Ethics: June 2011 Archives

In the online ethical theory course I'm teaching this summer, one of the students brought up the abortion question, which led to a discussion among the students, during which some of the usual points came up. I think I just realized more explicitly what's wrong with one common line of argument that I've seen on this topic.

It's often said that someone consents to parental responsibility by having sex. By engaging in behavior that has a risk of producing a new human life, one has agreed to care for that resulting child. A common response to this line of argument is that we don't apply the same line of thinking elsewhere. For example, we don't (or at least shouldn't) hold someone responsible for being raped just because she wears revealing clothing or because she leaves her house to walk to the house ten houses down, during which she risks someone dragging her off and raping her.

What I think I've just realized is that we're conflating two different kinds of responsibility. In the rape case, we're talking about whether someone ought to suffer the consequences of a small risk. The risk of getting raped while walking down the road is very small, and we don't usually say people deserve what happens to them merely because they were walking alone outside. But the abortion question isn't about whether suffering is deserved. It's about whether you have a moral obligation to do something about what results. Conception occurs. Now there's a tiny human organism that results from the behavior in question. So does someone have obligations that incur because of the small risk you took?

That's more analogous to whether I owe damages to someone if the baseball I hit goes through their window, which was a small risk but one I willingly took. Raising a child is a much more serious responsibility than paying a one-time monetary compensation for breaking a window, but the issue seems parallel in many ways (and the obligation might not be raising the child but might simply be going through with the pregnancy, which is quite a bit less at least). If it's not parallel in enough ways, it would be interesting to explore why. Francis Beckwith has pointed out that one indication why we might think we do consent to parental obligations merely from one sexual act is that we assume that very thing in our child-support laws. Should we also assume it in our abortion laws, or is there a morally relevant difference between the two situations (beyond the mere fact that we're talking about men in one case and women in the other)?

Update: An anonymous coward commenter has criticized this post in the comments of the Philosophers' Carnival that includes it. Maryann has closed comments, so I have to respond here.

1. The idea that this post contains any victim-blaming is ludicrous. I said nothing about any victim being blamed for any behavior that victimized the victim other than to say that people should not be blamed for what they're not responsible for. What I did say is that sometimes we incur an obligation when we are not to blame. How that amounts to claiming that you are to blame is beyond me.

2. There's some debate in the comments about whether I meant the baseball analogy to be an analogy with rape cases or an analogy with a case of consensual sex with no desire for children. I meant it as neither. In fact, it's not an analogy. It's an example illustrating that a general principle held by Thompson (which I discussed in point 1 just above) is in fact false. I had in mind only that principle when I gave the baseball case. I wasn't thinking it was an analogy for either case. It was simply given as a case demonstrating that we don't hold to such a principle unless we want to hold to it to avoid a conclusion we don't like about abortion. But what I say about the principle itself because of the baseball case does indeed apply to rape cases. That certainly doesn't mean I'm blaming any rape victims, though, because what I in fact said (as I said in point 1 above) is that any incurred responsibilities in such cases are despite not being blameworthy.

3. There's a claim that I held to certain conditionals and a response that I didn't include those conditionals and did a terrible job indicating that I meant them if I had meant them. Let me repeat my last two sentences: "Francis Beckwith has pointed out that one indication why we might think we do consent to parental obligations merely from one sexual act is that we assume that very thing in our child-support laws. Should we also assume it in our abortion laws, or is there a morally relevant difference between the two situations (beyond the mere fact that we're talking about men in one case and women in the other)?" That does entail, I think, the question: if we hold people responsible for something they're not to blame for in child-support situations, why shouldn't we do so in abortion situations?" And I don't think it's all that hard to get that out of my post if you actually read it.

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