Moral agency

I’ve been thinking more about the National Interfaith Leadership Council, following an invitation to participate in the After 8 Debate (SAFM, September 25, around 08h05 NOW POSTPONED) alongside Ray McCauley and a representative of the SA Council of Churches.

Part of the problem with religion hijacking moral discourse is the way in which it dumbs people down, and makes them unable to see that moral conclusions are the result of arguments – not simply absolute rules that we learn via some or other collection of myths (where how we choose which such collection to pay attention to is anyone’s guess).

In these moral arguments, a starting point that’s rarely considered is that of what makes something a moral issue in the first place – for example, I find it difficult to imagine any set of circumstances in which same-sex marriage even gets off the ground as a potential moral issue.

The other allegedly moral issue that the NILC have been making a noise about is abortion – something which barely counts as a moral issue, in that I’d like to think that moral agents need to be involved before something counts as a moral issue.

On the standard criteria of being able to reason and make judgements, foetuses are clearly not moral agents – and even on broader criteria such as sentience, or the ability to feel pain, early-stage foetuses would not make the grade either.

This is not to say that there are no good arguments against certain attitudes about, or laws regulating, abortion – it’s simply unlikely to be the case that they will be good moral arguments. And we should sometimes remember that not every issue we feel strongly about should also be considered a moral issue – and that not every moral issue should also be considered a legal issue.

I’m afraid that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.