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PHL 406 Lecture Notes - Fetus

Course Code
PHL 406
Paul Raymont

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Lecture summary on abortion (Marquis) – Part II (Paul Raymont, Jan. 28, 2011)
Don Marquis argues against most abortions by starting with the question, ‘What makes
the killing of one of us seriously immoral?’ In his view, the killing of one of us is a moral
crime because it deprives someone of a future of great value. So, concludes Marquis, the
killing of any individual creature is very immoral if it deprives that creature of a similarly
valuable future (a “future like ours’”). Typically, a fetus, or even an embryo, has a future
like ours’. Therefore, abortion (the killing of a fetus) is usually seriously immoral.
Marquis rejects two rival accounts of what makes the killing of one of us so wrong. The
first rival position is the desire theory. On this view, it’s wrong to kill one of us because
we generally desire to continue living, and it’s wrong to defeat this desire. If the desire
theory were accepted, it would undercut Marquis’s opposition to abortion, for we could
then say that since the fetus doesn’t yet desire to live (it has no desires yet), it therefore
wouldn’t be wrong to kill it. Marquis rejects the desire theory on the grounds that it
would yield the absurd, unacceptable consequence that we may kill someone who’s under
anaesthesia since that person does not at this moment desire anything at all. Similarly, the
desire theory would wrongly license killing a depressed person who had lost his desire to
Marquis rejects the second rival account for different reasons. This second account, the
discontinuation theory, says that what makes the killing of one of us wrong is the fact
that such a crime would discontinue a relatively good sequence of experiences. Someone
who adopts this view could allow abortion, since abortion would not discontinue a
sequence of experiences (at least during the first trimester, when it appears that the fetus
hasn’t yet begun to have experiences). Marquis rejects the discontinuation theory, saying
that it fails to identify the right set of experiences that matter when determining whether
killing someone is wrong. The discontinuation account makes it seem like the relevant
experiences on which to focus are the present ones, the experience that the individual is
currently having (and which allegedly should not be discontinued). However, says
Marquis, the experiences on which we should focus are the individual’s future
experiences. After all, if someone’s present experiences are unbearable but her future
ones are expected to be good, then it would obviously be wrong to kill her. Also,
euthanasia (if it’s warranted at all) would only make sense when someone’s future
experiences are expected to be unbearable (even if her present experiences are good).
These reflections show, says Marquis, that when determining whether killing should be
permitted, we must focus exclusively on the individual’s future experiences; his/her
present experiences are not relevant. Therefore, the fact that fetuses typically are
expected to have good future experiences makes abortion generally wrong, and the fact
that they might not yet have experiences is irrelevant.
Marquis is willing to allow for some exceptions to his general opposition to abortion. For
example, he allows that it can be okay to have an abortion if that’s necessary to save the
pregnant woman’s life (though he doesn’t examine this issue in any depth). He also says
that abortion may be justified if it’s discovered that the fetus will be born with a horrible,
fatal condition that will fill its brief life with misery.
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