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)


F. said…
Is there a way I could read it?
Awais Aftab said…
@ F.

Check your email.
Komal said…
This was a good article that helped illustrate how virtue ethics can be applied. Critics of virtue ethics complain that it does not provide people with enough guidance, so articles of this sort are important to illustrate how it can provide guidance, or at least to attempt to do so.

However, I disagree with Hursthouse that the questions of the personhood of the fetus and the 'rights' of the mother are irrelevant. One could incorporate such considerations into a virtue ethical framework. I do not believe in rights, but the personhood of the fetus is a relevant consideration for me, as is the importance of women's autonomy.

I do not have time to spend thinking about this paper, due to my graduate school work. But when I do find time, I'll write a longer response. Thanks for posting on this :).
puzzled said…
Is there a way i can get to read that article too :)
I try to explian my metaphysical position:
Quran says God has created humans from alaqah...A clot with clinging quality...meaning that it has capacity to form relationships of getting attached to things...and this is what makes us human..
Alinsan in arabic is derived from a root which means a being with capacity of two love.Love of God and love of mankind.It forms relationship with both .

IN the start of surat Al MU'MINOON
the milestones of spiritual development are first discussed and than later juxtaposed with mile stones of physical development are explained in bid to explain the process of spiritual development...
The stage when spiritual development starts is juxtaposed with the stage of alaqa( which i take to be as blastocyst bcz only it is the one that has a quality of clinging to the wall of uterus)
the first stage of spiritual development is leaving of "laghw"
all that is useless.By doing that one enters the first stage in relationship with god leaving all useless acts.
similarly the blastocyst when attaches to uterus constitutes the first stage of relationship of a child with his mother...
I think the mother child relationship is a sacred one and it shouldn't be terminated unless justified with strong arguments..
there is no one form human beings thats a standard..we are always in a process of why one stage should be preferred over others....

this is my new development on the position of abortion.I have enumerated the points here only, it needs a bit more explanation
timeshare exit said…
One of the best ways to prevent abortions is education.
Anonymous said…
The article is very helpful especially fro we scholars, but how can I view the article? help me
Awais Aftab said…
@ Anonymous above

Please leave your email here in comments, or email me.