Diagnosing Modern Moral Debate
Incommensurability, the idea that there is no rational method to weigh claims between two conceptual frameworks, is a core feature of morality today and the source for moral confusion (1). Even though moral positions take the form of logical validity, two competing valid arguments result in an interminability which denies a rational closure to the debate. But why is this so?
One reason is that to rationally arrive at an ethical judgement requires at least a single ethical premise to justify the judgement. This premise in turn can be the logical conclusion arrived at from another set of premises and so on ad infinitum. Ultimately, to avoid the infinite regress, entire moral schemata will rest not on rationally justified premises but mere assertion; eventually there will be a foundational judgement where no further reason can be given for its adoption. Secondly, terms employed in a particular moral framework do not share the same meaning in an opposing moral framework. These two elements explain the arbitrariness and emotivism during moral debates which reduces moral victory to a battle of wills.
The Abortion Debate Case Study
The debate over abortion is a prime example of moral incommensurability. Two opposing groups, known by the popularised labels ‘Pro-Life’ and ‘Pro-Choice’, represent competing paradigms with mutually exclusive sets of stances and underlying premises.
First, a main Pro-Life argument may be summarised as: All entities should realise their potential; a foetus, once it reaches its potential, becomes a rational human; therefore, a foetus must be allowed to reach its state of actualisation (2). In contrast, the widespread assertion by Pro-Choicers derives from the individualist doctrine called ethical egoism and rests on the premises of self-interest and the right to self-determination of autonomous moral agents (3-4). The Pro-Choice argument can be summarised as: All autonomous moral agents have the right to self-determination; the right to self-determination includes the right to pursue self-interests; women are autonomous moral agents; therefore, women have the right to abortion if she determines it to be in her self-interest.
Egoism, notably, is silent on what those very interests ought to be. Self-interests are largely defined by cultural sentiments and today, with our career-focussed lives, unsurprisingly the determining factor is pregnancy’s disruptiveness to one’s career aspirations (5-6). Nonetheless, it is clear that both sets of arguments are logically valid but rest on mutually exclusive premises. In the absence of a rational method to weigh one premise over another, the choice in adopting the premise of ‘potentiality’ or ‘self-interest’ is non-rational and makes attempts to persuade others emotive.
The Inadequacies of Naturalism as a Moral Arbitrator
Pro-Choicers deflect the critique that egoism allows for unrestrained actions by proclaiming that they do believe desecration of human life is abominable. Contrastingly, Pro-Lifers derive their main argument from Christian teachings that life begins at conception and equate abortion to murder and violation of the sanctity of human life (7). However, with the secular environment of moral debate, Pro-Lifers have succumbed to the temptation of providing a secular justification for their otherwise biblically derived ethical principles. One may suggest, then, that given life is an empirical fact and given that both camps maintain the sanctity of human life surely it is possible to obtain agreement in choosing the morally correct position. But is this so?
Both sides have attempted to find vindication and moral victory in science (8). For example, Pro-Lifers bring forth ultrasonography evidence and declare the detection of heartbeats at 6 weeks signifies a unique life. Meanwhile, Pro-Choicers rebut that this is poor science because the heart is not fully developed and foetus viability is not established at that stage, therefore, abortion is not murder (9). However, both these arguments have fatally misunderstood the limits of scientific naturalism (naturalism), the doctrine which underpins the workings of science.
The crucial mistake with relying upon naturalism is to ignore its assumptions and limitations. The first problem is that there is no consensus among biologists for a definition of life (10-11) let alone the question of when human life begins (12). This is a source for the incommensurability of the term ‘life’ as both sides of the argument can evoke the term and apply separate definitions. Secondly, naturalism presupposes that all there is in the universe are natural entities (eg. atoms), all matter is no more than the rearrangement of natural entities (eg. water comprises 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom) and all phenomena (eg. a ball running down the hill) are the results of scientific laws (13). On a value basis, too, there is no difference between a human and a rock since life and non-life are both reduced to “a swarm of particles in space” (14-15). Consequently, it is beyond the capacity of science to assign a moral worth for particular arrangements of matter because all naturalism ‘sees’ is what exists in the natural world. No wonder, according to naturalist philosopher Michael Ruse, our moral sentiments are biological “illusions” as moral statuses cannot be shown to exist materialistically (16). To simplify this further, moral statuses cannot be studied under the microscope and, therefore, do not actually exist. Atheist biologists Crick, who co-discovered the structure of DNA, and Dawkins, were and are committed naturalists, respectively. Both also agree with this sentiment that ‘you’ are no more than the sum of nerve cells and molecules, the universe is made up of nothing but blind physical forces with no purpose and free will, pitiless indifference and we are simply machines propagating DNA (17-18). Under naturalism, categorising particular arrangements of insentient matter as either ‘life deserving of protection’ or ‘life not deserving protection’ is nonsensical. Thus, depending on naturalism leads to not only arbitrarily apply the term ‘human murder’ and assigning ‘life’ with a moral status but also denying the existence of ‘wrong’ and another source for incommensurability in the abortion debate.
A Lesson for Muslims on the Importance of Islamic Justice
MacIntyre describes how Englishmen were astounded by Polynesian prohibitions such as disallowing men and women to eat together (19). When Englishmen queried to the reason behind these prohibitions the answer they received from natives was the word ‘taboo’. However, when pressed further neither meaning nor justification could be given for the word taboo as the original context for the word was long forgotten. It was no surprise then that Polynesian leaders were able to abolish these prohibitions without much protest from the populace. This suggests something peculiar about language, in particular moral language.
Moral judgements are connected to particular contexts which the meanings and justifications of said judgements can be deciphered. Once this context, such as Biblical contexts for the definition of terms such as ‘life’ and ‘wrong’ in the Christian West, is separated from the moral judgement then arbitrariness will be a feature of moral debate. Following on from the loss of the original context which supplied the authority of a particular moral judgement (ie. destroying a life is wrong) is the requirement for a new context for the term. Both sides agree on the judgement regarding the sanctity of life (perhaps a relic of Christian teachings), both sides have deprived the judgement from its original context and attempted to provide this new context with naturalism, and so far both have failed resulting in a rationally interminable debate.
Misusing concepts and depriving terms from its original contexts is a feature of modern ethics. It is important for Muslims therefore, in this age of incommensurability, to understand how to avoid the pitfalls of modernity by reminding themselves of a fundamental concept in Islamic justice. According to al-Attas, the difference between injustice and justice in Islam is the difference between either placing something in its wrongful or rightful place, respectively (20-21). An act of injustice committed by a person is only so because the soul has been wrongfully placed; it has deviated from the righteous path sanctioned by the Most-Wise. Similarly, to be just is to have knowledge of the rightful place of a particular object. Knowledge itself must be treated with justice, meaning knowledge must be well-ordered by the Muslim with each piece of knowledge being arranged such that its limits, usefulness and context are in harmony. This entails that the terminology we use is granted its rightful context. The separation of knowledge from justice and order, as we have seen, leads ultimately to moral confusion and, Islamically, injustice. The pre-requisite in placing knowledge in its rightful place is wisdom, so may the Most-Wise grant us wisdom.
- Kuhn, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, 1962. Note: The idea of incommensurability was popularise by Kuhn but it was MacIntyre’s argument of moral incommensurability in his book After Virtue that I am indebted to the most.
- Manninen, ‘Revisiting the argument from fetal potential’, (Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine) 2007
- Kurt Baier, ‘Moral Obligations’,1966. Note: Kurt Baier describes ethical egoism as commanding “ that we work out for ourselves in the light of our knowledge, or predilections, likes and dislikes, our capacities, talents, energies and skills, our opportunities and resources, a life plan whose realisation would make our life as rich and worthwhile as possible.”
- Edward Regis, ‘What is Ethical Egoism’, 1980
- Linda Lowen, ‘Why Women Have Abortions’, 2019
- Lawrence Finer, ‘Reason US Women Have Abortions’, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2005
- Emma Green, ‘Science is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost’ (The Atlantic), 2018
- Adam Rogers, ‘Heartbeat Bills Get the Science of Fetal Heartbeats All Wrong’ (Wired), 2019
- JV Chamary, ‘A Biologist Explains: What is Life?’ (Forbes), 2019
- Machery, ‘Why I stopped worrying about the definition of life…and why you should as well’, 2012
- Scott Gilbert, Republicans Need to be Countered on False Claims About Embryos, 2016
- Kelly James Clark, ’Blackwell Companion to Naturalism’, 2016
- Hamza Tzortzis, ‘The Divine Reality: God, Islam and the Reality of Atheism’, 2016
- For further readings refer to Evelyn Kellers section in the book ‘Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Biology’. Also refer to Kendon Smith, ‘Naturalistic Explanation of Life’, 1958
- For the naturalistic position on morality as an illusion see Michael Ruse, ‘The Biological Sciences Can Act as a Ground for Ethics’, 2010.
- Crick ,’The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul’, 1995
- Richard Dawkins, ‘River Out of Eden’, 1995
- Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘After Virtue’, 2007 edition
- Syed Muhammad Naquib al Attas, ‘Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam’, 2001. Syed Muhammad Naquib al Attas, ‘Islam and Secularism’, 1993
- For an Islamic viewpoint on abortion see What does Islam say about Abortion by Sheikh Mohammad Elshinawy Link provided: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lp_HmHZHxU
Also see Islam and the Abortion Debate by Imam Omar Suleiman, 2017
About the author: Zammam is a PhD student studying cell biology. His main interests are cancer, politics, and culture. You can follow him on Twitter here.