Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Degrees of social responsibility

Mainstream prolife organizations rightly denounce violent resistance to our national abortion policy. However, they often resort to sweeping disclaimers which are clearly overstated. After all, the Bible doesn’t say it’s always wrong to break the law or resort to violence.

It’s easy to come up with examples like the French Resistance, the plot to assassinate Hitler, or hiding Jews from Nazis, which seem to be morally permissible or even obligatory.

So what’s the answer? Well, here’s part of the answer: our social obligations are concentric. Social obligations are a matter of degree.

There is, for example, a lot of domestic abuse that goes in behind closed doors in the Muslim world. But it's not my personal responsibility to directly intervene in all, or any, of those situations. On the other hand, it is my personal responsibility to defend my own dependents.

Then there are other situations which fall somewhere in-between. For instance, many parents are bad parents. They let their kids throw temper tantrums at the checkout stand.

The screaming brat could use a good spanking. Indeed, the negligent parent could use a good spanking.

Yet it’s not normally my duty to spank someone else’s misbehaving child. I might confront the negligent parents. But I don’t have the same duties to his children that I have to mine.

So our duty to protect others ranges along a continuum. This doesn’t mean we have no duty to protect neighbors and strangers. But it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Social obligations come in varying degrees. We should calibrate our response accordingly.


  1. I was thinking about this very thing as I came in to work this morning. Another thing that we should keep in mind when we are evaluating the moral implications of what we ought to do is the fact that the government is actively opposed to the prolife movement insofar as it has legalized abortion.

    However, the law is not compelling anyone to engage in immoral behavior (excluding what they are trying to do with forcing all caregivers to provide abortions regardless of their religious views, which is another issue); rather, it is allowing immoral behavior and restraining those who would oppose the immoral behavior.

    If we apply it to the most extreme cases used, it's not like the government is requiring us to execute an innocent Jew during World War II. Rather, we are instead kept from rescuing the innocent Jew.

    In such a case, it is not morally wrong for you to be unable, or even unwilling (assuming that if all other things were equal and there was no restraint you would be willing), to rescue the innocent victim. In other words, you are not required to act in all circumstances in which you could possibly act.

    Of course, as Steve alludes to, such would not be the case when the innocent victim is someone who is your responsibility to rescue already (i.e., your family, etc.). Then your moral obligation to protect them overrides what would otherwise be moral permission not to act.

    So anyone who would try to use this as a wedge issue to make the claim that abortionists are inconsistent in not murdering all abortion doctors misses the point. There is no moral obligation to intervene in all cases of evil.

  2. Steve,
    I am a board member of a local crisis pregnacy center. We had a board meeting last night and I shared your post responding to Richard Land's statements of the Tiller situation. They were uniformly disturbed by the post thinking that you were defending the actions of Tiller's killer which I assured them you were not. It raised a very interesting discussion although I am now doubtful of its edifying nature.

    What should be the morally clarifying response of believers to the Tiller case? Do we give unqualified condemnation to the crime? Do we say it is poetic justice, but distance ourselves from the killer? If a pastor addresses his congregation on the matter or an Evangelical spokesman like Land makes a press statement what is the better thing to say?

  3. MSC SAID:

    "Do we say it is poetic justice, but distance ourselves from the killer?"

    I think that's a good barebones position. To take a comparison, sometimes a Sunni terrorist will murder a Shiite terrorist, or vice versa.

    While we don't condone the murder, we also don't mourn the death of a terrorist. Better they kill each other than innocent civilians.