Does ‘Ethics’ get in the way?


Gerard Aynsley

A court somewhere in New Zealand is likely to be faced with the question of whether it is permissible to use the preserved sperm that belonged to 17 year old Cameron Duncan, a talented Auckland youngster who died of cancer 11 years ago. They will be asked to consider the legal and ethical aspects of the proposal and will also have the task of considering what sort of precedent is being developed and whether the direction in which such cases would lead us is a good one for our country. Is this something that should concern the wider public, or is it best left for expert ethicists to argue the case?

The Editor of the Sunday Star Times expresses a hope that this not “degenerate into a divisive national argument about reproductive ethics”, suggesting, it would seem, that such discussions are best left out of the public domain. But these sorts of cases invite broader questioning; about what it is to be a parent; about how our individual interests relate to the interests of others, and what it means to be human beings together in the advent of ever evolving reproductive technologies.  For this reason these sorts of cases do matter to the wider public and should evoke wide and robust debate. In fact they provide us with an important opportunity to reflect together on what it is that we most value.

Too often ethical discussions are narrowly confined by questions regarding actions and choices, and benefits and harms, within a very limited individualistic frame. While such questions are important, they too easily descend into debates about competing interests and degenerate into the sort of divisiveness that the editor cautions against. An example of this narrowing of our ethical focus is reflected in the way that consent often becomes the paramount concern – as if the establishing of consent is all that is required to establish ethical validity. Consent, of course, is an important consideration, one that brings into play the legitimacy of an individual’s choosing and the question as to whether the individual’s interests are being upheld and safeguarded. But, we also need to contemplate broader concerns.  We need an approach to ethics that goes beyond the elementary questions.

In 1981, American Philosopher Alaisdair MacIntyre wrote an important work entitled, “After Virtue”, a book that has led to a revival in Virtue Ethics and a revisiting of the question of Natural Law. He suggests that in the current context – influenced as we are by modern thought – we use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ etc. without realising that they have become disconnected from an earlier, very specific and commonly accepted understanding of human flourishing from which they derived their original meaning. In other words, the moral terminology we use is often empty, enabling us to ‘fill’ the words with our own meaning.

Where might we obtain this meaning from? These days there are multiple worldviews or ideologies that frame – consciously or unconsciously – our thinking and which ‘compete for our vote’ so to speak. Think, for example, of a word like, ‘wellbeing’. It is a word used a lot, but does it mean – in today’s environment –  anything in and of itself, or is the word merely a ‘vessel’ in which we pour a particular idea of what ‘wellbeing’ means from our particular individual standpoint?

The same can be true too for our moral terminology. Inasmuch as there is no “shared conception of the human good” (MacIntyre, p.x) then our ethical discussions are going to falter and be characterised by divisiveness. A case like the one involving Cameron Duncan provides us, as a society, with an opportunity to consider what a shared conception of human good would look like.

To avoid our moral language being divisive and absent of meaning, McIntyre redirects us to the philosophical context that first gave rise to the moral language that we use, namely, to Aristotle and the Greek birthplace of Western thought. For Aristotle, ethics centred on the question as to what sort of human being we are capable of becoming and whether we are living a truly flourishing life. Importantly, it was a question that was always asked with consideration for the Common Good being paramount.  Aristotle recognised that virtue is necessary for a flourishing life and for the enhancement of the Common Good, and that human beings are ideally formed to be virtuous.

So, within this broader framework, focused on human flourishing, virtue and the Common Good, what insights can we bring to a discussion like the present one regarding the posthumous use of gametes? Within this broader framework, consideration of individual interests and the need to determine whether or not Cameron would have consented to his sperm being used will shift from being our exclusive or even central consideration. Rather, we are redirected to take a broader view that considers the good of the human person in unison with a concern for the good of society. The genius of this approach is that it avoids evaluating individual interests in isolation from (or as competing with) the Common Good.

An aspect of this relationship between human flourishing and the Common Good is the need for an adequate understanding of our human aspirations. There is something about the nature of a human being that leads us to strive for a good beyond ourselves, such as was the case in Cameron’s aspirations to be a father and to express his creative talents. We have hopes and dreams and the capacity to strive toward them. Nevertheless, our physical and material nature places limitations (or sets the parameters) for our aspirations.

Even when the accomplishment of our aspirations does not come about, the striving that occurs marks something important about our humanity and reminds us of horizons beyond the here-and-now. Virtue, as ‘second nature’, is necessarily associated with this, our ‘first nature’. Developing virtue as a support for our aspirations ensures that our flourishing as a human being and the pursuing of our human interests will coincide with the interests of society as a whole.

In particular, the prospect of Cameron, who died 11 years ago, becoming a father (in the biological sense) should cause us to think deeply about what it is to be a parent and how the interests of a child are taken into consideration.

In conclusion, the discipline that we call ethics invites us to take a step back, to consider the ethical frameworks that inform and frame such a debate. With the hope that we can move beyond heated ethical debates that will lead to divisiveness, I propose that we need to reclaim a shared and rich conception of the human good that takes as its starting point the notion that we are interdependent (rather than independent) persons who are born into and exist within a network of relationships. In the process of doing that, it will become clearer what actions are ‘ethical’.  That, in turn, can inform our efforts to create good public policies and laws.

Rev Dr Gerard Aynsley is a parish priest in the diocese of Dunedin. He holds a PhD in philosophy from Monash University in Australia.