Jerry Sandusky and Ultimate Right and Wrong

The Penn State scandal culminating in the conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of sexual abuse last month was a truly horrible story. However, I think that some good may have come out of it; namely, the Sandusky case has brought some important moral questions to the fore of our national consciousness. Last month, for example, Dr. Benjamin Wilker published an article in the Catholic Report with a provocative title: Why is Jerry Sandusky Guilty?

The article opens with this:

There is no doubt that Jerry Sandusky is guilty, the real question is why? Why is it that we, here and now, would send a man to prison for molesting boys? Why is the public reaction one of both deep disgust and quite visceral anger? Just canvass a few opinions about what people would like to be done to punish Sandusky if they were the judge.

But why? What is the cause of this deep disgust? This seething anger?

Why indeed. I would agree with just about everyone that what he did was sick and despicable. But why does it anger us so?

Wilker chalks it up to one thing: Christianity. He notes that in the ancient Greco-Roman world, homosexual relations between an older man and a boy (between 12 and 17) were completely acceptable. This was the age range that Sandusky happened to target. In other words, if Sandusky had done what he did 2000 years ago, no one would have thought much of it and we wouldn’t have found him guilty of anything. The rise of Christianity, with its Judeo-Christian sexual ethics, according to Wilker, was the main thing that ended up instilling a new morality so that most of us now view such acts with disgust.

I think he has a point, but the historical impact of Christianity isn’t what I want to address right now. Regardless of what you make of Wilker’s argument, it highlights one simple thing about morality that I think people tend to overlook when they make their own moral judgments: moral norms change across eras and civilizations. Continue reading →

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“After-Birth” Abortion?

Like many people, I reacted with horror and disgust when I first read in The Weekly Standard about this recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It is by two ethicists in Australia, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, and argues for the ethical legitimacy of what they call “after-birth abortion.” It’s a fascinating read, but it comes to a chilling conclusion: it is ethically permissible to kill an unwanted baby even right after it is born. The same reasons which justify abortion, they say, should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn. This is because a newborn baby is not yet a “person” in the proper sense of the word. It can take a few days or weeks for an infant to develop a sense of self, purpose, and aims. If the child is going to cause undue stress to the mother or her family, or if the child’s life will not be worth living because of some debilitating disease, the best thing to do is end its life.

I come from the pro-life camp, and I’ve no doubt that a lot of pro-lifers will probably jump on this article and claim that it is the inevitable result of the pro-choice position and that all abortion advocates implicitly promote infanticide. I don’t want to go that far (at least not quite yet), but I do think that it demands some hard questions of abortion proponents.

Given the assumptions that justify abortion, their reasoning that extends this to newborns sure seems pretty valid to me, but I’d be curious to hear it from any pro-abortion folks out there: what makes killing a newborn different from aborting a fetus? If there is no line before birth, why should birth itself be a line? And if we want to delve more into the philosophy of it, what gives us the right to decide when a fetus becomes a person?

For William Saletan, writing for Slate, the big question for pro-choicers is this:

How do they answer the argument, advanced by Giubilini and Minerva, that any maternal interest, such as the burden of raising a gravely defective newborn, trumps the value of that freshly delivered nonperson? What value does the newborn have? At what point did it acquire that value? And why should the law step in to protect that value against the judgment of a woman and her doctor?

Or to follow another line of thought: why shouldn’t the mother’s best interests, particularly her psychological and economic well-being, take precedence over the destruction of human life—even if that life is still potential? It is, after all, on an inevitable course to personhood, which brings us back to the basic abortion debate. I’m not asking these questions to back anyone into a corner. I’m genuinely curious.

Continue reading →