In This Article Abortion

  • Introduction
  • The Biologically Defined Species Homo sapiens

Philosophy Abortion
by
Michael Tooley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0107

Introduction

Questions concerning the moral and appropriate legal status of abortion are among the most important issues in applied ethics, and answering those questions involves addressing some intellectually very difficult issues. First, many alternatives exist concerning what nonpotential properties suffice to give something moral status. These include (a) having the capacity for thought, (b) having the capacity for rational thought, (c) possessing self-consciousness, (d) being a continuing subject of mental states, (e) being a subject of nonmomentary interests, (f) being an agent, (g) being a moral agent, (h) having consciousness, (i) having both consciousness and desires, and (j) being able to use a language. Deciding which of these, or other alternatives, correctly identifies nonpotential properties sufficient to give one moral status is not at all an easy matter. Second, another crucial and very challenging issue is this. Suppose that property P gives an entity moral status. If something will, in the normal course of development, acquire property P, does that entity then have moral status by virtue of that potentiality? This question, which appears to be crucial for determining the moral status of abortion, is presently the object of serious philosophical disagreement. Finally, given certain answers to the preceding two questions, the moral status of abortion may depend upon answers to questions in areas outside of ethics. Suppose, for example, that something begins to have moral status only when it acquires a capacity for thought. Then the question is when developing members of our species first acquire that capacity. Answering that question, however, depends upon answering philosophical and scientific questions about the nature of human minds, because it may be crucial whether, as some philosophers believe, substance dualism is right, and the human mind is an immaterial entity, or whether, on the contrary, either property dualism or physicalism is correct. If substance dualism is right, then determining when a human first acquires the capacity for thought may depend upon philosophical or religious arguments, whereas if either property dualism or physicalism is correct, the answer will depend instead upon the outcome of demanding scientific investigations in neurophysiology and psychology.

The Biologically Defined Species Homo sapiens

In popular arguments against abortion, perhaps the most common appeal is to the view that any innocent organism that belongs to the biologically defined species Homo sapiens has a right to life. In thinking about this argument, a certain philosophical distinction is crucial—the distinction, namely, between basic moral principles and derived ones, where a basic moral principle is one that does not depend upon nonmoral facts—and thus which, if true, is necessarily true—while a derived moral principle is one that follows from some more basic moral principle, together with some nonmoral fact (or facts) about the world. Given this distinction, the question then is whether the claim that all innocent humans have moral status is being advanced as a basic moral principle or a derived one. Or, to put it slightly differently, the question is whether, if one claims that membership in the biologically defined species Homo sapiens is morally significant, one is claiming that that property is itself a ground of moral status, or whether the claim is rather that there is some other property that all humans possess, and that that property is a ground of a right to life. Some philosophers, such as Wertheimer (see Wertheimer 1974) and Wreen (see Wreen 1984), have offered arguments that appear to be intended to support the view that membership in the biologically defined species Homo sapiens can itself give something a right to life, while more recently, Wolf-Devine and Devine 2009 appeals to common moral intuitions in support of that view. By contrast, Brandt 1972 advanced a very important counterexample objection to the view that all members of the biologically defined species Homo sapiens have a right to life, by appealing to cases of extreme brain damage, and works by other philosophers, such as Warren 1973, Tooley 1972, Tooley 1983, and Tooley 2009, have argued that the principle in question cannot be a basic moral principle, by appealing to such things as the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrials. If that conclusion is right, as the overwhelming majority of philosophers believe, one must next consider whether the claim that all members of the biologically defined species Homo sapiens have a right to life can or cannot be derived from more basic moral truths. Many philosophers, such as Tooley (see Tooley 1983 and Tooley 2009), have argued that it cannot, and thus that it is not true that all innocent members of the species Homo sapiens have a right to life.

  • Brandt, R. B. “The Morality of Abortion.” The Monist 56.4 (1972): 503–526.

    DOI: 10.5840/monist197256430E-mail Citation »

    Argues that it is not true that all innocent members of the biologically defined species Homo sapiens have moral status, because there are counterexamples, such as the case of the complete destruction of a human’s upper brain, leaving one with a living human being that has neither psychological capacities nor potentialities.

  • Tooley, Michael. “Abortion and Infanticide.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2.1 (1972): 37–65.

    E-mail Citation »

    Introduces in section III, “The Basic Issue: When Is a Member of the Species Homo sapiens a Person?” (pp. 43–50), the idea of the complete psychological reprogramming of a person’s brain to argue that a human person could be destroyed without killing any human organism, and thus that the “right to life” would be more accurately characterized as the right of a person to continue to exist.

  • Tooley, Michael. “Persons and Human Beings.” In Abortion and Infanticide. By Michael Tooley, 50–86. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    Contains three arguments for the irrelevance of species membership: (1) Brandt’s upper brain death argument; (2) the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrials possessing a right to life; and (3) the possibility of genetic changes in humans that brought it about that normal adult humans were no longer capable of higher mental processes.

  • Tooley, Michael. “Two Biological Antiabortion Arguments.” In Abortion: Three Perspectives. By Michael Tooley, Celia Wolf-Devine, Philip E. Devine, and Alison M. Jaggar, 21–35. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Sets out three objections to the view that it is a true, basic moral principle that membership in the species Homo sapiens gives one a right to life: (1) the counterexample objection; (2) a basic moral principles versus derived moral principles objection; and (3) the complete psychological reprogramming of humans objection.

  • Warren, Mary Anne. “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion.” The Monist 57.1 (1973): 43–61.

    DOI: 10.5840/monist197357133E-mail Citation »

    In this article, Warren refers to the possibility of extraterrestrial persons to support the conclusion that the proposition that it is wrong to kill members of the biologically defined species Homo sapiens is not plausibly viewed as a basic moral principle.

  • Wertheimer, Roger. “Philosophy on Humanity.” In Abortion Pro and Con. Edited by Robert L. Perkins, 67–95. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    An attempt to offer a sustained argument for the view that all biologically human organisms have a right to life. Fails to set out the crucial distinction between basic moral principles and derived ones in a clear fashion, and does not address any of the familiar objections to his central thesis.

  • Wolf-Devine, Celia, and Philip E. Devine. “Abortion: A Communitarian Pro-Life Perspective.” In Abortion: Three Perspectives. By Michael Tooley, Celia Wolf-Devine, Philip E. Devine, and Alison M. Jaggar, 65–119. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    In their contribution to this debate volume, Wolf-Devine and Devine contend in section 4, “The Status of the Unborn” (pp. 82–91), that it is a foundational principle that it is wrong to kill one’s fellow humans, and argue that this conclusion can be justified by appealing to one’s ordinary moral intuitions.

  • Wreen, Michael. “In Defense of Speciesism.” Ethics and Animals 5.3 (1984): 47–60.

    E-mail Citation »

    Involves a very different defense of the view that species membership provides something with a right to life, arguing that fairness requires those of us who are persons to ascribe a right to life to other members of our species who will never be persons, through no fault of their own.

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