Leaping from Frogs to Morality

Author Greg Koukl Published on 04/24/2013

Learn how to be consistent in your moral reasoning.

I talk about morality, because moral issues are among the most important things we could ever consider. With my commitment to clear thinking about Christianity comes a parallel commitment to clear thinking about morality. Since I have this focus, my mental motors are always running, so to speak. I notice when things just don’t make good sense, even when I’m half asleep.

That happened to me yesterday morning as I was waking up. My clock radio came on in the middle of a show about animals hosted by Warren Eckstein. He seems to be a nice enough guy, answering questions about the care and training of pets of all kinds.

Eckstein may be a wonderful veterinarian, but when he ventures into moral areas he’s an amateur. During the twilight between sleeping and waking, I listened while he launched into a commentary that was so absurd it actually got me chuckling, waking me up even more.

Apparently, there had been some comments made by another talk show host on Eckstein’s station about students’ objections to dissecting frogs. Such an objection, the host had said, showed that those students didn’t show courage. The students weren’t motivated by moral sensitivity as they claimed, he said. Indeed, it’s actually an example of moral confusion that so much importance would be given to the morality of dissecting frogs.

Mr. Eckstein wasn’t happy with that. He was also a bit upset with the tendency to cast anyone who loves animals (which he does) and believes in animal rights (which he does) as an extremist. To Eckstein, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is rather extreme (I think the term he used was “eccentric”), though he agrees with some of their concepts.

The extremist, according to Eckstein, demands that if you believe in animal rights, you shouldn’t be wearing a belt, eating Big Macs, or using animal products of any kind. All those things come from animals whose rights have been violated to get those products, so there does seem to be an inconsistency with those who claim animal rights, but still use animal products.

To Eckstein, though, such an appeal for consistency was extreme. He was quite upset by the demand that if he felt dissecting a frogs was immoral, he was under obligation to apply that view consistently to other areas as well. There’s a middle ground, he claimed. You don’t have to be an extremist to love animals.

Eckstein clearly thought dissecting a frog was immoral, though. In his words, it was “wrong.” It was also unnecessary. Students could use a CD-ROM program that does the same thing, essentially. It just seemed wrong to him for a frog to suffer such indignity.

One caller asked, “If the frog is already dead, how is it a violation of a frog’s rights to slice him up in class?” Mr. Eckstein replied, “If you hire a hit man to kill somebody else, you’re just as guilty of the crime as he is.”

Eckstein equated the life of the frog with the life a human being, and the crime of killing a frog with the crime of killing a human being (which strikes me as muddled to begin with). But he also thought that if you simply dissected the frog, that was tantamount to hiring the “hit man” who collected the frog and “offed” it in the first place.

I have some reflections on Mr. Eckstein’s point of view that have to do with the nature of moral reasoning. Obviously, I think it’s a mistake to equate hiring a hit man for a human being—and the moral responsibility you bear for participation in the murder of a human being—with the dissection of a frog. Humans have transcendent value. Frogs do not.

But I’m not going to address that issue here. I have a different concern: Mr. Eckstein’s claim that he has no obligation to be consistent in his moral reasoning.

It seems to me that Eckstein can only say it’s wrong to dissect frogs if he argues from a basis of a larger principle. He can’t simply assert it’s wrong to dissect frogs. He must demonstrate that this particular action is a specific application of a broader moral rule. The question I want to ask is this: What moral principle is being violated by frog dissection? And if there’s a sound moral principle at work here, then it seems that same principle has other applications, too, that ought to be just as sound as the application to dissecting a frog.

Here is why consistency is so important in moral reasoning. Specific moral views—e.g., it’s wrong to dissect a frog—are applications of broader moral principles. The moral rule in the Bible that it’s wrong to murder is an application of a broader principle. It’s the kind of rule that springs forth from an underlying notion that gives sense to a moral rule.

We find this underlying notion a number of times in the Scriptures, but the time that it’s connected with the notion of murder comes in Genesis 9, right after the flood. God, talking to Noah, says, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).

This is the first mention of capital punishment. God says that there is an extreme punishment—surrendering your life—when you commit an extreme crime. The extreme crime here is murder, and the reason it’s a crime is because of the kind of creature a human being is.

The underlying principle would be: Human beings are valuable because they are God’s image-bearers. This requires that we don’t take the life of a human being without proper justification.

As I mentioned earlier, moral principles have many applications. The principle of the value of man in God’s image also has application to the unborn who shares this image of God. This is why Christians especially (and indeed other pro-lifers who aren’t Christians) are so adamant about abortion—some 36 million killed since 1973—because we see this as a serious violation of the image of God in man. Human beings are the kind of creatures that ought not be treated this way, killed because they’re in the way and can’t defend themselves.

That same principle applies elsewhere, a point I emphasize whenever I speak to pro-life groups. Sometimes we get abusive towards those who are in favor of abortion. Pro-lifers can get very uncivil and acrimonious. But if we argue for the need to protect the lives of children because they’re made in the image of God, then that same rule applies to how we treat those who disagree with us on abortion. Consistency demands this. If we’re inconsistent here, if we do not apply the rule evenly across the board, we are called hypocrites, aren’t we? And we are, in that regard.

So there’s a message here for pro-lifers, that we ought to be consistent in the application of our moral rules. If we are inconsistent in our application of a moral rule, it looks like we don’t really believe in the rule itself. Rather, it looks like we simply don’t like abortion and are trying to force our preferences on others. We’re just playing with words so we can enforce our private, parochial opinion about the unborn. That’s the jam you get into if you’re not consistent in applying what you claim is a moral rule.

Mr. Eckstein faces the same problem. If he says that it’s wrong to dissect a frog, I’m going to have to ask him why. I need to know the underlying moral principle.

For example, he might respond by saying that the underlying moral principle is that it’s wrong to take an animal’s life for the sake of mere human benefit. That’s a violation of their rights. (Maybe that’s not his exact point, but it’s something akin to that.)

If that’s the principle that renders frog dissection immoral, that very same principle also makes eating meat, wearing leather shoes, or wearing a leather belt equally wrong. If I buy the belt, if I buy the Big Mac, I’m paying the hit man, according to the moral reasoning of Mr. Eckstein.

If Eckstein objects to frog dissection for the reasons he gave, consistency requires that he quit eating meat. How can he object to dissecting the frogs, but not to eating them? The same rule applies.

If it’s true that it’s morally wrong to use an animal for mere human benefit, then that rule covers a variety of areas. If Eckstein is going to object to frog dissection, he’d better be consistent if he wants anyone to take his moral rule seriously. If he doesn’t take the rule itself seriously by using it consistently, we have no good reason to take his application of that rule to frog dissection seriously, either.

This principle of moral thinking applies to us as well. We are also obligated, if any moral principle is true, to live by that principle consistently, or else no one need take our moral view seriously.

One final thought on the issue of deteriorating values as evidenced by this concern for frogs. Apparently, Mr. Eckstein thought the students who stood up against the frog dissection showed good values.

My suspicion is that it was Dennis Prager who made the comment that concern about frog dissection was evidence of the slipping values. I understand why he said this. When he asks high school audiences whether they would save their dog who was drowning or a human being who was drowning (and he asks this question routinely), they always give the same response. One-third say they’d save the human being, one-third say they’d save the dog, and the other third can’t decide.

Doesn’t it strike you as a deterioration of values when high school students get seriously exercised about the dissection of a dead frog, but two-thirds of them can’t see that it’s more important to save a human being who’s drowning than it is to save a dog?