Sunday, December 26, 2010

Self-denial and self-preservation

Where the life of the mother is at risk, the right of self-defense is sometimes invoked to justify an abortion. I’ve already examined this issue from one angle, now I’d like to attack it from another angle.

In Christian ethics, there are situations in which we may be safe, yet we have an obligation to expose ourselves to danger. For instance, supposed I’m 14, and my 7-year-old brother falls into the river.

On the one hand, if I don’t attempt to rescue him, he’s bound to go under. On the other hand, if I jump in to rescue him, I’m at risk of drowning too. In that event we’d have two fatalities instead of one.

On the one hand, it’s a sure thing that one person (my kid brother) will die if I do nothing.

On the other hand, there’s a possibility that both of us will survive if I try to save him, but another possibility that both of us will perish if I try to save him.

As long as I remain on the riverbank, I’m not in danger. And I ordinarily enjoy a right of self-preservation. Yet in this case I have a fraternal duty to endanger myself to save my kid brother.  

This goes a step beyond the case of a hazardous pregnancy. In that case, the mother finds herself at risk. She didn’t take the initiative. It’s something that happened to her. But in this case, the individual assumes a risk.

In that event, if there’s sometimes a duty to assume a risk, then there can surely be a duty to accept a risk–for the greater includes the lesser.

In Christian ethics, there’s a general right of self-preservation. However, self-denial can trump self-preservation–for Christianity also has a sacrificial ethic. 

There’s a sense in which it’s more prudent to let my kid brother drown, but that’s not where my duty lies. 


  1. I agree. The situation of a mother's life being endangered by the infant in the womb does not look like an instance of the mother having to "defend" herself. Your example of the two persons on the raft was good.

    Supposing a mother and her new born get shipwrecked and end up on a raft with limited supplied, it would seem misguided to say the mother should "defend" herself from the infant by hording all the resources. Rather, it seems to me like the mother has an obligation,as a mother, to sacrifice her own well-being for the infant.

  2. I'm reminded of a quote that's supposed to be from Calvin.

    "You know however that our duties by no means depend on our hopes of success, but that it behooves us to accomplish what God requires of us, even when we are in the greatest despair respecting the results."
    -John Calvin, letter to Phillip Melanchthon, March 5 1555

  3. Just wondering out loud now; in your motif of the self-defense scenario, what about Rachel?

    I have given it some thought that quite possibly we weave more science into it than should be woven?

    I don't know? I just throw it out there in light of how God dealt with Rachel?

    There wasn't the science in their day as there is in ours.

    Maybe science interferes with what a person sows they reap?

    In Rachel's case, she had not stolen her father's idol yet when she conceived and then Joseph was born, Gen. 30.

    Her hard labor came while on the way to the Promised Land giving birth to Benjamin as her soul was departing.

    Today science would interpret it, Rachel's condition, well, scientifically, of course.

    I am just wondering where His Faith plays a role in the self-defense scenario described above?

    For me, my faith is unstable and I find these sorts of arguments difficult for me. I am a wimp.

    I am guided by Words of God such as these given through Isaiah, though:

    Isa 7:9 And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.'"

  4. There seems to be three tracks of decisive action where there are two such choices that includes also indecision. Where our true intent is to glorify God in our action and the conscience given to us according to the same Spirit is not violated I don't believe we sin regardless of our decision. Given that, I can see the most regret over a decision being made between either not helping one's drowning brother or being frozen with indecision. I can't see any regret, even with incurred harm, where one had an earnest intent to help him and did so, whether the attempt was successful or not.

  5. It seems to me it is up to the individual to assess risk. After all, if your brother falls into the North Sea during a cyclone, the odds of getting him out are different than if he slips in the paddling pool. Similarly, there are levels of risks in a problematic pregnancy.