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Consequentialism and Abortion

by Tim Chappell

As a convinced anti-abortionist and anticonsequentialist, I can’t let Peter Lloyd’s stimulating article in Philosophy Now 3 go unchallenged.

( 1 ) “A legislature is morally bound to take a consequentialist approach to ethics”, writes Mr.Lloyd. How can this be literally true if, as he also says, “there is no correct system of personal ethics in an objective sense”?

( 2 ) Mr.Lloyd does not attempt to defend his consequentialism from even one of the multifarious objections to which consequentialism is notoriously prone. One hackneyed example: if consequentialism is true, then given ten ill people who all need different life-saving transplant operations and one healthy person who has all the requisite organs, we should murder the one healthy person for the sake of the ten ill people. By so doing we will, apparently, maximise our ‘utility score’, saving ten lives and losing one instead of the other way round. But it would be wildly counter-intuitive to think that such an action was even morally permissible, let alone morally obligatory, as unreconstructed consequentialism seems to suggest. How does Mr.Lloyd defend his position from this sort of objection?

( 3 ) Mr.Lloyd thinks that consequentialism is forced upon the legislature by the fact that the legislature “is accountable to people whose fundamental moral principles are irreconcilable”.

(i) ‘Accountable’ in what sense, given Mr.Lloyd’s rejection of objective ethics?

(ii) The assumption that, if Jules and Jim have very different moral systems, it must follow that Jules’ and Jim’s systems are irreconcilable, smacks to me – with all due respect – of complacent liberal laziness of mind. What this sort of remark usually betrays is that the speaker can’t be bothered to look for points of contact between Jules’ and Jim’s systems.

(iii) Mr.Lloyd evidently takes assessments of hurt or harm to be immune to this kind of irreconcilability. His assumption is that we may disagree about ‘Morals’, but we won’t disagree about what constitutes ‘Harm’. But, as Philippa Foot (Mind 1985) and others have argued at length: notions of ‘harm’ can only arise within given moral systems, not outside them. Therefore it is simply mistaken to think that notions of ‘harm’ are neutral as between different systems and can easily be used to build conceptual bridges between them.

( 4 ) Mr.Lloyd’s remarks suggest at least three different definitions of what it is that in his view confers rights upon a being. First he talks of “ability to be hurt as a criterion of having rights”. Then it appears that what he means by the word ‘hurt’ is what most of us would express by the word ‘harm’ . Then he defines ‘harm’, against all our intuitions, as “an injurious action that the recipient would consciously prefer to avoid”. These three predicates have quite different extensions. A smallpox vaccination hurts me, but does not harm me. Reading women-degrading magazines like Penthouse harms me, but does not hurt me. Being justly sued for defamation when, however, my insurance company will pick up the tab, is something which neither hurts me nor harms me. But it is, in at least two senses, “an injurious action that the recipient would consciously prefer to avoid”.

( 5 ) “Don’t lop that branch off- you’ll hurt the tree” is normal English usage. But no one (except, apparently, Mr.Lloyd) would think that this usage must entail that the tree would rather you didn’t pull its branch off; or that the tree has anything analogous to the C-fibres which sense pain in the human body. Nor would they think that the tree’s failure to have either preferences or C-fibres entailed that there is no moral reason not to pull the branch off if you feel like it. Uncontroversially, (a) we can hurt all sorts of things which do not have the ability to choose whether or not we treat them in a certain way; nor even the ability to feel pain; and (b) we can be the objects of justified moral censure for hurting such things.

( 6 ) Hurting a tree means preventing its normal healthy growth by interference. Hurting an embryo means preventing its normal healthy growth by interference. For all Mr.Lloyd has shown, it could perfectly well be the case that both, ceteris paribus, were plainly wrong, and wrong because a hurting was going on.

( 7 ) X can be hurt, says Mr.Lloyd, if X has the ability “to undergo injurious actions that X would consciously prefer to avoid”.

(i) “Would consciously prefer”: if what? Is Mr.Lloyd proposing a counterfactual analysis of the moral subject’s preferences? But if so, why not let in embryos as moral subjects? Compare the case where I propose to cut off Rip van Winkle’s head while he sleeps. What’s wrong with doing this, on Mr.Lloyd’s view? It can’t be that Rip actually prefers that this shouldn’t happen; for Rip sleeps the dreamless sleep of the just. Presumably, what’s wrong with it is that Rip would prefer (‘consciously prefer’?) not to have his head cut off if he were awake (and some day he will be awake). But then why can’t we say that the embryo would prefer not to be aborted if it were capable of this choice (and some day it will be)?

(ii) The bracketed clauses about the future seem morally relevant to Mr.Lloyd’s case, for Mr.Lloyd thinks that “a human whose brain is so badly damaged that it can never again sustain consciousness has no rights”. But even if it was true that some brain was in such a state, how could we ever be certain of it? In the absence of such certainty, don’t we have to treat the braindamaged person as having rights?

(iii) Are the agent’s opinions about what she would/wouldn’t like to undergo, and about what counts as injuring her, conclusive as to what counts as injuring her? Does Mr.Lloyd think that there are no authorities, e.g. doctors, whose opinions on what counts as injury are more to be heeded than other people’s?

( 8 ) “Some people choose to believe that killing an embryo is morally wrong, but this belief is not amenable to proof or disproof.”

(i) Oh yes it is. For such a proof, see (9).

(ii) No one chooses their moral beliefs, any more than they choose their other beliefs. This is a point about the grammar of ‘to believe’. “X believes that p” means, inter alia, that “John holds that p would be the case whether or not John held that p was the case”. Belief is not voluntary (and not involuntary either); choice is excluded from belief in a way that it is not excluded from daydreaming or fantasising.

( 9 ) Mr.Lloyd aims to provide us with a sharp and scientific criterion of what it is that constitutes a being as a bearer of rights. I have argued that he fails to do so: being harmable, hurtable or injurable can’t be the criterion for rights-bearing.

Let me conclude by suggesting an alternative criterion, which I believe to be both sharp and scientific. I say that beings have, or have not, rights of any given kind, according to what biological species of beings they belong to. (This proposal doesn’t imply that there is one species which has all the rights there are, and other species which have none. Nor that any such rights either may or may not be forfeited.) Thus, if right R is proper to species S, and X is an example of species S, then X has right R.

Now it seems uncontroversial (1) that the ceteris paribus right not to be killed is proper to the human species.

Next (2): if any being is a human foetus, then that being is a member of the human species. I think this too is uncontroversial, despite the attempts by ‘pro-choice’ writers like Mr.Lloyd to argue that “the early embryo should be regarded as any other lump of tissue”. (That kind of remark is not only morally offensive in the same sort of way that racist remarks are; it is also scientifically implausible. ‘Lumps of tissue’ are things like muscles or organs. But the mother’s rectus abdominis does not respond to her singing or start sprouting fingernails, and her liver does not kick against her stomach wall.)

Hence (3) the conclusion is plain: if any being is a human foetus, then that being has a ceteris paribus right not to be killed.

(10) I conclude that if an argument is to be mounted for allowing abortion in some or any cases, it cannot be begun by attempting to rule out the foetus altogether as a bearer of rights. It is much less counter-intuitive, and much less morally repugnant, to attempt to argue that those rights may sometimes be overridden; as I myself would be prepared to argue is true in some cases, as when the mother’s life is in danger.

However, one last thought. It strikes me as strange that abortion is so often presented as if it were forced upon people as being their only option in some case. In many cases, the alternative of having the child adopted by some of the many people who are crying out to have a child to care for, would count as a better option than abortion even if one worked from very strongly pro-choice premises. I think this option cries out for a consideration which pro-choicers normally just don’t give it.

© T.D.J.Chappell 1992

Tim Chappell is a Junior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Wolfson College, Oxford.

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