a philosophy blog

Abortion, Sex, and the Limits of Morality

A Lecture

Bianco Luno

Editor’s note: Bianco Luno surveys and interprets some of the major philosophical literature on abortion in Part I in preparation for drawing radical lessons for the nature of morality in Part II. Thanks to J. Armstrong, Gene L., and O. Dresher for reading, discussion, and corrections. —Victor Muñoz



The topic

I want to talk about a topic in ethics. Ethics is the branch of philosophy that tries to understand why we ought to interact in a particular way with each other. The “why” part is crucially important to philosophers because if all we care to know is how we come to interact in the way we do, that can and is explored by disciplines such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, evolutionary biology or even history. The story philosophers of morality are looking for is the why behind the “ought.” Science investigates (when it doesn’t get distracted) what is, not what ought to be. It may operate under a system of rules or “oughts” but, whatever those may be, they are not discovered through scientific investigation. At some point scientists, must have “philosophized” to arrive at the “oughts” that govern their method.

The “wherefore” in ethics may not be mysterious to the religious among us. If pressed on why we should do things, they may say because God or scripture says so. For the rest of us, whose worries are not mollified by this answer, the existence of morality is a challenge to explain.

Some, including some philosophers, think there is no such thing as an “ought” that isn’t captured by an “is.” We merely behave like the evolutionarily and environmentally conditioned animals we are. Between the forces of physiology and environment and their development over time, there is no room for talk that things that “should be” any other way than they are. We are invited to believe that is the long and the short of it.

The claim that there is no “ought” beyond what “is” raises interesting questions which I won’t discuss here. But, wrong or right, most of us still operate as though there is sometimes a wrong or a right. I will assume there is for this occasion.

So, assuming there are such things, I will jump to a problem in practical ethics that for a long time has not failed to get press.1 Abortion as a topic gets the attention it does, I think, because it rouses passions behind religion, politics, and sex like perhaps no other. It condenses into one question life—the bare fact of it: its beginning, filling and end. At bottom, it is comparable in weight to that other consummately philosophical question noted by Albert Camus—suicide—because it calls into question as much.

1. “The abortion debate rages on,” wrote Jane English nearly four decades ago in “Abortion and the Concept of a Person,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 5, no. 2, October 1975.

This will be a discussion of the moral considerations surrounding abortion. It is not about whether a woman has a right to choose an abortion in some legal or political sense. How one feels about the moral question probably does affect how one feels about legal and political aspects of the matter, but there is no necessary connection. It is a perfectly consistent position to insist that, though a woman, and only a woman, has a moral voice in the matter of her abortion, society may have authority to prevent her from making a choice to have it for reasons that have nothing to do with her moral right.2

2. Collective interests, for example, which may be viewed as amoral, may trump those of individual morality. (They may because they can, not because they ought without individuals having already forfeited that authority.) Who says anybody has any legally enforceable rights if the community in which the individual is ensconced has decided they don’t? People sometimes make the claim. But whether it is moral for society to trump the individual is a distinct question in political philosophy and a whole other discussion. The moral and political I keep separate because the political entails a veneer of power that the moral does not. Here we are just concerned with hapless morality.

But I also have a much bigger agenda. I choose abortion as the point of departure for making a claim about the nature of morality.3 The issues surrounding abortion set off in stark relief something about this wider subject. The same ultimate conclusion I draw might be made starting from other central problems in practical ethics, but abortion, I think, does it most efficiently.4

3. Morality is about the rules or practices that should govern relations between people. The very first relationship with another human being any of us has is with our mother. That relationship literally sets the tone for any relationship we will ever have. So there is a sense in which morality begins there and it should not surprise us that abortion should loom so large as a moral problem. Not to abort is a moral problem, too, I hope to show.
4. Bianco Luno approaches the same view ultimately presented here from the less auspicious starting point of capital punishment. See “On being blotted out.”

The larger point has to do with sex differences and how these frame the range of appropriate responses to a moral problem. Insights from women on the subject of abortion have special authority. They don’t solve the moral problem, necessarily. But they enrich it by giving it authenticity. An enriched problem is, I think, progress. I don’t pretend to solutions to a woman’s concrete dilemma. But I do point out non-solutions when I see them.

Sex blindness

I think every topic in philosophy benefits from a perspective that is not the masculine one. For the most part and almost needless to say, the male view of the matter has been identical with the traditional one. In recent times, as more women have entered the ranks of philosophy, I think many philosophers have thought the discipline can now proceed affecting an attitude of sex-blindness. Many seemed to have thought that, especially when the subject was ostensibly “sexless” (as with capital punishment), why not accept that what men have thought and written about the matter is sufficient to speak for all, women and men, alike? If women in great numbers have not seen fit to immerse themselves in the moral issues attending the subject, isn’t that because women would think and write about it in a way not substantially different from men? When the topic is capital punishment or the penal system, generally, which doesn’t, on the surface, seem to have a sexual angle to it, does the sex of the voice matter? Why, we might think, do we need women to repeat what men have said about it? The traditional male voice on such topics in effect doubles as the genderless, sex-blind, generically “human” voice on the matter. That voice seems to be an unquestioned Holy Grail. Or worse: too often that sexless voice is not even thought grail but rather a simple matter of affectation.

Through this “doubling effect,” men have spoken, and continue to speak, both for themselves (naturally) and pretend to speak for the species (sometimes by default). This is acceptable if we assume it does not matter that women’s voices are not represented in areas where there is no specifically feminine interest in the matter. Women themselves, I fear, almost as easily buy into this assumption.

But it is a mistake.

I argue there is no topic in philosophy, no matter how “sexless” or sex neutral it may seem (right down to logic or the philosophy of mathematics), that will not benefit by having specific (not incidental) feminine input. This is true because of significant sex difference. Men and women are not interchangeable, nor are their standpoints, nor what may be seen from those standpoints. And everything that gets seen or considered is seen or considered from one or the other of those two standpoints. Sometimes assertions of sexual “equality” of one sort or another mask this fact. That’s my quarrel with the uncritical use of the idea of “equality” and, relatedly, with the overly exerted use of “social construction” to characterize genuine sex difference. Gender is real. Sex is, too. The second came first and didn’t go away once the first came on the scene. Gender doesn’t replace sex; it adds yet another layer of complication. Both sex and gender are proper objects of science, but mine is a claim about the concepts we use to talk and think about things; it is not a scientific one.5 Science is actually part of the problem, not the solution, since it too often operates uncritically with concepts it borrows from the wider culture—much of the time thinking otherwise.

5. There may be the appearance of a kind of naturalism in the final structure of moral theories that I will sketch. But, if I am understood correctly, this naturalism does not obviate the force of traditional moral theories. I do not see advantage in the term “naturalism” to describe my position.

The point about the need for the female voice in philosophy is not vaguely chivalrous. That attitude runs deep in men—even the most well-meaning and considerate. Perhaps, these especially. The sententious point is nothing less than that important progress in philosophy will not be made any other way. I do not mean progress for women in philosophy but progress pure and simple. It is not just that women can contribute insights that men cannot. Though that is true enough, as we should see. It is that the insights that men contribute are not fully understood except against a certain light that may only come from the perspective of women. And vice versa. The ultimate motivation here is not fairness to women but fairness to the lie of things. But, we are, I contend, very far from any such kind of fairness. We flatter ourselves to think we can be impartial as things are.

So, although ultimately I see myself as making a point about moral philosophy—if not philosophy in general, I will approach it here from a subject about which only a die-hard moral egalitarian would think a man’s view of the matter on a par with a woman’s.

Obviously, a man (barring as yet science fiction surgery) is never going to be in a position to consider having an abortion. So men, when they have opinions about this situation, opine with a handicap. It is difficult to think of a single type of action that men engage in that at least some women, sometimes, however rarely, may not also.6 But the option to give birth—or not—is not open to men. Unless we ram through a set of “sex-blind” moral principles, purporting abstraction from any sexual condition whatever, onto the subject, a man’s understanding of what abortion entails must come from the voiced experience of women.

6. Rape maybe. A woman may sexually abuse but I will argue that it has a strikingly different moral character than when a man does. There are also certain mental actions that are characteristically inconceivable to a woman but not to a man: such as principled abstraction from human relationship. But I leave these points for another discussion.

Abstracting from our sexed state is a great deal harder than it is currently fashionable to believe. The supposed abstraction easily offers cover for prejudice. It may be logically possible to abstract from sex altogether, but it is so fraught with opportunity for sex-serving distortion that the burden of proving successful abstraction from a concretely sex-conditioned view to true generically human principles should be on the one who claims the ability. I am not aware of any one who is convincing. The ability should not be taken for granted.

I say this to explain why I trot out from the start the sex of the person along with her or his opinion in the survey below. I start by calling attention to it. Not because that is supposed to qualify or disqualify anyone from having an opinion but so that our consciousness is raised about it. This invites everyone to compensate—and know they are compensating—for this critical piece of information in making their assessments.

So, I contend that a man may only be an authority on the morality of abortion as it affects him. He has no legitimate voice in the matter as it affects a pregnant woman. And only a contributory, but not necessarily comparable voice, as it affects the species. This is because giving birth is not within the purview of his essential biological functions.7

7. Putting fully realized people to death—or not—as in punishment, war, suicide, or other, what I call “moral” emergencies, in contrast, may well be within his purview in a special way in which it may be less so for a woman. I address that contrast elsewhere.

This is my reason for insisting that a say on abortion is no man’s business before being asked by a woman. And my argument extends with less—but still noticeable—effect to infanticide as well. And (at least with regard to abortion) a woman is never under an obligation to ask his opinion. If he is the father, whatever convictions he has on the matter of at least one abortion—the one of the fetus he helped to conceive, he forfeited all right to their expression after impregnation. Other men, or society at large, have no moral say whatever in the matter of a particular woman’s choice to abort or not.

Certainly, there is a point at which moral infanticide becomes moral homicide, hence irremediably implicates others, but that requires the effort of drawing a line and not likely a very sharp one. While an umbilical connection exists between a mother and child, the burden of giving or not giving life remains solely with the mother. It is a burden, a fateful and momentous one, no matter what she chooses to do. We could talk about why even when she chooses to have the child that choice, too, is or ought to be no less grave than the choice to abort. Giving birth may be as wrong as abortion.

Again, what understanding we are ever going to have about the morality of abortion is going to have to come from women. A man might serve as midwife to the understanding but the principle labor in coming to it is hers. What I will offer in Part II below is an argument that excuses men from having an equal voice in the matter. They seem to need the excuse.

The above claims are mine and though they may at points coincide with views of some feminist thinkers, they come from a radically different place. I will offer my argument after I first survey and consider those of several influential thinkers on the subject, mostly (and rightfully) women. But I will also discuss a revealing take on the question by a man because it will serve as an exception that proves an interesting rule. The problem of abortion is not made simple by leaving men out of it, rather it changes, significantly.

Most importantly, the problem goes right to the heart of ethics—not a generic, but a radically sexed ethics and, I think, the only one we can adequately conceive. It goes to the heart of ethics because it will help point up the structure of any kind of moral theorizing we may do.

Intro |  Part I  |  Part II 

Posted by luno in motherhood, philosophy and sex, abortion, sex differences, male criminality, Moral Theory (Saturday June 30, 2012 at 8:43 pm)

No comments for Abortion, Sex, and the Limits of Morality

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Creative Commons License