Friday, 12 September 2008

Now Christian ethics just is counter-cultural

There was a time when Christians in the West felt that they shared much of the moral framework of the society. I guess most of us know that day is gone. The shift is not simply that Christians live differently to the surrounding culture. The whole way we think is different.

The latest edition of Bioedge highlights this with two different stories about abortion. The
Australian story is about the bill being dealt with in the Victorian parliament. It would decriminalise arbortion and allow late-term abortions and  remove the right of a medical practitioner to exercise a conscientious objection to involvement in abortions. (I assume that means that an employer could refuse to employ a doctor who said she would not take part in those procedures, but I have not checked exactly how it would work).

Bioedge reports that the removal of the right to conscientious objection is advocated by Lesley Cannold a bioethecist who argues that pro-life doctors impose their views on mothers rather than helping them. She declares that "It is unconscionable for someone to defend the right to follow his conscience, then deny that very same right to someone else." In other words Cannold holds that for a doctor or nurse working in obstetrics to object to participating in abortions is unethical.

parallel story is about commentary on  Sarah Palin the Republican V-P candidate in the US who chose not abort her son who has Down Syndrome. Dr Rahul K. Parikh has written in Salon saying positive things to say about Palin’s concern for a disabled child ("what she has chosen to do is fantastic") but also claiming that Palin’s decision oppresses women and is a “sign of her hypocrisy" (choosing to follow her conscience but denying others the same right). So again to oppose abortion, or at least to do that and to test for a disablity and make a choice to carry the child to birth, is unethical.

The Bioedge commentary on Cannold highlights the different conceptions of conscience in the two positions. Cannold believes that "The right to act according to the dictates of our conscience is founded in the value of autonomy. Autonomy means self-rule. An autonomous person is one who is free to direct her life according to her own values." Bioedge explains that this means that “conscience expresses an arbitrary, even irrational choice.” In contrast traditional accounts of conscience see it responding to some other reality, reason or evidence, or God.

The two views also differ in their take on how human life should flourish. Both would agree that for a child to have Down’s Syndrome is bad. The secular view tends to be that it is a dysfunction which brings too great a cost to the mother, family, and society (and perhaps to the child). The Christian sees it as an evil which should be borne and the child as an image bearer who should be nurtured and served, even at a great cost.

There is plenty more analysis that could be added on the question of abortion, but my point here is that Christian ethics is now counter-cultural all the way down. Not only do we make different decisions to our society on many issues, we have different accounts of the good and different ways of coming at moral reflection.

What are the implications of this for how we live in our society? I’m interested in your views.

By the way Bioedge is a great way to stay in touch with developments in bioethics in a very digestible way. You can see it
here and subscribe for free if your interested.


Anonymous said...

I feel very sad for a world where those who choose to kill their babies are so fearful and messed up that they demand that others join them in their brutalities.
If they are so sure their cause is right why do they need everyone to cheer them on? Cf 1 Peter 4:4.
On similar lines will they insist that other mothers terminate their 'less than perfect' or 'difficult' babies lest they feel guilty about making different choices?

Daniel McClintock said...

"Christian ethics is now counter-cultural all the way down. Not only do we make different decisions to our society on many issues, we have different accounts of the good and different ways of coming at moral reflection.

What are the implications of this for how we live in our society?"

I wish I had a creative answer, John. Unfortunately, the best I've got at the moment is- Make heaps of noise that makes heaps of sense.

Since our ethics are counter-cultural 'all the way down' we must be really careful to be clear when we speak, and work from the bottom-up. We don't share the same presuppositions as those we're trying to engage, so we need to start from there.

On abortion in particular, I think we need to first get the topic out of the realm of Feminism. If we can persuade our hearers that abortion is not a question of a woman's right to control her body, but a question of the ethical treatment of the unborn, we're half-way there. Similarly, if the discussion is removed from its ties with Feminism, a man may more easily share his views.

In all of this, though, we've got to be aware that the ethical base from which we are ultimately working is that revealed in scripture. There is right. There is wrong. There is a God-Judge. There is forgiveness in Christ. If we can make a lot of noise about Jesus that makes sense, we're doing society the best favour we can. But you already knew that.


John McClean said...

Our challenge is - as Dan said - to make sense, when in fact our ethics is not likely to make sense to our world at any level.

One thing we've got to do is to live it well. Christian ethics may sound weird, but I am convinced that well lived it actually looks great. And there is certainly no point talking about it if we don't live it.