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Ethical Egoism & Abortion
Ethical egoism, as a philosophical position, holds that it is an ethical obligation for people to act in their own self-interest. How does this philosophical position deal with the debate over the morality of abortion? It is necessary, before beginning a closer analysis, to define our terms. Abortion is a hotly contested issue, but our sense of ethics here needs to be understood first as distinct from religion or law, both of which often bring with them a sense of ethical obligation. It is true that abortion can violate a religious prohibition -- although this view is most often associated in the United States with Christian religious groups, it is not limited to them. We might note, for example, that the traditional Hippocratic Oath administered to physicians contains a solemn promise never to perform no abortion, sworn to a whole pantheon of non-Christian polytheistic pagan gods. It is likewise true that abortion can be against the law or not, depending on where and how it takes place. In the United States, the legality of abortion was established in 1973 under the contentious legal decision of Roe v. Wade. By becoming legal in 1973, abortion did not suddenly become ethical as well. The question of ethics hinges upon the moral behavior of the individual. Therefore it seems promising to approach the abortion question from a philosophical position which seeks to maximize the individual's self-interest. Kalin (1981) notes that one of the advantages of the position is that it offers a private morality (based on the question of "what should the individual do?") rather than a collective or public morality (based on the question of "what should we do as a society?"). Kalin writes:
Universalization in this strong sense is not a rational requirement....I personally think that it makes sense to speak of egoism as a morality, since I think it makes sense to speak of a 'private morality' and of its being superior to public moralities….This question seems to me a moral question through and through, and any coherent answer to it thereby deserves to be regarded as a moral theory. What is central here is the rational justification of a certain course of behavior. Such behavior will be justified in the sense that its reasonableness follows from a coherent and plausible set of premises. (Kalin 1981, 106-7).
By Kalin's terms, ethical egoism seems like the obvious position to approach the question of abortion simply because the post-1973 debates over legal abortion in America generally hinge on discussion of a "right to privacy" -- Kalin's defense of a "private morality" seems to situate the ethical decision about abortion in a place that matches its legality. However I hope to demonstrate in this paper, however, that ethical egoism is a deeply flawed philosophical position -- despite Kalin's claims, it may not even be possible to call ethical egoism a consistent moral or ethical position, philosophically speaking. By examining more closely the logic which ethical egoism would apply to the abortion debate, we may get a better sense of the limitations of this philosophical school in terms of establishing viable ethical principles.
We must begin by establishing what is popularly viewed as the ethical problem inherent in abortion. The chief question would appear to be whether or not this is, in some way, a justified form of murder. The term "murder" itself carries a large amount of polarizing emotional weight, and it tends to drag the debate into questions of law or religion, as distinct from ethics. After all, we tend to suspend legal or religious judgment in cases of "killing in self-defense" and as a result we tend not to use the word "murder" to describe it. The issue of whether or not abortion constitutes a form of killing is additionally complicated: to terminate a two-week pregnancy through medical means is not like shooting a burglar. The burglar is, after all, another individual capable of moral action -- a two-week-old fetus is not capable of life, or moral choice, outside the context of the womb. When we talk about "killing in self-defense" we are talking about one individual moral agent killing another individual moral agent. In the case of abortion, we are frequently (but not always) talking about ending the possibility of life for a future individual: this leads to the various legal contentions about whether abortion is ethically different when performed in the first trimester (when it is a guarantee that the fetus would not be capable of survival outside the womb) or the last trimester (when, under different circumstances, one might or might not use the word "fetus" or "premature baby" to describe what precisely is being aborted). But the different ethical stances applied to ending adult life are applied to abortion as well: when we talk about a justified killing in the case of self-defense, the underlying logical justification can be applied to the permissibility of abortion in cases where the woman's life is threatened somehow by the pregnancy. In reality, however, the debate over whether or not abortion qualifies as murder seems to be a red herring. Saletan (2009) has noted something very interesting about the way the abortion debate is conducted in practice, while discussing the murder of a Kansas doctor, George Tiller, who performed abortions, by a self-described "pro-life" activist. The tangled ethical logic here obviously depends upon the equation of abortion with murder: if indeed the doctor was performing mass-murder with no penalty, then it might have seemed an ethical necessity to stop him. If, on the other hand, one claims a universal commitment to some ethical stance popularly described as "pro-life," it hardly seems that one more murder added to a perceived mass-murder can do any ethical good. Saletan (2009) offers a key observation, though, that managed to cut through the tangled logic to point something out about the anti-abortion position:
[Pro-life organizations opposing Tiller's murder] don't square with what these organizations purport to espouse: a strict moral equation between the unborn and the born. If a doctor in Kansas were butchering hundreds of old or disabled people, and legal authorities failed to intervene, I doubt most members of the National Right to Life Committee would stand by waiting for "educational and legislative activities" to stop him. Somebody would use force. The reason & #8230; is that they don't really equate fetuses with old or disabled people. They oppose abortion, as most of us do. But they don't treat abortionists the way they'd treat mass murderers of the old or disabled. And this self-restraint can't simply be chalked up to nonviolence or respect for the law. Look up the bills these organizations have written, pushed, or passed to restrict abortions. I challenge you to find a single bill that treats a woman who procures an abortion as a murderer. They don't even propose that she go to jail. (Saletan 2009)
In other words, there already seems to be an agreement on both sides of the abortion debate that, even if abortion is in some way equivalent to killing, it is already a qualitatively different type of killing from assassinating a doctor with a handgun. If even anti-abortion partisans are not keen to view "a woman who procures an abortion as a murderer," then it seems like, in practice, the two sides are in agreement about something.
In terms of regarding the abortion question from a standpoint of ethical egoism, however, it is worth noting that the ethical ramifications of whether to have an abortion are circumscribed in various ways. To state the most obvious aspect, roughly half of the world's population will never be in a position to ask the question "Is it ethical for me to have an abortion?" because they are male. For men, the ethics of abortion are largely theoretical: this does not mean that men are incapable of taking a position on the ethics of abortion, but they are incapable of taking one from the standpoint of ethical egoism. For a man to maximize his own self-interest as regards the question of abortion, the decision would involve not impregnating a woman, or attempting to stop a woman he has impregnated from procuring an abortion, or refusing to perform an abortion. But medical science has yet to discover a man who is capable of getting pregnant, and thus being in a position to ask if he should have an abortion. This is perhaps the chief reason why the stance of ethical egoism is a tempting one to take in philosophically considering the ethics of abortion. Ethical egoism to a certain extent defines itself against what Kalin calls "universalization." The Kantian view of ethics, for example, is a universalist one: Kant's categorical imperative suggests that the ethical value of a given action must be understood in terms of whether or not the action would be ethical if everyone were to perform it. Denis (2007) has noted that the Kantian categorical imperative is a tempting philosophical stance to adopt…[continue]
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