How does this concept relate to the question of abortion? If a woman is sure abortion is evil, and it is evil, if she engages in it, she sins. If she is sure that abortion is evil, and it is not evil, if she engages in it, she still sins. Suppose, however, she is not sure that abortion is evil. Suppose she is uncertain about whether it is a legitimate moral option. Now what does she do? She must first consider her options: abort the fetus or allow it to continue developing.

Suppose she sees that there is possible evil in the first option (abortion) and no evil in the second option (proceeding with the pregnancy). Then she has only one legitimate ethical option: to abstain from abortion. Here the uncertainty is in only one direction — abortion. In such cases, the biblical mandate requires us to say no to the uncertain option.

To summarize: If we face two options, one of which clearly is legitimate and one that is possibly but not certainly evil, we must refrain from the second or we inadvertently become guilty of evil. The practical impact of this is clear: Before an abortion is sought, a person must have compelling ethical justification to back it up. Personal preferences, the desire to avoid inconvenience, and the social or legal acceptance of such practices are not biblical warrants for acting without faith. This means that the burden of proof in the abortion debate rests with those who insist that abortion is something God allows. If there is evidence that God might disallow it, we must have strong evidence to the contrary if we are to act in good faith.

In this instance, Crockett's advice is sound: "Be sure you're right; then go ahead." But we must not overlook the expanded application of this maxim: "If you don't know what's right, then don't go ahead, especially if you have another option that is right."

Should Conscience be Your Guide?

What is dangerous about Crockett's advice? If a person is sure he is right, that is no guarantee that he is right. We can sin mightily while thinking we are acting in perfect virtue.

Though it is perilous to act against conscience, we must remember that our consciences are not the final norm by which our ethics are judged. A conscience may be uninformed, seared, dulled, or distorted.

How our consciences are informed is crucial. At the Diet of Worms, Luther was called on by church and state to renounce his views. He declared, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils ... my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot ... recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe." Luther was saying, "Show me by the teaching of the Bible, or by clear and sound reasoning, or I will not change my position." He was not willing to follow a certain path merely because it was the conventional or socially acceptable path. He sought a clear and certain basis for his conduct.

In every ethical crisis, people argue passionately and eloquently for both sides of the issue. Sometimes the arguments on both sides are more emotional than rational. I went through a major ethical struggle early in my career, when I was a college professor of philosophy. Many of my students were wrestling with their consciences over the rightness or wrongness of serving in the armed forces during the Vietnam War. Some of them turned to me for advice. I was uncertain whether the United States' involvement in Vietnam was just or unjust. I was not a pacifist, but neither was I a warmonger. I believed in the classical just-war theory, which declares that though all wars are evil, not everyone's involvement in war is evil.

Because of my uncertainty about the Vietnam conflict, I read everything I could find and listened to debates to form my conclusions. The debates were emotional and strident, as the nation was divided between hawks and doves. What alarmed me most were the weak and often sloppy arguments used by both sides. The issue was complex, but the public debates were simplistic. I heard hawks say, "My country, right or wrong." This was a ghastly justification for an armed conflict. The doves shouted, "Better Red than dead," a feeble argument for avoiding participation in a just military struggle.