When Some Moral Judgments Are Allowed. And Others Are Not.

by Bruce J. Clemenger

A recent editorial in The Globe and Mail began: “A physician who is predisposed by faith to make negative moral judgments about a patient is a bad doctor.”Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 10.15.45 AM

It went on to comment on a draft policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario that will regulate the practices of its members.

Of course, that quoted opening line is a moral judgment about making moral judgments.

It presumes that certain moral judgments, such as those of the editorial writer, are allowable, but that judgments grounded in faith are bad.

This is the common wisdom of our day, which recognizes many moral pronouncements except for faith-based ones. Instead we hear calls for those to be privatized and excluded from public venues and within professions.

This proposed medical policy assumes that we need to be protected from the truth that not all doctors can in good conscience affirm all medical treatments – that a procedure which might be legal might not be universally endorsed by all doctors.

The argument is that giving voice to such truths might cause patients to reconsider – and we should be protected from needing to do so.

The issues affected by this policy are about life and death. As the Globe editorial explains, the policy would apply to a doctor refusing to prescribe “birth-control medication.” It would also cover procedures such as abortion, the morning-after pill and, if it becomes legalized, assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The policy would require doctors who refuse these procedures to ensure patients can get them elsewhere – making the doctor personally complicit in that which she believes is immoral.

In some cases, the policy would even require the doctor to do the procedure herself regardless of her convictions.

The Globe editorial suggests that doctors who cannot comply should resign from the profession.

What clearer example could there be of the moral judgment of the majority trying to overrule the consciences of the minority?
Of course rejecting moral judgments based on “faith” is insincere. All moral judgments are rooted in some belief system or faith – in other words, in some world-view by which a person distinguishes between right and wrong, good and bad.

The worldview might be framed in religious terms or not, but it functions in the same way. In that light, it’s clearly both discriminatory and illogical to reject faith-based moral judgments out of hand.

Is not Canada’s Criminal Code a moral code made up of moral judgments, based on widespread agreement about what we should not do – murder, steal, bear false witness, etc.? These are judgments affirmed by people of many different world-views and religious traditions.

In our diverse society, it should be no surprise that reasonable people disagree on what ought to be done, on what constitutes a good life. This is a diversity we once celebrated as Canadians.

But there is now a shift toward moral conformity, which people will celebrate if it is a morality that conforms to their own judgments. It also leads to questions about the ability of faithful Canadians to be professionals and serve in the public interest.

Unfortunately, this shift is not exclusive to the medical profession. Consider the provincial law societies currently objecting to Trinity Western University’s community covenant, a document that sets out community standards for TWU students, staff and faculty.

Despite a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that having a covenant is consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, law societies are contending that since some may be offended or feel excluded by the covenant, TWU should change its moral standards.

The law societies are saying in effect that the previous Supreme Court decision which accepted the covenant was wrong. In the moral judgment of the law societies, the covenant should not be allowed to maintain a biblical, heterosexual concept of marriage.

Moral judgments rooted in religious belief are being singled out for scrutiny. Perhaps it is because a religiously based morality is rooted in the transcendent – a morality given via revelation rather than constricted by human will. This is an offence to two major secular faith commitments – individual autonomy and human sovereignty.

Where religious freedom and freedom of conscience are cherished, there will be space for disagreement about how people and communities choose to live together while contributing positively to the public good. When we disagree, we continue to treat all with respect and dignity, and look for ways to accommodate expressions of freedom. This too is a matter of morality.

Bruce J. Clemenger is the president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. This column appears in the Jan/Feb issue of Faith TodaySubscribe until the end of February to receive the best price ever. 

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