Ethics Course “180” Review

Many people have asked me why I am teaching a course on Ethics at the church.  The implication is that it is unnecessary in some way:

  • because people already know how to act
  • because our positions are already reasoned and settled
  • all we need to do is toe the company line

But just as with all other areas of teaching in the church, the body must listen carefully and ensure that the reasoning and conclusions that we hold to and act upon are truly correct (Biblical, rational, logical, consistent, Godly).  So we are holding a class at the church and one of the first things we did was view a provocative video put out by Ray Comfort.

It is not safe to assume that simply because someone has a forum, audience, or church that their declarations are sound.  I have never been content to simply tell people what to believe (even though my teaching has a proven record of reliability :-)), rather people need to be exposed to process, argumentation, and reasoning. We need to know how to think not simply be bullied into what to think.

As a preface to my critique of Ray Comfort’s video “180” let me assert a few things:

  1. I agree with the major premise of the video:  Abortion is a moral issue with grave consequences.
  2. I applaud his engagement with culture, his desire to challenge and change people with the gospel message.
  3. I believe he has good motives.
  4. I understand that the video is not a formal presentation of arguments for and against abortion.
  5. I was moved emotionally by the video and was hopeful that those in the video who said they had changed their minds were sincere and that the change was a real and lasting change.

Having said that, the video is flawed.  I would not use this video as a means of persuasion – either for the gospel or for a position on abortion.  Here are my problems:

Straw man/appeal to authority

The video begins with interviews of random individuals who are asked the question:  Who is Adolph Hitler?  We are then exposed to a varied number of ignorant responses from mostly young adults who appear to be college students.  We are left thinking, “young people today don’t know who Adolph Hitler was!”  These initial characters in the video are then used as the examples of vast majority of people out there who support abortion, who are “pro-choice.”  We are never given a “rational” voice that opposes the position of the video.  All of the “representatives” of the opposing position are ignorant young people who don’t even know who Adolph Hitler was.

Apparently the makers of the video did not stop to think how insulting this would be to the younger generation to whom they are engaging. There are intelligent and well spoken students, I will guarantee that the makers of the video ran across them on the campus where they spent the day filming.  Why did none of those students make it on to the video?

The obvious reason is that they don’t make as “good” a video sound bite.  But this sort of presentation falls prey to a greater danger than boredom; that greater danger is bad logic and argumentation.  To characterize our opponents arguments in the worst possible light and ignore any cogent presentation of their views falls prey to the fallacies of the straw man and appeal to authority.  It is easy to portray an overly simplistic version of a position and then machine gun it down.  It is easy to show the flaws of a position by raising up an “authority” that is no authority at all.

Bill Maher did this in his “documentary” Religulous.  We watched it and were irritated, outraged and offended.  He paraded ill equipped religious people before the camera and then humiliated them while the rest of us watched and screamed at the screen:  “That is not what I believe!”  Unfortunately, 180 has the same approach.  Unbelievers and people who hold a different position on abortion than Ray Comfort look at the video and are outraged at the mischaracterization.

All that was accomplished in this process was that people who clearly demonstrated that they were not deep thinkers were humiliated in front of the camera and persuaded to change their mind in a matter of moments.  What we witnessed was the same process that got them to their original (wrong) position.  They are more influenced by emotion and bad argumentation.  It is not impressive.

Bad/Weak Analogy (“I never paralleled these two)

The major argument in the video is that all abortions are murder and the moral equivalent of the Nazi’s (Adolph Hitler) killing Jews during World War 2. The present epidemic of abortions in America is the moral equivalent (or even greater) than the Holocaust.

But the holocaust and abortion are not analogous.  In the video we see people moved to make this conclusion, and the star in the video is the blond woman who makes the statement:  “I never paralleled these two.”  The mistake she (and the video) makes is seeing similarities between the two things and concluding that they are appropriately analogous.  The problem is that they are not analagous.  Both things can be morally wrong and not be analogous.

Comparing abortion and the holocaust is like the comparison used in the gun control debate when people say things like “cars kill people too” as if cars and guns are appropriately analogous.  Adults killing other adults with no warrant and additionally systematically designing a system to wipe out a race of people is not the same as a woman taking steps to avoid a pregnancy using an abortafacient method of birth control like the IUD.  Nazi SS in black uniforms humiliating, stripping, gassing, beating, shooting, burying other humans alive is not the equivalent of a desperate woman asking a doctor to give her a pill that will cause the expulsion of an embryo after she was raped by her father (and at which point she doesn’t know if she has actually been impregnated).

The case against abortion can be made (and I believe more strongly made) by avoiding hyperbole, exaggeration and bad analogies designed only to elicit emotion.  Abortion has sufficient weight in and of itself as a moral issue.  It doesn’t need any help from this comparision which 1) is not an accurate comparison and 2) serves as a reason for the opponents to dismiss/ignore the core argument.

Steven

Steven is introduced at the very beginning of the video and I cannot see any good reason why he plays such a large role in the video.  He is a neo-Nazi who spouts off all sorts of vulgarity and really adds nothing to the conversation except to add shock value.  From a purpose standpoint though (and I am left with only this conclusion as to his inclusion), he stands for all those who reject the message of the video. If you argue for abortion rights in this country you are like Steven, a new expression of Nazism that is perpetrating a new holocaust on the unborn in our nation.

The German

Soon after Steven we are introduced to an unnamed German man who again spouts off nonsense about how the holocaust never happened and other anti-Semitic vitriol.  His inclusion, like Steven’s, only serves to characterize and demonize those people who see a moral warrant for abortion rights.

“If you argue for abortion, you are like this guy.”

It is not an argument, it is a form of ad-hominem.  Calling people names, characterizing people as foolish and ignorant is not a good argument, nor is it honest.

The Russian

Then we are introduced to a Russian man who is older and a victim of WW2 in that he claims the German army killed his mother, father, grandmother and others.  Ray Comfort asks him the question that has now become the topic of conversation in the video.  Would you shoot Adolph Hitler? Would you shoot Adolph Hitler’s mother while she was pregnant with him?  He answers unequivocally yes:  “I would kill him, his mother, his father…”  This Russian man is juxtaposed over against the villains cast as Steven and the German.  He is not challenged and the video never addresses the problem with “killing” Adolph Hitler.

The implication that could be drawn is that as a normal citizen with a gun it would be ok to kill Adolph Hitler if we had the opportunity, even when he was not yet born.  It was stunning that this was left hanging when the premise of the video is that there is an unqualified right to life on the part of the unborn.  If that is true, then it would be morally wrong to kill Hitler in the womb.  Strangely, this was never addressed in the video.

Finally, at the end of the video came this now suspect warning “We strongly condemn the use of any violence in connection with protesting abortion.”  It is suspect bccause violence against abortionists is the underlying conclusion if abortionists are perpetrating a holocaust.  The need for violence against abortionists is implied by equating abortionists  with the Nazi’s and Hitler. After the unchallenged statements of the Russian and the lack of any protestation about the 1 exception to abortion that Ray Comfort would actually make (apparently he is ok with aborting Adolph Hitler), I don’t see how you can avoid this conclusion.

Moral Problem, another poor analogy

What would you do if forced to bulldoze earth over a large hole containing both dead and living people whena Nazi officer holds a gun to your head?  Would you be more comfortable shooting them instead?

This question takes up the next part of the video.  This is a great sandbox problem, meaning that if we are having a general discussion on ethics this question could serve as a hypothetical situation that would serve the purposes of discussion regarding legitimate warrants for killing.  We could also include mitigating circumstances that might justify or offer some level of excuse in the case of a forced action of killing.

It was not used as a sandbox discussion starter, rather it was used to create emotion and guilt with regard to the uncertainty it creates in our minds as to what we would do if a gun was put to our heads.  Then it was compared to abortion with equally vague, unfair and emotionally laden language witht the following question: It’s ok to kill a baby in a womb, when?

The answer to that question may possibly be “never” which is the answer he wanted everyone to come up with, but the answer was coerced with a bad analogy and verbal bullying.  The natural place to go from the problem would be to talk about moral courage in the face of personal danger, the level of culpability you would have if in fact you decided to give in and do as the Nazi’s were forcing you to do.  It would be natural to compare the moral value of those two actions, then maybe raise the possibility of another option.  But this was not the purpose, the purpose was to manipulatively link abortion again to the Holocaust even though bulldozing over many people at one time is not a good analogy to abortion.

Sloppy Language

If we are going to make any progress in making a real difference in the abortion debate in our country, we must be clear in our communication and honest in our language.  Throughout the video the following terms were used to describe the life in the womb:  Human life, being, person, baby, child, and the terms fetus, embryo, zygote were avoided.

The reason we do this is because pro choice advocates are often guilty of dehumanizing the developing life in the womb by avoiding the human and personal terms like baby, child.  We feel this is a linguistic maneuver and are especially and probably rightly offended when they even go so far as to characterize the life as simply a “blob of tissue.”

The answer to this is not to overemphasize the humanity by using terms that are intended to emotionalize the argument, or simply as a tactic to balance the dehumanizing tactics of our opponents.  I have purposefully used the term “life” to describe the fetus.  I was looking for a neutral term to make a point. Killing a baby in the womb conjures up a particular picture that doesn’t correspond to the actual truth of what happens when a woman uses an IUD for instance.  We have a particular picture of a “baby” and if you are going to be honest, it is nothing like a zygote.  “Babies are being murdered” is not an argument.  It is an emotionally laden claim.

In our discussion about abortion we want moral clarity.  We also want to speak explicitly and specifically about the issues so that we can in fact make disctinctions and conclusions about behavior.  When we speak about murder, we speak in legal terms about degrees of murder.  Those are important distinctions when it comes to killing as to whether the killing is considered murder or manslaughter.  Those same conversations must apply to the abortion debate and we don’t get there from a purely emotional claim or by otherwise being sloppy in our communication.

Politics

“We are talking about a holocaust in America sanctioned by the government”

“Would you vote for someone who advocated killing babies in the womb?”

This inclusion of politics into the video was especially confusing.  First of all, politics are notoriously self-serving and manipulative.  The parties play on our emotions, values, hopes, dreams to get our vote.  Often they pander to special interest groups and religious sensitivities simply to pad the voting booth.  Politicians change their views often, both because they are human and grow and because they are human and self-serving.  It is hard to tell which change is occuring.

To be blunt, the claim here is that any Democratic ticket is akin to the Nazi’s as they endorse and sanction the holocaust and it would be wrong to vote as a democrat, un-Christian.  On the other hand, the enlightened Christian will vote Republican as the Republican party is American and is our only hope to stop the holocaust.

Since I have been able to vote I have heard variations on this pitch.  The majority of my voting life has been with standing Republican Presidents (20 years – 12 years), and yet little has changed.  The reason for this is twofold:  The President has very little power to change the law and the President actually spends very little time post election worrying about this issue.  So the claim that the holocaust in America is sanctioned by the government is an accusation of which both parties would have to be guilty.

This sort of head in the sand approach to the political process and voting is something we want to avoid.  We don’t want to be pawns of politicians, rather we want to speak truth in the arena of politics, and partisan politics makes that challenging.  I don’t advocate one issue voting, it is not wise nor is it “morally” pure or superior.  The political statement in the video diminishes this videos potential to speak to the other side.

And that is my overall concern.  I asked our Ethics class to watch the video with three questions in mind: What is wrong with the video? What is missing from the video?  Would you be compelled if you were from the opposing viewpoint?  The preceding is what I think is wrong with the video.

A qualified opposing voice is what is missing from the video, and the audience who would be energized by this video is the side that already believes abortion to be wrong in every circumstance.  Because of that, it will only be viewed by “believers” and outside of the “converts” on the video, it will have little impact on the discussion in a larger sense – America will not make a 180 based on “180.”

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