Don Marquis: A Peculiar Argument

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I started the semester off in my applied ethics class with a unit on abortion, so I've been thinking a lot about arguments in the abortion literature that you don't often see at the popular level. I haven't taught this subject since fall 2004, so I'm sort of coming at a lot of this from a fresh perspective and rethinking a lot of the arguments I've been familiar with. Several things have occurred to me that seemed worth blogging about, so you can look for several posts on abortion in the next week or so as I write up my thoughts on some of these things.

One highly-anthologized article on abortion is Don Marquis' "Why Abortion Is Immoral". Marquis sets out to explain why abortion is immoral without assuming the personhood of the fetus. He instead develops an account of why killing in general is wrong. Killing is wrong, says Marquis, not because of some intrinsic property of the thing being killed (e.g. its capacity to feel pain, its consciousness, its ability to plan for the future, its self-concept, and so on), but because of the future it would otherwise have or be likely to have if you don't kill it. The reason it would be wrong to kill me is because of what you're taking away from me if you do so -- my future. The reason it's wrong to kill anything is because of the future you're robbing it of.

Now it follows that you're robbing a fetus of a future, and the future you're robbing it of is one like the future you and I have. You're even robbing it of more of a future, since it won't even get what you and I have already had that's now in our past. So abortion is wrong because it robs a fetus of a future like ours. This is so even if a fetus isn't a person. It has moral status not because of its current properties but because of what you would be taking away from it if you do certain things to it. In other words, its future (or what would otherwise be its future) is what guarantees the wrongness of killing it (and what you might derivatively call its right to life, but this is now being framed in very different terms.

That's the primary argument of Marquis' article. He doesn't spend much time developing it. Most of his effort goes toward motivating his theory of why killing is wrong and explaining why it's superior to person-based accounts. In this post, I'm not going to focus in on whether his theory of killing is correct, but I do want to flag a part of his support for it that strikes me as question-begging or at least as only appealing to a relatively small subset of potential readers.

One of the features he presents for his view on why killing is wrong is that it gives the right results about a number of other issues. Philosophers often give such arguments. They present a theory about something, and then they point out that their theory fits nicely with people's intuitions about other matters, and the alternative theories they're considering conflict with those same intuitions. The problem in Marquis' use of this strategy is that he chooses some controversial intuitions, indeed a pretty strange combination of them.

He says that his view gives the right results on other moral questions involving death or prevention of a future. The cases he discusses are euthanasia, infanticide, contraception, and treatment of non-humans. The contrasting views are mainly the pro-choice argument based on the non-personhood of the fetus (particularly the argument of Mary Anne Warren in "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion"), pro-life arguments based on the personhood of the fetus (especially the Roman Catholic version that opposes contraception), and the "consistent life ethic" or "sanctity of human life" position common among pro-lifers.

His account allows for euthanasia in cases when there is little prospect for a good future. Killing in such circumstances isn't robbing the person of much. Euthanasia is wrong only when it robs the person of a future like ours. Infanticide is wrong for the same reasons abortion is wrong, unless you've got a case where there's little hope for a future like ours (or one sufficiently like ours to be worth living). Humans aren't the only beings (at the very least theoretically) who might have a future like ours, and killing animals is wrong to the extent that the future you rob them would have features like the features in our lives, and if we were to encounter beings like us it would be just like killing us. Finally, contraception doesn't come out as wrong on his view, because there is nothing yet to have a future like ours until conception. A sperm or egg isn't yet the organism that would have a future like ours, and there isn't one such organism before contraception given the thousands or perhaps millions of possible organisms that could be created in any sexual act.

What's funny about this argument is that Marquis just assumes most people would agree with him about all these cases. He says his view is better than the "sanctity of life" view because it allows for cases of euthanasia. Those who hold the "sanctity of life" view, which is most people who are pro-life, aren't going to be all that moved by an argument that says their moral convictions are wrong. Those who are Catholic will be particularly unmoved by this, because he's also challenging their view on contraception. His animal rights position is moderate, but those who see animals as fully in the moral community will think his account doesn't fully explain why (and a lot of pro-choice people are in this category. The particular combination of views he holds is confirmed by his account of killing's wrongness, but it's an unusual combination that a lot of people who might be inclined to consider his argument would not intuitively hold.

The one place where I think this argument makes sense is in its challenge to the non-personhood account of why abortion is perfectly ok, at least the particular version of it offered by Mary Anne Warren. Warren holds that personhood is a set of properties that gradually develop in a human organism that aren't really present in enough form to count as personhood until well after birth. Thus, on her view, abortion is perfectly ok for any reason whatsoever, since the thing you're killing has absolutely zero moral status, even less than many animals that she holds to have some (but less than adult human) moral status. The implication of her argument is that infanticide should also be ok, and some philosophers who hold this view (e.g. Peter Singer, Michael Tooley) simply accept that conclusion.

Warren's problem is that she doesn't. She thinks infanticide is wrong. The problem is that she can't say it's wrong for any reasons remotely like why most people think it's wrong. We usually think it's wrong to kill a newborn or infant because of what's true about a newborn or infant. It's a human being, and killing a human being is evil. Warren has to restrict herself to the following consderations. 1. Many people want to adopt a child, so infanticide robs them of that. (This ignores that this is only true mainly of white children who are uninjured, not deformed, and not infected with serious diseases like HIV.) Infants are thus like works of art. Killing them is like destroying someone's property or preventing someone from getting a nice piece of property. 2. People want infants preserved, and killing infants in such a climate is wrong because it goes against the predominant (but false) moral view (and people are willing and able to give humane enough care for infants in orphanages). [Warren then says these considerations aren't going to make the difference with abortion, because they're not strong enough to overcome the argument from the bodily rights of a pregnant woman, which don't arise with infanticide.]

As Marquis points out, such reasons for opposing infanticide are seriously inadequate to match most people's intuitions about why infanticide is wrong. But of course that doesn't mean Marquis has given the right account of why killing is wrong. It just means Warren's view doesn't match up with our intuitions about killing. Marquis offers one alternative, one that relies on a whole bunch of assumptions that many will find controversial. Other views on the wrongness of killing will also explain why infanticide is wrong, and those views will involve different views on those controversial issues. So I don't think this is a very strong argument for Marquis' view. This isn't to say that his account of why killing is wrong is wrong. I think it's at least one of the reasons why killing is wrong (but I don't think it conflicts with a "sanctity of human life" account; someone could hold both). I just think it's a very funny way to try to argue for a view. Assuming a set of controversial views and then expecting people to accept your account because it happens to agree with your take on those controversial issues isn't exactly a strong argument.


Well conceived post.

I think that from Marquis' view the sanctity of life position becomes improbable because it assumes a finite set of attributes that qualify what we mean. In this way the argument for the future of value against sanctity of life seems to be a similar set of arguments that would also not favor the account of personhood as you describe in terms of Warren's view.

Singer's challenge to future of value is that it is hard to say at what point a given fertilized egg "has" a future of value as an existent entity. During the zygote phase it is probable that any one of 8 - 16 cells could divide off into any probability of multiples. So with future of value, should we thus protect all possible futures for any combination of possible lives that can result from fertilization? This gets even further complicated with IVF and fertility treatments that increase the probability of multiples.

Singer's argument makes logical sense here even if it does seem to split hairs a bit. But I do think that Marquis' argument for future of value has quite a bit going for it since it ultimately does not look at just abortion, but accounts ultimately for any kind of killing.

My point about infanticide is that Warren's view is contrary to pretty much everyone's intuitions about why infanticide is wrong. Marquis' argument tries to make a similar claim, that his view fits with plausible views on other issues. What's different is that he picks controversial issues, so it doesn't show that his view fits with nearly-universal intuitions the way mine shows Warren's is against nearly-universal intuitions. So I don't see the parallel you're talking about.

Singer's point doesn't make any sense. Zygotes don't typically split into lots of organisms. They rarely split into two and even less commonly more than that. The most probably future given no interference is the continuation of the organism in its normal developmental path.

Even if Singer were right, I don't think it would touch Marquis' main point. Complaining that fission occurs at the zygote stage (even if it's not remotely as common as Singer seems to be claiming) doesn't touch any argument about organisms that don't at all undergo fission, and we reach that point long before the point at which most abortions take place. If that's all he has to say against Marquis, then I'm afraid he doesn't really have an argument.

I agree. And I may have been too kind to say that Singer just "splits hairs". I agree his rebuttal is not all that satisfying.

By the way, I am not sure if you heard the podcast, but Marquis presented a critique of Singer. This is where I am getting the Singer rebuttal. Here is the link:

Definitely a good listen and accessible through iTunes as well as a download. Could be a nice piece to add to your class.

I try to avoid Singer in a philosophy class as much as I can. His view is basically a caricature of utilitarianism. I use him when I don't have anything else or sometimes as a foil for more careful thinkers, but it's not something I enjoy doing.

marquis uses the yardstick 'a future like ours.' what are the descriptive attributes of a 'future like ours?' who decides what those attributes are?

No one simply decides anything in morality. What we do is figure it out by thinking about clear moral cases and then apply those criteria to controversial ones. We all agree that killing an adult human being is, other things being equal, immoral. What about killing an adult human makes it immoral? Marquis points out what you're robbing the person of. It's all the possibilities, all the good in their future. A fetus is also being robbed of the same things. Something that has a future without those goods (e.g. a tree) isn't being robbed of a future like ours.

So he's relying on some conception of intrinsic goods. But that's a thoroughly-explored area of ethics. Philosophers certainly have views on what makes a life a good life. Pick your theory of that, and what he says will likely follow.


but by his standards, small children with painful, no-chance-of-improvement diseases, where the child is in pain and won't live more than three or four years, are euthanizable. his understanding allows for 'mercy killing.'



Yes, that's why I was saying that I don't think his account captures the only thing that can make killing wrong. But I do think it's one of the things wrong with killing, and something that has only that feature is, other things being equal, wrong.

perhaps appropriate killing requires the killee's consent, in addition to the quality of life standards.

I don't think consent is required, e.g. killing in just war, legitimate cases of capital punishment, killing to protect a child, killing an innocent human being whose continued existence would threaten the future of the human race (perhaps because of a biological weapon about to explode unless the person's life is ended). It's at least plausible that a number of different circumstances might justify killing without consent.


if you have time, i'd like to sort through some definitions with you. it will probably go off topic and then come back. is this thread ok, or would you rather sort definitions through on a different thread, or by email? or we can use my blog; i'm not particular about 'theme purity' on my comments.



If it's going to end up going somewhere related to the current discussion, it's fine to discuss it here.

As you probably know - I really like Marquis's argument. There are a couple of points:

1. he argued that it was a bit of a primitive position then - although since he has written much defending this turf.
2. He made it clear that he only made the case that killing was prima facie immoral - not always immoral. As you said, self-defense, etc. . . could create circumstances where killing was moral.
3. He said it was a minimum standard - there could be other reasons to protect greater numbers of lives (he explicitly mentioned euthanasia): just not less.


what is your understanding of the difference between morals and ethics? (i understand morals to be about right/wrong behavior, and ethics to be about good/bad outcome. in general, one expects and hopes that right behavior leads to good outcome, and that wrong behavior leads to bad outcome. of course, most of our choices lie in the cracks...including decisions and issues about abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment.)

in your thinking, writing, and discourse about ethics, especially about abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment, what understandings of 'wisdom' have you come across? what is your understanding of 'wisdom?'




1. I haven't read Marquis' later stuff. I do have his response to a few later critiques, but I haven't had the chance to read any of that stuff yet.

2. I suppose it might be fine to say that killing is prima facie wrong in every case without consent, but that's not how Scott framed it. He said appropriate killing requires the consent of the person killed, not that it prima facie requires consent.

3. Certainly there's room for Marquis to add in further criteria that could make an act of killing wrong. But he can't introduce anything making euthanasia wrong (as "sanctity of life" considerations would) because part of his argument for his view is that it doesn't lead to the wrongness of euthanasia. It's that result that I found funny, because he's arguing for a view based on the fact that it has a controversial result but making it sound as if he's arguing for it on the basis of having a commonsense result.


You can use the word 'ethics' in any of the following ways:

1. to refer to the branch of philosophy that studies morality (i.e. the study of ethics)
2. to refer to someone's moral views (i.e. someone's ethics)
3. to refer to the correct moral views (i.e. something might be a violation of ethics)

It's a bit less common to use the word 'morality' in the first or second sense, but it can be used synonymously with the third. You can also use the word 'moral' in expressions like 'moral philosophy' to be synonymous with 'ethics' in the first sense and the word 'morals' to be synonymous with 'ethics' in the second sense.

So the words aren't exactly linguistically parallel, but they're pretty much getting at the same thing.

Now you point out a legitimate distinction in moral/ethical thinking. I don't think it amounts to a difference in morality and ethics, but it is an important distinction. There's morality in general (or ethics in general) and then there's consequence-based morality. Some people (i.e. consequentialists) don't think there is anything more to morality besides what leads to the best consequences, but that's not my view.

So if you want to discuss consequentialist ethics vs. other views in ethics, we can do that. But I wouldn't call the former ethics and the latter morality.

As for wisdom, I don't think philosophers discuss it all that much. The concept in Hebrew thought basically included ethics but probably also included what's rationally in our best interest. Aristotle does discuss practical wisdom as a skill that included what we now call ethics (he simply referred to it as virtue). But I'm not sure what you're getting at with wisdom. It could mean a lot of different things.


i like to wrestle with things by simple matrices of two binary dichotomies like right behavior/wrong behavior and good outcome/bad outcome. i know it's not 'true,' and that it's often simplistic, but it's an interesting starting place for me to think and discuss things.

in my worldview, killing a sentient human being is wrong behavior. some of it's hard wired--the 'ickiness' of killing. some of it's based on a philosophically known, if not always felt, adherence to reciprocal dignity between sentient human beings (the golden rule). some of it's based on 'wisdom.'

i guess i think that wisdom is cumulative experience of successful living for individuals, communities, cultural identities, and ultimately, the species as a whole. i tend toward social darwinism; if it results in survival at any one of these layers, it's wisdom.

i'm sorting a bit about 'intuitions about killing' you mentioned in the post, and wisdom--same thing? i'm still thinking.

while i think killing another is always wrong behavior, it does not always result in bad outcome. you mentioned in one of your comments about killing in war, capital punishment, protecting children--immoral behavior with ethical outcome.

i think marquis' argument about potential future fits in this matrix box--he would argue that the killing may be immoral (wrong behavior), but the quality of life issues make it ethical (good outcome).

if the fetus is looked at as-is, abortion is about removing a cluster of cells the size of a pea. anti-abortion positions imply, if not state outright, that the future life of the fetus is one of the things that makes it 'human life.' so i think in a very large way, the anti-abortion position does embrace marquis' premise. what other characteristics would an anti-abortion position give the fetus? that it's human life in it's as-is state as well as it's future state?

a lot of it seems grounded in feeling. no one asks,'what do you think about abortion?' rather, the question is always, 'what do you feel about abortion.'



The problem I have with the general category division is that consequences sometimes make a moral difference and sometimes don't. I shouldn't kill someone just because it makes an ever-so-slightly-better consequence. The consequences have to be much more significant than being slightly better to justify killing. So consequences are one consideration for morality but not the only one. Then in cases where consequences matter I should include them in the moral consideration. In cases when they don't, it's irrelevant. So I just don't see why the bifurcation is worth much if the goal is to separate the moral and the ethical. I'd just say to ignore what you're defining as ethical unless it's also morally important, and then the category of the ethical isn't doing much.

At any rate, Marquis isn't just saying that euthanasia leads to good consequences but is immoral. He says it's morally ok in cases when the person shouldn't expect a future like ours. So your distinction doesn't map on to his view anyway.

As for human life, I'm not sure what you mean. If you're talking about biological human life, it's not very controversial. A fetus very plainly is human life in that sense. If you're using 'human life' as shorthand for personhood, then that's a legitimate debate. Some people think personhood involves actually having a set of characteristics (sensation, self-concept, planning ahead, etc.). Others think personhood is being the sort of being that would normally develop such characteristics. Which of those views you take affects a lot about what you might go on to say about abortion.

The pro-life view can depend on (a) personhood is present because of potential to develop the traits listed above or (b) personhood is a later development, but moral status depends on something whose potential is present not is realized yet. Marquis presents one version of (b), but another version would be (a). But for Marquis is about a particular kind of future that you prevent by killing, whereas the standard version of {b) involves moral rights from being an organism that has a potential within it.

If one supposes that individuals have inherent natural rights—to life, liberty, and property—then personhood seems to be the deciding factor in the abortion question.

The right-to-life position assumes that a fetus is possessed of personhood and is therefore possessed of inherent individual rights, which makes abortion murder and therefore prima facie immoral. However, in so doing, the pro-life position all but ignores the inherent rights of the pregnant woman by insisting that she is morally obligated to continue the pregnancy—against her will if necessary.

The interesting question, then, is: what is the tie-breaker (morally speaking) when the rights of these two types of individuals are in conflict? It seems to me that the rights, and indeed the will, of the mother are stronger than those of the fetus (again, assuming its personhood) and therefore take precedence because of the intrinsic dependence of the fetus on its mother for its very survival. [I would make a distinction between an unborn child that is fed via umbilical cord and a newborn infant that is able to live outside of the womb; the former is wholly dependant upon its biological mother, whereas the latter is merely dependent upon another (need not be it’s mother) for sustenance, shelter, etc.]

No, the pro-life position isn't that bodily rights are morally irrelevant. It's that they don't outweigh a right to life in the kind of case involved with pregnancy. This is why we call one view pro-choice and the other pro-life. Each view accepts (or at least can accept) the right that the other side insists on as primary (either life or choice) but simply sees the other as the more fundamental right.

I think the answer should be utterly clear. I don't know how bodily rights can override a right to life, particularly in a case of dependence like this (and not just dependence but natural dependence and a parent-child relationship with all the obligations therein). How could someone's dependence on me (particularly with parent-child dependence) possibly count against my moral responsibility toward the person rather than counting in favor of it?

I find it a little bizzare that philosophers appeal to the "correct" answers to other moral questions to bolster their own ethical argument. We all do it - philosophers or not - but it seems to indicate that majority rules in the discipline of philosophy, i.e., if my argument also supports this other argument that almost everyone else agrees with, then my argument has validity. However, if my argument supports this other argument that not everyone else agrees with, then my argument cannot be validated (that way, at least). To me, it's another indication that worldviews in general (mine included) have more to do with ideas sold than ideas true.

Secondly, I don't know how much time is given to philosophical history, but the closest parallel to the current debate about the personhood of a fetus I know of is the historical definition of Australian Aboriginies as flora and fauna. Many Aboriginies were killed and massacred as a result. I'm wondering whether you are aware of any work done to compare the two cases. In my mind, the historical transition of Aboriginies in the public mind from flora and fauna to human persons could be instructive. My guess is that is had less to do with philosophical arguments and more to do with appealing to the "correct" answers to other moral questions and making a sale.

The earliest instance I know of where personhood of the fetus was questioned was in Mary Anne Warren's paper in 1971. She defines personhood in such a way that it will turn out that as fetus isn't a person (and neither is an infant, as it turns out). She gives no argument that this is what personhood really is. She just stipulates it. She gives no argument that moral status is tied to the things she uses to define personhood. She stipulates that as well. In other words, her whole argument is just bootstrapping.

On the other hand, I do think there are ways to provide some foundation for an ethical argument, and I do think fitting with ordinary ethical views is a good way to do that. If I put forward a nutty view according to which it's the height of immorality to wear a red ribbon in one's hair but perfectly ok to run around naked while throwing knives at people, I think you're in good shape if you reject the theory for going against everything we know about morality. On the other hand, if your theory explains why it's wrong to kill people, why it's wrong to steal from people, why it's noble to sacrifice for the sake of others, etc. then you've got some support for your theory as a candidate for the right moral theory.

I don't know how bodily rights can override a right to life, particularly in a case of dependence like this (and not just dependence but natural dependence and a parent-child relationship with all the obligations therein).

One cannot morally obligate another to sacrifice their rights in order to enhance their own; and furthermore, the ultimate responsibility for one’s life lies with the one that owns it. So, the right to life (which, by the way, I happen to acknowledge and claim for myself as well as for my three kids…before and after their birth) is efficacious if and only if at least one of three conditions is met: (a) one takes responsibility for one’s own self-preservation, (b) a relative or a stranger, a friend or a foe, a police officer or a soldier, is willing to assume responsibility, or otherwise sacrifice for, the preservation of another’s life, or (c) a parent willingly fulfills its natural role as nurturer, protector, and instructor of its child. Now, one would certainly hope for, and indeed appreciate, the much-needed assistance that is often required during the course of a normal life, but one simply cannot morally obligate another person—particularly against their will—to provide assistance of any kind, even in cases of life and death.

How could someone's dependence on me (particularly with parent-child dependence) possibly count against my moral responsibility toward the person rather than counting in favor of it?

The parent-child dependence can have two very different meanings, which I pointed out earlier: one relates to the pre-birth circumstance, while the other relates to the post-birth circumstance. The moral obligation of the latter is much easier to defend, provided that the parent is willing to do the job. The former, however, is quite different: the fetus is completely dependent upon its mother, and her alone, in an entirely unique way, which leaves the mother with no choice at all if in fact abortion is tantamount to infanticide.

After a child has been born she no longer needs her mother in the same the way that she did in the womb. After all, we don’t say that a mother is immoral or evil if she decides to transfer custody of her child to adoptive parents, or even to allow the state to take custody (we can certainly opine on such decisions, but it’s her decision to make). Conversely, while the unborn fetus is pretty clearly a live human being, its right to life cannot abrogate its mother’s inherent individual liberty—including, but not limited to, her choice vis-à-vis pregnancy—which it most certainly would do if in fact the fetus ‘insisted’—via state coercion—that its mother be legally obligated to remain pregnant and give birth, thereby facilitating its chance at a post-birth existence.

One cannot morally obligate another to sacrifice their rights in order to enhance their own

You make it sound like this is the work of someone else to bring moral obligations on people. Moral obligations are simply true. Sometimes someone does something to put me in a position of having moral obligations. If someone leaves a baby on my doorstep, they morally obligate me to find someone to care for the baby if I can't do it myself. If a man conceives a child via failed contraception, and the woman refuses to have an abortion or put the baby up for adoption, we as a society recognize his responsibility to pay child support if he doesn't marry her and raise the child with her. So if you want to be consistent I hope you're advocating a huge change in child support laws.

But I'm really not sure what this "one cannot obligate someone" language is doing. Are you talking about legal responsibilities? Are you assuming some kind of cultural relativism whereby moral responsibilities come from what other people expect of you? My understanding of moral responsibilities are that you simply have them. I have responsibilities toward my children even if I refuse to meet those responsibilities, and this was true from conception. This isn't something anyone obligated me to adopt. It was true of me simply because I am their father, and it would have been true even if no one had wanted to care for them.

The fact that something is someone's choice doesn't mean the choice made is morally ok, and it doesn't mean it should be legal. It's a husband's choice whether to cheat on his wife, but it's immoral to do so. It's a murderer's choice whether to kill someone, but it's wrong to do so, and it's good that it's illegal. Similarly, it's a woman's choice whether to put a child up for adoption, but there might be reasons to criticize that choice in certain circumstances, because it might be immoral in certain cases to do so even if it's not in other cases. Finally, it's a woman's choice to have an abortion, but that doesn't mean it's ever morally ok (if it is that has to be established on different grounds from its merely being her choice), and it doesn't mean it should be legal.

Your final argument begs the question. The question at hand is which right is more fundamental. Your claim is that the bodily right is more fundamental. Your reason is that the right to life would interfere with the bodily right if it were more fundamental. That's a terrible argument. I could just as easily make the parallel argument in reverse. I could say that the right to life is more fundamental, and then I could give as support the fact that asserting the bodily right would interfere with the right to life, so the right to life must be fundamental.

The reality is that assertion of either right would limit the other right. Neither can be used as support for the thesis that one right is more fundamental than the other. Marquis has an explanation of why one might be more fundamental than the other, and that's an account of why killing is generally wrong, something true in this case (and a reason to favor the right to life). The more standard pro-life view gives a different account of why the right to life is more fundamental. But either way you'll have to do better than the argument you gave. These rights are actually prima facie rights. A right to life and a right to bodily control can both be overridden by more important concerns or by consent of some sort (e.g. singing a contract to use one's body as a surrogate home for a fetus until birth). But which is more easily overridden? Which right is going to take a lot higher a consideration for it to be worth sacrificing? Surely the right to life is more fundamental than the mere right to control one's body, particularly when another life is present and depending on ones's care for its very survival.

Are you assuming some kind of cultural relativism whereby moral responsibilities come from what other people expect of you?

No, my argument is the polar opposite.

Surely the right to life is more fundamental than the mere right to control one's body, particularly when another life is present and depending on ones's care for its very survival.

I don’t buy the false distinction. The right to life and bodily rights spring from the self-same principle: I own my life, therefore I not only have the final say—morally speaking—as to whether my life is to continue, but also the final say with respect to what is done to and with my body. I cannot, then, presume to impose my will upon another. So I don’t think that pregnancy somehow diminishes a women’s right to her life, her body, or her right to be free from coercion, for it would be prima facie immoral to abrogate her natural rights, as exemplified by the fact that she is the owner of herself—and by extension, her life, body, mind, etc.

If a man conceives a child via failed contraception, and the woman refuses to have an abortion or put the baby up for adoption, we as a society recognize his responsibility to pay child support if he doesn't marry her and raise the child with her. So if you want to be consistent I hope you're advocating a huge change in child support laws.

I happen to think that coerced child support is immoral, despite “what we as a society recognize” mainly because of the very objective nature of morality and the nature of coercion. The obligation of child support applies if and only if the father accepts the obligation by also accepting the responsibilities attendant to fatherhood (regardless of the frequency of his visitation); if, on the other hand, the father decides not to provide material and emotional support to his child, he ought to loose the status, benefits, and privileges of fatherhood. Now, it may be insensitive or even cruel for one to abdicate their parental duty, but the use of coercion to reverse it is far worse (incidentally, I’m a single dad and my ex-wife not only pays no child support to me, she’s chosen to neglect our kids…sadly, that’s the choice she made, but I won’t ask the state to coerce her spend either her time or treasure to benefit her children against her will, for to do so would be immoral).

Your final argument begs the question. The question at hand is which right is more fundamental. Your claim is that the bodily right is more fundamental. Your reason is that the right to life would interfere with the bodily right if it were more fundamental. That's a terrible argument.

Again, not question-begging at all—perhaps you can understand my point if it’s stated in a different way. I think that your definition of morality is a bit too broad. I see moral obligation as negative, i.e. it limits one from intentionally harming another individual, rather than positive, i.e. the supposed obligation to do something for another individual—against the will of the provider, if necessary.

I own my life, therefore I not only have the final say—morally speaking—as to whether my life is to continue, but also the final say with respect to what is done to and with my body. I cannot, then, presume to impose my will upon another.

Then you need an argument why this isn't true of the fetus. If it is true of the fetus, then we do have conflicting rights, and you need an argument why the woman's right is the more fundamental one.

So I can recognize your consistency on the child support issue. I do think my point reveals an inconsistency among many pro-choicers, though. The individualism that you're advocating is inconsistent with what a lot of people believe about our responsibilities to our children.

I think we're just going to disagree about positive obligations. Morality doesn't consist just of negative obligations. I think we've got lots and lots of positive obligations.

Then you need an argument why this isn't true of the fetus. If it is true of the fetus, then we do have conflicting rights, and you need an argument why the woman's right is the more fundamental one.

The right to life of an unwanted fetus is weakened by the fact that, in order to assert that right and indeed for its life to continue, it necessarily imposes a undue burden on its unwilling mother: it forces her to support it by sacrificing herself in several ways, e.g. she must alter her lifestyle, her diet, her recreation habits, her freedom, forego potential career opportunities, expend resources and on and on (all of which, along with existence itself, cumulatively amounts to her life). Again, this type of demand on a biological mother is unique to a fetus; whereas a birthed child only needs life-sustaining support form someone, but not necessarily its birth mother. Therefore, the right to life is ultimately contingent upon the ability to assert it without resorting to coercion (regardless of whether the one in question coerces, or appeals to another, a mob, or the state); a fetus simply cannot avoid coercion, in one form or another, if it is to come to term in the womb of its unwilling mother. Now, this may not be the choice that you or I would like for a woman to make (particularly if the donated sperm was ours); but the decision is hers to make.

Morality doesn't consist just of negative obligations. I think we've got lots and lots of positive obligations.

It’s easy to make such a claim, but defending it is considerably more difficult. One could claim that you’re morally obligated to adopt every orphaned child in the world (or at least as many as you are able to support), but that would be absurd. Similarly, one could claim that you are morally obligated to redistribute your financial resources to people in your neighborhood (i.e. those who have fewer resources than you do) until economic equality is achieved…but that would be equally ridiculous.

Care to try to defend your claim of positive moral obligation?


actually, in the two examples you gave (orphaned children care and neighborhood resource equity), there are positive moral obligation claims--jesus made them himself in the gospels.

but i'm with you, over the long run-- our moral obligation rules, codes, and guidelines are primarily lists of behaviors and situations of what not to do.


If we're talking philosophical support, there isn't much more than there is for any moral claim, which is just that most people have clear moral intuitions that we have such obligations. I do think it's obvious upon moral reflection. Obviously you disagree. But I just can't see it as remotely plausible that I have no obligation toward a baby I find on my doorstep or toward the person who has a flat tire in front of my house with no cell phone who needs to make a phone call.

I think you accept the Bible as an authoritative source for moral obligations. If that's right, then I would refer you to a number of passages that I think teach positive obligations. As Scott points out, the Sermon on the Mount is one such place. Jesus seems to me to be teaching there something like positive obligations. At several points, he raises the bar over the expectations people have of what they ought to do positively for others. It's not just positive obligations but really high standards for which obligations we have.

Most of the Ten Commandments are negative obligations, but two are stated positively: "keep the Sabbath" (which might be construed negatively as "don't work on the Sabbath", but Sabbath-keeping wasn't just not working: it was treating the day as holy) and "honor your father and mother". Lots of other places in the Torah assume a moral obligation to help others in trouble, e.g. helping your neighbor's animals in need (Exodus 23:4-5; Deuteronomy 22:1-4) and to animals in the wild (Deut 22:6-7), leaving some of your crops for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10; cf. Deut 23:24-25; 24:19-21), loving your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18, which Jesus says is the second-greatest commandment), honoring the elderly (Lev 19:32), loving God with your whole being (Deut 6:5, which Jesus says is the greatest commandment), teaching children (Deut 6:20-25; 11:19), and siring a son for your dead brother (Deut 25:5-10).

I could probably find as many examples from the prophets. The gospels and epistles include a lot of this too. Jesus tells someone he needs to sell all his property and give it to the poor to be righteous. Paul tells the Galatians to do good to all (and not just not to do bad to any). It's very hard to accept the Bible as authoritative without accepting positive obligations.


you've cited quite a few positive moral obligations from christian and hebrew scripture. but i have to tell you--i have an overwhelmingly negative sense of moral obligation in these scriptures overall.

i think part of it comes of viewing these faith documents in a legal sense--as god's law. laws just seem to me to be filled to overflowing with things not allowed.

the wisdom value for me in these writings comes from not viewing them as god's law. rather, as forward moving and forward thinking moral and ethical writings. i know many would say they're the same thing, but i don't agree.

I'm not denying that there are lots of bad things we might do to each other that we shouldn't do. Why would I need to minimize that, though, to point out that we have some pretty steep moral obligations to do positive things for people?

I take there to be moral principles behind why there are such laws. That seems to be the way Jesus treats it when he speaks of the spirit of the law.

I think you accept the Bible as an authoritative source for moral obligations.

Absolutely. And you probably also know that I’m essentially a hard determinist, although I shy away from labels generally…except for one: I gratefully and humbly refer to myself as a regenerate, saved by grace, through faith, in Christ Jesus. My theological starting point is Romans 9, followed by the rest of Romans, Galatians, and the other epistles, all of which shed light on the Gospels, which in turn reveals the mysteries of the Old Testament. That said, I’m sure that I don’t need to remind you that Jesus lived and taught in the context of the Law; and realizing that the enlightenment the Holy Spirit would soon liberally distribute to His chosen was not yet, Jesus was limited to parables that, while clearly True, were necessarily implicit, rather than explicit. So, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, etc. were delivered to relatively ignorant (spiritually speaking) individuals who did not then know what you and I ought to know: that the Law was a school master that revealed sin, which is to say that it demonstrated over millennia that man’s corrupt nature made compliance with the Law quite impossible. Don’t take my word for it…Paul rebuked Peter, in public no less, saying “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of the Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” (Or, put another way, why should we expect non-regenerates to act like regenerates). Paul goes on demonstrate that “by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified”. Galatians 2.

Now, I certainly agree that, ultimately, doing the right thing in any given situation is the right thing to do (although in a more or less subjective sense). The question though, is what the right thing is. For instance, take Joseph’s brothers; the very thing that they meant for evil, God meant for good (“so it was not you who sent me here but God…” Gen. 45:7). When an ostensibly immoral act was a critical part of God’s plan, how could we presume to say what they ought to have done in that situation? Not only are clearly immoral acts of aggression are used by God for His ends, He designed the Law to empirically prove that positive moral obligation is not only not expected, but ultimately not within our power (with some exceptions, such as general good deeds; but the very thought to do such originates with God—Romans 7 and 8).

I think that positive moral obligation (in the sense that you mean) is false for at least two reasons: 1. free will is a myth, and 2. not being omniscient, we can’t possibly know what ultimately is the right thing to do in any given situation. So, what ought we to do, then? It’s simple, really: trust that Romans 7:13-25 and 8:22-30 (among many, many others) are the Truth, in which case God’s sovereign plan will most assuredly come to pass.

It's very hard to accept the Bible as authoritative without accepting positive obligations.

Refer to my previous statements.

Jesus tells someone he needs to sell all his property and give it to the poor to be righteous.

So you’ve done this, then, in obedience to Christ’s command? Or, do you view that statement as a way of demonstrating to the rich young ruler that he was more interested in his earthly possessions that his eternal soul?

Look, my defense of abortion rights is primarily philosophical and rooted in principle, in order to avoid hypocrisy. I’ll go out on a limb here: I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that, in the vast majority of cases, the women that choose to abort their unwanted children are unregenerate. Moreover, I’ve tried to show that she not only doesn’t buy into your view of moral obligation vis-à-vis abortion (just as I don’t accept the supposed obligations asserted by radical Muslims), she’s philosophically justified in rejecting it. If God thinks that she ought to carry the fetus to term, why not Let Him direct her as He sees fit? (He will anyway, you know). Why yes, I too see the irony in a politically libertarian hard determinist, but hey, that’s just me. But seriously, why would we expect a Gentile to act like a Jew (I’m obviously using ‘Jew’ (i.e. Israel) in the sense in which Paul uses it in Romans 9:6). So, then, Jew has become a spiritual category, as Black has become a socio-political one.

BTW, I’ve really enjoyed the back and forth.

I think we disagree on so many fundamental assumptions that we're not going to get any further on this. I could keep expressing my disagreement and clarifying where we disagree, but I'm not sure how helpful that would be. It's been a good discussion, though.

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