Thursday, September 3, 2009


According to some defenders of abortion, what makes it wrong to kill an adult but not wrong to kill a fetus is that the adult has future-directed desires while the fetus does not. But now imagine an innocent adult who has only one future-directed desire: to die. Nonetheless, it is uncontroversially wrong to kill this adult without her consent (it's wrong to kill her with her consent, but that's controversial). Thus, it is wrong to kill this adult without her consent. Why? Well, on the theory in question, it's wrong because she has future-directed desires, or, more precisely, a desire. But the desire is a desire not to be alive. It is absurd that the presence of that desire is what makes it wrong to kill her.

So what makes it wrong to kill her? I see two answers: The first is that she is being deprived of future life. And that future life is valuable even if she does not recognize it as such. The second is that the killing is a destruction of a human body.


Heath White said...

Not that I want to defend abortion, but...

I would think the answer to "What makes it wrong to kill an adult (but not a child)?" from the pro-choice side would be: the adult hasn't given her consent. The child hasn't consented either, but the child lacks the capacity for informed consent, so we allow adults to decide instead, just as we do in many other cases.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's also wrong to kill an inconvenient adult who has consented to being killed. (Let's say Marlena wants her uncle inheritance. He hears about it and tells her: "So, kill me. I dare you. I consent, if you've got the guts for it." He also gets a signed statement from a psychiatrist that he's sane and serious, etc. Marlena would surely be convicted of murder in the U.S., and this would be right.)

Leaving that aside, if informed consent is the standard, for an abortion, we would need an appropriate proxy for the fetus. The proxy would have to consider the child's interests without serious conflicts of interest. This condition would, in many cases, rule out the mother and father as appropriate proxies. There are also conflict of interest problems in parents are proxies for their children later, which problems we tolerate absent positive evidence that the parents' might not have the child's best interests in mind. However, if the parents of a child were seriously considering having the child killed, social workers would take that conclusive evidence that the parents are not the appropriate decision-makers.

Furthermore, if what makes killing wrong is lack of consent, and if consent can be given by proxy, then it could be OK to kill a healthy three-year-old (choose some age high enough that even Singer and Tooley would agree that it's a person, but not high enough for informed consent) if a proxy decided that the three-year-old's future was going to be miserable, etc. But this conclusion is repugnant.

Matt said...

Alex, while I agree with you on abortion. I am not sure this counterexample works. You state

But now imagine an innocent adult who has only one future-directed desire: to die. Nonetheless, it is uncontroversially wrong to kill this adult without her consent

Couldn't the defender of abortion argue that if a person has a desire to die, then they do consent to be killed so the notion of killing a person who desires to die without their consent is incoherent.

I think the real problem for defenders of abortion here is infanticide: Tooley and Singer point out that infants lack the cognitive ability to have future directed desires and hence if possesion of such desires is necessary for a right to life. Infants have none.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I agree that infanticide is a conclusive argument against these views. But they embrace the permissibility of infanticide...
Desire is not consent. Suppose Patricia wants to have sexual relations with George, but gives George no consent. Then for George to engage in sexual relations with Patricia would be rape, even thought Patricia "wants it". Think of a case where Patricia does not consent because she thinks consent to non-marital sex is wrong, but she nonetheless desires it (I expect this is not uncommon among young men and women).
Consent and desire are different. Typically, we are directly responsible for consentings, but only indirectly responsible for our desires.