Summary and Critique of Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion is Immoral”

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Why Abortion Is Immoral” is the most celebrated pro-life piece in the literature. Marquis (M) begins by noting that few philosophers think abortion is immoral, in fact, the pro-life position has almost no contemporary philosophical support:

The view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously immoral has received little support in the recent philosophical literature. No doubt most philosophers affiliated with secular institutions of higher education believe that the anti-abortion position is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument. The purpose of this essay is to undermine this general belief.

He assumes, but doesn’t try to prove, “that whether or not abortion is morally permissible stands or falls on whether or not a fetus is the sort of being whose life it is seriously wrong to end.”

M asks: “why is killing an adult wrong.”

Killing is wrong because of its effect on the victim—specifically because it takes away a person’s future.

This explains why: 1) killing is so bad; and 2) why premature death is particularly bad.

This view gains additional support because: 1) it shows why it would be wrong to kill other intelligent extraterrestrials; 2) it shows why it would be wrong to kill some non-human animals; 3) it does not rule out active euthanasia; and 4) it easily accounts for the wrongfulness of young children (something personhood theories have trouble with).

Since eliminating an adult’s future is what makes killing it wrong, abortion is wrong prima facie (at first glance.) And this does not rely on the fetus being a person. [According to this view, it would seem that killing a fetus is more wrong than killing a child, which is more wrong than killing an adult, etc.]

To better explain the structure of his argument he draws an analogy with an argument against animal cruelty. In both cases the wrongness is explained by the appeal to a natural property—pain and suffering or denial of a future—without resorting to personhood.

None of this shows that abortion is always wrong, just that it usually is.

And contraception is not immoral on this view. Neither sperm nor ovum can possibly be considered a person and contraception can’t be considered to deny all possible sperm and egg combinations which are possible since there are so many possible futures at the time contraception is used. (This might imply that contraception is worse, since it denies millions of possible futures. Also, at what point are we denying this future then? After the 24-48 hours of conception I would assume.)

Conclusion – Since a fetus has a future, which is what makes killing wrong, killing a fetus is wrong. This resolves the standard problem of abortion which is to determine some property that makes a fetus more like a person than a group of cells—brain waves, viability, etc. That property is its possible future.

Reflections – First of all, remember—even if you think abortion is morally wrong that does not imply that you have a right to use the coercive power of the law to prevent others ending their pregnancies. To endorse that would entail a justification of the use of legal coercion on the ground that you are preventing harm to others (fetuses). The problem is that not all share the view that fetuses are persons. (In fact granting fetuses full moral rights is a radical view that virtually no moral philosophers endorse—as Marquis admitted at the beginning of his essay.) If people disagree about whether something is a person, then what do you do if you can’t convince them of your view? Kill them? Petition the government to coerce them? Try to convince them rationally but if unsuccessful let them alone?

It is just hard to believe that this weak argument is considered the best anti-abortion argument in the literature. For a more complete account of my view on abortion, and the standard one according to most moral philosophers, see my posts here and here.

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7 thoughts on “Summary and Critique of Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion is Immoral”

  1. wooow completely missed the point of this one didn’t author. If you read the full text you clearly see that he shows the reasoning behind killing a full grown man and a fetus are the same. He doesn’t ever claim a fetus is a person because anti-abortionist cannot convince pro-choicers of this. Instead his approach is much more creative he moves outside of the box. Rather than prove that a fetus has rights and therefore cannot be morally terminated, he shows that it is immoral to terminate it on the grounds of what makes killing wrong. To disprove his point( which many great philosophers have been working on) you would have to demonstrate a necessary condition of killing that doesn’t apply to Fetuses or show how taking the future away is not what makes killing immoral. Besides striking up a political argument in a philosophical debate about morality is utter foolishness.

  2. the consensus among moral philosophers is that Marquis argument is not persuasive. Wikipedia has an decent summary of some of the many objections to it.

  3. Your critique of Marquis is heavily based on “what most of my peers think about that”. Sure… Just like Socrates’s or Christ’s peers were very nice to them back then. This is not the hard sciences, John.

  4. It’s clear that you don’t Marquis’ argument persuasive, but I can’t tell what your primary counterargument to it is.

    Is it that the majority of moral philosophers disagree with Marquis? If so, then that’s a rather silly cop-out. One could use the same argument to dismiss moral reformers on every issue, and I hope you can see the problems that would entail.

    Alternatively, is it your parenthetical note that sperm and egg cells have a greater number of potential futures than an embryo? If so, then that’s ontologically flawed. A zygote is a meaningful object, but an arbitrary pairing of sperm cell and an egg cell isn’t–any more than the pairing of Europa and my left sock is. In short, it’s a failure to carve nature at its joints.

    Finally, is your counterargument that Marquis fails to prove that abortion should be illegal? If so, then you’re missing his point. The morality of abortion matters even if it’s not something that the state should legislate, just as the morality of eating meat matters even if it’s not something that the state should legislate.

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