Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On our moral obligations, the requirements of conscience

Princeton professor Robert P. George:
It is [natural] law which binds in conscience all of us—Catholics, Protestants, Jews, members of every faith and even those without faith—not simply to refrain from taking innocent human life but to avoid the injustice of supporting policies which, for example, deprive the unborn and frail elderly of the protection against wrongful killing to which every member of the human family is strictly entitled ... The moral prohibitions of abortion [and] euthanasia ... are examples of the "negative" norms of the natural law which apply always and everywhere to everyone alike.

But, of course, the requirements of morality are not exhausted by these negative norms. The vast majority of our moral duties are affirmative, not negative—norms such as "feed the hungry," "stand with victims of injustice," "foster the common good." These precepts are no less integrally parts of the natural law than are the negative norms; nor is it the case that our obligations under the affirmative norms are any less stringent. Conscience, properly informed, requires more—much more—than the mere avoidance of the sort of wrongdoing involved in, say, having an abortion, or performing or paying for abortions, or supporting legal abortion and its public funding. All of us are morally bound affirmatively to combat injustice and other evils ... and not merely to avoid unjustly inflicting evil on others.

Robert P. George
However, affirmative norms differ from negative ones in an important respect. There is no single, uniquely correct way of fulfilling affirmative responsibilities. The precise nature of such responsibilities, in fact, varies in significant ways from person to person, depending on people's circumstances, commitments, and opportunities, not to mention their talents and abilities.

The problem of unjust laws usefully illustrates the difference between negative and affirmative obligations. Consider a law requiring Christian physicians or hospitals to perform, or, at least, refer for abortions. Now, what this law would demand is strictly excluded by a negative norm; no Christian physician or hospital could, in conscience, perform or refer for an abortion. The norm applies to everyone and applies to everyone in the same way. The only way to fulfill its requirements is by refusing to comply with the law.

Now, let us consider a different sort of unjust law, the one we already have, namely, a national policy which, while requiring no one to perform or participate in abortions (though the public funding of abortion by certain states requires people to materially cooperate in abortions in ways that, at least, raise a question) fails to protect the right to life of unborn children and severely restricts pro-life efforts to dissuade women from aborting them. The norms to which conscience adverts here are the closely related affirmative obligations to stand with the victims of injustice and to foster the common good. To fulfill our obligations under these norms, we must combat the injustice of legal abortion and abortion funding and work for laws which respect the profound and equal worth and dignity of women and their unborn children. But these affirmative obligations, unlike negative ones, can be fulfilled by different people in different ways. Everyone has an obligation to support the pro-life cause, and to pray for its success, but depending on people's circumstances, commitments, opportunities, talents, and abilities, different people can legitimately support the cause in different ways and with different levels of involvement.

No one should conclude from this legitimate relativity, however, that his or her own responsibility in the face of the grave injustice of our abortion laws is a matter of moral indifference. Our duties under the relevant affirmative norms are relative to our individual circumstances, but, given my circumstances or yours, you or I may be strictly bound in conscience to make a particular, and possibly quite substantial, contribution to the cause of justice for the unborn. Our duties in conscience, though particular to each of us as individuals, may be no more optional in this case than in the case of negative norms. Even when it comes to affirmative norms, conscience is a stern monitor.