Climate Change, Abortion, and Impersonality

We are surrounded by many ethical issues, and their complexity makes it tempting to treat each in isolation. But we need to remember that to justify any position requires reference to universal principles, and these principles may well have implications in other areas we find uncomfortable. It’s also the case that thinking about one topic can provide helpful angles on others.

Consider first climate change. European leaders have just announced a climate change pact (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/13/carbon-emissions-eu). One central concern of those advocating measures to slow down and ultimately stop climate change is the well-being of future generations. But, as Derek Parfit brought out especially clearly in his classic Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984, ch. 16), we have here a ‘non-identity problem’. Imagine that we allow the climate to change to the point that conditions on earth are significantly less conducive to human habitation than now. It might seem that future generations would be able to complain about our actions now. But in fact these individuals will exist only because of those actions. If we’d adopted different policies, then different individuals would have been born. The only complaint the future individuals might have would be if we had created conditions such that the value of their lives to them was lower than a life of no value at all – that is, a life which would have been better had it ended just as soon as it began. And even that doesn’t seem such a serious wrong, if the future individuals have the opportunity to end their lives in some not too painful a way.

But surely there is something wrong with damaging the environment so that the value of lives lived is much lower than that of lives that might have been lived? This suggests that an important element in ethics is impersonal. By harming the environment, we are doing something very wrong. But we are not wronging any particular persons. Our wrong consists in making the world – in terms of the quality of lives lived within it, independently of exactly who lives those lives – worse than it might have been.

Now consider abortion, which is condemned in the latest Instruction from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae: http://www.usccb.org/comm/Dignitaspersonae/Dignitas_Personae.pdf  . The official Catholic view here is that a fetus, because it is a human being (which of course it is – a human being at the fetal stage), has the same dignity and moral status as any other human being. So abortion is on the same moral level as the murder of a child.

A common liberal view in our society is that abortion is entirely morally acceptable, while the murder of a child is very wrong. Here the liberal faces a serious problem which the Catholic does not: where to draw the line between a fetal human being and a young child at which moral status emerges. Liberals often claim that moral status develops gradually, but there is something unsatisfactory about this. What seems to make the murder of a young child wrong, as regards the child itself, is that it deprives the child of the rest of its life. But that is true of abortion. Indeed a murdered child may have had at least some valuable life before it is killed.

Ethical impersonality provides a way for liberals about abortion both to accept the Catholic view on moral status and to allow abortion while forbidding the murder of post-birth human beings. The moral wrong done to a fetus through abortion is indeed on roughly the same level as that done to a murdered post-birth human being. But it is very hard to say, from the impersonal point of view, whether either abortion or murder is wrong. We do not know what the optimum population level at any time is, so whether cutting short any particular life is, in itself, good or bad is unclear. But the effect of a murder on the overall level of well-being in the world is significantly greater than that of an abortion. Not only does it cause painful grief among relatives and friends of the murdered, but it increases fear and a sense of insecurity among many people. Murder on a large scale can even make life intolerable for just about everyone concerned, as recent events in the Congo have illustrated.

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4 Responses to Climate Change, Abortion, and Impersonality

  • elcapitanloco says:

    If a fetus is a human being, then why isn’t a sperm or an egg? I might say that egg and sperm, because they are human beings (which of course they are – human beings at the haploid stage), have the same dignity and moral status as any other (diploid) human being. If abortion is murder, then so is (male) masturbation and all forms of contraception.

    That may seem ridiculous at first, but makes more sense when you examine biology. Some organisms spend most of their lifetime in the haploid stage. It’s not unreasonable to consider eggs and sperm to be the “real” humans; we diploids are just the reproductive stage of egg and sperm. One of the dominant theories of how sex evolved (viral eukaryogenesis) implies this. The haploid stage was the “default”, cells fusing together to form a diploid was the exception.

    If you don’t think that sperm are also human beings, then why aren’t they?

    The idea that life begins at conception has other problems. There are cases when multiple people come from one conception (identical twins) and when one person comes from multiple conceptions(chimeras). So, if an embryo is aborted, how many people has the abortion doctor killed? If a chimera is murdered, how many counts of murder is the murderer guilty of?

    The obvious solution is that personhood starts at some point after conception. I would propose drawing the line, so to speak, once the fetus is able to have conscious experience and feel pain. We may not be able to pinpoint when this happens exactly (yet), but I think that fuzzy criteria are better than none.

  • Roger Crisp says:

    Thanks, elcapitanloco. You make some very powerful points. This area of metaphysics may have huge ethical implications, and yet – as I’m sure you know – it is even more contested than most other areas.

    I’m concerned in the blog with identity, and there does seem to be a problem with identifying a post-conception human being with one of her gametes. If I am the same human being as the sperm from which I developed, then – had that sperm fertilized a different egg – I would still have been born. I find that hard to believe. What about twinning? Here my inclination is to say that each twin’s existence begins at the point of division. And as for chimeras it seems to me most natural to claim that their existence begins with the last combination of conceptions.

    I am in a good deal of sympathy, however, with your view that what matters is the capacity for pain (and presumably pleasure), and indeed I argued for something like this position in ch. 5 of my book *Reasons and the Good*. In the blog, I was really setting out an option for liberals rather than trying to defend that option myself. I confess I’m still not entirely happy with the ‘sentience’ view, since it still seems to me that aborting a pre-conscious fetus can be described as depriving an individual of a valuable life, and it could be said that it’s wrong to discriminate against a being which is going shortly to develop a capacity for consciousness just because it hasn’t quite got to that point. So I need to think further and am grateful to you for prompting me to do so.

  • stephen says:

    “Our wrong consists in making the world – in terms of the quality of lives lived within it, independently of exactly who lives those lives – worse than it might have been.”

    That sounds persuasive. But I’m struggling to see the parallel with this: –

    “The moral wrong done to a fetus through abortion is indeed on roughly the same level as that done to a murdered post-birth human being. But it is very hard to say, from the impersonal point of view, whether either abortion or murder is wrong. We do not know what the optimum population level at any time is, so whether cutting short any particular life is, in itself, good or bad is unclear.”

    In the first case we are making lives worse for we know not whom and (granted for sake of argument) doing a wrong to as yet non-existent future generations. In the case of infant murder we are making life worse for a particular identified individual (the child), with unknown benefits or harms to we know not whom (e.g. in terms of reducing the population). Even if the argument about impersonal harm is sound, it doesn’t seem to apply to cases in which the harm is personal and inflicted on a known individual.

    “But it is very hard to say, from the impersonal point of view, whether either abortion or murder is wrong.”

    If that is so, then I’m not sure the impersonality argument helps us at all in public ethical debate. For very few people will be persuaded of any view that entails a lack of certainty about whether murder is wrong, regardless of their views about abortion. But, as above, I’m not sure the argument from impersonal harm does entail that uncertainty. For murder, unlike e.g. a failure to reverse climate change, is a harm inflicted on a currently existing person, and no notion of impersonality is needed in order to justify the claim that it is wrong.

  • Roger Crisp says:

    Thanks, Stephen. I agree that we don’t yet know what kind of individual the fetus is going to be. But it is still identifiable in the same sense as the post-birth child. For example, we can point to both, and take pictures of both.

    There’s no reason why a proponent of impersonality in ethics shouldn’t accept ‘personal’ arguments against murder. So impersonality needn’t commit one to uncertainty about murder.

    But your point about the usefulness of impersonality arguments is well taken. In philosophy, we are trying to discover the truth about ethics. But it may well be that, as you suggest, the public will think the truth to be absurd. And indeed, as Henry Sidgwick recognized especially clearly, there may be impersonal theoretical arguments in favour of not using impersonal arguments in practice! I myself can’t accept that such indirection is always required, but it’s certainly tricky to decide when it is or isn’t.

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