[extropy-chat] Moral Relativism and Intellectual Poverty

John-C-Wright at sff.net John-C-Wright at sff.net
Fri May 13 19:28:38 UTC 2005

So far, three people have taken me to task for using the term "slay the child"
in reference to a hypothetical question about an abortion being sought by a
fourteen-year-old. My language has been called emotive and dishonest. 

I humbly beg to differ. The language was precise and unemotional. Any emotion
involved was because of the subject matter, not because of the language used to
depict it.  

When an organism reproduces a second organism, the first is the parent of the
second: the second organism, with no violence done to the ordinary meaning of
the word, is properly called a "child." I did not call it an “embryo” or a
“fetus” for the simple reason that the hypothetical did not, originally, specify
a stage of development for the child. It could have been the morning after or
nine months after. The word “child” is broad enough to cover all those cases. 

The hypothetical was concerned, not with disposing of a mass of dead tissues,
but with taking a living organism and rendering it not-living, that is to say,
dead. The word "slay" meaning to render a living organism non-living is
perfectly clear and unambiguous. 

>From the reaction, one would think I had blasphemed in a church: two of my
esteemed correspondents are now in despair that the human race is not
intelligent enough to survive, merely because I did not adopt the currently
fashionable language of euphemism.  

Of course, the point of adopting the language of euphemism is to halt the
analysis. It is not done to make things clear, but to shut questions out of
consideration. But if we shut the question out of consideration, then there is
no point in raising the hypothetical. 

The hypothetical was not whether "Sue" wished to remove a meaningless mass of
cells, an abscessed tooth or an unsightly wart. The moral question was whether
she wished to stop of life process (slay) an organism that stands to her in the
relation of reproductive cause and effect (child). 

If this so-called clump of cells were not an entity to whom she has a particular
duty and obligation, such as a mother’s obligation to love and care for her
child, and if that duty were not, as in this case, calling upon her to make
severe and painful sacrifices, such as founding a family at a tender age, and
foreswearing her other ambitions, then there would be no moral question involved
in the hypothetical.  

If there is no conflict of duties, there is no moral question. 

I also did not think weighing the pros and cons of abortion was the point of the
question. The point of the question was to ask what is the mental process by
which the pros and cons are weighed. 

In that regard, I actually thought he question was useful. Some answers
addresses the duties of the various parties involved, without taking into
account their desires; and some addresses the desires of the mother, without
taking into account either her duties, or the desires of any other person. 

The question was also useful in that it brought out the intellectual poverty of
the “moral relativist” camp: note how the “relative” morals always happen to be
the ones that excuse difficult duties, never ones that impose new and more
rigorous duties. 

Indeed, the idea of duty is alien to Epicureanism or Eudaemonism, or any other
moral philosophy which takes pleasure or self-interest to be the foundation of

In the happy world of the epicurean, he need only select between what shall
please him more and what shall please him less, like a gourmand choosing from a
wine list. Shall I raise the child, abort it, or give it up for adoption? Shall
I have white wine or red? 

No serious thought or debate can take place in the world where mere emotion is

Were "Sue" to come in tears to any of our Epicurean friends for advice and
guidance, they would have nothing to say: telling her to do as she will is not
advice, any more than telling her to walk in any direction she pleases is


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