Opponents of abortion often hear counterarguments based on a sweeping “right to choose”. But this plea for personal choice is part of the moral confusion of our day. If we step back from the familiar bumper sticker, we find that the argument is actually quite shocking. Is is the claim that an individual, such as a pregnant woman, should be free to choose whatever is right in her own eyes because there is no higher moral authority than an individual’s personal and subjective choice. That means that there is no restraint, no check against what I am able to justify to myself when I am caught in a difficulty.
This deference to mere individual choice is actually an extreme view, an anarchist view. Even its militant defenders are forced to make exceptions to it; otherwise there would be no basis for criminal law or criminal penalties. Moreover, individualist choice is used to defend all sorts of things: the choice to have a baby outside of marriage, to abort the child, to father children by multiple women, to enter a same-sex relationship, to end a friendship abruptly, to take “recreational” drugs, and so on. The familiar reaction against Christian morality or any objective moral standard is this: “Leave him alone! Leave her alone! Why are you butting in? What business is it of yours? It is her body, her choice.”
The “big idea” at work here is “moral relativism”, the notion that there are no absolute moral standards and that people simply choose what they themselves find best without answering to anyone else — no moral accountability to anyone but me. The on-the-street version of the argument tries to make it sound less self-absorbed than that, however. Most people will hide the fact that their philosophy rules out moral accountability to anyone. They will simply be offended at the idea of being held accountable by you: “Who are you to think that your moral viewpoint has any more significance than mine or anyone else’s?!? What gives you the right!?!” In fact, the full-blown version of moral relativism argues that there is no one with “the right” anywhere — no bigger, more important Person anywhere (e.g., God or the criminal justice system), whose moral authority has any more significance than anyone else’s.
The “Enlightened” tradition has sought to make a virtue of necessity on this point. It has praised the noble vision of a fully autonomous individual or society making its own moral choices free from the tutelage of inherited tradition — and what they usually have in mind is a tradition of revealed religion such as Christianity. Yet that vision of making moral choices without answering to anyone is still troubling. If I do not have to take any other voices into account in moral matters, doesn’t that mean that I am free to listen to my own voice alone? Doesn’t that mean that I will listen to my own rationalisations, with no one to question me, no one to “keep it real”? What sort of naïve faith in man’s “natural goodness” would I have to hold in order to believe that this kind of moral “standard” will keep me on the up-and-up or keep others from taking advantage of me, when the payoff is tempting?
The argument for moral relativism has always been on shaky ground, yet it has been defended by chic intellectuals for over 300 years — not because it makes much sense but only because, from a skeptical viewpoint, the alternatives are radically threatening. People cling to such nonsense because they are afraid to consider the alternatives and look them in the eye. In Part 2, we will examine a dialogue with a skeptic who admits exactly this.