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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On the supposed rights of the fetus

I think this paper - published in Quadrant a long time ago now, but I pretty much stand by it - deserves a bit more exposure. It summarises where I am coming from in debates about abortion, infanticide, etc. Sample:
In principle, there may be a variety of such reasons that we might recognise as requiring us to restrain the purely selfish pursuit of our own interests. However, it is not clear what reason could apply in this case. Even if we speak of a fetus, or another potential person, as having an interest in becoming a person, exactly what harm does it suffer if the interest is not met?

It cannot experience any frustration of its desires, because it has no desires. The mere failure to meet this interest does not inflict any pain. It does not experience fear, so the wrongfulness of our action cannot consist in inflicting upon a entity something that it fears. Nor has it begun a life whose coherence or value may be ruined by being cut short. We do not reveal ourselves as cruel if we terminate the development of a merely potential person painlessly, or with minimal pain. It is difficult, in short, to see why the interest is one that must command our respect. It seems to be a totally theoretical interest. It might unkindly be called a contrived one.
I elaborate about why it is a good thing that we a general pro-baby attitude - but why this at least does not extend to early embryos here, but the main article is behind a wall and you'll need some kind of subscription to the Journal of Medical Ethics to read more than the abstract.

You might like to see what Kenan Malik has to say on the topic here.

4 comments:

Tim Martin said...

Interesting article on stem cell research. When it comes to questions of abortion or infanticide (or perhaps, all moral issues), are you essentially making a pragmatics-based argument? Like the members of Ovoid World Two, you think that we should base our ethics on what would be best for society?

Also, a related question: In your articles, when you refer to something as morally "right" or "wrong," what does those terms mean? Same thing with "rights." Are you saying that rights are a thing that exist, or do you merely mean that - to take the example of having a "right to life" - that it behooves us as a society to protect the lives of certain organisms, again for pragmatic reasons?

Russell Blackford said...

One change I'd make if I were writing this paper now is that I'd probably avoid rights talk - notice that it was written nearl eight years ago. I'd probably have to translate the rights talk into some other kind of talk that would be more cumbersome, relating to reasons for not destroying or harming certain kinds of things - though obviously mature human beings can make claims of having legal rights.

Russell Blackford said...

And likewise, I'd avoid using the terms "morally right" and "morally wrong" these days, though I don't think that changes the argument. There are still behaviours that we approve or disapprove of and re which we think we can give reasons for others to have the same attitudes. The use of "morally right", etc., might imply a controversial realist metaethics, but even if so it doesn't change the reasons for having pro and anti attitudes to the relevant kinds of behaviours.

Svlad Cjelli said...

"Potential" has much in common with "imagined".