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Abortion and Equality

During the year I’ve just spent in the US, several of the ethical issues commonly discussed in the media – gay marriage, assisted suicide, whether there should be universal health care, along with several others – have seemed to me largely unproblematic in themselves. The main issue in each case is how to deal politically with the fact that many people have deeply mistaken views.

Abortion, however, is not one of these issues. Though I certainly believe abortion should be available free and on demand, deep ethical problems arise out of the apparent conflict between two serious interests: those of the fetus and those of the woman bearing it.

The weight of philosophical argument over the last five decades has been in favour of abortion. Here is one argument against. Note that it is an argument against, which may well be (and I believe is) outweighed by arguments for. The argument can be constructed on the basis of a principle of equality, or a principle requiring one to give priority to the worse off. The example I shall use is highly circumscribed, and the application of the argument to the actual world may therefore be quite limited especially in the case of equality, since how to measure equality is considerably more disputed than how to give priority to the worse off. And there are also philosophical assumptions which could be questioned – for example the notion that moral status attaches not only to actual persons or those with a currently exercised capacity for well-being, but to individuals with the potential for well-being or a capacity for well-being dependent on developing physical attributes. It’s perhaps also worth pointing out that standard versions of consequentialism or utilitarianism count against abortion in the case I describe.

Consider a world containing just two individuals: a woman, and the fetus she is carrying. The woman wishes to abort her fetus, and is able to do so. If she does so, she will live a life with a  high level of well-being; and her fetus will live a (very short) life at the zero level. If she does not, then she will live a life with a moderate level of well-being, and her fetus will live a life at a level slightly below that of the woman’s life.

Assume that these two outcomes are the only ones possible in this world. Then both equality and ‘prioritarianism’ appear to count against abortion. For if the woman aborts her fetus, she will bring about great inequality between herself and her fetus, and fail to give priority to the worse off.

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16 Comment on this post

  1. Are these the only two possibilities *at this instance in time*, or is there the possibility she could conceive again later?

    If she can conceive later, perhaps it will be at a time when both her and future fetus can live at a higher level of well-being, thus justifying abortion of her current fetus. If she can't, then whilst your argument seems valid for this thought-experiment world I don't think it has any relevance to reality.

  2. The problem with this approach is that we can't really predict how high or low the baby's or the woman's well-being would be. It seems highly speculative.

    Moreover, in order for this argument to work both of them must be in perfect lab conditions and have a flawless genetic constitution, I mean: neither the baby nor the mother can have any kind of health condition that could affect the well-being equation – a hydroencephalic baby or a mother with cervical insufficiency, just to give a few examples of the dangerous lottery that making babies is. Their social context should also be taken into the account, as a baby born in Somalia (or even from an unemployed 20 year old in London) would greatly reduce the mothers well-being.

    But considering how the world is today, I personally think that not letting it be born could also be a great gift to the fetus 🙂

  3. Anthony Drinkwater

    Hello Roger,
    I agree that the argument is interesting, and even wonder if it can be used as an RAA against utilitarianism. But as that's a tired old warhorse of mine, I'll let it drop and mention something else that your post inspires. Viz, selecting artificial, constrained cases for illustrating ethical arguments – the paradigm clearly being the whole series of trolley scenarios.
    I can see a certain logic in wanting to produce examples which are positioned as a sort of algebra of ethics in order to tease out universal truths rather than dirtying hands with messy individual cases. But I wonder whether this is really a valid approach : can ethics ever be non-contingent ?

    Most of us have never ever been alongside a fat man on a bridge, nor alongside the control levers of railway points, faced in front of a runaway train, nor have we ever known of a world whose only inhabitant is a pregnant woman. And we are never likely to be.

    However it is not unlikely that we should be faced with an important decision to be made in the best interests of a person who is incapable of making their own decision due to senility, brain damage or stroke. In fact, I’m currently in exactly this position, and my ethical clockwork has never had to turn faster. And I’m sure that thousands of others have been, or will find themselves, in a similar position

    Should ethicists remain detached and abstracted from the world ? Or shouldn’t they, as Charles Foster stated : “…be street – or ward – evangelists …….(with an) emphasis on ‘normal people’, and the need to introduce them ‘to topics which I think are important to themselves, to free them from religious wrong assumptions or illogical thoughts…’ We (by which I mainly mean I) so easily forget that patients and potential patients are the real substrate of bioethics.” (

    Personally I have some difficulty in concluding that there’s nothing practical about ethics.

  4. I find your use of the phrase "deeply mistaken views" a little puzzling; it seems very incurious to dismiss relatively mainstream (in America, anyways) as just due to irrationality. Afterall, there are many Americans who straight up do not like homosexuality, are uncomfortable with it and so for them it would be entirely rational for them to be opposed to extending more civil rights to gays.

  5. Staying in the abstract realm of the thought experiment, I have a difficulty in grasping the comparison between the moderate or sub-moderate wellbeing potential of a fetus pre-terminations and the zero wellbeing of a terminated fetus.

    I can see that by not existing, a subject's wellbeing (as well as suffering) can be assumed by materialists to be non-existent. By that token it can be set as a zero.

    But if allowed to exist, how can the subject compare the benefits and drawbacks of existing against non-existence? Is any experience – including continual suffering – always going to be rated higher than zero, or is there an equilibrium between joy and suffereing which can be equal to the zero of non-existence? Or would it be incoherent rate the zero of non-existence as equivalent to the zero of nirvana? Do we only count wellbeing as having fallen below zero for an individual if they take the decision to kill themselves because of their personal evaluation of their own current and potential wellbeing? I am not sure how coherent or useful this metric is.

    I would assume that my opposition to being murdered can be taken as evidence that I rate my wellbeing above zero. Yet if I, even fully grown (and in the same kind of abstract thought experiment where you posit only 2 individuals in a materialist universe, myself and my potential killer) were to consider the hypothetical of being killed when I am anyway unconscious (perhaps in deep sleep) and experience no pain from being murdered, then I cannot see the grounds for my personal opposition to being killed. Is that an ideosyncratic result or would others undertaking the thought experiment share a similar intuition?

  6. <em>"world containing just two individuals: a woman, and the fetus she is carrying"</em>
    I think this phrase is flawed right from the beginning: there are not "two individuals" but only one: a pregnant woman… carrying within her body and totally linked to and dependant on it, the "fruit of her womb". . . The fetus is not freely floating at the side of the woman, like an astronout.

  7. Thanks, all. A few quick responses.

    Matt: I was assuming later conception wasn't an option. But even if it was, equality and priority probably speak in favour of not aborting now, since it's hard to see how such principles include merely possible people within their scope.

    Theo: I admit the example is highly artificial, but I was assuming that the facts were as I stated them in this imagined world.

    Anthony: My own view on philosophical examples is that they can be useful in enabling us to grasp abstract principles which are necessary and a priori. So the mere fact that some principle is in acccordance with our intuitions about some example matters little if at all. This needn't make ethics impractical, as the principles in question may have practical implications.

    Gringoguide: I was merely stating my own reaction. My view is that those who oppose extending civil rights to gays are clearly mistaken. That they or others cannot see this does not mean their mistake isn't clear. Sometimes people cannot grasp what is obvious.

    Arif: You raise some difficult problems about the correct conception of well-being, and how to compare levels of well-being. I suppose all I can say is that on most of the common views of well-being, my argument appears to go through.

    Anna-Maria: I agree that the two individuals I postulate are of course closely connected. Imagine that someone shows you an ultrasound picture of the fetus from which you, as you now are, developed. Wouldn't you be inclined to think that you were looking at a picture of yourself, at the fetal stage?

    1. I agree with Anne-Marie. The current fetus/embryo is a 'merely possible' person. If it's at a late stage of development, then it could conceivably be sentient, and therefore be considered more valuable than a different future fetus/embryo. If it's not, then there is no reason to favour the current one over any future one.

    2. Anthony Drinkwater

      Sorry, Roger, but I don't understand your reply.
      I think I understand that you claim that extreme examples help us to understand abstract principles. (I'm not sure whether the claim that these priciples are a priori is the same as the claim that they are necessary….)
      But more importantly, wbat exactly are these principles ? And, even more importantly, why should we bother with them ?
      If I understand your following statement, it claims that our intuitions are sometimes in conflict with these principles, and that it is the abstract principles which are right. I'm not at all sure that this follows : if abstract principles derived from articial, constrained, extreme, examples are in conflict with "intuition" why should we conclude that it is intuition that is wrong ?
      To return to my original point, why base ethics on artificial cases rather than on real, concrete, ethical problems that many of us face in the real world ?

  8. "hard to see how such principles include merely possible people within their scope" – YOU are including merely possible people in your reasoning! An embryo is no more than a potential person.
    A world with just 1 woman and her embryo… doesnt sound like very much worth living… At least I would prefer one with at least 1 man in plus.
    In my view, those who see women just as breeding machines for embryos (I would call this servitude and slavery) are clearly mistaken.
    "Wouldn’t you be inclined to think that you were looking at a picture of yourself, at the fetal stage?" – no not really. Have a look at these pictures: Moreover you are not getting my point: there are no 2 individuals but only 1: a pregnant woman. She is not 2 individuals…

  9. Interesting debate.

    As you might expect given my self-description as a "moral subjectivist", I'm with Anthony on the issue of intuition vs "necessary/a priori principles", and Roger's reply to gringoguide to me illustrates just what is wrong with the moral realist idea that there are "true" moral principles to which we must appeal even when they conflict at the most fundamental level with our intuition. There is no evidence whatsoever that such principles exist. They can be postulated, but so can their negations, and there is no arbiter (other than subjective intuition) between them. If our intuitions lead to logically inconsistent results or are based on false empirical assumptions that is a different matter, but to say "if you don't agree with me that's because you're stupid" without offering any evidence or argument is simply arrogant.

    So for example, gringoguide is perfectly correct in pointing out that for those who "straight up do not like homosexuality [and] are uncomfortable with it" it is "entirely rational for them to be opposed to extending more civil rights to gays". A utilitarian such as myself would certainly take issue with them (unless they can somehow convince me that a rule against homosexuality in this modern era is conducive to overall well-being), but that doesn't make them wrong. It just means they have different values.

    On the other hand I don't altogether share Anthony's scepticism regarding the value of rarified thought experiments. The analogy with algebra (and mathematical modelling generally) is a good one. What we are trying to do is to tease out some general principles that tend to be obscured by the complexity of more realistic situations, and precisely *see where our intuitions lead us* in those (rarified) cases. This then yields insights that help us to steer our way more confidently through real life. It's a bit like practising a shot at sport: you perfect it in tightly controlled conditions, and then seek to apply it in the rough and tumble of an actual game.

    OK and I can't resist rising to Anthony's bait, even if it was retracted in the following sentence! No this can't be used as an RAA against utilitarianism! To do so you would have to show that utilitarianism leads to "obviously wrong" (i.e. absurd) results in this case, but how are we defining "obviously wrong"? If it involves some reduction in overall well-being, then it is not a result of correctly-applied utilitarianism. If it doesn't, then why is it "obviously wrong"?

    1. Thanks again to all of you for your comments.

      Anne-Marie and Matt: I was using 'person' in the non-philosophical sense, where it just means the same as 'human individual'. You're quite right, of course, that an early fetus isn't a person in the sense which means something like a sentient or rational individual. There are of course problems with positions that permit abortion on the ground that it is not the killing of a person in this philosophical sense — for example, it might be hard to forbid early infanticide. But in general I think our disagreement bears out the main thrust of my piece — which was that we have here a genuine moral problem, one which turns on basic and disputed issues in metaphysics as well as ethics.

      Anthony and Peter: I agree with you that merely asserting certain principles dogmatically isn't a helpful approach. But there are things we can do to check the principles we hold: they should be consistent and clear, for example, and we should reflect them as impartially as we can. Myself, I think there are a very few principles we can justifiably claim to know: e.g. the principle that a sentient being has a reason to avoid pain to herself. I certainly don't think we know anything about abortion — there's too much disagreement about it. But we can report how things appear to us, and that is what I was doing in my original post. For more on this, there's no better source than Henry Sidgwick's *Methods of Ethics*, 7th edn., pp. 338-42. And I say a little about my epistemological views in the chapter on knowledge in my *Reasons and the Good*.

      1. Thanks Roger. Consistent, clear, impartial: yes, these are qualities I also value, mainly because it is difficult to see how we can possibly steer humanity towards acceptable, let alone bright, futures without them. I also enjoy them in an aesthetic sense, but that's my problem rather than anyone else's: it's not a reason why anyone else should value them.

        So I'm essentially reporting three things as they appear to me:

        (i) my own aesthetic preference for consistency, clarity, and impartiality;
        (ii) my belief that these qualities are necessary to steer humanity towards bright futures (not everyone needs to have them, but at least a critical mass);
        (iii) my preference for bright futures (where obviously the term "bright" needs some definition, but it will need to involve happy and satisfied human or humanlike beings).

        Only the second of these points is a claim about the external world. The third is the closest thing I have to a moral compass. The first, as noted above, is a preference that I would put on a par with (e.g.) sexual orientation or how I like to dress.

        By the way, where does masochism fit in with the idea that a sentient being has reason to avoid pain to her/himself?

        1. Thanks, Peter. You raise a very difficult problem here — the relation of practical to epistemic reasons. I'm inclined to think that we have practical reasons to engage in those epistemic practices which will bring us closest to acting in the light of our non-derivative practical reasons. Whether seeking impartiality etc. will do that remains to be seen. (We shall not know, of course, since the answer could become clear if at all only at the end of history.)

          On masochism. Perhaps I should have said 'suffering' rather than 'pain'. Or perhaps a masochist has reason to avoid pain, but overall reason to seek it because of the pleasure it brings with it.

          1. Thank Roger. On the whole I agree with you, but why the end of history? Assuming we are all dead by then (i.e. transhumanist dreams do not come to pass) we won't know anything. My version of consequentialism is one in which we take account of consequences over timescales on which they are reasonably predictable. Beyond that, better to let the future take care of itself? (Come to think of it, don't we have to be dead at the end of history by definition?)

  10. Thx Peter. I suppose one might know at the very moment history came to an end — but there is of course a paradox of time lurking there. I see consequentialism as primarily about the best way for history to go, with any decision-procedure emerging out of that. Hence the problem!

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