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Charles Camosy versus Julian Savulescu on the Ethics of Abortion

When a believer and a secularist meet to discuss abortion, the result is often a disaster. After a few minutes of polite conversation, they start talking past each other, each failing to appreciate the deep concerns and genuine aspirations of the other. As the discussion continues, they look increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed, repeating themselves and no longer listening to each other’s opinion. What was meant to be a debate sometimes develops into a childish blame-game, the secularist ridiculing the believer as irrational, while the believer attacks the secularist as at best misguided, at worst evil. At the end of the discussion, the audience is left with the impression that we witnessed a divorce without the intimacy of a prior marriage: the speakers withdraw into the comfort of separation, weary of mutual indifference, mistrust and hostility.

This is the complete opposite of the abortion debate that took place on 18 October between Charles Camosy, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University, and Julian Savulescu, Director of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. The event was the first of a set of two public debates called ‘The Possibility of Religious-Secular Ethical Engagement’. Each speaker gave a short presentation on how one might advance a fruitful religious-secular dialogue on abortion, followed by Q&As and a further discussion between Camosy and Savulescu.

Camosy was the first speaker. After laying out a set of conditions without which a religious-secular conversation cannot even start, he firstly highlighted the surprisingly substantial level of agreement between Christian ethicists and their secular counterparts. His strategy was to focus on the work of the most influential secular ethicist of our time – that of Peter Singer – and discuss some of the controversial issues on which Singer and Christian ethicists agree. For example, they share the view that there is a logical connection between abortion and infanticide, departing from the popular view that abortion is morally permissible and infanticide is not. They also agree that some non-human creatures should be considered as moral entities, though Camosy would suggest angels as the prime example, whereas Singer is likely to pick chimpanzees. Camosy then examined several issues over which secular and Christian ethicists genuinely disagree, such as the moral status of the foetus. His central message was that both Christian and secular ethicists should focus on these specific issues to find a way to move the discussion forward, instead of seeing each other as attempting to impose an alien and comprehensive outlook.

Savulecu started his presentation by telling the personal story of how he came to revise his view on abortion in a less permissive direction. He now thinks that the destruction of an embryo is morally wrong under certain circumstances, such as when one or both of the parents want(s) it to develop into a child. An embryo, according to Savulescu, has a special moral value when it is a part of the plan of the parent(s). He also argued that the consequences of abortion for future generations must be considered. Bringing a child into the world, he suggested, is like bringing a work of art into the world; as Mona Lisa has given pleasure to the viewers, a baby has the potential for giving pleasure to the people to whom he or she will relate. Savulescu acknowledged that the evolution of his thinking about abortion had been fostered by his engagement with religious as well as secular ethicists, though he expressed his continuing disagreement with Camosy and others on several key issues, including the concept of potentiality when we speak of the foetus as a ‘potential person’.

The event was fully booked in advance and there were lively Q&As after the presentations. One issue that emerged recurrently was the internal diversity within each of the Christian and secular approaches to ethics. Camosy’s brief discussion of Christian feminist ethics had immediate resonance for those working on women’s rights and gender issues outside the framework of Christian ethics, while Savulesu’s express disagreement with Peter Singer on several important issues seems to have surprised many believers (and some non-believers) in the audience.

While Camosy and Savulescu showed respect for each other’s work, there was notable intellectual tension between them. The tension appeared vividly when they discussed the important and unresolved question of what the religious-secular engagement might achieve. Savulescu expressed the concern that the points of agreement he found with Camosy could be literally superficial, that is, overlapping conclusions reached from completely different premises via separate paths. Camosy showed more optimism, expressing the hope that the continuing engagement would result in some agreement on a more fundamental level. Savulescu’s reply seems to have captured the spirit of the event: the outcome of the religious-secular engagement depends on each party’s ‘willingness to revise their own views’.

If this is right, as I am inclined to think it is, then each of us who cares about ethics has a question to ask ourselves: do I want to keep discussing my ideas with my like-minded fellows; or do I wish to go about and try to persuade people with whom I share little in common, taking the frightening risk of finding myself revising my deeply held convictions?

I know what my answer is. What is yours?

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3 Comment on this post

  1. While I would like to see an active and fruitful discussion between religious and secular people, I find it very difficult to believe that it is possible.
    The reason being IMHO is that they represent two very different approaches (worldviews) that are non–commensurable.
    How can one argue logic with faith?
    An orthodox religious person follows set of rules and principles that were ‘given by god’ and does not require having any logic and reasoning behind them.
    Any attempt to argue with logic is doomed to fail by definition!
    I believe the only hope for a discussion of this kind (abortion, circumcision, etc.) is to have a common worldview and unfortunately I don’t see this coming any time soon without a major change in human thinking.

  2. It might be the case the worldviews are incommensurable, but it isn’t because an orthodox religious person has first principles taken on faith and the secularist does not. Both religious and secular approaches have fundamental, baseline principles for which neither has arguments. It appears to be special and arbitrary discrimination against first principles which come from (explicitly) religious belief which drives the comment above.

  3. I read recently, and much to my surprise, that Christopher Hitchens (an anti-religious secularist if ever there was one) was against abortion. Clearly one doesn’t have to equate being pro-life (anti-abortion) with a religious outlook.

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