When Values Collide

I want to talk about moral dilemmas and the way in which we make hard choices. So what happens when a set of long standing beliefs conflicts with new values and priorities? How do we reconcile what is important to us? How do we make these choices, and how do we justify them?

The first thing to appreciate is that vexing moral decisions are almost inevitably like this. If the choice were between good and evil it would be easy-do good, avoid evil. But moral decisions are not between good and evil, they are between or among conflicting goods. And so the question becomes one of a hierarchy of values-what is more important; which good do I value more. And while sometimes this is easy to assess (I break a luncheon engagement to rush a friend to the emergency room) in many important situations it is not.

The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that moral decisions should be made on the basis of reason, and that each of us had the responsibility of using our own reason to arrive at a conclusion that we could affirm for all other rational beings in similar situations. He called this principle "the autonomy of the will". If Kant is right on this point, and I think he is, then when we are faced with a moral dilemma we must decide for ourselves and we must be willing to recommend that decision to everyone else in a similar situation. We cannot simply appeal to an external authority, be that authority secular or religious. God says, or the Church says are not acceptable reasons. Notice that our conclusion may very well conform to an authoritative position, but the authority cannot be the reason for our choice. In religious terms this might be referred to as freedom of conscience.

The conflict we experience may be between the teachings of our religion and certain goods that we value, or it may be between different reasonable moral values. What is of critical importance is to understand how particular values are arrived at, and on what they are based. So freedom of conscience is not the liberty to believe anything we want, but rather the responsibility to reach a well formed decision.

One place especially prone to such conflicts is in reproductive technology. Different religions have responded to this technological advancement differently, from cautious acceptance to unequivocal condemnation.

Let's look at one religious position and the way one might reason about it. I intend this as an example of how one might autonomously examine a moral issue. The Roman Catholic Church has been particularly clear in its opposition, and has laid out its reasoning in several Vatican documents, most especially Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Two fundamental principles are at the heart of the Church's reasoning. First, a child has a fundamental right to be conceived through sexual intercourse in the context of a loving marital relationship. And second, from the moment of conception the developing embryo is an ensouled human being with full moral status. While the second principle affects IVF because the generation of excess embryos is an unintended but necessary side effect, the first principle suggests that IVF by its very nature violates a fundamental natural right.

I think a practicing Catholic in good standing might conscientiously question the reasoning in play here. Take perhaps the simplest case. A couple is infertile because the woman's fallopian tubes are scarred because of a previous infection. Ovaries and uterus are fine. What IVF does is to provide a technological alternative to a fallopian tube-a location for fertilization. Several meanings of natural are perhaps being confounded in the objection to this procedure-natural in the sense of proper purpose and natural in the sense of what happens in nature. A medical procedure designed to remedy a defect is not unnatural in the first sense. And the child born into a loving family, has such a child's rights been violated by the fact that technology aided her conception?

As to the second principle: biology is wasteful! Anyone who has done bench work in a biology lab knows this. Because the development of even relatively simple organisms is complex there is no guaranteed path from simple cell to mature organism. How many acorns for every oak tree? Estimates are that 80% of fertilized human eggs fail to implant. It is convenient to use fertilization as a marker for human moral status because it is a decisive moment. What is happening here is that a biological event is being asked to stand in for a philosophical/theological one-ensoulment, moral status. Historically there have been other choices of markers, other decisive moments-e.g. formation of the primitive streak, quickening, viability, birth.

My point in offering both these counter-arguments is not to oppose the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. Rather it goes back to Kant and the autonomy of the will. In making a moral judgment it is our responsibility to examine the reasoning that leads to a particular conclusion and determine whether we judge it to be sound, or not. And then if we find rational value in opposing positions to see if we can determine which one takes precedence.

When, after careful thought, we finally have to choose, how confident should we be in our choice. Here I would rely on Aristotle, who suggested that the virtuous person is one who cultivates the habit of virtue. The actions that we take shape the character that we possess which in turn affects the choices that we make. In short, good people generally make good choices. This is often called practical wisdom. It's fallible, but it's a pretty good guide. And moral reasoning, as Aristotle points out, is an inexact science. We have to live with a certain amount of uncertainty and indeterminacy.

When values collide we should maintain our autonomy, examine carefully the moral reasoning behind the alternatives, and then trust to our practical wisdom.

Frank Cunningham, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Maryland and a member of Path2Parenthood's Religion & Ethics Council. Cunningham has a B.S. in Biology from Fairfield University and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University and has been teaching medical ethics to undergraduates and nursing students since the early 1980s.