Tooley – Abortion and Infanticide


Tooley’s thesis: Infants do not have a serious right to life.


Main question that needs to be answered to defend the claim: What properties must a thing posses to have a serious right to life?


“My approach will be to set out and defend a basic moral principle specifiying a condition an organism must satisfy if it is to have a serious right to life. It will be seen that this condition is not satisfied by human fetuses and infants and thus that they do not have a right to life. In contrast, it may turn out that our treatment of adult members of other species – cats, dogs, polar bears – is morally indefensible. For it is quite possible that such animals do possess properties that endow them with a right to life.”


Why infanticide?

“It seems very difficult to formulate a completely satisfactory liberal position on abortion without coming to grips with the infanticide issue. The problem the liberal faces is essentially that of specifying a cutoff point which is not arbitrary: at what stage in the development of a human being doe it cease to be morally permissible to destroy it?


The challenge is to specific when it becomes morally impermissible to kill the zygote/fetus/infant/toddler etc.


“Reflecting on the morality of infanticide forces one to face up to this challenge.


“One of the interesting ways in which the abortion issues differs from most other moral issues is that the plausible positions on abortion appear to be extreme positions. . .  the upshot is that there is no room for a moderate position on the issue of abortion.”


Infanticide evokes a strong and powerful emotional response, much like incest or cannibalism, and like masturbation or oral sex for previous generations. In such cases it is reasonable to suspect one is dealing with a taboo. “I shall attempt to show that this is in fact the case (with infanticide)”


X is a person = X has a (serious) moral right to life


Having some rights doesn’t mean something has a right to life

“it seems to me that while it is not seriously wrong to kill a newborn kitten, it is seriously wrong to torture one for an hour. This suggests that newborn kittens may have a right not to be tortured without having a serious right to life.”




“for it seems to be true that an individual has a right to something whenever it is the case that, if he wants that thing, it would be wrong for others to deprive him of it. Then if it is wrong to inflict a certain sensation upon a kitten if it doesn’t want to experience that sensation, it will follow that the kitten has a right not to have the sensation inflicted upon it.


Kitten argument:

  1. If an entity wants something thing, it would be wrong for others to deprive him of it.
  2. Kittens don’t want to experience pain.
  3. So, it would be wrong to cause pain to a kitten.
  4. Kittens do not want to live.
  5. So, it would not be wrong to kill a kitten.



“Is it really indubitable  that newborn babies are persons? Surely this is a wild contention.”


“The Basic Issue: When is a member of the Species Homo Sapiens a Person?”


Two Questions:


  1. “What properties must something have to be a person, i.e., to have a serious right to life? “
  2. “At what point in the development of a member of the species Homo sapiens does the organism possess the properties that make it a person?”


“To answer it is to decide what basic moral principles involving the ascription of a right to life one ought to accept. “


“The second question raises a purely factual issue, since the properties in question are properties of a purely descriptive sort.”


“The claim I wish to defend is this: An organism possess a serious right to life only if it possess the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.”


Initial formulation of his argument:

To ascribe a right to an individual is to assert something about the prima facie obligations of other individuals to act, or to refrain from actions, in certain ways.

However, the obligations in questions are conditional ones, being dependent upon the existence of certain desires of the individual to whom the right is ascribed.

Thus if an individual asks one to destroy something to which has a right, one does not violate his right to that thing if one proceeds to destroy it.

This suggest that following analysis: A has a right to X” is roughly synonymous with “IF A desires X, then others are under a prima facie obligation to refrain from actions that would deprive him of it.”


“A has a right to X” is roughly synonymous with “A is the sort of thing that is a subject of experiences and other mental states, A is capable of desiring X, and if A does desire X, then others are under a prima facie obligation to refrain from actions that would deprive him of it.”


“right to life” does not equal “biological life” but rather the “right of a subject of experiences and other mental states to continue to exist”


So, “A has a right to continue to exist as a subject of experiences and other mental states” is roughly synonymous with “A is a subject of experiences and other mental states, A is capable of desiring to continue to exist as a subject of experiences and other mental states, and if A does desire to continue to exist as such an entity, then others are under a prima facie obligation not to prevent him from doing so.”


A has a right to life


A has a right to continue to exist as a subject of experiences and other mental states


A is a subject of experiences and other mental states, A is capable of desiring to continue to exist as a subject of experiences and other mental states, and if A does desire to continue to exist as such an entity, then others are under a prima facie obligation not to prevent him from doing so.


“The desires a thing can have are limited by the concepts it posses.”


“the fundamental way of describing a given desire is as a desire that a certain proposition be true. Then since one cannot desire that a certain proposition be true unless one understands it, and since one cannot understand it without possessing the concepts involved in it, it follows that the desires one can have are limited by the concepts one possesses.”


Tooley is describing desires in terms of propositional attitudes. How does this square with his Kitten argument? Why is it so important for him to talk about desires in terms of propositional attitudes? What is at stake? Is there a plausible alternative?


“An entity cannot be the sort of thing that can desire that a subject of experiences an other mental states exist unless it posses the concept of such a subject. Moreoever, an entity cannot desire that it itself continue existing as a subject of experiences and other mental states unless it believes that it is now such a subject.”


“This completes the justification of the claims that it is a necessary condition of something’s having a right to life that it possess the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences, and that it believe that it is itself such an entity.”


Three exceptions:

  1. “situations in which an individual’s desires reflect a state of emotional disturbance.”
  2. “situations in which a previously conscious individual is temporarily unconscious”
  3. “situations in which an individual’s desires have been distorted by conditioning or by indoctrination”



  1. Depressed person wants to die and psychiatrist kills him.
  2. Killing someone while they are sleeping
  3. Convincing someone to desire to give up their life for religious sacrifice


“situations such as these strongly suggest that even if an individual doesn’t want something, it is still possible to violate his right to it”


Tooley’s Argument Against the Potentiality Criteria


“My argument against the potentiality principle can now be stated. Suppose at some future time a chemical were to be discovered which when injected into the brain of a kitten would cause the kitten to develop into a cat possessing the brain of a the sort possessed by humans, and consequently into a cat having all the psychological capabilities characteristic of adult humans. Such cats would be able to think, to use language, and so on. Now it would surely be morally indefensible in such a situation to ascribe a serous right to life to members of the species Homo sapiens without also ascribing it to cats that have undergone such a process of development: there would be no morally significant differences.


Secondly, it would not be seriously wrong to refrain from injecting a newborn kitten with the special chemical, and to kill it instead. The fact that one could initiate a causal process that would transform a kitten into an entity that would eventually possess properties such that anything possessing them ipso facto has a serious right to life does not mean that the kitten has a serious right to life even before it has been subjected to the process of injection and transformation. The possibility of transforming kittens into persons will not make it any more wrong to kill newborn kittens than it is now.


“Thirdly, in view of the symmetry principle, it is not seriously wrong to refrain from initiating such a causal process neither is it seriously wrong to interfere with such a process. Suppose a kitten is accidentally injected with the chemical. As long as it has not yet developed those properties that in themselves endow something with a right to life, there cannot be anything wrong with interfering with the causal process and preventing the development of the properties in question. Such interference might be accomplished whether by injecting the kitten with some “neutralizing” chemical or simply by killing it.”


Tooley’s argument:

  1. If it is not wrong to refrain from initiating such a causal process then it is not wrong to interfere with such a causal process. (symmetry principle)
  2. It is not wrong to refrain from initiating such a causal process.
  3. So it is not wrong to initiate such a causal process.


“Let C be a causal process that normally leads to outcome F. Let A be an action that initiates process C, and B be an action involving a minimal expenditure of energy that stops process C before outcome E occurs. Assume further that actions A and B do not have any other consequences, and that E is the only morally significant outcome of the process. Then there is no moral difference between intentionally performing the action B and intentionally refraining from performing action A, assuming identical motivation in both cases.”


A – (action) injecting kitten with chemical

Not-A – Refraining from action (not injecting kitten with chemical

B – (stopping the action from happening) killing kitten

C – (the causal process) the chemical which will turn the kitten into a person

E – (the outcome) kitten being killed


Claim there is no difference between Not-A and B, assuming identical motivation.


However this goes against traditional wisdom (positive vs negative duties), where it is though worse to kill someone than merely let someone die by not giving them charity.


Tooley argues our intuition here is based on a difference of motivation, not helping someone doesn’t mean you want them to die but merely that you are lazy or indifferent.


The Jones Smith counterexample:

Compare the following: (1) Jones sees that Smith will be killed by a bomb unless he warns him. Jones’s reaction is: “How lucky, it will save me the trouble of killing Smith myself.” So, Jones allows Smith to be killed even though he could easily save him. (2) Jones wants Smith dead and therefore shoots him. Is one to say there is a significant difference between the wrongness of Jones’s behavior in these two cases? Surely not. This shows the mistake of drawing a distinction between positive duties and negative duties and holding that the latter impose stricter obligations than the former. The difference in our intuitions about situations that involve giving aid to others and corresponding situations that involve not interfering with others is to be explained by reference to probable differences in the motivations operating in the two situations, and not by reference to a distinction between positive and negative duties”


Sorting all this out


Some crucial claims:

  • The desires a thing can have are limited by the concepts it posses. (propositional attitude theory of desires)
  • Symmetry principle


Crucial Arguments:

  • Kitten argument
  • Symmetry argument



  • How does his propositional attitude theory of desire relate to some of his larger claims and the arguments that support them
  • He claims kitten doesn’t have a desire to live but does have a desire to not suffer, is this the case?
  • Does his smith jones example defang any claims regarding negative and positive duties? Does it show that this distinction is non-sense
  • Does it show that it is not wrong to kill the kitten? Or a fetus based on its potential to become a person.


Jane English – Abortion and the Concept of a person


Two popular positions:


  1. Conservatives maintain that a human life begins at conception and that therefore abortion must be wrong because it is murder. But not all killings of humans are murders. Most notably, self defense may justify even the killing of an innocent person.
  2. Liberal, on the other hand, are just as mistaken in their argument that since a fetus does not become a person until birth, a woman may do whatever she pleases in and to her own body. First, you cannot do as you please with your own body if it affects other people adversely. Second, if a fetus is not a person, that does not imply that you can do to it anything you wish. Animals, for example, are not persons, yet to kill or torture them for no reason at all is wrong. (151)


English will argue:

  1. “no single criterion can capture the concept of a person and no sharp line can be drawn.”
  2. “if a fetus is a person, abortion is still justifiable in many cases; and if a fetus is not a person, killing it is still wrong in many cases.” (151)
  3. “our concept of a person cannot an need not bear the weight that the abortion controversy has thrust upon it.”



Suggestions in the abortion literature

  • warren’s five criteria (capacities for reasoning, self-awareness, complex communication, etc)
  • Brody – brainwaves
  • Tooley – having a concept of a self
  • Ramsey – genetics
  • Noonan – conceived of humans


Abortion and self-defense:

  • You have a right to kill a hypnotized innocent attacker
  • You have a right to kill a hypnotized innocent abductor who will steal your medical knowledge



  • Attackers only come out at night so you can avoid being attacked by staying in doors (abstinence)
  • You are permitted to use mace and try to prevent an abduction but are not permitted to use lethal force (contraception is permissible but not abortion)
  • You may kill the attacker only if he is going to kill you, but not if he is merely going to injure you (abortion only in the case of danger to mother’s life)
  • You may kill the attacker even to avoid mild inconvenience and when you have been negligent and were out at the wrong time of night and didn’t bring any mace (abortion is always permissible for any reason)


“The self-defense model allows us to see an important difference that exists between abortion and infanticide, even if a fetus is a person from conception. Many have argued that the only way to justify abortion without justifying infancticide would be to find some characteristic of personhood that is acquired at birth. Michael Tooely, for one, claims that infanticide is justifiable because the really significant characteristics of a person are acquired some time after birth. . . . What if, after birth, the presence of an infant  or the need to support it posed a grave threat to the woman’s sanity or life prospects? She could escapte this threat by the simple expedient of running away. So a solution that does not entail the death of the infant is available. Before birth, such solutions are not available because of the biological dependence of the fetus on the woman. Birth is the crucial point not because of any characteristics she fetus gains, but because after birth the woman can defend herself by a means less drastic than killing the infant. Hence self defense can be used to justify abortion without necessarily thereby justifying infanticide.” (157)


“ON the other hand, supposing a fetus is not after all a person, would abortion always be  morally permissible? Some opponents of abortion seem worried that if a fetus is not a full-fledged person, then we are justified in treating it in any way at all. However, this does not follow. Non-persons do get some consideration in our moral code, though of course they do not have the same rights as persons have (and in general they do not have moral responsibilities), and though their interests may be overridden by the interests of persons. Still, we cannot just treat them in any way at all.”


“treatment of animals is a case in point. It is wrong to torture dogs for fun or to kill wild birds for no reason at all. It is wrong Period, even though dogs and birds do not have the same rights persons do. However few people thing it is wrong to use dogs as experimental animals, causing them considerable suffering in some cases, provided that the resulting research will probably bring discoveries of great benefit to people. And most of us think it all right to kill birds for food or to protect our crops. People’s rights are different from the consideration we give to animals, then, for it is wrong to experiment on people, even if other might later benefit a great deal as a result of their suffering.” (157)


“But how do we decide what you may or may not do to non-persons? This is a difficult problem, one for which I believe no adequate account exists. You do not want to say, for instance, that torturing dogs is all right whenever the sum of its effects on people is good – when it doesn’t warp the sensibilities of the torturer so much that he mistreats people. If that were the case it would be all right to torture dogs if you did it in private, or if the torturer lived on desert island or died soon afterward, so that his actions had no effect on people. This is an inadequate account, because whatever moral consideration animals get, it has to be indefeasible, too. It wil have to be a general proscription of certain actions, not merely a weighing of the impact on people on a case-by-case basis.” (157-8)


“Rather we need to distinguish two levels on which consequences of actions can  be taken into account in moral reasoning. The traditional objections to Utilitarianism focus on the fact that it operates solely on the first level, taking all the consequences into account in particular cases only. Thus Utilitarianism is open to “desert island” and “lifeboat” counterexamples because these cases are rigged to make the consequences of actions severely limited.”


“It is crucial that psychological facts play a role here. Our psychological constitution makes it the case that for our ethical theory to work, it must prohibit certain treatment of non persons which are significantly person-like. If our moral rules allowed people to treat some person-like non-persons in ways we do not want people to be treated, this would undermine the system of sympathies and attitudes that makes the ethical system work. For this reason, we would choose in the original position to make the mistreatment of some sorts of animals wrong in general (not just wrong in the cases with public impact), even though animals are not themselves parties in the original position. Thus it makes sense that it is those animals whose appearance and behavior are most like those of people that get the most consideration in our moral scheme.


“it is because of “coherence of attitudes,” I think, that the similarity of a fetus to a baby is very significant. A fetus one week before birth is so much like a newborn baby in our psychological space that we cannot allow any cavalier treatment of the former while expecting full sympathy and nurturative support for the latter.”


“Thus it seems to me that the alleged “slippery slope” between conception and birth is not so very slippery. In the early stages of pregnancy, abortion can hardly be compared to murder for psychological reasons, but in the latest stages it is psychologically akin to murder” (159)


On Tooley’s kitten argument:

Michael Tooley also utilizes a parallel with animals. He claims that it is always permissible to drown newborn kittens and draws conclusions about infanticide. But it is only permissible to drown new born kittens when their survival would cause some hardship. Perhaps it would be a burden to feed and house six more cats or to find other homes for them. The alternative of letting them starve produces even more suffering than the drowning. Since the kittens get their rights second-hand, so to speak, via the need for coherence in our attitudes, their interests are often overridden by the interests of full-fledged persons. But if their survival would be no inconvenience to people at all, then it is wrong to down them, contra Tooley. Tooley’s conclusions about abortion are wrong for the same reason. Even if a fetus is not a person, abortion is always permissible, because of the resemblance of the fetus to a person. I agree with Thomson that it would be wrong for a woman who is even months pregnant to have an abortion just to avoid having to postpone a trip to Europe. In the early months of pregnancy when the fetus hardly resembles a baby at all, then, abortion is permissible whenever it is in the interests of the pregnant woman and her family. The reasons would only need to outweigh the pain and inconvenience of the abortion itself. In the middle months, when the fetus comes to resemble a person, abortion would be justifiable only when the continuation of the pregnancy or the birth of the child would cause harms – physical, psychological, economic, or social – to the woman. In the late months of pregnancy, even on our current assumption that a fetus is not a person, abortion seems to be wrong except to save a woman from significant injury or death.” (160)


“So I conclude, first, that application of our concept of a person will not suffice to settle the abortion issue. After all, the biological development of a human being is gradual. Second, whether a fetus is a person or not, abortion is justifiable early in pregnancy to avoid modest harms and seldom justifiable late in pregnancy except to avoid significant injury or death.” (160)


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