I’d like to thank Public Discourse for inviting me to participate in this new venture—an advice column! And I’d like to thank those who wrote in with questions. I can’t answer them all; rather, my hope is to answer two or three per column. I’ll always address letter writers in the second person, as “you.” And I’ll certainly offer advice—my best account of what seems reasonable in the situation. But it is only advice: everyone who writes needs to make an independent assessment about whether the guidance I offer is sound.
Here are the first three questions I will address:
I am on the board of directors of a medical advocacy organization that supports research and development for a certain type of rare fetal disease. However, the organization has been actively promoting and sharing IVF as an option for women with this disease who would like to have more children without subjecting their children to the risk of developing this disease. Is serving on the board of such an organization tantamount to tacit support of IVF, even if I have never, myself, participated in its promotion?
You ask whether serving is tantamount to “tacit support of IVF,” and I agree that is a significant concern, for reasons I discuss below. But I think there is a bigger issue you are overlooking.
We need to ask just how promoting and sharing IVF will serve the organization’s purpose of, ultimately, ending a particular fetal disease. (Clearly, supporting research and development for ending a fetal disease is a noble end, and we should be glad that there are organizations dedicated to such an end.) In other words, how does IVF create options for at-risk women to have disease-free children?
The mechanics of IVF are well-known: an ovum is harvested from the mother, and fertilized in vitro with the father’s sperm. This procedure is, in itself, considered morally impermissible by, e.g., Catholics, as it involves the separation of the procreative and unitive aspects of marital sexuality. It seems this might be your primary concern. It is certainly a reasonable concern: in IVF, that separation occurs in the context of an attempt to treat a human being as a kind of product, to be made by a technical procedure—surely an inapt way for persons with innate dignity to come into existence. There are good reasons not to support the use of such a procedure for the end of having children.
But IVF will only prevent diseased children from being born if embryos are first screened and “defective,” i.e., diseased, embryos are discarded. So the organization in question pursues its worthwhile end by promoting a procedure that will only achieve its end by killing some number of early-stage human beings precisely because they are diseased or at risk of disease.
Is your presence on the board of directors morally compromised by the organization’s advocacy of such means? I think so.
A board of directors’ members are not typically expected to agree on every judgment that the board makes; a majority might be sufficient to set policy, for example, even though a minority might have preferred some other approach. But membership in a cooperative project, such as running an advocacy group or business, does require, first, that one take the end to be morally worthwhile and agree to its pursuit; and second, that one accept, morally, the adoption of the means agreed upon by the group. This is necessary because one’s commitment to the group is to act with them in pursuit of the shared end.
That does not seem possible here: to remain on the board requires accepting that the organization achieve its ends by promoting the killing of early-stage human beings (as well as by illicit practices of baby creation). It does not seem morally upright to accept that.
This might not seem immediately obvious, but it is possible that our judgment is clouded to some degree by prejudice. Imagine that an organization is committed to allowing a small number of born children to be starved to death in order to eliminate a disease (or achieve some other valuable purpose). We would probably not be inclined to ask whether we should be associated with such an organization. But early-stage human embryos are human beings just as newborns are and deserve the same consideration in our practical reasoning.
If you agree with this line of thought, then I think you should first explain your moral concerns to the rest of the board; it is possible that doing so will lead the board to rethink its promotion of IVF and focus on morally permissible research. But if they remain committed to the elimination of diseased children, and you share my concerns over this, then I think you should resign your position on the board.
I cannot support Joe Biden given his stance on abortion, but I do not want to support Trump, if he is the Republican nominee, because he is morally corrupt. If Trump and Biden (or Harris) are the nominees, should I make a lesser-of-two-evils comparison and select based on that judgment? Is there a principled reason to abstain from voting?
I have great sympathy for you, as I find myself in the same position. The problem arises because the responsibility to vote is both real and serious; by doing so, one expresses one’s commitment to the common good of one’s political society and acts in a real, albeit limited, way to promote that common good.
The common good of any political society includes the protection of unborn human beings: thus politicians who promote laws that permit the legal killing of such human beings gravely fail to meet their own responsibilities to promote the common good. Additionally, by their failures of witness to the good of human life, they often lead others astray. This is an especially serious wrong when the politician is, like Biden, a Catholic: his repeated claims that abortion is a fundamental right and that he is a devout Catholic cannot both be true, but they encourage other Catholics to think that “pro-choice Catholic” is a morally coherent position.
So you might reasonably think that President Biden threatens, rather than serves, the common good. You might also think that he appears to be increasingly physically unfit for his office, to be serially dishonest, and possibly to have been involved in grossly immoral enrichments of his family when he was vice president.
So you might judge, as a reasonable voter committed to the common good, that you have good reasons not to vote for Joe Biden.
On the other hand, you might also reasonably believe that former President Trump is grossly unfit for the presidency. You might think that he lacks honesty, has been repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, and cares not for the common good but only for himself. You might judge that his failure to accept the results of the 2020 election and his willful deception of his many followers in this regard have created deep political instability, which he exacerbates with his constant use of threatening and violent rhetoric. Finally, you might believe that his acquiescence in, and sometimes approval of, the actions of his followers during the fiasco of January 6, 2021, ought to have led to his impeachment and made it impossible for him to serve as president again.
So again, as a voter committed to the common good you also might reasonably judge that you have good reasons not to vote for Donald Trump.
With regard to both candidates, many will say that there is a reason: to avoid the other, worse, candidate from taking office. But I genuinely see no real way to identify which of the two is clearly worse, and few ways in which either candidate will contribute in a meaningful way more than the other to the common good.
Is the responsibility to vote absolute? No. As with other affirmative responsibilities, so here: particular circumstances can mean that there is no obligation, and in some cases, there might be an obligation not to vote. I think that will be the case if, having deliberated conscientiously, you do not think that one of the two candidates poses less of a threat to the common good than the other. If that is your considered judgment, you should not vote for either.
What, then, to do? Clearly, one important option is to vote conscientiously in the primary, whether you think that will have an effect or not. In the primary, you should probably proceed strategically, voting for the candidate around whom the most support has coalesced, even if you think some other candidate is somewhat better. Further, in the general election, even if you do not vote for one of the presidential candidates, you should still vote in an informed way in down-ballot races. In some ways, the responsibility to do so is heightened, since the country will need sound legislators to address whatever folly is proposed by the executive branch.
Finally, you should work in whatever way is appropriate to your vocation to move our country toward a point where our choices are not so dismally constrained. That might involve no more than engaging in productive conversations with friends and family; it might involve more. Let’s hope for success.
What is your advice for college or graduate students who do not want to excessively self-censor in the classroom? How do they charitably yet boldly assert their views if they disagree with the ideologies being pushed? Along those lines, what is the difference between true prudential courage in asserting one’s views versus empty, false, “chest-beating” displays of one’s own views (I am thinking specifically of false displays of some kind of atavistic masculinity)?
There is a lot that could and should be said about this, and as we are nearing the end of this column, I’ll only scratch the surface. But let me make a few brief points.
First, and going to the last part of your question: courage and honesty are only two of the needed virtues for navigating a world characterized by radical disagreement and deep polarization. Charity, courtesy, humility, and prudence are also called for. In practice, this means: be self-deprecating rather than aggressive. Use humor when possible. Indicate your openness to hearing from those who might disagree with you.
Second, especially in college, but elsewhere also, it helps to be guided by a hopeful trust in the goodness of one’s interlocutors. In my experience, many college professors on the left are genuinely open to hearing from students on the right if those students present their views in a non-belligerent way. If you don’t presume bad treatment will follow upon honest communication, often it will not. Again, as a practical tip: visit your professors in their office hours, and explain that you don’t always see eye to eye with them. Assume that will interest them, rather than provoke them.
Third, the bigger threat than your teachers right now is, I think, your peers, and this is a problem that universities at large are struggling with. How can students on the left or the right be encouraged to speak their minds when there is the constant threat looming of instant social media shaming if one expresses a verboten opinion, or even inartfully expresses a favored one? The widespread use of social sanction, magnified by technology, is a huge obstacle to honest communication in the classroom.
I don’t know what the direct solution to this is. I recommended to a (past) president of my university that he personally discourage the presence of smartphones in classrooms to open up some breathing room for students; he thought that impractical.
But I’ll close with part of the indirect solution, probably obvious to you, but certainly not to everyone: don’t be part of the problem yourself. Don’t use social media to mock or shame your classmates or anyone else who might disagree with you or even who might say stupid or offensive things. Don’t try to cancel or disrupt speakers on your campus. Conservatives are not immune from such temptations, but succumbing to them helps perpetuate a world that we simply should not want to live in. We need to do better than that.
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Submit your own ethical questions to Chris! We will publish our next ethics advice column in January.