Ethics: October 2011 Archives

Russell Moore has a nice post about how, although there's generally a moral mandate upon Christians to adopt, there are plenty of people who ought not to be the ones to fulfill that mandate [ht: Justin Taylor]. In particular, certain kinds of issues tend to come up with adoptions that most people, because of the reasons they're interested in adopting are not well prepared for and do not have the commitment to see those problems through, which leaves kids twice orphaned in too many cases.

I think this is a nice example of what I've elsewhere called a secondary moral obligation, an obligation you incur because you fail at a prior moral obligation. You ought not to have the attitude toward children that you see them as fulfilling your needs, but if you do then it's immoral to adopt, even if it's generally a moral mandate to adopt when such immoral attitudes are not present (and they shouldn't be present) and when there aren't other extenuating circumstances making it a less good idea to adopt (whatever those might be, and I'm open to their being lots of them).

What Moore does not mention is that the same is true of having children naturally. If you have the attitude that children are to meet your needs, then you shouldn't have children, even if (and I know not all Christians agree on this) it's Christian teaching that we ought to seek to have children or at least be very open to it (as many believe it is; whether it is is irrelevant to my point here, but assume it is for the sake of argument). My suspicion is that many new parents who were seeking to have children were doing so for completely selfish reasons. It strikes me as a thoroughly immoral reason to want to have children, and it seems to me that it's just as immoral to go ahead and have children if your desire is for them to fulfill your needs. That's so even if there is a moral mandate upon Christians to seek to have children, as many Christians do believe.

What makes this a nice case of a secondary moral obligation is that you have two obligations that conflict, one of which only appears if you violate the other one. It's wrong to have this selfish kid-possessing attitude, and those who have it ought not to have children. But you ought to seek to have children (on the premise I've been assuming, at least for the sake of argument). There's no inconsistency in such a position, despite the initial surface-level appearance of two contrary obligations. You do have an obligation to seek to have children (at least certain people do, anyway, on this view), and you do have an obligation not to want children for the wrong reasons, but if you do have the wrong reasons for wanting children then you simply ought not to have children, even if that means failing in the first obligation. It's worse to seek to meet the first obligation but violate the second than it is to fail the first because you're meeting the second.

But it becomes a fairly messy question if children come along anyway unintentionally when someone has this attitude. The original obligation still remains in such a case, and you simply ought not to have this attitude, even though most people do before they have children. Once they appear, you ought not to rid yourself of them unless your situation is so bad that they'll have a much better home without you than with you (and this selfish desire isn't usually so bad as to generate that situation; other conditions need to be met for that). I would argue that someone with the selfish attitude toward children does conceive a child, they ought (barring other considerations) to raise that child and to remove that selfish attitude. But that's compatible with thinking they ought not to seek to have children until they can rid themselves of that attitude, especially when it comes to great expense as with adoption.

[cross-posted at Parableman]

Herman Cain on abortion

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Here are some things Herman Cain has said about abortion:

1. He's opposed to abortion in all circumstances, but it's not the government's role to make that decision.
2. The president has no authority to order people not to seek an abortion.
3. He would appoint judges who know the Constitution contains no right to abortion.
4. He would veto legislation funding Planned Parenthood.
5. In the case of rape, it comes down to a family & doctor choice. He's opposed to it morally but shouldn't tell the nation what to think, because the government shouldn't be making our decisions on social issues.
6. The government shouldn't make decisions on whether abortion should be legal.
7. People shouldn't be free to seek abortions. Abortion should not be legal. (This was said immediately after 6.)
8. He opposes abortion with exceptions.
9. He opposes abortion except when the mother's life is threatened.

Sources: Huffington Post, CNN, Wikipedia

When it comes to Herman Cain's view on abortion, we seem to have a choice among (a) the uncharitable dishonest-about-his-views interpretion, i.e. he's not consistently being honest about what he thinks (b) the uncharitable intelligence interpretation, i.e. he's holding a flatly inconsistent set of beliefs in a pretty explicit way, (c) the uncharitable dishonest flip-flopper interpretation, i.e. he's not being honest about some change of views (and one such change has to be within minutes, (d) the uncharitable misuse-of-language interpretation, i.e. he's perhaps saying someone, perhaps only some of the time, that everyone misunderstands because of a highly idiosyncratic use of terms, or (e) he's got such a nuanced set of views that I can't even figure out how to put it together, with all my training in doing so.

(e) is the most charitable, but I'm extremely skeptical that he's so finely-tuned in his language without one of the others being true. I tend to think (d) is the least uncharitable of the others. Perhaps he means "it's not the role of government" and "it's the person's choice" in odd ways. You can, after all, say the second while thinking certain options should be illegal. You just wouldn't say so in an abortion discussion without being radically misunderstood. You could, also, say the first while thinking it's the role of a legislature but not the role of the executive or legislature to countermand the wrongful decision of the courts, but again you'd be radically misunderstood. That's about as good as I can do to put this together, and if it takes something like that, I think he's politically finished. There's no way the general public is going to be willing to be that charitable. But that may well be what's going on.

So here's my proposal. I'm going to take Herman Cain to hold to the following positions, all of them compatible with all of the above statements if they might have pragmatically-odd by semantically-possible meanings, and I'm going to see if I (or a commenter) might find a statement by him that does not fit with this view. So here's the approach I have in mind:

So (1) means abortion is morally wrong in all cases, but it's not the federal legislative and executive's right to do anything on that issue anymore, given the Supreme Court's wrongful intervention on the issue. (2) means the president can't tell people what to think and has been removed from being able to have any direct influence on abortion law at least at the very general level of deciding when it is legal to have an abortion in cases when the Supreme Court takes it to be a fundamental right. (3) clearly states that the Supreme Court wrongly decided Roe v. Wade, despite several claims that he hasn't made such a statement from social conservatives, and his preference for judges who would seek to do what they could to reverse or roll back that decision. (4) signals his opposition to federal funding for abortion or for abortion providers, something a president can have some say in. (5) signals his moral opposition to abortion in rape cases but his willingness to think that (i) that's a case when the law should be less clear than he thinks morality is, (ii) he as president shouldn't dictate what Americans' views on such matters ought to be, even if he has a clear policy preference, or (iii) given the Supreme Court's dictates, it's no longer the president's position but is given to a woman and a doctor to decide, even if he would prefer that the Supreme Court hadn't done that and would undo that dictate. (6) If he means the legislative and executive branch of the federal government here, and he isn't giving his ideal preference but his understanding of the limited role the Supreme Court has given him as president, then it's consistent with his view in his immediate next statement. (7) Ideally abortion should be outlawed, even if it's not possible to do so right now on the level of the legislature and executive. (8) Abortion is almost always wrong. There are exceptions, and he's aware of at least one. (9) One of those exceptions is when the mother's life is threatened, and there may or may not be others (and from above rape is not one of them).

This does strike me as a consistent position, and it does mean taking some of his statements in odd ways, but that's clearly more charitable than taking him to be lying about what his views are, lying about some change in his views, or so confused on the issue that he can't put together meaningful back-to-back statements explaining coherent positions. He does have an Obama-like history of overstating things and having to take them back, but his clarifications don't usually have the character of stating a view he holds and then backing off to a view he doesn't hold, and they also don't usually have the character of being corrected but embarassed to admit it. They usually have the character of not realizing how he might be misinterpreted and then being more careful the second time. It's just that this would be a case where his attempts to be more careful are only partially successful.

So that's my proposal of what I think he most likely is thinking. I admit that there are a couple points where it's a little bit of a stretch, but I don't think the evidence justified being less charitable at this point, and I'm not going to support misrepresentation  even by accident, which is I think what's going on if people are legitimately convinced he's pro-choice if he really isn't. He's certainly got a problem stating his views, but I'm not sure the general-election opponent is any better at expressing his views.

I can't see why pro-life voters would want this man representing them on this issue, but a vote for a president isn't necessarily a vote for the ideal person to represent your cause. It's a vote for the candidate that you think is better than the others. In a primary, that means the person who can best balance (a) the ability to beat the other candidate and (b) the ability to be a decent enough president to be preferable to the other party's candidate. In a general election, it's almost always a choice between two candidates as to which one will be better than the other on the issues you think are most important. It may turn out that someone who isn't the best person to represent your views on an issue does satisfy these criteria. Whether that person for pro-life Republicans is Herman Cain is, at least, not yet settled by this issue, in my view (although there are other issues that might serve as possible obstacles, and I could see this issue turning into one, depending on further statements that I haven't seen or he hasn't yet made). It partly depends on other people, too, but I have a better sense of what they think, at least the ones with much chance of winning.


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