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This is part 11 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my latest post and Andrew’s reply.

Hello Andrew,

I’m ready to move on to comparing our views on government, really! But I have to tarry on one small point:

Goodness itself is not a necessary truth, but God as the Final Cause (Being and Goodness itself) is a necessary truth in the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception, (goodness being inseparable from God’s nature).

I’ve read this over, but I’m afraid I’m still confused. I don’t want to drag this out, but maybe you can answer a question that will clarify things for me: In your view, is God a moral epiphenomenon?

When you’re faced with an ethical dilemma, I assume you and I would handle it in generally the same way: decide which of your principles are relevant, sum up the balance of competing interests, and make the choice that you believe will accomplish the most good. At what point does God enter into this process? Is God’s will a trump card that overrules other factors? If not, I’m just not seeing how your moral philosophy differs from that of an atheist like me.

Of course, now that we’re turning to more specific political questions, maybe that will be an opportunity to illuminate the differences. If you’d like to show me how this works in some concrete examples, I’d be interested to hear it.

…mine is the position that any system of morality blind to evidence is dangerous and that any worldview, including atheism, infused with a few doses of fanatical tribalism and the right spark, can lead to terror.

I couldn’t agree more! As I said at an earlier part of our conversation, morality must always be empirical to do its job properly. I’ve often argued that the core flaw of the communist regimes was that they were so convinced they possessed absolute and unquestionable truth, so certain that history had a preordained end and they were its servants, that they viewed themselves as justified in committing whatever cruelty was necessary to bring about the promised victory.

But there’s one important difference: Since it was a materialist ideology, communism was limited to promises about what would happen in this world. This means that even the most fanatical communist regimes eventually had to deliver the goods. They could dither, offer excuses, suppress free speech and imprison dissidents, but they couldn’t prevent people from seeing for themselves how badly things were going. They couldn’t conceal forever that communism didn’t deliver the glorious utopia it promised. I’m certain that this is a major reason why communist states eventually collapsed or shifted to other forms of government all over the world.

When you import the supernatural into your moral system, you lose even that minimal reality check. You can persuade people to labor all their life, in poverty and deprivation, by promising them vast rewards in an afterlife whose existence can’t be verified (or threaten them with afterlife torture if they disobey you). You can say that God wants them to do something, and because his ways are infinitely higher than ours, they have no right to pass judgment on the results.

Philosophically, what are your thoughts on abortion? At what point (if any) during pregnancy does it become immoral to have an abortion?

Ah, now we’re getting to the interesting stuff! The hardest moral dilemmas are the ones that involve a genuine clash of interests, and though I personally consider myself pro-choice, this isn’t a case where all the arguments point the same way.

Any conscious, thinking, feeling being has a right to continued existence and to not be arbitrarily killed. In addition, we recognize that there are circumstances under which there exists a duty of care. Parents certainly don’t have the right to abandon or neglect their children who are too young to fend for themselves.

On the other hand, people also have a right to exercise control and autonomy over their own bodies. I can’t force you to donate a kidney to me, even if you’re the only compatible donor and I’ll die without a transplant. Even if you agree to donate the kidney and later change your mind, no ethical surgeon would tell you that it’s too late to back out and try to operate on you against your will. The idea of organ harvesting from an unwilling donor is something that shocks the conscience, as it should be. I just don’t see how it changes this calculus if the organ is a uterus rather than a kidney.

In my view, if it were purely a matter of these two rights colliding, the bodily autonomy principle would win out. I have the right to live, if I’m capable of doing so without extraordinary means. But I don’t have the right to parasitize the body of an unwilling other for sustenance (and “parasitize” is the right word – on the genetic level, there’s a very real battle between the placenta of the fetus and the body of the mother for resources).

But what makes the decision much easier is that, for most of the span of a pregnancy, the fetus’ brain hasn’t developed to the point where conscious thought or feeling is possible. Insofar as that’s the case, there aren’t two separate people whose interests may conflict; there’s only one person, the mother. A fetus without a fully developed brain is merely a potential person, and isn’t the sort of entity in which the rights of personhood can vest.

If you and your wife were pregnant but it was not the ideal time to have a child, would you proceed “no-brainer” to an abortion?

Yep! I would never counsel anyone to go through with a pregnancy if they weren’t confident that they were ready, physically, financially and emotionally, to assume the enormous responsibility of parenthood. The consequences are far too great to be thrust upon someone who isn’t prepared.

I would, of course, acknowledge that adoption should also be available as an option, for those who choose it. Even so, it’s a fact that pregnancy often entails hardship, suffering, and risk to life and health. The idea of forcing someone to bear that burden against their will is horrifying, probably the most intimate and outrageous violation of personal liberty imaginable. A wanted pregnancy is a beautiful thing, a choice that bespeaks hope for the future and the desire to bring a unique and precious new life into the world, and deserves society’s respect and protection. But coerced pregnancy and childbirth is abhorrent in equal measure.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...