The Right Thing Has a Real Cost

November 12, 2015

There are no social policies without costs or unintended consequences. Even if we agree that something is bad and ought to be stopped—sexual trafficking of children, for example—it is inevitable that giving more power to the state to prevent an action carries with it all sorts of risks that exercising state power will do harm and may do more harm than good. How do we weigh the moral costs of doing the right thing?

Matthew Lee Anderson has written a marvelous essay at Canon and Culture vivisecting what he calls “moral idealism” and rightfully demonstrating how we should not allow the urge to prevent known risks of harm from hampering our efforts at positive social change, namely, ending the practice of abortion. Anderson kindly chose my own take on defunding Planned Parenthood to riff off of for the purposes of his essay and, while carefully hedging his argument to not accuse me of any crimes I haven’t committed, he seems to make some unfortunate assumptions along the way. My call to fully fund Medicaid as a counterbalance to defunding Planned Parenthood is cast in Anderson’s essay as a potential liability if it were used by someone “less careful and more progressive” than me.

I do appreciate Anderson’s thought here, because this “moral idealism” is a genuine threat to people who wish to promulgate the common good. If one is skilled in the art of problematizing, then one can find a sufficiently problematic reason to justify resting one’s hands on their hindquarters until the streets are full of blood. As Elizabeth Bruenig says, “Believing in something makes you vulnerable.” When I take CPR training, my classmates and I are taught that sometimes the force necessary to keep blood moving through a heart that has stopped is also strong enough to crack ribs. A cracked rib is painful and, if bad enough, can be deadly, but it’s better to walk out of the hospital with some broken bones than be wheeled out of one with your ribs intact.

If there is a line in the sand between the incrementalists and the idealists as Anderson alludes to (and it would appear that this is a real line that sometimes gets drawn inside the pro-life camp), I am firmly an incrementalist and would describe my proposal as such. My argument in my original article (which was expanded on in this follow-up podcast) fully acknowledged that expanding Medicaid isn’t really a tit-for-tat exchange. After all, the original push to defund Planned Parenthood would immediately reallocate those same funds to community health centers and even fully expanding Medicaid would leave some people in the lurch because no state health system has the capacity to provide the same health services overnight that Planned Parenthood has built up over decades. Furthermore, expanding Medicaid carries a cost that is several orders of magnitude higher than what is currently going to Planned Parenthood.

I am strongly convinced that Medicaid expansion is good for mothers, children, and families in a way that is holistically “pro-life”, but I am even more strongly convinced that being holistically pro-life is the only realistic way of expecting to end the moral scourge of abortion. This perspective– what Drew Dixon called “being pro-life from womb to tomb” in our podcast– is more realistic for two reasons. Anderson hinted at the first reason in his initial paragraphs, describing a space in between the laws restricting abortion and the personal connections that support mothers and children wherein much of the incremental work happens. This space, under which I think Medicaid expansion falls, is mostly about nuts-and-bolts policies weighing costs, potential benefits, risks of harm, and the like.

The second reason that “womb to tomb” is far more realistic than merely electing a Republican and donating some diapers to the local crisis pregnancy center is that our political environment has built a narrative—sometimes justifiably so—that abortion politics are about controlling sexuality and punishing poor people. Whether or not you think this narrative is justified at all is irrelevant; it’s a hurdle that no amount of thoughtful polemics about human dignity will budge. A concrete commitment to spending some money will help shift some minds, though. Anderson seems to miss the fact that Medicaid expansion is both an incremental shift towards a more holistic policy that honors families as God gave them to us and the sort of concession that gets more hands out from beneath their respective hindquarters; Planned Parenthood’s other (useful) services would still take a hit but that’s a cost we’re willing to bear for the sake of derailing abortion.

Of course, the polemics are still important and we should not stop writing good ones in defense of human life. (For the love of God and unborn children, stop writing bad ones with false statistics about breast cancer and hazy moral reasoning about sexual responsibility.) Where the polemics are most useful, I think, is in outlining the moral weights that we should assign to different social goods and harms. Anderson’s thesis that we should be willing to suffer harms in service of unraveling greater harms only works if we can appreciate the value of our values.

To this end, I think that pro-life conservatives need to genuinely reflect on the costs we are willing to bear for the sake of protecting human life in all its forms. The simplest example we’re already practicing is that of loving people with disabilities and honoring their God-given dignity. Because potential or actual disabilities are often used as a justification for abortion, Christians have rightly rushed to the defense of the disabled and sought to promote conditions for these people and the families who care for them to flourish. This is by no means the sole reason why the Church takes up such a vigorous position, but the two are inescapably connected. The task of caring for the disabled is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor and will be more so when abortion is illegal in America, but we bear the cost gladly because we know how devastating the moral consequences of inconsistency would be otherwise.

If protecting human life by banning abortion is truly worth suffering all sorts of other harms– and I think it is, for the force of law protecting life has undoubtedly helped to prevent abortions in other advanced democracies like Ireland– then Christians should lead the way in bearing those harms. As Anderson says, “Justice in an imperfect world demands that someone lose out”; as Steve Taylor says, “Jesus is for losers”.

I don’t doubt that many conservative Christians are sincere in their belief that freer markets and less government spending will somehow lead to the the sort of financial prosperity and cultural harmony that would remove the financial and social pressures that motivate many women to contemplate abortions. I do doubt that this model actually works as most Republican budget-cutting proposals seem to think it will, wherein cutting a few million dollars here and there will somehow allow businesses to hire more workers. If this were the case, the states that are the most “business-friendly” and the least “handout-happy” in, say, the Deep South would not be the poorest and sickest in our nation.

A full defense of social welfare programs sufficient to provide for housing, food, and healthcare for the poor is beyond the scope of this essay, and I am under no illusions that this policy package would somehow eliminate the need for abortions (though it would certainly help in a significant way.) There is also a group of hardcore abortion-rights supporters to contend with who would not be moved by such a proposal that was tied to a serious abortion ban. I doubt that this minority could actually stop this proposal, but we’ll never find out unless the pro-life movement is willing to seriously debate and discuss what we are willing to give up in order to protect human life.

If either greater social welfare spending significantly reduces the demand for abortions or committing to such spending reduces the political opposition to abortion such that a serious ban could be passed, then such spending is unquestionably worthwhile. I think both are the case, but only one has to be true for this proposal to be valuable If higher taxes or a slower economic growth rate is the price that we have to pay, then we should follow Anderson’s logic all the way to the point where we believers should be enthusiastic to pay it.

The efforts of pregnancy centers, foster families, and other means of Christian charity to mothers and children are all crucial to a holistic pro-life social ethic and we should not relent on any of these things. Conservative Christians will need to step up even further in all of them in order to win the legislative and social victories ending abortion requires, just as we must keep writing good polemics. However, given the scope of the abortion problem in America and the resources we have available to us in America, the realpolitik of incrementalism demands a greater level of financial commitment and infrastructure development.

Of course, the real cost of doing the right thing expands far beyond just abortion. If significantly reducing gun violence requires that more law-abiding citizens don’t have the guns to protect themselves and are mugged more often, is saving the human lives that are ended with guns worth it? If refusing to drone-strike weddings in Yemen and Pakistan opens us up to the potential of another terrorist attack, should we not be willing to bear that risk for the sake of any unborn children in the bridal party? If Christians are to be known for being “single-issue” voters on matters of human life and dignity, how far are we willing to go to put our money where our mouths are, and possibly even do so in a way that is as wasteful but politically necessary as taxation?

Matthew Lee Anderson is right: there are no perfect social policies and eliminating potential suffering from the pursuit of justice is foolhardy. Thus, those of us who are called to suffer with the vulnerable should aggressively explore the possibilities for enacting justice on their behalf with a careful willingness to redirect any potential harms towards ourselves. If the Planned Parenthood videos have shown us that human life has no price tag, then a few costly political concessions are well worth it to end abortion.

Matthew Loftus
Matthew Loftus is a physician preparing to move with his family to South Sudan, where we will practice and teach Family Medicine.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew is a family physician who works more or less full-time as a family doctor at Bet Eman (His House of Hope) Hospital in Yei, South Sudan. He trained at University of Maryland School of Medicine (’11) and MedStar Franklin Square Family Medicine Residency (’14). His scope of practice includes outpatient … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24