Posted by: Dan | March 19, 2005

The Ethical Implications of Narratives: Why Abortion Debates (Mostly) Miss the Point

(This entry has also been posted at http://www.livejournal.com/community/abortiondebate.)

Whenever I spend any time observing debates such as this one I am always struck by the ways in which people of all parties only seem to entrench themselves further and further into their own positions.

The issue of abortion is essentially a moral and ethical issue. Such language may not be used explicitly but ethics undergird what is being said on all sides.

However, I think people on all sides fail to persuade because they fail to realise the ways in which narratives empower ethics. This failure of realisation occurs because, within contemporary society, most of us appropriate ethics that lack any formative or comprehensive narrative.

Let me provide an illustration of what I mean. Alasdair MacIntyre, Senior Research Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame University, provides this example. Imagine, he says, a world that resolves to abolish natural science. Text books are burned, documents are destroyed, education systems are overhauled, and labs are shut down. However, after some time, the people of this world attempt to restore natural science. They salvage what fragments they can from the rubble, a few burnt pages here and there. Such people begin to use the language of natural science but terms will be used out of context. They will possess only the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which lack the context from which they derived significance.

Stanley Hauerwas, Chair of Theological Ethics at Duke University, argues that this is what has occurred (on all sides) in the moral realm in contemporary western culture. We possess a simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions, but we have lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.

Thus, Hauerwas says, ethics should not be primarily concerned with statements such as “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not.” Its primary task is helping people to see the world from the perspective of a certain narrative.

This essential point is generally overlooked in debates about abortion. The first question of ethics is not “What am I to do?” but rather “Who am I to be?” Simply asking “What am I to do?” causes us to assume that moral situations can be abstracted from history. Indeed, the focus on particular quandaries (pregnancy that is the result of rape; pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother, etc.) reveals our current understanding of ourselves as a people without a history. Such an approach tempts us to view events as isolated situations and not as parts of a purposive narrative.

However, notions like “abortion” are not simply given; their meaning and intelligibility depend on a narrative construal. We can't start with a principle (“a fetus' right to life” or “a woman's right to bodily integrity”) and then deduce that abortion is wrong or right. Instead, we should first learn to dwell within a certain narrative and then operate imaginatively from there.

The problem is that people on all sides of this debate have not seriously considered the narratives that they embody. As MacIntyre says, people on all sides are only operating with fragments of a conceptual scheme. The first step in any abortion debate should, therefore, be to explicate the narratives that are being embodied. To base the debate upon situations abstracted from history, or upon abstract principles, to say, “In situation x, y, and z you should…” will always miss the point.

So to move the debate forward I would argue that the first step is to become aware of the narratives that we are indwelling. The second step is to articulate who we are trying to be. It is only after these steps have been taken that we can tentatively assert certain ethical conclusions in topics such as abortion. When this occurs perhaps debates about abortion will become more constructive than they are now.

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