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Abortion and Moral Risk1

  • D. Moller (a1)


It is natural for those with permissive attitudes toward abortion to suppose that, if they have examined all of the arguments they know against abortion and have concluded that they fail, their moral deliberations are at an end. Surprisingly, this is not the case, as I argue. This is because the mere risk that one of those arguments succeeds can generate a moral reason that counts against the act. If this is so, then liberals may be mistaken about the morality of abortion. However, conservatives who claim that considerations of risk rule out abortion in general are mistaken as well. Instead, risk-based considerations generate an important but not necessarily decisive reason to avoid abortion. The more general issue that emerges is how to accommodate fallibilism about practical judgment in our decision-making.


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Thanks to Peter Singer and Anthony Appiah for helpful comments.



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2 See, e.g. §13, ‘Declaration on Procured Abortion’, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1974, and the discussion of Lockhart below. There has been some previous treatment of the issue among philosophers, e.g. Pfeiffer, Raymond, ‘Abortion Policy and Uncertainty’, Social Theory and Practice 11 (1985), 371386, and Kuflik, Arthur ‘Morality and Compromise’, in Pennock, J. Roland and Chapman, John W. (eds) Compromise in Ethics, Law and Politics (New York: New York University Press, 1979), 3865.

3 When earlier versions of this paper were presented (initially in 2003), the author discovered, to his amazement, that audiences varied quite consistently in their receptiveness depending on whether the central example was abortion or vegetarianism. The hostility to philosophical arguments raising a problem specifically with abortion was palpable. Perhaps this is due to intrinsic features of the arguments, or perhaps it is related to the lack of cognitive diversity in many philosophy departments. (For instance, in a recent survey on Brian Leiter's influential philosophy blog, a large majority of readers identified with the political left. This is consistent with other surveys of political campaign donations in the academy.

4 See Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), ch. 6, and Tooley, Michael, Abortion and Infanticide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), chs. 4–5.

5 See Thomson, Judith Jarvis, ‘A Defense of Abortion’, in Cohen, Marshall, Nagel, Thomas, and Scanlon, Thomas (eds) The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.), and Kamm, F.M., Creation and Abortion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), esp. ch. 4.

6 See Lockhart, Ted, Moral Uncertainty and Its Consequences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

7 This is more or less the argument advanced by Marquis, Don in ‘Why Abortion is Immoral’, The Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989), 183202. It is important to point out that to keep the discussion manageable, I am focusing on a single particularly interesting objection to abortion. A full discussion would need to consider all such arguments and the risk that any of them goes through.

8 Just as there are many arguments against abortion, there are many objections to the Deprivation Argument besides the two I consider here. See, e.g., Sinnot-Armstrong, Walter, ‘You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had: A Reply to Marquis on Abortion’, Philosophical Studies 96 (1999), 5972.

9 See Parfit's, DerekReasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pt. III for an account of the psychological theory of identity, as well as further references. For a more recent psychologically-oriented theory, see McMahan, Jeff, The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). McMahan makes an objection to Marquis closely related to the one I am describing.

10 See, e.g. Olson, Eric, The Human Animal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), and van Inwagen, Peter, Material Beings (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

11 Van Inwagen: ‘The capacity for thought…seems to be, metaphysically speaking, a rather superficial property of myself’, op. cit. note 10, 120–121.

12 But notice that even on animalism very early fetuses may not count as identical with future children if it turns out that there is a stage when the fetus is not yet a biological organism. Perhaps the best account of organisms will fail to categorize the zygote or pre-embryo as an organism, especially when twinning is still possible. (This would probably affect fetuses less than two weeks old, at which point twinning is no longer possible.) For more discussion, see van Inwagen, op. cit. note 10, 152–153.

13 Op. cit. note 5.

14 As Kamm discusses, op. cit. note 5, ch. 4.

15 See Hershenov, Scott, ‘Abortions and Distortions: An Analysis of Morally Irrelevant Factors in Thomson's Violinist Thought Experiment’, Social Theory and Practice 27 (2001), 129149, and more generally Unger, Peter, Living High and Letting Die (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), esp. 101–106.

16 Adapted from Unger, op. cit. note 15, 24–25.

17 Several writers have given reasons to doubt this claim, among them Kelly, Thomas, ‘The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement’, in Hawthorne, John and Szabo, Tamar Gendler (eds), Oxford Studies in Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), and, in a public policy context, May, Simon, ‘Principled Compromise and the Abortion Controversy’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 33 (2005), 317348.

18 A biographer comments on Newton's post-conversion diary: ‘His diary contains dozens of pages largely filled with his confessions of personal wrongdoings, but one searches in vain for any awareness of sin in relation to his slaving business. If one did not know what his ship's mission was, one might presume that he had been on an extended spiritual cruise for meditating about his Savior. By way of declaring that his work was a religious enterprise, Newton began the ship's log for each voyage with the invocation, Laus Deo (by God's permission [sic]), and concluded it with Soli Deo Gloria (solely to God's glory)’, Phipps, William, Amazing Grace in John Newton, (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2001), 62.

19 Phipps, op. cit. note 18, 202.

20 James Newton, Works, vol. VI (no publisher listed, 1811), 53.

21 I'm thinking of familiar expressivist stories such as Blackburn, Simon, Ruling Passions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), and Gibbard, Alan, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

22 May, op. cit. note 17, 339–340.

23 Here I am grateful to the sapient Joshua Knobe.

24 Parfit discusses cases like these, op. cit. note 9, part IV.

25 For more on the force of regret and other anticipated emotions in our decision-making, see my ‘Anticipated Emotions and Emotional Valence’, Philosopher's Imprint, forthcoming.

26 Factors like 1 and 2 mustn't be interpreted with an artificial degree of precision. It is unclear, for instance, that the relevant functions are straightforwardly linear. It is also unclear how exactly to interpret probabilities in this context. However, these and other issues that would afflict attempts to formalize the argument seem to pose a similar problem for homely cases like the risky investment. There aren't any problems here that are specific to moral risk.

27 As Lockhart emphasizes, op. cit. note 6, ch. 3.

28 Consequentialists might have trouble generating this result, but that seems to count against consequentialism. See Slote, Michael, ‘Morality and the Self-Other Asymmetry’, The Journal of Philosophy 81 (1984), 179192.

1 Thanks to Peter Singer and Anthony Appiah for helpful comments.


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