abortion

Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”

By Brian Earp

See Brian’s most recent previous post by clicking here.

See all of Brian’s previous posts by clicking here.

Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.

Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”

Rick Santorum thinks that birth control is immoral. Santorum, a former Senator from Pennsylvania, is one of two human beings – if the polls have it right – likeliest to become the Republication nominee for President of the United States this election cycle.

Continue reading

Practical Ethics Given Moral Uncertainty

Practical ethics aims to offer advice to decision-makers embedded in the real world.  In order to make the advice practical, it typically takes empirical uncertainty into account.  For example, we don’t currently know exactly to what extent the earth’s temperature will rise, if we are to continue to emit CO2 at the rate we have been emitting so far.  The temperature rise might be small, in which case the consequences would not be dire.  Or the temperature rise might be very great, in which case the consequences could be catastrophic.  To what extent we ought to mitigate our CO2 emissions depends crucially on this factual question.  But it’s of course not true that we are unable to offer any practical advice in absence of knowledge concerning this factual question. It’s just that our advice will concern what one ought to do in light of uncertainty about the facts.

 

But if practical ethics should take empirical uncertainty into account, surely it should take moral uncertainty into account as well.  In many situations, we don’t know all the moral facts.  I think it is fair to say, for example, that we don’t currently know exactly how to weigh the interests of future generations against the interests of current generations.  But this issue is just as relevant to the question of how one ought to act in response to climate change as is the issue of expected temperature rise.  If the ethics of climate change offers advice about how best to act given empirical uncertainty concerning global temperature rise, it should also offer advice about how best to act, given uncertainty concerning the value of future generations.

 

Cases such as the above aren’t rare.  Given the existence of widespread disagreement within ethics, and given the difficulty of the subject-matter, we would be overconfident if we were to claim to be 100% certain in our favoured moral view, especially when it comes to the difficult issues that ethicists often discuss.

 

So we need to have an account of how one ought to act under moral uncertainty.  The standard account of making decisions under uncertainty is that you ought to maximise expected value: look at all hypotheses in which you have some degree of belief, work out the likelihood of each hypothesis, work out how much value would be at stake if that hypothesis were true, and then trade off the probability of a hypothesis’ being true against how much would be at stake, if it were true.  One implication of maximizing expected value is that sometimes one should refrain from a course of action, not on the basis that it will probably be a bad thing to do, but rather because there is a reasonable chance that it will be a bad thing to do, and that, if it’s bad thing to do, then it’s really bad.  So, for example, you ought not to speed round blind corners: the reason why isn’t because it’s likely that you will run someone over if you do so.  Rather, the reason is that there’s some chance that you will – and it would be seriously bad if you did.

 

With this on board, let’s think about the practical implications of maximising expected value under moral uncertainty.   It seems that the implications are pretty clear in a number of cases. Here are a few.

 

1.

One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to kill animals for food.  But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong.  And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as murder.  So, in killing an animal, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside.  This would be morally reckless.  So one ought not to kill animals for food.

 

2.

One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to have an abortion, for reasons of convenience.  But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong.  And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as murder.  So, in having an abortion for convenience, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside.  This would be morally reckless.  So one ought not to have an abortion for reasons of convenience.

 

3.

One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to spend money on luxuries, rather than giving it to fight extreme poverty.  But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong.  And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as walking past a child drowning in a shallow pond.  So, in spending money on luxuries, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside.  This would be morally reckless.  So one ought not to spend money on luxuries rather than giving that money to fight poverty.

 

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.

How are future generations different from potential persons?

A debate piece in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter by the philosophers Nicholas Espinoza and Martin Peterson (autotranslated version) on abortion rights has led to strong reactions in the Swedish blogosphere. The authors make two claims: First, that even people with liberal values can take issue with current abortion rights because it involves a goal conflict between the interests of present and future individuals in having their legitimate desires fulfilled. Second, that the binary view that things must be either allowed or banned is wrong, and that there exists a third domain where laws should take moral ambiguity or internal conflict into account. Their suggestion is that women who end up in situations in this third domain should neither be helped nor hindered by society, and should be allowed to end their pregnancies at clinics where the fee is proportional to their ability to pay. The short article seems tailored to anger holders of practically every view, although I suspect the authors mainly felt it was more of an interesting argument than a deliberate golden apple. Here is a small bite on the green half of the apple: is climate and abortion ethics comparable?

Continue reading

Solving the Puzzle of the Moral Status of the Embryo and Fetus

In March 2006, 21 yo Cleveland man Christopher Challancin was driving home from a party with his 17 yo girlfriend, Jessica Karos. She was 4 months pregnant. They began to argue about her ability to care for their child. Challancin, who had been drinking, became angry. He began to weave high speed through traffic and crashed. Karos was left paralysed.  The baby died. Challancin was unhurt. Because he killed the baby, he was charged with homicide and sentenced to five years.

In 2005, Alison Miller and Todd Parrish sued their fertility clinic in Chicago. They had been having IVF treatment back in 2002 and stored 9 embryos. One of these was “mistakenly” discarded. The clinic apologised and offered the couple a free cycle of IVF. They sued for the “wrongful death” of their embryo.

Every year, about 100 000 fetuses are aborted. No one is charged over these deaths. Thousands of embryos are also destroyed. The law on IVF in England and Australia requires their destruction after a period of time, 5 to 10 years.

How can killing a fetus at once be homicide and yet no crime at all? How can the destruction of embryos be required by law and widely practised but also, in some places, the crime of wrongful death? How can one act – killing early human life – be both right and wrong? This is the puzzle of social practice involving early human life.

Continue reading

Authors

Subscribe Via Email

Affiliations