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Absolutism Versus Relativism: The Ethics of Abortion

I am a passionate writer with 22 years’ experience in the industry, writing for various print and online media here in England and abroad.

Ethics Can Get Violent

In May 2009 Dr George Tiller was shot to death in Kansas outside his abortion clinic where he had performed late term abortions.

In May 2009 Dr George Tiller was shot to death in Kansas outside his abortion clinic where he had performed late term abortions.

Divine Command Theory

The Euthyphro Dilemma proposed in Plato's dialogue with fellow Ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Euthyphro discussed the nature of piety.

"Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

To understand God's character, religious people understand that something is "good" or "pious" because the action would reflect the character of God. God commanded his followers not to kill. Abortion is the killing of an unborn human that exists in a state of life. So for those who sign up to Divine Command Theory, abortion under any circumstances is wrong.

Natural Law Theory

Here is a look at different viewpoints of Natural Law.

Plato and Natural Law

Natural Law proposes a perfect understanding of nature, seeking to build upon the second half of the Euthypro dilemma; "Is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" This discussion led Plato to come up with the "forms", or a theory of ideas that can qualify things we sense and feel, rather than know logically. One of these forms, the "Form of the Good", asserts that all things can be understood as emanating from a higher creative being, or God, who is perfect in creation of everything. So for Plato, the choice to have an abortion would be against perfect creation, and this view is morally absolute.

Aristotle and Natural Law

Artistotle made the distinction that there must be laws of nature that follow God's creative plan. These laws must be true for everyone, or absolute. Artistotle proposed that a set of laws could be written to quantify these truths. Artistotle gave preference to nature over custom, so for Aristotle, the custom to choose to have an abortion would be morally wrong.

Stoics and Natural Law

Next came a school of thought called stoicism, which was indifferent to the fact of a divine creator, but did ascribe to the idea that there could be "natural justice". This meant that they viewed that a rational person would not seek to have an abortion as it would involve taking the life of a child.

Cicero and Natural Law

Cicero proposed that the laws we agreed to hold in common are able to exist because we agree they lead to our own good. So for Cicero, to take the life of an unborn child would lead to misery.

Augustine of Hippo

As Roman society developed, and hardships such as slavery and poverty afflicted the poor, this 4th century Christian Bishop sought to integrate Natural Law with Christianity. Because natural law was not beneficial to all, as children were being born into awful lives, Augustine said that we could not be saved by obeying Natural Law, but by the grace and faith we have in Jesus Christ. Augustine could be summarised as someone who would not have recommended an abortion, but could see why women might seek them out, and sought to find a way to reconcile this with their salvation prospects. This is really a touch of relativism here as society has evolved and moral absolutes don't fit every situation.

Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law

In the 13th century, Catholic Bishop Thomas Aquinas sought to quantify this understanding of God as a creative being. He proposed Natural Law Theory in order to understand the perfect aspects of what we see and know around us. He reasserted that Natural Law was the supreme law, and a rational person would obey the eternal directive, no matter what. Since no human being could actually know what God wanted exactly, the law needed to be supplemented with Divine Law that was "revealed". We can see this in operation in the Catholic Church as the priests are Christ's "apostles" and "authority on earth" which means that the Divine Law is revealed to them. This is the deontological aspect of Natural Law as Aquinas defined it.

The teleological side of Aquinian Natural law took into account the intention of those performing acts under the law. Was the intention to achieve temporal satisfaction or salvation? The state laws were thought responsible for the salvation, and therefore true happiness of citizens, so state laws had to reflect Divine Laws. It is for this reason that abortion is still illegal in the Catholic Church today.

Anglican Richard Hooker and Natural Law

When the churches split in the 16th century, "thomistic" (or from Thomas Aquinas) notions of Natural Law were developed by Richard Hooker, who came up with the five precepts to live life by. These were to live, to learn, to reproduce, to worship God, and to live in an ordered society. Based on Aquinas' ideas that an individual knows good from evil intrinsically, Divine Law was still supreme. It defined existence as being at the point of creation. The Anglican Church effectively agrees that souls have "rights" from the moment of conception. For this reason, abortion is also illegal under Anglicansim today - a fact not many realise.

Hobbes and Abortion

In the 17th Century, Thomas Hobbes developed a theory of Natural Law to refine the teleological aspects of Aquinas and Hooker. As many laws were being enacted during this period of history, it became apparent that a decision had to be made as to how law and ethics combined.

Was law the product of common values and views, or was law more authoritative because of history and the source of the law? It seems this age was reluctant to say that common people and their views were superior to religious assertions for the divine being of God, so Hobbes developed legal positivism. The law would favour Natural Law viewpoints over the common viewpoint. So abortion stays illegal in this century.

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Cumberland and Abortion

In the late 17th century, English cleric Richard Cumberland took exception to Hobbe's idea that self interest was the driving motivation of the common man. This was the reason Hobbes had developed legal positivism - to keep the commoners in check. Cumberland asserted that the "common good" should be the basis for the supreme law of morality. Little sway should be given in government laws for ideas that went beyond Natural Law and the assumption of a Divine Lawmaker.

The Foundation of America - Thomas Jefferson and Natural Law

The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence adopted in 1776 stated that:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Yet, the Americas added to Natural Law the "right of revolution" against a tyrannical state in order to "declare independence" in the first place. This change addressed one of the major criticisms of Aquinian Natural Law and subsequent theorists, who asserted that Natural Law needed to be also divinely revealed. The catholic priests performed this role for the catholic church; after the division of christianity and the development of Protestantism, the Royal Monarch of England became the divine revealer. America argued - what if this monarch is corrupt?

This is why America has a "Divine" legal foundation ("Creator") without call for divine revelation. America embraces Natural Law as the source of law, but is free to apply relativistic amendments if the common will makes more sense. This is the fundamental difference between English and American law. American law is freer to legislate non-religious rational laws, if I may put it that way. Yet America respects the long history of Natural Law, and as a consequence judges act conservatively when setting common law precedents - as you would expect.

This is why abortion took a long time to legalise in the USA. The high proportion of Christians living in the Americas represented a large common voice. This is why America has a lot of protest around the altered abortion laws too, as Americans never have to accept the status quo, as the common will can change existing legislation through persuading other Americans that another law is preferable.

As a random thought, a really good novel that explores this idea, that America could shift to absolutism, is The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Americans - Free to Adopt Natural Law if the Commons Agree

Natural Law absolutists can always get laws changed if they convince the rest of the population in America.

Natural Law absolutists can always get laws changed if they convince the rest of the population in America.

Ehtical Absolutism

The Natural Law on abortion is supported by other absolutist ethical theories.

Virtue Ethics (teleological and consequential ethics): This takes into account the consequences of an action reflecting well or not well on the moral agent. So supports the idea that a woman seeking an abortion would not do so as the decision would not reflect well on her moral character. This may sound old fashioned, but how many women do you know who feel they can discuss their abortions openly?

  • arete (excellence or virtue) - the consequence of abortion is a lessening of virtue.
  • phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) - abortion is a medical procedure that can harm, and is morally questionable.
  • eudaimonia (flourishing) - abortion is wrong as it does not lead to life.

18th Century Kant Ethics (deontological): Kantianism asserts citizens are duty bound according to agreed universal and moral principles. So if the current universal laws ascribe to Natural Law, you can see immediately that Kant is against abortions. (As was true for his time).

Kant applies legal arguments so that we can test them. His founding principles give us a clue as to how he would apply abortion. In the first principle, your action is only good if it would make a universal law. So do all agree that abortions are good? No.

Secondly, people must be treated as an end, not a means to an end. So if abortion would give a mother a higher life quality, that mother treats the unborn child as a means to an end.

19th and 20th Century Utilitarianism (teleological and consequential ethics): Initially founded as Rule Utilitarianism and based on the idea that an action is correct if it produces the greatest happiness, this form of utilitarianism organised itself around notions like it is wrong to kill, it is wrong to lie. A weaker form proposed by John Stewart Mill said that you could break a moral law if greater happiness would be produced. Yet this exception was only meant to apply in cases of self defence (such as war scenarios), so abortion was not considered an act of self defence.

Act utilitarianism promoted the idea that if breaking a moral rule led to greater happiness that could be considered valid. Again though, abortion "for its own sake" would not be considered a responsible act, but abortion recommended by a qualified doctor who thought suffering may result from a deformed foetus being birthed, might qualify as an act that produces greater happiness.

US and UK laws both support abortion legally if it can be proven that two qualified doctors agree that an abortion produces greater happiness. Both countries only allow first and second trimester abortions and third trimester abortions only if the mother's life is in peril. Each stage has stringent and strict laws governing access to abortion. So today, abortion is not a "right", it is a telelogical decision of moral consequence.

Moral absolutism may not be the fairest legal position for women who are victimised by potential pregnancies.

Moral absolutism may not be the fairest legal position for women who are victimised by potential pregnancies.

Pro Choice Activists and Moral Relativism

Understand that abortion is only permitted under circumstances defined by theoretical ethical applications of absolutism. Pro Choice arguments are relativist arguments based on several schools of philosopy that are 20th century and beyond.

Essentially relativism rejects the notion of a divine law maker and prefers to regard all decisions as moral and not legal.

18th Century David Hume and emotivism (relativist): All decisions are matters for an individual's values, yet we would descend into chaos if there were no universal sentiments. So under Hume, it is possible to view abortion as acceptable and a matter of choice only, yet you can still view the need for stringent rules as a good idea if we accept as a universal principle; killing is wrong.

19th Century Friedrich Nietzsche anti realism (relativist): Decisions should be more pertinent to the goals of the individual and not subject to impediment by notions of law defined by the rich and powerful. Cultural representations of the "greatest happiness" are based on a false reality constructed by the elite who bring us images of what is right.

One can apply Nietzsche best perhaps if considering contraception, condoms and the prevalence of HIV in Africa. While preventing conception may be against Natural Law and absolutism, the interests of individuals who don't want to die from HIV should overide institutions who say those citizens must obey a law that harms them.

In the case of abortion, Nietzsche would say a woman should not be subject to religious notions of humility and obedience to divine principles and should be free to defy those laws if she will benefit personally. Particularly if her and the child face poverty as a result. We can see Nietsche's influence in current abortion laws as some of the reasons a woman can claim abortion is:

  • abortion for the sake of the mother's health
    • including her mental health which could be distress based
  • abortion where a pregnancy is the result of a crime
    • such as crimes like rape, incest, or child abuse and she should not have to suffer that legacy
  • abortion for social reasons, including:
    • poverty,
    • mother unable to cope with a child (or an additional child),
    • mother being too young to cope with a child

Relativism in 21st Century

In societies such as the UK and the USA and other Westernised nations, the voice of citizens who form part of the "commons" has impacted our laws based on religious belief in a divine law maker. Ironically, Aquinas' and Hooker's absolutist ideas to allow a society that is "free to worship", has allowed laws to evolve that imply worship is a choice.

The division of the christian churches saw the function of "divine revelation in law" split. Catholic christianity leaving this with priests, and protestant christianity leaving this responsibility with royalty. When America chose to have a society that was free to worship, but not under any temporal authority but God's "conscience", their society was free to interpret law as they faced new challenges. Few would argue today that a victim of incest or rape need carry that child to life, but many might try to convince that woman to do so as per the "Creator" rights in the Declaration of Independence from 1776.

The change in abortion laws in both the UK (1967 by private members bill) and the USA (1973 by Supreme Court decision Roe vs Wade) marks significant steps towards ethical relativism. Royal assent is required on bills in the United Kingdom, and for the Queen to approve abortion, yet claim to be the defender of the Protestant faith, would seem oxymoronic.

Thus the UK parliament had to pass the bill on abortion through a system known as the conscience or free vote, which allows the will of the people to override the obligations of the monarch. Issues like homosexual marriage, stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, IVF, abortion and capital punishment are the type of issues that conscience votes are taken on. Conveniently allowing the monarch to side-step church obligations, one might say.

This has occurred via the relatively new introduction into the UK Parliament of Private Members Bills; which can (but don't always) result in conscience or free voting, effectively getting the monarch off the hook. This practice only began in 1945. I wonder if anyone has noticed?

It would appear that by analysing absolutism versus relativism and abortion, I've uncovered that the United Kingdom is effectively operating in a similar governed fashion to the United States, having removed the responsibility for absolutism and Christian leadership under Natural Law principles - paving the way for relativism though the employment of Private Members Bills and "free votes". I guess England can no longer call itself Christendom. Perhaps the United States of Britain is more appropriate?

What is Your Ethical Position on Abortion?

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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2012 Lisa McKnight

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