Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion - Part 10
In this post we will look at what Boonin thinks may be “themost powerful potentiality-based argument” against abortion – the “future likeours” argument. Don Marquis, a philosophy professor from Kansas University,originally put forth the argument in an article called “Why Abortion isImmoral.” Boonin devotes 30 pages (56-85) discussing its strengths and weaknesses,giving more attention to this argument than any other. In the end, Booninactually thinks the argument is basically a good one, yet needing someimportant modification – the sort of modification that will actually make mostabortions morally permissible instead of impermissible. In my last post, Isummarized the “future like ours” argument, as explained by Marquis, inanticipation of this post. Read it if you want my summary of Marquis’ article.
Boonin explains Marquis’ “future like ours” argument this way…Take the following individuals: (A) a fetus, (B) an infant, (C) a suicidalteenager, (D) a temporarily comatose adult, and (E) you or I. Most would agreethat cases B-D all have the same right to life as case E, that it would bemorally wrong to arbitrarily kill any one of them. Case A, the fetus, is theone in question, being the most controversial. We can answer the question ofwhether or not case A has a right to life by identifying “the property thatmost plausibly accounts for the wrongness of killing in cases B-E, and thendetermine whether that property is possessed by the individual in case A.” Ifwe start with case E, we must conclude that killing you or I is wrong becauseit deprives us of the entire set of experiences that otherwise would have beenpart of our own personal futures which we now value or would have come tovalue. In other words, the property that case E possesses is a “valuablefuture.” If taking away this property is what makes killing wrong, then we mustconclude that it is wrong to kill the individuals in cases B-D. Whetherconscious of it or not, or presently desiring to live or not, all would bedeprived of their futures, which includes everything they now value about theirfuture and/or would have come to value, if killed. Importantly, this sameproperty of having a “future like ours” is possessed by the fetus (in case A).Killing the fetus deprives him or her of its entire future of value andtherefore shows abortion to be immoral.
Boonin thinks some things about the “future like ours”argument are correct and others are mistaken. So, in order to improve theargument, Boonin proposes a modification. He says that in order to successfullyimprove Marquis’ argument, he must (1) produce the same result in cases B-E,(2) doing so in a manner that more satisfactorily illuminates the wrongness ofkilling in those cases, yet (3) produce different results in case A. To achievethis, Boonin creates his own version of the “future like ours” argument that hethinks is simpler and better:
If P has a future-like-ours that Pnow desires to preserve, then P has thesame right to life as you or I.
Essentially, Boonin changes the language from that of “valuing one’s future and/or coming to value it” to that of “desiring to preserve” one’s future in the present. He thinks the language of“present desire” (over against “future of value”) does a better job of explaining why killing iswrong, because it is grounded in the reality of the present instead of the uncertainty of the future.
To show how this works with the temporarily comatose personin case D, who has no present conscious desires, Boonin explains that there aretwo kinds of desires: occurrent and dispositional. An occurrent desire is onethat you are consciously entertaining at any given moment. A dispositional oneis one that you hold whether conscious of it or not. Boonin gives the exampleof what you were thinking when eating breakfast this morning. It is doubtfulyou were “consciously desiring that your future life be preserved,” yet thiswas surely a strong desire, even though you were not thinking about it at thetime. The same goes for the temporarily comatose person, while having nooccurrent desire about preserving his life, he certainly has a dispositionaldesire that his life be preserved. So Boonin’s version of the “future likeours” argument works for case D if “desire” is understood as “ present dispositionaldesire.”
What about case C, the suicidal teenager, who has no presentdesire (whether occurrent or dispositional) to live? Suppose your girlfriend orboyfriend breaks up with you and it traumatizes you so much that you do no wishto go on living. Is it permissible then to kill you, since you don’t want tolive anyway? To answer this, Boonin clarifies between what he calls actual and ideal desires. He gives an example of a hiker who has to decide between going rightor left when he comes to a fork in the trail. The hiker chooses left becausethat route is easier and more scenic. But little does he know that there is alandmine on the left trail that will certainly kill him. In this situation thehiker’s “actual” desire was to turn left, and it was also both his occurrentand dispositional desire to turn left, but… it was not his “ideal” desire. Hadour hiker known there was a landmine on the left trail, he certainly would havegone right. This is why it would have been wrong for someone to remove a signthat read “Landmine on the Left Trail.” In regards to the suicidal teenagerwhose girlfriend just broke up with him, his actual desire may have been to notgo on living, but in a situation with better circumstances, he would desire topreserve his life. It is a person’s “ideal” desires that more accuratelyindicate their desire to live. So, Boonin’s version of the “future like ours”argument works for case C if “desire” is understood as “present ideal dispositional desire.”
So what about the newborn and the fetus, in cases B and A?According to Boonin, if having dispositional and ideal desires are what makethe moral difference when it comes to the permissibility or impermissibility ofkilling a person, then it is morally permissible to kill most fetuses. In discussing cases B and A, Boonindistinguishes between the preconscious and conscious fetus, believing thisdistinction to be the line between the permissibility and impermissibility ofkilling. Since a preconscious fetus has no occurrent or actual desires, andtherefore no dispositional or ideal desires, there is nothing morally wrongwith killing it. Boonin does believe that at some point in the pregnancy afetus develops consciousness and rudimentary desires, and killing is wrongthereafter. However, this happens late in the pregnancy, making typicalabortions morally permissible in Boonin’s view. In chapter 3, Boonin developshis view in more detail where he argues that “organized cortical brainactivity” is the point at which a fetus has a “right to life.”
In modifying the “future like ours” argument, Boonin feelshe has (1) produced the same results in cases B-E (newborns, suicidalteenagers, temporarily comatose individual, and you and me all have the rightto live), (2) done so in a manner that has more satisfactorily illuminated thewrongness of killing (his version is simpler, revolving around one’s presentdesires), yet (3) has produced different results for case A (most fetuses do nothave the right to life). How should we respond to this? First, when Boonintalks about “desires,” whether occurrent or dispositional, actual or ideal, heis merely using the presence of psychological capacities to determine whetheror not killing is permissible. It is the presence of these capacities, that developlate in the pregnancy, which for him indicate that a fetus has a “present idealdispositional desire” to continue its life. My question is: why should thesepsychological capacities be the primary indicator of one’s “desire” to live?What makes the development of these things better indicators than somethingelse? For example, when a fertilized egg (=conceptus) implants in the uterinewall, it emits chemical substances to protect itself from the woman’s immunesystem. The woman’s immune system recognizes the conceptus as a “foreign body”and would reject it, if not for its built-in defense mechanism. Why can’t thisbe an indicator that an embryo wants to preserve its life? Why must we waituntil the development of “organized cortical brain activity” to decide that thefetus “desires” to live? From a biological standpoint, a conceptus is fightingto live at least from the time of implantation, if not sooner. In my view,while Boonin’s philosophical skills are brilliant, he has not reallysuccessfully given reason why his particular psychological criteria (i.e.,organized cortical brain activity) should make the morally difference. Second,and finally, leaving the capacity for “present desires” aside, killing a fetusstill deprives it of its future…