[extropy-chat] Moral relativism

Bryan Moss bryan.moss at dsl.pipex.com
Sun May 8 00:17:44 UTC 2005

Damien Broderick wrote:

> I see that people keep responding to the question by referring to 
> "keeping the baby" versus killing it, disposing of it, adopting it 
> out. I find this extraordinary. There was no baby in the original 
> thought experiment. There was a (presumably only just) pregnant girl. 
> The question of abortion in this instance has to do with whether or 
> not to retain a small embryo with the potential to become a baby, and 
> then a child, and then an adult, and then an old person. We might as 
> well talk about the girl's quandary being whether or not to kill a 
> wise old grandparent, because if she remains pregnant that's probably 
> what the clump of cells in her uterus will eventually turn out to be. 
> But it's not yet. And it's not a baby yet.

The quandary concerns whether she wants a baby, does it not?  If she has 
an abortion, it will be because she doesn't want a baby, not because she 
doesn't want an embryo.

I understand what you're saying and why you're saying it - a lot of 
anti-abortion rhetoric tries to blur the distinction between foetus and 
child - but I'm not sure "keep the baby" is wrong in this context.

> Certain moralists will claim that it is because it has human DNA; or 
> more probably, because it has a complete and fully developed 
> nonmaterial soul embedded in it or associated with it or something. 
> The first claim seems to me a grotesquely reductive misunderstanding 
> of what it is to be a human person. The second might seem to deal with 
> objective reality, but I know of no empirical yardstick for testing it.

I don't think it's quite that simple.  Morality is concerned primarily 
with counterfactuals.  The girl, for example, on considering an 
abortion, will probably be considering things like the first few years 
of the potential child's life, perhaps even the 18 years of 
responsibility, and, at a stretch, the potential adult.  She's thinking 
about more than the foetus.  None of this seems unusual to me.

Here's a thought experiment (and I apologise for the subject matter, I'm 
not trying to suggest any equivalence between murder and abortion):  We 
say that it's unethical to kill a man.  We believe that this is true 
even when he's sleeping, even though he won't be enjoying life or 
contributing to society until the morning.  Are we concerned here with 
the man's potential?  I'd say no.  That seems too metaphysical to me.  
Is it something *actual* about him?  We can simply say he's a man, but 
that doesn't seem specific enough.  He has hopes, dreams, and a sense of 
dignity, perhaps, but does that mean we can catch him on a off day?  
Perhaps we can say, "if he was awake now he would object."  But that 
just seems like more of the same thing.  As does, say, considering the 
situation in functionalist terms: he has moral agency, a diginity 
module, whatever.

Anyway, to get back to reality, I'm not sure saying "that's potential" 
and "that's actual" is really a good way to reject or accept moral 
claims.  I tend to naturalism in matters of philosophy.  I feel like I 
can reject the anti-abortionist who talks of a soul because I can reject 
the soul just fine.  And I'll hypothesise that those who speak of 
"potential" would disappear with that controversy.  But if they didn't, 
I'm not sure how to respond.  All of our moral intuitions seem shot 
through with possibility, consequence, counterfactuals; how do we 
distinguish the good from the bad?


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