We imagined, in a previous post, our hero woke up one morning having forgotten everything about human interactions. This isn’t a problem as long as our hero is alone, but we quickly discovered it is almost impossible to avoid crossing paths with other human beings. Every new interaction raises questions about the appropriate response. Add to that, there appears to be commonly shared intuitions that some things we choose do to each other are morally condemnable. Our actions toward others are neither equally laudatory nor equally blameworthy. Some actions are good, and others are bad. Loving a child is good, and abusing a child is bad. Respecting someone sharing an idea with which we disagree is a good choice while punching them in the face and running away is a bad one. Some choices should be made, and other choices should never be made unless circumstances absolutely require it. Killing each other sits atop the mountain of forbidden choices. Our first duty to every other member of the human family is to refrain from killing them.
Our hero makes a new friend who helps sort out these questions. They easily agree that we all share a negative duty to refrain from killing every human being we meet. Old humans, young humans, darker skinned humans, lighter skinned humans, tall humans, short humans, hairy humans, bald humans, happy humans, grumpy humans, washed humans, dirty humans, wealthy humans, poor humans, fancy humans, simple humans, loud humans, quiet humans, and every variety of human being imaginable ought to be treated with basic dignity and respect.
Then a young woman shares that she is on her way to get an abortion. The new friend praises her for making her own choice and affirms this is a perfectly acceptable thing to do, but our hero has questions. What is an abortion? What is being destroyed during an abortion? And given that it was agreed all day that humans should not kill other humans, why does the human life inside of the mother not count as one of us?
Abortion is legal and, therefore, not wrong
The conversation excites the passions of our new friend and begins to draw a crowd. Some in the crowd hurl nasty insults at our hero while others insult the young woman and many, many others insult the insulters on both sides. It’s as if someone dropped a bomb of anger and argument on a once peaceful scene.
Our new friend cries out, “Everyone calm down! Please! My friend here just doesn’t understand this issue and all of the yelling and screaming won’t help. It is also terrible of you to scream at this young woman. We can talk about this civilly.” The mob mostly complied, though small groups here and there voice their distaste for conversations about this subject and either break off to continue yelling at each other or wander off altogether. His new friend then looks at the pregnant young woman and says, “I am sorry we got you caught up in this conversation. You obviously do not have to stay.”
The young woman shakes her head and insists she is interested in this discussion. “I want to hear what you all have to say. I have questions about all of this myself.”
The new friend turns back to our hero. “Now, I understand that you are having a little trouble today working through what is right and what is wrong, but the single most important thing for you to know in relation to abortion is that it is absolutely legal. This is not killing another person. This is a legal medical procedure and, I hate to be blunt, none of your business.” Many in the crowd loudly agreed with this last point.
Does legal mean right?
Our hero felt somewhat relieved to hear this. The idea that his new friend and others might condone killing some humans and not others troubled him. This new information lifted a growing burden. “Ah, it is legal. I didn’t know that. So, it wouldn’t be legal if it wasn’t okay.” Most of the crowd murmured their agreement with this point. “That is good to know. Being legal makes it right.” Less agreement and a growing grumble of protest. Our hero looked confused, “I mean, there has never been anything that was legal that was obviously wrong, right?”
The new friend and several of his supporters all made the same high-pitched sound, and he said, “Uhhhhhhhhh…that’s not entirely accurate. There have been things that were legal but wrong.”
Our hero’s worries began to return, “But nothing really bad, right? I mean nothing obviously terrible has ever been legal, right?”
The same high-pitched noise again, and his friend said again, “Uhhh, there have been some pretty terrible things that were technically legal.”
People in the crowd looked at each other and the new friend tilted his head, “Well, it was once legal to buy and sell other human beings as property because of the color of their skin. Slaves were treated like things to be used and disposed of at will with no consideration of them as human beings.”1 He could see the stunned look on our hero’s face. “Yeah, that was pretty awful.”
Another person in the crowd spoke up, “Well, it was once legal in the United States to forcibly sterilize people who were deemed unworthy of having children. That was pretty bad.”2 Another voice chimed in, “Oh, it was legal during World War II to take Americans with Japanese ancestry from their homes, force them to leave all of their possessions behind, and live in internment camps.3 That seems to fit this discussion.” And a young woman shouted out, “I know it isn’t the United States, but I read the that Nazi’s at the Nuremberg trial defended their participation in the Holocaust by saying they simply obeyed the lawful orders of their commanding officers.” Looking toward our hero she added, “Oh, that was the systematic attempt to wipe all Jewish people from the face of the earth by killing them by the millions in death camps. I read in a book that European governments had to readdress their approach to Constitutional law because the Holocaust was more or less legal under German law at the time.”4 This brought an audible “Ewww!” from many in the crowd.
Our Hero’s mouth gaped open. “Oh my gosh! All of that awful stuff was legal?”
The new friend, shrugged. “Yeah, the first three were even addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court and deemed perfectly Constitutional. But that was a long time ago. Well, kind of a long time ago. I mean not that long ago in historical terms, but it wasn’t like it all happened yesterday or anything. There are people who are still alive today who were alive when some of that happened, but they are really old.”
Legally protected but morally wrong
The crowd stood silent for a moment. Our hero finally spoke again, “It seems pretty clear some obviously terrible things have been legal in the past. From what you have said, we have to agree bad laws can make a particular action legally protected even when it is morally wrong. I think going forward we should separate those ideas in this discussion.” They were all forced to agree. Our hero asked again, “Is that life inside of her one of us? That still seems like the most important question. And if it is, is it morally wrong to kill them even if it is currently legal?”
A woman stepped forward out of the crowd and said, “Not so fast!”
Part three coming soon…
4 Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York, Simon and Schuster) 42-43