Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Don Marquis on Abortion: the Contraception Problem

Don Marquis has famously argued that abortion is wrong because it deprives the foetus of a "future-like-ours". In this post I will not examine his basic argument; but look at an objection which is widely seen as showing that it is unsound.

The contraception objection could be said to form the locus of endeavours to demonstrate that Marquis' future-like-ours argument is unsound. I will now, having extensively presented and interpreted the argument as Marquis has presented it in his original paper, aim to subject this objection to a thoroughgoing critical analysis. My objective in this will be to establish a) that the objection fails to undermine Marquis' argument, b) that the reasons for its' failure illuminate pivotal structural features of the argument, and c) what implications the latter have for the ultimate strength of Marquis' claim that the future-like-ours argument resolves the dispute between those who do and do not believe that abortion is generally wrong in favour of the anti-abortionist.

Marquis insists that nothing is harmed by contraception. Surely he is right[1]. The basis of the contraception objection, however, is that by the reasoning of his antiabortion argument, contraception must be impermissible since it prevents the actualization of valuable futures-like-ours. At least on a superficial level, Marquis refutation of the objection looks very persuasive. There are no grounds whatsoever for isolating any sperm, ovum or sperm-ovum combination, as the entity possessing a recognizable valuable-future that is prevented from being realized. If consistency would compel Marquis to argue for the immorality of contraception, something would have to be harmed, since a very pivotal premise for him is that to lose a valuable-future-like-ours constitutes a very grave harm.

Many objectors to Marquis' argument, nonetheless, have pressed the contraception objection, maintaining that Marquis' response to it is ambiguous, nebulous, and difficult to interpret. Thus its' character has been cast in a variety of conflicting lights. But I will focus closely on Alastair Norcross's contraception objection[2], since I think it is highly relevant to my purposes.

Norcross employs a thought-experiment which takes the following form: London is struck by a tragic simultaneous occurrence of freak accidents involving power plants. Almost everyone within twenty miles of Whitehall at the time perish. The Prime Minister is advised that there are a handful of survivors. On one scenario she orders the army to round all of them up and kill them, so that all within twenty miles of Whitehall at the time of the tragedy will not live to tell of their experiences. On an alternative idea, the Prime Minister orders the detonation of a hydrogen bomb in London. This will mean that many more fatalities ensue, and one will have no means of distinguishing between power plant-explosion survivors and those who were out of harm's way at the time of the earlier accidents. It is therefore a fact that it is morally irrelevant that one could not in the latter scenario identify which of the millions of London dead were killed by the nuclear bomb .

Norcross seriously thinks there is a legitimate analogy between identifying the cause of death in his London scenario and identifying a subject of harm-by-contraception in Marquis' analysis. If one is open to the possibility that Marquis' argument might indeed entail the prima facie moral equivalence of contraception, abortion and homicide, the fact that a subject of harm-by-contraception cannot be located is morally irrelevant, just as it is superfluous to ascertaining whether a death in the London scenario was immoral whether the dead victim met her demise through a power-plant explosion or the detonation of the H-bomb.[3]

What, I ask, can be said about Norcross's rejoinder? To construe Marquis as arguing that since we do not have epistemic access to facts surrounding harm-by-contraception, we must dismiss prospects for such a harm occurring, could only be an instance of exegetical scandal. Norcross himself concedes that there is a possibility that the nature of Marquis' counterargument to the objection would be " not simply..epistemic". (I think any careful reading of Marquis will enable one to see that this is much more than possible).

How then does Norcross sidestep this possible interpretation? By evaluating what he sees as the other candidate reading of Marquis' dismissal of the contraception-objection. Norcross believes that Marquis might instead mean that there is no causal mechanism necessitating that any particular "sperm, if any, would have fertilized the ovum."[4] This is because "it may be that the behavior of sperm is not strictly deterministic."[5]

Again, Norcross constructs an elaborate thought-experiment to dismiss this line of argument that he (wrongly) thinks may be attributable to Marquis. I will now briefly explicate this thought-experiment in the context of Norcross's wider propounding of the contraception-objection. I will then show why Norcross's approach to Marquis is myopic and tendentious, and what the shortcomings of Norcross's discussion show of the fundamental underpinnings of Marquis' thesis.

Norcross imagines another case involving psychopathic heads of government. In this thought-experiment, Smith and Jones are both prisoners of conscience in an evil dictatorship. Shrub, the evil dictator, is impelled, by the prospect of his regime being the subject of adverse publicity in the media via Amnesty International, to release one of the pair in order to generate a favourable PR opportunity. Since he cannot decide which to spare, he devises a system whereby Smith and Jones are imprisoned in individual cells, both fitted with ventilation for the contents of a "canister of poisonous gas". A computer will at noon randomly select one air vent to be closed one second prior to release of the gas at noon. The anti-liberal Vice-President, however, is enraged by this and unplugs the computer before noon so that both die before the gas is released.

Again, Norcross is convinced that the fact that the Vice-President's action in this case is heinous poses significant obstacles for Marquis' argument. For even if one million prisoners were bound to die anyhow, his actions would have led to the demise of one more. Marquis, however, simply denies that any future-of-value is obliterated or obstructed from actualization by contraception. What becomes of sperm or ova is of no concern from the point of view of his ethic of killing. But for Marquis, it is chicanery to speak of a sperm-ovum-combination, too, as a discrete object, or in any case some kind of object. And this is where many contraception-objectors, like Norcross, Earl Conee[6], Charles Daniels[7], Keith Korcz[8], and others, beg to differ. Korcz puts forth an argument which states that, were we endowed with the technology to isolate which particular sperm would fertilise an ovum, we could speak of a particular sperm-ovum combination after all. So, for him, there is a "modal ambiguity" in conflating possibility in logical and technological senses.

Likewise, Norcross states that "…there is only one future lost as a result of contraception. It is the same future for both the sperm and the ovum." Thus we can say that the "thing" deprived of its valuable future is the "mereological sum" of the sperm and the ovum. This holds quite irrespectively of whether we have the ability to identify the relevant sperm, and to whether which sperm will combine with the ovum is determined by any set of causes.


In his response to Korcz, Marquis observed that before "…conception, there is no individual that is the same individual that.would have had the valuable life." [9]My conviction is that this claim is warranted and devastating to the claims of these objectors. I will now therefore proceed to examine this point more closely.

In non-philosophical, quotidian conversation, we often speak of a foetus as "the baby" (an expectant mother may often remark "I don't want to harm the baby" and so on).We also speak of the interests of people who may be conceived at some later point in time (one could fear for the planned or potential offspring of a couple one regards as a pair of lunatics). But we do not regard the interests of fetuses and the unconceived as being parallel, simply because the unconceived simply do not exist!

Most women today are apprised of the risks incumbent upon their smoking and/or drinking while pregnant. Whether or not this prenatal thing is a "person" or not, we understand that very deleterious effects on the fetus can ensue if the mother carrying it does certain things after a certain point in her pregnancy.

So it is settled that we can have some sort of obligation towards a foetus (though of course that obligation itself does not establish anything of consequence to the ethics of abortion at all.) Now imagine (or realize!) that you are a happy person. You enjoy your life immensely. So you are grateful to your parents that they conceived you. Only, one fact cannot be lost sight of. Let us consider the case of a couple having difficulty conceiving. They eventually after five years of vain attempts, have bought about the existence of a foetus.

I want you now to imagine that this foetus has grown into you. It is you therefore, who have enjoyed a wonderful future-of-value, and want to keep enjoying that future for as long as you possibly can. The day before you were conceived your parents prayed and longed for a child and, on the day that you were born, their prayers and longings were answered in the form of you.

But the fact is that there were many potential sperm from your father that could have fertlised your mother's ovum. This is true both seconds and months before your conception. So there were many potential fetuses other than yourself that could have developed. Hence it is no more feasible to say that you would have been harmed if your parents had no desire to have children, and successfully used contraception, than it is to say that you would have been harmed if your parents had been unable to conceive you since they were separated because of some conference in Oslo or Singapore. Marquis' argument, therefore, easily escapes the misfired attacks of contraception-objectors like Norcross and Korcz. The objection can only be seen as badly obscuring obvious facts surrounding the conception of human foetuses, be they persons or otherwise.


Something very important in relation to the structure of Marquis' argument can be learned from the failure of the contraception-objection. Marquis is truly impervious to the question of precisely what the foetus is. For him, the issue is entirely nugatory. But his argument is distinguished not merely by its eschewal of anthropocentrism. The future-of-value account of the wrongness of killing is grounded on the basis that the "possession of a valuable future-like-ours" is a "natural property".

Conee, writing under the acknowledged influence of Norcross, alleges that metaphysicians who are "universalists about wholes and parts" would find the contraception-objection amenable. He claims that since Marquis is rationally obligated to admit that in the absence of contraception "at least on occasion..one sperm..would have fertilized the ovum" (because denying that is like denying that someone would have won a cancelled race), he is also, by logical extension committed to one of these propositions:

1) No cause deterministically will ensure that some unique sperm will fertilise the ovum.

2) Prior to the union of a sperm and the ovum, no "combination entity" exists.

So, for Conee, Marquis is able to rationally defend his argument against abortion only if he accepts a particular mereological view. Conee agrees with Norcross that 1) and 2) are highly debatable; in the case of 1) to the point of untenability. People practice contraception because they at least would prefer that their sexual activity not result in the conception of a foetus and the consequent birth of a child. Conee's declares that, if we accept the broader tenets of Marquis' argument, we must conclude that"…the moral status of very many abortions turns on the resolution of this purely ontological issue".

Part of the peculiarity of Conee's argument is that it forms but a segment of a wider argument for the thesis that metaphysical theories cannot lend support to either the pro-choice or anti-abortion moral view. He has, however, granted Norcross's analysis of Marquis' argument as resting on a metaphysical premise concerning the status of wholes and parts. It is thus incumbent upon him to show, in support of his conclusion, that the dispute about the morality of abortion cannot be resolved in favour of the anti-abortionist by accepting:
a) a mereological doctrine amenable to Marquis' argument
b) the success of Marquis' account of the wrongness of killing[10]
c) the legitimate ascription of a future-of-value to a standard foetus

Conee needs, for his dialectical purposes, to undermine at least any one of these.. He chooses to attack c), and partly b), in order to attempt to strengthen his argument. No more is required of him and thus he presupposes a).[11] But he need not do so because Marquis does not pose any danger to the proposition that metaphysics is irrelevant to the moral status of abortion. For, in my view and pace Norcross, Marquis' argument does not rest on any mereological foundation.

If one takes the view that two separate entities do not (automatically) have a mereological fusion on highly technical metaphysical grounds, then, it is agreed, the objection (as Norcross has framed it) cannot succeed. Yet what he, Conee, and Korcz do not come to grips with is that, even embracing the ontological view that such a fusion may exist[12], the point that Marquis makes is that "at the moment of contraception" such a "combination entity" is not identical with any being possessing a valuable future.

Earlier I put it to you that "you" would have no more been deprived of the future you have and will experiencing; and are experiencing, had your parents successfully practiced contraception on the day of your conception, than "you" would have been if they had on that day been separated by virtue of an overseas conference. Norcross, alarmingly, accepts this. So does Daniels, who even contends that Marquis' future-like-ours principle confers a broad prima-facie obligation upon each man to have as much unprotected sex as possible (which, he professes, hopefully in jest, might entail rape!), and upon each woman of reproductive age to ensure that she becomes pregnant as frequently as possible.

The striking thing about these objectors is not purely that their arguments rest on some very questionable claims surrounding the identity of counterfactual persons. It is that the pivotal error common to them all illuminates the character of Marquis' argument. For Marquis does not argue that abortion is prima facie wrong because it reduces the number of valuable lives-like-ours in the future. Any argument that did would, indeed, render abstinence and celibacy gravely wrong. Marquis' argument, however, is predicated on the notion of identity. The contraception objection, as a reductio, concludes that Marquis' argument is defective on the basis that there must be something seriously amiss with it. Accepting the objection for the sake of argument, what would that be? It seems clear that, at bottom, that it is this: the future-like-ours account of the wrongness of killing either entails, or cannot be distinguished from, the claim that we each have (at least prima facie and in general terms) an obligation to bring as many people into the world as possible. For Norcross, Daniels and Korcz, it would seem that an average healthy, happy adult human being acquired her valuable future-like-ours at the moment that both the sperm from her father, and ovum from her mother that, having united, resulted in her, were in simultaneous existence, (even if that union, at such a point in time, was entirely hypothetical). Sperm are part of the composition of a male body. They are not part of the composition of any possible future individual.
For the contraception objection to work we need a) a metaphysic of unrestricted mereological composition, b) a determinism that suggests that a particular sperm is bound to fertilise an ovum, and c) a evidence that the mereological sum of the sperm and ovum in fact possesses an identity relation with the conceptus formed once the constituent parts of the mereological sum physically merge. Even if a) and b) are granted, it is very hard to see how c) could be. R M Hare has argued that immediately following my conception, part of me was a sperm and part of me was an ovum. While it is true that Marquis eschews the personhood approach to the issue of abortion, and so the fact that the mereological sum obviously does not possess personal identity is irrelevant, the obvious- and relevant to Marquis- rejoinder to Hare is simply that since both the sperm and ovum cease to exist, it seems the proposition that I was in any sense a mereological sum of a sperm and an ovum is just as absurd as the idea that I was my parents. By contrast, the claim that I was a conceptus can be corroborated simply by pointing out that there is the continuity of being the same organism.

However, what this analysis has revealed is that one of Marquis' central presuppositions is that a person's unique and specific valuable-future-like-ours comes into existence at, or after, conception. At that point, a couple planning on having their first child no longer plan for a hypothetical future individual, but an actual one.[13] Identity, to Marquis, is thus a crucial concept. Marquis has claimed that the contraception objection forms the "strongest" obstacle to the success of his argument. I conclude that if he is correct in this we should find his argument persuasive indeed.

[1] I qualify this by stating that I accept that it is at least an open question whether use of, especially, the oral contraceptive pill has facilitated the widespread exploitation of women by men for sexual gratification. Some might also claim that contraception can be wrong for other reasons. But such suggestions do not rest on notions of harm in our sense, and so are irrelevant.
[2] Alastair Norcross, "Killing, Abortion, and Contraception: A Reply to Marquis" The Journal of Philosophy, May 1990, pp. 268-77.
[3] Op. cit., pp.269-270
[4] Op. cit., p.270
[5] ibid
[6] Earl Conee, "Metaphysics and the Morality of Abortion," Mind 108 (1999) 619-646
[7] Charles B. Daniels, "Having a Future" Dialogue 31 (1992) 661-665
[8] Keith Allen Korcz, "Two Moral Strategies Regarding Abortion," Journal of Social Philosophy Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, (Winter, 2002) 581-605. Marquis has replied to Korcz in "Korcz's Objections to the Future of Value Argument," Journal of Social Philosophy XXXV, No. 1 (Spring 2004) 56-60
[9] Marquis, "Korcz's Objections to the Future of Value Argument," Journal of Social Philosophy XXXV, No. 1 (Spring 2004) p. 57
[10] In his article, Conee uses the term "MP" to refer to this.
[11] Russell Jacobs, in "Conee and Marquis on Contraception," Southwest Philosophy Review 18 July (2002) 101-105, ( p.101) states: "Earl Conee claims that Don Marquis' Principle MP ("The prima facie wrong-making feature of a killing is the loss to the victim of the value of its future") entails that contraception is immoral." After careful consideration, I am satisfied that Conee does not in fact do such a thing per se.
[12] A critic of Norcross and Conee might even argue that the mereological view that there can be such a fusion could in fact assist the antiabortionist in dealing with objections surrounding the moral status of a very early-gestation foetus.
[13] Jeffrey Reiman (1996, p. 183) comments that "…to determine whether killing a foetus is morally wrong for the same reasons that killing human beings generally is thought to be, we need to figure out whether there is anything about the foetus that provides a plausible basis for thinking it is…asymmetrically wrong to end its' life". And so he asks "Is there anything about the foetus that makes it seriously worse to kill it than not to have produced it…?", charging (p. 198, n.21) that "Don Marquis overlooks" that "the foetus's existence as such does not make…depriving it of its future..different from…the failure to produce a new fetus…". But Reiman is simply wrong. Marquis does not overlook the point Reiman makes but denies its very validity, for this reason


Anonymous said...

Clearly you put a lot of work into this and have given the subject significant consideration. Without having read the criticism of Marquis' essay, I have always been of the view Marquis' argument is subject to the reductio problem. If one truly believes that the developmental status of the being is irrelevant (e.g., being an embryo) and that it is only the 'future like ours' category that can do the morally relevant work, then what differences does it make whether or not we are talking about an embryo or the process that can leads to the creation of embryos? To my mind, it is arbitrary to say that it is only morally relevant to talk about a thing 'having a future like ours', as opposed to the process that leads to the thing that has a future like ours. In accordance with Marquis' reasoning, why wouldn't it be wrong to halt a process that can lead to thing that has a future of value? After all, in killing an embryo, aren't we in essence also halting a process?

Anonymous said...

I am the anonymous person that posted above. I was a bit rushed when I gave my response and I wanted to make sure that I was clear. So, Marquis argues that the reason that it is seriously morally wrong to kill you and I is that it deprives us of our future. When a person has an abortion, she has also deprived a being of a 'future like ours'. Thus, it is seriously morally wrong. The worry, then, is that this account of the wrongness of killing seems to have the consequence that birth control is seriously morally wrong.

As I recall, Marquis responds to this worry by saying that this is only a problem when one relies on the concept of a 'potential person' and that his argument doesn't rely on this concept. My response: while it seems true that the category of 'a being with a future like ours' is different from the category of a 'potential person', a parallel problem emerges. The problem is this: both birth control and abortions prevent 'a being with a future like ours' from existing. That is, they prevent a person from being born that can then have a valuable future. The main difference is that the 'prevention' happens earlier in time with birth control than it does with an abortion. So, if the above is true and in accordance with the logic of Marquis' argument, it seems to me that it is arbitrary to draw the line at conception or later. Given Marquis claim that the developmental status of the being is irrelevant, what difference should it make whether or not the being is an embryo or sperm/egg! Given that the consequence of abortion and birth control is the same (i.e., 'a being with a future of value' fails to be able to actualize its future), why should the category of 'a being with a future of value' be treated any differently from the category of 'a process that leads to a being with a future of value'? In accordance with Marquis' argument, I see no reason why both 'preventing a being from having a future' and 'halting a process that would lead to a being with a future' shouldn't be regarded as 'seriously morally wrong'.

Thanks for your thought provoking post. I look forward to your response.

Anonymous said...

This is the last time I will post without a response from the original poster. My apologies for not doing this all at once.

In response to the claim that nothing is being harmed by the use of contraception, this may be true, stictly speaking. But, I'm not sure why this should be thought to be decisive in the debate (or even relevant). My contention is that it should not be a requirement to say 'a being is harmed' for the simple reason that the consequences of an abortion and the use of a particular kind of contraception are the same in kind. But, even if this were a requirement, why suppose that not allowing something to exist (i.e., a zygote) is not a harm? In this way, if one insists on having to locate the harm, then why not say that the harm is located in the being that ended up not existing, but could have (whoever the being is). Thus, if my parents used birth control on the relevant day such that I didn't exist, they harmed me by not allowing me to exist. Who is 'me'? The being with a future of value that would have existed had my parents not used birth control on the relevant day. Again, though, I am strongly inclined to think that the requirement to locate the being that has been harmed is irrelevant. In accordance with the future of value argument, both abortion and birth control have the same consequences and it is these consequences that do the work in describing why the actions are morally wrong.

Thomas Harvey said...

Well, there is much to discuss here and I don't have the time to offer a substantial response to the issues you have raised.

However, by way of general comment, I am interested to see that you note that Marquis has alleged that the contraception objection presents a difficulty for traditional personhood and potentiality anti-abortion arguments. As far as I am aware, Marquis made this claim only in a not-widely-read publication in 2006; and even then it was only a point made incidentallly in passing. In any case it's not one I would wish to defend. The mereological sum is not an animal and so it is not a being that is a potentail person.

But you are right to point out that the future-like-ours argument takes a different shape. Many conditions had to be satisfied before I could post on this blog; not least amongst them that my parents (and grandparents, ad infinitum) had to meet; and the sperm that fertilised my mother's ovum had to be produced. But why should that latter condition be so crucial?(Because a baby girl comes ready armed with a lifetime's worth of ova, the mereological sum is created when the sperm is)

You say that according to the future like ours argument, abortion and birth control have the same effect. But that is simply what is denied by both defenders of Marquis (such as myself) and critics like Robert Lovering who deny that a human organism has a future-like-ours until the foetus is a person (in the sense employed by defenders of abortion like Michael Tooley).

Contraception objectors to Marquis hold that a mereological sum of sperm and ovum possessed my future-like-ours before I was conceived. The point is that there are strong grounds to deny that claim. I won't outline those grounds as I have tried to do so in the original post.

I should add that almost all of that post was written early last year; and that not all of it reflects my current thoughts on these matters.

Thank you very much for your interest and I hope that my comments are of some interest to you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the response, Thomas. Your blog has certainly allowed me to get clearer on certain of the bones of contention surrounding Marquis' overall position and the contraception objection.

After some reflection, I wonder if perhaps the deepest issue here concerns the role that metaphysical questions should play in this debate. More specifically, one might ask whether the following metaphysical question should really be seen as ethically relevant: should sperm and egg can be considered proper parts of the person with a future of value?

Whether yes or no, the consequence of preventing a being with a future of value from being born still may obtain. And, to my mind, according to Marquisian thinking, this is something that should be construed as wrong (when it is done intentionally).

Anonymous said...

If a women was able to exercise her right to adopt out her child, either newly born or older without fear of being called a bad mother, or much worse hounded by the press with the premise of "how could you do such a thing?", I think the arguments for an abortion would fade into oblivion.