Starting with moral conclusions vs. foundational principles

By Steve Phillips

Last week I wrote about how Jeremy Williams’ moral position on sex-selection abortion was influenced by his position on abortion itself. Reflecting a little more on what he wrote raises the question of what comes first in our reasoning about a moral issue. Do we start with fundamental principles or with previously held moral conclusions? It is not a simple question.

Abortion is such a significant issue that it tends to dominate bioethics at times. Ethicists who defended the permissibility of a woman choosing abortion in the 1970s seemed to begin with the idea that abortion was permissible and then work back to reasons to support that position. Those reasons included an analogy of a violinist being attached to a person without her permission and the idea that some human beings were not actually persons. However, this process of starting with a conclusion is not exclusive to those who support abortion. Many of my students begin with a strongly ingrained belief that abortion is wrong without a good understand of why they believe that. They then address other issues according to how that would affect their belief that abortion is wrong.

My first reaction is that proper moral reasoning should begin with foundational moral principles, but those who take the casuist approach to ethics say that rigidly following principles can lead us astray. They say we should we should begin with a paradigm case in which the moral conclusion is clear and then determine how much the situation we are considering is like and unlike the paradigm case. Even Beauchamp and Childress who have helped to define the principles of biomedical ethics say that those principles are in a significant way influenced by our considered moral judgments and not just based on ethical theories.

So why do I think we should start with foundational principles? That goes back to why I think there is such a thing as moral right and wrong. I believe that morality itself exists because we were created by and live in a world created by a moral being who is by nature good. God’s innate goodness causes ethics to exist. If we were the result of chance and unguided evolution, we would have no reason to believe that such things as right and wrong exist. If ethics exists due to the moral character of God, then God’s moral qualities are the foundation of ethics. His expression of those qualities in scripture and through his incarnate Son form the foundational principles for ethics. That is where we need to start.

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