Friday, February 27, 2009

The conflict of moral principle versus hard reality

As a retired pastor, and one who takes moral and ethical issues seriously, I've been reminded again of the conflict between principles and the reality of everyday life.

My train of thought was sparked by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

A new UN declaration of intent [on illicit-drug-use policy] is due to be signed in Vienna on March 11. However, there are serious disagreements between member countries over whether a commitment to "harm reduction" should be included in the document, which is published every 10 years.

Now the Vatican has issued a statement that claims that using drugs is "anti-life" and "so-called harm reduction leads to liberalisation of the use of drugs". The Vatican's last-minute intervention appears to have led to Italy withdrawing from the EU consensus on the issue and thrown the talks over the declaration into confusion.

In 1998 the declaration of intent was "a drug-free world - we can do it", which critics said was unrealistic and did not tackle the complex nature of drug treatment. In favour of including support for a harm-reduction clause are most EU countries, Brazil and other Latin American countries, Australia and New Zealand. They argue that some commitment to tackling HIV and addiction through needle exchange programs and methadone and other drugs should be included.

. . .

Release, a British drugs and legal advice charity, said: "By making a statement against harm reduction, the Vatican has indicated that its moral objection to drug use is more important than its commitment to the sanctity of life. If the Vatican is allowed to influence the UN to adopt a naive and ineffective drug policy it will needlessly lead to the increased spread of blood-borne viruses and the death of thousands more people from HIV/AIDS."

Release argues that drug treatment programs are vital for those living with HIV/AIDS and that not to accept this will put their lives at risk. "Needle and syringe exchange programs have significantly contributed to the reduction of HIV transmission among people who use drugs," it said.

There's more at the link.

This highlights the conflict between principle and compromise. The Vatican regards illicit drug use as morally wrong, evil, 'black' rather than 'white'. From that perspective, it is, of course, entirely correct to oppose any measures that might downplay or minimize that reality, blurring the 'black' of absolute evil into the 'gray' of partial and de facto (if not de jure) acceptance. On the other hand, governments and organizations such as Release have to deal with the reality that illicit drug use is a daily fact of life. They have to try to help those sucked into this mire, addicted to the drugs, and unable or unwilling to break free of their habit. Should they be ignored, left unaided, because their conduct is morally unacceptable, or illegal? Should the help extended to them be restricted to that which is in line with absolute moral principles (namely, efforts to break their addiction and reform them), but doing nothing to help those who will not or cannot succeed at such efforts? Or should the help extend to measures that will at least reduce the 'collateral damage' caused to themselves and others by those who can't break free - even if this means tolerating their behavior?

This applies to many other areas besides drug policy, of course. Contraception; abortion; marriage and relationships; crime (including the definition of what constitutes a crime, as well as establishing punishment for it and/or rehabilitation of criminals); these and many other areas run headlong into the conflict between what is 'absolutely right' or 'absolute truth' (which is itself disputed among many participants), and what is 'practically possible' or a 'realistic approach'.

The great tragedy, in my opinion, is that so many adopt the approach that since the 'ideal' is unattainable, impossible in an imperfect world, we should abandon or ignore it entirely, and deal only with the reality that's presented to us. This leads to policies (both private and State) that ignore the higher moral ground in their attempts to be 'practical'. Such approaches offer no solution whatsoever. While dealing with reality, we can and should strive to eliminate (or, at the very least, reduce to the absolute minimum) the root of the problem, which is (in virtually every case) wrong choices, wrong actions, wrong conduct. If we tolerate the wrong in an attempt to address its results, we abandon people (and future generations) to the effects that it will cause in their lives.

On the other hand, those who press for the recognition and propagation of the 'ideal', the 'absolute truth', must also accept that their position can become so ideologically (or theologically) rigid, so 'perfect', that it ignores the fact that we live in an imperfect world. Whilst striving for the absolute good, can we morally ignore the reality that not everyone shares our perspective on that truth (indeed, some vehemently disagree with it), and that we can't expect them to adopt our approach in dealing with it? Shouldn't we try to find what common ground we can, so that options for intervention, treatment and resolution can be as broadly based and effective as possible?

Take abortion as a common (and highly controversial) example. My perspective is shaped by my Christian faith. I categorically and absolutely reject abortion as an alternative to contraception. To me, that's murder, pure and simple. The foetus in the womb, if left alone, will emerge as a human being. Since there's no possible way to determine when it changes from 'a collection of cells' to 'a human being', it must be treated as the latter from conception to birth. Naturally, given that every human being has an absolute right to life, I also reject abortion in the case of medical defects being discovered in the foetus, just as I reject euthanasia. Of course, others, with different convictions, will hold different views.

However, even I have to acknowledge that there are some circumstances where the agony facing the mother (or both parents) can be so great that the 'absolute' must take them into account. What about rape? Naturally, the child in the womb is innocent of that (or any other) crime, and has the same right to life as any of us. On the other hand, the mother's mental anguish at being forced to have the 'seed' of the crime growing within her may be so overwhelming as to cause her serious, perhaps lasting harm. I can't ignore that reality. For her to abort the child within her womb would be wrong, from my moral perspective: but to force her to bear it, because it's innocent, might be equally morally wrong, in the light of the possible consequences of that decision for her own mental health. I have to accept that a choice must be made between two very great evils. I'm not God, and don't pretend to be. If she chooses to abort the child, because she simply can't bear the thought of carrying it to term, who am I to condemn her? I'll do my very best to understand her, sympathize with her, and stand by her. I won't minimize what she's done to the child, and I'll try to help her repent of any wrongdoing and seek God's mercy: but I can't morally force her to adopt an 'absolutist' view of the matter. If I did, wouldn't I be raping her all over again - not physically, but morally? I can seek to persuade her, by example and by word; but I can't compel her.

I also have to accept that if I reject abortion, I must concede that there needs to be some alternative that will make it unnecessary (except in the most extreme cases). That means permitting contraception. Of course, a Christian 'absolutist' view would be that contraception is not needed, because sex should only take place within marriage, where children are the God-given and expected fruit of the marriage, and therefore a married couple should 'have as many children as God sees fit to give them'. On the other hand, that ignores the reality that many (including professed Christians) do indulge in sex before or outside marriage. (As a pastor, I'd guesstimate that the vast majority of couples I married were already lovers, and most had been for a long time.) Many of those engaging in extra-marital sex are not Christians, and see no reason why they should adopt a Christian moral code in that regard. Can I realistically deny contraception to them because my moral perspective disapproves of it?

I freely confess that this is an ongoing conflict within me: the clash between what I firmly believe to be absolute truth, revealed by God and binding on all humanity, versus the reality that many don't share my beliefs, and the further reality that life can be a whole lot more complicated than 'black' or 'white'. There are an awful lot of shades of gray out there! I've learned to be very wary of those who insist on seeing the world in 'black' or 'white'. They tend to be (or become) fundamentalists, intolerant of any other point of view or perspective. At the same time, I acknowledge that if I become too tolerant, too inclusive, in my moral perspective, I risk betraying what I believe to be true, and making myself a hypocrite and a fraud.

There are no easy answers. If anyone declares that there are, he/she is probably operating from within one particular moral perspective, and insisting that if only everyone would adopt that moral code and obey it absolutely, there'd be no problem. He/she would be right in that . . . but I submit that such insistence is utterly utopian, and has lost touch with reality.

I'd be very interested in hearing from readers how you've experienced this conundrum in your own life. This applies particularly to my friends who hold different beliefs, or reject the Christian moral code. If you have any particular examples you'd like to share with us, please do so in Comments. Hopefully we can all learn from each other, given mutual respect.



Andrew C said...

I am the son of a Presbyterian pastor, and still identify as Christian, although I am not currently active within a church.

My view is that an embryo/fetus is only a potential person until it is capable of viability outside the womb, and for that reason, abortion should be legal up to that point. That potential person is still of great value, and should not be terminated lightly, but is not entitled to human rights. I believe we as a society should work to reduce abortion rates, but that making abortion illegal would only have a minor impact on actual abortion rates, while having a significant impact on mortality rates of women getting abortions. I do not think abortion is a good choice, but is sometimes the least bad choice. The government is less capable of making that call than the woman in question.

The main areas I think we as a society need to concentrate on are sex ed and increasing our adoption rate. Many in our country say that all children are precious, but our adoption rate doesn't reflect that belief.

On drugs, I believe people have a right to put any substance into their body that they desire. Alcohol is much more damaging to both individuals and society than many other, illegal substances. Instead of ineffectively outlawing them, we should pursue intensive education campaigns and substantially tax the use of all recreational drugs.

MadRocketScientist said...


The age old problem every free thinker must face.

If you ever find yourself in Seattle, call me, I'll buy you a beer.

Sevesteen said...

I'm not a Christian.

I do not believe that we should have laws against consensual crimes.

Although use of hard drugs is immoral in most circumstances, they should remain legal--The costs of prohibition far outweigh the benefits. How much better off would Mexico be if drugs were treated like Tequila? How much more freedom would we have without the War on Some Drugs?

I think our current laws do little to reduce hard drug use, and may in fact increase it.

On the other hand, making drugs legal should not absolve users of their responsibility. You can't use around children, especially children you are responsible for. Employers should retain the right to insist you are drug free. (I think this does more to restrict drug use than laws, although my sample is biased by my associates)

I understand that many cannot compromise on abortion--I respect your view especially, since you separate abortion from birth control--Separating the non-consent of the fetus from the consensual activity of the adults. Although I am pro-choice, my views are at least somewhat similar to yours, except I place emphasis on the right of the mother. Abortion is immoral as primary contraception. With the current availability of birth control, it is immoral to have unprotected sex unless you have the willingness and ability to raise any resulting offspring. Early abortion is better than having a child that will not be loved or properly cared for. I don't think it is a human being at the moment of conception, I think it is human some time before birth--Therefore if an abortion is to be done, it should be done as early as possible.

In most cases, criminal law should be limited to the dark gray to black area--There is a lot of behavior that I consider wrong that should not be illegal.

As far as "imposing your moral code on others"--According to your belief, does that do any good? I thought the willingness to commit a sin was a sin by itself, even if the means were currently unavailable.

Joe said...

I feel that we are here to face such hard question and answer them as best we can. This is not a new problem. Sometimes people have to make life or death choices, although technology has expanded the possibility of when people can make such choices, it has also let us just live well enough that we generally don't need to make such choices.

I think that it is important that many of these decisions are trade-off most frequently of short-term vs. long-term benefits. Many issues of drugs can be seen in this light. It might be better in the long run to be bastards to the people trapped in addiction, and prevent future addicts, but do we really want to treat people that have such little control of their lives already to the harshness of a judgmental society.

Many desire to make humanity perfect either by declaring the existence of sin impossible. Or trying to constrain people's lives and thoughts so that sin can never be committed. I do not feel that either choice allows humans to live to their potential.

Peter said...

Andrew, with the greatest of respect, 'viability' isn't an acceptable argument. If it were, you could morally justify killing the incompetent elderly, or even infants, on the grounds that they're not 'viable' without constant care and assistance and supervision from others. If, on the other hand, you mean 'viability' in the sense that given such outside assistance, the infant will remain alive, breathing on his/her own, then why do we bother providing incubators for premature babies? They're just as non-viable as the foetuses we abort - yet we treat them differently.

From my moral perspective, I don't think it's ever possible to justify abortion on grounds related to the foetus/infant. When factors relating to the mother are added to the mix, such as rape, I'd agree that can sometimes change the picture.

joe said...

As a Christian, this is a "standard" conundrum. It applies not only to abortion and drugs but to other issues as well. There are a number of people in my congregation who feel that any government program to help the poor is morally justifiable because it's the "Christian" thing to do. I differ a bit. Yes, it's Christian to help the poor, but we can't use force to make others behave in accordance with OUR beliefs. That would be decidedly UN-Christian.

With that in mind, and harking back a bit to the original post about the UN and the Vatican, if the Pope feels that the UN's position is contrary to Roman Catholic dogma, then he is OBLIGED to withdraw Vatican support for it. That's as far as his power should extend, however. Just as I can only live my life the best I can according to my Christian values, which include not FORCING my beliefs on others. You cannot convert a pagan (or other non-Christian) society into a Christian one at the point of a gun.

-a different "Joe"

Farmgirl said...

Gonna address the abortion issue here, to give a female perspective.

Personally, I'm pro-choice. That does not mean I approve of abortion as a primary contraceptive, however. Actually anyone using abortion as a primary contraceptive when there are other options readily available (including Plan B) should be slapped, in my opinion.

On a personal level, I don't know if I would be able to abort, myself. However, I know that there are circumstances out there that I have not come across. Rape. Abuse. Could a woman bear a child of rape, or a young girl the child of sexual abuse, and raise it without prejudice? It would take a very special person to do so, I think, and nearly as special a person to carry such a child to term for adoption, without causing irreparable mental harm to the mother.

And what about health concerns? If I were faced with the choice between terminating a pregnancy, and the likelihood that both I and my child would die in the course of the pregnancy, I don't know what I would choose.

While I'm pro-choice, I feel that the emphasis should be less on "it's *my* body" and more on "it's *my* responsibility."

If I choose to get an abortion, yes, it's my body and my choice. It's also my responsibility to consider the moral implications of my actions, and where they fit into my own moral framework.

Women should not only know that they have the ability to abort, but that it really *is* a Big Deal.

Andrew C said...


By "viability", I mean the ability to survive in any form apart from the mother. That would be around 21 weeks gestation. Until that point, since it is not at all capable of surviving apart from the mother, I consider it part of her rather than an individual.

After it is capable of existence apart from its mother (even if it would still be dependent on medical assistance), it is an individual that is inside her rather than one more part of her.

Anonymous said...

I believe that as we cannot tell when the baby inside become human, acquires a mind and soul, it is imperative that we treat them as a human from the start. As such, I am firmly and fiercely pro-choice.

I will not be made slave to another person, not be forced to submit my body and mind to another's will - whether the rapist or the child inside that grows from his seed. No matter the guilt or innocence of the child, if you force me to carry it to term, you have enslaved my body against my will. If I must kill another person to keep my freedom, I will do so, no matter the cost.

Do not think you can back me into a corner and tell me that I must carry a child to term because it is innocent, no matter the cost to me: Long before the bruises faded, I had already firmly come to the conclusion that if I was pregnant by that monster, I would kill it - even if it meant killing myself in the process.

I was fourteen, had no money of my own, no transportation, no pharmacies with plan B, and there certainly wasn't a clinic nearby I could simply walk in and have it done without fuss and bother. I did have access to a razor, and running water, and a grim determination that I was not going to live with his seed growing inside me.

So yes, it is morally wrong to murder another. I would have done it anyway, and fiercely defend the right of others to do the same. I will not whitewash that killing with moral equivalency or hypocrisy - but I will not agree that the ideal of saving one life is worth the acceptance of enslaving another's, and turn a blind eye to maintain a false sense of moral high ground.

He bruised and tore my body, he shattered my heart, he stained my honor and scarred my mind - but my soul is mine alone to sully or shine, and I will meet this issue with a steely integrity, acknowledging that sometimes I can only pick the best of the bad choices, and struggle through.

(I will, though, post this anonymously. Integrity is not the same as leaving yourself wide open for attacks from internet trolls.)

MauserMedic said...


A quick opinion on abortion from an atheist. When does a person become a person? When they have the full set of DNA that permits eventual independent existence. I'm in agreement with your stance on the fallacy of independence as a basis for existence. The fact that a fetus is dependant within its mother does not make it "her"; it's a separate entity dependent on her for survival, much as an infant would be dependent upon it's mother if there are no other people to take care of it.

As far as I'm concerned, you're a person from conception to death.

Steve said...


I have a similar mind to "a different "Joe"". The best we can do as disciples is to be examples physically and spiritually to everyone we encounter. My bedrock is that we were given the ultimate gift of individual choice. It is married with the ultimate responsibility for that choice.

My take on others (and my) actions is that we make our choices and if they are wrong, then seek forgiveness. Where the white / black line is drawn for me is on Judgment Day, in front of God. He will decide whether my penance is done for the poor choices I have made.

I pray every night it's enough.