Moral philosophy and abortion


The debate around abortion is sometimes characterised as an opposition between the morals of the church and personal morals. But is this an accurate description? Moral philosophy can broadly be defined as the branch of philosophy that contemplates what is right and wrong. It explores the nature of morality and examines how people should live their lives in relation to others. But a closer look at what characterises moral philosophy leads to the conclusion that while the expression “relying on personal morals” may come across as a useful shortcut to describe what the pro-choice stance is about, it is also a misuse of moral terminology which has the effect of casting a positive light on moral philosophy, rather than helping us come to terms with the deeply problematic nature of this field. As I hope to make clear, arguments in favour of abortion rights are rooted in anti-authoritarianism whereas moral philosophy can only exist as a rhetorical tool of authoritarianism (even when it is used with good intentions).

The ultimate goal of moral philosophies is to define the moral duties of human beings, that is how human beings “ought” to behave in order to minimise overall harm and maximise overall happiness. This “prescriptive” dimension is a key characteristic of moral philosophy, one that distinguishes it from fields of scientific research which are descriptive in nature.* At first it is of course hard to see what could go wrong with a field whose alleged purpose is to help people determine the best course of actions. To avoid any misunderstanding, I must say outright that the point of this article is not to claim that any behavior ever prescribed as a moral duty serves conservative purposes. The point is to show that the structure and underlying assumptions of moral philosophy produce a kind of rhetoric that is perfectly suited for conservative agendas, and that as such moral philosophy can never be the driver of left-wing social movements, it can merely align with them and try to co-opt their intellectual and societal achievements.
So what is a moral duty?

A duty is a behavior you are expected to carry out regardless of the particular circumstances you find yourself in. If you can decide to not comply with a moral duty because of the specificities of the situation you find yourself in, then the notion of “duty” loses its purpose. Even if the duty is flexible (for example you have the duty to do A but not if this or that circumstance arises) the very concept of duty implies that you are likely to find yourself in a situation where what you can, need or simply want to do doesn’t match what you supposedly ‘ought’ to do. If this wasn’t the case, there would be no need for the notion of moral duty because no one needs to be told they “ought” to do what they already want to do. This is also why the notion of a self-imposed moral duty defeats the purpose of moral duties altogether.

In other words, the basic structure of this field reveals that its purpose can never be to fully acknowledge the specificity of an individual’s lived experience but on the contrary to always keep a certain degree of homogeneity when defining what behaviors are expected from people. This makes it a very adequate rhetorical tool for institutions that centralise power and seek control over a population (the state, the Catholic church…).The fact that moral duties are often misaligned with what individuals consider to be best for themselves is not a characteristic of bad moral philosophy, but a necessary feature of moral philosophy.
In other words, criticizing the morals of the church for not acknowledging that every pregnant person’s situation is unique and that the same moral duty (keeping the pregnancy) cannot apply to everyone, would be to misunderstand the function of moral philosophy.

How is this relevant to the debate around abortion?
The main argument of the pro-choice campaign was an anti-authoritarian one : It consisted in saying that every pregnancy is different and that pregnant people are the most familiar with their own situation, which makes them the most suited to decide what to do with their pregnancy. By any meaningful definition, this is an amoral argument. If a pregnant person decides what to do with a pregnancy by adapting their decision to the unique characteristics of their own situation, then this decision isn’t the acknowledgment of a moral duty. Another way to state the asymmetry between the pro-life position an the pro-choice position is to say that the former is prescriptive (it prescribes a duty for everyone to follow regardless of circumstances) whereas the latter isn’t (it states it should be possible for people to adapt their decisions to their own situation). To say that being pro-choice is about letting people “follow their own moral compass” is therefore to use the fundamentally prescriptive conceptual framework of moral philosophy to express a non-prescriptive stance.

Once this is understood it becomes clear that the pro-choice movement is more accurately described as a rejection of the framework of moral philosophy and as an embracing of anti-authoritarianism (I believe this move is also the defining characteristic of any radical social movement).

Now, assuming that everyone is generally motivated to reduce overall harm and increase overall happiness (a conversation in and of itself) some people may say that wanting to do good is not a guarantee that one will do good, and then claim that the purpose of moral philosophy is to act as a guide to help determine the best course of action for any given situation. This is simply not the case.

Moral philosophy relies on thought experiments which do not and can never come close to the multifactorial complexity of real-life situations. If moral philosophy did look at specific situations in all of their complexity it would run into a paradox: it would have to accept that the only behavior that can be expected in each situation is the deterministic outcome of all the factors involved. Moral philosophy would then become a merely descriptive field incapable of coming up with prescriptions. But what if moral philosophy is about giving people intellectual tools relevant to the reduction of overall harm and maximisation of overall happiness before running into a moral conundrum (that is, before running into a situation where one would otherwise make harmful decisions)?
The problem with this argument is that whenever a branch of moral philosophy computes the best behavior to adopt in a particular situation it relies entirely on scientific knowledge produced by other fields. So if moral philosophy’s main purpose were to help people define the best course of action in any circumstance, this would suggest moral philosophy’s main purpose is to act as a substitute for a well informed population making their own informed decisions. (This again suggests that moral philosophy as a rhetorical framework is adapted to class society, with a small elite defining moral duties for everyone else to comply with, thus guaranteeing that moral prescriptions will not be adapted to individual’s specific circumstances). But wait, moral philosophies are plural, they aren’t empty shells, don’t they operate on distinct frameworks when processing the knowledge produced by other fields?

The issue here becomes clear when looking at the divide between the two main branches of moral philosophy: consequentialism (according to which the morality of an action is determined by its consequences) and deontology (according to which the morality of an action depends on its conformity to a number of moral rules). Indeed this divide is one that only occurs if the question one is trying to answer is “what makes an action moral or immoral”, rather than the question “how to reduce harm?”. This suggests moral philosophy is concerned primarily with casting moral judgments rather than reducing harm. Debates within the field which give rise to variants of consequentialism and deontology have to do with the realisation that the criterions defined to cast moral judgement can result either in the prescription of behaviors that are clearly detrimental to society, or in ridiculous expectations that are very unlikely to be met.

So what is moral philosophy for? Let’s say a moral philosopher has helped you determine the best behavior for you to adopt in a specific, real life situation. By moral philosophy’s own basic definitions, you now have the moral duty to perform this action. If you don’t follow that duty then it means you didn’t want to do good in the first place, and therefore moral philosophy is useless as a guide and the real question becomes “why were you not motivated to do good?” (in other words the task becomes descriptive, it’s about understanding which factors lead to this behavioral tendency). If you do follow the duty, then it shows your intention already was to do good, and therefore there was no need for the extra step of declaring this action a “moral duty”. This paradox uncovers a very misunderstood fact: moral philosophy doesn’t formulate duties to orient human actions, it formulates duties because it is understood that they will not consistently be complied with. This indicates a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that our current socio-economic model inherently produces antisocial behaviors (as well as behaviors which, as in the case of abortion, are perceived as a threat by established institutions) but at the same time a deliberate focus on blaming individuals rather than figuring out why the targeted behaviors occur in the first place. It follows that the purpose of moral philosophy is first and foremost to legitimise blame and by extension punishment when a duty is not complied with (more specifically, if moral philosophy is a form of rhetoric that is adapted to population control in a class society, then the punishment being legitimised is likely to be enforced by a hierarchical institution like a State). This approach is adapted to the perpetuation of the status quo because it effectively distracts us from understanding the causes of behaviors that do occur, that is, it distract us from understanding the context of human actions. Indeed, when an antisocial behavior occurs, there are two mutually exclusive ways to deal with it: 1) understand where the behavior came from and how to prevent it (This is the definition of a “radical” approach, It is this approach that leads to a critical view of society and a challenging of the status quo 2) Deny that behavior needs to (or even can) be explained because individuals have “free will”. Moral philosophy emphatically chooses the latter stance: beneath the concept of “moral duty” lies the extraordinary claim that the exact same causes don’t necessarily produce the exact same effects, and that every time an antisocial behavior occurs, another behavior could have taken place if only the individual had tried harder.**

As these remarks hopefully make clear, anti-authoritarian social movements that seek to emancipate humanity are not the manifestation of an improvement of moral philosophy, on the contrary, they are the sign of a rejection of the framework of moral philosophy***. While moral philosophy is able to co-opt and incorporate the knowledge produced by other fields and the achievements of social movements (generally perpetuating the myth that political change happens mainly through rational dialogue and an improvement in moral theory) it can never be the driver of social change because its underlying premises make it a perfect tool for the perpetuation of the status quo and the undermining if not silencing of radical approaches. What is needed is not moral philosophy, but an anti-authoritarian culture and the democratization of knowledge.

WORDS: Emmanuel

*Criticizing the various “theories” of moral philosophy individually is beyond the scope of this article, but it must be said that even when moral philosophies (such as consequentialism) claim to be non-prescriptive, they simply make the fundamental contradiction of moral philosophy more obvious while remaining very much prescriptive: the action with the best foreseeable consequences is still a moral duty.

**A common counter argument to this point consists in bringing up the role that randomness may play in behavior. But this doesn’t change the conclusion: if human behavior was partially (or even completely) random, then it is still the case that for any behavior that does occur, alternate behaviors couldn’t have occured simply out of individuals “trying harder”. By definition, if it is random, then you didn’t “decide” to do it.

***which isn’t to say that rejecting the rhetorical framework of moral philosophy is enough to ensure an anti-authoritarian discourse. For example, claims of having a scientific understanding of history can lead to just as much authoritarianism.