Sunday, February 8, 2015

How Do We Decide What's Right?

University of Toronto pro-life protest 11

So, here's a hypothetical I want you to really think about. You hear on the news one day that a new law has been passed: if the biological mother of a child up to 12 months old decides that she no longer wants the child, she can take the toddler to a clinic and have it put down.

The justifications behind the law aren't important. All that matters is you probably disagree with this law. You probably think it's morally abhorrent. You probably think that it's murder.

What would you do? If you suddenly found yourself living in a country that legalized the murder of toddlers under a year old, what would you do? Would you write a stern letter to your local paper? Would you start an activist group to have the law changed. Would you start picketing out the front of Toddler Termination Clinics? Would you wish that someone burned down those clinics? Would you consider doing it yourself?

We often have to hold our tongues and accept living in a society where the laws don't quite match our personal morals. It's rare, probably non-existent, for a person to agree 100% with every law they are held to. Maybe it's speed limits. Maybe it's some tax law. Maybe it's which drugs are legal and which are not, and the penalties involved.

For the most part we accept this. But what happens when there is a law we really object to, that we cannot in clear conscience support? Legal slavery. Discrimination against women. The death penalty. We generally feel that it is our moral duty to speak up. We may even feel it is our moral duty to disobey that law, to take a stand. And we often respect others who do this.

At least, when we agree with them.

And that's kind of the point of my hypothetical at the top. Most people would feel outraged if such a law was passed in their country, and would probably become actively involved in trying to change it. It would not be uncommon for people to verbally attack those who made use of the law. Some might even commit acts of violence. And many people would, if not outright support such things, at least be sympathetic to those who did.

So when it comes to issues like abortion, most would probably claim to understand this point, but I actually don't think they do: for a person who genuinely believes that life begins at conception, they really do believe that abortion is murder, and you're asking them to accept and live in a society that legalizes the murder of a helpless 'child' under some circumstances. It doesn't matter whether their belief is true here. To them it is. It's just as true to them as the belief that terminating a six month old toddler is murder to you.

And this raises the really crucial question: how do you determine the laws of your country for issues that some group will find morally abhorrent, no matter which side the law favours? How do you decide which people get a law that matches their moral intuitions, and which people have to just suck it up and live with laws they strongly morally oppose?

One option is simple strength in numbers, and this actually is kind of what does tend to happen in practice. Slavery is legal until enough people object to it. The death penalty is legal until enough voices speak out against it. Euthanasia stays illegal in most places because too many religious people believe that suicide under all circumstances is an unforgiveable sin, and not enough other people have witnessed a terminally ill loved one suffering to be outraged.

But most people would not say that slavery should be legal as long as the majority are okay with it. We tend to think that there is a certain objectivity to morals, and that as societies develop and flourish the people within those societies gain empathy. Something that is also undoubtedly true but probably acknowledged by less people is that as science and understanding of the universe increases and the power of religions decreases, we learn things that make the justifications behind some laws no longer hold.

Once you can show that black people are not mentally inferior to white people, you can no longer justify slavery on that basis (at least, not if you're honest and rational). You can't withold the vote from women because they're inferior to men if science shows that this isn't true. And you can't claim that life begins at conception if the evidence shows that a fertilized egg doesn't become a viable organism until much later.

But you can certainly claim that a soul is injected into that fertilized egg at the moment of conception.

Of course you can claim that. How could anyone prove otherwise? Just like you can claim that homosexuals are an abomination in the eyes of god, or that suicide is a mortal sin, or that god grants men dominion over women.

The problem when people use religion as a justification for any moral belief is that there is no way to prove them wrong, not even in theory, because their claims are not testable in the physical world. But religious people generally claim to get their morals from their religious beliefs, and as we've seen above, those morals then become the basis of the laws they try to have govern their country.

So there's no such thing as a person's religious beliefs being kept to themselves and not affecting others, as long as their beliefs inform their sense of morality. And there's no way to reconcile two opposing moral beliefs when they're based on religion. And this is quite often the situation we find ourselves in.

Where does this leave us? As an atheist, obviously I think that laws should not be based on religious beliefs. But we live in a world where most people still hold religious beliefs and think they are a valid source of morality. And as I made clear above, you can't have a stable society with laws that a significant number of people hold a moral objection to, whatever the basis of those moral beliefs.

The only real answer seems to be addressing religion itself. As long as people think it's okay to believe things based on faith, this problem will never go away. Anti-abortionists will feel 100% justified in their opposition to pro-choice laws. Many Muslims will feel that the death penalty is perfectly appropriate if someone tries to leave the religion (i.e. become an apostate). And anyone who thinks that faith is in any way a valid reason for holding certain moral beliefs really can't criticize any of these people without being a massive hypocrite.

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