Publius posted this link in the comments of my post, "The utter absurdity of the pro-life position." I want to make it clear that the intended target of that post was a political position, not a philosophical one. The political position is the one being advanced in the United States by a loosely affiliated coalition of organizations who refer to themselves as "pro life" (as opposed to their detractors who refer to them as "anti-abortion" or "anti-choice"). My post was intended to point out the intellectual dishonesty of this political movement, not to make the argument that an intellectually honest argument against abortion is not possible. I have made that argument against other political positions (e.g. gays should be denied the right to marry) but I do not take this position on abortion. Gay marriage is completely cut-and-dried. It cannot be be and never has been opposed on any grounds other than thinly disguised (and sometimes not so thinly disguised) bigotry.
Not so with abortion. I believe that it is possible for a reasonable and right-minded person to come to the conclusion that abortion is wrong. That is why I support choice rather than (say) actively promoting abortion as a form of birth control. However, I believe that most of the people active in the anti-abortion movement are neither reasonable nor right-minded because most of them also oppose the active promotion of birth control, which is the totally no-brainer answer to reducing the number of abortions. But that's not what this post is about.
What this post is about is Don Marquis's argument, which really deserves to be taken seriously, notwithstanding that (IMHO) it is wrong. The reason it deserves to be taken seriously is that it is an example of what a sound argument for the immorality of abortion would look like were one ever to be found. Merely proclaiming that a fetus is a baby and describing the mechanics of an abortion in the most horrific terms one can muster doesn't count. Proof-by-horror-story is not sound reasoning. Marquis's argument is sober and secular. It does not appeal to God or the "sanctity of life". It is based on premises that are widely accepted by both religious and non-religious people. For that reason alone it has promise as a way of actually advancing the debate in this seemingly intractable conflict.
Marquis's argument is also worth taking seriously because it might be salvageable. It might be possible to patch the flaw in his argument (though I don't think so) and this could represent a real advance in the theory of human morality. It was not that long ago that the idea that slavery was immoral was still legitimately controversial, so progress can (and often does) happen.
With that to frame the discussion, let me start by summarizing the Marquis's argument. He begins, to his credit, by asking the question why killing is wrong in the first place, a necessary step which is too often glossed over, probably because both sides agree that killing is generally wrong even if they don't agree on why. This covers up the possibility that the different justifications of the wrongness of killing might be the source of intractable disagreement down the line. Indeed, Marquis opens the paper by pointing our how a failure to nail down the reason that killing is wrong in the first place causes problems for both sides:
the pro-choicer wants to find a moral principle concerning the wrongness of killing which tends to be narrow in scope in order that fetuses will not fall under it. The problem with narrow principles is that they often do not embrace enough. Hence, the needed principles such as “It is prima facie seriously wrong to kill only persons” or “It is prima facie wrong to kill only rational agents” do not explain why it is wrong to kill infants or young children or the severely retarded or even perhaps the severely mentally ill....
Appeals to social utility will seem satisfactory only to those who resolve not to think of the enormous difficulties with a utilitarian account of the wrongness of killing and the significant social costs of preserving the lives of the unproductive. A pro-choice strategy that extends the definition of “person” to infants or even to young children seems just as arbitrary as an anti-abortion strategy that extends the definition of “human being” to fetuses....
The principle “Only persons have the right to life” also suffers from an ambiguity. The term “person” is typically defined in terms of psychological characteristics, although there will certainly be disagreement concerning which characteristics are most important. Supposing that this matter can be settled, the pro-choicer is left with the problem of explaining why psychological characteristics should make a moral difference.As an aside, let me point out that as an idea-ist I do not have a problem explaining this: psychological characteristics make moral differences because my foundational moral principle is that the interests of memes are primary. Hence in my moral system the value of human life is not a premise but a conclusion, and one that is contingent on a human being able to provide habitat for memes, and a pre-requisite for that is having a functioning brain. But let's leave that aside for now because this is not about me, it's about Marquis.
Marquis's answer to the question of why killing is wrong is that it deprives someone of their future.
[K]illing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim. To describe this as the loss of life can be misleading, however. The change in my biological state does not by itself make killing me wrong. The effect of the loss of my biological life is the loss to me of all those activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted my future personal life. These activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments are either valuable for their own sakes or are means to something else that is valuable for its own sake. Some parts of my future are not valued by me now, but will come to be valued by me as I grow older and as my values and capacities change. When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value. Therefore, when I die, I am deprived of all of the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong. This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his other future.Marquis calls this the future-of-value criterion, but sometimes refers to it as future-like-ours. He cites four advantages of his theory, all of which I agree with: First, it's IA-proof. Many theories of the wrongness of killing are human-centric and don't apply to intelligent aliens, but the future-of-value criterion does. Second, it plausibly extends to animals. Third, it does not imply that euthanasia is wrong (though it might be wrong for other reasons). And fourth, it straightforwardly entails the wrongness of killing infants and children.
And, of course, it straightforwardly entails the wrongness of killing fetuses.
So what is wrong with this argument?
The problem is that the argument implies not only that abortion is wrong, but that contraception is wrong too, because it destroys the same future-of-value that abortion does. Marquis addresses this issue towards the end of the paper:
But this analysis does not entail that contraception is wrong. Of course, contraception prevents the actualization of a possible future of value. Hence, it follows from the claim that futures of value should be maximized that contraception is prima facie immoral. This obligation to maximize does not exist, however; furthermore, nothing in the ethics of killing in this paper entails that it does. The ethics of killing in this essay would entail that contraception is wrong only if something were denied a human future of value by contraception. Nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception, however.
Candidates for a subject of harm by contraception fall into four categories: (1) some sperm or other, (2) some ovum or other, (3) a sperm and an ovum separately, and (4) a sperm and an ovum together. Assigning the harm to some sperm is utterly arbitrary, for no reason can be given for making a sperm the subject of harm rather than an ovum. Assigning the harm to some ovum is utterly arbitrary, for no reason can be given for making an ovum the subject of harm rather than a sperm. One might attempt to avoid these problems by insisting that contraception deprives both the sperm and the ovum separately of a valuable future like ours. On this alternative, too many futures are lost. Contraception was supposed to be wrong, because it deprived us of one future of value, not two. One might attempt to avoid this problem by holding that contraception deprives the combination of sperm and ovum of a valuable future like ours. But here the definite article misleads. At the time of contraception, there are hundreds of millions of sperm, one (released) ovum and millions of possible combinations of all of these. There is no actual combination at all. Is the subject of the loss to be a merely possible combination? Which one? This alternative does not yield an actual subject of harm either. Accordingly, the immorality of contraception is not entailed by the loss of a future-like-ours argument simply because there is no nonarbitrarily identifiable subject of the loss in the case of contraception.Note, however, that Marquis has actually moved the goal posts here. [UPDATE: I was wrong about this. Marquis is not making a tacit change here, though it turns out not to matter. Thanks to commenter Publius for pointing out my mistake.] Before, he tried to move away from the problems associated with basing a moral judgement of abortion on the putative "value of human life" by basing it on a "future of value" instead, a criterion that applies to intelligent aliens as well as humans. So far so good. But now he has sneakily added an additional criterion to his quality metric, namely, that the future-of-value in question must be strongly bound to some thing. He didn't actually say this before, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt. At first blush it might seem that this little tweak actually does save the day because (he claims) the thing to which the future-of-value is bound has not yet come into existence before conception.
But in fact, his little tweak has changed an otherwise promising theory into one that merely begs the question. It is far from clear that the thing to which the future-of-value is bound comes into existence at conception. If there were consensus on this point there would be no argument. Everyone would agree that an embryo is a human/person/whatever-it-is-you-want-to-call-a-thing-with-a-future-of-value and we'd be done. But it is disagreement on this very point on which the whole controversy hangs.
And indeed there are strong reasons to doubt the proposition that a blastocyst is a thing-with-a-future-of-value while the sperm and egg that create it are not. For starters, there are an awful lot of additional ingredients that need to be added to the pot before a blastocyst becomes a baby. In fact, pretty close to 100% of the material that ends up being the baby is not present in the blastocyst, or even the embryo.
That prosaic consideration alone is enough to sink Marquis's argument, but we are far from done. The first thing that happens to a newly fertilized egg is that it divides into two cells. Each of those divides again, and so on and so on until baby is born (and thereafter as well). But up until the third or fourth division, every one of those cells is totipotent, that is, each one is capable of developing into a fully formed human being by itself. And indeed this happens naturally on occasion; that's how identical twins are formed. So up until the the blastocyst becomes an embryo, is it one thing with a future-of-value, or is it multiple things? (This is actually a serious theological question for those who hold that a human receives their soul at conception: do identical twins share one soul? If not, where does the second one come from?)
We're still not done, far from it. Nowadays we have the technology to intentionally separate out the cells of a blastocyst. By failing to do so, we are depriving the individual cells of the blastocyst of having individual futures-of-value. Are we then morally obligated to separate them?
In point of fact, this whole idea that even a fully fledged adult human is a single thing with a continuity-of-identity that can survive any circumstance (other than death) is really just a reflection of our current technological limitations. Some day we'll be able to clone humans. When that day comes, every cell in your body will be a mere technological intervention away from becoming a fully fledged human being without ever having been conceived. What is the moral status of all of those potential humans? If you injure yourself to the point where some of your cells die, are you depriving thousands of potential humans of their futures-of-value?
There is absolutely no basis for stipulating that a blastocyst is a thing-with-a-future-of-value while sperm-and-egg separately are not. Indeed, there are strong philosophical arguments that call into question the idea that the identity of a thing has any sharp boundaries at all, or even that the very concept of "thing" is logically coherent.
Marquis sweeps all this under the rug and just blithely assumes, with no justification whatsoever, that there is a bright line to be drawn at conception, or at least somewhere, to keep us away from the infinite regress of potentiality that dooms the future-of-value argument. But not only is there no bright line here, there are no bright lines in the whole universe. That is, and always has been, the whole problem.