Recognizing the Root Problem


A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of pro-life advocates being open to letting their conversation change topics. I gave the examples of religion and same-sex marriage and described how it might be more important for a given person to talk about one of those issues than to talk about abortion. Good dialogue requires the ability to listen well to the other person, as opposed to stubbornly sticking to your flowchart. [Tweet that!]

There’s another common reason that I change topics from abortion to something else: I discover that there is something more seriously wrong with their view than that they are pro-choice about abortion. Sometimes you can’t realistically make progress on abortion unless you deal with something else first.

Moral Relativism

Probably the most obvious example of a time to stop talking about abortion is if the person you’re talking to is not only pro-choice, they’re a moral relativist. If a person doesn’t think any action is morally wrong, even an obvious case like rape or child abuse, convincing them of the wrongness of killing a fetus is pretty hopeless. People tend to relate much better to victims of child abuse and survivors of rape much better than they relate to human fetuses. In order to consider defending fetuses they don’t emotionally connect to, they need to at least be able to see something like rape as evil.

I used to think I could still discuss the legality of abortion with a relativist because they are usually still in favor of some laws. I thought, “well, they’re in favor of laws against killing, so I just need to convince them to include the unborn.” The problem is that moral relativists are in favor of laws for very pragmatic reasons. Societies need laws to function well, even if those laws have no connection to morality. The moral relativist won’t consider a law against killing the unborn to be pragmatically helpful for a society (unless the society has a badly declining birth rate, I suppose).

When I discover that the person I’m talking to is a relativist, I either try to waken some kind of moral intuition and argue on that basis, or turn to religion. (Click the links to learn more about each approach.)


Pro-life advocates regularly argue against abortion by comparing justifications for abortion to justifications for killing born infants or toddlers. While this is very helpful in many dialogues, sometimes the pro-choice person just bites the bullet and says it’s okay to kill the born child too in those circumstances. Another situation that commonly results in a defense of infanticide is a discussion on what it means to be a person. Some pro-choice people have views of personhood that are so restrictive that they not only disqualify the unborn, but they even disqualify newborns.

I’ve seen some inexperienced pro-lifers become surprised and unsure how to respond to such a situation. Sometimes they don’t have talking points ready to discuss infanticide, so they want to return to discussing abortion. This is a huge mistake.

Some things are more obviously wrong than other things. While I believe killing human embryos is as morally wrong as killing human infants, I believe that because of rational argument, not on the basis of an emotional reaction to pictures of embryos. I can’t even visually tell the difference between human embryos and rabbit embryos, but I think our value is based on something other than our appearance.

Don’t try to convince someone of the less obvious thing (the wrongness of killing human embryos) if they aren’t yet convinced of the more obvious thing (the wrongness of killing human infants). Help them understand what they ought to already know, that it’s wrong to kill human infants. Then show them that killing human embryos is wrong for the same reason it’s wrong to kill human infants.


We at ERI have been noticing in the last year that utilitarianism plays a bigger role in common pro-choice views than we had previously thought. We will address the critical subject of how to recognize and defeat utilitarianism in the future. For the purpose of this post, I’ll give a much too simplistic definition and explain it more carefully when we return to it.

Utilitarianism is (roughly) the belief that an action is moral if it leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of people. If I discover that someone is a utilitarian, my first priority is going to be to shake them out of that worldview. If utilitarianism is true, it isn’t that difficult to justify abortion, infanticide, or even killing adults in certain cases. You just need to construct a justification that shows that those killings are in the best interest of the greatest number of people.

I’ve seen many pro-lifers try to argue that outlawing abortion is in the greatest good of the greatest number. You might be able to win that argument, but you’re going to run into major problems. For instance, you might get stuck on the point of whether the unborn should be included in the consideration of what is in the greatest good for the greatest number. Historically, utilitarianism is closely tied to attempting to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, and first trimester unborn children cannot feel pain.

It’s also just really plausible that a society with no morals could be superior in various ways (such as economics) to a society bound by morality, so I don’t want to have to defend the “practicality” of pro-life laws. I’m not trying to outlaw abortion because I think it makes society better in necessarily every respect. I’m trying to outlaw abortion because it’s evil to destroy little children, regardless of whether that’s convenient. I’ll usually just give it to them that it’s convenient to legalize abortion, and try to show that we shouldn’t legalize practices that are both convenient and evil.


Question: Can you think of other situations where the right decision might be to move the conversation topic from abortion to something else? Post it in the comments!

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The post “Recognizing the Root Problem” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Josh Brahm is the President of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly and argue persuasively.

Josh uses speaking, writing and campus outreach to emphasize practical dialogue tips, pro-life philosophy, and relational apologetics.

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  • Crystal

    It is, without DOUBT, their worldview that gets in the way.

    They *honestly* believe the unborn person is not a person in the same way you and I are, due to no sentience and sapience, and its unwanted presence in its mother’s body. I wasn’t exactly aware of the utilitarian connection though. But you can be prolife and utilitarian at the same time if you believe the unborn persons are people that need to be protected from death. From a prolife utilitarian POV you could argue that since the unborn are persons it is the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people, including the future generations, that makes you want to illegalise abortion. Utilitarianism also includes the principle of “is an action going to do harm to someone, and if it is, don’t engage in it.” You could try talking about it from that angle, rather than completely dismantling their worldview; I don’t know.

    • Bair

      Well , if you think that slavery = the greatest good, then who can argue with that?

      • Crystal

        I’m not a utilitarian.

        What I was doing was pondering on how you could be prolife and utilitarian at the same time.

        • Bair

          Well, those who say that it is just and moral to kill 800 women per year from forced birth and injure 1.2 million (this is just the USA) in order to save unborn lives is purely a utilitarian argument.

          It is an argument that women are expendable.

          • Crystal

            I remember asking you about the downsides of high techs and have not received that info yet; I hope you don’t mind the reminder.

        • Bair

          Crystal, I read some of your other comments, and this might be of interest

          • Crystal

            I had a look at that article. I will be honest about my thoughts, some of which you will agree with, and some of which you will disagree. I will only share some of what I think though because if I wrote out everything it would be a much longer comment than it is now.

            I don’t believe abortion is something to celebrate, to be honest. Anything that takes an innocent human life is an occasion for mourning, not festivity. I can understand in a way why it is done – the celebration of empowerment. However, I can’t agree with it, and I must call the hashtag what it is – morally unacceptable. In fact, such a thing grieves me greatly, not because I am against women being empowered, but because of the lives lost in the process.

            However, although I can understand the frustration and anger of some prolifers at ShoutYourAbortion, I strongly dislike the way these women are being treated over what they said and did. Despite my beliefs about the hashtag itself, I cannot sympathise with death and rape threats, harassment, calls for suicide, and name-calling, not even for women who have had abortions. I don’t deem such writings appropriate behaviour for prolifers because, before anything else, it is intrinsically wrong to treat people that way. Also, it is not going to get prolifers anywhere and it will alienate people from what being prolife is all about.

            “It doesn’t really matter what the topic being discussed happens to be;
            as sure as the sun will rise, women will find themselves on the
            receiving end of threats, lewd messages, and just general awfulness.”


            That grieves me also, because our online culture does not treat women with respect. I myself have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment and name-calling online so I can sympathise with the way these women feel; it would be terrifying and painful to be told things like that. I do not know why prolifers cannot say, “We strongly deplore your actions but we love you, the people, regardless, and we will be there for you if you need help.”

            In short, while I consider it morally correct to object to the hashtag itself, I strongly stand against women being harassed and threatened on the Internet as well. It’s time our online society changed the way it treats its female contributors.

            • Bair

              That is a fair assessment.

              Just pointing out the misogyny and death threats on display there.

              • Crystal

                Thank you :)

          • Crystal

            Try asking the big boss what he thinks about your article.

            Josh, Tim, and the ERI team will not treat you or any other advocate for legal abortion like that. They are fair and they try to think rather than snapping out one-line sentences. Also, they have every member of their organisation sign a statement saying they are personally opposed to “pro-life terrorism.”

            I am glad you came here.

    • In my experience utilitarians are very suspicious of rights-talk in general. They are what’s called “consequentialists.” Which means they understand the moral quality of an act in terms of the consequences of the act.

      They’ll use the term “right” but they understand from within the context of their normative framework (i.e. utilitarianism).

      For them it doesn’t denote a categorical imperative. There’s no “duties” per se. “Duties” are deontological. Where “deon” means duty literally.

      As far as I know there’s no logical entailment from being a utilitarian to having a desires-based approach to rights-talk. However, Singer comes to mind when I think of utilitarianism. He’s the more contemporary utilitarian relevant to talks about abortion and infanticide. Noncontemporary advocates would be Bentham and Mills.

      Utilitarians are sympathetic to desires-based approaches to “rights.” They understand a violation of a “right” as a frustration of a desire of the subject. So, for instance, I can take your car without your permission which frustrates your desire to not have me take your car. I violated a property right you have.

      If you didn’t care about the car one way or the other then I wouldn’t have violated your rights by taking the car.

      They extend this desire approach to the right to life. So, for them, you cannot violate a right to life unless there is a corresponding desire in the subject to continue living.

      There are obvious problems with this conception of a right to life that deal with instances where consensus belief is that it’s not OK to kill the temporarily unconscious, the indoctrinated, or the treatable suicidal person.

      Michael Tooley actually abandoned his desire-based approach due to these difficulties. As far as I know Singer still continues to advocate for it despite these difficulties. Singer has since attempted to “fix up” his account in light of these issues.

      Now, for Singer it has to be an “ideal” and “dispositional,” or “habitual,” desire that is frustrated. Now we cannot kill the temporarily unconscious because they have a dispositional desire to continue to live. Now we cannot kill the indoctrinated because if their desires were “ideal,” in other words, corrected for all false beliefs, then they would desire to live.

      Matthew Flannagan, a theologian and blogger, has a paper on Singer’s view and I think Flannagan and Marquis have both presented a counter-example dilemma for Singer.

      Marquis presented the counter-example of the indoctrinated individual that has been brainwashed into desiring to die. Singer avoids this counter-example by relying on the “ideal” desire.

      Singer has, however, bit the bullet in response to Flannagan’s counter-example. Flannagan presented an illustration of someone that doesn’t want to live but only desires to live because he believes if he kills himself then he will be sent to hell in the after life. The consensus belief seems to be that it is not OK to kill this person. However, it would be “ideal” from Singer’s point of view for the desire to be such that the person wants to die since, assuming there is no hell or no rule against suicide, then it would be permissible to kill the person.

      Singer has admitted that at the level of theory Flannagan is correct in this assessment.

      Singer cannot however switch back and forth between the ideal account and the actual desire account. So he must, as he does, say it’s permissible to kill this person.

      So under Singer’s view an unwanted infant has less of a right to life than a pig and also we can kill people that would want to die if their desire to want to live is based on some false belief.

      Of course there are other difficulties with the desire approach. It’s easy for me to conceive of an enlightened being with no desires at all. As Kaczor points out, enlightened beings that do nothing but sit on the shores and watch the stars. These beings may or may not exist but it certainly would seem wrong to kill them. Their existence doesn’t seem impossible. Therefore, this is a conceptual problem for the desire approach.

      There’s lots of critiques of these desire accounts in the literature.

      Basically I look at it in a G.E. Moore kind of way:

      Which seems more plausible? Does this abstract ethical theory with lots of problems and results in killing babies being OK seem more plausible? Or, does it seem more plausible that it’s wrong to kill babies?

      I think it’s clear that it’s more plausible that it’s wrong to kill babies than this abstract ethical theory with all these problems being true.

      This is a method known as a “moorean shift.” The justification for it can be furthered argued for in epistemology.

      • I like the use of the Mooreian shift when looking at infanticide. It’s controversial for some, but I don’t think it should be.

        You might enjoy this piece, one of my Biola classmates wrote it a while ago.

        You should also consider reading Chisholm’s The Problem of the Criterion, if you haven’t already.

        • Thanks a lot I’ll check it out. Yes I’ve definitely read Chisholm. That was a great piece. I think I read that from Huemer’s collection of essays in “Epistemology: Contemporary Readings.”

  • argent

    Hi, I’m a pro-life utilitarian.

    I think this article would benefit from saying that you don’t need to address a deeper difference in you and your conversational partners’ reasoning unless you feel it’s necessary for the abortion conversation, or you want to discuss the other topic for its own sake.

    For example, I’m an atheist, but when people give their belief in God as rationale for their position, I usually say, “well, I’m an atheist, but I think if I believed in God, I would justify my position from my belief in God by saying [xyz]”. It’s very difficult to change people’s minds about the existence of God, I don’t see it as important for its own sake, and it’s not a necessary foundation of my argument.

    On the other hand, I have a friend who’s pro-choice, and also disagrees with me on a number of issues of children’s rights. I very much prefer to discuss the children’s rights issues with her than abortion. I think it would be much easier to change her mind on those issues, I think they are important issues in their own right, and I think she would be much more open to my pro-life position if I convinced her of those things.

    Obviously, I wouldn’t see any difficulty in arguing the pro-life position from a utilitarian perspective. But I feel like your response to moral relativism is also somewhat ineffective. Most people who are moral relativists nonetheless have what we (i.e., moral absolutists) would call moral beliefs. Indeed, I have had several people who call themselves moral relativists try to persuade me that banning abortion is wrong! I think instead of trying to dissuade them of their moral relativist beliefs (a frustrating and probably irrelevant task), I would ask them what sort of situation would compel them to take action on behalf of others, and reframe my arguments so that I’m “speaking their language” based on the answer to that question.

    • Crystal

      Never thought of it that way. Very interesting perspective, argent!

    • Thanks for your perspective, Argent. I don’t think the way I respond to relativists is “irrelevant” because I’ve seen people abandon relativism during the conversation in which I use the strategies I linked to if I have enough time with them. That being said, I think your way would sometimes work as well. Just depends on the person. That’s why I like having multiple tools in my toolbox, so I can try to figure out what will be the most helpful to the person in front of me.

    • Bair

      Tell us about the rights of a 9yo victim of incest not to be permanently damaged by forced birth.

    • You are right. Many so called relativists still behave as if there are moral absolutes. This shows when they try to tell us that banning abortion is wrong. I think moral relativism is self refuting and think morality can be described as a practical thing. I’m also pro-life atheist BTW. I don’t think that someone abandons morality by not believing in god because that hasn’t been my experience.

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