Warren on Moral Status and Abortion

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One of the most reprinted articles on abortion in applied ethics anthologies is Mary Anne Warren's 1973 article "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion". Her general approach is to claim (without argument) that moral status has to do with personhood and then to claim (without argument) that personhood consists of having certain characteristics chosen in order to get the result that a fetus isn't a person. She does argue for the first claim in other work, particularly her discussions of animal rights, where she basically explains the heightened moral status of adult human beings in terms of pragmatic, non-intrinsic value (which I have to say isn't very satisfying as an account of moral rights, even if it might work for legal rights). But there's no actual argument for either claim in this article. She just takes it to be obvious that what opponents of abortion have long taken to be obvious is just false. Her account has always seemed to me to be question-begging, since the pro-lifer might not grant either premise.

But it's one thing to present a question-begging argument. It's quite another to misrepresent the opposition and to assert obvious falsehoods, and Warren does both. There are two real howlers in her article, and it amazes me that it gets as much attention as it does. I know of no better article defending the general approach she takes, so I continue to use it, but this isn't because I think her article is remotely good. It's because the position she defends probably has no better defense, and thus if I want to represent it among the possible views I'm going to discuss in class I might as well choose the most easily-accessible among the presentations of views like hers (particularly if I also teach her position on animal rights, where she does at least give some argument for the first premise). Plus, I spend enough time reading through new readings and preparing new material to teach whenever I use a new book in my endless quest to fight the rising textbook prices and the urge of students not to buy the books when the prices get too high. If I can limit the number of new readings I do, I will usually do so. So I continue to teach her article.

The two biggest problems in Warren's article are these:

(1) She gives an absolutely terrible argument against the view that potential personhood grants moral rights, one that grossly misrepresents even the crudest versions of such a view.
(2) Her view of personhood leads to some outrageous claims about moral status than no reasonable person should accept, and it's not even clear that her position is consistent in the end.

In the first case, she wants to head off the argument that it's not actual personhood but future personhood that gives us reason to accord full moral status. The two main reasons someone might take such an approach are (a) we do something to someone who would later disapprove of it if they were later allowed to exist, and thus we violate consent requirements if we abort someone before they can consent and (b) we wouldn't want to have been aborted, and thus we violate the golden rule if we abort someone whose preferences were they to survive would be not to have been aborted. Warren resists this conclusion by imagining some aliens who want to take each cell in someone's body and produce a human being from each one. She thinks I should have a right to deny them that. It would be wrong to do such a thing. But then she claims the potential personhood view should disagree. Each cell is a potential person, so you're preventing the future existence of each one if you refuse. If abortion is wrong because potential persons have a right to life, then we should have an obligation in such a scenario to submit to be taken apart and have our cells turned into new people.

But no one who holds the potential personhood view thinks such cases count as potential personhood. It's not the mere potential of being turned into something that will then become a person that gives moral status, on that view. It's having the characteristics to develop naturally into a person given one's natural environment, and the natural environment for a fertilized embryo is a healthy human uterus belonging to the embryo's biological mother whose nourishing body provides the nutrients and protection to develop into a person. Her straw potential personhood view is not one that anyone actually holds. It's existing organisms that already have their own DNA that count as potential persons according to this view, because it takes reaching that point before you even have the same organism as the one that is eventually a person. Such an unfair portrayal is one of the most unfair I've ever seen in a paper published in a mainstream philosophy journal.

In the second case, her view of personhood leads her to claim that the moral status of a full-term (i.e. nine-month) fetus is no greater than that of a newborn [sic] guppy, a crazy conclusion in itself. But then she goes on to concede that a "newborn infant is not a great deal more personlike than a nine-month fetus," which seems to imply that a newborn infant has not a great deal more moral status than a newly-hatched guppy. This leads her to the equally crazy view that infanticide isn't all that bad in principle. To minimize this result, she does offer some reasons why we see infanticide as worse than abortion, but she thinks these are mostly contingent facts about society and our preferences, not about the moral status of infants. This isn't to say that infants have no moral status intrinsically. Along the way, she says, "neonates are so very close to being persons that to kill them require a very strong moral justification -- as does the killing of dolphins, whales, chimpanzees, and other highly personlike creatures. It is certainly wrong to kill such beings just for the sake of convenience, or financial profit, or "sport." So infanticide in our spatiotemporal location "of viable newborns is virtually never justified."

It's hard for me to take this seriously, not just because of her unwillingness to take infants to have intrinsic moral status. I'm not sure all the things she says here are even compatible. There's certainly a tension in holding all of the following claims:

1. The moral status of a full-term fetus is similar to the moral status of a newly-hatched guppy, and thus it is not wrong to kill such a being in many cases.
2. The moral status of a newborn human baby is not much more than the moral status of a nine-month fetus.
3. The moral status of a newborn human baby is similar to the moral status of dolphins, whales, chimps, and other highly-personlike creatures, and thus it takes a very strong moral justification to kill such a being.

The only way to make this consistent is to think that the "not much more" in the second claim is somehow enough to move from a moral status with a fairly open allowance for killing to a moral status that takes very strong moral justification for killing. That premise would render this hodgepodge of claims consistent, but it's at the cost of such an implausible premise that it doesn't really improve it much over its original state of being presumably inconsistent. But Warren really does seem to hold all these claims, and the only reason I can think of for why she says them all is that she's unable to take the conclusions of her view seriously enough to remain consistent with them throughout her discussion.

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