Today we are living in a cloud of moral confusion. But this confusion isn’t due to lack of education or even a lack of empathy. Rather, I argue that it is due to a misunderstanding of what ethics is. It is a confusion about what we should value and why we should value it.
If we accept the premise that ethics is neither relative nor absolute, and that meaningful qualitative distinctions can be made between ethical systems across cultures; if we accept that ethics, like science, politics, or religion, is a constantly evolving and self-adjusting realm of thought which builds on itself over time; and if we also accept that ethics, like these other realms of knowledge, depends on reason, evidence, and consensus, then we should naturally expect to see an unequal distribution of knowledge and understanding of ethics in the world just as we see should expect to see a relatively unequal distributions of knowledge concerning science, politics, and religion in the world.
Just as people in the past mistakenly thought that tyranny was preferable to liberal democracy, and that bronze-age mythologies were preferable to tolerant, peaceful religions, people today mistakenly think that an ethical system which is based on speciesism, personhood, and the superior souls of humans is preferable to one which is based on the pain and pleasure of sentient beings.
Only by abandoning the former antiquated system of ethical thought can we begin to make clear moral choices pertaining to the rights and well-being of humans and non-human animals. One especially relevant issue in need of moral clarity today is abortion – an issue pertaining to women’s reproductive rights and human rights generally.
In order to clear the the fog of moral confusion surrounding abortion so that we can defend the rights of women to control their own bodies, we first need to recognize that life, in and of itself, should not be valued just because it is life, nor should it be valued just because it is human. This might sound like a radical statement, but it is quite rational once we examine the source of our instinctual defense of human life, and of life generally.
The reason we have morality in the first place is because it was necessary for the survival of our species, and should therefore be viewed as tool for maximizing well-being and flourishing. This also means that morality, from its very inception, was – and still is – a phenomenon that arose from and which pertains to the interactions of conscious beings – interactions involving pain, pleasure, intentions, and consequences.
The fact that we have no moral obligations to rocks, bacteria, or human beings in permanent vegetative states, yet feel morally obligated to creatures with minds that can think and bodies that can feel pain bears out the truth of this notion. Once we understand the origin and purpose of morality, we can then realize the absurdity of valuing life just because it is life, or valuing life just because it is human.
To go on insisting that life has inherent value is just as incoherent as saying that slugs have an inherently revolting quality, or that something is “good in itself.” If we understand ethics properly, we know that things have value only by virtue of our evaluations of them, not independent of those evaluations.
We also know, by virtue of our reason and our empathy, that it is not logically or morally consistent to value one species of sentient creature which can think and feel pain (humans) while refusing to extend the same moral consideration to other sentient non-human creatures (animals).
Claiming that we should ignore the well-being of non-human animals because we are instinctually hardwired to preserve only our own species is just as flawed as arguing that since human beings are instinctually hardwired for sex that we should only have sex to produce children.
This idea that human beings, by virtue of their membership in the species of homo sapiens somehow makes them superior to other sentient beings is known as speciesism, and cannot be defended on rational grounds any more than the racist’s opinion of their superiority over black people can be defended rationally.
This is because ethics doesn’t just involve feelings, but also involves the exercise of reason, the consideration of evidence, and the appeal to the consensus of other conscious beings which can also experience feelings, reason, and weigh evidence.
To claim that morality is only about feelings is like saying that science is only about testing or that religion is only about praying. In other words, it is an oversimplification which obscures the underlying complexity of ethics and making ethical choices.
Furthermore, to argue that ethical systems shouldn’t involve these criteria, or that they should also take into account other moral criteria which have no bearing on the well-being and flourishing of conscious creatures is to render incoherent the concept of morality as we know it by ignoring its biological and socio-historical evolution, and by denying the way human beings process reality and relate to each other within it.
Now that we’ve established the origin and purpose of ethics, we can see why the controversy surrounding abortion is a case of mistaken ideas about morality. Let’s first address the question of personhood.
For many years, human beings have been obsessed with determining the philosophical and legal definition of “personhood.” The underlying philosophical and legal implication here is that if a being can be deemed a “person,” then it deserves moral and legal consideration.
However, given that this idea of “personhood” is speciesist in nature since it presumes that human life is inherently more valuable than other life forms which are not “persons,” we can safely dismiss this whole idea of personhood as morally irrelevant.
Once this idea of personhood is dispatched and replaced with an analysis of the fetus as a non-sentient life form which is bound to a sentient being, and once we consider that ethical decisions only pertain to the pain and pleasure of sentient beings and not non-sentient beings, we can rationally conclude that the act of extinguishing the life of a non-sentient human fetus is no more morally abhorrent than ending the life of a tree.
In fact, the only real reason we should regard the life of a human fetus or the life of a tree is because the existence or non-existence of each impacts the lives of conscious beings that are directly or indirectly tied to it.
In the cause of the human fetus, this includes the mother, the spouse, family, and close friends that have a stake in the fetus’s existence. In the case of the tree, this includes the animals that inhabit the tree and the well-being of human and non-human animals whose existence is dependent on the lives of trees. In the both cases, the morality of the action lies not in the act of destruction itself, but in the consequences that result from the destructive act on the lives of conscious beings.
Therefore, since in the case of abortion, the women is the subject whose life and well-being are primarily effected by the destruction or non-destruction of the fetus, it goes without saying that her well-being should be the main consideration in the moral equation, and should trump those of her spouse, family, and friends.
Of course, even if the abortion of the non-sentient human fetus which cannot feel pain is done in secret in a way which prevents all parties involved from being harmed by the knowledge that a woman has become pregnant, there is still the age-old objection that non-sentient fetuses should not be killed because they have an eternal soul which is implanted by God the moment an egg is fertilized.
Here again, I argue that this idea of the soul as an object inserted into the body from birth with a mind of its own is an outdated way of conceptualizing God and the soul. The soul, if I am to believe the experiences of religious and non-religious people alike, is inextricably tied to the brain, to the sensations of the body, to the experiences of transcendence and oneness with the eternal and mysterious.
To claim that a non-sentient human fetus or a tree somehow possesses this same capacity to relate to and experience the divine is just as incoherent as claiming that bacteria or sponges are equally capable of spiritual communion. Here again, it seems that just as morality exists only as it pertains to relations between conscious beings, spirituality exists only as it pertains to relations between conscious beings and the divine.
Moreover, I argue that this whole idea of the superiority of the human soul is speciesist as well, since it implies that God values the souls of human beings but does not value the souls of other non-human animals, although both come from the same source.
After all, what makes theological justifications for speciesism any better or more valid than theological justifications for sexism, racism, or slavery? While there’s no question that all of these things can potentially be defended by a strict and literal interpretation of one religious text or another, theology and morality have never been synonymous.
In fact, history has repeatedly shown how our theology and our understandings of God and spirituality have adapted and evolved over time to suit our increasingly expanding knowledge of the universe and our place within it. If we failed to adjust our moral code just because the Bible does not explicitly condemn slavery, religion as we know it would be unrecognizable to us today.
Moreover, by clinging to this kind of specieist theology, we not only limit our understanding of God and spirituality, but we place limits on our imagination, and thus on our evolving conception of the divine and how it relates to our lives.
In opting for a speciesist spirituality, we also place human ego above God and place narrow human constraints on the divine by claiming that God must only care about the lives of humans, or is only willing or able to relegate divinity to a single species while ignoring millions of others that were created before it.
Returning at last to the issue of abortion, we can see how the primary barrier to a woman’s right to control her own body and protect their own emotional, psychological, and physical well-being is inextricably tied to an outdated system of instinctual ethics which bases moral judgments on the criteria of protecting life because it happens to be living, protecting unborn human life merely because it is human, and protecting it because it is a special human soul which is superior to the souls of non-human animals.
Of course, once advocates for women’s rights refuse to recognize this outdated, harmful, and irrelevant ethical system in favor of one which considers sentience, pain, and pleasure as valid moral criteria, they must necessarily extend many of the same rights they enjoy to other sentient beings.
Just as the false distinctions between women and men must give way to equality between the sexes, so too must the false distinctions between human and non-human animals give way to equality between species.
Today we fully recognize that women are not commodities to be owned, things to be played with, or slaves to be kept, yet non-human animals enjoy all of these distinct privileges. We hold women in high regard because we feel their pain, empathize with their plight, and share their desire not to be treated like objects or be oppressed by unjust systems of power, but how long will it be before we extend this same dignity to non-human animals?
While we have fought hard for the rights of women to control their bodies, look after their offspring, and enjoy meaningful and egalitarian relationships, we’re seemingly okay with breeding an inordinate number of cows through forced insemination (rape), condemning them to lives of isolation, confinement, and misery, stealing the milk intended for their families, and kidnapping their calves immediately after birth so that they can be tortured and eaten for our pleasure.
The historical abuse of women, like the abuse of non-human animals, is a difficult and ugly part of our reality, but it is ultimately one we will have to face sooner or later as a society. Although I share in Dr. King’s optimism that the arc of the universe ultimately bends toward justice, I also share his conviction that it will never bend without strong and vocal resistance.
Fighting for one injustice, whether it be against sexism, racism, or speciesism, necessarily implicates one in fighting against all injustices, not just those which are most convenient or easiest to fight.