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Abortion, Sex, and the Limits of Morality - Part II

Lessons for moral theory taken from the morality of abortion


Utility and women

In the realm of ethics, the notion of rights is little more than three centuries old, that of utility less, that of virtue two millenia. But that of care we must assume is pre-historic.

There seem to be very few utilitarian philosophers who are women. Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor Mill are sometimes counted among the classic utilitarians but a close look at their views, I think, shows only a superficial resemblance to theories like those of Godwin, Bentham or J. S. Mill. It is never quite utility per se that interests these women. Nor if it had been, would it have been conceived in the impoverished way it was by their male contemporaries. These women were utilitarians as people born in an English-speaking country have a relation to England, not as those who were actually born in London. They speak a language they were born into as contrasted with one in which they may necessarily trace the history of their being.

By far, most contemporary women ethical theorists fall into one of the three competing camps to utilitarianism: Women virtue theorists abound. Alternatively, women show themselves partial to care-based theories which describe morality as about developing and encouraging a natural tendency to be social, i.e., to create, foster, and engage in human relationships. Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, even Kant gets a strikingly large share of his best interpreters from among the ranks of women. I will have more to say about this, on one level, counterintuitive appeal Kant has for women. But the general reticence of women thinkers toward utilitarianism, though, is also revealing.

If pure ethical utilitarians seem to be scarce among women—certainly there are none like Bentham and only vaguely like (the already vague) Mill, why should this be and why should this matter? I think it is because it is that it matters.

It is because utilitarianism fills a peculiar place among the major contending ethical theories. It seeks the maximization of one parameter of existence, namely, happiness, usually more narrowly defined as the minimization of pain (or dissatisfaction), at the expense of other possible values. It is a principle-based theory without the benefit of a fully featured psychology behind it. Kant’s theory is principle-based also but at least has a plausible and adequately sophisticated, if still partial, moral psychology to support it. More on this later.

But first, I have to sort the field of major ethical theories into those that are foundational and those that are better described as moral heuristics, strategies, or rules of thumb. A foundational ethical theory is one that gestures at why a certain way of being or doing matters in some way, not just that it matters or how we should go about expressing it in judgment and action. By contrast, a moral heuristic does exactly the latter: it assumes an ostensible ideal, then attempts when possible to guide our action in the service of the ideal. A moral heuristic, unlike a foundational theory, does not tell us why the ideal is what it is. To be told why the moral ideal is what it is is to tell or imply some story about how that ideal is grounded in something peculiar to the kind of being who is to be guided by it. This brings us to the moral ontology of agents—or who is theorizing and for whom?

I am going to say that there are only two genuinely distinct and foundational moral theories: these are some variation of what I will call care-based theory and some variation of duty-based theory. I will argue also that the reason this is so has everything to do with the answer to the moral ontology questions.


Care-based theories, as they are sometimes called in modern parlance, have been around in one guise or another for a long time. In this fairly broad class, I would place the 18th Century moral sense theories (Hutcheson, Shaftsbury, Hume, et al.), moral intuitionism (G. E. Moore), various communitarian theories (including Marxist ones), and, most revealingly, many feminist views (Annette Baier, Nell Noddings, Carol Gilligan, et al.) These theories essentially assert that most of us most of the time are capable of being motivated to act with empathy and concern for others. This capability, not necessarily its manifestation, is innate. It is not a conclusion reached through abstract reasoning. There are many ways to spell out the relation of reason to morality but the subservience of reason is characteristic of these accounts. Hume put it succinctly: reason is the slave of passion. Passion, feeling, concern, empathy, benevolence, magnanimity, fellow-feeling, etc. must be presupposed in any explanation of doing or being good. The role of reason is instrumental. Having the right feelings, we enlist the aid of reason to productively express them.

Care-based theories show their foundational character by answering the question about the source of normativity—that is, where value comes from in the first place. It comes about organically because of the fact that most people most of the time care in some degree about—at least some—others. The point of morality is to increase the number of people caring, the range of the objects of their caring, and the amount of time spent caring. The natural tendency to care is to be nurtured and developed. Ethics essentially consists in this. To ask why we have that tendency is to ask a question about nature. It becomes properly a scientific, not philosophical, question. Given that we have the capability of “playing nice” (not to put too fine a point on it), philosophy may have something to say about how best we should manage it. But caring is a mandate of nature and, like everything else in nature, full of exception, troubled by competing mandates, yet less troubled by contradiction and baroque complexity than, say, the imperatives of principle-based theories.

Klimt - Mother and Child
Klimt - Mother and Child

One thing care-based theories shy away from are hard and fast rules. Principles and rules, the handmaids of reason, can be helpful but they do not define or justify morality. You will not find monolithic principles like the principle of utility or commands from on high such as Kantian imperatives. There is never any one thing to maximize or minimize or conform to. There is a rough picture of peace and harmony among various orders of sentience, and all ways of realizing that picture are game.

In these theories, ethics happens not through rules, in actions specifically, or even in the character of agents but in the space between people: in relationship. The most primal relationship imaginable is that between mother and child.


Duty-based theories are founded on the primacy of reason. Immanuel Kant’s is the most thoroughly articulated and influential such theory. Contractarian and rights-based moral theories are close relatives. Unlike the care-based view of how people should behave, duty implies active resistance, not the relative passive resistance of unmolded impulse and velleity, where people get carrot-and-sticked into line or their characters shaped as weather shapes mountains or rivers their banks. In the latter, there is assumed at least an openness if not an active willingness to cooperate.

Kant - Can so
Kant comes calling

Duty is imposed from without on innate intransigence. It implies a will to tame, a will that comes to view itself as autonomous, as able to direct itself. The will is conscious of itself being free to orient itself according to a rule—or not. Out of this consciousness responsibility is born. A rule or principle is the core tool for orienting the will. It is the trellis to which the vine of desire, impulse, habit, even environment must be made to conform. Duty has the essential character of imperative that Kant accurately captured. It abstracts from everything human but a naked will and subjects that to rational scrutiny and stricture.34

34. Actually, this is not quite true, Kant’s moral theory insists on one very peculiar feeling: the capacity to feel awed by abstraction. A human act is only moral when it is done out of respect for the moral law. It is never enough merely to be in accord with the dictates of the law. The susceptibility to a feeling of respect is no minor concession to humanity in Kant. There can be absolutely no element of fear in this awe, for fear is no moral motive at all for him. Love, though not moral, may be forgiven. Fear is morally unforgivable. This points to a great mystery at the heart of Kant’s moral philosophy which I discuss elsewhere. One thing is clear, however: the capacity to be awed by abstraction is quintessentially a masculine virtue—or liability, as the case may be. Or so I will argue.

Elsewhere I expound on the metaphysics involved in these two types of foundational moral theory but here I want to stay with the physics—more specifically, the physiology, behind the types.

The reason there are only these two types of theories is because there are only two natural kinds of human being: women and men.35

35. I am aware that insisting on women and men as distinct natural kinds is controversial. I will address, for example, John Dupré’s attack on the distinction elsewhere.

Pause and deep breath

I wish it were needless to say—apparently, it is not—that there is nothing in the view I present here that prevents a woman from experiencing something of the archetypally masculine way of experiencing the world or for a man to do the corresponding thing. Nothing in what I say prevents the possibility that individuals of either sex are mixtures in whatever degree of these types. Indeed, I think the mongrel nature of sex in actual individuals (as opposed to abstract types) is typical and necessary to explain what recognition and understanding exists between the sexes. Nevertheless, there is plenty in the understanding of the matter I offer that is apparently not transparent. (Or, at least, the more or less progressive audience I specifically address, seems embarrassed to remark on its opaqueness.) For the sake of getting clear about the distinct forces involved, I will stress that there are characteristically feminine and characteristically masculine ways of experiencing the world whose differences are profound and color every judgment we make about humans generally. This is especially and critically so in ethics because so much else in culture and civilization depends on it.36

36. Though I only hint at it here, I am suggesting that the conceptual world (no less than the perceptual world) of women and men is so radically different from that of the other that the apparent functional consensus or modus vivendi between them ought to be an object of wonder. Elsewhere I address, for example, the notions of freedom/liberty/autonomy and the different roles the idea plays in the intellectual economy of each. To understand this we might borrow the ideas of “overlapping consensus” of function across justificational differences from John Rawls and Charles Taylor. The communicative consensus, such as it is, that obtains across sex lines may help us illuminate cross cultural talk of value: what the distinctively Western notion about “human rights,” for example, corresponds to in cultures in which that notion as we in the West conceive it is not native. There are opportunities for conceptual enrichment on all sides. But the point here is that differences have to be faced and apprehended first before we escape the exploitative tendencies of facile universalism. In this way, we may be further along in political philosophy than we are in basic moral philosophy which is something of a scandal.

So, the short list of types of foundational theories above corresponds to the obvious fact that our species is sexually bifurcated, i.e., gonochoristic. If I am anywhere near being right, you should be able to guess which type goes with which sex. There is a vast amount to be said about this, some of which I discuss elsewhere.37 But here I want to finish my typology and then hone in on what it says about the very concrete problem of abortion and ethics.

37. But if you have any doubts the moral world is radically bifurcated, I suggest looking at a discussion of just one very salient aspect of the fallout from this assertion: the difference in moral and legal intransigence as discussed in this commentary on June Stephenson and Roy F. Baumeister.

The philosophical views on the abortion problem discussed above were selected because of their now classic status in the modern literature on the subject. You may notice that a specifically care-based orientation is missing.38 But I think that orientation is a more or less hidden gravitational force distorting the orbit of visible theory, especially when propounded by women.39 Warren and Thompson both attempt to fit a principle-based view onto the subject. Each assumes that “rights” matter, more for Thompson than for Warren, and then proceeds to see how they might be construed to justify the intuition that abortion is permissible in at least some circumstances, more such for Warren than for Thompson.40

38. An early sketch of it may be found in Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice. Care-based moral theory, developed as such, and connected with the feminine interest in, and prioritization of, relationship is still not fully accepted on a par with deontology and consequentialism. It is part of my aim here to press the case that care-based theory is more foundational than consequentialism and on a par with deontology. If I am right, there is explanation, if not quite justification, for why this has been so.
39. And the reason for the asymmetry—why I am not saying that a duty-based orientation distorts the opinions of men on the subject of abortion is because their language and conceptual schemes have unfortunately been the background against which most discussion has usually taken place. You don’t notice that the sun distorts the “color” of natural things—because you first learn of colors in sunlight.
40. There is a tight connection between the concepts of “rights” and “personhood.”

Framing concepts in this debate like “personhood” and “rights” have histories that arise out of moral quandaries that are traditionally and constitutionally male. Even the concept of “murder” is quintessentially male.41 The definitions are important because they frame what is and is not permissible to what is taken as a free-ranging will. A free-ranging will is the starting point from a native masculine standpoint. How do we both honor and constrain such a will?

41. The idea that we may subsume abortion and infanticide under the single rubric of “murder” might be interpreted as a way of balancing an ostensibly lopsided scale of moral depravity. If we leave abortion and infanticide out of account, murder is almost exclusively committed by males. The number of girls and women who kill non-fetus or non-offspring victims is negligible. When it happens, it is worthy of comment, not statistic. How can we pretend that human-created evil is sex blind? As a rule, murderers are men. If that speaks to an unacceptable imbalance of relative depravity, we may be inclined to achieve parity by insisting that abortion is a form of murder. In this way, we may argue that men on balance are no more inclined to evil than women. I think this is the only way to make sense of the gross imbalance—assuming we perceive the imbalance a problem as the moral equality theorist is obliged to do.

But why should we defer so much to the concept of will in the first place? Why does our will need such elbow room? Freedom or liberty is a hallowed idea in our culture. Why?

Historians of ideas will tell you the prominence of the idea of autonomy is rooted in the rise of mercantile classes in the Middle ages who needed a conceptual framework within which to assert their material interests against the entrenched and less liberty-needing culture of privilege and status grounded in real property. Evolutionary biologists will tell you it has to do with the fact that males make themselves and their genes indispensable by taking chances and, occasionally, succeeding in improving the chances for survival of their species. They are wired to push boundaries. Latitude and boundary are correlative ideas.

In either story, males play the instigating role. The traditional concepts of morality arose from a need to curb the excesses of a perceived pre-existing, untrammeled will and channel its energy in a constructive direction. But on whichever story of how autonomy achieved its grip on our culture we focus, the idea is deep and pervasive.42 It is so all-pervasive that a whole branch—the dominant one, in fact—of Western feminism still argues within a framework that is patriarchal. It still uses the language of rights, autonomy, and equality—all of which have special meaning in history and that meaning was originally established in the power struggles—not of sexless—but of male beings, specifically.

42. I won’t argue it here, but the obsession with autonomy and the requisite attending discipline is evident in non-Western cultures as well, though usually in more spiritualized guise.

Admittedly, the masculine idea of rights is adapted by some women thinkers. Rights are reinterpreted but they retain enough of their origin in the interests of men that they apply only with serious strain to problems that are proprietary to women. The idea that a woman should have a right to control her own body, for instance, suggests that a woman’s body is her possession like his land might be to a farmer. This way of conceiving of her body will lead to odd talk that sounds disconnected from reality especially when coupled with legalistic definitions of personhood, another masculine importation. The farmer sweats the boundaries of his property. Much rides on clarity about this for him. Does—more importantly—should a woman sweat the boundaries of her body? The awkwardness is evident in Warren’s account. It forces her even to entertain the idea of the personhood of fetuses and small children as though the personhood of a child, born or unborn, was ever a strict primal concern of its mother. The personhood of beings matters only when there is a sufficient distance between the one so characterized and the one characterizing. Men always have that almost literal arms-length relation to another, women not always. Such talk is tellingly awkward in any relation between a mother and child.

It would be a more correct way to picture a woman as being one with her body and, in diminishing degree, all the space around her. Her already born children are still a part of her only a little less than a fetus. Whatever “rules”43 govern her behavior toward one operate with more or less force with regard toward the other. Perhaps she never entirely loses certain prerogatives toward her offspring even when they become adults. The idea harks back to ancient conceptions of mother-right that precede patriarchy, conceptually as well as historically.44

43. Not to be confused with what a male moral theorist implies by “rules.” “Practices” may be a better word.
44. “A more correct way” in this context. The first reaction rightly occurring to someone keenly aware of how this picture, hardly new, has been exploited to justify the use and abuse of women is one of wariness. The suggestion that a woman’s boundaries are not constitutionally as clear as that of a man has been used to justify the violability of women in rape or physical abuse, for example. My point here is that any picture of women (and there are only a limited number of them) will be used to her detriment. And almost any picture can be used to counter that effect. The point is not that there is an objective picture outside of any context that accurately describes women—or men. It is that there is no such context on these matters that is contextless: in the sense that there is the view from female side and the view from the male side and no other. Any attempt to step into a sexless dimension where an “unbiased” truth of the matter can be apprehended is either cover for abuse or an aspiration requiring more imagination than we may pass over without comment. The present discussion of the conceptual schemes in which abortion is typically framed illustrates the former. We abuse our conclusions or the reasons for them. Who posits the picture and their aim are all too relevant.
I am indeed arguing for a kind of moral relativism [a discussion on this point in preparation]. Sex frames and colors moral judgment. That said, the dynamics of this kind of moral relativism are uniquely complex and different from the cultural variety. The latter I do not defend. I would not defend an ontology and dependent epistemology behind any other form of difference including racial, ethnic, religious, cultural etc. (I leave species difference out of consideration here.)

Fathers genuinely assert their “rights” left and right. They invented the “rights” idea, they in a sense “own” the idea. This is mine, that is yours. Their connection to their offspring, from the get-go a little abstract, has to be earned, has to be carved out, has to be deserved, if not insisted on by law, by document, by institution, by brute force or by holy abstraction… His natural right to anything at all, even his life, is insecure… and he behaves that way.45 He will never have what she has and had before rights were invented ostensibly to provide order—order which he, more than she, has always required.

45. Arrogance has survival value for him, much as presumption has for her.

Thompson’s account of the conditions under which we acquire rights over another suffers by accommodation. She finds in the idea of a contractual promise, a property—even mercantile—notion, application in the explanation of how it may become incumbent on a woman to carry her child to term. Assume the fetus is a “person” (a concession to a notion required to define boundaries for men), when a promise is made to a “person” it is wrong to break it (another concession necessary to counter a background of intransigence).

I am not saying that notions like freedom, boundaries, or promises have less moral significance for women. (Though it is easy to understand why some philosophers have implied it, even some feminists.) However, fully understanding what roles such notions play in a masculine moral economy makes it clear that these ideas resonate differently within a specifically feminine moral psychology. For her, every stricture is and should be subservient to creating and nurturing relationship. The damage that may be done is suffered by the relationship. This is not how a man46 ever sees it from the start. For him, even what is meant by “relationship” is cause for some alarm: his first thought is what he will lose by it or what it says about him that he needs it. A moral relationship becomes a concession extracted from him and not the aspiration it natively presents itself to a woman. He has in the end an eye on some heterocosmic accounting47 —and that’s if he is well-behaved… If he’s bad, there is no bottom to how low he will stoop.

46. I am having constantly to reiterate that when I speak of women or men I am actually speaking of beings consciously suffused with one or the other principle: that is, with those who identify with one or the other—never forgetting that nothing precludes “mixity” as Sylviane Agacinski puts it (see below). This mixity is phenomenologically rich in implications which I do not begin to address here. Still there are real forces tending toward polarity at any given moment in the course of the life of any given sexually conditioned being.
47. An otherworldly orientation is characteristic of maleness. It shows in his style of experiencing the world. It is usually unconscious but at critical moments reveals itself. In Kant’s ethics, the quintessential expression of masculine moral normativity, for example. It is evident as an emphasis, as a peculiar twist men give to every idea that passes through their heads. But male heterocosmicity deserves its own discussion.

The damage that he fears is always to this accounting—in another time, I might have said, his soul. It is that, by whatever name he calls it, which his dignity—his reason for being, his meaning, whatever determines his resolve to take another breath48 —identifies with. It is this, not relationship, that ethics relates to for him.

48. Assuming he does, which is always an open question for him: this shows up in his courtship with death and violence, viz., his relatively uneasy relationship with cosmicity.

Traditional moral ideas have the shape they do because men always meant them to apply to themselves (and have often said so but have been systematically misread).49 So, when he seemed to make—to our politically-jaded ears—snide remarks about women, Kant more or less meant to send women out of the room when morality was being discussed. You might think J. S. Mill the famous exception.50 But Mill dealt with it by seeing what he wanted to see in women. It made sense for him to include women extensionally in the moral scheme of things on utilitarian grounds. So he made women into honorary men and attributed to them all the same aspirations, most notably, a desire for autonomy in the guise of liberty. It never occurred to him that what men talk about when they talk about liberty is not the same as what women talk about.51 There are as many ways to be sexist as there are men.

49. At least the philosophers I discuss here, especially, Kant. I am not imputing progressive-mindedness to them in saying this. When they said the word “men” they meant men, the kind with external genitalia. They were not being sexist by meaning to subsume under the rubric “men” both women and men as some may anachronistically be inclined to think. They were being sexist by simply ignoring women altogether. Women were simply beyond the moral pale. Kant all but calls them amoral. Otto Weininger later does explicitly. The misogyny imputed to Weininger is utterly misguided. Nor am I saying there were not unmistakable instances, then as now, of bald resentment toward women. But these cases are either rooted in personal stories (e.g., Strindberg’s relationships, Nietzsche’s sister, and Schopenhauer’s mother) or, more commonly and consequentially, in a kind of groupthink bonding that in males is born of individual cowardice. Kant does not fall in either of these two classes. His relationship to his mother was one of deep respect, if not awe, and he does not appear to have been romantically involved with anyone or anything but pure ideas as an adult. There is nothing to suggest he had any particular axe to grind against women and much to suggest otherwise. Morality is one of his central concerns and, it was clear to him, men, more than women, needed a clearer understanding of it.
50. See my notes on Mill’s The Subjection of Women, the male feminist classic.
51. I discuss this elsewhere but briefly the most meaningful conception of liberty to women is closer to what Isaiah Berlin called “positive” liberty: in essence, a freedom to engage or participate. Whereas “negative” liberty is dearer to men: the freedom from outside interference. These two conceptions of freedom, the prepositional freedoms, can be fiercely at odds with each other as nearly any political debate should show.

The problem with rights/personhood approaches to the question of abortion is that such talk is essentially, not incidentally, masculine. More radical feminisms understand this. If the goal is to make a woman’s choice to abort more palatable to men perhaps such approaches may help. Maybe. But they also obscure the essential difference between feminine and masculine moral worlds. To say there ought to be no difference between those worlds is to buy into a very old male stratagem: “All that matters is that we are equally human beings: so we can use our ideas52 to talk about the lot of us, [mythical] sexless humans. We are all just humans, aren’t we?” Such generous rhetorical inclusivity (which we owe to Mill) is at least misguided if not pernicious.

52. The ones we, guys, invented while masquerading as generic human beings when, in fact, we were just guys in sexless drag.

We are all just humans, aren’t we? No, we are not. Humans are things we aspire to being. “Human beings” as a description of moral actors is vastly further removed from reality than the abstractions, “men” and “women.” The world as we know it is populated by children whose genitalia signal, for better or worse, their respective worlds.

Moral Heuristic

That’s what I call virtue theory and utilitarianism. We need these and many other moral rules of thumb besides. The fact of the matter is that foundational theories can be next to useless sometimes when the going gets rough. The going gets rough when there are no easy answers, when we fear we will do wrong no matter what we do.53

53. Kant’s murderer at the door scenario, for example: in which a murderer at your door asks the whereabouts, which you know, of his perfectly innocent soon-maybe-to-be victim. Kant says, “Never lie, no matter what. There is never a moral excuse for it.” But under these conditions and with these consequences, the utilitarian urges—rather—commands you to lie.

Although some variation on a care-based theory is the most native explanation of moral experience for women, among the major Western accounts, Aristotle’s resonates deeply with women as an action-guiding theory. Virtue theory gives us what is ultimately a broad description of the kind of person we ought to be: one situated in a community. The basic precepts are general without being overly abstract. Moreover, they describe a process: the gradual building of character over a lifetime. Very little that is human is totally forbidden in Aristotle’s view. Moderation, perspective and the moral health of the individual in relation to others is prescribed. Only a humanly conceivable perfection is set as goal, not the skyscraping heterocosmic one of Kant. Aristotle works for women practically and for the feminine moral experience generally, wherever it inheres, even in men, though in fewer of them and to a lesser degree. Virtue theory is humanly rational, after all. If it doesn’t as thoroughly ring true for men as for women, this says something about the specifically masculine experience of rationality—which Aristotle sensibly does not capture. Aristotle is eminently sensible but he is not correct if he intended to reach those most in need of being made moral: men.54

54. I use the term “sensible” to mean roughly what common sense would dictate. “Common sense” is perfectly content to let sleeping dogs lie. Truth at any cost is never its priority.

From the perspective of virtue theory, there is no easy answer for a woman considering abortion. There are a list of considerations she must take into account, that is all. Foremost among them is what this will do to her and how she will live with the decision whatever it might be, keeping in mind that relationship, as much as life, is central to her definition of a person. And morality is about creating and tending relationship.

But the weakness of virtue theory is that it does not explain, except developmentally, how morality comes into being. It does not in the end say why I should care if there is no first inclination to do so. Its answer is too culturally parochial. The moral inclination will surely take what it needs for content from its environment. The latter invariably obliges. The thing is, for women—most of them most of the time, that first inclination is there. We, most of us, owe our existence to its presence. We cannot say this with such certainty about men. For him, it is likely a second inclination, an acquired one, and one we fear he is peculiarly liable to revert from under stress.

“Nature bears harder on women,” Rosalind Hursthouse writes. She meant that a woman is designed first to accommodate herself in the human and cosmic order of things. Assertion comes after she sees it necessary to enable further accommodation. Utter failure to accommodate is tantamount to a loss of meaning.

It is almost exactly the reverse for a man. He accommodates in order to find the strength to further assert. What bears down on him most immediately is the vision he has of himself. Traditional (i.e., masculine) morality insists on being the arbiter of that vision. It makes demands on him that he ignores at great peril.

Each sex has its own liability and weakness. They are not the same.

Bone Saw - Dan Funderburgh
Qualified utility. Bone Saw - Dan Funderburgh

I return to the question why there are so few female utilitarian philosophers.55 As earlier suggested, utilitarianism neither explains, nor rings true to, her experience of what matters. In stark contrast to Aristotle’s rich notion of human flourishing, the utilitarian calculus with its simple hedonic prescription to maximize happiness or, failing that, minimize unhappiness must strike her more sophisticated sense of a life worth living as horribly impoverished. It is morally autistic. The idea smacks of a last resort available only in moral emergencies. And, indeed, that is when utility shines. But moral emergencies are to be avoided, not courted or enjoyed or accepted as inevitable, as happens regularly with men. In a rich life, we seldom care to know with such calculation the price of things. What kind of mother would make such a calculation at the moment of giving birth?56

55. A metasurvey of mostly professional philosophers by David Chalmers et al. revealed that most overestimated the number of their colleagues who were utilitarians (aka, consequentialists). They seemed to assume there would be more utilitarians than deontologists overall. The actual survey showed they got it backwards. And the number of female philosophers who identified as non-consequentialist was appreciably less than that of male philosophers. See here and here. Philosophers are justifiably averse to taking empirical results too seriously. And results like these alone prove nothing. But they may be relevant to my “preponderance of the evidence” argument which draws from many other quarters.
56. Left to his own devices, a man very well might make the calculation and, as often as not, conclude that, no, bringing new life into the world does not maximize happiness. We, most of us, exist because he is not left to his own devices. The dream of rigorous utility is one of his devices, not hers.

Then there is the absolutely cold impartiality of Bentham’s dictum—each vessel of sentience is to count for one and none more than one. This is anathema to a native feminine moral sensibility. Why should my child count for the same as one in some distant part of the globe that I will never meet? And if it is units of abstracted happiness, cashed out in pleasures of varying magnitudes and qualities, that matter, ten Tasmanian Devils may have as much or more in store for them of these things than my child.

Any moral theory can be made out to appear absurd but utilitarianism takes the cake. It’s relative perspiciousness invites this realization. So if it allows Marquis to glibly slide to his conclusion that a fetus’s is the worst possible kind of killing… well, that says what we (she) need(s) to know about utilitarianism. Utility shoots itself in the foot here.

Yet, is it a surprise that for many male thinkers utilitarianism is often running neck and neck with Kantianism as a viable alternative moral theory? After all, it sports the virtue of simplicity: it is first in line to be presented in college survey courses of ethical theories. It has an air of the scientific, if not of engineering, about it. It seems to range over quantifiable observables which an engineer wanting to make a system that “just worked” could appreciate. Pleasure is measurable, right? We can add. More is better… who can argue with that?

As for the impartiality: that is a cardinal principle of any masculine moral theory, Kant’s included. Men have traditionally been concerned with managing large numbers of people whose bonds to each other are weaker than those of typical concern to women in more domestic situations.57 Men see their way to progressively dissolving local bonds in favor of increasingly weaker ones ranging over larger and larger groups: the whole human species, the lot of all sentient beings, all life…58

57. I say “traditionally” in order to be agnostic about whether it is nature or nurture in operation. I don’t see the point of that debate: nurture is what it is because of nature and what we call natural is always going to be to filtered by what we have made of our nature up to now, i.e., culture. (Surely enough philosophers must have made that point by now.) Maybe what is being asked is really: can we and ought we to change? To which I answer yes and yes. And maybe even those questions are moot: I think we will change no matter what. I am left with this question: How ought we to express our aspiration as to the direction?
58. There is a reductio waiting in the wings to overtake the direction of this thought, which I will leave to your imagination.

Isn’t this a good thing? Isn’t the opposite tendency what fuels every kind of nasty parochialism or xenophobia—nepotism, cronyism, racism, anti-semitism, sexism, sectarianism, speciesism, nationalism as well as the last acceptable -ism in polite society: patriotism?

If there is something salutary about the masculine tendency to abstract from the concrete, surely the imperative toward impartiality is it. It is, I think, what underwrites what moral credibility utilitarianism has and why, at least at a certain remove from the morally concrete individual, it has appeal. Especially at the level where morality cannot be served, where largely political—essentially crowd management—considerations may override morality proper altogether, it has its uses.

But utilitarianism is not a proper moral theory whatever political uses it might have. If it is true that pleasure is the measure of all things moral, why should I care about pleasure? Sentience occurs in perverted forms and there are no utilitarian grounds that may convince me that I am wrong to prefer pain or even indifference without unaccountably hemming my sensibility with the idea that the well-being of the greatest number should matter to me.59

59. It is no wonder that the best of utilitarians, Hume, combined utility with moral sense theory. It is the beautiful thought that most people have some semblance of fellow-feeling in them (true or not) that does the real moral work here. Utility is an afterthought.

When we have to resort to utilitarian considerations in moral contexts, it is because proper moral theory is either indifferent or tied up in knots about what to do. I do think such moral tragedy indeed happens. We may do wrong no matter what we do. In those straits, utility may just help us, through basically extra-moral considerations, to live with ourselves in the aftermath of a decision. But that is neither good nor bad in itself: it is just what we will likely resort to.60

60. See note 53 about the murderer at the door. I think utility gets to shine in precisely the situation when morality proper disqualifies itself.

I call utilitarianism a fall-back theory of morality, at best, the spare tire of ethics. This explains its limited appeal as well as limited moral authority… and why, in relation to the problem of abortion, which goes to the core of individual morality (really the only kind there is: all else is crowd and resource management), it is of next to no use. Marquis does us the favor of illustrating neatly why.

Virtue theory, for its part, is less of a theory than a way of avoiding the need for moral theory at all. It offers no ultimate source for normativity though it does a remarkable job without it. If, try as you might, you see little virtue in your human environment that strikes you as worthy of emulation, Aristotle’s picture falls flat. If there is virtue there, we owe it to kernels of truth that come from outside his picture. Still, if the point of morality is always first to get us to behave decently, like well-trained dogs, as opposed to being wise about it, virtue theory is very serviceable. Some of us hanker to be wise, though, in the face of this.

Why Kant sent women out of the room

There remains Kantianism to explain. Kant offered the quintessential duty-based account of how good comes into the world through human action. I have already suggested its appeal and application to men. Men love rules. They love to make them and break them. And they need them. They are lost without them. They make them up as they go—nasty ones, if they are not provided with carefully crafted ones that play on their weakness for being awed by something unassailable.61 And did I say they will break them anyway? Big time.

61. The unassailability is critical because if they can see their way to its defeat or perversion, this will be their first thought. Kant’s genius is that he moved the basis of true morality into the realm of the transcendental or hetercosmic.

But nothing could be further from feminine moral experience than the fetish of principle. Why is it that Kant, who famously dismissed woman from the whole realm of the moral, has among his most ardent defenders a powerful team of some of the brightest women in the contemporary philosophical world?62 It is striking that Kant’s star is at least as bright today among women—just as feminism is beginning to come into its theoretical own—as among male theorists. Why?

62. I have in mind the likes of Onora O’Neill, Christine Korsgaard, Barbara Herman, and Marcia Barron.

In a word, Kant was chivalrous. He excused women from the role of serious actors on the moral stage because, frankly, it is a very grubby place. It drips with the criminal intentions of men. And though only a tiny fraction of them are ever realized—even that number is pretty impressive. About 93% of everyone incarcerated is male. There has never been a place or time in which we have reason to believe that number has been significantly different. Moreover, 40% of the perpetrators of the most serious crimes such as murder are never apprehended. The number is even worse for doers of lesser crimes, most especially for the sophisticated variety. The apprehension rate has been estimated at less than 10% for white-collar, or what I call “abstract,” crime. The conviction rate still less.

Kant probably didn’t have the benefit of criminal statistics. But he had newspapers. So do we. The headline “Man comes home, shoots wife and children, then self” could be printed in advance on any given day in any major news publication. Home, school, place of business, the halls of government, not to mention street or battlefield: it is always men doing it. And when women do it, it is truly sensational: she only needs to drown her one kid to get the same attention that a man has to gun down a dozen strangers to get.

Sean O'Carroll - Boys, Guns, Etc
Sean O’Carroll. Boys, Guns, Etc? (2009)

Yet this two-bit violent crime is only the tip of the iceberg. Street crime at least runs a serious risk of being addressed when our jaded sensibilities are occasionally stunned by some graphic new atrocity. There is a more invidious form crime takes whose magnitude is ten times greater—and maybe that many times more boring.63

63. See the “Abstract Crime” section of my notes on Stephenson.

As children we get fed platitudes about how important it is to get a good education and about how crime doesn’t pay (boys, especially, hear that). If the first bit of advice is true, and you take it, the second isn’t. The most successful criminals are precisely those with the best education. Crime most certainly does pay and, as with any career path, the more so, the better the education of its perpetrator. In fact, the very best criminals are those who, by definition, never get caught, who never grace our statistics. To be caught is the mark of a failed criminal. The successful criminal never knows the inside of a jail. We don’t want our children to be failures. The height of success is to take big chances and to win! That takes supreme intelligence, skill, and courage (and, of course, luck, but we don’t want to overstress that: our wings may suffer clipping at the thought). And this is as true of crime as of any other endeavor… Males with college educations reared in two parents home are especially adept at abstract crime—which unfortunately does not result in abstract suffering or abstract victims. Of course, such suffering, by design, camouflages well enough among “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that we readily excuse it as the normal cost of the business of living. The diffuse cost, nevertheless, insidiously cripples human progress like none other.64

64. I’ll leave it to others to argue that somehow this cost is compensated for by the good that men do. I am not convinced. See my notes on Baumeister.

It is men—Kant and everybody must have known even back then—who always do the lion’s share of human-created evil. Feminist efforts have managed with some success in the past century to increase the representation of women in many male-dominated venues. Since 1916, when the percentage was zero, women have managed, for instance, to achieve about 17% of U. S. Congressional seats (as of 2012). In business, in the professions, in education, the news may be somewhat better. Yet women have shown themselves miserable incompetents at rectifying the sex imbalance in our penal institutions. What is wrong with women? Why don’t they ravage and kill more?

And we have only gestured at legal crime here as opposed to the vastly larger class of moral crimes. (The picture is obscene enough leaving that out… and, if left lying about, children may read this.) Legal malfeasance is only a sampling of the evil that gets done. We don’t document moral crime. Though they are not identical, there is a relationship between what is illegal and what is immoral. The former hints at the latter, the way a symptom does at disease.

Why women invite Kant back into the room

I have labored the point about male nastiness because it sheds light on why Kant sent women out of the room when discussing moral philosophy. It wasn’t that their delicate ears might be subjected to disturbing truths. It was probably so as not to bore them. The ones who needed to hear about morality were—have always been—men.

Kant offers a theory of morality tailor-made for men, a theory that speaks to the heart of their vulnerability and the strength of will it suits their vanity to claim. Had women had an interest in staying in the room, they could only have nodded in approval at what Kant was saying to men, assuming these women were not overly sheltered. In the centuries since, the news has not changed: men do crime like fish swim and are no less grievously in need of moral nurturing.

But with the rise of prominent women philosophers, there is now a fresh perspective on men that did not exist in Kant’s time. The fact is, the mirror that Kant’s morality holds up to maledom is burdensome and men do get tired of being told how depraved they are. There is secret comfort for him in being thought just human and no better or worse than a woman. It can be a relief to think that we are all in this together, women and men alike. It takes some of the heat off of men, specifically. Equality feminism has its uses for men. It offers dispensation. And frankly sometimes they wish Kant, with his pointed remarks about them—men—would just go away.

The peril in believing too hard in the essential moral (hence, political) interchangeability of women and men has occurred to some perceptive women. They must have noticed that the inertia that always pits itself against morality since the first day we are told we cannot do what we want to do—and which never goes away but only learns new forms of subversion—is alive and well. These women saw well enough what men were like, that they were unlike women, and that their virtues and vices were different and required tools developed with these differences in mind. Kant may not speak as directly to women, to their proprietary moral concerns, and as other philosophers (notably Hume), but women have seen the fit of his moral ideas to the way the world is—the world they share with men, and how urgent it is that someone speak to men in a moral language they understand at least well enough sometimes to resent. They rightly see this language in Kant.

Women, especially, have had to deal with the aftermath of much masculine celebration of autonomy. Someone keen on its limitations is called for. So it is that Kant, who famously articulated the glory in the idea—though also less famously its grime, has come to have insightful women among his best champions.

And what does Kant say about abortion?

Next to nothing helpful. Not in the place most philosophers have looked, not, at least, in his categorical imperatives. The imperatives have been interpreted (they are notoriously game in that way) every which way on abortion.65 This, among other things, might make us suspect the imperatives were never intended to apply to this problem—if they were at all, which is doubtful, to those generally for whom abortion could loom as a problem. Since men do not have to contend with aborting life emerging directly from their own bodies and Kant’s moral thinking was always about men, why should the imperatives have been relevant?

65. Lara Denis offers perspective on these attempts in “Abortion and Kant’s Formula of Universal Law” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 37, No. 4, December 2007, pp. 547-580.

Kant was being “sexist,” certainly, not to address women, just not in the derogatory way the term has come to be used. The moral world in which the topic of abortion properly belongs is not one inhabited by men. The mistake of male philosophical busybodies has been to force it into their own moral world which they have taken presumptively as the moral world. Many women have followed men down this mistaken path.

But there are more than a few hints in Kant (even a systematic thread throughout his philosophy) that suggests that he would have been more than willing to leave the relationship between a mother and child, born or unborn, outside the purview of male moral opinion.66

66. Kant, among other major male thinkers of his time, notably Hobbes, shows sufficient signs of awareness of an ancient tradition of mother-right, pre-dating philosophy, both conceptually and historically. In at least one place, Kant explicitly bows before that tradition.

To abort or not to abort is among the gravest moral predicaments that a woman may ever face. The lead in the decision and justification for it is always a matter for women, exclusively.67 The most useful thing men can offer to do on this subject is to respectfully shut up. As, I think, Kant did.68

67. No aspersion is cast here on the importance of women’s voices on other moral problems. My claim is that on this one it verges on exclusive.
68. I am addressing here Kant’s view of the morality of abortion, not its legality in the sense that it may violate public law. For Kant, the ultimate source and highest possible tribunal of worthiness was the moral law, not the contingently enacted law of states. The law of “men” (I intend the ambiguity of the term) has a different justification than the moral law, and it is, in principle, a morally defeasible justification. The passage where Kant lightly passes over infanticide—and implicitly, abortion—is a case involving a child conceived out of wedlock. In marriage, presumably Kant would no longer have been so casual about infanticide (or abortion). But, if so, the reason would then follow from legal, not moral, considerations. In wedlock, a social institution, two more interested parties in the question of the birth of a potential new citizen acquire rights: the father and society at large. The law is the law (not to be confused with “The Law”—the one and only moral one in Kant’s view). No more and no less. That is both its authority and its admission of contingency. It is at best a derived institution and, as such, open to revision. Indeed, the moral perfectionism implicit in Kant’s view of moral psychology will press hard on contingently-constructed law, the kind passed by legislatures.
I am not suggesting that Kant himself was a sort of political progressive. Had he lived now he might have been, but certainly living then he may have done well not to be. There is nothing inherently moral in being progressive. The morality of one’s politics will depend on history. In Kant’s account of it, morality itself, however, does not—though it may well have a thing or two to do with physiology. I argue that Kant acknowledged a moral space for women which his philosophical instincts left uncluttered. A move that is, I think, a matter of appreciation by women who have thought through his ideas. That space is properly theirs to fill. Moreover, I would add that the space comprises better than half of all the moral space there is to fill. The range of agents in which Kantian ethics has meaning consists mainly of adult males and only of most of them some part of the time. But it is a critical time.

Not to be misunderstood (if that is possible)

Mary Wollstonecraft was under the impression that women needed to be treated the same as men in order to begin to be taken seriously. In the world she lived in, thoroughly saturated with blind sexism,69 it is hard to imagine a better idea to start with. But unless we think our awareness of injustice toward women has not progressed at all in the last two and a half centuries, I argue her strategy is no longer appropriate for us.70 It is her world, the world seen from the standpoint of women, that requires being taken as seriously as that of men precisely because it offers something irreplaceably different and essential, not because it is interchangeable. I hope that it is not controversial that there is such a world. The implied interchangeability is the degraded sense of “equality” that is under scrutiny here.71 So I do exactly what Wollstonecraft warned us not to do: sex morality.72

69. “Blind” because most women, no less than men, were not impressed with the fact that both women and human society as a whole were being held back. “Sexist” because they were being held back, not because sex difference wasn’t being ignored.
70. I take seriously the possibility that there has been no real moral progress since Wollstonecraft’s day. It is possible that moral progress happens only on an evolutionary time scale. In which case, I write for posterity: that someone someday will know that at least some of us had a clue even now.
71. For an indication of the extent to which I hold this conviction and its political consequences, see my commentary on Sylviane Agacinski’s proposals in Politique des sexes. Editions du Seuil, 1998. Translated as Parity of the Sexes by Lisa Walsh. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), especially, the chapter “Freedom and Fecundity.”
72. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, (London: W. Scott, 1892), chapter 2.

It is scarcely a secret that men created most of public culture in the first place to serve their own ends. Women were an afterthought to their plans, if that. We have feminism in large part to thank for this insight. But we can also detect at moments an awareness of this in important male thinkers, even as they were writing, centuries ago. Their notions could not have survived as well as they have otherwise. We must be careful not to force anachronistic judgments on the dead which in the end serve no purpose but self-congratulation. It is the living who oppress us, not the dead.

Whatever historical reasons we had for needing to emphasize commonalities, I think it is high time we address differences, in order to get past both to the crux of the matter, something approaching justice for all concerned.

This does not mean going back to a time when differences were assumed or used uncritically. It means that the moral73 infrastructure of civilization must change even more radically from anything we know from the past. It means that every concept we use to structure human experience, without exception, must be rethought so that the value we insert into the world has its source in something fundamental and true about human experience. That experience is essentially bifurcated.

73. And, subsequently, the political and the legal.

The lesson as it pertains to abortion, specifically, is that to give birth is just as morally ambiguous as to prevent it. Just because nature threatens to use your body to further its plan does not by itself morally bless your decision to cooperate. If morality has anything to say about a new entry into life, this is it: that it is no small thing.

A moral act may be viewed with the focus on the patient, the action, or the agent: that is, the being that is the object of the act, the act itself, and the one performing the act. In abortion debates, the nature of the patient has commonly been addressed. The personhood and rights, if any, of the fetus, for example, are the focus in quasi-legalistic rights theory. The act itself, its character in connection with the agent, comes up in virtue theory.

But the natural category of the agent, separate from both the patient and action, is almost never directly broached, it seems, in modern treatments of the abortion problem. I think this is a serious error.

Who the agent is or what kind of being they are has, in situations where abortion is being contemplated, everything to do with, if not the rightness or wrongness of abortion, the privilege of judging it.74

74. John Noonan asserts that life is the closest thing to an absolute value in history as a way of expressing its singularity. I am inclined to agree. But I would add that, among things moral agents may do, giving life is singularly the province of women: its moral enormity is second to none, both in the choice to give or to refuse to give it—for either choice is as grave as any a human being will ever be in a position to make. The sex of the agent may matter in other moral decisions as well (I argue that it does at least in subtle ways), but in this one, it settles the question of who may stand in judgment. Our ontological characterization of moral agents may require revision if it implies otherwise.
In what I just said, note that I break the connection between the choice to have sexual intercourse and the choice to bring life into the world. The Catholic view on this question is rooted in the need to preserve order or decorum in the world of human impulses. It is a profoundly heterocosmic view of the world. It just so happens that traditional male-centered morality is also heterocosmic. I do not reject out of hand the idea that heterocosmicity is a genuinely human response to moral enormity. It has its place. There are moral problems big enough to require solutions on that scale (e.g., male criminality). Just not here, again, because of who is entitled to judge.

Only someone who can have or had or might have the experience of bringing forth a new life from within their body is entitled to have an opinion about whether it is a good, wise, or even permissible thing to do.

Men, for now, are not.75

75. At the beginning of this lecture, I said I approach from a very different direction than is common the conclusion that the first and primary voice on the matter of abortion is always with the woman contemplating it. I think it is significant that in stressing profound, organic, and consequential differences between women and men, I can converge on the same opinion as conventional feminists do. I do so, however, less directly from a potentially paternalistic desire to be kind to or respectful of women than from working out the fallout of an internal dynamic of masculine morality. Men have not minded their business as well as they should. Their opinion on what women should do has been a harmful distraction.

Abortion is part of the answer to the question of what is permissible at the beginning of life. Near the beginning and also near the end of life what we normally mean by “morality” is strained. At these points nothing is categorically required or prohibited. Exactly when these points end and begin is open to question. But it is only in the realm between that morality properly speaks with authority. And the authority it speaks with is tied to the kinds of beings it speaks to. At the entry and exit points to this realm, gatekeepers must take morality into their own hands.

Intro |  Part I  |  Part II 

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