Random Thoughts

Right or wrong?

... how can I know?

by John Averell

(If you are looking for light reading, you may want to skip this article.)

Have you noticed that much of the news in the past year has centered on "moral" issues? In particular, the current discussions on stem-cell research, the continuing polarization on pro-life vs pro-choice? These are topics that evoke so much emotion that we need to step back occasionally and think about what makes actions "right" or "wrong", and how can I evaluate issues for myself, as well as for the country.

For purposes of this essay it is convenient to divide our decision making into four sources:
  • religious -- based on writing, teachings, and councils that arise from enlightenment from a higher (usually spiritual) authority

  • moral -- based on our personal feelings of right and wrong, and how actions affect others

  • ethical -- based on our reasoned analysis of how our actions affect other people

  • legal -- based on laws made by the body politic in order to ensure proper treatment of individuals

Moral and ethical judgments are personal in nature. Each person has a duty to form such judgments. Religious principles and laws are group, or community based. They help an individual to form his and her morals and ethics, and to act on them in society.

Of course, there is a lot of overlap in these divisions. For example, religious rules may be treated as political laws in some countries. Moral judgments are hard to separate from religious faith, although it is important to acknowledge that morality does not have to spring from religious principles. Ethical judgments often result in legal statutes. In the first three of these divisions, there is a wide range of application, a continuum that tends to move from religious to moral to ethical.


But a system of laws is set up in society to perform a judgment on actions, like an axe, cleaving right from wrong in a particular set of circumstances. Laws by their nature can be changeable. They are derived from the morality and ethics of the individuals in their particular society at a particular time. One reason why it is so important to keep "church" and "state" separated is that not all persons have the same religious principles. If laws are simply politicized versions of a particular religious faith, they may not fairly represent the morality and ethics of the people. Take, for example, the Roman Catholic prohibition of birth control methods. Not only are there many whose religion does not teach this, but by every poll I have heard of, most American Catholics do not follow the rules either.

Most of the major religions have a set of written laws by which adherents of the faith are governed in matters of faith. These laws are usually developed by conservative elements of the religion, so they tend to be more restrictive than are actually followed by more liberal elements. In some countries, these laws are incorporated, at least in part, into the political legal system. A theocratic government is pretty much governed in whole by the religious system.

The Islamic faith has its "shariyah", the embodiment of its religious laws that also tend to control everyday conduct.

Judaism has developed its "halakah", a similar system of laws that are meant to encompass all aspects of life, religious and personal. Some are incorporated into Israeli law.

The largest Christian sect, Roman Catholicism, has its "canon law". This is meant primarily to govern behavior within the faith. If you are interested in seeing the contents of canon law, click here. Much of the details of personal regulations however are deferred to lower levels of heirarchy, bishops and priests.

Protestant Christian denominations have, typically, many doctrinal statements that distinguish each group. I would not term these "law" in the common definition, but in practice, the pressure to conform to both written and unwritten doctrine and opinions can be very strong, to the point of intruding into political law. The current moves by conservative Christians to incorporate anti-abortion and anti-homosexual laws into the legal system show how strong religious and moral imperatives can become.

In America we pride ourselves on "separation of church and state." This is not true in a number of countries where religion has the force of law. Looking back in Europe to John Calvin's theocracy in Geneva, Switzerland, is one example of Protestant Christianity controlling a region. The Roman Catholic Church throughout much of its history had control ranging from complete to partial in much of the Christian world. We are concerned now with the possibility of Islamic controlled theocracies throughout countries in the Middle East.


There are, of course, moral and ethical cases that are so nearly universal that all societies have laws based on them. Murder of a fellow person is an obvious example. But in formulating law, semantics is often the critical stumbling block.

"Murder" is not simply the taking of a human life, since most societies provide for killing enemies in self defense, excluding Buddhists and probably some other faiths. "Person" and "human" also need to be considered carefully when we are looking at pre-natal life. It is at this exact point that the morality and ethics of taking the life of pre-natal homo sapiens is in turmoil today.

So we reach the nub of the problem. Obviously no one can solve the issues for all people for all time. About all I can do is try to gather "facts", about which there will be general agreement. The judgment of where this leads will be up to each person.

When does "life" of homo sapiens (meaning an object with its normal complement of DNA) begin? Scientists, biologists in particular, have fairly definite guides for what is alive, such as taking in nourishment, excreting waste products, and ability to reproduce. I submit that life begins at conception (fertilization), at which time the one-cell embryo has the characteristics of a living entity.

This specifically excludes "potential" life, since neither sperm nor egg can survive or reproduce in that state alone. I am rejecting the birth-control prohibitions of the Catholic church.

The next question is, when does "human" life begin? This is where religion enters, assuming that man, homo sapiens, is distinguished from all other animals by having a "soul."

If you are not sufficiently religious to believe in a soul, that special part of man that God (or whatever higher power you subscribe to) implants, then I cannot see an argument for especially worrying about pre-natal life. I will leave it to followers of naturalism to argue this otherwise.

So I am left with the period between conception and birth to define when an embryo becomes "human." I don't see how this "transcendental" question (i.e. cannot be proved or disproved by scientific study) can be answered except by each person on the basis of personal judgment, using faith and morality. If your judgment is that human life begins sometime before birth, then it seems to me that killing at that point becomes, if not "murder", then at least taking human life!

So What?

So why am I taking all these words to end up with the same question I started? Because there is always a tradeoff in real life. In addition to religion and morality, there are ethics and political law to consider. We could, but won't, enumerate all the considerations in abortion of the mother's life, rape, etc., and in stem-cell research of the value of the lives saved by modern medical techniques.

My feeling is where possible, not to embody these difficult issues into law, but rather to leave them to case-by-case consideration. As I have written in a previous article, (click here) the Golden Rule covers most cases.

This is only my opinion, of course!

March 4, 2005

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