Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Depriving others of potential goods

My rather banal thoughts on the ethics of downloading music illegally are interesting to me because the wrongness of downloading like this seems quite different from the wrongness of stealing (since the loss involved is merely potential and, in fact, unlikely--i.e. most people who download illegally would not otherwise buy that music, I suspect) and because I think I actually changed my mind in the course of writing the post.

Anyway, the question of depriving others of potential future goods reminds me of Don Marquis' argument against abortion. (Is that an illegal link?) Marquis argues that what makes killing people wrong, when it is wrong, is that it deprives them of the future good experiences that they would otherwise have enjoyed. Since abortion does this, it is immoral.

Some people object, though, that this suggests that killing a young, healthy, good-looking, rich person (who is, because of these features, likely to have lots of good experiences in the future) is worse than killing an old, handicapped, ugly, poor person. In certain philosophical moods that might sound plausible, but it's actually (I think) not just wrong but monstrous. Raskolnikov's crime isn't "not that bad really."

Another thing worth bearing in mind is that not all killing is wrong. Killing in self-defense, for instance, can be OK. It is only unjust, unfair, or unreasonable killing that is wrong. Judith Thomson has argued quite persuasively that abortion is not unjust. I'm not sure whether it makes sense to talk about being unfair to a being that is incapable of intentional action, as a fetus seems to be. Abortion could still be unreasonable, though, for instance if it is, in Thomson's words, callous, self-centered, or indecent. This is not the kind of consideration that Marquis deals with, but I think it should be the focus of debates about the ethics of abortion. Or at least more of a focus than it usually is.


  1. Yes, there's something suspect about attempts to make certain kinds of comparisons, as with your example of killing the old vs killing the young. Why do we need to make this comparison? What is it that we need to be reminded of here, such that the comparative remark is necessary? (I suggest something similar about this, in reading Rhees on animals, in the context of attempting to draw moral comparisons between harms to humans and harms to animals; I'm revising this paper right now...)

    On abortion: I spent a couple weeks focusing on this issue in a course on Philosophy & Public Affairs while I was at Truman. One of the best articles we read was by Daniel Maguire, called something like "A Catholic Theologian Visits an Abortion Clinic." It's more of an exploration than an "argument." (It's in the volume on abortion edited by Baird and Rosenbaum.) I think it's right, as you point out, that although Thomson says comparatively little about the "character" element in her classic paper, it's a very important aspect of thinking about particular cases.

  2. Thanks, I don't know Maguire's paper, so I'll look that up.

    I don't think Marquis wants this kind of comparison to come up particularly, it's just (or more) that his rather consequentialist kind of theory suggests it. But of course there are utilitarians who want to make precisely this kind of comparison. Ronald Dworkin, too, charts a graph of the badness of death, where the death of a newborn is less tragic than that of a teenager, and the death of a very old person is less tragic than that of most other people. He's got a point, I think, but there's something absurd about graphing tragedy. Some comparisons are very hard to make, and it might be better not to make the attempt.

    I hope you'll post a revised version of your paper when you can--it's an interesting topic.

  3. I agree with your suspicion that "graphing tragedy" is absurd. And it's true that usually, it makes obvious sense that we would be more torn up by the death of a kiddo or teen than we would of an elderly person. (Grief, however, knows no graphs.) But that perhaps only applies when the cause of death is an illness or (maybe) an accident.

    (I should have the revised paper up today or tomorrow. It should be much improved.)

  4. Yes, it's less tragic when someone who has had a full life dies, but maybe not for the person dying. And there are so many variable factors that I would hesitate to generalize.

    I look forward to reading your paper.