Really Wrong

Something that is right must not always be good. The debate about the rights of unborn babies and infants tells us why.

Several months ago, philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva published an article in the “Journal of Medical Ethics”, in which they argued for the permissibility of killing newly born infants under certain conditions by comparing it to the abortion of unborn babies.

The argument roughly goes like this: Unborn babies and newborns haven’t acquired the moral status of a “person” yet. They are not yet “subjects of a moral right to life,” which the authors tie to the definition of a person as “an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”

The two philosophers believe that a clear definition, a few additional premises, and logical reasoning will lead to the conclusion that no right to life exists for newborns and unborn babies, and that it thus becomes ethically permissible to kill one or the other under certain conditions. I don’t want to discuss the premises of their argument, the original definition of personhood, or the process of logical deduction. Instead, I want to call attention to the conception of morality and ethics that lies at the core of their argument. Evidently, the authors believe that both can be reduced to a few fundamental facts and premises, whose correctness (not their moral acceptability) can be discussed, and from which we can deduce moral judgments through pure reason. Neither the premises nor the conclusions are submitted to the test of whether they are good or bad. The only question posed by the authors is whether they are right (or wrong) and correct (or false).

But morality goes far beyond that. To illustrate that point, we can draw on a thought experiment mentioned in the article. Giubilini and Minerva write about a (hypothetical) woman who is pregnant with identical twins. They suffer from a genetic defect, and the woman has two options available to her: One fetus can be cured if the other fetus is deliberately killed to be used for therapeutic purposes. The second option is to accept the severe genetic disease of both twins. (It remains a mystery why the thought experiment has to be pushed so far: It would have been sufficient to decide between the death of both fetuses and the abortion of one so that the other can live.) Since the woman might decide in favor of one fetus and against the other, the authors deduce that the mother has assigned different moral statuses to each unborn, despite the fact that such a difference in moral status cannot be grounded in biological differences (they are identical twins, and both suffer from the same genetic defect).

But the expectant mother’s decision has nothing to do with morality and ethics, and certainly isn’t related to different moral statuses of the two fetuses. We might say that it is a medical decision, or maybe even an economic decision – but both are practical rather than ethical. We might even say that no “decision” exists at all, since no clear criteria exist for the selection of one fetus over the other. In any case, a decision can only be made once our moral sense is neglected, once ethical considerations cease to play a role.

No practical, medical or economic consideration will free the mother from the burden of her conscience. She will be able to justify her decision as right, correct, or appropriate, but she will likely be unable to say that the decision was truly “good.” Or, to put it precisely: She will only be able to say that the decision was “good” insofar as it was “right” from a medical perspective. The moral conflicts remain – and, in most cases, aren’t resolved – even when a decision was reached after a rational examination of all relevant facts. Those who find themselves in a situation of moral conflict cannot rely on factual considerations. Maybe they can draw on reason to justify a certain course of action, but their conscience is unlikely to be satisfied.

Of course it is possible that the mother, once her remaining child has grown up in good health, will eventually come to regard her decision as “good.” But such a moral judgment is not based on the logical arguments faced by the mother at the moment of her original decision but on the fulfilled life that the remaining child has subsequently lived. As such, it cannot be assumed in the original situation. Not every fetus that is killed will result in a happy life for the remaining fetus that can justify the killing ex post facto.

We don’t necessarily act morally good, even when we act in ways that are rationally right. Nobody can act and decide with a morally pure conscience. Ethical imperatives might tell us what we ought to do (or refrain from doing), but whether we are able to act in such ways isn’t a question of morality alone. Instead of constructing our ethical framework like a rigid cage that conflates our imperative and our ability to act in certain ways, it is better to admit that moral behavior isn’t always possible.

Ethics cannot be deduced from factual constraints and rational logic. Human morality and human conscience constitute the final benchmark for factually and rationally justified actions. If we attempted to reduce ethics to reason, this final assessment would wither away. I doubt that the world would become more humane as a result.

While we cannot always abide by moral norms, they also serve the important purpose of providing guidance in situations where the alternatives available to us are ambiguous. In everyday life, this is the common scenario. We are rarely faced with the ethically extreme case of having to decide between life and death. It is precisely in the everyday context that moral norms provide orientation and must not be replaced by the arbitrary focus on logical deduction.

Yet extreme cases call for independent moral guidance as well. Morality demands that we inquire into the cogency of medical, economic, or practical considerations. Part of what makes us human is our ability to decide against the rational option and in favor of morality, or to carry the moral guilt when our decision is right but not necessarily good.

Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Familiar Feelings

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