you do), from supporting a candidate who believes in keeping the choice to abort unborn children a legal option? If you are a Christian, could you support a pro-abortion candidate if you agreed with that candidate on a broad range of other issues? If you are not, do you think that Christians are being consistent with their own principle of the sanctity of human life when they vote for candidates with whom they disagree on this issue?

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Responses

  1. While I have never knowingly support a candidate who saw abortion as legitimate (though for other reasons), here is a way one might look at it (though not me).

    We see the consequences of abortion. It is death. However, what about concerns for medical care? There are death that are caused by injustices in the medical field. Furthermore, what about economic injustice that leads to greater strain on people and shortening their life span? We don’t necessarily see the immediate consequences of those problems, but nevertheless, they lead to death of people. Do I as a voter value the lives of the unborn as more valuable than others?

    This comes from what ethics would call a utilitarian standpoint, where minimizing deaths, no matter how they occur, is part of the decision making process. This is not how I approach the political question, nor am I as “liberal” as this hypothetical person probably is.

  2. I agree with you that that is a utilitarian argument. It assumes that we can endorse one form of evil if it counterbalances other forms of evil. I’m curious to know how you would approach the issue alternatively.

    But the argument fails even if we grant its utilitarian assumptions. Abortion is far and away the biggest taker of innocent life, at least in the United States. Bigger than poverty (even indirectly), war, capital punishment, etc.

    Also, there’s something to be said for sins of commission vs. sins of omission. Saying that lack of adequate medical care (or some other social inequity) kills, while it may be true, is not something that Americans are committed to in principle. The death of Americans through neglect or indirect injustice is not something that any American would agree to as a political principle.

    The death of innocent unborn human beings, however, is an industry in America that millions of Americans are zealously committed to defending ethically and protecting politically at all costs. That is an outrage. To paraphrase Jesus’ words and adapt them to a different context: “There wouldn’t be a problem if you were simply blind; it’s because you say you see that you are so guilty.”


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