Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Relativity Theory and abortion

In an earlier post, I offered the principle that just as the laws of physics should be invariant under change of reference frame, so should the laws of morality. One consequence of that is that various inside-outside distinctions are not going to be significant of themselves. Here is an interesting little consequence of that: Any argument that abortion is permissible based on the fact that abortion takes place inside the body of the woman cannot be right, since the claim that the fetus is inside the woman's body is not invariant under coordinate transformations.

This doesn't mean that the argument is thoroughly refuted. But it does mean that the mere geometrical fact that the fetus is within the woman's body is insignificant. There may, however, be more significant related invariant facts about dependence, burden, etc. The invariance move does not, thus, settle the discussion, but moves it forward, by forcing the pro-choicer arguer to give a fuller story about the distinction in invariant terms, which terms non-coincidentally are going to be descriptively richer, thereby deepening the debate.

Of course, one doesn't need relativity theory to show the problem with the principle that one can do what one likes as long as it is within the confines of one's body. One can also proceed by counterexample. If one accidentally swallowed Whoville, one would not be permitted to follow that up with a drink of something intended to kill all the Whos.


Enigman said...

An argument for permissibility might be based on the woman having the responsibility for deciding because the fetus is inside her body. All that would require is that the arguments for impermissibility were essentially phrased in terms of probabilities, since then it would be wrong for anyone else to impose their beliefs about what was probable.

LGM#3 said...


Interesting post. Surely I'm as pro-life as anyone on the issue of abortion, but insofar as I'm a supporter of Obama, I've found myself in quite a quagmire.

One issue that I find many 'liberals' argue is that Sarah Palin's views of abortion are just far too radical, while Cindy McCain was just on *The View* claiming that she and her husband weren't as conservative as Palin on that issue. The problem is that Palin, apparently, doesn't think that it should be legal for a woman who is the victim of rape or incest the right to choose an abortion. Well, that's my view, for I don't believe that one has the right to take the life of another simply because s/he were the act of an atrocious deed. I think that such women should be encouraged, comforted and helped by society in everyway while retaining the child. What's your take on this aspect of the abortion issue?

Enigman--I'm sorry, but it's unclear to me what your postulating. If the issues are in the field of *probabilities*, then everyone would seem to be able to argue for what the right action would be, especially considering the fact that *justification* for the abortion would only be circumstantial (i.e., based upon the circumstances of that particular pregnancy). Please clarify, thanks!

Lawrence M.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I agree that it is wrong to kill someone just because she was conceived through rape. However, I also realize that the case of rape is less clear to people who think (a) that to continue the pregnancy is to fulfill a positive duty (I think it is to fulfill a negative duty--a duty not to kill), and (b) that we we have no positive duties except those we freely took on (which is mistaken, since some of our most serious positive duties are towards our parents).

I do not comment on the views of particular candidates, and in general I try to stay away from political discussion.

LGM#3 said...

Dr. Pruss--

Thanks for the response. I think I agree that the basis for not having an abortion is a negative duty, but I haven't thought too much on the issue.

As for the escape argument, it's unclear how (a) and (b), if true, have special relevance to the rape case in contrast to any other case. Would the act of having sex constitute freely taking on the positive duty of retaining a fetus in the womb?

Regardless, I agree that (a) and (b) are surely false.


LGM#3 said...

Should've had 'consensual sex', not just 'sex'.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"Would the act of having sex [consensually] constitute freely taking on the positive duty of retaining a fetus in the womb?"

Well, while I think one has such a positive duty even in non-consensual cases, I think there is some plausibility to the idea that there is a special duty taken on in the consensual cases.

Here is a plausible principle:
"If it is a non-accidental result of an action that one has freely done that someone be in serious need, then one has a special duty to fulfill that need."

Reproduction is no more an accidental result of sex than learning is an accidental result of taking a class. Granted, sex does not always result in reproduction, and taking a class does not always result in learning. Sex is, in part, for reproduction, just as taking a class is, in part, for learning.