The flare up last week over Todd Akin’s extremely factually wrong comments on abortion and the ensuing commentary exposed a related flaw in the public moral discussion, we largely ignore the underlying factual issues and use of terms behind moral issues. This, I think, results in significant moral crosstalk rendering any meaningful dialogue quite difficult if not impossible.
The Akin affair highlighted perhaps the most obvious of these issues which is our refusal to publicly discuss the validity of soul theory and, tangentially, the evidence for an afterlife. What you believe about those propositions has a big affect on what you think about major moral issues including the death penalty, abortion and euthanasia. Even more specifically what you believe about soul theory affects what you mean when you use the term “human life” which can result in people on different sides of that claim talking past each other.
There are two very different meanings associated with the term “human life” often used in moral debates. The first is human life as something which is entitled by society to protection from being destroyed while the second definition refers to any entity with the full DNA, or essence, of our species. Whether or not those two definitions are equivalent or can be separated is the heart of dispute over abortion.
Without the acceptance of soul theory the idea these are equivalent is extremely implausible as each one of our cells has that full DNA sequence of our species and no one is arguing that we should outlaw any destruction of human cells whatsoever because that would ban all touching. Therefore people who accept naturalistic theories of identity are likely to think the the ability of a fetus to suffer and its brain development are key to when they gain the protections afforded to “human life” and that the particular line will be an informed, but still arbitrary, decision. However if you accept the soul theory of life then what makes human life worth protecting is that it contains the soul and therefore whenever it is believed the soul is created(?) is the moment from which human life deserves protection.
There’s little use arguing over the validity of your chosen definition, how we use words is ultimately arbitrary, but significant progress can be had if we are actually willing to debate the best way to achieve our assumed joint end goals: reducing suffering and respect for human life. How best to accomplish these goals does in fact depend on whether or not there is good reason to accept soul theory (hint: there is not). To avoid pointless disputes we all should define our terms and if you are arguing for public policy be prepared to defend your views with publicly available evidence. That advice seems too obvious to me but is sadly often not heeded. Ultimately because our beliefs about the way the world is determines what we think ought to be done in any given scenario it’s very difficult to have a serious conversation about moral issues if we aren’t willing to address the underlying assumptions that lead to our moral conclusions.