What does it mean to be human? Are we accidents, illusions, or masterpieces? This is the identity question many of us have asked at some point in life. And how we answer this one question, consciously or unconsciously, will determine how we value and treat one another.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this question. Before we decide on an answer (accidents, illusions, or masterpieces), let’s take a look at the appraisal and ethical implications of each position:
Appraisal and Ethical Implications
- Option 1: If humans are cosmic accidents, then we, as random combinations of atoms, have no inherent value or lasting worth. We have no worth because we have been left on the doorstep of an indifferent universe by chance.
What ethical implications does this view have? If the universe is the product of chance, then we live in an a-moral world where the strong naturally devour the weak. That is, all ethical systems are simply byproducts of the evolutionary process and are “just” insofar as they conform to the “will” of those in power.
- Option 2: Similarly, if humans are karmic illusions, then we, as projections of the ultimate unconscious Spirit, have no inherent value or lasting worth. We have no worth because “we” don’t really exist.
On this view, morality is nothing more than a useful fiction that structures the rules of the karmic game. In other words, ethical norms have no objective existence.
- Option 3: But, if humans are handcrafted masterpieces, then we, as individually and intentionally crafted beings, have inherent value and lasting worth. We have worth because we are the treasured possessions of a divine artisan.
Morality, then, is a fundamental component of who we are and the way the world really is. That is, we are moral beings living in a moral universe.
With these implications in play, let’s plug an issue like slavery into this comparative framework and see if it can help provide us with some clarity on the question regarding what humans are—accidents, illusions, or masterpieces.
Is enslaving another human being wrong? It depends on which view of the world is accurate. If right and wrong are causally determined by those in power (be it a king, a few individuals, or a majority), then slavery is only “wrong” if those in power say it is. Technically, on this view of the world, nothing is inherently right or wrong. So, for instance, in our country slavery was right in some states before 1865 and only wrong in every state after 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
However, if right and wrong are the illusory but ironclad rules to the karmic game, then slavery would be “wrong” relative to the game we are in, but also only happens to those who deserve it. In other words, on this view of the world, the only people who are enslaved are those with bad karma. Karmic justice ensures that people’s lot in life is exactly what they are due for the way in which they conducted themselves in past lives.
But, if right and wrong are grounded in and emerge from a transcendent and perfectly moral divine artisan, then slavery is objectively wrong at all times and in all places. In other words, on this view of the world, slavery is inherently unjust because it is an affront to the character of the divine craftsman and goes against the moral grain of the universe.
With that said, let’s rephrase the question and ask it
this way: Is slavery the result of the strong devouring the weak, bad karma, or
an egregious human injustice? I think most of us, based on what philosophers
call a shared moral intuition, would say that slavery is an egregious human
injustice. We tend to believe that slavery is wrong no matter who you are,
where you are, or when you lived. And why do we believe this? Because we tend
to believe that all humans inherently possess equal dignity, value, and worth, regardless
of their race, ethnicity, IQ, gender or socioeconomic status. So, to the
original question, it seems that most of us at least function under the
assumption that humans are masterpieces—even if evidently broken
masterpieces—and that there are in fact ethical standards to which all humans
How, then, did slave owners justify such evil behavior for so long? They did so by classifying certain populations of people (black people) as less than fully human. For example, in 1857 in what has been called the worst ruling in Supreme Court history, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote:
We think…that [black people] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them. (emphasis added)
A slave, named Dred Scott, had attempted to sue his “owner” for his freedom because he had been brought into the territories of Illinois and Wisconsin, which were both free states. However, as stated in Taney’s opinion, the court ruled that Scott was not a citizen and therefore did not have the legal right to sue. He was not recognized as a citizen because he was classified as part of an “inferior class of beings” and as the rightful property of his owner.
What do you think? Was this ruling just? If so, why? If not, why not? How can we tell if a particular human law is just or not? In the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, responds this way:
The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
By these standards, the Supreme Court ruling was unjust because it did not “square” with the moral law built into the fabric of reality by the divine artisan. That is, the Dred Scott ruling did not square with the principles of cosmic justice. Instead, it arbitrarily deemed an entire class of human beings as inferior because of their skin color.
I think we can confidently say that: 1. At least some things, like slavery, really are wrong: “Right is right, and wrong is wrong” as Tom Sawyer said, and; 2. All humans, by virtue of being human, possess equal value and therefore are deserving of equal rights.
With these basic parameters in place, let’s consider how all this relates to the issue, which as I am sure you are aware, has recently become a topic of renewed public interest and debate in our country—abortion. And like with slavery, let’s proceed by plugging abortion into the framework sketched above.
Tragically, the womb, the natural place of nurture for a fetus, has been transformed into nothing less than a noose.Click to tweet
Is abortion wrong? Again, it depends on which view of the world is accurate. As we did before, let’s rephrase the question as: Is abortion the strong naturally devouring the weak, karmic justice, an egregious human injustice, or somehow an enforcement of justice?
To answer this question, we must first determine whether a fetus is human or not. Interestingly, this isn’t a disputed point in the debate. Embryologists from all sides of the aisle, tell us that from the point of conception, there exists within the womb a separate and unique being with its own genetic code. As the renowned geneticist, Dr. Jerome Lejeune once said, “To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion…it is plain experimental evidence. Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception.” And within a matter of weeks, this new being has its own organs, heartbeat, dreams, eye color, nervous system and fingerprints. In other words, it has been scientifically verified that, biologically speaking, a fetus is a new and living human being.
What does the scientific data entail? It entails that if humans are works of art and that morality is a real feature of the world we inhabit, then abortion should be considered wrong for the same reason that slavery is considered wrong: because all fetuses, like all African Americans, are human beings. Therefore, all fetuses are deserving of the same human and constitutional rights as anyone else.
Consider what we would have to do to justify the practice of abortion in the face of the scientific data. We would have to follow the logic of the Dred Scott case and say that fetuses are not citizens, because they constitute an inferior class of being and are the rightful property of another. In other words, we would have to use the slave owner’s logic and arbitrarily say that size, or level of development, or geographic location, or degree of dependency, or desirability, deems an entire group of people as less than human.
However, the aforementioned considerations are as arbitrary as skin-color in determining someone’s worth. Similarly, these criteria could never be instituted as viable in the judicial policies of a society in determining someone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Otherwise, we would have to say that it is justified to end the life of anyone smaller than us, less developed than us, geographically located within our property lines, more dependent than us, or that we do not want to exist anymore. Obviously, this is an untenable and unlivable position.
Of course, we might ask about women’s rights. But note that biological sex is determined at conception. So, what about when the fetus is female? Should not the rights of the woman in the womb be the same as the rights of the mother? Unfortunately, the question assumes about fetuses what was assumed about Dred Scott: that fetuses are somehow less than fully human and the rightful property of another. But science has shown that fetuses are, by nature, fully human. And no one has the right to intentionally kill innocent human life—whether male or female. As Scout reminded us in To Kill a Mockingbird, “There’s just one kind of folks. Folks”—no matter their size or color.
Bringing all this together, let’s look at a slightly re-worded version of an argument made by Scott Klusendorf:
Premise 1: It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings.
Premise 2: Intentionally aborted fetuses are innocent human beings.
Conclusion: Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.
The argument is valid. So, to deny the conclusion, we would have to deny one or both of the premises. To deny the first premise, we would have to affirm and argue that we live in an a-moral world where there is nothing wrong with things like murder, rape, and slavery. And to deny the second premise, we would either have to show that science is wrong and fetuses are not genetically human, or we would have to demonstrate that an unborn child is guilty of a capital offense. None of these options appear plausible.
Since the Roe v. Wade decision, the science of embryology and technologies like sonogram have made it harder and harder to defend abortion, which in the last 40 years has taken the life of an estimated 58.5 million children. Comparing that with the estimated 12 million humans who died from the transatlantic slave trade, we can see that with abortion, we are dealing with systematic killing of catastrophic proportions.
Tragically, the womb, the natural place of nurture for a fetus, has been transformed into nothing less than a noose. The cry of these little ones who are being extinguished by the millions, even if just in the non-verbal form of recoiling from pain, is and will remain to be set free—to be emancipated from the ironic bondage of a hostile womb and extended what Martin Luther King Jr. called one’s “God-given and constitutional rights.” And until that day, we all have a duty to speak up for and intercede on the behalf of these little ones, who certainly constitute the most vulnerable members of any human society.
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