Ethics: The Unthinkable Becoming Acceptable

Mar 2nd, 2019 | By | Category: Ethics, Featured Issues

Years ago, I read an article written by the late Chuck Colson, who made this observation about ethical issues in Western Civilization:  “What was once unthinkable, become debatable and then gradually becomes acceptable.”  I do not know whether this was original with Colson or whether he borrowed it from someone else, but many times I have affirmed the accuracy of this reflection.   I guess I have become hardened as I have gotten older, but I find myself rarely stunned by cultural accommodation anymore.  Developments I once regarded as unthinkable are now accepted widely and enthusiastically.  The three developments I have chosen for this Perspective were indeed once unthinkable.  Each is now being debated and within a short time the broader culture will embrace them as acceptable.  Each gives evidence of cultural decline and each represents a civilization with little or no ethical foundation.

  • First, consider the new normal in the polarizing context of identity politics—“gender self-identification”: The notion that humans are best classified, not according to biological sex, but by whether they say “they feel more like a man or a woman, or something in between.  On may liberal university campuses, in America and elsewhere, it has become orthodoxy that all students should wear ‘pronoun badges’ declaring their preference for he, she or—if they identify as non-binary, gender-fluid or some-such—they, ze, hir or some one of a host of other neologisms.”  In the United States, the national government has not yet embraced such diverse gender identities.  However, at the state and local levels, gender self-ID is rapidly passing into law.  “That means access to single-sex facilities such as toilets, changing rooms and even domestic-violence shelters and rape-crisis centers is according to self-ID.”  How have other countries responded to gender self-ID movement?
  1. Canada has granted gender identity and gender expression the same status in human-rights law as sex, race and religion.
  2. In Britain, people can change their legal sex if two doctors concur in a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Gender self-ID is becoming the norm in practice.
  3. New Zealand is considering a bill that would permit the sex on birth certificates to be changed by simple declaration.

Ostensibly to protect transgender people, gender self-ID, as Helen Joyce of The Economist argues, is forcing “everyone to accept a subjective feeling as reality, and everything that flows from it, including access to spaces and facilities designated for the opposite sex.  That is both illiberal and dangerous . . . .”  Many gender self-ID laws have been vague and sweeping, lacking the safeguards of protection.  Consider these examples:

  1. In Britain, a convicted rapist, moved to a women’s prison after identifying as a woman, sexually assaulted other inmates.
  2. The London Sunday Times collated figures showing that sexual offenses are far more common in mixed sex-pool changing rooms than in single-sex ones.
  3. “Girlguiding UK, which is now open to all self-declared girls, not just biological ones, faced tough questions about child protection after it expelled two leaders who asked whether it had assessed the risks.”

The gender self-identification movement not only fosters very serious risks, it also willfully defies the clarity of God’s Creation Ordinance in Genesis 1-2, which forthrightly declares “male and female He created them.”  To accept “subjective feeling as reality” when it comes to gender is not only ludicrous; it likewise defies what God has declared to be “good.”

  • Second is the growing practice of “ethics dumping”—“the carrying out by researchers from one country (usually rich, and with strict regulations) in another (usually less well off, and with laxer laws) of an experiment that would not be permitted at home, or of one that might be permitted, but in a way that would be frowned on.” This is especially worrisome in medical research involving human beings.  The Economist rightly observes that “As science becomes more international the risk of ethics dumping, both intentional and unintentional, has risen.”  This concern is the focus of the November 2018 announcement by He Jian-kui that he had edited the genomes of two embryos that are now baby girls.  The evidence is that Dr. He was encouraged and assisted by Michael Deem of Rice University in Houston, who was He’s PhD supervisor and who has continued to collaborate with He.  Such a practice of gene-editing that Dr. He performed is illegal in the US.  However, supporting the execution of such work in another country is not illegal in the US.  However, if Deem did this without the approval of Rice University, this could have violated federal law.  Because “ethics dumping” is a growing practice, the European Union sponsored a three-year investigation (called TRUST) into ethics dumping.  TRUST found serious and multiple cases of ethics dumping by both European and American researchers involved in research in Asia and Africa, where ethics laws are not as rigid.  This has led TRUST to call for a Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings.  This aims to “raise awareness of bad practices, and to identify potential offenses.  A cornerstone of the code is that ethics reviews be conducted in all participating countries—those where the work will be carried out as well as those paying for it.”


  • Finally, the issue of animal rights.  Steve Wise, perhaps the most prominent animal rights attorney in America, has been working to get an elephant, named Happy, who had passed the “mirror self-recognition test” (an indicator of self-consciousness used in animal research), recognized an a non-human person with rights.  Therefore, Wise argues, Happy is an intelligent, self-aware being, and is entitled to the full protection of the law.  In Happy’s case, the right of habeas corpus, a common-law principle that guards against arbitrary imprisonment.  So far, the courts have consistently rejected this right being applied to animals.  The matter of animal rights is being promoted at many levels.


  1. At least eight jurisdictions have written into law that animals are sentient beings.
  2. Three American states have passed pet custody laws which give the idea of sentience practical meaning: Such laws say that if a couple divorces and cannot agree on the terms of separation, the interests and feelings of any animals in the household must be taken into account.  “Animals are thus treated more like children than furniture.”
  3. Argentina ruled in 2016 that a chimpanzee is a “non-human person” who had been arbitrarily deprived of her freedom by being placed in the city of Mendoza’s zoo.
  4. Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled that a spectacled bear was a non-human person and ordered him to be taken from the zoo and placed in a wildlife reserve.

In these cases above, we see the key strategy of the animal rights movement:  The terms “human” and “person” are not synonyms or interchangeable concepts in law or in ethics.  “Human” is a biological concept that refers to a member of a particular species (e.g., Homo sapiens).  “Person” is best understood as a moral and legal concept that refers to an individual who can hold moral and legal rights.  The Nonhuman Rights Project seeks a more inclusive view of personhood, “according to which humans are persons because we all have some or all of the[se] features . . . conscious experience, emotionality, a sense of self or bonds of care or interdependence.  This view is more plausible . . . in part because it includes all humans within the scope of personhood.  At the same time, it includes some nonhumans too.”

But, those who question animal rights, and/or granting non-human personhood to animals see this movement as potentially unsettling or even dangerous.  Consider these concerns:

  1. Is giving some animals limited rights going to open the door to giving farm animals a right not to be eaten?
  2. If animals are given rights associated with their consciousness and cognition, would these eventually also apply to artificially intelligent machines?
  3. It is by no means certain which species of animals should get protection and which should not. For now, there seems to be little discussion on what boundaries there should be in the animal kingdom.
  4. Will granting such rights to animals as non-human persons hamper medical research?
  5. Will erasing distinctions between animals and humans undermine the fundamental tenant of being a human?

The Bible affirms human uniqueness, for only humans are image-bearers of God. No other physical part of God’s world can claim this image-bearer standing.  God declares in Genesis 1:26-30 that humans have the responsibility to rule (have dominion) over the nonhuman creation.  Tragically, this dominion has frequently turned to exploitation.  Humans are to serve and watch lovingly, almost worshipfully, over God’s creation.  He is Sovereign; we have the dominion.  Francis Schaeffer argues that humans have two relationships–one upward and one downward.  The upward relationship accentuates the personal relationship humans can have, through salvation, with God—a relationship not enjoyed by the rest of the created order.  The downward relationship accentuates the “creaturely” relationship that humans share with the rest of the created order (see Genesis 2:7 and Job 34:14, 15).  As with most issues, the struggle is to keep the two in balance.  We often highlight the upward relationship to the virtual exclusion of the downward.  This can lead to horrific neglect or to a ruthless exploitation of the physical world.  Or we often highlight only the downward to the virtual exclusion of the upward. We honor animals as valuable beings, a part of God’s world.  It is our stewardship responsibility to treat them well, and to care for them.  But, animals are not persons.  They do not deserve to have the rights associated with personhood—only humans bear God’s image and that is the fundamental difference between animals and humans; an eternally significant difference.  Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection are for the justification of human beings, not animals.

See Helen Joyce in The World in 2019, special magazine of The Economist, p. 26; “No Dumping Please, in The Economist (2 February 2019), p. 66; and “Do They Have rights?,” in The Economist (22 December 2018), pp. 84-85.


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