Roman Infanticide, Modern Abortion

By Roger Crisp

Two recent pieces of news highlighted a major difference between modern and ancient attitudes to the moral status of the human fetus.

On the one hand, archaeologists have suggested that a burial of ninety-seven infants at a Roman villa in Hambleden is evidence of systematic infanticide of children born to prostitutes working at a brothel on the site: http://saesferd.wordpress.com/2010/06/26/hambledon-roman-villa/
On the other hand, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has reported that there is no evidence that fetuses of 24 weeks can feel pain, undermining the argument that there is a sentience-based argument for imposing an earlier limit on abortions: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/25/human-foetus-no-pain-24-weeks

(See also Janet Radcliffe Richards’ recent blog on this site:
http://www.practicalethicsnews.com/practicalethics/2010/06/foetal-pain-and-the-abortion-debate-believing-what-you-want-to-believe.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+PracticalEthics+%28Practical+Ethics%29 )

Until the influence of the Christian Apostolic traditions changed their view, many Romans would have viewed abortion, however late, as morally equivalent to infanticide, and both as acceptable, even if they caused pain. In modern times, many people see late abortion and infanticide as roughly morally equivalent, and both as morally forbidden. The disagreement in modern times is largely about the morality of early abortions – hence the interest in the Royal College’s report.

The Roman position and the modern pro-life position both avoid having to explain any difference between early abortion and infanticide. According to both, they are morally equivalent. The challenge for the person we might call ‘the PC’ – the supporter of a pro-choice position on early abortions who also wishes to oppose infanticide (or late abortions) — is to provide such an explanation.

On the standard Roman view, moral status was acquired at about the age of two, with some degree of ‘personhood’. But personhood, in any rich sense, will fail to discriminate between an early fetus and a neonate. Though neonates might be conscious, they lack the rational capacities which the Romans would plausibly have held to be necessary for personhood. This is why the point at which sentience develops is of such significance, since the PC can claim that this marks the difference between the early fetus and the neonate.

But if sentience is sufficient grounding for a right not to be killed, then that right would have to be extended far more widely than most PCs are usually prepared to allow – certainly to mice and perhaps even to prawns. Here reference may be made to a potential for personhood as another necessary condition for a right to life. But this raises the issue of neonates born with conditions which mean that they will never develop the rational capacities required for personhood. Selective infanticide will be unacceptable to most PCs, so they will perhaps fall back on contextual or contingent arguments to justify our distinguishing neonates born with these conditions from sentient non-human animals. They may claim, for example, that our psychology is such that, if we allow infanticide even in restricted cases, this will perhaps signficantly increase the likelihood of wrongful killings. But this didn’t seem to be a problem for the Romans, who (at least until 374 AD) allowed unrestricted infanticide. Here the PC might claim that the nearest possible world in which our attitudes change to become like the Romans is in fact one with more wrongful killings. Measuring the distance from here of various possible worlds, however, is rather an inexact science, and the PC might have hoped not to have to place so much weight on its deliverances.

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39 Responses to Roman Infanticide, Modern Abortion

  • Marco Antonio Oliveira de Azevedo says:

    Dear Roger.
    Your post made me think about some interesting metaphysical questions on the problem of our moral attitudes toward humans, infants, neonates, fetuses and, also, animals. If you please, let me present some correlated thinkings. I’ve proposed in a paper (not yet published, entitled “Human, animals and embryos: which one is means and which one is an end is scientific research?” – it was written in Portuguese) a distinction between an actual, a potential and a necessary right-bearer. (Note: I’ve used Judith Thomson’s concepts of “claim” and “right”.) Animals, I’ve concluded, are potential claim-bearers (actually, they are in a large amount of places also actual right-bearers) – and, at least in my country, actual right-bearers; embryos (I mean, in vitro embryos) cannot be neither. But which kind of being could and would be a necessary right and claim-bearer? I think only actual rational beings are necessary right-bearers (if rationality would be extinguished, claims and rights would be extinguished also – that would be an “Aristotelian metaphysical consequence”). Well, if I am right, then fetuses (human, but animal also) are only potential claim-bearers. Since claims, as events, can only exist in the form of actions, performed as such by rational persons, potential right-bearers, in all possible worlds where they would be actual right bearers, could only make claims by representation. Following that, human neonates and human infants cannot be necessary right-bearers (even if they are actually right-bearers), for they must be represented also by a surrogate (and only rational beings can be surrogates). Well, I still can’t explain completely the (intuitive) difference we see between human neonates and infants and other beings only capable of bearing claims, like fetuses (humans and animals) and animals of all kinds. But probably the fact of being human makes a difference. Then, sentience is not the point, but rationality. That is, the fact that being human means having a potentiality of being a rational being is what makes the difference – for being sentient is only a necessary condition for having rights; being rational is sufficient. This would mean that killing a human being is worse than killing a mere potential claim-bearer even in a world like the Ancient Rome. We couldn’t say strictly that those Romans-like beings would be criminals or that they are actually “murderers” (pace Anscombe). But we still can say that what they do (or “did”, in the historical example) is actually bad and worse than what people like us actually do (people that kills animals, embryos and fetuses without being murderers). Would it be a kind of “speceism”? Probably, but a sensible one.

  • Dominic Wilkinson says:

    Hi Roger,

    Beryl Rawson’s excellent book Children and Childhood in Roman Italy has a number of interesting insights into Roman attitudes towards abortion, infanticide and exposure.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Children-Childhood-Roman-Italy-Rawson/dp/0199240345

    Although infanticide and exposure of infants do seem to have occurred widely, it is unclear how frequently they occurred. There are some historians who argue that the incidence of both have been exaggerated. It is impossible to know how often abortion occurred (though the fallibility of methods and the dangers associated with them is one potential reason why the Romans exposed or killed infants). I am also not sure that the Roman sanction of infanticide was based on anything like a Lockean notion of personhood or rationality. One potential major contributor to the Roman attitude towards the care of infants was the high mortality rate. 1/3 of infants died before reaching 1 year (infanticide is likely to have been only a small contributor to this), and 1/2 of children did not make it to the age of 10. Part of the reason for delayed acknowledgment of children as members of the community may simply have been a degree of practicality and fatalism given the high infant/childhood mortality.

    You also suggest that the Roman permissibility of infanticide provides a counter example to the argument that allowing infanticide would lead to more wrongful killings. “But this didn’t seem to be a problem for the Romans, who (at least until 374 AD) allowed unrestricted infanticide.”
    However, I am not sure whether this argument works. Firstly, some might be tempted to believe that Roman acceptance of infanticide of very seriously malformed infants (as sanctioned by the Twelve Tables of Rome according to Cicero) appears to have generalised to allow infanticide of normal infants. Furthermore, even if we believed that all infanticide was permissible Roman society was guilty of some fairly horrendous maltreatment and wrongful killings. Children were sold into slavery and physically and sexually abused. There were signficant numbers of (what we would today consider) wrongful killings, both of children and adults. While it is difficult to say that these are caused by, or contributed to by an acceptance of infanticide, it is also much less clear that Ancient Rome provides a good counterexample to ‘contingent arguments’.

    cheers
    Dom

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    In Rome, killing human beings was not unusual. Class distinctions counted. The power of the family of the victim counted. But there was no powerful presumption in the value and the right not to be killed of the individual human being. I suspect that as we become more upset about the killing of (already born) infants, we also become more concerned with the “sanctity” of the life of the individual human being.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I would like to question the assumption, which seems to be implicit in this discussion, that mainstream pro-choice advocates (such as myself) somehow have an obligation to come up with a watertight rational basis for our moral preferences. Certainly I do not accept any such obligation on myself.

    That being said, I can offer the following reflections regarding the fundamental values that underlie my position on this issue.

    First of all, I buy into the general view that to kill other human beings is wrong except in carefully prescribed circumstances. I see no reason to question this, not least because it seems to be a prerequisite for peace and prosperity, and I certainly value peace and prosperity.

    Like the pro-lifers, I find it most logical to consider that human life begins at conception, so to be pro-choice and logically consistent I have to consider allowing the abortion of early foetuses as falling within the relevant category of “carefully prescribed circumstances”.

    Why do I make this choice? I’m not completely sure (and I make no apology for that), but I think it’s partly because I simply empathise more naturally with women wanting to control their own bodies (and destinies) than with early foetuses. In this context, one crucial difference between foetuses and infants that seems to have been completely missed by the comments so far is that in the former case the alternative to abortion is an unwanted pregnancy.

  • Roger Crisp says:

    Dear all — Many thanks for your comments. Some brief responses below. Cheers — Roger

    Marco: Being human isn’t of course sufficient for one to have even the potentiality for rationality. So one needs to take a view on whether cognitively defective human beings are morally equivalent in status to certain non-humans. Yes, we might here go for a form of speciesism on ‘sensible’ or practical grounds. But that will rely on the claims about the distance of possible worlds from here that I found problematic.

    Dominic: I didn’t mean to claim that the typical Roman was a proto-Lockean. My suggestion was more along anthropological lines — that the relationship parents might have with a child beginning to speak, etc., might well be responsible for the bringing of that child beneath the moral umbrella. I agree that the higher probability of a young child’s dying might also explain the withholding of moral status. Not sure about the slippery slope from the 12 Tables. They *required* a father to kill any deformed child, but I’d have thought that patria potestas would have allowed from a pretty early date any father to abandon a child. Causal claims are pretty hard to establish here, of course. What would be interesting would be if, after 374 AD (or at least the period when infanticide was on the wane), there were some detectable decrease in the number of wrongful killings of humans over the age of two or so. That’d be very hard to show, however — it would require more claims about relative distances of possible worlds.

    Dennis: Sounds a sensible hypothesis, and quite consistent with the role I was attaching to Christianity in changing attitudes.

    Peter: I agree that of course the question of women’s rights over their bodies is central to the issue of abortion. But then the advocate of the pro-life position might have to accept infanticide in certain cases in which it is the only way for the woman to avoid burdens similar in degree to those involved in bringing a child to term.

  • Sebastian Hallward says:

    Roger,

    Scouring the effluence of academia forces one to conclude that the Romans–though, overall, they viewed both as “morally” unobjectionable–nevertheless, drew a rather slight but significant distinction between foeticide and infanticide; a fetus being classified as spes animantis, rather than infans or “neonate.” Thus, from the paltry scraps of information we have about contraception in ancient Greece-Rome, it is inferably the case that the Roman notion of “person-hood” did discriminate between an “early fetus” and a “neonate. Moreover, it is a reasonable assumption that foeticide was not considered to be as “morally” impermissible an act as infanticide (in the form of killing, as distinct from exposure). Or, at least, infanticide was not as prevalent as claimed by some commentators. In any case, it was the Christians who nonsensically lumped the two together.

  • SimonJM says:

    So what should be modern objections to infanticide?

    I cannot see how given bodily autonomy combined with personhood functionalist/Rights/Desires account can object.

    Even Singer’s parent preferences against infanticide cannot overrule those who could have preferences for infanticide.

    So what is the objection?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I would offer the following in response to SimonJM’s question.

    The starting point is that the current (legal and social) taboo in the civilised world against taking human life, except in carefully prescribed circumstances, is a prerequisite for ensuring continued peace and prosperity. The burden of justification must therefore be on those suggesting that a particular group of human beings can legitimately be killed, especially where this is not already the case.

    In the case of abortion I have suggested (at least in the case of early foetuses) that the (obviously legitimate) wish of women to control their own bodies and destinies provides sufficient justification, although I have made it clear that I see this as a moral choice rather than as something that can be logically deduced.

    Roger Crisp has suggested that a similar argument might apply to infants in certain cases on the grounds that keeping the infant alive would impose on the mother “burdens similar in degree to those involved in bringing a child to term”. It’s a good point, but not one I find entirely convincing. Society is at least theoretically able to share the burden to a much greater extent than in the case of pregnancy. Whether it does so effectively in practice is another matter, but the fact that the infant is no longer physiologically part of the mother seems to me to have a moral significance that provides ample justification for treating infants differently from foetuses. (By contrast, this line of argumentation does not give any grounds from distinguishing between early and late foetuses.)

  • SimonJM says:

    Peter the thing I find strange that I’m sure you know there are Liberal philosophers who fail to see any relevance of birth -which is itself a minority stance-and who note that even after birth the neonate while biological independent in one sense, is still very dependent on care for its existence. All we have is care provided externally vs. internally.

    After all it would seem strange to say Thompson’s Violinist lost their identity because he is now attached to the other person. & is it really correct to say the foetus is part of the woman or just attached? We wouldn’t after all say some other parasite species is now part of the human host rather it is just attached to or inhabiting.

    Also some of Dominic’s arguments regarding viability as just as relevant in that we could be treating two entities at the exact same level of development differently simply because of relational/spatial circumstance than has no relevance to the original functionalist personhood/rights desires justification.

    So where do you stand on late term abortions? What about Overall for that matter?

    Lastly even David Boonin argues that given we could in principle owe blood or organs to another entity with equal moral value if we harm or make them dependent, even if that overrides bodily autonomy.

    The other problem is just being separate from another organism cannot by itself be used to grant a right to life as obviously many other organisms share this characteristic. Nor can you rely just on sentience for the same reason.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I think it’s possible to make a coherent case that early-term abortions are permissible while late ones aren’t. I agree with the various comments that viability itself doesn’t achieve this in a convincing way, but considerations involving the psychological effect on the mother, the duration of the remaining pregancy, and even the psychological effect on society (perhaps especially the psychological effect on society) seem likely to be relevant. As for where I stand, overall I would certainly regard myself as “pro-choice”, but I don’t currently have a clear position on where the cut-off should be?

    I cringed a bit when I read “some other parasite species”. While I take your point that it may not be strictly correct to say the foetus is “part of the woman”, describing it as a “parasite species” seems to me problematic from both a scientific and a moral perspective. Even if you delete the word “other” in that sentence, I don’t think “attached” comes close to an adequate description of the relationship between a mother and her unborn child.

    On “sentience”, I think this is more relevant than you are giving it credit for. For example, I am aware of policy decisions regarding experimentation on great apes which rely in part on the high level of sentience (including ability to dwell on past suffering) that they display.

  • Simon says:

    Peter
    “psychological effect on the mother” how can there be an effect on a mother who wishes to abort? While I take Pro-life claims that there in fact many more late term abortions occurring with a pinch of salt, if this is the mothers preference then it can only be positive as far as she is concerned.

    “the duration of the remaining pregnancy” I’m assuming that you are saying there isn’t much time left so she should go on with it anyway. How can that be relevant when we still have bodily autonomy in affect and the foetus is still a non person? You haven’t in anyway overcome those two justifications for something that by many accounts has no moral worth or if it has still doesn’t overcome bodily autonomy.

    “the psychological effect on society (perhaps especially the psychological effect on society) seem likely to be relevant.”

    Why is that at all relevant when from a Pro-Life point of view you are already in fact doing this and this is ignored? There is no logical reason why this cannot become a new social norm in the way early abortions did and there is no guarantee anyway that any adverse effects would occur.

    BTW I’ve come across at least one ‘extreme’ Pro-Choice Progressive that thinks infanticide is the next logical step for progressives as he realised that some of the justifications such as financial and psychological stress and non personhood can still apply to neonates.

    “I cringed a bit when I read “some other parasite species”. While I take your point that it may not be strictly correct to say the foetus is “part of the woman”, describing it as a “parasite species” seems to me problematic from both a scientific and a moral perspective. Even if you delete the word “other” in that sentence, I don’t think “attached” comes close to an adequate description of the relationship between a mother and her unborn child.”

    Yes that was badly worded and I don’t think it is –though many lay Pro-Choice do- but one could argue that given the attached is appropriate for the surgically ‘attached’ violinist, it isn’t so different to think that the offspring has biologically attached itself to the mother. Nor do I think it necessary be seen in a negative light; it is just that this is the means that enables care and growth for the offspring. What I find strange that the same act is a nurturing if wanted and often claimed parasitic or valueless if unwanted.

    “On “sentience”, I think this is more relevant than you are giving it credit for. For example, I am aware of policy decisions regarding experimentation on great apes which rely in part on the high level of sentience (including ability to dwell on past suffering) that they display.”

    I tend to use Peter Singer’s work on this is that bare sentience through interests doesn’t give a ‘right’ to life only freedom from suffering. All is required is that the late term doesn’t suffer which is easily done.

    Also regarding great apes one would have thought that their personhood status through self awareness should prohibit them from any experimentation anyway, apart from the fact they shouldn’t be suffering in any experimentation to then later remember.

    I would add that while Peter Singers thought experiment on severely retarded non person orphans isn’t saying we should use them for experimentation, on the flip side it doesn’t say we shouldn’t either. In this instance it seems to me he is relying on an arbitrary social circumstance that many people would prefer they didn’t but logically that could change.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Thanks Simon. I don’t want to attempt a comprehensive reply right now but on the psychological effect on the mother, I think it is perfectly possible to make a conscious decision in favour of something but nevertheless to suffer psychological consequences afterwards.

    Might add more later…

  • Simon says:

    You are Peter to say there is a chance, just as there are women who suffer psychological stress from regretting having an early abortion. Since that in itself doesn’t seem reason enough to change things, why should it when they were ‘viable’?

    I also hope you will address my other points; in this light I think Tooley is on the money and NO Liberal philosopher has come even close to counter his argument. Though Boonin did give it a good go with his ideal and concurrent desires the fact that we can have abstract interests without desires seems to indicate that this comes up short.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I’ll try to give a more comprehensive reply now.

    Regarding psychological effect on the mother, the relevance would come if we assume that this effect is likely to be greater (on average, of course – it will depend on many other factors as well) for late-term abortions than for early-term abortions. An important point here is that we should not assume that there is some qualitative leap in moral status that occurs between x months and x months plus one second. The idea would rather be that the closer to birth you get the more morally problematic abortion becomes, and you have to draw the line somewhere (preferably a nice round number). Psychological effect on the mother could, plausible, be one factor that increases in this sense.

    This consideration is also relevant in the context of your comment regarding “duration of remaining pregnancy”. Yes we still have bodily autonomy and non-personhood, but the cost to the mother of continuing with the pregnancy reduces the closer to birth you get, and therefore so does the case for allowing the abortion.

    I take your point about new social norms, but the transition between social norms can be painful and controversial, so we should have good reasons before we propose changes.

    Why do you find it strange that the same act is described as “nurturing” if wanted but “parasitic” or “valueless” if unwanted? These are value-laden words: that’s how our language works. This is related to my main point, which is that we do not need, and should not be aiming, to find some water-tight rational justification for our moral preferences. Ultimately it’s a matter of decision, not of logical deduction. What we can do is to try to make them logically consistent, although, even here, whether it’s actually important to do so or not is in itself a moral choice.

    I’m interested in this issue about great apes and personhood. We’ve been discussing the extent to which early foetuses / late foetuses / neonates can legitimately be excluded from the “right to life”, or more precisely from the taboo against deliberately ending it. You seem to be suggesting that, conversely, great apes should be INcluded. Here of course we move from the abortion debate to the animal rights debate, and it’s indeed interesting to explore how the same arguments might apply in the different cases. Most people, though, would I think disagree with non-human primates being granted the same rights as humans.

    I’m not sure how satisfying you are going to find this reply, because I have the impression that you’re hoping for something that I’m not even really trying to provide, namely a fully coherent and convincing logical framework that can justify the current compromise on abortion, namely “early OK, late not OK”. My main purpose has rather been to illustrate the following key points, namely (i) morality is ultimately a matter of choice, not logical deduction, and (ii) (following Janet Radcliffe-Richards’ post on the subject) it’s good to be as explicit as possible about these moral choices (or “values”). Sometimes neither nature nor logic gives us clear distinctions between black and white, but we have to make a decision about whether the grey has become dark enough to turn on the headlights. In this context I have suggested some considerations that could plausibly be considered relevant in determining how dark it is.

  • SimonJM says:

    1. Regarding psychological effect on the mother, the …………… Psychological effect on the mother could, plausible, be one factor that increases in this sense

    Yes it could, but then again would depend on personal and cultural factors and there is no logical reason why it could just be accepted like early abortion, and the health or psychological risk becomes something that the mother has the right to ask since it’s still her body. Given the other health and psychological risks we allow informed moral agents to make, you would have to come up with a stronger claim as to why this and not they, are prohibited.

    2.This consideration is also relevant in the context of your comment regarding “duration of remaining pregnancy”. Yes we still have bodily autonomy and non-personhood, but the cost to the mother of continuing with the pregnancy reduces the closer to birth you get, and therefore so does the case for allowing the abortion.

    Peter simply where in the original formation do temporal factors come into it? Are we forced to give blood or care for orphans even for small amounts of time? We aren’t so why should we here?

    3.I take your point about new social norms, but the transition between social norms can be painful and controversial, so we should have good reasons before we propose changes.

    & we do, as we have precedents. Society has already shown with allowing early abortion that we as a society are certainly prepared to risk societal harm for any negative consequences, we don’t in fact force people to care for orphans for short stints or give small amounts of blood, and we already not only allow mothers to decide whether they want the non person offspring but we also allow them and others in society broad scope as to what they can do even if it risks their mental and physical health.

  • SimonJM says:

    4.Why do you find it strange that the same act is described as “nurturing” if wanted but “parasitic” or “valueless” if unwanted? These are value-laden words: that’s how our language works. …………. What we can do is to try to make them logically consistent, although, even here, whether it’s actually important to do so or not is in itself a moral choice.

    Peter you make my head spin!!! 🙂 To a certain extent that’s what I’m saying; if it’s not a moral decision and a matter of arbitrary preferences then you have no grounds given what society has already allowed to stop a woman from having a late term abortion or in fact infanticide. Even if you maintain it isn’t a moral but a health related issue we as a society already allow a large amount of personal freedom regarding matters of personal bodily autonomy.

    5. I’m interested in this issue about great apes and personhood. We’ve been discussing the extent to which early foetuses / late foetuses / neonates can legitimately be excluded from the “right to life”, or more precisely from the taboo against deliberately ending it. …….. Most people, though, would I think disagree with non-human primates being granted the same rights as humans.
    So am I, and yes given the current primacy of personhood and the associated rights/desires link they should. But people by and large rationalize for many things so I don’t expect any rush to change things. My research is a bit different though as I don’t even consider our-selves persons ontologically so it is just a side interest. Do have an article I’m trying to get published if you are interested.

    6.I’m not sure how satisfying you are going to find this reply, because I have the impression that you’re hoping for something that I’m not even really trying to provide, namely a fully coherent and convincing logical framework that can justify the current compromise on abortion, namely “early OK, late not OK”. ………….Sometimes neither nature nor logic gives us clear distinctions between black and white, but we have to make a decision about whether the grey has become dark enough to turn on the headlights. In this context I have suggested some considerations that could plausibly be considered relevant in determining how dark it is.

    Peter I appreciate the problems that people face with moral systems but the problem I do have is when there are clear rules used to justify something that benefits one group but they then refuse to apply those rules to themselves, you just have arbitrary social norms not even a pretense of a moral system. Would you feel the same about this ‘vagueness’ if a racist used the same argument to justify genocide? No. I’m just trying to find something that I find even the slightest bit substantial. Whether it’s Boonin’s conscious potential persons, Singer’s parental preferences, Elizabeth Harman’s ‘actual future’ argument or the ‘closer to being finished statue’ analogy, none of them come even close to being robust. Even you own above considerations seems to ignore the primacy of personhood and equal moral worth, and bodily autonomy in the debate. While I think Tooley gets a lot wrong I see none of the above overcoming his basic infanticide argument.
    Cheers

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Some more to make your head spin Simon 🙂

    “the problem I do have is when there are clear rules used to justify something that benefits one group but they then refuse to apply those rules to themselves, you just have arbitrary social norms not even a pretense of a moral system.”

    Actually I think the pretense of a moral system is precisely what you have in this case, but I take your point and I largely share your disgust at this kind of hypocrisy, which is of course all too prevalent, having been selected for by evolution. Precisely because of this, we should not be surprised that the abortion debate is riddled with hypocrisy, but I also share your interest in assessing whether it is possible to arrive at a robust (by which I mean logically consistent) basis for drawing a line somewhere along the early foetus – late foetus – neonate spectrum.

    “Would you feel the same about this ‘vagueness’ if a racist used the same argument to justify genocide? No.”

    It’s not the ‘vagueness’ – or indeed hypocrisy – that I would have a problem with, but rather the position itself, and this for basically two reasons: fear (for the consequences) and empathy (for the particular ethnic group being targeted). It is one thing to accept that there is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to values and another thing to accept with cold blood the expression of values that grossly conflict with my own.

    “if it’s not a moral decision and a matter of arbitrary preferences then you have no grounds given what society has already allowed to stop a woman from having a late term abortion or in fact infanticide”

    Let’s distinguish between (i) arbitrary preferences, (ii) moral decisions and (iii) absolute morality. My hypothesis is that (iii) does not exist. That leaves (i) and (ii). To me the distinction between these is subtle and itself, to some extent, arbitrary. It’s more of a spectrum. We can have a whole set of arbitrary and logically inconsistent preferences. Or we can make our moral decisions more general, more abstract, more “principled”, and then take care that our positions on specific issues are logically aligned with those principles.

    I’m not familiar with the work you refer to so I can’t comment in detail on this. I think what you’re saying is that if we buy into the prevalent emphasis on personhood, equal moral worth between persons, and bodily autonomy, then we have to accept not only late abortion but also infanticide. I’m assuming in this that you are taking the position that personhood only develops some time after birth (e.g. around 2 years?).

    If this is the case, however, then it is clear that society as a whole does not limit the taboo against deliberately terminating life to persons. For various reasons, we prefer IN GENERAL to extend it to all human life, but we make an exception in the case of early abortion, and we do so primarily (I would suggest) on the grounds that a women should have the right to decide what happens to her own body. In the case of both early and late abortions we have two principles that conflict: the taboo against taking human life and the woman’s right over her own body. While some people come firmly down on one side or another, for society as a whole these principles are evenly balanced, which is why relatively marginal considerations (such as those considered above) may be considered to tip the balance.

    By contrast, the case of infanticide the situation is much more clear-cut, and this for two reasons: firstly the baby is in no sense any more part of the woman’s body, and secondly there is no biological reason why it has to be the mother taking care of the baby. There is such a thing as adoption after all. So there is nothing approaching the same compelling argument for compromising on our taboo against taking human life in this case.

  • SimonJM says:

    Peter if I had any hair worth pulling out it would be gone 🙂
    If you will indulge me 24hrs to recover from ending night shift I’ll reply to the above.

    For now though can I ask two things?

    1. Are you familar with David Boonins toxic waste analogy?

    2. Do you think that if we changed the Thompson’s Violinist anaology slightly and had the person who now is attached to the violinist actually cause the violinist to be kidnapped and attached to them; would the right to bodily autonomy give them the right to either kill outright or just detach thereby killing the violinist?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    On 1.: I was able to track down his toxic waste analogy in relation to reparation for slavery. Was this the one you meant? If so, what’s the connection with abortion?

    On 2;: at least I now know what the violinist analogy is. I think I’m basically a rule utilitarian at heart, which possibly makes me less interested in this type of thought experiment than some: the example is so rarefied that it scarcely seems worth making a rule about it, let alone allowing it to influence our judgement in relation to abortion. It does seem pretty clear that if the person did the kidnapping himself then he assumes responsibility for that person’s life, and yes I understand the analogy with abortion in the case of pregnancy due to consensual sex, but I also think it’s a bit stretched and of limited practical relevance. First of all, unwanted pregnancies are very common so from a “rule utilitarian” perspective it’s worth developing bespoke rules for this case to achieve what seems to be a good outcome, which is clearly not the case for our violinist. Secondly, people do all sorts of silly things when it comes to sex, especially when they are young, and it’s important not to let their lives be ruined as a result; by contrast, the person who kidnaps the violinist presumably did so very, very consciously, for the express purpose of keeping that person alive. Nothing “heat of the moment” about it, and with full knowledge of the consequences.

    Looking forward to your fuller reply…

  • SimonJM says:

    Peter- “Actually I think the pretense of a moral system is precisely what you have in this case, ……….but I also share your interest in assessing whether it is possible to arrive at a robust (by which I mean logically consistent) basis for drawing a line somewhere along the early foetus – late foetus – neonate spectrum.

    Peter we may agree(?)that we have arrived at established social groups and norms through group and species selection via evolution, but then have the problem of some bright sparks in Ancient Greece looking for objective rules and methods of reasoning which we then start to apply to the social and moral rules we use. This is especially so with trying to work out how we can morally include and exclude entities. But it appears to me to a certain degree group are rationalising from cultural preferences who it is they want in their group, then try to find rules to back that up from an context that was originally amoral. Regardless there is a problem with the logic.

    The Single Physical Capacity Criterion Problem For Moral In-Group Selection

    I’m not saying it cannot be done but I would say since we belong on a biological continuum combined with the fact we also belong on developmental continuum, if you then try to take a functionalist capacity justification you are going to have problems regarding not only ontology but also in deciding moral worth. Unless of course you are a Jain. 🙂

    If you base moral in-group selection on a single functionalist capacity criterion combined with the ethical precept that you must follow that rule objectively and without arbitrary preferences; basically you must then go with whatever is the result of that criterion.

    So if you have a sub-group with differing capacities -both number and type- and you selected it from a larger group, -with differing capacities, both number and type- by a criterion based on having a certain physical capacity X, -and you necessarily reject arbitrary selections- then the capacity criterion X used for selection must be the lowest commonly held capacity held by all members of the selected group.

    The problem for Liberal functionalists who choose personhood as their chosen capacity but include non person infants and late terms, if you are to be consistent with the above formulation the lowest common capacity is only sentience!

    The Liberal Personhood Functional can either allow late term abortions as well as infanticide, accept that they should be using sentience and all that this entails, or jettison all pretence of being ethical and acknowledge that it is a brute cultural preference to include late terms and non person infants but base equal moral value on personhood.

  • SimonJM says:

    “Would you feel the same about this ‘vagueness’ if a racist used the same argument to justify genocide? No.”
    It’s not the ‘vagueness’ – or indeed hypocrisy – that I would have a problem with, but rather the position itself, and this for basically two reasons: fear (for the consequences) and empathy (for the particular ethnic group being targeted). It is one thing to accept that there is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to values and another thing to accept with cold blood the expression of values that grossly conflict with my own.

    & that’s what many Pro-Lifers think. I just think if the shoe was on the other foot Liberals would expect some sort of coherent reason that was followed consistently instead of the current situation where they don’t have to have this because of a technicality in the US constitution that gives neonates personhood status.

    “if it’s not a moral decision and a matter of arbitrary preferences then you have no grounds given what society has already allowed to stop a woman from having a late term abortion or in fact infanticide”
    Let’s distinguish between (i) arbitrary preferences, (ii) moral decisions and (iii) absolute morality. My hypothesis is that (iii) does not exist.

    I’d agree.

    “That leaves (i) and (ii). To me the distinction between these is subtle and itself, to some extent, arbitrary. It’s more of a spectrum. We can have a whole set of arbitrary and logically inconsistent preferences. Or we can make our moral decisions more general, more abstract, more “principled”, and then take care that our positions on specific issues are logically aligned with those principles.”

    Again I’d agree but once you take a position that you follow a certain ethical rule and justification one should either follow it or if you don’t like the consequences you change the rule. You certainly don’t make a rule that benefits your cultural perspective but then allow yourself to ignore it when you find it affects you negatively.

  • SimonJM says:

    “If this is the case, however, then it is clear that society as a whole does not limit the taboo against deliberately terminating life to persons. For various reasons, we prefer IN GENERAL to extend it to all human life, but we make an exception in the case of early abortion, and we do so primarily (I would suggest) on the grounds that a women should have the right to decide what happens to her own body.”

    I’d agree, in GENERAL 🙂 bodily autonomy is highly valued and there isn’t a prohibition against taking a human life, I have no problem with that. But the conservatives have it right- and at last some Liberal philosophers agree- that it isn’t her body, no more than a leech is part of my body if attached or some other parasite is part of my body if internal. So we have an innocent aggressor in something that usually isn’t a life and death situation. I’ll deal with this more concerning Boonin .

    “In the case of both early and late abortions we have two principles that conflict: the taboo against taking human life and the woman’s right over her own body. While some people come firmly down on one side or another, for society as a whole these principles are evenly balanced, which is why relatively marginal considerations (such as those considered above) may be considered to tip the balance.”

    Evenly balanced? Here’s an analogy a white racist society considers only whites as human with a full right to life but while Asian s aren’t white they cannot be killed, while blacks can. Asians are better scholastically so are thought to contribute more to society plus they are lighter skinned in general.

    -And while some people come firmly down on one side or another regarding (racism) , for society as a whole these principles are evenly balanced, which is why relatively marginal considerations (such as those considered above) may be considered to tip the balance.

    Should the marginal considerations be the point or the original argument?

    “By contrast, the case of infanticide the situation is much more clear-cut, and this for two reasons: firstly the baby is in no sense any more part of the woman’s body, and secondly there is no biological reason why it has to be the mother taking care of the baby. There is such a thing as adoption after all. So there is nothing approaching the same compelling argument for compromising on our taboo against taking human life in this case.”

    I would then ask given the original functionalist perspective why isn’t there a prohibition against killing kittens and that people should rather give them up for pet adoption?

    Firstly the kitten is in no sense any more part of (anyone’s) body, and secondly there is no biological reason why it has to be the owner taking care of the kitten. There is such a thing as pet adoption after all.

    It just seems strange -& downright inconsistent- to use a rights desires personhood functionalist justification on the one hand, but then relational preferences, –which are morally irrelevant- which in fact aren’t used for other animals with exactly the same or more cognitive sophistication.

    The point is yes your reasons are justifications other people could look after it, but since we don’t do that with entities that have the exact same functionalist moral value, unless we want to admit speciesism, that’s just a arbitrary preference which you don’t enforce in society so has no moral weight here.

  • SimonJM says:

    On 1.: I was able to track down his toxic waste analogy in relation to reparation for slavery. Was this the one you meant? If so, what’s the connection with abortion?
    Yes but he originally used in an abortion debate isi.org

    Is Abortion Morally Justifiable in a Free Society debate
    Peter Kreeft
    Professor of Philosophy, Boston College
    David Boonin
    Associate Professor of Philosophy, UC-Boulder

    http://www.isi.org/lectures/lectures.aspx?SBy=lecture&Sfor=28e773af-4bd2-44da-8b3e-be5570fad64d

    In general we cannot harm or make dependent another entity with equal moral value –which he grants even early foetus- otherwise we are morally responsible and can owe compensation. Now if a parent stored toxic waste in their house which caused their child to need an organ transplant, -that only that parent can give- even if this requires them to suspend their bodily autonomy, we should since it is the only compensation of any value to save the kids life. So Boonin didn’t think it’s not an unreasonable thing to ask.

    On 2;: at least I now know what the violinist analogy is. I think I’m basically a rule utilitarian at heart, which possibly makes me less interested in this type of thought experiment than some: the example is so rarefied that it scarcely seems worth making a rule about it, let alone allowing it to influence our judgement in relation to abortion. It does seem pretty clear that if the person did the kidnapping himself then he assumes responsibility for that person’s life, and yes I understand the analogy with abortion in the case of pregnancy due to consensual sex, but I also think it’s a bit stretched and of limited practical relevance. First of all, unwanted pregnancies are very common so from a “rule utilitarian” perspective it’s worth developing bespoke rules for this case to achieve what seems to be a good outcome, which is clearly not the case for our violinist.
    It just find “rule utilitarianism” odd in that we can and often do come up against novel moral situations especially when there is social or technological innovations. Just saying we haven’t come up against this before or not very often seems a poor stance for a moral account that must work in real world situations that can a do change. What about A.I. or aliens or artificial wombs; do we say it hasn’t happened so it is devoid of moral content? Regardless the whole point of thought experiments are to look at underlying moral principles and as you seem to admit the underlying principle is the same. If we also throw in Boonin’s toxic waste analogy the underlying moral principle for moral responsibility isn’t overcome, so it can be argued that bodily autonomy doesn’t invalidate moral responsibility in ALL situations.

    Secondly, people do all sorts of silly things when it comes to sex, especially when they are young, and it’s important not to let their lives be ruined as a result; by contrast, the person who kidnaps the violinist presumably did so very, very consciously, for the express purpose of keeping that person alive. Nothing “heat of the moment” about it, and with full knowledge of the consequences.

    Thanks an interesting take Peter, given what I’ve been arguing. One could after all argue that since a neonate has no moral value as a person, – & if any no more than just another sentient animal- and we don’t have a RULE to force people to give up any sentient animal they possess even if wanted by another party, we could use the ‘heat of the moment’ justification for any parent to get out of caring for their baby. In fact –while I do find it objectionable for the same reasons – we could also use the embryonic stem cell utility argument to use the baby as spare body parts. Regardless you just cannot use ‘heat of the moment’ excuses to avoid negative moral consequences. Put another way you can saying you can take a non person human life if it gets you out of serious life affecting circumstances.

    The problem for you is that you seem to rely on relational preferences and no cost to the agent justifications for things that don’t have equal moral value but since we don’t do that in general why should I let you do it for neonates and non person infants?

    That is a lot to chew on Peter so take your time and I really do appreciate teh tiem you have given so far.

  • SimonJM says:

    Sorry for the edit problems it posted the pre edit version.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Thanks for this Simon. That’s indeed a lot to chew on and I’m not going to attempt to cover all your points, but here are a few reactions.

    Firstly on rule utilitarianism, I was not suggesting – and it’s not an idea I associate with rule utilitarianism either – that we should not consider situations that may arise in the future (due to social or technological development or whatever) and think about the moral positions we may wish to take. My scepticism was rather directed at thought experiments that are artificial because highly idealised and not very realistic either in the present or any plausible future.

    Secondly on the racism analogy, the reason why marginal considerations are irrelevant in this case is that from the point of view of contemporary society – which of course includes both of us – there is no evenly balanced battle between competing principles.

    What I find more interesting is the following comment, which I think corresponds quite closely to my own moral intuition: “…once you take a position that you follow a certain ethical rule and justification one should either follow it or if you don’t like the consequences you change the rule. You certainly don’t make a rule that benefits your cultural perspective but then allow yourself to ignore it when you find it affects you negatively.”

    I would be worried if I was not able to justify my positions in a credible way whilst respecting this principle. Nevertheless I still think we need to distinguish between (i) claiming to follow an ethical rule and then ignoring it when it doesn’t suit, which we both agree should be avoided, and (ii) following rules that are based at least partly on emotional response and which others may find arbitrary. Clearly there are circumstances where the latter should also be avoided (a judge should not make decisions based on what mood he or she happens to be in that day, although I’m sure that happens…) but equally well I do not advocate trying to base all our moral decisions on grand principles. I think emotions (and consequently a certain degree of arbitrariness) have a legitimate role to play. We should just try to be honest about it, and appropriately aware of the wider consequences of our decisions.

    A further thought, which occurred to me even before I read your latest response, is that the philosophical debate on abortion at least in the US is probably driven to a significant extent by the need, in order to be politically relevant, to respect the principles enshrined in the constitution, including the principle of “inalienable rights”. While the language of rights is of course of far wider importance than just American politics, this may to some extent be distorting the debate.

    I say this because your core objection to my position seems to be that I am treating neonates and non-person infants differently from other sentient but non-person beings such as cats by appealing to relational preferences and no-cost-to-the-agent arguments to justify applying the general taboo against taking human life. This seems to me to be problematic only if the taboo is based entirely on a concept of “inalienable rights”. If instead we take a more sociological perspective and see this taboo as something that has developed as a means for societies to function in peace and prosperity, and assuming we ourselves value peace and prosperity, then perhaps we could be more comfortable accepting that we should indeed treat newborn babies differently from cats. The more so if we also allow emotional considerations to play a role (animal rights activities notwithstanding).

    One final thought about the “heat of the moment” argument: I half take your point but I would have thought the extent to which an action is premeditated or not DOES affect people’s perception of the moral implications, and consequently (in some cases at least) judicial consequences.

    Likewise many thanks for your contribution so far to what I have found an interesting and extremely thought-provoking debate (which I’m happy to continue as long as we are not irritating the site managers…….)

  • SimonJM says:

    Peter no, thank you for this opportunity it is a delight and I hope the site managers will allow this to continue if for no other reason they get to see a contrarian perspective from a strong left leaning secularist. There are so few of us around:) & sorry for the delay 12hr night shifts take a bit to recover from.

    “My scepticism was rather directed at thought experiments that are artificial because highly idealised and not very realistic either in the present or any plausible future.”

    But isn’t this the nature of most thought experiments whether they are people seeds, brain swaps or storing toxic waste? We are looking for the underlying principles that people often miss due to familiarity and socialization. If in some way the thought experiments had only theoretical implications and no real world relevance I would take your point, but we do in fact have babies being born as organ donors, continued need for organs, genetic trait selection, sex selection etc, plus a good likelihood of artificial wombs and A.I. So working out how we justify treating the current and future entities seems very relevant to me.

    “but equally well I do not advocate trying to base all our moral decisions on grand principles. I think emotions (and consequently a certain degree of arbitrariness) have a legitimate role to play.”

    Taken from some sort of absolutist stance that is what we may in fact be doing anyway, then it is just how consistently we apply that mixture of rules and emotion. While I know many disagree, Gobel’s work could be argued to imply that no moral system using logic can be both consistent and complete anyway, so you will always have some arbitrariness. Though even if you are a Jain and are more consistent IMO, it certainly would make life very hard to live. 🙂

    Regardless IMO using logic and rules create a contractual/duty relation regardless as to whether the original formulation came from emotional preferences. It is then whether you want to go where the rules leads you and have some ‘objectivity’ and equality under these rules or have the social dominant parts of society pic and choose what are, and arbitrarily when, to apply those rules to benefit themselves. I guess what I saying in some respect we are all in an absolute sense arbitrary, but we can at least then choose –or not choose- to be consistent with what we have picked.

  • SimonJM says:

    “This seems to me to be problematic only if the taboo is based entirely on a concept of “inalienable rights”.”

    Maybe, but you then get impaled on the other horn, for even if it is a combination of “inalienable rights” and something else say utility, no cost and or Preference Utilitarianism, that in itself creates its own problems for you. After all from your way of thinking a society based on Personhood rights through rights/desires that allows infanticide and unwanted neonate body banks, is perfectly justifiable and consistent especially when it is accepted by the majority.

    “If instead we take a more sociological perspective and see this taboo as something that has developed as a means for societies to function in peace and prosperity, and assuming we ourselves value peace and prosperity, then perhaps we could be more comfortable accepting that we should indeed treat newborn babies differently from cats. The more so if we also allow emotional considerations to play a role….”

    Again that would mean as long as there was utility and general social acceptance then infanticide can become a perfectly reasonable stance. Apart from that we could say the same for any racist, sexist speciesist or slave owning society. The problem with relational stances is that other people can use it arbitrarily as well.

    If one argues we all use relational stances and that maybe unavoidable –considering the is/ought gap- what one wants to do is use it in ‘weak’ consistent sense rather than a ‘strong’ arbitrary sense.

    Referring back to my set related problem of choosing a functionalist non arbitrarily applied moral in-group from a larger group -when you have members you want included that share functional capacities with those you exclude- the ONLY weakly arbitrary choice is to include those that share the same lowest capacity level as the lowest capacity members you have already chosen and claim the ‘moral’ high ground. So we would all have to be Jains!

    Or, on the other hand be relationally strongly arbitrary which allows others not only to pick their own rules but also be inconsistent on them as well, because if you won’t follow your own rules why should they?

    Nor IMO regarding cats and other life forms, will any reliance of personhood moral value ‘superiority’ help the situation.

    I’ve never really ever considered any argument that tries to calculate greater moral value for persons than non-persons robust, even if the relation between rights and desires seem intuitively robust. For even if you could aggregate some greater abstract value through having more sophisticated preferences or goals this still doesn’t in itself jump the is ought gap, especially since wellbeing interests are always context tied to that individual. In other words the life and wellbeing interests of a cow are always primary to that cow even if they pale in comparison in an aggregated or sophistication sense. We don’t after say that of coma victims who only have life at that moment even if they will recover.(BTW Boonin’s forumation doesn’t work IMO as wellbeing interests don’t have to be founded on desires)

  • Peter Wicks says:

    “Regardless IMO using logic and rules create a contractual/duty relation regardless as to whether the original formulation came from emotional preferences. It is then whether you want to go where the rules leads you and have some ‘objectivity’ and equality under these rules or have the social dominant parts of society pic and choose what are, and arbitrarily when, to apply those rules to benefit themselves. I guess what I saying in some respect we are all in an absolute sense arbitrary, but we can at least then choose –or not choose- to be consistent with what we have picked.”

    Yes, I think that more or less nails it: we are all in an absolute sense arbitary, but we can – indeed should – endeavour to ensure consistency between whatever rules we claim to follow and our moral positions on specific issues (but see the caveat at the end of this post).

    “After all from your way of thinking a society based on Personhood rights through rights/desires that allows infanticide and unwanted neonate body banks, is perfectly justifiable and consistent especially when it is accepted by the majority.”

    Here my emotions come into play. I find the idea of infanticide and unwanted neonate body banks repugnant, and I don’t see a compelling reason why we should deviate from our general taboo against taking human life in these cases. This is precisely because I DON’T base my position on this issue on personhood rights, rather on the tension between the taboo against taking human life (necessary for peace and prosperity) and the woman’s right to control her own body, coupled with more marginal considerations which become relevant where these principles can be said to (more-or-less) cancel each other out.

    “Again that would mean as long as there was utility and general social acceptance then infanticide can become a perfectly reasonable stance. Apart from that we could say the same for any racist, sexist speciesist or slave owning society. The problem with relational stances is that other people can use it arbitrarily as well.”

    Well yes, although we need to consider what we mean by “as long as there was utility”. The bottom line is that people CAN take arbitrary moral positions as long as they have the power to do so. The purpose of ethics is to get away from a pure, “might is right” law of the jungle, but this only works to the extent that all relevant actors share the same ethical principles and the same commitment to apply them consistently. If they don’t, they don’t. In fact this is a lesson that I has come hard from me (having been raised as a Christian and therefore with a concept of absolute, God-given morality): I take responsibility for my own actions, trying to align them with my values as far as possible. I may try to influence the actions of others, but ultimately they are responsible and not be.

    That being said, your general point is well taken: if I allow myself to be purely arbitrary in my own decisions, or worse still, claim to follow rules but then deviate from them whenever I feel like it, then I’m setting a poor example for others.

    In any case this is certainly making me think deeply about rights and personhood. Since the concept of rights plays such a fundamental role in Western civilisation it is important to be as clear as possible about how to define them, and in particular who they apply to. Nevertheless the criteria I would want to use to make such decisions are basically utilitarian ones. Perhaps the solution to set-related “group membership” problem is to allow for concentric circles. I just think it’s really important to allow ourselves to be interested in the welfare of animals (primates more than insects) and neonates/fetuses (neonates>late terms>early terms) without necessarily according them full human rights.

    And I agree with you about Gödel (and one can make an analogy also with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle): there will always be a trade-off between logical consistency and completeness (not to say practical relevance). We absolutely must allow ourselves a little bit of fuzziness.

  • SimonJM says:

    “rather on the tension between the taboo against taking human life (necessary for peace and prosperity) and the woman’s right to control her own body, coupled with more marginal considerations which become relevant where these principles can be said to (more-or-less) cancel each other out.”

    But do they?

    1. You seem to acknowledge the underlying principle of my Kidnapped Violinist –let alone Boonin- & no matter whether the analogy actually occurs –which is irrelevant- if the underlying principle holds there it should in pregnancy as well.

    2. If the value of a human life is purely relational any argument invoking ‘no cost’ is irrelevant as others are perfectly justified in not giving value to a human life if that is their preference. This is especially so if there is utility terminating that unwanted life. One could easily invoke all the financial and psychological stress justifications for early abortions for neonates, plus the utility ‘bonus’ of plenty of spare parts to save wanted lives. Combined with the fact people wanting something from you at ‘no cost’ isn’t considered a reason in itself to comply in general with anything. So even if a parent decided their preference was not to give relational value to the neonate, this doesn’t change anything.

    4. I would think overall for relational value to work it needs something else. But the taboo against taking human life on peace and prosperity grounds doesn’t provide that something else, as taking innocent human life in early abortion –even ones involving moral responsibility- hasn’t in fact decreased peace and prosperity. In fact one could easily argue from early abortions, that killing innocent unwanted humans –thereby avoiding all the unwanted stresses- does in fact create increased utility. Should the fact that one is internal and one external make a difference? It would appear from a utilitarian POV that this is hard to argue as the utility only becomes greater as not only do you relieve even more stresses -as one does in early abortions- but you get an abundant source of human parts for scientific research and organ donation. As utilitarian it seems to me you are obliged to go where the utility from infanticide takes you.

    Ok one could argue while the majority objects this greater utility is only theoretical, but in principle there is no reason why this couldn’t change. In fact I’ve already come across one article where an ‘extreme’ liberal sees this as the logical extension of current abortions reasoning.

    5.Finally you do seem to be saying one should be ethically consistent and not give yourself any extra ‘rights’. So regardless as how you feel about infanticide, since you are prepared to ignore what others feel -in a situation where in principle moral responsibility arguably still holds- you cannot be saying your feelings have relevancy and others don’t.

    “And I agree with you about Gödel (and one can make an analogy also with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle): there will always be a trade-off between logical consistency and completeness (not to say practical relevance). We absolutely must allow ourselves a little bit of fuzziness”

    You certainly cannot be saying you get to have ‘fuzziness’ but others don’t

  • SimonJM says:

    “Perhaps the solution to set-related “group membership” problem is to allow for concentric circles. I just think it’s really important to allow ourselves to be interested in the welfare of animals (primates more than insects) and neonates/fetuses (neonates>late terms>early terms) without necessarily according them full human rights.”

    I have to admit my ‘feelings’ are to want concentric circles –it would be very difficult to be a consistent Jain- it’s just I’ve yet to find a reason that doesn’t just make one a speciesist or developmentalist- one who arbitrarily picks a stage of human development as their moral in-group criterion.

    It might in fact be the case it is a binary situation-stemming from the set problem-; either you are moral and consistent -but in pragmatic sense exceptionally difficult – or pragmatically complete but amoral.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Just seen this Simon – was away for the weekend.

    As before I’ll make a rapid reaction before studying your comments in greater depth. The reaction I want to make now is that indeed I am not saying that my feelings have relevance and others don’t, or that I get to have “fuzziness” but other don’t. Rather that I believe it is both possible and necessary to find some kind of middle ground between the “consistent but practically useless” and “useful but completely arbitrary” extremes.

    One caveat to the above, though: I think it is fair that when it comes to determining my own moral positions on specific issues I give preference to my own moral intuitions – and these are the feelings I’m talking about here – over those of others. After all, they are MY moral positions. I also believe that recognising that these are always going to be, to some extent, arbitrary, helps me to engage constructively with people whose intuitions are different from my own. In a recent post here reference was made to a study that suggested that certain basic moral intuitions are innate and shared across gender, culture, race and age. One implication of this is that, provided that we recognise the limitations of our own moral intuitions and are willing to discuss and debate them freely and honestly, it should be relatively easy to come to consensus and compromise on most issues. Which IMO is a good thing if we want to hold out hope for human civilisation to survive the next 50 years or so at anything like the current levels of population and sophistication.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Some further reactions Simon.

    “others are perfectly justified in not giving value to a human life if that is their preference. This is especially so if there is utility terminating that unwanted life.”

    It depends what you mean by “justified”. If we agree that there is no absolute basis for morality then we must also accept that it is possible to construct a coherent morality that does not give value to human life (but also would not be “amoral”). One could, for example, decide to value only the welfare of koala bears. It’s just that such a moral position happens to conflict with some of my core values (and also those of most people).

    “I would think overall for relational value to work it needs something else. But the taboo against taking human life on peace and prosperity grounds doesn’t provide that something else, as taking innocent human life in early abortion –even ones involving moral responsibility- hasn’t in fact decreased peace and prosperity.”

    In rule utilitarianism we give value to complying with a general rule (that has been set on utilitarian grounds) even in cases where there may otherwise be (marginal) benefit in deviating from it. So what I’m basically arguing is that the direct effect on the woman’s physical integrity, i.e. her own body (whatever form of words we choose to describe her relation to the fetus) provides a sufficiently strong reason, at least in the case of early terms, to deviate from the general rule, while it may be considered not to for late terms and certainly not for neonates.

    “It would appear from a utilitarian POV that this is hard to argue as the utility only becomes greater as not only do you relieve even more stresses -as one does in early abortions- but you get an abundant source of human parts for scientific research and organ donation. As utilitarian it seems to me you are obliged to go where the utility from infanticide takes you.”

    I would rephrase this comment in the following way: if I am claiming that we should our moral positions entirely on whether something is conducive to peace and prosperity, then I need to apply this rule to infanticide and not only to abortion. However, firstly I’m not sure I AM claiming that, and secondly even if we are I’m not sure that the “body parts” argument is sufficiently strong one: as strong, in particular, as arguments concerning women’s right to control their own bodies.

    “Ok one could argue while the majority objects this greater utility is only theoretical, but in principle there is no reason why this couldn’t change.”

    Certainly it could change, so it’s important to consider the extent to which we have robust arguments, particularly if we are pro-choice on abortion, for opposing such change. But the majority view is important also for another reason, namely that it reveals something about our human moral intuitions (which, as noted in my previous comment, appear to be to some extent universal). In other words, it’s not only about my own feelings, it’s about how we all feel. And while obviously a lot of people are strongly opposed to abortion, I doubt that the situation is anywhere near as unanimous as it would be if anyone seriously started speaking out in favour of infanticide, particularly if we used as justification for killing babies the fact that we can then use them as spare parts.

    In summary, while it is certainly helpful to test the robustness of our positions on issues such as this from a rational perspective, it may actually more productive (“utile”?) to consider how we can distinguish, among the various motives for prevailing opinion on issues such as this, the fundamental moral intuitions that all or at least most of us share from more contingent factors such as familiarity, ill-founded religious beliefs and political fashion. If we could do this, then I think we really would be contributing to peace, prosperity and (hopefully) the survival of our civilisation.

  • SimonJM says:

    “In rule utilitarianism we give value to complying with a general rule….even in cases where there may otherwise be (marginal) benefit in deviating from it. So what I’m basically arguing is that the direct effect on the woman’s physical integrity, i.e. her own body provides a sufficiently strong reason, at least in the case of early terms, to deviate from the general rule, while it may be considered not to for late terms and certainly not for neonates.”

    Peter I’m trying desperately to see how any of this counters my objections.

    First this physical integrity still holds for the mother in regard to late terms and as I’ve said if we allow or disregard the psychological harms that can come about from early abortions a woman who feels strongly about her rights to her physical integrity will want to know why you wish to deprive her of it concerning something that is no more a person than an early foetus. Regardless as to viability, or the time left, these in no way overcome physical integrity.

    It’s just very strange to me after you arguing the primacy of physical integrity, you then say largely because how you or others feel -because of your arbitrary preferences and or certain moral intuitions- that you can then say you can overcome this physical integrity; and especially since you deny this to others who feel as strongly in regard the early foetus.

    Secondly can you honestly tell me that having numerous unwanted late terms or neonates to use as body banks or experimentation subjects would only be of ‘marginal’ benefit? Think of all the medical advances and lives that could be saved, or alternatively all the person non humans that could be saved from experimentation.

    “…if I am claiming that we should our moral positions entirely on whether something is conducive to peace and prosperity, then I need to apply this rule to infanticide and not only to abortion. However, firstly I’m not sure I AM claiming that, “

    I don’t think I’m saying you are, only that it is part of the moral calculation.

  • SimonJM says:

    “And while obviously a lot of people are strongly opposed to abortion, I doubt that the situation is anywhere near as unanimous as it would be if anyone seriously started speaking out in favour of infanticide, particularly if we used as justification for killing babies the fact that we can then use them as spare parts.”

    But Peter with due respect that’s not the point, whether there is or isn’t current support for it is neither here nor there, all I have to posit that in principle if that changes -& there is no logical reason why it couldn’t- given your posts you are obliged to accept it as a new societal norm.

    The way people feel/acceptance about it plus the utility which I argue would be substantial, combined with the facts that it doesn’t impinge on the two main justifications for abortion, non personhood or bodily autonomy means from your own values this would be OK.

    If like Singer you are in some way relying in a major way how society thinks/preferences/feels about a certain moral intuitions, then you shouldn’t object if -while still being consistent on other moral calculations- it changes to accommodate something you currently ‘feel’ is wrong.

  • SimonJM says:

    This is also something of great interest to me 🙂

    “But the majority view is important also for another reason, namely that it reveals something about our human moral intuitions”

    In a general game theory sense I would accept this, as even new borns or infants seem to intuitively know about fairness. But I wouldn’t take that view on any particular stance, because if you look over history as a whole, societies tend to think they are exceptional in their rationality or reasonableness about their societal norms, and not just as cultural norms built on precedent and local factors which they appear to be from hindsight.

    Let’s put it this way, we have had philosophy for some time now and even the best and brightest of these couldn’t overcome societal norms concerning things we now think as intuitively obvious, slavery, sexism, homosexuality etc. To me moral intuitions can only be a guide which is then critically examined for consistency.

    “Rather that I believe it is both possible and necessary to find some kind of middle ground between the “consistent but practically useless” and “useful but completely arbitrary” extremes”

    But how do you tell that it is the middle ground? 🙂

    “it may actually more productive (“utile”?) to consider how we can distinguish, among the various motives for prevailing opinion on issues such as this, the fundamental moral intuitions that all or at least most of us share from more contingent factors such as familiarity, ill-founded religious beliefs and political fashion. If we could do this, then I think we really would be contributing to peace, prosperity and (hopefully) the survival of our civilisation.”

    Exactly!!!

    I do think in light of all the recent work on social and personal cognitive biases that philosophy overall has to come to terms with the situation that if you have a strong cultural or personal bias you won’t be able to tell the difference between rationalizations and ‘objective reasoning.

    Descartes had his Demon, Bacon had his Idols of the Mind, and nothing has changed! That it is only in hindsight -for most people otherwise they run with the current crowd-and distanced from earlier ‘socialized’ thinking that the bias can be seen.

    Of course this is often more to do with logical consistency, as in an absolute sense no moral code is any more correct than any other, as you allude to with Koalas.

  • SimonJM says:

    How would we test for example our stances on my kidnapped violinist analogy?

    To me no matter how ‘unreal’ the situation the underlying principles still apply in non rape pregnancy, thereby undermining your primacy of physical integrity/bodily autonomy.

    For me whether it is people seeds or whatever, if the underlying principles hold and it invalidates my stance I have to bite that bullet.

    How do we tell that one of us isn’t accepting what the argument is telling him and rather resorting to an ad hoc fallacy or rationalization due to some bias?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Simon, I do agree that societies tend to think they are exceptional in their rationality or reasonableness about their societal norms, and in that context it is perfectly possible that I am resorting to some kind of ad hoc fallacy to justify my gut beliefs. I also take your points that (i) the potential benefits from using foetuses and/or newborns as body banks or experimentation is likely to be substantial, and that (ii) the current near-unanimous popular opposition to this practice could change in the future.

    More generally it is is clear that I have failed to convince you that I have a truly robust basis for condoning the current compromise on abortion while opposing any move towards permitting infanticide, and I understand your essential message as being that to be logically consistent (as opposed to resorting to an ad hoc fallacy) I have either to take a strict pro-life position or accept infanticide and probably even exploitation of and experimentation on foetuses and newborns. Assuming that I don’t wish to modify my current stance on these issues, one option would be to accept that my stance is indeed arbitrary, not only in the weak sense in which we both believe that ALL moral positions are ultimately arbitrary, but in the stronger sense that it is impossible to deduce them consistently from more general moral principles.

    I’m reluctant to do this, however, because I’m not yet convinced that it isn’t possible to do so, and in the mean time I do want to insist on the following points:

    1. I’m not arguing that concerns such as viability or “time left” overcome physical integrity. My idea is rather that they are marginal considerations that could plausibly be said to tip the balance between physical integrity and the taboo against taking human life.

    2. In my defence, the only sense in which I am putting my own preferences or moral intuitions ahead of anyone else’s is as guidance for my own moral positions. I expect others to do the same, and beyond that I respect the outcome of the democratic process.

    In this context it the latter context it may be interesting – but I suggest we take as being outside the scope of the present discussion! – to consider in what circumstances we consider it legitimate NOT to respect the outcome of the democratic process and engage in some kind of civil disobedience or direct action.

  • SimonJM says:

    Peter you have no idea what it means to have someone at least accept the validity of what I’m saying even if they disagree. 🙂

    “I’m not arguing that concerns such as viability or “time left” overcome physical integrity. My idea is rather that they are marginal considerations that could plausibly be said to tip the balance between physical integrity and the taboo against taking human life.”

    But aren’t they overcoming –in this circumstance- by tipping the balance? 🙂 Anyway at least as far as the ‘no cost’ argument by itself, it isn’t totally unreasonable; David Boonin takes this stance and I think he is one of the best liberal philosophers on this subject. It is just given how human life is tending to be valued in society–rights/desires-and as a consequences abortion justified, unless you universalize it and have some precedent for its application, I see no reason to accept it.

    “In my defence, the only sense in which I am putting my own preferences or moral intuitions ahead of anyone else’s is as guidance for my own moral positions. I expect others to do the same, and beyond that I respect the outcome of the democratic process.”

    I have no problem with that, and as you acknowledge the importance of consistency it is then a matter of each individual being able to critically examine those intuitions. The problem is though given historical precedent, it seems that the overwhelming majority of intelligent well educated morally sincere people, couldn’t do this. BTW I’m about to read ‘On Being Certain-Believing You Are Right Even When You Are Wrong’ Robert Burton, I wonder will brain scanners do the trick?

    “In this context it the latter context it may be interesting – but I suggest we take as being outside the scope of the present discussion! – to consider in what circumstances we consider it legitimate NOT to respect the outcome of the democratic process and engage in some kind of civil disobedience or direct action.”

    I do, where would you suggest?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Thanks Simon, I think we’re more or less there! Yes in a sense the marginal considerations are overcoming physical integrity, but it’s (imo) an important distinction that they do not do so on their own, only with the “help” of the general taboo against taking human life. I also take your point about the need to universalise concepts such as the “no cost” argument in order for it to be truly convincing in the sense we have discussed.

    I think I also basically agree with your comment on historical precedent, although we should be careful that we are not judging them unfairly according to our own values. Perhaps our problem is not that they were not logically consistent but rather that they came to conclusions that we find offensive.

    On continuing the discussion: two options spring to mind, (i) by commenting on other posts here that we find interesting, (ii) you can try to find me on facebook. I’m not sure how easy the latter is – let me know if you try and fail!

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