Facts & Sincerely Held Beliefs

The Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court of the United States raised numerous issues including a rather interesting one regarding beliefs and facts. Oversimplifying things for the sake of brevity, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim to be opposed to abortion on religious grounds and they claim to believe that certain forms of birth control involve abortion. As such, they contended that providing insurance to their employees that covered what they regard as abortion would violate their religious beliefs and impose an unreasonable burden on them.

As I tell my students in my ethics class, a moral issue often involves three main components. The first consists of the relevant facts. Put very simply, a factual matter is such that the claim being made is true or false regardless of how we think or feel about its truth.  For example, the mass of an object is a factual matter. Factual matters can become rather complicated by the fact that one might need to sort out the key concepts before determining the truth of a factual claim. As such, it should be no surprise that the second consists of the relevant concepts. Sorting out this aspect of a moral dispute involves arguing in defense of the concepts—that is, presenting and defending definitions of the key terms. In the Hobby Lobby case, one of the key concepts is that of abortion. As noted above, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim that certain birth control methods are actually methods of abortion. This seems to be because the Hobby Lobby owners believe that life begins at conception and they seem to reject the notion that pregnancy begins at implantation.  This is, obviously enough, a rather important matter in regards to these methods being abortion or birth control.

If pregnancy begins at implantation (which is the scientific consensus), then the methods in question (specifically those which prevent implantation) do not involve abortion.  As such, the owners of Hobby Lobby would hold factual incorrect beliefs regarding these methods of birth control and this would undercut their moral position. After all, if those methods are not abortion and their moral opposition is based on a factual error, their moral opposition would thus be unfounded.

However, if pregnancy begins at conception (which is not the scientific consensus), then these methods do involve abortion. In this case, the owners of Hobby Lobby would be factually correct. This still leaves open the question of whether their moral claims are correct or not. After all, a person can be right about the facts but be wrong about the morality, which leads to the third component, that of morality.

Obviously enough, a moral issue has a moral component. In this case, the moral issue is whether or not abortion is morally wrong. The owners of Hobby Lobby claim to believe this—but belief does not entail that a claim is true. After all, people sincerely believe false claims quite often. Fortunately for the owners of Hobby Lobby, they did not have to even argue that their moral beliefs are correct or even plausible—all that was required was establishing that their religious beliefs are sincere—that is, they believe what they claim to believe. Given the context, this is not unreasonable—after all, the issue addressed by the court was not whether abortion is morally wrong or not.

The owners of Hobby Lobby did not even need to argue in defense of their factual claims and their concepts—that is, they did not need to make the case that pregnancy occurs at conception and that the methods in question cause abortions rather than serving as birth control (of the non-abortion sort).   Apparently, they merely needed to establish that they believe what they claim to believe. This raises an interesting general issue that goes beyond the specific Hobby Lobby case: should facts matter when considering cases involving value beliefs (such as religious or moral beliefs)?

On the one hand, it can be argued that the facts should not matter—at least in the sense of requiring that the beliefs in question be proven. This can be based on practicality: religious beliefs would be extremely difficult to prove and this would impose too great a burden on those bringing legal cases involving their values. Also, cases about belief are (as others have argued) not about the truth of the beliefs but about the right to hold said beliefs.

On the other hand, it can be argued that facts do matter—especially when the beliefs have an impact on other people. Returning to the case of Hobby Lobby, the idea is that the owners should not be required to follow the law because they are opposed to abortion and they believe that the birth control methods cause abortions. If it is claimed that it does not matter whether the owners are right or wrong about their factual claims, this establishes the general principle that the truth of the claims does not matter. This raises the question of how far this principle should extend.

In the Hobby Lobby case, to say that the facts are not relevant might not seem so serious. After all, the question of when life begins is one that is disputed and the Hobby Lobby owners could engage in a conceptual dispute over the definition of “abortion” in a plausible way. But, suppose that the principle that the facts do not matter, only the sincerity. This would entail that if the owners of Hobby Lobby claimed that paying women the same as men caused abortions, then all that would matter would be the sincerity of their beliefs. The fact that such a claim would be obviously false and absurd would not matter—after all, once the principle that truth is irrelevant is accepted, then truth is irrelevant. As long as the owners could show they sincerely believed that equal pay for women would cause abortions, then the actual facts would not matter. This certainly seems to set a problematic precedent.



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  1. “Hobby Lobby claim to be opposed to abortion on religious grounds and they claim to believe that certain forms of birth control involve abortion. As such, they contended that providing insurance to their employees that covered what they regard as abortion would violate their religious beliefs and impose an unreasonable burden on them.”

    In the light of the claim that certain forms of birth control involve abortion there is a suggestion that certain other forms of birth control may be admissible. I am wondering what these could be. My ignorance seems to have the better of me here as I do not know the difference between conception and implantation, perhaps someone can enlighten me.
    It occurs to me that if Hobby Lobby inform each potential employee concerning their religious beliefs and its relationship to their insurance scheme then the onus will be on the potential employee whether or not he or she proceeds with their application.

  2. There is period when the fertilized egg goes through a number of cell divisions (usually completed in the Fallopian tubes that lead from ovary to uterus) before it implants in the uterine wall. if it (the bundle of cells at this stage, an embryo) fails to implant, no pregnancy can develop and the embryo (or proto-fetus) is lost – it dies. It is unnoticeably small at this stage.

    Abortion is indeed, strictly speaking, the term that describes the artificial clearance, or spontaneous, natural loss, of the implanted embryo (now called a fetus) from the uterus. (Very rarely, and potentially catastrophically, the proto-fetus implants in the Fallopian tube – a so-called ‘ectopic’ pregnancy – I’m not sure what term strictly applies then for the equivalent of ‘abortion’). But it really is merely a semantic detail to consider that only the post-implantation stage is ‘covered’ by the concerns of the ‘anti-abortionists’. I suspect that the great majority of them would regard the artificial terminaton of the life – be it either a fetal or an embryonic (proto-fetal) stage – is the ethical disiinction; some legal hair-splitting over pre- or post-implantation detail is not really this issue for them, I’ll assume.

    So a proper, catch-all term is indeed ‘birth control’. However, whatever side (or version) of the argument you support, there is clearly a valid distinction between contraception (prevention of fertilization) and birth control (prevention of a birth). The argument about what ethical attitude one adopts to the embryo and to the fetus is rather more profound than merely what the technical correct usage of the term abortion covers.

  3. DrCaffeine,

    Strictly speaking; they make it up as they go along.

    I’ve seen Catholic texts define condoms as pre-implantation abortifacients. Absurd as it sounds, and it is absurd, the Canon law position is that life begins when God decides life begins. And condoms thwart God; the creator of the universe; of everything that ever was, or ever will be. God, can’t make it over the last hurdle, if there is a few micrometres of latex in his path.

    It is as nuts as that. And though I’m all for some degree of religious tolerance, there has to be a limit on how much craziness we’re forced to put up with.

  4. @JMRC

    Oh yes, I’m with you regarding how too many of the anit-abortionists conduct themselves. Human life is so precious to some that they’re willing to kill abortionists to make their point. The milk of human kindness always goes into short supply when any form of religious zealotry gets a grip on somebody’s psyche.

  5. Above you said that there were three components to moral issues; relevant facts and relevant concepts were listed but the third component was left out or left ambiguous. Was it “moral components?” or something else?

  6. The moral component is the third.

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