Week Overview

We are now beginning the last portion in the course where we will focus on  issues in applies ethics. The two issues for this week, abortion and animal rights, are particularly  interesting issues because they force us to think about one of the most basic question of moral and political philosophy: who gets what moral consideration and why?



Mary Ann Warren’s “On the Legal and Moral Status of Abortion”


Warren’s argument against the Personhood of a Fetus

Warren does not think a fetus is a person because the fetus does not have any of the characteristics of a person. She argues that a being must at least posses one of her five criteria to be considered a person. She is not claiming to offer a definition of a person but rather that a person must at least possess one of these characteristics.

Warren’s Criteria for moral personhood:

  1. Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;
  2. Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);
  3. Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control);
  4. The capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics;
  5. The presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.

She is arguing that personhood is not genetic but based rather on an individual’s mentally capacities. She says:

. . . genetic humanity is neither necessary nor sufficient for establishing that an entity is a person. Some human beings are not people, and there may well be people who are not human beings. . . . a fetus is a human being which is not yet a person, and which therefore cannot coherently be said to have full moral rights.


Even if the fetus is not a person there are however two other possible reasons one might consider abortion impermissible. The first is that the fetus might be person like enough to have a right to life and the second is that the fetus might have a right to life in virtue of being a potential person. Regarding these two possibility she says:

  • How like this paradigm, in particular how far advanced since conception, does a human being need to be before it begins to have a right to life by virtue, not of being fully a person as of yet, but of being like a person?
  • To what extent, if any does the fact that a fetus has the potential for becoming a person endow it with some of the same rights?”

(1) How much like a person is a fetus

She says:

But we must keep in mind that the attributes which are relevant in determining whether or not an entity is enough like a person to be regarded as having some of the same moral rights are no different from those which are relevant to determining whether or not it is fully a person—i.e., are no different from (1)-(5)—and that being genetically human, or having recognizably human facial and other physical features, or detectable brain activity, or the capacity to survive outside the uterus, are simply not among these relevant attributes.

Thus it is clear that even though a seven- or eight-month fetus has features which make it apt to arouse in us almost the same powerful protective instinct as is commonly aroused by a small infant, nevertheless it is not significantly more personlike than is a very small embryo. It is somewhat more personlike; it can apparently feel and respond to pain, and it may even have a rudimentary form of consciousness, insofar as its brain is quite active. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that it is not fully conscious, in the way that an infant of a few months is, and that it cannot reason, or communicate messages of indefinitely many sorts, does not engage in self-motivated activity; and has no self-awareness. Thus, in the relevant respects, a fetus, even a fully developed one, is considerably less personlike than is the average mature mammal, indeed the average fish. And I think that a rational person must conclude that if the right to life of a fetus is to be based upon its resemblance to a person, then it cannot be said to have any more right to life then, let us say, a newborn guppy (which also seems to be capable of feeling pain), and that a right of that magnitude could never override a woman’s right to obtain an abortion, at any stage of her pregnancy.

Thus, since the fact that even a fully developed fetus is not personlike enough to have any significant right to life on the basis of its personlikeness shows that no legal restrictions upon the stage of pregnancy in which an abortion may be performed can be justified on the grounds that we should protect the rights of the older fetus. And once there is no other apparent justification for such restrictions, we may conclude that they are entirely unjustified. Whether or not it would be indecent (whatever that means) for a woman in her seventh month to obtain an abortion just to avoid having a to postpone a trip to Europe, it would not, in itself, be immoral, and therefore it ought to be permitted.

(2) Potential Personhood and the Right to Life

She says:

But what about its potential, the fact that if nurtured and allowed to develop naturally it will very probably become a person? Doesn’t that alone give it at least some right to life? It is hard to deny that the fact that an entity is a potential person is a strong prima facie reason for not destroying it, but we need not conclude from this that a potential person has a right to life, by virtue of that potential. It may be that our feeling that it is better, other things being equal, not to destroy a potential person is better explained by the fact that potential people are still (felt to be) an invaluable resource, not to be lightly squandered. Surely, if every speck of dust were a potential person, we would be much less apt to conclude that every potential person has a right to become actual.

There may well be something immoral, and not just imprudent, about wantonly destroying potential people, when doing so isn’t necessary to protect anyone’s rights. But even if a potential person does have some prima facie right to life, such a right could not possibly outweigh the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, since the rights of any actual person invariably outweigh those of any potential person, whenever the two conflict. Since this may not be immediately obvious in the case of a human fetus, let us look at another case.

Warren’s Potential Person Thought Experiment

The following thought experiment is supposed to show that potential persons do not have a right to life. She says:

Suppose that our space explorer falls into the hands of an alien culture, whose scientists decide to create a few hundred thousand or more human beings, by breaking his body into its component cells, and using these to create fully developed human beings, with, of course, his genetic code. We may imagine that each of these newly created men will have all of the original man’s abilities, skills, knowledge, and so on, and also have an individual self-concept, in short that each of them will be a bona fide (though hardly unique) person. Imagine that the whole project will take only seconds, and that its chances of success are extremely high, and that our explorer knows all of this, and also knows that these people will be treated fairly. I maintain that in such a situation he would have every right to escape if he could, and thus to deprive all of these potential people of their potential lives; for his right to life outweighs all of theirs together, in spite of the fact that they are all genetically human, all innocent, and all have a very high probability of becoming people very soon, if only he refrains from acting.

“Regardless of how he got captured, he is not morally obligated to remain in captivity for any period of time for the sake of permitting any number of potential people to come into actuality, so great is the margin by which one actual person’s right to liberty outweighs whatever right to life even a hundred thousand potential people have. And it seems reasonable to conclude that the rights of a woman will outweigh by a similar margin whatever right to life a fetus may have by virtue of its potential personhood.”

“Thus, neither a fetus’s resemblance to a person, nor its potential for becoming a person, provides any basis whatsoever for the claim that it has any significant right to life. Consequently, a woman’s right to protect her health, happiness, freedom, and even her life, by terminating an unwanted pregnancy will always override whatever right to life it may be appropriate to ascribe to a fetus, even a fully developed one. And thus, in the absence of any overwhelming social need for every possible child, the laws which restrict the right to obtain an abortion, or limit the period of pregnancy during which an abortion maybe performed, are a wholly unjustified violation of a woman’s most basic moral and constitutional rights.

So, here is Warren’s argument:

  1. If potential people had rights then the space explorer in my example would be obligated to let the aliens kill him.
  2. The space explorer is not obligated to let the aliens kill him.
  3. So, potential people do not have rights.

What are we to make of this argument? It is pretty obvious that the space explorer doesn’t have an obligation to sacrifice his life for the potential persons. The question is whether the example is actually analogous to the case of a fetus. Her example seems to show that the rights of actual persons outweigh the rights of potential persons but the question is whether a fetus is a potential person in the same way that the clones are potential persons. And, I think the answer is that they are clearly not. A fetus already exists whereas the potential people in Warren’s example may or may not come into existence. To me it makes more sense to call the fetus an immature person rather than a potential person. Although what you call the fetus doesn’t matter as long you distinguish the fact that the clones are not actually in existence. They may or may not come into existence, whereas the fetus is already in existence and needs to merely develop.

To summarize, here is a reconstruction of Warren’s master argument:

  1. If fetuses have a right to life then it is because a) they are persons b) their similarity to beings that do have a right to life or c) their potential personhood.
  2. Fetuses are not persons as they fail my five point personhood criteria test.
  3. Based on their actual characteristics they are more like guppies then humans, which means their right to life is only as strong as the right to life of a guppy.
  4. Potential person hood does not give anything a right to life.
  5. So, fetuses do not have a right to life.

Arguments against Infanticide

One of the problems with arguments for abortion based on the fetus not being a person is that they seem to also justify infanticide, which is a prima facie problem for such arguments. At the end of her paper Warren attempts to address this issue. Despite offering some arguments she concludes that infanticide is not murder, the killing of a person. The two main things she says is that an infant is different from a baby because:

  • A newborn is more like a person than a fetus
  • The newborn could be given up for adoption

She further says something a bit strange which is that it is wrong because as a society we would prefer to pay taxes to support orphanages and mental institutions (in the case of the mentally retarded). She says, “So long as most people feel this way, and so long as our society can afford to provide care for infants which are unwanted or which have special needs that preclude home care, it is wrong to destroy any infant which has a chance of living a reasonably satisfactory life.” She seems to slip into an extreme form of cultural relativism here, which I doubt she actually intended to do.

This is also pretty interesting and makes me wonder how this figures in with the rest of her argument:

Indeed, if and when a late-term abortion could be safely performed without killing the fetus, she would have no absolute right to insist on its death (e.g., if others wish to adopt it or pay for its care), for the same reason that she does not have a right to insist that a viable infant be killed.

Concluding her discussion of infanticide she says, “It remains true that according to my argument neither abortion nor the killing of neonates is properly considered a form of murder.”

She also briefly addresses an issue that we will look at more in Peter Singer’s “Unsanctifying Human Life.” She says:

In the second place, the argument implies that when an infant is born with such severe physical anomalies that its life would predictably be a very short and/or very miserable one, even with the most heroic of medical treatment, and where its parents do not choose to bear the often crushing emotional, financial and other burdens attendant upon the artificial prolongation of such a tragic life, it is not morally wrong to cease or withhold treatment, thus allowing the infant a painless death.”

The belief that moral strictures against killing should apply equally to all genetically human entities, and only to genetically human entities, is such an error. The overcoming of this error will undoubtedly require long and often painful struggle; but it must be done.”

In summary, her main argument is that fetuses do not have a right to life because:

  1. they are not persons (remember Warren’s five criteria test)
  2. they are not like persons (they are like guppies)
  3. potential personhood does not give something rights

And, her account does not countenance the killing of (neonates) new born children as murder.


Susan Sherwin “Abortion Through a Feminist Lens”

Peter Singer’s “Unsanctifying Human Life”

Thesis: The life of a human being is not sacred i.e. does not possess some very special value.

Specieism: Discrimination on the basis of species

Example 1: The strange value people place on a human life:

Baby born with severe down’s syndrome, intestinal obstruction, and congenital heart condition. Mother didn’t want an operation to save the child’s life, but a local child welfare agency got the state involved and forced her to.

“This case, then, shows how much some people are prepared to do in order to ensure that a human infant lives, irrespective of the actual potential mental capacities of the infant, its physical condition, or the wishes of the mother.”

 Example 2: The strange lack of value people place on non-human life

 “The researchers confined sixty-four monkeys in small cubicles. These monkeys were then given unlimited access to a variety of drugs, through tubes implanted in their arms. They could control the intake by pressing a lever. In some cases, after the monkeys had become addicted, supplies were abruptly cut off. Of the monkeys that had become addicted to morphine three were “observed to die in convulsions” while other found dead in the morning were “presumed to have died in convolsions.” Monkeys that had taken large amounts of cocaine inflicted severe wounds upon themselves, including biting off their fingers and toes, before dying convulsive deaths. Amphetamines caused one monkey to “pluck all of the hair off his arms and abdomen.” In general, the experimenters found that “The manifestations of toxicity . . . were similar to the well-known toxicities of these drugs in man.” They noted that experiments on animals with addictive drugs had been going on in their laboratory for “the last 20 years.”

According to Singer both examples are unexceptional

“Can it be right to make great efforts to save the life of a mongoloid human infant when the mother does not want the infant to live, and at the same time not be wrong to kill, slowly and painfully, a number of monkeys?”

We can treat species differently based on their different relevant respects i.e. We do try to teach humans to read but not dogs.

But to suggest that certain races should not be taught to read would be racism. “Race has nothing to do with the extent which a person can benefit from being able to read.”

How do severely retarded humans compare with dogs, pigs, monkeys, and apes? It seems that these animals possess greater mental and emotional capacities than some severely retarded human beings.

“If we are prepared to discriminate against a being simply because it is not a member of our own species, although it has capacities equal or superior to those of a member of our own species, how can we object to the racist discriminating against those who are not his own race?”

Three solutions

  • Hold constant our attitudes to members of other species, and change our attitude toward members of our own species so that we consider it legitimate to kill retarded human infants in painful ways for experimental purposes even when no immeadiately useful knowledge is likely to be derived from these experiments; and in addition we give up any moral objections we may have to rearing and killing these infants for food.
  • While holding constant our attitudes to members of our own species, we change our attitude toward members of other species, so that we consider it wrong to kill them because we like the taste of their flesh, or for experimental purposes even when the experiment would result in immediately useful knowledge; and moreover we refuse to kill them even when they are suffering severe pain from some incurable disease, and are a burden to those who must look after them.
  • We change our attitudes to both humans an non-humans, so that they come together at some point in between the present extremes.


“We have to change our attitudes in both directions. We have to bring non-humans within the sphere of our moral concern, and cease to treat them purely as a means to our ends. At the same timem ice we realize that the fact that severely and irreparably retarded infants are members of the species homo sapiens is not in itself relevant to how we should treat them, we should be ready to reconsider current practices which cause suffering to all concerned and benefit nobody.”

Within current medical practice doctors often withhold treatment to infants because it would prolong their life and cause them more suffering. This is okay given the current laws but it would be better to change the laws. The current practice of letting die could be made more humane by allowing the child to die painlessly. This is what we do for animals, so why not for humans.


Why not euthanize babies born with spina bifida?

“Virtually all will be paralyzed from the waist down, and incontinent because of damage to their exposed nerves. Four out of five of these survivors will get hydrocephalus; their heads will swell out, some until they are too heavy to hold up. Severely retarded, often spastic and blind, they will spend their childhood in institutions that most of us do not care to think about, let alone visit. By adolescence virtually all will be dead.”

“What exactly is it that the medical profession stands for that allows it to kill millions of sentient non-human beings, while prohibiting it from releasing fro suffering an infant homo sapiens with a lower potential for a meaningful life?”


“I have suggested some ways in which once we eliminate speciest bias from our moral views, we might bring our attitudes to human and non-human animals closer together. I am well aware that I have not given any precise suggestions about when it is justifiable to kill either a retarded infant, or a non-human animal. I really have not made up my mind on this problem, so I leave it open, in the hope that others will offer suggestions.”


Alastair Norcross’ “Puppies, Pigs, and People”

The case of Fred:

Fred is involved in a car accident that damages his godiva gland which can no longer produce the hormone cocoamone. Fred discovers that puppies produce cocoamone when tortured Fred tortures puppies to obtain cocoamone, a substance that Fred needs to consume in order to enjoy the taste of chocolate. Fred does not enjoy the puppies’ suffering, but it is necessary for him to obtain the cocoamone

Fred is discovered by the police and is charged with animal cruelty. At his trial Fred uses the defense that he is innocent because he is doing exactly the same thing we do in society all the time and that if factory farming is acceptable then so must his behavior be

Norcross’s thesis:

There is no morally relevant difference between Fred’s behavior and the behavior of the millions of people who purchase and consume factory-farmed meat.


Tom Regan’s “The Case for Animal Rights”

Moral Agents vs. Moral Patients

Moral Agents:

“Moral agents are individuals who have a variety of sophisticated abilities, including in particular the ability to bring impartial moral principles to bear on the determination of what, all considered, morally ought to be done and, having made this determination, to freely choose or fail to choose to act as morality, as they conceive it, requires. Because moral agents have these abilities, it is fair to hold them morally accountable for what they do, assuming that the circumstances of their acting as they do in a particular case do not dictate otherwise.”

Moral Patients:

“In contrast to moral agents, moral patients lack the prerequisites that would enable them to control their own behavior in ways that would make them morally accountable for what they do. A moral patient lacks the ability to formulate, let alone bring to bear, moral principles in deliberating about which one among a number of possible acts it would be right or proper to perform. Moral patients, in a word, cannot do what is right, nor can they do what is wrong. Granted what they do may be detrimental to the welfare of others – they may, for example, bring about acute suffering or even death; and granted, it may be necessary, in any given case, for moral agents to use force or violence to preven such harm being done, either in self-defense or in defense of others. But even when a moral patient causes significant harm to another, the moral patient has not done what is wrong. Only moral agents can do what is wrong. Human infants, young children, and the mentally deranged or enfeebled of all ages are paradigm cases of human moral patients. More controversial is whether human fetuses and future generations of human beings qualify as moral patients. It is enough for our purposes, however, that some humans are reasonably viewed in this way.”

Two types of moral patients:

(a): “those individuals who are conscious and sentient (i.e., can experience pleasure and pain) but who lack other mental abilities

(b): “those individuals who are conscious, sentient, and posses other cognitive and volitional abilities discussed in previous chapters (e.g., belief and memory). Some animals, for reasons already advance, belong in category (b); other animals quite probably belong in category (a).

When Reagan uses ‘moral patient’ he is referring to type b moral patient

Inherent value

Inherent value of individuals vs intrinsic value of the experiences they have

inherent value is not reducible to intrinsic value (pleasure)

“To say that inherent value is not reducible to the intrinsic values of an individual’s experiences means that we cannot determine the inherent value of individual moral agents by totaling the intrinsic values of the their experiences. Those who have a more pleasant or happier life do not therefore have greater inherent value than those whose lives are less pleasant or happy. Nor do those who have more “cultivated” preferences (say, for arts and letters) therefore have greater inherent value. To say that the inherent value of individual moral agents is incommensurate with the intrinsic value of their (or anyone else’s) experiences means tha the two kinds of value are not comparable and cannot be exchanged one for the other. Like proverbial apples and oranges, the two kinds of value do not fall within the same scale of comparison. One cannot ask, How much intrinsic value is the inherent value of this individual worth – how much is it equal to? The inherent value of any given moral agent isn’t equal to any sum of intrinsic value of the experiences of all other moral agents. To view moral agents as having inherent value is thus to view them as something different from, and something more than, mere receptacles of what has intrinsic value. They have value in their own right, a value that is distinct from, not reducible to, and incommensurate with the values of those experiences which, as receptacles, they have or undergo”

Receptacle view: what is in the cup (pleasure, desire satisfaction) has value

My view: the cup itself has value

“Given the postulate of inherent value, no harm done to any moral agent can possibly be justified merely on the grounds of its producing the best consequences for all affected by the outcome. Thus are we able to avoid the counterintuitive implications of act utilitarianism if we deny the receptacle view of moral agents and postulate their inherent equal value.”

What beings have inherent value? Those that meet the subject-of-a-life criterion.

“To be the subject-of-a-life, in the sense in which this expression will be used, involves more than merely being alive and more than merely being conscious. To be the subject-of-a-life is to be an individual whose life is characterized by those features explored in the opening chapters of the present work: that is, individual are subjects-of-a-life if they have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future, an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference and welfare-interests; the ability to intitiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else’s interests. Those who satisfy the subject-of-a-life criterion themselves have a distinctive kind of value – inherent value – and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles.”

Does SOAL criterion meet the following demands:

1)   shared by all moral agents and patients who are deemed to have inherent value

2)   It is a categorical value that does not admit of degrees

3)   Separates those that have inherent value from those that are merely alive

The Respect Principle – We are to treat those individuals who have inherent value in ways that respect their inherent value. . . .It enjoins us to treat all those individuals having inherent value in ways that respect their value, and thus it requires respectful treatment of all who satisfy the subject of a life criterion. Whether they are moral agents or patients, we must treat them in ways that respect their equal inherent value.”

“It is not an act of kindness to treat animals respectfully. It is an act of justice. It is not “the sentimental interests” of moral agents that grounds our duties to justice to children, the retarded, the senile, or other moral patients, including animals. It is respect for their inherent value. The myth of the privileged moral status of moral agents has no clothes.”


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