Revitalizing the Abortion Debate: Virtue Ethics
I would like to talk about a very insightful paper in this post and some future ones: Virtue Theory and Abortion by Rosalind Hursthouse. In this article Hursthouse defends virtue theory against some of the common criticisms against it which arise from an inadequate understanding of the theory, and illustrates the usage of virtue ethics by applying it to the issue of morality of abortion.
In this post I am going to briefly summarize how her discussion of abortion from a virtue ethical perspective is radically different from much of the contemporary philosophical literature on this topic.
Most debates on the morality of abortion tend to revolve around two considerations:
1) the status of the fetus
2) women's rights with regards to their bodies
Virtue Ethics transforms (and refreshes, I'd say) the whole moral debate on abortion by showing how both of these considerations are fundamentally irrelevant to the morality of abortion. Consider women's rights. If we assume that a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy, the only thing that follows is that a law forbidding abortion will be unjust, but it says nothing about the morality of the act of abortion itself, because even when exercising one's moral right one may act viciously: with cruelty, selfishness, stupidity, dishonesty, etc. Hursthouse notes:
'Love and friendship do not survive their parties' constantly insisting on their rights, nor do people live well when they think that getting what they have a right to is of pre-eminent importance; they harm others, and they harm themselves. So whether women have a moral right to terminate their pregnancies is irrelevant within virtue theory, for it is irrelevant to the question "In having an abortion in these circumstances, would the agent be acting virtuously or viciously or neither?"'
Regarding the status of the fetus, Hursthouse says that this issue is not in the province on any moral theory; it is a metaphysical issue and that too a difficult one. To be able to make a morally wise decision about abortion, must a virtuous agent first possess knowledge of the status of the fetus, knowledge that is as yet uncertain and subject to much debate? One of the assumptions of Virtue Ethics is that intellectual and philosophical sophistication is not a necessary condition of moral wisdom, and if accepted, it leads to the surprising conclusion that the moral status of the fetus is not relevant to the morality of abortion. What is relevant, in fact, are the familiar biological facts: that pregnancy arises as a result of sexual intercourse, that its duration is about 9 months, and this is the time in which the fetus grows and develops, that pregnancy is often painful and emotional charged for the woman, etc. Hursthouse feels that the conviction that one needs to go beyond these familiar biological facts to conclude from them something about whether the fetus has the right to life or not has terribly alienated current philosophical literature from the psycho-social realities of child-bearing.
Regarding what virtue ethics says about the morality of abortion, I'll save that for a future post.
(hat-tip to Komal for sharing this paper with me)