Baseball and Ethics: Being the Best

187px-mike_trout_2018This is the fourth inning in my Baseball and Ethics series. Previous innings are available at the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Who’s the GOAT? Who is the greatest of all time in baseball? At this point, you might as well call out to the stadium popcorn hawker, fork over $7 (don’t forget to tip), and watch the fireworks as people fight over who is the best player. This fight might even be better than that time Nolan Ryan pummeled Robin Ventura.

Surely the question of defining who is the baseball GOAT is worthy of consideration. Some of the names that must be included are Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams. From a more contemporary perspective, names such as Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Barry Bonds* enter the conversation. To throw in some pitchers, we need to think about Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez.

Why do people like to argue over who is the greatest of all time? First, baseball admittedly has some down time, and we need something to do while watching a game. This is why every square inch of the stadium video screens is covered in statistical information. I never knew how much useless baseball trivia I could store in my brain until I started attending live MLB games regularly. I even used that useless trivia to be the only 2-time winner of the Rangers’ ToppsQ Trivia stadium game last season, including winning the inaugural contest.

Second, people argue over the baseball GOAT because people like to argue. It’s a simple fact. We need something to argue about and we will find almost anything that fits the bill. If you don’t believe me, just look to our elected officials in Washington.

Third, people argue over the greatest because we aren’t entirely certain what makes someone the greatest. Baseball—both past and present—is full of spectacular athletes who have excelled at levels far beyond normal human limits. I laugh when I hear people say they could play the game better than a certain player on the field. The reality is that if they actually could, they would be on the field. Even guys like Bartolo Colon, who looked like he should have been eating his own bucket of popcorn in the stands, are able to perform on the field in ways that the average human cannot.

So that leaves us with the question of what qualities make a player the greatest. Honestly, we can’t really quantify them even though some guy in a sabermetrics lab with sets of data like ERA, WHIP, WAR, BA, OBP, OPS will tell us that he can. At the end of the day, the greatest players simply embody greatness. They are the best.

Looking at the GOAT question from an ethics perspective, we are led to consider virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is a theory that focuses on what it means to be good rather than to do good. Certainly a person who is good will do good, but that is not the focus of this theory. Virtue ethics points us to character traits that embody goodness. As Steve Wilkens writes, “Character ethicists are more concerned with virtue than with virtues. The Greek term areté, usually translated as ‘virtue,’ means something like ‘excellence.’ While we may be able to isolate particular areas of intellectual and moral excellence in a person, the ideal is that they reside in individuals as a package.”[1]

183px-sanzio_01_plato_aristotleDebates about the GOAT don’t just happen in sports; we have a similar debate in ethics. When it comes to virtue ethics, there are significant players who battle for the title of greatest virtue ethicist. The two titans are Plato and Aristotle. While we might consider the GOAT in sports to be a once-in-a-generation player, Plato and Aristotle were alive at the same time. Admittedly, Aristotle was Plato’s student, but in the realm of virtue ethics, it is likely that the student surpassed the teacher.

Plato identified four cardinal virtues—temperance, courage, prudence, and justice. Aristotle defined a way to identify these virtues in contrast to their corresponding vices. We call Aristotle’s approach the Golden Mean. In essence, Aristotle taught that the virtue was found in the middle ground between two extremes, which are vices. For example, courage is the virtue between cowardice and foolhardiness. For Plato and Aristotle, the best person is the one who embodies these virtues. We can call him the ultimate 4-tool player.

This Golden Mean set the stage for other later thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, to build on this system. In fact, borrowing from the work of Aristotle and Augustine, Aquinas developed a 7-tool virtue player. In addition to the four cardinal virtues, Aquinas identified the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. In keeping with Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 13, the greatest of these is love.

Back to baseball, virtue ethics is probably best illustrated by the rare 5-tool player—speed, power, hitting for average, fielding, and arm strength. There are few players in the history of the game that can be called 5-tool players. In fact, even the best players may be downgraded in one category to question whether or not they truly fit. In my lifetime, the two players who perhaps most clearly reflect these tools are Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout.

Griffey had it all. He was elite at the plate and in the outfield. He was a 13-time All-Star in his 22-year career. He won 10 Gold Gloves and 7 Silver Sluggers. He has a career 83.8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement).[2] No one who watched “The Kid” play doubted he was the best all-around player of his day.

Trout is the contemporary version of Griffey. He is also a centerfielder with elite speed and fielding ability. He is one of the most feared batters today. If there is a knock against Trout, it is his arm strength, but opposing teams still don’t test him often. Trout has a career WAR of 66.1, but he is still adding to that number. Currently in his eighth full season, Trout has amassed 7 All-Star appearances, Rookie of the Year (2012), 6 Silver Sluggers, and has finished first or second in league MVP voting six times.[3]

Griffey and Trout are just good. The stats demonstrate the fact that they can do it all. But watching them play brings further understanding to just how good they actually are. It’s like virtue ethics. We can talk about what it means to be good, but when we see it in person, we know what it looks like.

An asterisk was added to Barry Bonds’* name when listed among the all-time greats because his name should always have an asterisk.

Image credits to Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 130-131.

[2] https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/griffke02.shtml.

[3] https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/troutmi01.shtml.

Baseball and Ethics: The Natural Way

160px-ron_washington_and_joe_west_28347455274329This is the third installment in my Baseball and Ethics series. Previous installments are available at the following links: Part 1, Part 2.

We are a full week into the season, and baseball has taken over my life. Each evening I watch my favorite team—the Texas Rangers—slug it out with their opponents. Surprisingly, they have taken both of their opening series from teams who were expected to dominate them—the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. I relish the fact that the Rangers are in second place in the American League West while the dis-Astros, odds-on favorites to win the division (and the World Series), find themselves in fourth place. Yes, the season is early, and the game will straighten out the standings as it always does. But for now, I will enjoy the early season returns.

Several years ago, the Texas Rangers had one of the most colorful managers in the Majors. His name was Ron Washington. “Wash,” as he was known around these parts, is a master of the infield, elevating the play of young infielders to All-Star levels. As a manager, Wash was known for his exuberance in the dugout and his head-scratching explanations for the way baseball is played. One of his most endearing phrases that he rolled out to describe the everyday oddities of the game is “That’s the way baseball go.” When asked what that phrase means, Washington described it this way:

It means that the game never changes. There are certain things in baseball that will always happen and if you’ve seen it one time, you will see it again. Always remember that.[1]

Washington’s homespun logic relates to the idea that baseball plays itself out naturally. Even though you think what has just happened is unusual, you have to remember that it is part of the game. You can play the game a thousand times before something unusual happens. But when it does, you have to remember that the unusual is part of the usual. It’s a natural part of the game. “That’s the way baseball go” inspired many people to roll with the punches and see life through a different lens. Washington’s memorable phrase even inspired an update to Merle Haggard’s Grammy Award-winning hit, “That’s the Way Love Goes.”

Speaking of the natural part of the game, today’s ethical theory under consideration is natural law. Natural law can be a confusing theory, just like some of the calls made by umpire Joe West. Steve Wilkens offers a helpful explanation of the theory as he writes, “Natural, in this case, refers to how things ought to be, not how they are. When something functions the way it was designed to work, it functions naturally. . . . The ‘law’ part of natural law ethics tells us that there is consistency in the way the world ought to work.”[2]

le_triomphe_de_saint-thomas_d27aquinThomas Aquinas is the Great Bambino of natural law theory—both in influence and girth. Aquinas was perhaps the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and one of the two or three greatest theologians of all time. In fact, one could make the case that he was the greatest mind of his day. Aquinas used natural law theory to explain many aspects of the universe from morality to everyday relationships. Specifically, Aquinas believed that we could discern moral truth embedded in the natural law through reason. He states, “It is that all those things to which a man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance.”[3]

From Aquinas’ perspective, our reason is sufficient to determine what we ought to do and who we ought to be because God created us in a certain way. Aquinas does not believe that nature is the ultimate source of our morals because morality is rooted in God. However, God has written his moral law into creation, and we can discover it there.

The epitome of natural law from Aquinas’ viewpoint is to become like God and be united with him. He recognizes that such will not happen in this life due to sin, but he longs for the “beatific vision” of union with Christ in eternity. This is the purpose of natural law—to point us to our Creator. That is the summum bonum (the greatest good). It’s like a walk-off grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

Circling back to baseball, I see the natural law argument applying most directly to the infamous Designated Hitter (DH) debate. After you give your eyes a chance to roll back into place, let me tease this out. The anti-DH folks make the case that the game is supposed to be played by the nine guys on the field. To have a guy come off the bench only to hit for the pitcher is a violation of the purity of baseball. It’s only natural for the pitcher to be required to hit. If he isn’t any good, that’s the fault of the player, not the game.

On the other side of the debate, the pro-DH proponents (also known as fans of the American League) argue that the most natural thing to do is to allow pitchers to pitch and hitters to hit. Who wants a guy up at the plate who doesn’t know which end of the bat to hold? Bring in the DH to make sense of the different elements of the game.

Both sides appeal to natural law to make their case. Of course they can’t both be right, and that shows one of the weaknesses of natural law. Both sides employ reason to make a rational case for their side. Then we are left with the struggle to figure out who is right. This is why the DH debate will never be solved. Both sides have an element of reason on their side. If only the Angelic Doctor were still alive to navigate this debate for us. Despite the fact that he has been enjoying the beatific vision for more than 7 centuries, we might be able to glean a clue from his own life about where Aquinas would stand on the DH debate. He had many nicknames, just like some of the greatest baseball players in history. His most famous one is the “Dumb Ox” because of his size. He was a notoriously large man. If he were alive today and playing baseball, maybe we would call him “Big Papi.” Case closed.

Aquinas-Ortiz

*Image credits to Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Evan Grant, “Ron Washington: OK with viral use of ‘That’s the way baseball go,’” Sportsday, The Dallas Morning News, October 26, 2010.

[2] Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 178-179.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame: Christian Classics, 1981), I-II.94.2.

Baseball and Ethics: The Rule Follower

320px-trevor_bauer_283414824615329This is the second installment in my Baseball and Ethics series. Part 1 is available here.

The baseball season will likely present us with countless controversies about blown calls, rule changes, cheating, and performance-enhancing drugs. But before we jump into the coming controversies of the new season that starts this week, I want to revisit a couple past controversies and apply them to the theory of ethics called deontological ethics.

Rules are at the heart of America’s pastime. There are many times over the course of a season that I see a play happen and wonder which rule applies. Some of the most misunderstood baseball rules include the infield fly, interference by a runner or batter, obstruction, and the balk. I even wonder sometimes whether umpires fully understand the rules.

One of the strangest plays where almost no one on the field understood the applicable rule came in Game 5 of the 2015 American League Divisional Series between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays. Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin hit the hand of the Rangers’ batter Shin Soo Choo as he was throwing the ball back to the pitcher. The ball rolled down the third base line while baserunner Rougned Odor raced home to score. It took nearly 12 minutes to sort out the rule with the umpires, both managers, a video review, and an official protest by the Blue Jays. The rule that applied in this situation is 6.03(a)(3).[1] Watch the video.

 

 

When we talk about rules and ethical theory, the perennial champion is deontological ethics. This theory might as well be the Yankees, and its most famous proponent—Immanuel Kant—is Babe Ruth. Kant’s deontological system of ethics speaks to rule-followers everywhere. Rules, duties, and obligations are virtually synonymous with this theory just like bubble gum and sunflower seeds are with baseball.

Kant’s system centers around what he calls the categorical imperative. A categorical imperative is a command that has no exceptions. It is absolute in its application.[2] While there are three main variations of the imperative, I want to focus on the first. Kant describes the first version of the categorical imperative this way:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

192px-immanuel_kant_28portrait29
Immanuel Kant

This is what Kant means. The only rules that should be implemented are those that we would want to be universal. For example, you may want a rule that allows you to lie when the circumstances would benefit you. But in order to implement that rule, you must make it universal as well, giving everyone else the right to lie to benefit themselves. Thus, chaos could ensue and many people could be harmed by the rule. Therefore, such a rule is not in keeping with the categorical imperative. By contrast, making a rule that requires truth-telling would fit the categorical imperative. While there may be times that telling the truth is difficult, it maintains order in society as a universal rule. From a baseball perspective, the categorical imperative is like the basic rules of baseball that extend from Little League to Major League. They are the essence of the game.

When taken to its logical end, Kantian deontology would not have a long list of universal rules, but those that exist would be absolute duties. Everyone is bound by those duties in deontology, and to violate a duty would damage the stability of society. Think of it as having nine players in the field, running the bases in a counter-clockwise direction, and needing three outs to move to the next half of the inning.

How exactly does deontology connect with baseball? Besides the fact that baseball has tons of rules that function as a list of duties that must be performed, I think a recent controversy best illustrates the categorical imperative. In May of last season, Trevor Bauer, a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, made headlines by accusing several pitchers for the Houston Astros of using a foreign substance to increase the spin rate of their pitches.

 

Before getting lost in the right field corner on this one, I need to make a couple things clear. First, I carry a great disdain for the dis-Astros. I’m a Texas Rangers fan, so I am inclined to believe everything that Bauer says and more about the team from south Texas. Second, spin rate is a complicated subject. But to put it simply, the higher the spin rate on a pitch, the more movement it will have, and the harder it is to hit. Basically, Bauer was accusing the Astros pitchers of using pine tar to create higher spin rates and improve their pitching performance. Part of this controversy also stems from the fact that Bauer was prohibited from using a non-sticky medical grade glue to cover the stitches on his finger in a playoff game the year before. Bauer wanted the MLB to enforce a consistent universal rule.

And here we have the connection to Kantian deontology. Bauer (who has a pretty cool Twitter handle by the way—@BauerOutage) was making a case for a categorical imperative. He wanted a maxim that would be universally applied across the game. The Indians pitcher might not be baseball’s next great philosopher and ethicist, but he was certainly invoking the ideas of Hall of Famer Immanuel Kant to make his point.

*Image credits to Wikimedia Commons.

[1] http://mlb.mlb.com/documents/0/8/0/268272080/2018_Official_Baseball_Rules.pdf.

[2] Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 117.

Baseball and Ethics: The Utilitarian Player

247px-ben_zobrist_in_2017_28cropped29

The most wonderful time of the year is almost upon us. No, it’s not Christmas. The Major League Baseball season starts in less than two weeks. For the next six months I will spend most of my evenings watching all or part of a baseball game. It’s the national pastime. It is what life is supposed to be like.

This spring I want to engage in something a little different. Over dinner last night a friend inspired me to think about my academic discipline of ethics in terms of baseball players and ideas. I teach ethics for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I am specifically teaching a seminar right now that deals with ethical theory. I am always looking for a new way to illustrate these theories so students can better understand them. This time around, I’ll try it with baseball. So here is the beginning of my series on Baseball and Ethics.

jeremy_bentham_by_henry_william_pickersgill_detail
Jeremy Bentham

Utilitarianism is perhaps the most commonly employed ethical system around us. You could call it the ultimate utility player. Here is utilitarianism in a nutshell (roasted peanuts, of course, since we’re going with a baseball theme). Utilitarianism bases the morality of an action or set of actions on the principle of utility—the greatest good for the greatest number. Jeremy Bentham, the starting pitcher of utilitarianism, states, “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.”[1] Bentham goes on to offer further definition of utility as “that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness.”[2] After Bentham pitched a number of exceptional innings for his ethical theory, John Stuart Mill came into the game in relief of the starter and posted good numbers with his classic pitch, Utilitarianism, first published between 1861 and 1863.

In essence, utilitarianism requires that the person making a moral choice participate in a form of calculus to determine the results of any action and then quantify the consequences on a scale of utility. The action that produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people is the most moral choice. Think of this moral math equation as a form of moral sabermetrics.[3] Once we know how one choice stacks up statistically against the other, we can make an informed decision and anticipate a certain set of results.

So how does utilitarianism connect to baseball? I like to think of utilitarianism as the ultimate utility player. This is the player that can maximize good for the greatest number on the field. He may not be a slugger or a Gold Glove winner, but he makes things happen for the team, and every team wants a guy just like him. Let me give a couple of examples. Ben Zobrist is currently just that guy. He’s listed as the top second baseman for the Cubs right now, but he’s played second base, short stop, and various outfield positions. He’s won two World Series championships (2015 with the Royals and 2016 with the Cubs), and he won the World Series MVP in 2016. He’s even a switch hitter. You just figure something good is going to happen when Zobrist is in the game.

800px-joseoquendocards2013Another example from my childhood is José Oquendo. He played most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1988, he played all nine positions on the field.[4] Oquendo played 12 seasons in the majors and then went on to serve as a coach in the Cardinals system for another 21 years. Despite his lifetime .256 batting average, he continued to play for the Cardinals. You don’t stay in the big leagues for 12 years if you can’t play. His versatility and ability to make good things happen earned him the nickname “Secret Weapon” from his manager Whitey Herzog.

Great utility players like Zobrist and Oquendo stay in demand because they bring good results for the team. They are not usually superstars, and they don’t play to pad their personal stats. They generate the greatest good for the entire team. They are the ultimate utilitarians.

*Image credits to Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia.

[1] Jeremy Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation, in The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill, ed. John Troyer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://sabr.org/sabermetrics

[4] https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Jos%C3%A9_Oquendo

Born Alive but Still at Risk

One of the big new stories coming out of Congress this week was the failure of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to receive the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to come up for a final vote. The bill was intended to protect infants who survived abortions. Medical professionals would have been required to “exercise the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child as a reasonably diligent and conscientious health care practitioner would render to any other child born alive at the same gestational age.” In addition, the bill would “ensure that the child born alive is immediately transported and admitted to a hospital.”[1]

The failure of this bill comes on the heels of high-profile legislation in New York that legalizes abortion for the entirety of a pregnancy. As we can see from these situations, the lines regarding abortion are growing starker. On one side, there are people who continue to work for further limits on abortion and even to ban it entirely. On the other side, there are people who are working to expand access to abortion up to the point of birth or beyond.

What the failure of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and the passage of New York’s Reproductive Health Act tell us is that those who support abortion are moving closer to what was once considered an extreme position. This position is one of supporting abortion at any moment up to birth and perhaps even after birth.

The progression of this view can easily be seen in the work of Peter Singer. Dr. Singer is the longtime professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His writings on issues of life espouse infanticide and abortion. However, he also offers great insight into the debate regarding the right to life. Here is how he casts the argument over the search for a point at which new human life achieves personhood and thus has a right to life:

The central argument against abortion, put as a formal argument, would go something like this:

First premise: It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.
Second premise: A human fetus is an innocent human being.
Conclusion: Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.

The usual liberal response is to deny the second premise of this argument. So it is on whether the fetus is a human being that the issue is joined, and the dispute about abortion is often taken to be a dispute about when a human life begins.

On this issue the conservative position is difficult to shake. The conservative points to the continuum between the fertilized egg and child and challenges the liberal to point to any stage in this gradual process that marks a morally significant dividing line. Unless there is such a line, the conservative says, we must either upgrade the status of the earliest embryo to that of the child, or downgrade the status of the child to that of the embryo; but no one wants to allow children to be dispatched on the request of their parents, and so the only tenable position is to grant the fetus the protection we now grant the child.[2]

Singer notes the difficulty in determining “a morally significant dividing line” between conception and birth. He then suggests that if one cannot be found, then the embryo must be upgraded to the status of the newborn child or the newborn child must be downgraded to the status of the embryo.

This is the main sticking point in the discussion today about abortion. At what point must abortion be outlawed. For a couple of decades, the idea was that abortion would just not be allowed in the final trimester of the pregnancy. In recent years, those restrictions have been backed up closer to the point of viability. Abortion proponents have reacted against these restrictions by pushing for relaxing the restrictions to the point of birth. Some have even proposed that an abortion could be completed after a baby is born. This position may seem extreme, but it is the logical conclusion of Singer’s argument. Singer writes, “It seems peculiar to hold that we may not kill the premature infant but may kill the more developed fetus. The location of a being—inside or outside the womb—should not make that much difference to the wrongness of killing it.”[3]

Since the location of the infant—“inside or outside the womb”—does not make a difference to Singer, then where does he ultimately draw the line? He goes on to write, “In attempting to reach a considered ethical judgment about this matter, we should put aside feelings based on the small, helpless and—sometimes—cute appearance of human infants. . . . If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby, we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants.”[4] Singer ultimately suggests that infanticide should be legalized for the first month after birth even though he admits that the month-old infant still does not have the rational capacity to be threatened by this policy.

There was a time when Singer’s views were considered extreme, but that time has passed. Those who support abortion are finding Singer’s logic sound and are willing to accept his position. In the past they might have found his logic sound, but they were swayed by the “emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects” of the argument.

Just when we thought the battle over abortion was turning in the direction of life, we find a new extreme position entering mainstream thought. Therefore, we must redouble our efforts to protect the most helpless and vulnerable members of our society.

[1] https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/311/text.

[2] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 125-26.

[3] Ibid., 126.

[4] Ibid., 152.

Guest Post: Psalm 143: Just Don’t Be Silent

This is a guest post from my wife, Melanie. She originally wrote this post for Biblical Woman, the blog site for the Women’s Programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The post originally appeared here.

What do you do when faced with a frustrating situation? Have you ever tried to make your point and people just won’t listen? Have you ever expected something to happen, only to be disappointed once again? Been relentlessly targeted as a scapegoat or overlooked for someone else? For better or for worse, I usually go silent amidst a time of frustration. Usually this works to my benefit, stepping away from the situation, gathering my thoughts, and only responding if necessary and in an appropriate way. Honestly, I usually come up with the perfect way to respond way after the opportunity has passed.

However, there is one relationship where silence does not work to solve anything. That is in my relationship with my Lord. If the Lord convicts me of an area of sin in my life or if I am not understanding what the Lord is doing in a situation, or if I grow weary in the waiting, the emotions of anger and frustration well up within me. “Fine. I’ll just step away,” my heart says, cowering from the uncomfortable nudging of the Lord through His Holy Spirit. Away is the exact opposite direction I need to be going. When the Lord nudges me or stretches me or upsets my comfortable sin, I must realize His workings and then run fully TOWARD him. This is where we find David in Psalm 143.

This Psalm begins with three requests made by David to the Lord. The first request David makes is, “Lord, hear my prayer”.  If David teaches us anything through his life and through his writings, it is to call out to the Lord. Make your requests! No matter how big or small the topic, trivial or life changing. So very often I find myself worrying sick over something before I realize that I have not even talked to the Lord about it. Yes, He knows my heart, but how much more does He want to hear from me? There is no time day or night, mid-day or midnight that is off limits to talk with God. God promises throughout scripture that he will hear us. Take Him at His word.  Be like David and make your requests known to Him who controls and creates everything.

Secondly, David asks, “in your faithfulness, listen to my plea.” He directly relates God listening with God’s faithfulness. The Lord hears and, in turn, listens to us, not because of how great we are or how important our words are, but because of Who He is. He is faithful to His people. When we talk with the Lord, He reminds us of that faithfulness and usually that reminding encourages us to trust him more. The process goes like this…the more we stir up our own thoughts and allow our words to fester in our mind, the more we rely on our own understanding of the situations around us. However, when we make our prayers known to the Lord and seek His face, we acknowledge our need for Him. And when we call to Him, we experience his faithfulness in listening to us. When we understand that faithfulness, it spurs us on to trust him more.

Lastly, David says, “in your righteousness, answer me.” This is the third request made by David as he begins this Psalm. When we cry out to God, we can be sure that he not only will hear and listen, but He will answer. However, sometimes the problem lies in how he answers. We want God to answer immediately or along the lines of our understanding. We cannot see in the moment how limited that expectation is. Just like God listens out of his faithfulness, he answers out of his righteousness. Deuteronomy 32:4 says, “He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He.”  As we wait for his answers, we humble ourselves, lay down our desire for control, and trust His righteousness.

David continues in the rest of the Psalm to describe his struggles and the hard situations that encompass him. He lays it all out before God. He ends the Psalm with the declaration of “I am your servant”.

At the end of the day, every believer lands at that same admission. We are His servant. He listens, loves, and cares for us in His gracious mercy because of who He is, and we should trust and rely on Him because of who we are.

Do We Always Have the Right to Control Our Own Bodies?

Over the last couple of weeks, the abortion debate has come to the forefront of cultural issues in ways that few could have anticipated. On January 22, the forty-sixth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law New York’s Reproductive Health Act. This bill guarantees access to abortion through the third trimester. In celebration of this action, Gov. Cuomo ordered that the tower on One World Trade Center to be lit up in pink. In the days that followed, Virginia Delegate Kathy Tran introduced a bill in the Virginia General Assembly to relax abortion restrictions in the third trimester. Embattled governor Ralph Northam endorsed the bill, but it failed to pass in the Assembly. Other similar legislation is being worked on in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

What has been most interesting in this current cultural debate is the honesty with which supporters of abortion have spoken about these bills. In the years immediately following the Roe decision, the typical response of abortion supporters was that they wanted abortion to be safe, legal, and rare. They seldom spoke of the realities of abortion and never dared to mention how much access they wanted. Today, proponents of these legislative measures are being very honest about aborting children up to the point of birth. Gov. Northam has even been accused of defending infanticide due to comments he made in an interview that suggested a doctor could refuse care to a newborn and allow the child to die.[1]

The arguments being made by abortion proponents primarily deal with radical autonomy and self-ownership. They make the case that a woman should have absolute rights over her own body without any concern for the child growing in her womb. In a press release following his signing of the Reproductive Health Act, Gov. Cuomo stated, “Today we are taking a giant step forward in the hard-fought battle to ensure a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her own personal health, including the ability to access an abortion. With the signing of this bill, we are sending a clear message that whatever happens in Washington, women in New York will always have the fundamental right to control their own body.”[2]

Most of these abortion proponents would probably argue that a right to control one’s own body is enshrined in the founding documents of the United States. This is generally understood to be drawn from the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Bill of Rights according to Griswold v. Connecticut and out of the 14th Amendment’s restriction on the state from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Applied to the abortion issue, these ideas regarding the right to privacy form the foundation of the Roe v. Wade decision that opened the door for abortion on demand.

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John Locke

Even though most abortion-rights proponents do not make the explicit connection, the right of self-ownership is typically attributed to the work of John Locke in The Second Treatise of Government.[3] Locke writes, “Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself” (V. 27). There is no doubt that John Locke’s work was very influential upon the Founders of the United States, and language from the Second Treatise appears directly in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, are we correct in inferring a right to self-ownership of our bodies from Locke?

Locke’s premise of self-ownership is based on the idea that an individual in the state of nature has liberty to do what he wishes with his own property and possessions without depending upon the will of another man. It is in the state of nature that we find inherent rights to life, liberty, and property. It is at the intersection of the rights of liberty and property that we find those who make the claim for absolute liberty in self-ownership.

How does this apply to the abortion debate? Abortion proponents generally adopt an understanding of absolute liberty in self-ownership that would allow them to do anything they want with their own bodies. Therefore, the choice to end a pregnancy on the basis of self-ownership is the natural consequence of this absolute liberty. No person or governing authority has the right to limit this freedom. As a result, the woman can choose to have an abortion without consulting the father, the government, or the unborn child.

With Locke’s words that “everyone has property in his own person” ringing in the background, abortion-rights advocates declare that neither the government nor the citizenry can tell any woman what she can or cannot do with her body. They call for absolute liberty regarding the body based on self-ownership.

Considering Locke’s influence on our most important founding documents, it may seem that there is a solid case to be made that the Founders implied self-ownership in the language of the Constitution. However, there is a glaring problem regarding its application to abortion—Locke himself did not view self-ownership as an absolute right. Locke explains in the Second Treatise:

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence, though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone. And reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. (II. 6)

According to Locke, then, self-ownership is a limited right. One cannot destroy himself or another creature in his possession without a nobler use than mere preservation. Aborting the life of an unborn child for the sake of convenience or because the child is unwanted does not meet Locke’s test of a nobler cause.

Locke further clarifies, “For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker, all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order and about his business, they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure” (II. 6). Right here Locke denies absolute self-ownership and actually places the true right of ownership in the hands of God. It is the Creator who has absolute control over the body, and we are stewards of our own bodies.

If the limitation of self-ownership by Locke were not enough, he makes another argument that would deny an absolute right of self-ownership as justification for abortion. Later in the Second Treatise, Locke addresses the question of parental authority and the duty that parents owe to their own children. He writes, “The power, then, that parents have over their children arises from that duty which is incumbent on them to take care of their offspring during the imperfect state of childhood” (VI. 58).

Notice that while parents have authority and power over their children, it arises from the duty and obligation they have for their children’s care. This arises during what he calls the “imperfect state of childhood.” As evidenced from other discussions regarding the authority of parents, Locke considers this imperfect state to be the time during which a child has not developed the full rational capacity to make his own choices.

Interestingly, many abortion proponents make the case that the reason why a child in the womb can be aborted is that he has not developed the rational capacity to be a person. Since they believe personhood is achieved, then they declare that the child in the womb has no right to life. His life can be terminated without consequence.

However, Locke seems to disagree. He believes it is incumbent upon the parent to fulfill her duty toward the “imperfect” child, which would include protection of that child’s life. At this point, we have a clash of rights. The mother wants to exert her right of self-ownership, but the unborn child has a right to life. Since the right of self-ownership is not absolute, the child’s right to life trumps self-ownership. In Locke’s view, parental obligation requires that we protect the rights of the child, the chief of which is the right to life.

Therefore, invoking Lockean self-ownership is not consistent with abortion. If the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Constitution speak of a right to privacy and self-ownership, they most assuredly speak in Lockean terms. His influence on the Founders is undeniable. If Locke’s ideas are the ones speaking about self-ownership, then we need to consider his thoughts in their context. As we have seen, Locke’s understanding of self-ownership is not absolute, and he places an incumbent duty on parents to protect the rights of their children. Taken together, these ideas nullify a right to abortion based on a supposed right to privacy and self-ownership.[4]

[1] Alexandra DeSanctis, “Democrats Overplay Their Hand on Abortion,” The Atlantic, February 4, 2019.

[2] “Governor Cuomo Signs Legislation Protecting Women’s Reproductive Rights,” January 22, 2019, https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-signs-legislation-protecting-womens-reproductive-rights.

[3] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, in Political Writings, ed. David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003).

[4] This article is an update to “Abortion and Self-Ownership” that I wrote for the ERLC and was published in Canon & Culture. The original version is now available on the ERLC resources page at https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/abortion-and-self-ownership.