PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday February 11, 2014

This class will not meet on Tuesday February 11 due to inclement weather.


After you have completed the reading for Tuesday February 11 (RTD ch.11: Don Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral”) please read and study the following set of notes. We will not be discussing them in detail during class, but you will be responsible for this information.


For Thursday February 13, please read RTD ch.12 (Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion”).


At the start of class on Thursday 2/13, we WILL have a quiz on the article by Thomson and over the following lecture notes. UPDATE: This class will also not meet on Thursday 2/13. See the next set of lecture notes for instructions.



[5.] Abortion


Here is an important set of ideas to learn, as we enter into our discussion of the moral status of abortion…


Recall the definition of “inquiry”:


inquiry (df.): an attempt to discover truths about the world; research.


Sometimes what looks like inquiry really isn’t, especially when the topic of investigation is something about which people can become very emotional.


We can now distinguish between genuine inquiry and pseudo-inquiry… and the distinction between them has to do with what motive lies behind each one.[1]


genuine inquiry (df.): inquiry that is motivated by the desire to find the truth, no matter what that truth happens to be. This desire is what philosophy Charles Peirce (1839-1914) called “the scientific attitude.”

·         For example, suppose a couple is considering having a child, and they decide to undergo genetic testing to determine whether they carry genes for diseases that they might pass on to any child they conceive. One of them already knows that Huntingdon’s Disease (HD) runs in his family—this is a fatal degenerative disease of the nervous system for which there is at the moment no cure. One of his parents died from the disease, and there is a 50% chance that he has inherited the disease himself.[2] If his test shows that he has the HD gene, this will be terrible news: not only will he learn that any child of his have a 50% chance of inheriting the gene, but he will also learn that he himself will die from HD (unless something else kills him first). Even though the outcome of this inquiry is potentially heartbreaking, the couple decide that it is important that they know the truth of the matter, even if learning the truth might make them very unhappy.


pseudo-inquiry (“pseudo” = false) (df.): apparent (but not genuine) inquiry motivated by the desire to defend claim that you have already settled on in advance; there are two kinds of pseudo-inquiry:


sham reasoning (df.): defending a claim your commitment to which is sincere (you care that the claim is true), but also immune to evidence or argument—no matter what the evidence shows, you will not change your mind about it.


fake reasoning (df.): defending a claim, not because you have a sincere commitment to it (you don’t really care whether the claim is true or false), but because you think doing so will be to your advantage.


Deciding in advance that abortion is immoral, and then reading the Bible (or an article by a pro-life philosopher!) selectively, and/or non-critically, in order to find evidence to support your claim while ignoring evidence against your claim, is sham reasoning, not genuine inquiry. On the other hand, it is also sham reasoning to decide in advance that abortion is moral, then uncritically read an article by pro-choice philosopher and decide she must be right because she supports what you already believe.


As we begin examining a philosophical defenses of the pro-life (anti-abortion) and pro-choice positions, try your best not to be sham reasoners. Remember: no matter what you already believe about this issue: you might be wrong. Try to keep an open-mind and to evaluate the arguments impartially.



[5.1.] Don Marquis’s Pro-Life Argument.


Don Marquis (pronounced “Mar-kwiss”)[3] gives an argument against abortion that is completely secular: it is not based on any religious considerations.


Marquis also does not assume that fetuses are persons or that they have a right to life. His pro-choice view avoids making these stereotypical pro-choice assumptions.



[5.1.1.] Why is Killing Wrong, in General?


According to Marquis, before we can answer the question “is abortion immoral?” we first need to answer a more fundamental question: “why is killing wrong, in general?”


In other words, in order to see whether or not it is wrong to kill fetuses, we need to understand why it is wrong to kill an adult human being.


Marquis suggests that the following is the primary reason why it is wrong to kill an adult human being: Killing inflicts one of the greatest losses a being can suffer. But what is it that someone loses when he is killed? The obvious answer is: his life.


But to say only that it is the loss of his life that makes killing an adult wrong is too simple. Marquis’s theory of the wrongness of killing is more complicated and subtle than that:


·         Killing an adult does not deprive him of his life up to the moment of the killing. In other words, it does not deprive him of his past life, the life he has already lived. It only deprives him of his future life, the part of his life that he has not yet lived.


·         What is primarily important is not that killing him deprives him of his future biological life. Rather, what matters is that it deprives him of the experiences for which biological life is necessary.


To see Marquis’s point, think about how immoral it would be to put an adult into a permanent coma:

·         you are not depriving him of his biological life; instead, you are depriving him of his future experiences;

·         putting someone into a coma so that he can no longer have experiences seems just as immoral as killing him outright;

·         and this suggests that what is wrong with killing him is that it deprives him, not simply of his biological life, but of his future experiences (a political prisoner who is being tortured to death may have a future of a few days, but those few days might contain no valuable experiences at all—he might be better off without any of them!)


·         What is important is not every sort of future experience, but valuable future experiences: “activities, projects, experiences and enjoyments” that are “valuable for their own sakes or are means to something else that is valuable for its own sake.” (RTD 84)


Contrast this sort of future with the future of a patient who is dying from terminal cancer, who has only weeks to live, and who is in chronic, agonizing pain. He can no longer enjoy any regular activities or interactions. This person has a (short) future of experiences, but none of those experiences are valuable to him.


In summary, the primary reason that it is wrong to kill an adult human being is that it deprives him of the value of his future. Marquis calls a valuable future (one characterized by “activities, projects, experiences and enjoyments”) a future-like-ours (FLO). So what makes killing an adult human being wrong is that it deprives him or her of an FLO.



[] Sufficient, but not Necessary.


Marquis’s view is that depriving a being of an FLO is a sufficient condition of the wrongness of killing: it is enough to make killing wrong. On his view, there need not be anything else that makes killing someone immoral: if by killing her, you deprive her of an FLO, that’s enough to make killing her wrong.


He also holds that depriving a being of an FLO is not a necessary condition of the wrongness of killing: it is not required to make a killing immoral. Perhaps there are other things that make killing someone wrong, e.g., it causes grief and suffering to that person’s loved ones.


So Marquis is not saying that it is morally permissible to kill anyone who does not have an FLO. Baby Theresa (the infant born with anencephaly) did not have an FLO, but Marquis could still say that it would have been immoral for a stranger to sneak into her hospital room and kill her against her parents’ wishes.



[] A Prima Facie Moral Obligation.


According to Marquis, it is prima facie morally wrong to deprive a being of an FLO.


In other words, the moral obligation not to deprive a being of an FLO is a prima facie moral obligation:


prima facie moral obligation (df): a genuine moral obligation that may, in certain circumstances, be overridden or outweighed or “trumped” by other, stronger, moral obligations.


For example, you may have a moral obligation not to lie, but you may also have a stronger moral obligation not to cause someone undue pain.


So if your 90-year-old great-grandmother asks you how her hair looks, although it would be prima facie immoral to lie (and tell her that it looks great when it really looks awful), it would be much worse to hurt her feelings. In this case, your obligation not to hurt your great-grandmother’s feelings trumps (overrides) your prima facie obligation not to lie.


A prima facie moral obligation is the opposite of:


absolute moral obligation (df.): an obligation that always overrides or outweighs any other moral obligation or consideration.


[Are there any absolute moral obligations? Are there any actions you should never perform, no matter what? We will return to this question later in the semester…]



Presumably, Marquis says that depriving a being of an FLO is prima facie morally wrong because he does not want his view to imply anything about special cases in which it may be morally permissible to deprive someone of an FLO (e.g., killing someone in self-defense). He wants to leave questions about such special cases as open questions.


But even if there are cases in which it is morally permissible to deprive someone of an FLO, that does not mean that killing, in general, is morally acceptable. 


So Marquis’s claim is this: depriving a being of an FLO is a sufficient (but not a necessary) condition of the prima facie immorality of killing that being.



[5.1.2.] Why is Killing a Fetus Wrong?


Now Marquis is ready to argue that killing a fetus is immoral.


According to Marquis, killing a fetus deprives the fetus of an FLO, just like killing an adult human being deprives him or her of an FLO.  For example, if it is now wrong to kill a 20-year-old (let’s call him Bill) because it would deprive him of an FLO, then it would have been wrong to kill Bill when he was a fetus. Just like Bill now, Bill-as-a-fetus had an FLO... in fact, he had the exact same FLO as Bill-as-a-20-year-old. This is true, even if Bill-as-a-fetus was not a person and even if Bill-as-a-fetus was not conscious.


Here is one possible formulation of Marquis’s FLO Argument:


1.      If killing a being will deprive it of an FLO, then it is prima facie morally wrong to kill that being.

2.      Killing a fetus deprives it of an FLO.

3.      Therefore, it is prima facie morally wrong to kill fetuses. [supposed to follow from 1 and 2]

4.      In the vast majority of abortions, there are no other moral considerations that trump the prima facie obligation not to kill a fetus.

5.      Therefore, the vast majority of abortions are immoral. [supposed to follow from 3 and 4]


Be prepared to discuss whether this argument is sound at the start of class on Thursday February 13.


The lecture notes on Marquis will continue on Thursday February 13.




Stopping point for Tuesday February 11. For next time, study today’s lecture notes and read RTD ch.12 (“A Defense of Abortion” by Judith Jarvis Thomson).



[1] A contemporary philosopher named Susan Haack has articulated the difference between genuine and pseudo-inquiry, based on some observations first made by the classical American philosopher Charles Peirce (1839-1914).


[2] HD is an autosomal (carried by one of the first 22 chromosomes, the non-sex chromosomes) dominant trait: if you get the gene for HD from only one parent, then you will eventually develop the disease, and on average, you will transmit the gene to half of your children. For more information, see the NIH Huntington’s Disease information page, URL = < >, accessed February 10, 2014.


[3] Marquis is a professor of philosophy at the University of Kansas; URL = < >, accessed September 23, 2013.

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