Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

Atheist ethicists: not as ethical as you might think

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6 minutes to read Some thoughts in response to a desire utilitarian’s defense of abortion.

In the comments of my useful thoughts for debating abortionists, Pedro Corso asked me if I could suggest a way to refute the pro-abortion argument of one Alonzo Fyfe, a self-styled atheist ethicist.

The view he puts forward is described in these two posts, if you’d like to peruse them for yourself (I’ll just quote a couple of relevant portions):

The main issue

The first point of Alonzo’s argument looks as follows, and this is really what undergirds his whole effort. So if this falls, the rest falls:

There is no value without desire. A being or entity cannot benefit or be harmed in any morally relevant sense unless it has the capacity to want things, and the things it wants can be given or taken away.

I see at least three obvious problems with this statement…

1. How does human desire, all by its lonesome, “cause” a moral state of affairs?

In what sense does desire cause moral status? Is an agent’s desire for X a sufficient condition of X’s becoming morally obligatory? That seems fairly problematic, since then Ted Bundy would have been morally obliged to rape and murder women. But if desire for X is merely a necessary condition of X’s being morally obligatory, what is it that “completes the equation” and decides whether or not X actually is morally obligatory? And how does the mere desiring of something “make” it a moral issue? How does “S desires X” imply something like “S ought to do X”, or “T ought to X with respect to S”, or however it ends up looking?

2. How is “oughtness” not viciously circular for Alonzo?

This raises the question of what it even means to say we “ought” to do something under Alonzo’s view. Since he is a desire utilitarian (see the sidebar on his blog), he will probably say something like, “well, we ought to do X if X will promote human flourishing or prevent human suffering.” But that just pushes the problem back a step. Why, on his view, ought we promote human flourishing and prevent human suffering? He seems to have a vicious circle on his hands. You can’t build a system of ethics on a viciously circular assumption.

3. If Alonzo is right, there’s nothing wrong with castrating my son

Most fundamentally, the notion that people can’t be harmed or benefited in morally relevant ways without having the capacity to desire things which can be given or taken is just obviously wrong. By that logic, since my 2 year old son does not want to have sex, I am not harming him in any morally relevant way by painlessly castrating him.

Now, I assume Alonzo would not agree with that. (If he would, there’s obviously little I can say to him, but also little I need say to him—who is going to seriously listen to someone about the alleged lack of moral harm in abortion, when he also denies the lack of moral harm in castrating toddlers?)

So assuming Alonzo wants to avoid this ethically absurd conclusion about toddler castration, the only way I can see for him to do so is by modifying his position to say it is wrong to take away something a person may come to desire later. In other words, he would need to admit that removing the potential for something constitutes moral harm just as much as removing the thing itself. But that would put paid to his entire argument for abortion. If it is wrong to remove a 2-year old’s potential sex life, then a fortiori it is a heck of a lot worse to remove a fetus’s potential life in general.

So those are three basic but, from the looks of things, rather insurmountable problems which Alonzo needs to give persuasive answers to if he wants us to even begin considering his view.

Other difficulties

Alonzo also makes some other blunders. I’m not going to mince words about them—they simply show he’s not a good thinker. As such, we shouldn’t be inclined to take his ideas very seriously. Anyone can set up a blog with a grand-sounding title and pretend to be an expert, but it won’t do us any favors to pretend that means much. In fact, I hope you won’t think that I’m pretending to be an exert. I’m not. I just happen to be all right at spotting obviously bad thinking.

Here’s a sampling of some of his bungles:

1. Pain is not desire

A pain response is not equivalent to desire. The mere fact that a fetus can feel pain doesn’t suggest it has desires. The philosophy of desire is a complex and controversial field, but generally people tend to agree that S desires X if X appears good to S, or if S is disposed to take pleasure in X or act towards bringing X about, or perhaps if S’s attention is repeatedly directed toward considerations that seem to count in favor of X.

These all tend to hold that S must have some ability to hold X in his mind as an object of desire. A mere instinctual response is not sufficient. But it doesn’t seem a baby has the ability to hold anything in its mind as an object of desire until well after it has been born. It may instinctually want things, and instinctually act in certain ways to get them, but Alonzo has a lot of work cut out for him to get from there to saying that a fetus desires anything. You would think he would know that if he wants to seriously maintain this ethical theory of his.

Either that, or he needs to convince us that a mere instinctual response warrants moral status.

2. Modal confusion of d00m

what benefit comes to a person who, instead of being conceived and aborted, was not conceived at all? I do not see how anybody is made better or worse off by either action.

This is just inept. There’s an obvious, critical, categorical difference between the two situations:

  1. A fetus exists. We can therefore coherently speak of its being made better or worse off by our actions.
  2. A fetus does not exist. We can therefore not coherently speak of its being made better or worse off by our actions!

For Alonzo to admit that he sees no difference between (A) and (B) in terms of anybody being negatively or positively affected is simply for him to admit that he sees no difference between a coherent and an incoherent state of affairs. Not a very promising admission from someone who is trying to articulate a reasoned defense of abortion. And yet he goes on to use this embarrassing mistake as the basis of an argument:

I could look back and say, “If my mother had an abortion, then I would not be here.” Some people take this perspective, then harvest the horror of not having existed to manufacture a sentiment against abortion. I can just as easily look back and say that if my parents had not had sex, then I would not be here. This does not allow me to imply that their having sex on that particular occasion was their duty, and that they would have wronged me if they had not done so.

This comparison is simply absurd, for the obvious reason that while parents do owe duties to children they have (eg, a fetus), they don’t owe duties to children they don’t have!

Speaking of which…

3. Denying parental duties

I am grateful because this life that I have was their gift, not their duty.

This is where you see a lot of pro-abortioners go—they have to deny parental duties altogether to make abortion work as a coherent position. As soon as you admit that parents have duties, it is obvious that those duties extend at least as far as not killing their children, regardless of how old they are.

But if Alonzo has to deny one of the most fundamental moral intuitions we have to make his case, then his case is obviously not going to convince most sensible people. When it comes down to really thinking through the issues here, most people will vastly prefer to give up abortion than give up a fundamental, bedrock part of our social fabric.

In the end, he is still arguing for taking the life of a human being—a human child—and he is making the case on a foundation of sand. Now, I harbor no illusions about my chances of convincing him of his error. But in terms of his ability to make a positive case for abortion that will convince anyone who clings to what we know inwardly to be true about the actual nature of right and wrong…well, I’m not exactly quaking in my stylish yet affordable boots.

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