Differing ethical perspectives

Last year, a reader asked I write about abortion, specifically from the anti abortion perspective. Instead I will use the issue of abortion to show why we almost always observe entrenched opposing views on big ethical issues. Whilst ethics does attempt to provide answers to moral dilemmas, it also illuminates some of the reasons for different opinions.

When trying to solve ethical problems, there are about 200 different approaches. No kidding!

You may have noticed I occasionally try to solve ethical problems by forecasting the likely consequences of an action. This is the utilitarian (consequential) approach, where the right action is what leads to the greatest good for those affected.

An alternative approach is to develop a clear set of rules to follow based on logic or sometimes religious doctrines; or to follow the golden rule – ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’. Another widely used ethical framework is to identify the attributes of a virtuous person, and the right action is to do what they would do.

There are 10 to 15 of these frameworks commonly used to analyse ethical problems, some of which lead to different ethical solutions. The second source of difference is the cultural context in which the action takes place. Not all ethical rules are universally applicable; in some cases local customs and beliefs are relevant to judging morality. Moreover religious beliefs differ.

Another major source of difference is we never know all facts relevant to the ethical case. Typically we fill in the gaps with guesswork and assumptions. My guesswork will differ to yours.

Different ethical frameworks, diverse cultural and religious beliefs, different interpretation of facts, and varied assumptions to fill information gaps leads to many possible combinations, all reflecting a different approach to solving the ethical problem.

To illustrate: consider an ethical case involving a 16-year-old girl, raped by her uncle, who is now six weeks pregnant.

What is the moral course of action for the girl?

Using the consequential approach we need to forecast the likely impact of having an abortion, or adopting the child, or raising the child herself and all other feasible options. We have to consider the consequences on the girl, her family, the baby (foetus), and all others affected by this decision.

What information do we have and what assumptions do we make regarding the mental and physical health of the girl and the baby? What is the physical and mental impact of abortion (or not aborting) on the mother? Does the foetus feel pain during abortion? What religious beliefs (if any) do the girl and her family hold?

Does the morality of abortion change in an extremely poor community where there is insufficient food, and where children are already malnourished and dying of starvation? Is availability of financial resources to support another life relevant? Does life begin at conception? Would a virtuous person raise the child or abort and focus their energy on saving children dying of preventable cause?

It’s inconceivable we could all agree on the answers to these questions. Typically the abortion issue divides those with a strong, often religiously inspired pro-life conviction against others who focus on what they believe will lead to the best consequences for the mother in each case, which involves the option of abortion (pro-choice).

Both sides could benefit from trying to view the problem through the eyes of those with opposing views. Sometimes understanding the reasons why others hold differing ethical views helps the process of finding common ground.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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