02/02/2011 04:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

New Abortion Laws and The Moral Slippery Slope

It'll seem a little odd, at first glance, to imagine that recently proposed limitations on abortion by newly elected lawmakers could have us, on the same moral assumption, restricting gun laws, but there's an interesting parallel. In fact, the application extends not only to gun use but, as well, to the other "hot-button" topics that religious and social conservatives hold tightly. Let me explain.

The recent announcement to draft tighter restrictions for abortions includes, in particular, a requirement that'll have the pregnant woman view a live ultrasound of the fetus. Oklahoma, last year, already put it in place. The ultrasound is accompanied by a doctor or technician explaining in detail what is being seen on the screen. There are no exceptions for rape and incest victims.

Those who oppose abortion think that this requirement stands on an important moral principle, that we see the results of our decisions.

Despite our initial reaction to this legislation, there is a valuable conceptual matter being solicited here which can be integral to reflecting about ethics: the power of the visual to evoke moral sentiments or empathy. With the varieties of moral theories we can choose from, this has been described as "moral sense theory," with two of its best known advocates being the Scottish philosophers David Hume (1711-1776) and Adam Smith (1723-1790).

Try reading Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments and you'll quickly get the point; if not, then you will at least by the time you get into the tenth page of his examples of how it works. Sometimes described as "the logic of mirroring," the gist is that when we see others in trouble, distressed, or in grief, we quickly have a sense -- perhaps even a sixth sense -- of how it would feel. This, in turn, evokes our empathy and then, most importantly, our aid.

Moral sense theory might not be all that we need to consider when it comes to working through the moral life, but if lawmakers now think it should be applied to the abortion debate by having pregnant women view the ultrasound of the fetus, then we'll have to think about how the acceptance of moral sense, as a guiding moral procedure, will be extended into other moral considerations.

After all, consistency, and the avoidance of hypocrisy, is a general feature of the moral life. As the Buddha said, reiterated by Christ: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or, "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Matt 7:2, NIV) Our preferred moral standards don't apply only when they align with our, already held, beliefs.

So assume, for the sake of argument, that we adopt moral sense when it comes to the abortion debate. Would it lead us to the insistence that women seeking abortion should have an ultrasound? Just as we might wish to have the woman view the ultrasound, considering the ethics of abortion, moral sense also insists that we cannot merely, and narrowly, stop there. We would also be compelled to witness the plight of the pregnant woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy, desperately unable to cope, financially, emotionally, or psychologically. Especially in cases involving rape and incest. Moral sense theory would have us spend time hearing their stories and to listen to the women talk about their difficult decision to have an abortion.

Because abortion has been criminalized in the past, we know that, despite such laws, more economically privileged women will still be able to have a safe abortion, often by traveling to a jurisdiction that allows it. Are we ready to see how (as usual), the poor, unemployed, and otherwise disadvantaged women will be affected by not having access to a procedure that others, despite the law, can have? Further, moral sense would have us see the women who will most certainly go ahead with attempting an abortion. How many of us would want to see, first hand, the "back-alley" abortions again? How many of us would want to witness the criminal procedure against a woman who pursues an abortion, despite the law, with all the effects on her husband and children?

As already noted, the moral life isn't one where we cherry-pick our moral issues, selecting our moral principles where it is convenient, avoiding situations where those same moral principles become inconvenient, embarrassing, or serve as an indictment against our own preferred beliefs and actions. How, then, would the adoption of moral sense, as a moral template, be applied to other ethical debates, such as those typically raised by social and religious conservatives?

With the recent shooting in the head of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, should those who oppose gun control be required to see the damage done by her assailant and to those who were killed in the senseless rampage? Should they also be required to view the consequences of the murders on the surviving families? The spouses, children, parents, friends and their communities?

How could moral sense be applied to other moral matters? Should those who think that homosexuality is an abomination be introduced to those who have been beaten to a pulp, even killed, because they were gay? David Kato, a gay rights advocate in Uganda, is just the most recent example of someone murdered because of his sexual orientation.

Should those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research be introduced to those who, living with debilitating conditions, could benefit from the research? Is what we see with a blastocyst, in its first few days of development, equivalent to seeing someone suffering from ALS?

What about war? For those who believe that it is a justified response in Iraq, Afghanistan or, for that matter anywhere else, should they also be required to see the results of errant gunfire, rockets, or artillery fired from sixty-thousand feet in the air? Are radar blips on the screen truly representative of the lives about to be taken? For those who think that torture is justified, should they be required to actually witness someone being water-boarded? We can imagine why politicians are so worried when images of these things make it onto YouTube or Wikileaks.

Decorum prevents me from getting into the details of what we could see in these various cases, but, just like seeing the ultrasound, moral sense theory will evoke many deep feelings and emotions. That's the point, if we believe that what a witnessed situation evokes emotionally is the main component of its morality.

The moral life isn't necessarily a comfortable one. It is full of complex negotiation. Admittedly, there are, sometimes, necessary evils. The moral life as well carries with it the recognition that, in the real world where things go wrong and compromise presses as a necessity, it can't be a perfect one. It might be better then, to see that compassion, above all, as the sine qua non of the moral life. Sadly, it's the quality that seems most lacking in today's theatre of moral discourse.