Torbjörn Tännsjö Thou Shalt Sometimes Murder!

Download 1.15 Mb.
Size1.15 Mb.
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   11
If a woman feels that she doesn't want to take care of her expected child, is it then morally permissible for her to have an abortion?
Chinese Russians Americans

yes 36% 61% 34%

no 58% 33% 62%

don't know 6% 6% 4%


Doctor Killed During Abortion Protest

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 1993; Page A01

PENSACOLA, FLA., MARCH 10 -- A doctor was shot to death outside his abortion clinic here today when a man who prayed for the physician's soul stepped forward from a group of antiabortion protesters and opened fire, according to police and witnesses.

David Gunn, 47, was shot three times in the back after he got out of his car at the Pensacola Women's Medical Services clinic, according to Pensacola police. He died during surgery at a local hospital.

This morning, police initially were called to simply squelch an antiabortion protest at the clinic. When they arrived, police said, Michael Frederick Griffin, 31, of Pensacola told them he had just shot Gunn.

Griffin, dressed in a gray suit, quietly surrendered to police, who said they took his .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver. Griffin was arrested and charged with murder and is being held in Escambia County jail.

Don Treshman, head of the antiabortion group Rescue America in Houston, told the Associated Press that Griffin yelled "Don't kill any more babies," just before the shooting this morning.


Few issues relating to the ethics of killing raise such strong feelings as abortion. While some women claim that it is their right to terminate the pregnancy they carry, others are prepared to kill physicians, who perform abortions, in order to see to it that justice is done. Here the rationale behind both these stances, as well as others will be discussed.

I suspect that, would some of those people, who believe that abortion is a permissible solution to rather trivial practical problems, come to read this book on the ethics of killing, they would not feel comfortable with stumbling upon a chapter on abortion in it. They tend not to think of abortion as (morally permissible) killing, let alone as (morally permissible) deliberate killing of innocent human beings. They prefer to describe abortion differently, in a manner allowing that there is no mention of killing at all. And yet, for reasons to be explained in this chapter, the chapter does deserve to appear in the book. It is not at all far-fetched to speak of abortion as intentional killing of (innocent) human beings. It should be noted, however, that the classification of abortion as killing of innocent human beings does not settle the moral matter. Some think that abortion is wrong in principle. Are they right? In order to find out we need to find out if the principle upon which they base their judgement is true or not. Some argue that abortion is sometimes right (permissible killing), sometimes wrong (wrongful killing). They owe us an answer to the question when it is right and why, in such cases, it is right. And correspondingly to when and why it is wrong.

Again I turn to the three by now well-known families of theories, in search of answers to these questions. As we will see, new aspects of these theories surface in the present context.

It should be noted that our intuitive responses to a phenomenon such as abortion are likely to be heavily influenced by our cultural background. Almost two thirds of the Russians see abortion as legitimate solution for a woman who feels that she doesn’t want to take care of her expected child, while only one third (roughly) of the Americans and the Chinese make the same judgement. I have earlier results for Sweden indicating that among Swedes, 83 per cent see abortion in situations such as these as acceptable (among Swedes who vote for the Christian Democratic Party, the morally speaking most conservative party in Sweden, 75 per cent gave the same answer!). The present author, then, has grown up in a, in its view on abortion, very liberal culture.

In relation to abortion the two versions of deontology, Kantianism and the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine part company. According to Kant it is wrong to kill innocent rational beings. Foetuses are not among them. There is no indication that Kant would have objected on any principled grounds to abortion. He has not explicitly discussed the subject, however, so I will say no more of Kantianism in this chapter. According to the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine, however, it is wrong (absolutely) intentionally to kill an innocent human being. This idea invites the question: when does human life begin? A standard answer among recent advocates of this theory is: at conception. It used to be different. Traditionally Roman Catholics abided by the verdict by Aristotle and claimed that the foetus received its soul (or form) during pregnancy (with a difference between male and female foetuses: at 40 days and 90 days for males and females respectively). I see the recent version of the doctrine as an improvement (informed by biological thinking) on the earlier version, and I will hence speak no more of the earlier one. We should not hold it against the advocates of the theory that they have shown capable of learning from the progress of science.

However, the question remains to be answered, whether this is a plausible answer. Does human life begin at conception? I think it does. It means that I who write this have been a just fertilized egg, an embryo, and a foetus — before I became a philosopher. I have not been an egg or a sperm, however. At conception a new organism started its life, with its own genome (or ‘form’, as Aristotle would have said), responsible for much of its development, from beginning until death.

There are several ways of making sense of the answer that human life begins at conception. Here some distinctions are helpful. Some people (let us call them human essentialists) believe that there is a true answer to the question what kind a creatures we humans are. Others (let us call them human nominalists) think that there is no fact of the matter in this regard; there is nothing to be right and wrong about, when the question is posed. We may choose to speak about this in the manner we like. Being human, according to them, is not a natural kind. Me being human is not like water’s being H2O. Human essentialists, on the other hand, believe that our being human is similar to water’s being H2O.

Human essentialists and nominalists may hold roughly two kinds of views about what it means to be human (even if it reflects, among the nominalists, only a manner of speaking). They may hold that humans are organisms (animalism) or they may hold that humans are spiritual or psychological entities. Given the answers to these questions we may also pose questions about human (personal) identity. When are two instances of a human being instances of the same human being? The answer to this question depends on the answer to the former question, about our ‘nature’.

As far as I can see, only an essentialist answer to the questions what we are, to the effect that, basically, we are psychological (spiritual) entities, or at least entities held together by mental traits, such as memories, poses a threat to the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine. Such a view is inconsistent with the claim that I have been an embryo. The embryo had no psychological traits at all. So it cannot, on this view, have been a human entity at all. And since it had no mental traits I share no mental traits with it whatever. Hence, I am not identical to it.

However, this view is doubly problematic. It is problematic in being essentialist and it is problematic in having the content it has. So there are two ways for the adherent of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine to defend the claim that human life begins at conception against this view. One is to reject human essentialism and argue that, this is just the way the adherents of the view are using the words (when putting forward their moral view). When they speak of innocent human beings, they refer to human organisms, period.115 Or, they may claim that, essentially, we human beings are organisms.116 Many philosophers would grant them either of these premises, and very few would question both of them, so I will not quarrel with the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine on this account. Metaphysically speaking the doctrine makes good sense.

Having said this some caveats must be made. First of all, not all human beings need to begin their life at conception. Human reproductive cloning is a possibility today. What if a human being is constructed through reproductive cloning, when does it begin its human life? At cloning, the adherent of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine should claim. When the egg has been provided with its new genome and starts dividing, then a human being has come into existence.

Here is another caveat. Some embryos divide. The result is twins. When does the life of each twin begin? At twinning, the advocate of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine should say (and often says). This means that the original organism has ceased to exist (in the same manner that the egg and the sperm cease to exist at fertilization). Twinning is the end of one human organism and the beginning of two new ones. All this makes good metaphysical sense.

Finally we have the placenta. It is genetically identical to the foetus. Does this mean that it is a part of the foetus? I think the advocates of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine should claim that it is indeed a part of the foetus, a part foetus/child looses when it has no use for it any more (at birth).


It makes sense to claim, then, that human beings are organisms (animalism). But the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine makes the further claim that, being human (being a human organism), means that you possess a certain value or dignity. Your life is sacred. No one is allowed intentionally to kill you — for whatever reason. How can this theory be defended?

Some religious advocates of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine may have argued in the following way:

(1) Man is created in the image of Good

(2) Whatever is created in the image of Good has — for this very reason — a special value or dignity


(3) Hence, man has a special value or dignity

Even if valid, this is not a sound argument. Each one of the premises of it is false (I would claim). Moreover, I think many adherents of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine would reject it. Many would reject the first premise. Even if they are religious believers they take ideas such as the one expressed in (1) in a metaphorical sense. And many who believe in the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine are not religious believers at all. They believe that (1) is false. They still hold on to (3). Moreover, some who accept (1) and (3), may still believe that (2) is false. They may see (2) as an expression of wishful thinking. So I do not think it wise for adherents of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine to rely at all on this argument.

Others have defended the idea that we humans possess a certain value or dignity, and hence immunity against being killed, with reference either to our typically human mental capacities, or else with reference to our potentiality for developing such capacities (possessed also by embryos and foetuses).117 The idea is that any entity, capable of developing a mental state like ours, must not be killed.

Does this also include couples of eggs and sperms? It does not. They can provide material for entities with an ordinary human mental life, but they cannot develop into such entities. The egg and the sperm are lost in the processes when a foetus is created. The foetus, on the other hand, develops, under appropriate circumstances, into a grown up human being.

But what are we then to say of human embryos or foetuses that, for genetic reasons, will never develop these capacities? Should we say that we are allowed to kill them? This is what is implied by this theory. Moreover, if our moral status, and our immunity to being killed, is given by the fact that we are entities (organisms) with a potential for rational thought, then it is also permissible to kill adults lacking this potential. This is clearly not a typical version of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine, but still a version deserving to be taken seriously.

Do the adherents of the doctrine at all need an argument to the effect that human beings have a special moral standing? In the final analysis, I don’t think they need one. If the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine is plausible, this is not something that can be shown by any simple argument. On the contrary, the theory must be put to crucial tests, in the way I do in this book, in many different situations. If any support can be gained for it, this support must be inductive rather than deductive in nature.

However, to the extent that there are good arguments against the theory that humans are special, possess dignity, and must therefore not be intentionally killed, the adherents need to answer them. In particular, there seems to be one argument often put forward against them, which they need to address. This is the argument that their theory is, in its standard interpretation with a focus on all human life and on human life exclusively, in a derogatory sense of the word, ‘speciesist’.

The Oxford psychologist Richard Ryder has coined the expression ‘speciesism’.118 It has found a place in the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as: ‘discrimination against or exploitation of certain animal species by human beings, based on an assumption of mankind’s superiority’.

Does the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine amount to speciesism? I suppose it does. The doctrine makes a difference (discriminates) between human and nonhuman beings on the assumption of mankind’s (moral) superiority. But this is just a characterization of the theory. What is wrong with speciesism? Here is an attempt to answer this question, made by Peter Singer:

Why isn’t species a legitimate reason? For essentially the same reason as we now exclude race or sex. The racist, sexist and speciesist are all saying: the boundary of my group also marks a difference of value. If you are a member of my group, you are more valuable than if you are not — no matter what other characteristics you may lack. Each of these positions is a form of group protectiveness, or group selfishness.119
This sounds problematic, if true. The idea seems to be that the relevant group is defined in an ostensive manner, by enumeration of the members. But is this true of the idea, held by adherents of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine? Do they hold that they are special, whatever other characteristics (apart from being members of the group) they hold? Do they define the group to which they belong through a simple enumeration of its members?

I think not. Should it transpire, through some genetic test, that a typical adherent of the theory were not truly human, then her belief that she is special would wither; she would admit that she lacks special moral standing. Here life is not sacred. But then her view is not, in the derogatory sense given by Singer, ‘speciesist’.

Yet, for all that, she may be mistaken when she claims that being human grants a special moral standing. But this is true of all answers to the question what it takes to have a special moral standing. They may all be mistaken. However, the mistake need not be as simple as the one characterized by Singer. And, once again, it is hard to believe that the mistake, if it is a mistake, can be exposed through a simple argument. We need here a more inductive approach.


Given an animalist understanding of what it means to be human it is in many cases very easy to settle whether a certain individual (be it an embryo, a foetus, or a grown up) is human or not. We know roughly how to distinguish members of the human species from members of other species. This may have been more difficult in earlier times, however, when Homo sapiens walked the earth together with other closely related species such as the Neanderthal. As a matter of fact, when I am writing this, I stumble upon the following in The New York Times:
Neanderthals mated with some modern humans after all and left their imprint in the human genome, a team of biologists has reported in the first detailed analysis of the Neanderthal genetic sequence.

The biologists, led by Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have been slowly reconstructing the genome of Neanderthals, the stocky hunters that dominated Europe until 30,000 years ago, by extracting the fragments of DNA that still exist in their fossil bones. Just last year, when the biologists first announced that they had decoded the Neanderthal genome, they reported no significant evidence of interbreeding. (6 May, 2010)

Is this, according to the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine, a threat to our moral standing? Moreover, future experiments with genetic engineering may put even harder stress on the theory. Today we often resort to the notion of transhumanism in our discussion in bioethics. The day may not be so far when transhumans walk the earth. And what are the adherents of the theory to say of seemingly human individuals, who differ genetically from the rest of us, for example by having an extra chromosome? Are people with Down’s syndrome human beings? No, Martin Luther would have answered (more about this in the chapter on animal ethics). Yes, most contemporary advocates of the doctrine tend to argue. But how are we to settle such a dispute?

Here is a final problem with the reference to our human species. Our classification of species seems to allow that two individuals, who are qualitatively indiscernible, belong to different species (which have developed independently of each other in different places in space). In order to belong to the same species, we need to have common ancestors. But could such an extrinsic historical fact be of moral relevance, one may wonder.120

It is clear that the vagueness of the doctrine in this respect poses a problem for it. If we want to claim that the doctrine gives the best explanation of the content of our considered particular intuitions in some field, it must count against this claim that he doctrine lacks precision. It is also problematic that it grants moral importance to a notion that is extrinsic in the sense just given.


Given the answer to the question when human life begins, the implications from the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine for abortion are straightforward. To the extent that abortion means the intentional killing of the foetus, it is wrong. It is no better than murder. It is murder. And the same is true of the intentional destruction of embryos at the IVF -clinic.

There is some room for abortion, however, with reference to the principle of double effect. If the uterus of a pregnant woman is removed, in order to save her life, the death of the foetus (in the uterus) that results, can be seen as a merely foreseen side effect. Even in rare cases where the foetus’s head is crushed (craniotomy) in order to save the mother’s life it is reasonable to claim that the death of the foetus is not intended, but merely foreseen.121

This does not in itself settle the question of whether the procedure was morally permissible, however. The foreseen bad side effect (the death of the foetus) must stand in a reasonable proportion to the good intended effect (the saving of the life of the woman). The doctrine has no clear answer to offer in this regard and this, again, is a problem if we want to argue that it gives the best explanation of the content of our considered intuitions in some field.

I suppose that, if the foetus would die even if left in the uterus of the women (if the procedure was not undertaken), since it would die with the woman, then the requirement of proportionality would indeed be fulfilled. However, what if the foetus could be saved, at the cost of the life of the woman? Suppose it would be possible to allow the baby to be born, but that it would then be too late to save the mother. Then it would be difficult to defend the claim that the proportionality requirement had been fulfilled, if the foetus was sacrificed for the sake of the mother. Why is the life of the pregnant woman more important than the life of the foetus? I think the adherent of the doctrine must argue that it is not any more important.

It should be noted — and it has often been noted — that the doctrine implies that abortion is wrong, even in the case where the pregnancy is the result of rape. The foetus is an innocent human being, and hence it must not be killed. It is not responsible for being in the woman’s womb in the first place. The rapist should be punished, when the pregnancy is the result of rape, not the foetus.

It goes without saying that the advocate of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine does not only hold that abortion is immoral (murder). As we know, they want abortion to be prohibited by law (in the way that murder is prohibited by law).

Some have had problems with the implication of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine that abortion is just as bad as murder (that it is murder). Could one not claim that, even if foetuses should not be killed, it is worse to kill an adult than a foetus?

Ronald Dworkin has, somewhat unexpectedly, defended such a soft version of the doctrine. Now, Dworkin is a well-known advocate of a moral rights theory, so one my wonder why he is defending the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine in the first place. As a matter of fact, I am not quite certain how serious his defence of (a revised version of it) is. In his argument it is combined with a moral rights theory. Hence, there are two kinds of reasons why we should not commit murder, one of them has to do with the fact that we violate the rights of an autonomous individual if we kill him (against his wish), the other has to do with the fact that his life has a special value. The first kind does not apply to abortion, since foetuses are not persons. The second does, however, but to a reduced degree. This has to do with the fact that the special value, on Dworkin’s account, varies between different individuals. The life of a foetus is less valuable than the life of a grown up person. This is how he explains his idea:

We believe ... that a successful human life has a certain natural course. It starts in mere biological development — conception, fetal development, and infancy — but it then extends into childhood, adolescence, and adult life in ways that are determined not just by biological formation but by social and individual training and choice, and that culminates in satisfying relationships and achievements of different kinds. It ends, after a normal life span, in a natural death. It is a waste of the natural and human creative investments that make up the story of a normal life when this normal progression is frustrated by premature death or in other ways. But how bad this is — how great the frustration — depends on the stage of life in which it occurs, because the frustration is greater if it takes place after rather than before the person has made a significant personal investment in his own life, and less if it occurs after any investment has been substantially fulfilled, or as substantially fulfilled as is anyway likely.122
Dworkin uses this idea in a suggestion as to how pro-life people and libertarians should be able to find a political compromise. I have discussed his idea elsewhere, and will not repeat my argument to the effect that this suggestion must be a non-starter.123 The interesting question here is whether Dworkin’s soft version of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine means an improvement on the standard (hardcore) version. I doubt this. The adherents of the standard doctrine take pride in the fact that they make no distinctions within the human species. This is why the doctrine can serve as an antidote against all sorts of racist, or sexist, or otherwise discriminatory practice among human beings. This aspect is jeopardised by the idea that we gain in value or dignity by making ‘investments’ in our lives. My guess is that, adherents of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine, who do not share Dworkin’s idea that there is also a right to life, would just reject his modification of the theory. They will not see it as an improvement. Quite to the contrary, they will see his weakening of the doctrine as something that makes it less, not more, attractive.


According to the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine, human beings have a special moral standing. A related claim made by moral rights theorists is that persons or moral agents have a special moral standing. So even if adherents of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine and adherents of the moral rights theory hold different views about the moral implications of having moral standing, they share a concern to answer this question: who has moral standing?


In a discussion about abortion, just as in a discussion about animal ethics (to be pursued in a later chapter) it is crucial to know what exactly it means to be a person (a moral agent) and who exhibits this characteristic. There is no unanimity among adherents of the moral rights theory as to how this question should best be answered, however. This means that there is little point in going into details here. I will assume that embryos and foetuses in their early development (at least during the first trimester of the pregnancy) are not persons (moral agents). They are human organisms, but they lack the characteristics necessary for personhood. They have no memory of their past, they have no idea about their future, they do not see themselves as entities, existing over time. Hence, they possess no rights. They do not own themselves, and they have no rights not be killed.

These creatures should not to be injured, however. If a pregnant woman is using drugs in a manner that leads to disease in her future child, then she violates the rights, not of her foetus, but of her future child. The act that violates the rights of the child takes place during pregnancy, before the child conceived of as a person exists, but the actual violation of the child’s rights takes place later, when the child has come into existence and begins to suffer from the condition caused by the mother.

An alleged problem for the moral rights theory is that, on its account of original acquisition, the parents (the mothers, really) become the owner of their children who, hence, start out their lives as slaves. In this book, I have not gone into any details about the idea of original acquisition of property; I glanced over it in chapter 2, where I first presented the theory, since it has little importance in a book on the ethics of killing. In the present chapter, it is of some relevance, however. Irrespective of how one can legitimately acquire property, it is hard to deny that the creation of something should not be included. What I create myself I do own. So there seems to be a genuine problem for the theory to handle her. This is how Susan Moller Okin in her 1989 book Justice, Gender and the Family puts the problem:
Anyone who subscribes to Nozick's principle of acquisition must explain how and why it is that persons come to own themselves, rather than being owned, as other things are, by whoever made them.124
If correct, then this would be devastating to the theory of course. For not only would my mother own me, she would in turn be owned by her mother, and so on. But the fact that she was owned would mean that she did not own me, after all. The first human couple would own all their descendants!

The most straightforward solution to the problem is to say that a person gains ownership in herself, once she comes into existence. She can sell herself as a slave, but she does not start out as slave.125

To kill a foetus, which has not yet developed personhood, is not prohibited by the moral rights theory, then. It is also permissible to get rid of a foetus, which has not been invited to a mother’s womb, even of this means that the foetus will die. This is so even if the foetus has developed into a person (a controversial assumptions; some adherents of the doctrine would deny that this ever happens). This is the message of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous thought example:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree, but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. 126
Thomson’s conclusion in relation to the example is that you have a right to unplug the violinist. This conclusion is congenial with the moral rights theory. To the extent that the foetus can be seen as an aggressor who has invaded your body, you have a right to remove it, even if (a controversial assumption, we remember) it has developed into a person. This is a right to self-defence you hold, even against innocent threats to your life and integrity. The doctrine doesn’t really deal in any notion of guilt and hence not really in any deep moral notion of innocence. You have a right to defend yourself against all sorts of threats to your life and integrity. But you have only a right to remove the foetus, i.e. a right to obviate the threat. You have no right to kill the foetus (if it can survive outside your body).
I am not arguing for the right to secure the death of the unborn child. It is easy to confuse these two things in that up to a certain point in the life of the fetus it is not able to survive outside the mother's body; hence removing it from her body guarantees its death. But they are importantly different. I have argued that you are not morally required to spend nine months in bed, sustaining the life of that violinist, but to say this is by no means to say that if, when you unplug yourself, there is a miracle and he survives, you then have a right to turn round and slit his throat. You may detach yourself even if this costs him his life; you have no right to be guaranteed his death, by some other means, if unplugging yourself does not kill him.127

Furthermore, in many cases it could be plausible argued that, even if you have not invited the foetus to be in your womb, you have taken on responsibility for it. Then you have no right to remove it in a manner that means that it dies. One may argue, for example, that if you did not abort it before it became a person, if you had a legal right to do so, then you have tacitly undertaken to care for it. You are in a position in relation to it similar to the position of the Baywatch in relation to a drowning person. You have undertaken to save him.

With regard to legal matters all advocates of the moral rights theory tend to argue that at least early abortions should be permitted. But if early abortions are permitted (in the way they are in the US, for example), this prepares the room for the argument that women, who do not abort their foetuses early in their pregnancy, when it is legal to do so, do assume responsibility for them.


I noted that it is controversial whether foetuses ever develop into persons. Judith Jarvis Thomson granted that they did, but merely for the sake of the argument. Other defenders of a moral rights theory have explicitly claimed that they don’t. This means that, at least from the point of view of the moral rights theory alone, there are no principled arguments against infanticide. Infanticide can be seen as nasty, and a completely superfluous practice, at least in a modern developed society with access to contraceptives and safe abortion methods. And yet, if foetuses are not persons, we have a right to kill them, if we see fit to do so. The American moral rights philosophers Michael Tooley has famously defended infanticide and based this claim on the view that neonates do not possess the capacities necessary for personhood and a serious right to life (these two notions come to the same, on his account). This is how he puts his point:
My approach will be to set out and defend a basic moral principle specifying a condition an organism must satisfy if it is to have a serious right to life. It will be seen that this condition is not satisfied by human fetuses and infants, and thus that they do not have a right to life. So unless there are other substantial objections to abortion and infanticide, one is forced to conclude that these practices are morally acceptable ones.128
In his argument he relies on the following moral assumption, congenial to the moral rights theory:
An organism possesses a serious right to life only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experience and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.129


Like most moral rights theorists he believes that, as a matter of fact, both foetuses and neonates lack the required capacity.

According to utilitarianism, an abortion is right only if there was nothing else that could have been done, that would have produced a better outcome. How often is this requirement fulfilled? If we look at actual abortions, do they fulfil the criterion? Are they morally acceptable? If we think of all those merely possible abortions, that never take place, are they morally acceptable? Or, should those foetuses have been aborted?


It is not possible to answer these questions with any confidence. To the extent that a utilitarian relies on a method of decision-making urging her to maximise, not actual happiness, but expected happiness, the answer must vary with the person pondering each question. It is highly likely, however, that while some actual abortions are wrong, and some abortion that never take place should have taken place, it is also true that, some abortions that take place are right and some abortions that do not take place should not have taken place. There are cases where an abortion solves a pressing problem. There are cases where an abortion means that a child, who would have had a terrible life, is exchanged for a child who leads a good life, and so forth. However, when this is said, it should be noted that utilitarianism is, or so it strikes me, at any rate, much less abortion-friendly, than expected. It is clear that some actual abortions are wrong, if utilitarianism is correct. For a person brought up in an abortion-friendly culture, with a leaning towards utilitarianism, this comes as a surprise. According to utilitarianism, it is normally wrong to abort a foetus, which would have developed into a happy individual, who could lead his or her happy life at the expense of no one else. This argument applies with equal strength to the conception of happy children, of course. If I can conceive a happy child, and don’t, it is highly likely that my (lack of) action is wrong.


Does utilitarianism have any implications for how we should legislate abortion? Obviously, there are no straightforward such implications. Most utilitarians tend to argue that a legal right to abortion should be granted to pregnant women, at least up to something like the second trimester, however. They may be right about this, but it is difficult to tell. The consequences of various different possible schemes of legislation are difficult to assess.


If we want to make an inference to the best explanation (provided by a moral theory) of the content of our basic intuitions in a field, the theory had better be a general one. Otherwise it does not present us with the best explanation of our ‘data’. A claim we often meet, however, is that no moral theory can handle problems in population ethics, i.e., problems where we compare outcomes with different individuals and different numbers of individuals.130 Such problems arise in the discussion about abortion. Now, if this is so, if our moral theories are not applicable in population ethics (including important aspects of the ethics of abortion), moral philosophy is in deep trouble. Or, are we allowed bracket this domain and stay satisfied with theories that can account for the rest of our moral life? In an anthology published by the present author and Jesper Ryberg Derek Parfit has suggested that this might be an option:
The reasoning in this anthology shows how hard it is to form acceptable theories in cases that involve different numbers of people. That’s highly important. And it gives us ground for worry about our appeal to particular theories in the other two kinds of case: those which involve the same numbers, in the different outcomes, though these are not all the same people, and those which do involve all and only the same people. But there is still a clear distinction between these three kinds of case. And there may be some hope of ‘quarantining’ the impossibility, and the resulting scepticism, to Different Number Choices.131
The idea of a quarantine is problematic, however. Here is one reason why this is not satisfactory, stressed by Nils Holtug:
We may of course ... settle for an account of justice for ‘same number’ comparisons only. But in light of the urgency of some of the questions we need to address in population ethics, it is unfortunate if we cannot provide an account of justice in this sphere .... 132 (Holtug, p. 247)
This is indeed so. Problems in population ethics are mundane in nature. We often come across them, and we typically do in our discussion about abortion. Moreover, unless our theories deliver satisfactory answers in this sphere, we pay an intellectual cost when we rely on them in our moral explanations. So a choice between deontology, the moral rights theory, and utilitarianism, should take into account how they handle problems in population ethics.

An alleged problem with utilitarianism is that it leads to what Derek Parfit has nicknamed the ‘repugnant’ conclusion. If this is so, and if this is problematic, it is problematic, not only for utilitarians, but for adherents of deontology as well. For, according to the theory, in its Kantian version, we have at least an imperfect (utilitarian) duty to make the world a better place (an imperfect duty of beneficence). To this is added the (perfect) duty that this may never be done in a manner that means that we intentionally kill innocent rational beings. But the utilitarian duty is still there. Furthermore, the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine comes with the principle of double effect and its requirement of proportionality. This invites utilitarian considerations of a similar nature as the ones posed to a Kantian deontologist. So let me begin my discussion of population ethics with a discussion about the repugnant conclusion.

The alleged ‘repugnant’ conclusion is the conclusion that a world with ten billion extremely happy people (the A-world) is worse than a world (the Z-world) where many people (many enough) live lives barely worth living. Is this counterintuitive? Some think it is. Is there a way of challenging their intuition? I think there is. I will be brief here, since I have in so many contexts argued that we should be suspicious about our intuition, if we have it, that the A-world must be better than the Z-world.

There is a problem with large numbers. It is difficult to get a grasp of the Z-world. But a way of thinking of it is, of course, as the idea that civilisation goes on for many thousands of years — while the A-worlds represents the happy ending of civilization. But then, is it so obvious that the A-world is better? Moreover, the graph usually used to represent the option between the A world and the Z world is in itself misleading. This is how it usually looks:

Note that the Z-world has been represented by dotted lines. The reason is that it is impossible to squeeze it into a sheet of paper like the one you are now looking at. If you could really see and take in its breath, knowing that the breath represents a number of people living lives worth living, you would perhaps react differently to it.

We may hold a much too gloomy picture of the Z-world. But the way people live there may be similar to the way we live. There are ups and downs in our lives. Perhaps a typical human life often ends up with only a few hedons as its net sum. Perhaps many lives end up with a negative sum. But then, is the Z-world so bad as one may at first have thought? Those who think of people living in abject poverty and misery, when they look at the representation of the Z-world, may have misunderstood completely what the Z-world really looks like.

It is difficult to imagine what it would be like to live an extremely happy life, containing much more happiness than our lives do now. Or, a way of conceiving of this, of course, is to take such a life to be like an ordinary life, only that it goes on for, say, a thousand years. But then, is the A-world really better than the Z-world?

We must make sure we do not ask ourselves, in which world would I like to live? Of course, the answer is, in the A-world. But that question is irrelevant to the moral comparison between the two worlds.

Considerations such as these should either make the intuition that the A-world is (clearly) better than the Z-world go away or, at least, they should give us pause if we want to use the intuition as evidence against utilitarianism. This does not mean that there should surface an intuition to the effect that the Z-world is better than the A-world, that should be taken as evidence for utilitarianism. To the extent that some people believe that the Z-world is better than the A-world, this is probably a conclusion they have derived from utilitarianism. It is not an independent moral intuition. So it should not be counted as evidence for utilitarianism. My claim is only that there is no evidence to be found either way here.

But then we must ask whether there is any evidence to be found elsewhere. And there is. The following idea was pointed out already by Derek Parfit, and I have used it as an argument to the effect that the Z-world is better than the A-world.133 The argument has been adopted by Michael Huemer, who has given it a nice name. He speaks of it as an argument from ‘benign’ addition.134 The argument (at least in my own more elaborate version of it) trades on the possibility of moving from the A-world to the Z-world in a serious of steps that are clearly, each one of them, an improvement of the situation. The idea is simple. We start with the A-world. We move to a B-world where those who inhibit the A-world are still with us. By this move we improve their situation. At the same time we add a large number of people with lives worth living, even if they are not as happy as the original people. In the next step leading us to a C-world we level out differences between people in the B-world in a manner that means that each one among those who are best off loses less than any one does among those who are worst of gain (there is an equal number of each category); at the same time we add a large number of people, living lives worth living but not as good as the lives lived by the rest (the added people are just as many as the exiting ones). And we do this over and over again until we have reached something close to the Z-world. Here we can see that each step means an improvement, and we can see this without presupposing utilitarianism.

In its most plausible interpretation, the moral rights theory is actualist. Only actual individuals have rights. We have not done anything wrong, unless there is an actual person who has a legitimate complaint to make against our action. This means that, if I do not create a happy individual, even if I can do so, I do nothing wrong. A merely hypothetical individual has no legitimate complaint to make. I suppose I do something wrong, however, if I create an unhappy individual. For example, I violate the rights of a person if I put him into a miserable existence, caused by a congenital disease, where there is nothing he can do to improve his situation. Now he has an actual and legitimate complaint to make against me. I should not have brought him into existence. The moral rights theory caters for the intuition, if we have it, that there is a moral asymmetry between our obligation not to create suffering individuals (who are hence harmed by coming into existence) and a general permission to do as we see fit in reproductive matters; in particular, there is no obligation to procreate, not even if those who we could bring into existence would lead happy lives. As long as we do not create miserable individuals, we may do as we like, when making reproductive choices.

It is noteworthy that the moral rights theory does not bloc the moves from the A-world down to the Z world. If these moves are, as a matter of fact, undertaken, we end up with a population (the Z-population) where everyone is leading a life worth living. There is no room for any complaint, then. So we haven’t done anything wrong. On the other hand, if we just avoid making these moves, if, as it were, we stay satisfied with the A-world (we who inhabit the A-world decide to stay there) we make no moral mistake either. Again, there is no one who has any legitimate complaint to make because of our decision.

I can’t help finding all this problematic. According to the moral rights theory, Adam and Eve may refrain from having children, even if, had they decided differently, billions of billions of happy persons would have been around!

Here is another consequence of the theory. Suppose I can either create Adam or I can create Eve. If I go for Adam he will have a short life just worth living. If I go for Eve, she will have a long happy and fulfilling life. I go for Adam. Did I do anything wrong? I did not, on the moral rights theory. There is no one there to complain about what I did. Adam is, after all, happy to be around. By creating him, I did not violate his rights. And Eve does not exist, so she has no complaint. But this cannot be right. If these are the options I have, I ought to create Eve. The ‘asymmetry’ has to go.

There is also a general theoretical problem with actualism as such. Suppose I can either give life to a person, Sara, who will lead a terrible life, if I do. Or, I can give life to Hagar, who will lead an even worse life. Suppose, as a matter of fact, I give life to Sara. Now, this is clearly wrong, according to the moral rights theory. Sara has a legitimate complaint against my decision. So my decision was wrong. But what if instead I had given Hagar life? Would not that have been even worse? It would, but since Hagar, given my actual decision, is a merely possible person, there is no complaint she can make.

If, instead, as a matter of fact, I give life to Hagar, then, of course, Hagar has a legitimate complaint. So, once again, my decision is wrong.

It seems as though, whatever decision I make, I act wrongly. This does not amount to any outright contradiction,135 but it means that the normative status of my action is dependent on what I actually do, and this is indeed strange. I think we must count this against the moral rights theory, if we want to use it in something we claim is the best explanation of the content of any of our considered intuitions.


With respect to abortion the deontology in the form of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine is in trouble. The conclusion that abortion is always wrong cannot be right. It might be thought that deontology in its Kantian version fares better. It allows the killing of human organisms that have not developed a personality.

The moral rights theory may seem to square with common sense thinking about abortion. Like Kantianism it allows that we kill human organisms that have not developed a personality. It differs from Kantian deontology, however, in that it does not incorporate any imperfect duty to maximise happiness. This too may seem to be in line with standard thinking about abortion. We should not give life to miserable individuals, but we have not obligations to create happy individuals. And yet, this seems to me to the wrong conclusion to draw about abortion. The most problematic aspect of it is the moral rights theory, it seems to me, is that according to it, it is all right for very casual reasons to abort a foetus, not yet developed into a person, who would have come to lead a good life, had she not been aborted.

Utilitarianism gives a subtle and nuanced verdict on abortion. Abortion is sometimes right, sometimes wrong, and it is problematic not to allow a foetus to develop into a happy person. It should be noted that, if Kantianism is taken to imply the repugnant conclusion (at least as an imperfect duty), Kantianism and utilitarianism give the same answer to the problem of abortion. These moral theories are extensionally equivalent in their assessment of the morality of abortion.

All three theories have problems in what has been called population ethics. However, while utilitarianism and deontology (including it as at least an imperfect duty) has to struggle with the repugnant conclusion, the moral rights theory has additional problems. It allows the repugnant conclusion, and gives rise to other and even more problematic implications as well. It implies that it is permissible for Adam and Even to have no children, even if this would bloc the entire development of a happy humanity, and it leads to strange implications where we have to choose between two bad lives. This counts heavily against it when it comes to explaining the content of our considered moral intuitions.

Chapter 8. A Survival Lottery
Some people are stranded on a desert island. They have no food. In order to survive they arrange a lottery. Everyone agrees to take part in the lottery. The person who draws the winning ticket is killed and eaten by the rest. Half of the group survives because of the lottery. Was it morally permissible to arrange and take part in the lottery?
China Russia USA

Yes 10 % 17 % 38 %

No 86 % 80 % 58 %

Don’t know 4 % 3 % 4 %

Share with your friends:
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   11

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page