a philosophy blog

Sacred purview and insistence

Notes on:
Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion”

Warren wants to establish that the status of the unborn fetus is not that of a participant in a moral community with attendant rights. It is important to her case that the issue of abortion for a woman is not primarily about control over her body and whatever is attached to it. Physical attachment to one’s body, of itself, gives one no moral rights to kill the unwanted trespasser any more than if we were talking of real estate. Even trespassers have a right to live. Fetuses do not, however: at least none comparable to that of the women who carry them. This is because fetuses are not yet even persons—which Warren will define as being integrated members of a moral community.

[The refusal on Warren’s part to apply the picture of property rights (viz. the Lockean “sacred purview” so dear to male political and legal theory) as a basis for her claim that a fetus may be aborted without moral fault is significant. Fundamental to her definition of what it means to be a person is the idea of relationship or embeddedness in a larger network of moral agents. This communitarian perspective is native to women; whereas that of the primacy of the sacred purview idea is, for them, an acquired taste, if that.]

Warren distinguishes two definitions of “human”:

1. “a full-fledged member of the moral community” (the moral sense),
2. and any member of the biological species, homo sapiens, (the genetic sense).

What must be established to make aborting a fetus morally problematic is that the fetus is human in the first sense, not merely the second.

Who is the “moral community”? Warren suggests the community of beings (homo sapien or not), i.e., “people” with at least these basic traits:

1. consciousness
2. reasoning
3. self-motivated activity
4. capacity to communicate
5. presence of self-concepts or awareness

Any entity, such as a fetus, that satisfies none of these criteria is not a person. (At least some animals and small children may meet some of these requirements.)

“…genetic humanity is neither necessary nor sufficient for establishing that an entity is a person.”

A fetus’s physical resemblance to a person, in the absence of the five traits, is no more reason to accord it rights than that of a manikin.

If we grant that an unborn fetus has some of these traits in some rudimentary form, this cannot invest it with rights comparable to those of the fully developed person who can manifest all of them that is its mother.

Does the fetus’s potential for personhood garner it any rights? It may. We do not need to insist that a potential person is a discardable object: “…but even if a potential person does have some prima facie right to life, such a right could not possibly outweigh the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, since rights of any actual person outweigh those of any potential person, whenever the two conflict.” And one actual person’s rights exceed those of any number of potential persons.*

[How far ought we to take this idea of “potential person”? Is killing a young man who potentially could impregnate a vast number of women also an act of genocide? All those who could have come into being but now, as a result of his elimination, will not…

But, you say, his sperm, in the normal course of events do not develop into persons absent the penetration of the cell wall of a human ovum. When he masturbates he is not killing thousands of potential people.

But what prevents his fertilization of hundreds of women? In fact, isn’t that what would happen in the “normal course of events”—absent social, psychological, cultural, and moral constraints? And these constraints, who is responsible for them? Are these, whoever they are, the ones, then, truly guilty of genocide? For they set up institutions that serve to thwart otherwise natural biological mechanisms resulting in the introduction of new life. They premeditatedly interfere with normal, not to say natural, processes.

Are we conflating “natural” and “normal”? It is not morally controversial to meddle with natural processes but it is to do so with normal ones? Because the latter have some basis in morality? Because they have a history of development in response to pressures to regulate the species for its own survival?… Survival? But where is the moral imperative in that?

Nature, Darwin indicated, toys with “survival,” but we are talking ethics here: why should the species care about survival? (Not whether it does.) “Because it has a right to, if it has a right to anything,” you say, perhaps, in desperation.

Supposing we grant that it does. Since this “right” is founded on nothing that I can see but insistence, and the species is allowed to insist, why can’t the individual also dig her heals in and insist, too? I, as an individual, do not want to sacrifice my autonomy for the sake of another, even to the point of preventing or, perhaps, taking the life of another.

This, it seems, is at least one of the concerns facing a woman about to have her life compromised forever in childbirth.

The point is not that the species, through its extended cultural mechanisms, cannot override the individual’s insistence. There is strength in the insistence of many. But that its moral claim to do so is only as intelligible as that of any individual to resist it.

But on top of that there is another—too often treated as diaphanous—layer of complexity, owing to the fact that individuals of the sort being addressed come sexed. Insistence on uncompromised autonomy is not a generic human liability. Autonomy is one among other values on a scale. It ranks very near the top for men, but lower for women because something else occupies that hallowed place for them: something that actually places value on heteronomy, i.e., on essential (non-contingent) relatedness, integration, or connection. It is because of this critical difference in scale of values that abortion cannot be intelligibly dealt with in classical—that is to say, male—moral schemes.]


Editor’s Notes

* Of course, this raises a question about the correct regard we should have for future generations of “potential persons” (as in natural resource debates): whether and how much they are to count in our moral considerations. Following a logic akin to Warren’s, the further out in time our potential people are, the more discountable. Is the concern symmetrical? Do we owe the honor and legacy of the near dead more regard than the ancient dead? And do we owe our near selves more thought than ourselves in dotage or childhood? Should I be guilty for not having lived up to ideals I had when I was younger? Should I look to being proud of my achievements as an old man? Should I give a damn even about anything beyond the next five minutes (or however long “now” has been measured to be)? Carpe diem

Similarly, if the actual/potential distinction is temporal, and it appears that it is, then why should not spatial separation also serve to draw lines of moral import. The suffering of distant peoples, or even those across town, cannot count as much as that of those in my presence or mine. The implication here is that for Warren distance in space or time does matter. Peter Singer, in addressing the morality of famine relief, has famously argued that space doesn’t—so long as knowledge can span it.

And perhaps, as Luno puts it elsewhere, “…this is the key to escaping moral aspersions: enforcing stupidity.”

Closely related, also, are discussions of equality and partiality: whether each is to count for one and none more, as Jeremy Bentham would have it, or if, as Thomas Nagel seems to concede, special obligations to those near us in space and time—quintessentially those related by blood—must unavoidably figure into our distributions of goodness.

The gender card enters here in the quality of the embrace of partiality. Male theorists almost universally tend to make it a concession as opposed to a first assumption.

Luno uses “genocide” here in the sense of killing targeted at the most basic ethnic group: those related as offspring; perhaps “phratricide” would be more specific. However, because of the theoretical potential for engendering much larger related groups than typical families, the term “genocide” seems appropriate. The use of the freighted word is not merely rhetorical.

Posted by luno in philosophy and sex, abortion, sex differences, Moral Theory (Saturday April 22, 2006 at 2:26 pm)

No comments for Sacred purview and insistence»

No comments yet.

Leave a comment


(required but not published)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Creative Commons License