It's legal, but is it right?

Answering those who would use aborted fetal tissue for good.

Recently, the Jewish comedian, Sarah Silverman, made a shockingly utilitarian argument for harvesting aborted fetal material for research and medicine:

This statement is, admittedly, an extreme example of how people mistakenly equate legality with good ethics. All the same, her words typify where many in our world stand. More importantly, they underscore the necessity of recovering a solid ethical foundation, if we are to preserve human rights in the 21st century. Before offering my own thoughts, I'll share the response of Ben Shapiro, which puts Silverman's ethics into perspective:

What Shapiro did not point out was that Germany also used victims for medical research. Brian Palmer of Slate noted that “concentration camp doctors conducted research on vaccines, antibiotics, fertility, transplantation, and eugenics.” Whether such experiments were useful or legal, it must be asked if they were they right?

Many activities are deemed legal, such as prostitution in Las Vegas, or marrying nine year-olds in the Middle East, which are ethically questionable or plainly opposed to sound moral principles. I recall feeling horrified to learn the Chinese government sanctions thousands of executions annually for no other crime than practicing unapproved religions. Their organs are sold to the medical community for "repurposing." Perhaps Silverman would object to the Chinese government for doing so, but she would not have a coherent reason why.

Meaningful ethics require that we ask more than, "is this legal," but, "is it right, and on what basis?" This is why cosmology matters. Two-hundred years ago, Western society shared a philosophical consensus about the universe. While not united on specifics of religion, the majority understood the world to be the creation of a personal God. As such, society acknowledged the existence of moral law that transcends human courts and popular approval. This belief gave lofty ethical purchase from which to judge the actions of individuals and governments. One nation could to say to another, "your actions are evil," with logical coherence and conviction.

The philosophical climate of the West has shifted decidedly to naturalism. As one writer put it, the "sacred canopy" has fallen, so that ethics are judged on a purely horizontal plane. The very idea that actions may be objectively good or evil is scorned as old fashioned. What matters now is whether they are legal or popularly approved. This shift places us on a social precipice. Simply put, human rights are only so secure as we are agreed on the source of them. If personal dignity and the right to life are privileges bestowed by the State, and not gifts from the Creator, then they may be withdrawn from those whom society no longer favors. 

God's own character and will defines what is acceptable for his image-bearers. This belief makes it possible to speak against cultural decay, secular evil, and widespread apostasy.

As a Christian, I believe in actual right and wrong that goes beyond collective opinion or power. There are objective distinctions between love and hate, good and evil, by which we can evaluate human behavior, regardless of legality. Such moral truths have universal meaning precisely because the come from a higher authority than human government or nature. Simply put, God's own character and will defines what is acceptable for his image-bearers. This belief makes it possible to speak against cultural decay, secular evil, and widespread apostasy. It also makes it imperative that I show due honor and love to those, like Silverman, with whom I strongly disagree.

Silverman is not a sophisticated ethicist, but a comedian. Even if she were, I would take her views on morality with more than a little salt. People who reject good and evil as objective realities, I have observed, never do so for purely philosophical reasons. They have an ulterior incentive—to protect their moral autonomy and justify pet sins. Like raccoons in a dumpster, moral relativists want to be left alone to feed on corruption, and hiss viciously at anyone who exposes their dark banquet as filth. 

Far from being defenders of freedom, as they paint themselves, I believe utilitarians are threatened by the concept of a single moral law which grants equality to all humans and calls everyone to account. Such a law would obligate Silverman to costly love and self-denial. For her to reject abortion, she would first have to accept sexual boundaries she publicly wants nothing to do with, even if the collateral damage is a dissected infant. From that compromised position, how can she judge fairly what is right and good?