This week I will be critiquing Don Marquis’ classic bioethics paper: “Why Abortion is Immoral”. The paper was published in 1989 and to this day it remains one of the most-discussed articles in the debate on abortion. What’s especially interesting about this article is while it is obviously against abortion, which is considered the religious stance, Marquis is an atheist. Marquis’ main thesis explores what makes the act of killing wrong, which has direct ethical implications on the act of abortion. Marquis argues that what makes killing wrong is that it robs someone of a “future like ours” (or FLO, hence the snarky title); robbing someone of a future of happiness and productivity is the worst loss we could inflict on someone, thus killing (at least in some circumstances) is the ultimate evil. While this might seem to be a great help for the pro-life, anti-abortion side of the debate, especially for believers, I think that Marquis’ theory has a number of flaws that 1) invalidate the entire theory and 2) lead to certain conclusions (euthanasia and eugenics) that the typical religious anti-abortion advocate would not want to condone or adopt even if the theory was sound. My main criticisms are that 1) the theory leans far too heavily on an assumed, diluted sort of morality already in the culture 2) unless the theory smuggles in metaphysics to properly define critical terms like “good future” and “bad suffering”, it cannot work. But the theory is supposed to avoid any reference whatsoever to metaphysics and ontology, which means it fails to meet its own standards, as well as limits its ability to truly decide on the ethical problems it claims to answer.
The Basic Frame of the Argument
Marquis begins the article by observing that the abortion argument has already hit a standstill that seems unresolvable. He notes the typical anti-abortion and pro-abortion arguments work as follows:
Anti-Abortion- The typical argument is that life is present from the very moment of conception and that fetuses “possess necessary and sufficient characteristics to be considered a human.” The anti-abortionist typically believes also that “1) the truth of that claim is obvious and 2) if the claims of personhood are proven, abortion is equivalent to murder.” (§ 5)
Pro-Abortion- The typical argument is that “fetuses are not persons or that fetuses are not rational agents or that fetuses are not social beings.” Like the anti-abortionists, they also believe that “1) the truth of these claims is obvious, and 2) that proving any of the claims against the personhood of the infant is sufficient to show that an abortion is not a wrongful killing”. (§ 6)
What we see in conflict, then, is two rival conceptions of personhood in disagreement, neither of which is obviously wrong, as Marquis also notes. For example, the anti-abortionist will claim support from the accepted moral principles “it is always [obviously] seriously wrong to take a human life” or “it is always [obviously] seriously wrong to end the life of a baby.” (§ 9)
Meanwhile, the pro-abortionist will draw from other, equally accepted moral principles such as “being a person is what gives an individual intrinsic moral worth” or “it is only [obviously] seriously wrong to take the life of a member of the human community.” (§ 9)
Both are drawing from moral ideals from the greater culture, and therein lies the problem: as Charles Taylor argues in Sources of the Self, modern culture is in a philosophical crisis because our conception of what a “person” is, is actually a patchwork of many different, mostly contradictory earlier views that got mixed together over time. Marquis believes that this battle over “personhood” and what constitutes a person will continue in a standstill indefinitely. And if Taylor is correct, he’s right: one’s definition of “personhood” is entirely dependent on what one already believes about religion, rationality, metaphysics, and nature; change any one of those big packages of philosophy, and as Taylor argues, your definition of personhood will shift dramatically with them. And since the anti-abortionist and the pro-abortionist has drastically different answers to these big philosophical questions, the only way to make headway in the “personhood” debate is, strangely enough, far above and outside the confines of the abortion debate: the critical questions are much more broad, theoretical, and metaphysical.
Marquis recognizes this problematic rigging of the “personhood” side of the debate and notices that there is actually another route to be taken that sidesteps all the problems of that struggle: the debate hinges around 1) what a person is, and 2) what constitutes an immoral killing. If arguing over 1 is a dead-end, there is still the possibility of coming to a conclusion through 2: “a necessary condition of resolving the abortion controversy is a more theoretical account of the wrongness of killing. After all, if we merely believe, but do not understand, why killing adult human beings such as ourselves is wrong, how could we conceivably show that abortion is either immoral or permissible?” (§ 21)
Why Don’t We Want to Die?
Marquis starts his exploration of this problem by considering why we personally don’t want to die; something that he considers to be obvious enough to everyone, and something that he takes to be more or less universal for everyone:
We can start from the following unproblematic assumption concerning our own case: it is wrong to kill us… What primarily makes killing wrong is neither its effect on the murderer nor its effect on the victim’s friends and relatives, but its effect on the victim. The loss of one’s life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer. The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim. (§ 23)
This sounds reasonable enough, but notice a few things. First, Marquis is not answering that killing is inherently wrong, in fact he adamantly opposes that idea. Some killing is entirely appropriate and fine according to Marquis:
The value of a future-like-ours account cannot be a bare future account either. Just having a future surely does not make itself rule out killing the above patient. This account must make some reference to the value of the patient’s future experiences and projects also. Hence, both accounts involve the value of experience, projects, and activities. (§ 44)
He also implicitly reveals this when critiquing a rival ethical account:
One does not want the discontinuation account to make it wrong to kill a patient who begs for death and who is in severe pain that cannot be relieved short of killing. (§ 44)
His account of killing is consequentalist: the goodness or badness of the killing depends (as I will show below, entirely depends) on the effects it causes in the future. In short, if they don’t have a FLO (future-like-ours, AKA a good future) then at least euthanasia is permissible. I will expand on the theoretical problems of such a position later, but for the moment I simply want to point out that Marquis’ position entails euthanasia, and that is a position that is simply unacceptable to most anti-abortionists of the religious type.
Second, notice that this account is arrived at simply through Marquis using his moral intuitions to determine why killing is wrong. Compare this to the analytic method in which, say, Aristotle or the Scholastics, determined the goodness or badness of an act and Marquis’ method will be revealed to be woefully subjective. The entire method is dependent on subjective feelings, and simply hopes that we have agreeing feelings on the matter without much argument. But these feelings are not at all reasonable, or even intuitive in my opinion. I think there are a number of sorts who would not believe death or the loss of a future is as bad as Marquis argues.
Let’s say, for example, that we have a gnostic sort, someone who believes the physical world is bad, and that the best thing is to be liberated from it by death (This may sound absurd to modern Westerners, but many people over the ages have come to kinds of gnostic views: 1. many ancient Greeks 2. some of the most popular Christian heretical sects 3. Buddhists & Jainists)
These people would surely disagree with the critical component of Marquis’ FLO argument, because to this sort of person, to die would not be a loss, but an immense gain in the grand scheme of things. Why? Because if you believed, as the gnostics do, that the physical world is a prison constricting, deluding and adulterating our true spiritual selves, then would there be any reason to spend any more time in it than you’d be absolutely forced to? Suddenly any living future, especially a long productive future in this world, would simply be a distraction holding your spirit back, possibly even leading it astray by causing excessive attachment to worldly things. Having a future good life, to a gnostic, would not be a good thing but rather an extended prison sentence. The loss of a FLO, which is a terrible thing to Marquis, would actually be a great gain to this gnostic. Consequently it would be complete non-sense for them that the reason killing is bad is because we take a good long life away from the victim; a good life, to them, is a bad thing to avoid as much as possible in the pursuit of spiritual escape. If this was the only possible consideration in the ethics of the action, I would think gnostics would support mercy-killing everyone as soon as their spirits achieved liberating enlightenment. (the vast majority don’t, of course, precisely because they believe killing is wrong due to other considerations.)
All this is said simply to show that Marquis’ reliance on the assumptions that it’s bad to be killed and that having a well-lived future is good is entirely dependent on the cultural ideals we just so happen to find ourselves growing up in. Go back in time, or go East, and we may no longer find these affirmations of life and success which Marquis relies on to give the FLO argument its force. Some entire religions don’t particularly want the kind of “good” and productive life Marquis banks on. Some religions want liberation from life right now. And this shows why basing solutions to ethical problems on our “obvious” moral intuitions isn’t a good idea: the problem with intuitions, besides being subjective, is that they are entirely based on the culture. In this specific case, it depends on a common morality that already affirms my life and existence; that tells me that my life is good and that I should want to live. These ideals in our Western culture are probably off-shoots of the Christian affirmations of nature and life that the West used to believe (see Taylor’s Sources of the Self) but these affirmations certainly aren’t shared everywhere.
What’s the point of saying all this? It’s this: the FLO argument will no longer work if our culture shifts ideals, which cultures tend to do.
Different Kinds of Suffering
If the patient’s future is a future of value, we want our account to make it wrong to kill the patient. If the patient’s future is intolerable, whatever his or her immediate past, we want our account to allow killing the patient. Obviously, then, it is the value of that patient’s future which is doing the work in rendering the morality of killing the patient intelligible. (§ 45)
Allow me to move on to my second major criticism of Marquis. As seen above, a future is not enough to save someone from being euthanized or aborted, that is only a new method to ask the question with; what makes the difference is whether the life will be on of suffering or not. If there’s a future good life, then abortion is bad, but if there’s a life of suffering ahead, then killing is fine. Two major problems with this, & I have found these problem in most utilitarians.
The problem is that the approach makes no reference to the quality of suffering that is to be avoided. It may seem odd to talk as if there are “kinds” of suffering, as if some suffering is good, but that’s actually exactly what I’m saying and it isn’t as odd as some might think. For example, there is athletic suffering. Anyone who has been in a sport, and especially anyone who has excelled in a sport, knows that the good of victory and excellence comes at a very unpleasant price: so much suffering must be experienced in the form of two-a-days, the inevitable injuries, the losses, and the sometimes brutal competition. Yet, many athletes feel, in retrospect, that it is all worth it once they have achieved some great goal. So let’s say we have a life that is destined to be the world’s strongest man. That life would be full of both emotional and physical suffering in the form of practice, training and competition. Yet would anyone consider this the kind of suffering that would merit aborting the life in the womb out of benevolence? How do we compare this kind of athletic suffering with the sort of suffering they want to avoid? It will be a life of suffering, but who would abort or kill an athlete suffering through the hardships that will one day make him glorious? To simply want to eliminate suffering is too vague. I suppose this is why Marquis adds that references must be made to “the value of the patient’s future experiences, and projects.” (§ 44) Read: if they go on to do great things and live a good life, then killing them is immoral. This is also why Marquis says we shouldn’t allow people who are so depressed that they can’t see any value in their futures to kill themselves: “My future can be valuable to me even if I do not value it. This is the case when a young person attempts suicide, but is rescued and goes on to significant human achievements. Such young people’s futures are ultimately valuable to them, even though such futures do not seem valuable to them at the moment…” (§ 49)
Whose Good Life? Which Flourishing?
But I sense a second problem here, a certain smuggling of metaphysics and objective values which this theory wasn’t supposed to do. What makes the difference between a just killing and a bad killing? Answer: the future that we’d be taking away from them. If the future is good and filled with “significant human achievement” then killing is immoral. But if it is one of “intolerable pain” and the patient “begs for death” (§ 44) then it is permissible under this theory to put them out of their misery. But 2 questions here: what counts as “significant human achievement”? Is it a life of productivity in the economy? Is it selling one’s possessions to follow Christ? It is rising above repressive Christian morality to impose a morality based off our own creative power? The answer will be different for whoever we ask, because everyone has a different conception of human flourishing, which ultimately has to make reference to “strong evaluative judgments” as Charles Taylor calls them in Sources of the Self. Or to translate into simple terms, they have to start discussing metaphysics, ontology, and other things that start having us treat morality like its objective and absolute.
And what counts as “intolerable pain”? The world’s strongest man has likely suffered more than almost anyone else in certain ways, yet how many people would consider that a “bad” thing to be avoided at the cost of death? And that someone “begs for death” along with this pain is contradicted by Marquis himself over why depressed teenagers should not be allowed to kill themselves: no doubt these teenagers are in intolerable pain and beg for death, perhaps from psychological agony (why else do people want to kill themselves?) yet Marquis makes an exception for stopping them from suicide, assuming that they will go on to do valuable things. (§ 49)
So that they will lead lives full of pain and suffering, and at times even beg for death, is not really what makes the decision here of whether it would be ok to euthanize or abort them: what matters is their future. But again, what constitutes a good future? Answering this question requires a massive bulwark of answers to the deepest questions of philosophy (see Alasdair MacIntyre’s main thesis in After Virtue) and many people will adamantly disagree. So to base the killing off the quality of one’s future life is to implicitly assume standards of “good”. But isn’t this basically the same as forcing one’s religion on someone else? It’s saying “I know what’s best for you, and am deciding your life or death based around it.” Actually, it’s even worse than that: the religious supporters are usually honest and conscious of the ideas that guide them to make these kinds of judgments, but this whole set-up allows people to convince themselves that they aren’t doing such a thing.
These kinds of accounts of morality (utilitarian and/or consequentialist) are supposed to work without any of those background ideas and value-judgments, which is why at the end of the paper Marquis takes pride that his ethical system “rests neither on religious claims nor Papal dogma” (§ 65). Except at the end of the day it will have to rest on religious claims that each individual brings into the equation, or at least the same kind of absolute-value-judgments that religions are infamous for making. Because the critical “good vs bad future” idea depends on this kind of absolute morality judgment. It just so happens that, due to historical accidents and the fact that Christianity took over the entire Western world for a while, we all tend to think in the same direction when we start throwing around words like “moral good” (except Nietzsche, of course, that beautifully honest misanthrope).
So at this point, the question becomes this: why not start using metaphysics, and philosophies based around absolute moralities? If utilitarian and/or consequentialist attempts to root morality independent of this sort of religious-metaphysical morality ends up subtly doing metaphysics and parasiting off religious ideals, then why not just be honest and take religion/ metaphysics seriously and let them into the conversation?
Problem of Pretend-Omniscience
Moreover, I want to make an observation that seems to be missed entirely in the argument: how does anyone figure out the future of the unborn child? Let’s not pretend we’re omniscient here: to say anything about the unborn child’s future life is to make assumption after assumption after assumption. This is a problem, I think, with all consequentialist accounts of morality, but I think it is glaringly obvious in Marquis. How in the world are we supposed to guess the entire life of an unborn child? How can we gauge the literally uncountable variables that end up shaping a life? To even suggest that we can do this is to pretend that we have near-omniscience, which of course we don’t, and never will, no matter how smart our technology gets.
Let’s stop pretending: in practice this guessing-at-the-future will only be based on the “obvious” things: “this child will be handicapped, let’s put it out of its misery.” “This child will be born to a bad family, might as well keep it from that suffering.” “This child will be poor, we can’t have that!” Since we can’t really read the future, we’ll read whatever we can and extrapolate, and this will almost surely result in using this method to justify killing fetuses that will be handicapped, or poor, or disadvantaged, or below-average in whatever form. But isn’t that simply eugenics?
And won’t we use this pretend omniscience to assume the absolute worst case scenarios? The assumption is that the handicapped child won’t live a life of love and support, and that the suffering will be entirely meaningless, and they’ll be a bother to other people their entire lives. The assumption is that the poor child will be destined for poverty forever, and that poverty is something that makes life not worth the effort. We assume that they will never receive or do anything of worth, simply because we can’t imagine how the poor or the handicapped or the below-average could possibly live a life our personal ideals consider good, and we end up using this to justify killing them before they even get a chance to prove us wrong.
In the Hope of Something Better
My goal here has been to show that 1) Marquis’ FLO thesis suffers from relying too heavily on a certain assumed Western, post-Christian morality most people in the abortion debate just so happen to have 2) It can thus only work by assuming certain beliefs that the typical person will bring into the equation, especially when it comes to standards of what the “good life” consists of, and what kind of “suffering” is considered to be unacceptable. I think these criticisms, if true, reveal Marquis’ FLO approach to abortion will not be of much help to the anti-abortionist side. Moreover, I think these criticisms bring doubt over whether any utilitarian or consequentialist ethic will help make headway in the abortion debate. As explained in the “Frame” section of this critique, there are two main battlefronts in the abortion debate; the first is an argument over the personhood of unborn children, and the second is an argument over the nature of killing and what constitutes a “bad killing”.
But as I have pointed out, the only possibly route to a solution in this battlefront depends on questions in metaphysics and human nature. And as for the second battlefront, I have shown that utilitarian and/or consequentialist accounts end up having to assume a sort of background morality that already defines “good future” and “bad suffering” in a specific way, which depends on how one has already answered questions about human flourishing. And these are metaphysical and ontological questions which are supposed to be far outside the scope of the abortion debate, and which modern ethics was supposed to have gotten over already (most ethicists view metaphysics as outdated medieval notions).
So if the first battlefront can only be answered by getting into metaphysics, and if the second battlefront has to, whether explicitly or implicitly, start leaning on metaphysics, then why not start allowing metaphysics into the conversation? Religious ethics are mostly jeered about because their ethical outlooks start from metaphysics, but if even secular ethics have to lean on metaphysics, then is this really a fair prejudice?
In fact, given that the first battlefront is in a deadlock, returning to metaphysics seems to be the only way to make any sort of progress at all there.
Or, if the second battlefront has to begin to rely on moral intuitions in order to make an argument as to why killing is bad, then another way to change the conclusions would be to change the morality of the culture so much that the common reader will have different moral intuitions about the ethics of killing. But this means essentially teaching the entire culture new religious beliefs about human nature (read: teaching them new metaphysics). It seems that if Marquis has captured the debate’s essence well, we will have no choice but to begin turning to metaphysics and the like. The only question is whether we’ll be honest about the fact that we’re actually doing metaphysics (because again, it’s unpopular), and whether we’ll return to the religious outlook (like Christianity) or the areligious outlook (like Nietzsche).
Finally, it must seem odd that I’m actually going after an argument against abortion. But as I believe I have shown, the FLO account can still easily lead to a eugenic/euthanasia mentality, and with consequences like that, most who call themselves “pro-life” would reject this argument as strongly as a pro-abortion argument. I suppose my purpose by critiquing someone from my own camp is to show that the pro-life side needs to employ a different kind of argument to make the progress that it hopes to. Consider this a case of friendly deconstruction for the anti-abortion cause.