A Philosopher's Blog

Abortion & Torture

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2009

I’ve been involved in an ongoing debate on torture and abortion over at TPM blog and thought I’d post here to point people there. I do a blog there about once a week.

One comment on my blog led me to an article by Ralph Peters in the New York Post. In an amazing coincidence, this article fit right into the path of the debate at TPM. The discussion I started was based on the view that an argument commonly given for torture is also, at the core, the same sort of argument that is given for abortion. The original is in the post, but here is a variant based on Peters’ discussion of executing terrorists.

Case for torture (and killing): it is acceptable to torture (and kill) terrorists because they lack a moral status that would justly protect them from torture (and execution) and applying torture (and killing) will result in saving the lives of thousands. People might mistake terrorists for people, but they are actually “sub-human creatures.”

Case for abortion: it is acceptable to kill a fetus because it lacks moral status that would justly protect them from death and allowing abortion will result in better lives for women. People might mistake a fetus for a person or a pre-person, but it actually is not.

Common principle: it is morally acceptable to harm another being provided that 1) the being lacks a “protective” moral status and 2) the benefits of doing so would outweigh the harms.

My point here is not to argue for (or against) torture, killing, or abortion. Rather, my intent is the same as in my original post: to present what seems to be a common, underlying principle used by defenders of torture and defenders of abortion.

The obvious reply that some folks will give is that terrorists are obviously people. But, they are only obviously people to some people. To folks like Ralph Peters and folks I have argued with, terrorists are not people in a moral sense. The usual argument is that their misdeeds have (in a way Locke argued for) made them the moral equivalent of man-killing animals and thus subject to death. As such, they may be tortured and killed justly. This is not to say that Locke would endorse torture or agree with Peters, of course.

The obvious reply that some other folks will give is that the fetus is obviously a person or pre-person and hence it is wrong to harm it. But, they are only obviously people (or pre-people) to some people. To some folks who are pro-choice, the fetus will be seen as lacking the qualities needed to make it a person. As such, a woman may justly have an abortion.

Obviously, people differ quite a bit in what is obvious to them.

Both types of folks do seem to accept the same basic principle that harming non-people is acceptable based on the consequences. In the case of terrorists, some folks argue that the terrorists have robbed themselves of their moral status as people by their actions. In the case of the fetus, some folks argue that it lacks the developed qualities to be a person. But the key to each moral argument is that the target is lacking in the needed moral status and hence it not morally protected. Thus, harming it is acceptable.

This seems philosophically interesting but also psychologically and politically interesting. After all, the “left” is stereotyped as pro-choice and anti-torture. The “right” is stereotyped as pro-torture and pro-life. However, they seem to often be operating on similar principles and use similar arguments. Their difference (which can be seen as critical) seems to lie more in the details. That is, they both agree we can hurt/kill others (or, more accurately, other things) but disagree over who (or what) we can hurt/kill.

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8 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on May 28, 2009 at 1:03 am

    Good post.

    I’d like to point out though, that many pro-choice people skip over the analysis over if the the fetus is a human being, and make the blanket statement that it’s about a woman’s right to choose. This is especially true in recent years.

    When I was in college, the stock argument by pro-choice people was that we really didn’t know if the fetus was human life. I presented a speech at my college, where I made the argument that firing your shotgun through your apartment door and killing someone you didn’t know was there would still result in your likely imprisonment for negligible homicide.

    The argument should be based on if the fetus is a human; if it is–there is no longer an argument as to the efficacy of abortion.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 28, 2009 at 4:06 pm

      The lack of knowledge argument, as you point out, has that crucial flaw. What many pro-choice thinkers do is argue that the fetus is not a person or that it otherwise lacks a moral status that would make abortion wrong. This does raise another challenge, though. Almost all pro-choice people would accept that if someone killed the fetus against the mother’s wishes, then that would be wrong. The challenge is giving the fetus just enough moral status to make it wrong for others to harm it, but okay for the woman to chose to harm it. Another option is to use property rights-the woman owns the fetus. Of course, that creates some moral problems as well.

      • magus71 said, on May 29, 2009 at 8:24 am

        But, if the woman can chose to harm it, can someone else harm it? What if her husband hit her in the stomach and killed the fetus? And if we are to regard the fetus as mere property, then surely the man who destroyed the property would be guilty of no more than vandalism.

      • magus71 said, on May 29, 2009 at 8:24 am

        But, if the woman can choose to harm it, can someone else harm it? What if her husband hit her in the stomach and killed the fetus? And if we are to regard the fetus as mere property, then surely the man who destroyed the property would be guilty of no more than vandalism.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 29, 2009 at 10:44 am

          Good question. This situation is a bit of a dilemma. For abortion to be acceptable, the woman has to be able to chose to terminate the fetus. However, almost no one wants to accept that someone else killing the fetus without her permission would be acceptable.

          That is the problem with the property view-killing someone’s fetus with intent would be just destruction of property. I think the usual line would be that the woman gets a special right because it is her body and no one else has that relationship. Of course, this does seem to still be a variant on the property approach.

  2. kernunos said, on May 29, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    What kind of fetus would it be if it were in a human? What kind would it be if it were in a dog? If the fetus is not human then how come it always ends up being a human baby? It is life and it is not a simple celled organism. If we do not interfere then it will become a person although I argue it already is. The process of conception to death of old age is very linear. It is the same being the entire time.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 30, 2009 at 12:38 pm

      Pro-choice proponents generally accept that the fetus is a human. However, they point out that we kill humans quite often. So, merely being human is not sufficient to protect one from killed (protected in a moral sense, of course). Most pro-choice folks would not concede that the fetus is a person. They tend to argue that being a person requires having qualities such as reason, reflection and so on-things that a fetus lacks.

  3. biomass2 said, on May 29, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    I’ll just import most of this from a previous entry of mine on one of your earlier topics and also try to deal a bit with the rights of the potential mother. And let’s assume there’s no argument about the fetus being human-having moral status(although the closer one gets to conception, the more complicated the issue becomes, depending on what one means by the word “human”).—-

    “But I’m refusing to take the option of “leaving the choice to abort or not to abort to the individual carrying the fetus” off the table. I’m refusing, for example, to say that the product of rape or incest must be carried to term ‘or’ that a society that has declared rape and incest illegal and immoral has the right to refuse the victim of such offenses the ultimate “choice” in such instances.

    Gee whillikers , I’m surprised laws haven’t been proposed to make illegal the death of fetuses during procedures designed to end ectopic pregnancies .
    “This involves the unavoidable death of the unborn baby but the aim of the operation is to save the mother not to kill the baby.”*
    To Save The Mother.Key words. Slippery slope begins here.

    But the fetus is still terminated. And it’s to save the mother’s life. And what about the situations where the mother is taking medications absolutely necessary for her own survival but that will inevitably harm or destroy the fetus? Should she be forced, for the sake of the the fetus, to forgo those medications? Or should she and her doctors have a choice?

    The victim of rape or incest who carries a fetus to term risks serious psychological injury before and for some long time after birth. That fact is difficult for some to empathize (there’s that word again) with. Her life in a figurative sense (and possibly a physical one as well) is at risk. Should we take away her choice?

    Slippery slopes are lousy locations for absolutes.

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