It is often uncomfortable to think about complex moral questions. Uncertainty is disconcerting. We want truth to be simple and concise.
Some people react to uncertainty by becoming strident and dogmatic. But raising your voice or pounding on the table does not eliminate nagging questions and lingering doubts. Take abortion as an example.
Last week during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings for US. Supreme Court, abortion became a focal point. The issues here are deep. Rational and good people disagree.
The most vexing question in the abortion debate is about the kind of being a fetus is. Is it fully human or merely potentially human? Is it part of the mother or an independent entity? Those questions are humbling.
Our answers diverge. Some focus on brains. Some focus on genetic uniqueness. Others focus on the soul. These disputes are about the very nature of the universe and the substance of the self.
The idea that life begins at conception declares that a new person is formed when the unique genetic code of the fertilized egg appears. But what about fertilized eggs that do not implant in the uterus— are those persons, too?
A different idea holds that conscious brains are crucial for personhood. From this point of view an aborted fetus would not be harmed because it is not the sort of being who can experience harm.
A fetus has the potential to develop into a conscious human being. But who is harmed when a potential person is prevented from becoming actual?
From a spiritual perspective there is a question about when the soul unites with the body. One tradition holds that spirit joins body when the newborn draws its first breath. But if life begins at conception, soul-body unification occurs nine months earlier.
These questions point toward mysterious depths.
Other questions arise. Abortion connects to discussions of women’s rights. The pro-choice position maintains that women have the right to choose about something as intimate as pregnancy. Abortion opponents point out that in sexist cultures female fetuses are aborted at higher rates.
Moral intent is another vexing issue. Some abortion choices seem selfish. But it is possible to imagine a loving mother choosing to abort a severely disabled fetus, hoping to save the fetus from suffering. And if abortion is not permitted, then some pregnancies will be afflicted by fear, anger and despair.
Abortion connects to other issues: sexual morality, family structure, social support, health care and population control. What about the costs of unwanted and unloved children? What about the role of health care professionals?
Given all of this complexity, we will never agree. But — and here is the important point — there are reasonable arguments on many sides of this issue. When we vilify those with whom we disagree, we can no longer reason together. Demonization destroys common ground.
This is true for all of the hot-button issues of contemporary concern. Good and reasonable people disagree. This does not mean we are evil or deluded. It just means we are human. Some will say that religion provides absolute answers to moral questions.
But religious people disagree as well. Moral disagreement occurs within denominations. Moral questions are even disputed among families and friends who worship together.
I frequently get asked about the value of moral philosophy. What can it teach us about right or wrong? The biggest lesson is modesty.
The world is more complicated than we often admit. Philosophy does not teach a simple dogma. Instead it digs into the roots of things, unearthing tangled knots of complexity.
Some answers are obviously flawed. But there are often good arguments on many sides. After studying the roots of moral disagreement, it becomes more difficult to decide. But it also becomes more difficult to mock and silence those with whom we disagree.
There is great value in digging deep. Listen carefully to arguments on all sides. Avoid lying and exaggeration. And respect the rationality and autonomy of people who reach different conclusions.
Moral judgement is fraught with uncertainty. Doubt breeds humility. We should proceed with fear and trembling. We are human beings trying to make sense of mysteries.
Admitting we are finite creates a space of compassionate inquiry that forms the basis for finding common ground.