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This Spring I was asked to teach a course on beginning Ethics and moral Issues at San Jose State University. Having just received my Master's degree in philosophy last Spring I was excited to so soon have the opportunity to delve into the study of Ethics. For I believe that a greater understanding of the field of Ethics is something greatly needed in our world today. Most people tend to think of Ethics as being the study of what is right and wrong. Yet the ancient Greek philosophers who pioneered the study of Ethics actually thought of the discipline more in terms of asking the question; "How can I live the good and happy life?" How changing the focus of the discussion on a controversial moral issue from whether a thing is right or wrong to what role that thing might play in my living a happy life became a question of great curiosity to me. But if I was going to test out my new idea I wanted to test it on the hardest and most divisive issue I could think of. And I did not have to think long about what that issues was for it clearly is Abortion.
When the semester arrived my class was under enrolled. It actually came within about two minutes of being canceled on the very first day. I went all over campus putting up fliers which asked "How Can I Live The Good And Happy Life?" to advertise the class. Slowly people began to trickle in. We just survived being canceled in the second week and still did not quite have the required number of students. Then, to my surprise, the case for continuing my class was taken straight to the dean of our college and, since we had come within one student of the enrollment goal, the class was saved. After surviving all of this I began to think of my class as "The little class that could." For I could not help but to believe that the hand of divine providence was at least a little involved in the class being able to go forward.
Because of all of the uncertainty over the class's survival the first few weeks had already passed before we could begin our study in earnest. After several weeks of studying both ethical theory and the philosophy of happiness and trying to build an atmosphere of respect and trust with my students the time to begin the study of moral issues grew near. I introduced the topic of Abortion in a question on a midterm exam in the form of a Syllogism. The Syllogism is a form of argumentation we owe to Aristotle in which several statements, called premises, are presented and a conclusion is inferred from them. For example:
Major Premise: All things with wings can fly.
Minor premise: Pigs have wings.
Conclusion: Therefore, pigs can fly.
This kind of a silly Syllogism is one which is used to teach students that even if the premises lead to a logical conclusion (which they do in this case because if everything that had wings could fly and pigs had wings than pigs could fly) an argument can still be false if the individual premises are not sound. The Syllogism on the test read:
Major premise: I can do what I want with my own body.
Minor premise: The fetus is part of my body.
Conclusion: Therefore, I can decide if the fetus lives or dies.
Half of my students realized that, although the premises logically lead to the conclusion in this argument, the argument is unsound because both the premise "I can do whatever I want with my own body" and the premise "The fetus is part of my body" are not true. Encouraged that so many of my students already understood the fact that ethically one cannot simply do whatever one wants with their own body and that the fetus (which means "offspring" in Latin) is not part of a woman's body but is something unique with its own genetic code and biological system I began making the preparations for our first full class session on the topic of Abortion.
I decided to cover the topic in two class sessions. In the first session I would present all of the relevant facts about the biology of a normal pregnancy, the different types of Abortion, and the statistics on who gets Abortions and why. Preparing for this session turned out to be a great spiritual test for me. I knew that telling the facts about Abortion might hurt or anger some of my students yet my struggles were even more deeply rooted than this. For when I was a teenager, before I knew the truth about Abortion, a friend of mine had asked to borrow some money from me because his girlfriend was pregnant.I had a feeling that something was not right about the situation yet I lent him the money in any case. Years later, after I had more fully learned the truth about what I had participated in, I felt great remorse. Even today after having long ago received the Sacrament of Reconciliation and having been properly counseled that because of my ignorance about Abortion at that time I was not fully responsible for my actions I still feel remorse over having participated in that Abortion.
So now in telling the truth about Abortion I was going to have more closely face the truth about something I had participated in all those years ago. Even more than this I was quite likely going to cause one of my students to have to more closely face the truth about her or his own direct or indirect participation in Abortion. The knowledge of this made it very difficult for me to prepare for the class session both in terms of doing the necessary research and in terms of being willing to speak the truth. At times during the week I thought "I don't have to do the class this way. Why not just talk about Abortion as a general concept or use pretty sounding fancy words like 'evacuate the uterus' like so many others do?" Yet something inside me told me what the right thing to do was and, despite all of my fears, I did in a gentle yet matter of fact way tell my class all of the factual truths about Abortion.
Far from causing any sort of pain or discord the class session went incredibly smoothly. Not a word in anger was spoken and I actually felt a greater sense of closeness to my students by the time it was over. The next week we together analyzed the arguments for and against Abortion. The students seemed to see all of the faults in the arguments for Abortion before I even had to bother to point them out. I am convinced that my clear presentation of the facts about Abortion in the previous week's class session played a key role in this. For once you know the truth about what Abortion really is and what it really involves you realize that no argument for it can truly be a sound one.
During a break in the class I was talking with a student about a paper assignment. She asked me if she could write a paper entitled "Will Abortion Make Me Happy? At that moment I knew that my experiment in how to teach Ethics had been successful. By getting away from divisive debates about right and wrong and, instead, asking the classical philosophical question about happiness perspectives had been changed and my students had grown in wisdom. I, too, had grown in wisdom and experienced personal healing as well.
When I think about the whole experience now I realize how privileged I am to be a teacher. For in teaching others I always learn something myself. Yet in this case even more had been accomplished. For Abortion is not just an academic subject in our society today but a wound which needs the healing touch of Christ. And only to the extent that we allow Christ to heal our own pain over Abortion will we be able to go forth, gently speaking the truth in love, bringing Christ's healing to others.
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