“Most People” Must Be Right

In ethical decisions, the majority doesn’t always rule
2001-11-23

I’m wondering what it takes to become an “ethicist” these days.

It started a few weeks ago when I was listening to a radio talk show. The subject was human cloning. When the host announced that the next guest would be an ethicist, I was anxious to hear what he would have to say. People don’t really talk much about ethics any more. They talk about convenience. They talk about expediency. But actual, objective standards of right and wrong are so rarely applied. Surely, I thought, a trained ethicist would bring some much-needed ethical perspective.

I don’t remember his name. He was from somewhere in Minnesota. He had a lot of degrees. He studied philosophy. He studied medicine. He must’ve studied a lot. With all of that studying, you’d think he’d have a lot of information. You’d think he’d know a lot about analyzing a situation, applying ethical standards to that situation, and arriving at a conclusion.

If he did, it didn’t show.

This guy had a different standard for arriving at ethical truths. That standard will be known, from now on, as the standard of “Most People.”

His entire discussion of the complex and dangerous issue of human cloning revolved around the “Most People” standard. I don’t remember his exact words, but they basically boiled down to quotes like this: “Well, Peter, most people are uncomfortable with conceiving fetuses specifically for spare parts,” and “Most people don’t have a problem, if a fetus was conceived with the intention to grow it into a baby and the parents change their mind, using it for spare parts.”

I have several problems with this line of thinking, most of which I’ll get around to discussing by the end of this column. But I want to start with the most obvious. If this is the way he arrives at his ethical conclusions, what must he have done with all of that time in school? Just ask a lot of people what they thought? Did he spend the entire time studying poll taking? Do the Gallup people now sponsor a graduate program?

This is, obviously, a very dangerous way to reach ethical conclusions. What kind of ethicist would he have made in Nazi Germany? “Well, Peter, most people think Jews just aren’t quite as good as the rest of us.” Or in the 19th century south? “Well, Peter, most people agree that a Negro man is only 3/5 of a human person.”

“Most people” don’t always reflect an accurate ethical standard.

I haven’t studied a whole lot of philosophy. But I’ve taken enough ethics courses to know one simple tenet: Truth is truth, regardless of what “most people” think. This is particularly true when “most people” negate the basic value of a human person.

Of course, this is not new thinking. We saw it in the pre-civil war south. We saw it in Nazi Germany. And, most recently, it has reared its ugly head in the abortion debate. You’ve heard the “every child a wanted child” slogan. It assumes that children have value not because they are created in the image and likeness of God, but rather because they are “wanted.” If your parents want you, you’re human. If they don’t, you’re not.

It’s silly thinking, really. It would mean that my mere thinking, my fleeting desires, could trump basic biology. My mood alone could confer human status on an already living, growing homo sapien. And presumably, if I were to change my mind before birth, that status could be revoked.

The same thinking is apparently present in the cloning debate, according to our friend from Minnesota. (Where, incidentally, a lot of very nice, very ethical people also happen to live.) He seems to think that “most people” don’t find it morally repugnant when a couple artificially conceives a baby (usually allowing several other embryos to die in the process), and then, deciding they’d rather have a yacht, leaves the newly-conceived baby suspended in early development. He also assumes that “most people” would have no problem with that new human life having its organs harvested for medical science. While, apparently, “most people” would object to this very same process if the baby were originally conceived for the purpose of harvesting its organs.

I’m not so sure he’s right about “most people.” And, even if “most people” don’t have a problem with it, I do. And I’m pretty sure God does as well, if He meant what He said about “Thou shalt not kill” and about being the Creator of life and all.

“Most people” don’t give these new lives their dignity. God does. He infuses the soul. And once He does, it’s there whether we acknowledge it or not. The circumstances of its conception don’t really matter. Marital sex, extramarital sex, test tube, cloning – once the new life is there, it’s there. This is why He doesn’t want us messing in His realm. Once we start trying to use science to create babies for God-knows-what-purpose, it’s very easy to forget that they’re His.

I think it would behoove us all to stay on guard against “most people” thinking. We’re all tempted to think that way sometimes. “Most people tell little white lies.” “Most people cheat on their taxes/spouses/whatever.” “Most people don’t think that particular sexual act is wrong.” Or, the real killer: “I’m not perfect, but I’m better/holier/more moral than most people.”

Be careful. Thinking like that tends to spread. Before we know it, we’re hearing on the radio from so-called “ethicists.” And then God only knows what can happen.



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