Thursday, September 26, 2013

Abortion and Moral Objectivity

Some people think that the fact that people cannot agree about the issue of abortion is good evidence that moral values are relative or subjective. It is quite true that there are profound differences about moral values that are extraordinarily difficult to resolve when it comes to this issue. It is also true that a lot of the dispute on this issue takes place at what I call the bumper sticker level: "Abortion is murder" "A woman has the right to do as she pleases with her own body," etc.

However, disputants do agree that humans in general have a right to life. No one, (or almost no one) disputes that. There is a very strong consensus about the right to life outside the womb, even amongst pro-choicers, which is challenged in some cases by Australian philosophers taking pro-choice arguments so far as to justify infanticide, but by and large social consensus against infanticide is pretty strong. No one thinks we have the right to knock off a four-year-old just because the four-year-old is annoying us. People also believe in the right of persons, including women to control their own body. Pro-lifers are not inclined to oppose that right except in the case of a pregnancy, where they believe another person's rights to be involved. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers also agree that the quality of life matters a great deal. It is just that pro-lifers think that quality of life concerns have to be set aside in order to protect the right to life of the fetus, the exact argument that a pro-choice person would make on behalf of four-year-olds.

Hence the contemporary debate concerning abortion is a kind of in-house quarrel between people who agree on a range of fundamental principles. Looked at in this way, the dispute about abortion provides an problem for moral subjectivity, not an argument for it.


Mark Frank said...

The level of agreement on moral issues can never be an argument for or against an objective or subjective interpretation of morality. There are plenty of issues that are clearly objective on which there is much disagreement (e.g. evolution) and plenty of issues which are clearly subjective on which there is almost total agreement (music is more pleasant to listen to than a car alarm).

The difference lies in how the agreement/disagreement is resolved. Can you decide whether abortion is wrong by observation or mathematical proof? I think not. All you can do is try to demonstrate its links to other subjective but widely accepted judgements such as sanctity of children's lives or control over bodies. But if one person insists that killing a small bunch of cells amounts to murder and another that it does not - then really there is nowhere else to take the debate.

B. Prokop said...

I do not believe that (the vast majority of) pro-choicers and pro-lifers fundamentally disagree on the objective moral evil of killing an innocent human being. It's just that the two "sides" have an honest disagreement as to when does a fetus become a human being. Most (all?) pro-lifers believe that a fetus is a human being from the moment of conception. Most (all?) pro-choicers contend that there is a period (how long a period depends on who you talk to) in which a fetus has not yet attained personhood.

But the underlying morality for both is the same. I do not believe my fingernail, despite it undeniably being part of me, is a "person", and therefore feel no qualms about trimming it off.

I know the comparison sounds trite and even insulting, but that was purposeful. The extreme pro-choice position is that the reason we don't regard trimming our fingernails to be a moral issue is that the fingernail is not independently viable, and may therefore be ethically discarded. If a person honestly believes that a one month old fetus is neither independently viable or as yet endowed with personhood, then they see no crime or sin in terminating it (and why should they?). Whereas another person, regarding that fetus as another human being, is rightfully horrified.