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Utilitarianism and Kantianism applied to abortion.

 
 
Noesis
 
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 03:16 pm
I am taking an Honors Philosophy course in Ethics. Half of the students in my class are not doing very well; and they decided to start a study group. I am doing perfectly fine in the class myself; however, someone requested that I be present. I have a long midday break and I was curious to see what others had to say about the subjects, because I think exchanging ideas and brainstorming never hurt anybody. Nonetheless, we didn’t get much studying done, as the entire thing consisted of children bickering about how dumb they thought the course was.
Thus, I thought I might have some better luck at an actual discussion here.

The discussion topic was abortion, and how we might evaluate it from a Utilitarian and a Kantian approach.

The best I can come up with off the top of my head is that the Kantian need for duty would call for a mother to protect her child at all costs, in addition to the duty to uphold the sanctity of human life. As far as Utilitarianism goes, If you are aiming for the greatest amount of happiness, than you don’t want a child to be born into a life that will be full of suffering; and ultimately if the procedure is done early enough, than the child has not yet developed a capacity to feel pain, while meanwhile the mother is very much alive, and might very well suffer as a result of having the child.


(This is not a trick question. Yes, I am well aware of the debate regarding if the theories ever actually solve anything, and how nothing can ever really be settled or resolved. Yet, that is not the point of the query)

What does everyone think? and can they come up with any decent pro-choice arguments for both theories?
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Type: Discussion • Score: 7 • Views: 19,530 • Replies: 73
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chai2
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 03:43 pm
Not all women feel the need to protect their child, even after they are born.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 04:40 pm
@Noesis,
Noesis wrote:
The best I can come up with off the top of my head is that the Kantian need for duty would call for a mother to protect her child at all costs, in addition to the duty to uphold the sanctity of human life.

I'm not sure where you get this. A Kantian presumably would say that no one should adopt a rule for themselves regarding abortion that could not also be a universal rule. I don't know, however, whether this would mean that abortions would be universally permitted or universally prohibited (I think, though, it would be one or the other). A lot would depend on whether or not you defined the fetus as a person, but then I don't see anything in Kant that would help answer that question.

Noesis wrote:
As far as Utilitarianism goes, If you are aiming for the greatest amount of happiness, than you don’t want a child to be born into a life that will be full of suffering; and ultimately if the procedure is done early enough, than the child has not yet developed a capacity to feel pain, while meanwhile the mother is very much alive, and might very well suffer as a result of having the child.

Again, much would depend on whether you treat the fetus as a person or not. If it's not a person, then the utilitarian probably wouldn't have much trouble arguing for a rule that permits abortion. If it is a person, then it would be much more difficult to justify such a rule.

And that's why any pro- or anti-abortion argument that hinges on the personhood of the fetus will lead to unsatisfactory results.
0 Replies
 
djjd62
 
  0  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 05:20 pm
i know that a kryptonian would build a space ship and send their baby to earth to save him
chai2
 
  0  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 07:28 pm
@djjd62,
isn't that how mork ended up here?
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 07:55 pm
@Noesis,
For a utilitarian point of view, you may want to check out Peter Singer's work. He has written quite a bit about abortion. Your best one-stop source is probably Practical Ethics. In a nutshell, he thinks it's a tradeoff between the suffering of the embryo from being aborted and the suffering of the mother from not aborting. In his view, the legitimacy of abortion starts out high and decreases over time, as the embryo's capacity to suffer starts out at zero and then increases. It never vanishes though -- indeed, in very narrowly limited circumstances, Singer approves of allowing born infants to die. (See Kuhse and Singer: Should the Baby Live?)

I have nothing useful to contribute about the Kantian point of view.
dyslexia
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 09:28 pm
@Thomas,
well Thomas, agree or not, I think it's rational and that in itself makes it rare.
Merry Andrew
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 09:43 pm
@djjd62,
Only if his name was Jor-el.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Mon 16 Nov, 2009 11:12 pm
@dyslexia,
Oh, I agree with most of what Singer writes. You might even call me a fan of his. (Just not a practicing one -- I act on little of what I agree on with Singer.)
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 09:17 am
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:

For a utilitarian point of view, you may want to check out Peter Singer's work. He has written quite a bit about abortion. Your best one-stop source is probably Practical Ethics. In a nutshell, he thinks it's a tradeoff between the suffering of the embryo from being aborted and the suffering of the mother from not aborting. In his view, the legitimacy of abortion starts out high and decreases over time, as the embryo's capacity to suffer starts out at zero and then increases. It never vanishes though -- indeed, in very narrowly limited circumstances, Singer approves of allowing born infants to die. (See Kuhse and Singer: Should the Baby Live?)

I can see how a traditional utilitarian would place an emphasis on suffering in the hedonic calculus -- as Bentham famously said, it's not whether it can reason but whether it can suffer. But how does Singer measure the disutility of not being born at all? Certainly, as Rawls pointed out, there's a value in living -- and suffering. Given the choice, most people would prefer to live their messy, disordered, and potentially painful lives than being hooked up to a machine that gave them nothing but pleasurable feelings but took away their ability to experience anything else. Consequently, the focus can't simply be on suffering alone, since even suffering should have some value in a hedonic calculus.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 10:50 am
@joefromchicago,
Joefromchicago wrote:
But how does Singer measure the disutility of not being born at all? Certainly, as Rawls pointed out, there's a value in living -- and suffering. Given the choice, most people would prefer to live their messy, disordered, and potentially painful lives

Although it's true that people would prefer that, embryos wouldn't -- not because they prefer non-existence, but because their brains aren't developed enough to be in the preferring business in the first place. As best I remember, this is how Singer argues that your question is moot. I'd have to look up the details of his argument though.
dyslexia
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 11:59 am
@Thomas,
Well, I think it was Aristotle that said that acorns have a definite preference to become perfect oak trees. Surely an acorn could be thought of as like an embryo or could Aristotle have been wrong?
0 Replies
 
DrewDad
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 12:05 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
Given the choice, most people would prefer to live their messy, disordered, and potentially painful lives than being hooked up to a machine that gave them nothing but pleasurable feelings but took away their ability to experience anything else.

Er... How did you come to this conclusion?
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 12:44 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
Although it's true that people would prefer that, embryos wouldn't -- not because they prefer non-existence, but because their brains aren't developed enough to be in the preferring business in the first place. As best I remember, this is how Singer argues that your question is moot. I'd have to look up the details of his argument though.

Well, that's rather too clever by half, isn't it? I mean, we don't treat comatose people as if they don't have any preferences, even though they don't (although I think Singer's position on comatose people may be a bit more ... nuanced). I can understand Bentham's point that the focus should be on the ability to suffer (even if I don't necessarily agree with it). I'm not so sure I understand why the focus should be on the ability to form preferences.
Francis
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 12:58 pm
Dys wrote:
I think it was Aristotle that said that acorns have a definite preference to become perfect oak trees.

Not that it is related, but in the plains of Spain pigs have a definite preference for eating acorns.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 01:00 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
I mean, we don't treat comatose people as if they don't have any preferences, even though they don't (although I think Singer's position on comatose people may be a bit more ... nuanced).

No, we don't treat comatose people as if they don't have preferences. (Maybe we ought to if we knew for sure that they were never to wake up from the coma.) But non-comatose people have rather pronounced preferences about what should happen to them should they become comatose in the future. It is their preferences that make the difference.
cicerone imposter
 
  1  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 01:32 pm
I find this sort of discussion very interesting, but resolves nothing. It was lately reported that one-third of American women have abortions, and whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, they cross into the other side at will depending on their personal circumstances. Even with Roe vs Wade, the controversy surrounding abortion is a hot-button political issue without much agreement.

The world population continues to expand at alarming rates when we consider the limited resources of this planet, and some demographers tell us the world population will exceed 13-billion by 2050.

Abortion rights are different depending on which country they live in. We learned recently that Vietnam has one of the largest abortion rates in the world. There seems to be a detachment of pro-lifers when it comes to other country's citizens about abortion. If each life is precious as they claim, why aren't the fetus in other countries worth their effort to save them? I fail to understand their advocacy for pro-life.

Thomas
 
  2  
Reply Tue 17 Nov, 2009 02:10 pm
@cicerone imposter,
cicerone imposter wrote:
I find this sort of discussion very interesting, but resolves nothing.

So?

cicerone imposter wrote:
If each life is precious as they claim, why aren't the fetus in other countries worth their effort to save them?

Be careful what you're wish for. I wouldn't be surprised if Pat Robertson was itching to see a pro-life president Napalm some fear of god into those abortionist gooks.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Wed 18 Nov, 2009 09:06 am
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
No, we don't treat comatose people as if they don't have preferences. (Maybe we ought to if we knew for sure that they were never to wake up from the coma.) But non-comatose people have rather pronounced preferences about what should happen to them should they become comatose in the future. It is their preferences that make the difference.

I'm not sure why. After all, if the test is "what a comatose would prefer if he weren't comatose," then the same test could be applied to determine what a fetus would prefer if it weren't a fetus. I don't really see much difference, except for the rather inconsequential fact that the comatose person may have, at some prior time, been able to form preferences, whereas the fetus lacks such a background.

In any event, I'm still not clear on why preference-forming should be the test at all. As I said before, I can understand the focus on the ability to suffer -- the utilitarian calculus typically equates "the good" with "happiness" and "the bad" with "unhappiness," and if suffering yields unhappiness, then "more suffering = more bad/disutility." On the other hand, I can't see how "more preference = more happiness = more good/utility."
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Wed 18 Nov, 2009 10:28 am
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
On the other hand, I can't see how "more preference = more happiness = more good/utility.

Okay, I looked up Practical Ethics (Second edition, American paperback version). Singer makes a distinction based on self-awareness and rationality, which, consistent with Locke, he sums up in the word "personhood". According to Singer, personhood makes the following difference in the utilitarian calculus: Persons can consciously anticipate future pleasures and pains and, and the anticipation gives them pleasure and pain in the present. By contrast, non-persons such as animals and embryos just feel as they go along, without any additional pleasure or pain caused by anticipation.

With these preliminaries out of the way, here is Singer's position on abortion: "My suggestion, then, is that we accord the life of a fetus no greater value than the life of a non-human animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc. Since no fetus is a person, no fetus has the same claim to life as a person." (page 151) Note that this is not quite as drastic as it sounds: In the preceding chapters, Singer spends several dozens of pages arguing for a radical upgrade in non-human animals' claim to life.

Singer also addresses the distinction between abortion and infanticide on the one hand and comatose people on the other. In his own words: "They [comatose human beings] are not self-conscious, rational, or autonomous, and so considerations of a right to life or respecting autonomy do not apply. If they have no experiences at all, and can never have any again, their lives have no intrinsic value. Their lives' journey has come to an end. They are biologically alive, but not geographically [...]

"There is one important respect in which these cases differ from disabled infants. In discussing infanticide in the final section of Chapter 6, I cited Bentham's comment that infanticide need not 'give the slightest inquietude to the most timid imagination'. This is because those old enough to be aware of the killing of disabled infants are necessarily outside the scope of the policy. This cannot be said of euthanasia applied to those who once were rational and self-conscious. So a possible objection to this form of euthanasia would be that it will lead to insecurity and fear among those who are not now, but might come to be, within its scope.

"This objection might be met by a procedure allowing those who do not wish to be subjected to non-voluntary euthanasia under any circumstances to register their refusal. Perhaps this would suffice; but perhaps it would not provide enough reassurance. If not, non-voluntary euthanasia would be justifiable only for those never capable of choosing to live or die."

 

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