Everything Is Just Dandy!

Ep. 301: Is Abortion Morally Permissible? (Part Two)

The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast
Mark Linsenmayer

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We continue from part one on Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” (1971), and then add Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion is Immoral” (1989) and we begin our treatment of Mary Anne Warren’s “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” (1973), which we’ll conclude in part three of this discussion.

We pry further into Thomson’s distinction between the “indecent” and the “unjust.” According to Thomson, some actions which are not strictly morally required are nonetheless to be highly encouraged, and failing to do them is still morally objectionable in some lesser way. Thomson refers to the Kitty Genovese case where many people purportedly heard a murder happening but no one intervened or even called the police. So while Thomson thinks that a woman has the absolute right to abort even the most advanced fetus for even a trivial reason such as not wanting to reschedule a planned vacation trip, this is still morally offensive.

So when a sacrifice is small, we should surely make it, but when does a burden become too much, and in the case of pregnancy and birth, which have such drastic effects on a woman’s body and experience, does the sacrifice involved always outweigh any rights of the fetus qua full person (which, remember, Thomson is granting for the purposes of her argument, though she ultimately doesn’t believe that the fetus is at all stages of development a person; she thinks we can set aside that intractable problem)?

Marquis’ argument against abortion begins by considering why we consider it wrong to kill an adult, and he says it’s because we’re depriving that person of a future. And it’s not just any future, but a “future like ours,” which is deliberately left as a vague appeal to our intuitions, but it’s supposed to be different than the future of an animal (at least most animals), and so has something to do with our ability to experience reflectively. So this is supposed to not be just another appeal to current “personhood,” which Marquis agrees with Thomson is a problematic concept that philosophers will likely not agree on. And it definitely is not supposed to add the even more difficult concept of “potential,” as in “this fetus is right now a potential person.” Instead, a genetically human fetus, and even a zygote immediately at the point of conception, is a being, right now, that has a human future (as far as we are aware; it could of course miscarry, but likewise any adult human right now could die naturally tomorrow, but that doesn’t give us a reason for regarding them now as having future like ours). It’s unclear whether this emphasis on the human future is quantitative, which would mean that the lives of the young are more valuable than the old, because they have more future ahead of them. However, that is one of our moral intuitions that would support this.

Contrariwise, Warren’s focus is on the current status of a creature, and whether it has those psychological characteristics that we morally value. To be a full person is to be a full member of the moral community, and that involves not only feeling and reflection but the ability to make choices, to move and otherwise act in a self-directed way, and to communicate, which is arguably essential to reasoning. This is what Kant means by a person being “an end in itself,” and so a source (really, the only source, for Kant) of moral value. So for instance, for Kant, animals don’t have moral value in themselves. We shouldn’t be cruel to animals only because of what that would do to us, the actors: Getting in the habit of ignoring animal pain would get us in the habit of ignoring human pain.

Now, Warren needn’t toe the full Kantian line and say that there’s no value in anything not fully a person (animals and other natural products, and even artworks and other artifacts) may have moral value as well, just not as much. For Warren, it’s only necessary that these lesser values be overruled by the mother’s interests and rights as a full person. So Warren also doesn’t want to wade into the metaphysical thicket of the exact value of “potential personhood,” except insofar as whatever that is, it’s obviously less than full personhood.

The big problem for Warren’s argument, which she addresses in a 1982 addendum to the paper, is infanticide. An infant clearly does not have any more ability to reflect, communicate, and reason than a late-term fetus does. We do not hold an infant morally responsible for its actions. So according to Warren’s argument, the value of an infant must be conferred by the parents: They want it. If there’s truly an infant unwanted by anyone (such as in starvation-level ancient societies that might set out infants to die in the cold), then it’s not wrong to kill it. We merely feel, sentimentally, that it is wrong, but rationally (again, think of Kant here), it’s not. I’d feel terrible if you murdered my pets, and so there should definitely be laws against that, but in killing my pets you’ve harmed me, not so much the pets. And of course pets have much more self-awareness than a newborn, so the argument should apply even more to them. If you’re interested in this strange argument, see Don Marquis debating Peter Singer.

At one point I bring up The Euthyphro Fallacy, which is more general than the discussion of theism in Plato’s Euthyphro. The question for Marquis is, why is our future valuable? Is it only valuable if the individual whose future it is finds it valuable, so suicide should be OK? Or we could admit that someone contemplating suicide isn’t a prototypical example of a clear thinker, so you could add the caveat that the suicidal person, if they could just get past this suicidal time in their lives, would value that future? Or instead, is the future intrinsically valuable (to creatures like us), and that’s why we value it and consider it rational and worthy of social support to do so? Marquis, like Plato, says it’s the latter, whereas a social constructionist like Hume or Habermas would argue that all statements of value must ultimately be based on what people actually want.

Actually, Marquis by appealing to our intuitions is trying to bypass these metaphysical issues about the foundations of morality, and Thomson and Warren do the same in different ways, but is that really possible? If we’re going to really figure out this intractable social dilemma, don’t we have to adopt a metaphysics? At least Catholic absolutists are transparent about this: Theologians back to at least Aquinas have theorized about “ensoulment” happening at some time or other during pregnancy, and that’s the point where it becomes a person. A secular, materialist metaphysics has no such resources available to it, and so will need to fully grapple with the question of where moral value comes from: Is it human nature (telos), human preferences, or what? Is “personhood” a natural category or just a social construction, and if it’s the latter, why would we possibly think that this concept that we’ve developed to deal with humans in the world (adults and newborns alike) would give us a clear verdict on the status of a fetus or embryo or zygote?