Video #2

Abortion and Worldviews

Video Notes

What Worldview Questions Drive the Abortion Debate?

There are many, but here are 4 biggies:

  • Are morals real and knowable? (And can we ground them without God?)
  • Are humans real and knowable?
  • What makes humans valuable in the first place?
  • Who gets to talk about all this?

Worldview question #1 — Are morals real and knowable?

Moral Realism says yes. Right and wrong are objective and we can know them as such. We can know them through direct intuitions (self-evident, properly basic truths we immediately recognize such as “rape and murder are wrong”) or through inference (arguments advanced for or against a position), but either way, they are knowable. As R. Scott Smith points out, if you trace the history of thought from the Old Testament until the Enlightenment, you’ll see moral realism as the dominant view.

  • Moral realism of Old and New Testament writers: From Moses forward, biblical texts point to objective moral truths that exist independent of me thinking they exist. That is, my believing them to be real does not make them real. Instead, moral truths are grounded in the character of God and accessible to all God’s people. (See Deut. 30: 11 — “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.”) Moral realism continues with the New Testament writers, but with one significant addition. Not only is moral truth real and knowable, it is also transforming. That is, while ethics are objective in their foundation, they do not end with “duty for duty’s sake.” Rather, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, God’s objective truth radically changes the Christian disciple more and more into the image of his Master. However, even the non-believer can know certain objective moral truths and act upon them without the aid of special revelation. The moral law, rooted in God’s general revelation, is something all men know intuitively. True, that intuitive knowledge is not sufficient to save non-believing men from their sins, but it doesn’t follow from this that they can’t recognize right and wrong — even if they work overtime to suppress that recognition. (See Romans 1:18-32.)
  • Moral realism of the Greeks: For Plato, universal morals are grounded in the world of ideas (forms) but are nonetheless real. For Aristotle, objective morals are rooted in the objective nature of man, namely, his immaterial soul or essence. Moreover, we can know what’s right and wrong through the rational faculties of the soul. Our duty, then, is to cultivate virtuous habits so that we act and in a manner consistent with (and proper for) our nature as human beings. In short, both man’s nature and the standards he is obliged to obey exist objectively.
  • Moral realism of the Middle Ages and Thomas Aquinas: While the Biblical writers grounded objective morals in the character of God, Aquinas grounds it more or less in man’s unique nature as a rational being, a substance made in God’s image with both a body and a soul. Unlike the Protestant Reformers who come later, Aquinas is confident that human reason, unaided by special revelation, can know moral truth (an idea known as natural law). Morals are grounded in man’s rational soul, which bears the image of his creator.

Moral non-realism says no: Objective morals either do not exist or, even if they do, we cannot know them as such because we are trapped behind our own sense perceptions or cultural biases. Moral non-realism fits comfortably in both naturalistic and postmodern worldviews and is now the default position of western ethics. The turn from moral realism began with the Enlightenment:

  • The empirical shift of the 17th and 18th centuries was decisive. Empiricists like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and David Hume (1711-1776) taught that all knowledge is restricted to what we can observe through the five senses. If you can’t taste it, touch it, feel it, see it, or hear it, it’s not real. Since morals cannot be empirically verified via the five senses, they are subjective passions, not items of real knowledge. For Hobbes in particular, morals are reduced to self-interest and only a dominant ruler (a “Leviathan”) can keep self-interested humans from tearing each other apart. Human nature is also diminished. Hobbes, for example, disputes that man possesses a unique immaterial nature (soul) that bears God’s image. Instead, human beings are just heaps of physical parts. Later, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) tried to rescue objective moral truth from empiricism, but his solution was problematic. For Kant, we cannot know things as they truly are (the noumena), only as we perceive them through our senses (the phenomena). We are trapped behind our sense perceptions. However — and here Kant takes a bizarre leap — we must act as if an objective moral law-giver exists (i.e., God) and trust our transcendent minds (or universal ego) to get at the truth. In short, the enlightenment embraced scientism: the belief that science, and science alone, is true knowledge. Everything else is subjective. Even if morals do exist objectively, we can only know them subjectively because we are trapped behind our sense perceptions (Kant). The influence of Hobbes, Hume, and Kant is still felt today. If only the hard sciences are real and knowable, morals are not real and knowable. And if morals are not real and knowable, they are subjective, like choosing your favorite flavor of ice cream. And if they are subjective, who are you to push your personal views on me or anyone else?
  • Postmodern turn of 20th century: No one has privileged access to what is real. All moral knowledge is received through the bias of our own cultural lenses as crafted by our own individual language communities. Thus, right and wrong cannot be known objectively. True moral knowledge requires bomb-proof certainty, and no one anywhere has that. Sure, we can talk about truth all day long, but there is no correspondence between what we say is real and what actually is real. We must therefore construct morals and religion through our various language communities, just as we do law. Postmodern thinking had a near-catastrophic impact on religion and ethics. Morals were reduced to subjective language constructions of individual communities.
  • Example of postmodernism today: Professor Clay Jones writes of his personal encounter at church:

For a few months, some years ago, we attended an evangelical church that had great worship and the pastor was an enjoyable teacher. One day one of the pastors was talking with me after the service and when he found out I was an apologist he announced, “I’m thoroughly post-modern!” Well, we soon had breakfast and I started asking him the standard questions like “is it objectively wrong to torture babies for fun?” He said that it wasn’t objectively wrong. I asked him, “Is Christianity objectively any truer than any other religion?” He said “No” and he said that it bothered him when the senior pastor encouraged the congregation to evangelize. I asked him how he could agree with the church’s doctrinal statement and he replied that that was no problem because “that’s the way our community talks about truth.” What heresy does this commit? All of them! He didn’t think even one doctrine of historic Christianity was objectively true! I ended up sitting down with the elders about him (he was present) and one of the elders looked at me and said, “I have trouble with the word ‘objective,’” and I knew this was going to end badly. Indeed, the board sided with him and, heartbreakingly, we went to another church. On the surface this fellow was a “good Christian” but really, he was a weed. I shudder to think how many congregants he has misled.

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