Is it wrong to take the future from a fetus?

Don Marquis's argument against abortion (in "Why Abortion is Immoral") is pleasingly simple.  He says the wrongness of killing one of us (folks like you and me who are obvious members of the "moral community") is due to the fact that killing deprives an individual of their entire future, a valuable "Future Like Ours" (FLO) in most cases.  But abortion deprives a fetus of a FLO as well.  So abortion is presumptively wrong, for the same reason any other killing is presumptively wrong.

What should we say?  Since Marquis first made this argument in the 1980s, it's spawned a vast literature. I'm certainly not going to saying anything new and different here. I'm just going to think aloud a bit about how I would respond.

First, a response I would not make.  Let's call this "Personal Identity Fancy Footwork" (PIFF!).  What you might say is that an entity with my future didn't start to exist when I was conceived, but quite a bit later.  Perhaps that entity (J, for short) came into being very late in my mother's pregnancy, or after she had given birth.  That, afterall, is when a thing with my conscious mentality came into being.  Nothing with my conscious mentality existed at conception, or a month into my gestation, or three months into it.  Had my mother contemplated abortion when she was one month pregnant, she would have destroyed F ("my" fetus--so to speak) but not J.  J didn't exist yet.  F didn't have J's future, if F was not the same entity as J.  Abortion certainly would have taken a future from F, but that was a non-conscious future with no special value. F was merely deprived of the next couple of months, months before F gave way to J.

PIFF advocates will have to answer someone who says, understandably enough, "If you take a future from F, then J's future is gone too, right?"  The PIFF-er has a coherent response:   F exists to be deprived of its future.  But once F is gone, because of an abortion, J never comes into existence.  So J never exists to be deprived of her future.  After an abortion, J will be a merely possible entity.  Doing things that eliminate merely possible entities and their futures can't be at all like killing. Otherwise, we're all murderers for not doing our utmost to conceive as many children as we possibly can.  If F is non-identical to J, surely that does undermine Marquis's indictment of abortion.


I think not. I lean strongly to the view that F is identical to J.  So destroying F does take a FLO away from F.  Of course it's true that during the course of gestation and growth, F will come to have new properties (like being conscious, feeling pain, having preferences).  And I think some of these properties are morally important. But I'm not prepared to say any of these new properties are "existentially" important--that they make for the end of one entity and the beginning of another.  The idea that a new entity pops into being once consciousness emerges strikes me as a vestige of dualism.  But that's a long story....

Suppose you agree that F is identical to J.  You could avail yourself of identity considerations of another kind to construct a reductio ad absurdum of Marquis's argument. You could argue that F is identical to J, but F is also identical to an entity that exists prior to conception.  F, you might say, is identical to the egg (E) that's fertilized at conception. If you can make a case for that, then you'll wind up saying that killing F is as bad as killing J; but also having to say (absurdly) that preventing E from being fertilized is as bad as killing F or J.  Women who avoid intercourse during ovulation will have to be equated with murderers!

Is that the best available response to Marquis?  I think the identity considerations underlying that response are also implausible. No, E is not identical to F.    Again, long story.

The reponse I'm inclined to give to Marquis grants that a new entity comes into existence at conception (or shortly thereafter--there are good reasons to date this just a little later than conception) and continues to exist throughout pregnancy, after birth, and into childhood and adulthood.  Abortion therefore does deprive an entity of its whole future--a FLO, if it's going to be a typical future.

What I think we should balk at is the notion that killing is wrong purely because it deprives an entity of its future.  No, it's wrong because it deprives an entity of a future to which it is entitled.  I don't think you can speak of entitlement in the case of a one-month-old fetus.  Just because a fetus is innocent or guiltless, it does not follow that it is entitled to anything.

It's easy to see that it's not always wrong to cause an entity to be deprived of something valuable, but rather wrong only when the entity is entitled to that thing.  Take, for example, this tale of four bookstores.  Once we had a store called Bookstop in Dallas, but Borders came to town, and people preferred Borders.  Bookstop's owners were no doubt deprived of a huge amount of wealth and pleasure.  Then Barnes and Noble came to town and all the Borders stores eventually closed.  Poor Borders owners!  They were also deprived of a huge amount of wealth and pleasure. Now Amazon is making the local Barnes and Noble stores look awfully empty.  B&N's owners may be on the verge of being deprived.  The winners in these business competitions did nothing wrong.  They caused deprivations, but didn't cause weaker businesses to be deprived of anything they were entitled to.

Likewise, if Mary flirts with Margo's boyfriend Mark, and Mark starts to prefer Mary, Margo winds up deprived, but not deprived of anything she was entitled to.  If two people are in a race, and the one behind gets in front, the early favorite winds up deprived of winning, but not deprived of anything she was entitled to.  And on and on and on.  Generally speaking, it's not causing a deprivation that's wrong, but causing someone to be deprived of something they're entitled to.

Is there a difference between what a one month old fetus is entitled to and what folks like us are entitled to?  Yes. Why?  Because though a fetus is the very same entity as the later infant, child, and adult it will become, it doesn't yet have the morally relevant properties of the later infant, child, or adult.  It is not entitled to its future in the way that you or I are entitled to our futures.  So abortion is nothing at all like murder.  It has some of the elements (the individual killed is deprived) but not all of the elements (the individual killed is not entitled to its future).  So Marquis's argument is unsound.

Unsound, but not completely devoid of insight.  If a fetus does have a FLO (though one it's not entitled to) that explains why women are not confused at all when they take abortion seriously or have later mixed feelings.  That makes very good sense, because abortion does cause a deprivation.  It does take the future from an entity, and I think it's not incoherent at all to find that at least somewhat disturbing.


Wayne said...

What does the fetus lack that a newborn baby has that warrants entitlement to a future? Or is there an acceptable window for infanticide a la Singer?

Jean Kazez said...

It would be behoove me to be evasive. I'm saying to Marquis--you have to prove (a) abortion deprives a fetus of its future, AND (b) a fetus is entitled to its future. You only succeeded at (a).

How would you argue for entitlement of infants but not fetuses? Well, you've got an infant's consciousness to appeal to....but yeah, it's a hard question.

Daniel Hooley said...

But isn't a fetus conscious during gestation? Granted, from the little I know I think this happens late in the game (22 weeks or so??).

So if we go that route (and I think it is the best route to take) when it comes to why an infant has a right not to be killed, we might need to grant that a conscious fetus also has this right/entitlement.

Alan Cooper said...

Doesn't this just beg the question (unless you actually explain and justify the basis of that entitlement)?

If to be entitled to live just means to have a life that it would be wrong to take, then to say it is wrong to take the life of a being because the being was entitled to live explains nothing. Is there a sense in which the entitlement to live can be argued in a way that is not the same as directly arguing against the killing?

Plop said...

I find it interesting to also take the argument further to see what it entails. Does aborting cause a foetus to loose its FLO? Yes. So does miscarriage ( a third of all conceptions end up in miscarriage).

In that sense, getting pregnant means a risk of loss of FLO for a foetus (or a new person). Activities rising risks of miscarriage would cause more loss of FLO. Conception with a high risk of miscarriage cause a high risk of loss of FLO. Any conception of a fetus that won't be brought to term carries a loss of FLO.

Where does that stop? At what percentage of risk (100% for abortion, >33% in conceptions with no intent to abort) ?

Aeolus said...

Lots of new things "pop" into existence -- e.g., water as ice is heated to the melting point, or morally entitled beings as the nervous system develops to a critical point. Doesn't whether something is the same as what it emerged from depend on the context in which the question is posed?

It seems to me that PIFF has the same practical upshot as your Entitlement position. It's having the set of properties that define personhood that entitles a thing to continued existence. That may be a tautology; the important thing is to know what the set of properties is.

Rhys Southan said...

Does entitlement to life arise when we become attached to life and wary of leaving it? But then when we inevitably die, is this a violation of our entitlement, so long as we remain attached to it? Is this the reverse of the entitlement to die if we're no longer attached to life? Are we entitled to whatever we want out of life, but only if we're conscious enough to think of whether we want to live or not live? If Hitler had enjoyed living, and if he hadn't killed himself, would he have been entitled to life after WWII?

For me the response to this anti-abortion argument that makes the most sense is the "death is not a harm to the one who dies, but only to the survivors" argument. The fetus who dies and the 33-year-old who dies are no better or worse off than each other. Both simply cease to be and forget every experience they've had (which may be nothing in the case of the fetus). For both, it's as if they were never born. But the trauma for those who exist is generally much worse when the 33-year-old dies than when the fetus is aborted. (Although that depends on how well liked the 33-year-old is.) The mother may later feel regret over the abortion, but she is the main person likely to be harmed in this way by the death of the fetus. Were she to kill her her 33-year-old son, the harm to the rest of the world would be much greater. (Even if the 33-year-old and the fetus are both dead and for them there's no difference.)

The fetus and the youngish adult both had potential futures that will now never be experienced. The 33 year old was obviously more conscious of that potential future while alive, but death equalizes the fetus and the adult in that regard: the dead adult is no more conscious of that lost future than the dead fetus is. The only ones conscious of all this are the living. They are the ones who suffer from the adult's lost potential, never knowing how this person would have lived the rest of her life, never getting to see her again, etc. Most people are not so attached to fetuses, because the fetus is still an abstraction, whose looks, personality, accomplishments and ambitions are unknown to the world, and who has not become entangled with anyone's lives. It's possible that an aborted fetus might have made the world a better place, but we don't feel that loss because that's only a guess.

Even this idea of "entitlement to live" is other-reliant. We're entitled to live because others want us to live. Often we lose this supposed entitlement when we hurt enough other people that we're no longer wanted in the world. But without the judgment of others, we're just living or not living. It wouldn't make sense to speak of this entitlement without others judging the merit of our existences. Were the dinosaurs entitled to live?

Aeolus said...

Jean: Are you familiar with Stephen Schwarz's "The Being in the Womb Is a Person"? It's in Lewis Vaughn, Contemporary Moral Arguments.

Jean Kazez said...

Sorry, I got distracted by some "real life"...

I think I made my point too strongly. I should have said (1) the wrongness of killing presupposes the victim's entitlement to his FLO, not just his having one, and (2) Marquis does not establish a fetus's entitlement to its FLO. Instead I went further and said (3) A fetus is not entitled to its FLO.

As a debate tactic, it would be better to shift the burden to Marquis. It's up to him to establish a fetus's entitlement to its FLO, and he doesn't do that.

I do have the gut feeling you can't speak of a fetus being entitled to anything, but I don't have an argument for that. Perhaps it's to do with the fact that a fetus is part of its mother's body?

Aeolus, Thanks for the recommendation--will have a look.

Alan Cooper said...

I certainly agree with you that the onus regarding "entitlement" is on the one who asserts it - especially when that assertion is being used to restrict the actions of another person.

But I am still confused as to whether there is any real distinction between saying "F who has L is entitled to keep it" as opposed to just "it is wrong to take L from F"

Alan Cooper said...

P.S. I'd be very reluctant to base my argument for choice on the claim that the fetus is part of the mother's body as I think that claim would be easy to challenge.

Faust said...

I was wondering if you would ever get back to this topic. I don’t know if you remember Jean, but the very first serious exchange we ever had revolved around FLO and other abortion arguments back on the philosopher’s magazine site. At the time you were more in favor of PIFF and reductio type defenses. As soon as I saw you picking up animalism, I did wonder how that was going to affect your positioning on these issues.
In any case to the arguments at hand:

I really don’t get how one hold the view that F and J are identical and also maintain that J is entitled to its future in a way that F is not. If F and J are identical, then F = J and you might as well be saying that F is entitled to its future in a way that F is not. That is to say, you’re talking nonsense.

It seems to me that you’re really just retaining your previous PIFF position, but moving the pieces around on the board a bit to accommodate your newfound animalism. So yes one and the same animal, but at T1 the animal does not have the “morally relevant properties” that entitle it to live until such time T2 where it will acquire the “morally relevant properties” that give it the right to continue living without interference. But I don’t really see something that has “morally relevant properties” can be identical to some other thing that doesn’t. That just seems incoherent to me, and fairly painfully incoherent at that.

So I don’t think you can, if you accept that F = J, push the FLO back on Marquis, as IF F=J THEN F has precisely the same future that J does, as they are identical.

In this respect I think I'm just rehearsing what Aeolus said, except to deny your suggestion that you can push this back on Marquis. Once you accept that F=J then you are willy nilly forced to accept that F and J have the same future AND the same degree of entitlement to it. If you deny that, than I think you are denying that F = J, and you are back to some form of PIFF.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Well that's interesting--I remember our interactions going back to TP, but not that they had to do with Marquis and abortion.

I think the animalist story here (and yes, I'm 98% sold on animalism) is that the very same entity exists first as a zygote, then as a fetus, a baby, an adult, etc.. In an adult stage, it makes sense to speak of a right to vote. From the fact that the zygote IS the adult (one entity, different stages), it doesn't follow that zygotes should be allowed to vote. The identity of Z ("my" zygote") and J (me now) just means that "can vote starting at age 18" is true of both. It doesn't mean that I actually had all the properties as a zygote that I would ever have later on.

What the animalist can say about basic rights (the rights of persons) is that they do have some mental prerequisites. So it's not until late in gestation or perhaps after birth, that I became a person, so had the rights of persons. Some people (like John Finnis and Lynne Rudder Baker) think we persons are essentially persons--so we can't exist at all prior to or after being persons. They're bothered by the notion of personhood as a mere stage concept. But I don't find that terribly odd, if odd at all.