The ethics of abortion is a topic that really interests me. Having two kids changed my perspective on a lot of things. I’m not exactly sure when my intellectual journey on abortion started, but I can share two arguments against abortion that have pretty much persuaded me that abortion is wrong in the vast majority of cases.
While many are convinced that the debate boils down to a question of whether the fetus is a person, both arguments against abortion I will present sidestep that question altogether. Neither argument requires the assumption that fetuses are persons (though I take it as obvious they are human). I consider that a strength of the two arguments.
#1: A Future Like Ours
The Wrongness of Killing
Many experts on the abortion debate recognize that the “Future Like Ours” argument from Don Marquis is one of the strongest arguments against abortion to date. It starts with a simple question: why is killing wrong?
Some answer this question by saying that causing pain and suffering is wrong. But this doesn’t explain why it’s wrong to kill. Some deaths are relatively quick and painless. Also note that appeals to the anguish of family members and friends won’t work, since it’s no less wrong to kill a homeless person in their sleep than it is to kill a young child (see ). Another attempt at explaining the wrongness of killing says that personhood is sacred. However, the value of personhood doesn’t explain why it’s wrong to kill animals, nor does it explain why it’s wrong to kill infants (if you’ve ever been up close with a newborn, they lack properties we usually associate with personhood, like consciousness).
Being dissatisfied with these answers, Marquis argues that killing is wrong because it deprives an individual of everything they will ever have or experience. In other words, it deprives them of a “future like ours” (FLO). Here’s how he puts it:
He goes on to say:
The basic idea is that a future conscious life is valuable. There are certain goods associated with it (a list could be made, but essentially they are the kind of goods that make life worth living). Moreover, and this is important, “what makes my future valuable to me are those aspects of my future that I will (or would) value when I will (or would) experience them, whether I value them now or not.” Thus, to be deprived of the goods I will or would value is what makes killing so wrong.
Marquis’ account of why killing is wrong has a number of things going for it. It accounts for why it would be wrong to kill intelligent aliens, dolphins, chimps, and the like. It also provides a simple explanation for why it is wrong to kill infants. Marquis gives several arguments in defense of his FLO theory, but instead of summarizing, I’ve linked them here for further reading.
The Argument Against Abortion
With the FLO theory in place, it’s very easy to see why abortion is wrong. Abortion is wrong for the same reasons that killing infants is wrong: it deprives an organism of a future like ours. Fetuses have FLOs for the same reasons that infants have FLOs. The argument can be summarized thusly:
(2) Abortion deprives the fetus of a valuable future.
(3) Abortion is wrong.
As you can see, the argument is remarkably simple. It’s easy to understand and very easy to share with others. Keep in mind that it does turn on Marquis’ analysis of why it’s wrong to kill. So if you plan on sharing it, make sure to learn and understand that part first.
Marquis’ argument is widely discussed in the literature. What follows are responses to the most common objections.
Objection 1: The FLO account of the immorality of abortion implies that it is less wrong to kill old people, since they have less of a future they will or would value.
Response: First, nothing about the FLO account implies that it is worse to kill young children than it is to kill older people. The account doesn’t say that futures are made more or less valuable in virtue of the kinds or amounts of good conscious experiences. Secondly, there’s no reliable method of measuring the value of a given person’s future, which would mean there’s no in principle way we could compare two distinct futures. Given this, we should adopt the convention that all murders are equally wrong. A third response is to say that the FLO account of the wrongness of killing is compatible with having additional reasons not to kill (e.g.: the admirability of one’s past behavior, being made in God’s image, and so on). So it doesn’t follow directly from the FLO account that killing older people is less wrong.
Objection 2: If FLOs are so valuable, we should never use contraceptives (and further should be having sex whenever conception is possible).
Response: Marquis considers this the strongest objection to his FLO account of the immorality of abortion. I can’t see why. As he points out, the FLO account of the wrongness of killing applies to a certain class of individuals (individuals with a FLO). The fetus clearly falls into the relevant class. They have a FLO. Sperm and eggs are distinct individuals that fall into different classes. So, if contraceptives are used, there is clearly no individual of the relevant class being deprived of a FLO and this objection fails. 
Objection 3: A cow is about to walk into a machine that will alter its brain into a sophisticated one. In short, once the cow walks toward the machine, it has a FLO. However, I have the opportunity to shut the door to the machine before the cow enters it. However, if the FLO account of the immorality of abortion is true, it would be wrong to shut the door since it would deprive the cow of a FLO. But clearly it is not wrong for me to shut the door.
Response: This objection utilizes a false inference. The inference goes something like this: “If Xs have the right to Y, then potential Xs have the right to Y.” But this inference is clearly false. Potential police officers don’t have the rights of officers, potential judges don’t have the rights of judges. The FLO account of the immorality of abortion says that Xs have the right to Y, not that potential Xs have the right to Y. The plainly false inference is not required.
Let’s move on to the second argument.
#2: The Prudential Argument
I first came across this argument from Calum Miller. Here’s how he puts it:
To illustrate, suppose you are hired to demolish a building. As project manager, you hire a team of experts to get the job done. When the time arrives to press the trigger, you ask your safety officer if she is positive there is no one left in the building. She replies, “I did a walk through last night and didn’t see anyone, but I’m not 100% sure.” It’s clear what ought to be done at this point. Given the small, but reasonable chance someone is still in the building, you ought to postpone the demolition. Going forward at this point would be morally reckless and negligent.
Likewise, since there’s a reasonable chance the unborn have a right to life, it is wrong to kill them. For the sake of continuity, let’s put this argument in premise/conclusion form as well:
(5) There is a reasonable chance that the unborn have a right to life.
(6) It is wrong to kill the unborn.
The argument is valid so it can’t be faulted on logical grounds. The question is, are (4) and (5) true? I take it that, given the demolition analogy above, premise (4) is true. If there’s a reasonable chance an organism (including the unborn) has a right to life, it is wrong to kill them.
Notice how modest of a claim (5) is. It’s not saying the unborn actually have a right to life, as the first argument says. Rather, (5) is saying there’s a reasonable chance the unborn have a right to life. One might object at this point and say that what’s reasonable is subjective. So let’s think back to the demolition illustration. What level of uncertainty would make it unreasonable to go forward with the demolition? Suppose you were 90% sure no one was inside (based on the testimony of your safety officer). That leaves a 10% chance someone is still in there. Most would postpone the demolition given this level of uncertainty (that’s a pretty big chance). But suppose your officer told you she was 99% sure. Even still, that small chance, that tiny bit of uncertainty, is enough to call it off.
Think about the level of certainty you would require. Wouldn’t you want the entire building to be walked, canvased, and thoroughly searched, before going forward? You’d need to be almost certain. Also note the kind of evidence you would require. It wouldn’t be enough to sit in your office a mile away thinking hard about it. You wouldn’t rely on intuitions. No, you’d require strong propositional evidence.
The question is, what extremely good propositional evidence is there that the unborn don’t have a right to life? Even if one isn’t entirely convinced by the first argument, it at least creates enough doubt to establish the truth of (5); there’s a reasonable chance the unborn have a right to life. It follows that both (4) and (5) are true, and abortion is wrong.
Objection 1: There seems to be a “reasonable chance” that many of the lower animals (fish, deer, cows, etc.) experience consciousness. The Prudential Argument would mean it would be wrong to kill them. But clearly it is not wrong to kill fish, for example.
Response: Putting aside the fact that vegans would welcome the conclusion that killing animals is wrong, let me make clear I’m not using “reasonable chance” as synonymous with “possible chance.” A reasonable chance is one that is not only possible, but moderately probable. Is it moderately probable that, despite all appearances, goldfish can experience the same level of consciousness as humans? Is it reasonable that goldfish are proud of their achievements, have aesthetic enjoyments, love their families, and have intellectual pursuits? While all of that is certainly possible, it’s far from reasonable.
For more on the conscious experience of animals, check this out.
Objection 2: If you drive pretty regularly, there’s a non-negligible chance that you’ll kill someone at some point in your life, but this doesn’t make driving wrong. So if there’s a fairly low chance that the fetus has a right to life, the argument doesn’t work.
Response: According to this blog post, the chances of dying in a car crash in Montana are 1/4,433. That’s the highest figure, by the way. In Washington DC, that probability is 1/32,322. But imagine that probability were, say, 1/100. That would mean you’d be likely to kill 3 people a year. Clearly, if the probability were that high, then it would be immoral to drive. The same principle applies in the case of abortion. So the question is, how probable is it that the unborn have a right to life? Keep in mind that if I’m right, this probability must be based on very strong propositional evidence. I’m inclined to think that most abortionists don’t have very good reasons or evidence in support of their views. In such cases, the argument succeeds. 
For a further study of the arguments against abortion, check out these very important resources:
- The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice – Christopher Kaczor
- Why Abortion is Immoral – Donald Marquis
- Human Life, Action and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe – G. E. M. Anscombe
- Embryo: A Defense of Human Life – Robert P. George
- Abortion and Unborn Human Life – Patrick Lee
- Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice – Francis Beckwith
Cameron, fwiw, I’ve given a Rawlsian/Marginal Cases argument against abortion that goes something like this. Behind the veil of ignorance you would not know your economic or social status, your share of natural or social goods, etc. You also would not know your developmental status: whether you’re newborn, fetus, young or old, abled or not, rational or not, etc. When choosing a principle of justice to govern your society, it is rational to assume you’re among the least advantaged in all ways . For all you know, you’re among the fetuses, so it is rational to adopt principles of justice… Read more »
This looks very interesting! One objection might be something like the following (which I’ve heard elsewhere): this depends on what we are as humans. Many Christians are substance dualists. And since there’s a substantive question of when ensoulment occurs (e.g., does it occur at conception or sometime later?), this will need to be coupled with an argument that ensoulment happens at conception.
I like these two arguments, as far as they go, but I’m not sure I’d consider them altogether powerful arguments against abortion, mainly because there are much better arguments we can use about abortion, and there are certain problems with both of these arguments. The main issue with Marquis’ Future of Value argument is that Marquis, being an atheist, can’t ground human value, so he has to ground the wrongness of killing the value of an individual’s future. While I usually save this argument as a last resort in case none of my other arguments get through to someone, I… Read more »
On the first objection, I don’t think your counterexample works. Many children raised in abusive homes come out victoriously. You could alter the example to be about a person that only experiences suffering, and I think Marquis would actually agree their future is not valuable, but that’s an extreme case. So at best, the FLO account would still work in the vast majority of cases (keeping in mind one could have additional reasons not to kill). To your second objection, keep in mind that the evidence must make it such that it’s nearly certain that the unborn have no right… Read more »
I still think the counterexample works in the first scenario because in order to argue against it, you would need infallible knowledge of the future. Yes, it’s true that some children are able to come out of abusive situations, but many aren’t. You can’t know for sure which ones will and which ones won’t. You can only speculate as to the future of that particular individual, and many people would speculate that the child won’t (in fact, even now, there are people who argue that children born into abusive situations are better off aborted). And regarding the second situation, I’m… Read more »
“Marquis, being an atheist, can’t ground human value”
What does it mean to “ground” values? Why do values need to be grounded? What is the argument that if we cannot ground values we cannot value?
We can still value if we can’t ground human value, but our values will always be necessarily subjective. So human value would be necessarily instrumental, rather than intrinsic.
And by the way, this isn’t just me talking. Other atheists have said that humans are not intrinsically valuable. Michael Tooley, for example, considers the concept of intrinsic human value to be an antiquated religious notion, which is one reason he says we shouldn’t be opposed to infanticide.
Morals, values, are all subjective. It’s in the meaning of the words. Values just are those things which persons value. Objective morality is incoherent. How can any object “possess” value? It’s a completely nonsensical term.
It’s not nonsensical at all, but you’re proving my point that Marquis can’t ground value, as an atheist. Theists can. That’s why I think the fact that we think all humans should be treated equally is actually evidence for God’s existence.
Also, objective morality is not incoherent. Do you believe it’s always wrong to torture children for fun, or do you believe there are situations in which it would be permissible?
“Marquis can’t ground value” Why do we need to ground value? How would you even do that? How does it follow from the belief that all people should be treated equally that god exists?
“Do you believe it’s always wrong to torture children for fun…” I’m an error theorist. I believe that all moral statements are false.
We need to ground value so that we know how we can treat other people. If people are not intrinsically valuable, then we can treat them as merely a means to an end. If Joe is not intrinsically valuable, then there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of him for my own gain. If he is intrinsically valuable, then I would be morally obligated to treat him as an end unto himself, not as merely a means to an end. So if the moral statement “it’s always wrong to torture children for fun” is false, then you would say that… Read more »
If Joe has intrinsic moral worth then it would be immoral to punish him for eternity for not believing in god wouldn’t it? And if morals are objective then that punishment would be wrong even if it was god who carried it out.
I don’t know why you inject “permission” into the issue of morals. If morals are objective then permission is irrelevant. The rock doesn’t ask gravity for permission to fall.
If the punishment fits the crime, then it is not wrong to punish somebody. According to Christian theology, people are not punished in Hell for not believing in God. They are punished in Hell for their sin. Belief in God is necessary to be forgiven of our sins and avoid the punishment of Hell. “Morally permissible” is just another way of saying “moral”. It means that I have the moral right to do something. If, for example, it is morally permissible to plant fruit trees in my yard, then to plant fruit trees in my yard is something I can… Read more »
About the FLO argument, I think the main objection is that the fetus has no future–whether or not it is aborted–since it does not survive the development into the full grown adult. I think Norcross offers an argument along these lines in a reply to that paper. I don’t think it is an especially good objection on either 3D or 4D, but there it is.
Yeah, I don’t find it particularly good either; Marquis responds to it in the article I linked.
I think that would be a plausible way to argue. One major reason the contraception objection to Marquis’ argument doesn’t work is because sperm and ovum cells do not have a “future-like-ours” — their future is to contribute genetic material to the embryo and then cease to exist. So the FLO does not lead to contraception being immoral. If it was true that the fetus doesn’t survive the development into adulthood, then that may be a good way to go (although one would then need to ask when does the fetus cease to exist, and before that happens, does it… Read more »
I’m inclined to agree with comments by Clinton Wilcox. I thought of Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins, both of whom would attempt to argue strongly that we’re comparing apples to oranges. Regardless of the future, the unborn is not a human, is how they will approach it. What’s wrong with killing a plant?
Determining the correct ethic is only guaranteed to the believer, not the unbeliever. Nonetheless, I pray we can save as many unborn as we can.
Yeah, and again, to be clear, I’m pro-life and I think there are very good arguments for the pro-life position. I just think there are much stronger arguments we could be offering. I mean, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Cameron and others who like these arguments can find some pro-choice people who were convinced by one of these arguments. I’d be interested to know if there are any pro-life people who used to be pro-choice but found these arguments compelling. If there are pro-choice people who could be persuaded, then I’d be using them more, even if I didn’t think they… Read more »
(1) It is not wrong to terminate the life of non-persons.
(2) Embryos are not persons.
So it is not wrong to terminate the lives of human fetuses.
How do you justify your two premises?
(1) Non persons are not moral agents. It is moral to take the lives of organisms that are not moral agents because they lack the qualities I consider necessary, though perhaps not sufficient, for being termed a person.
(2) The unborn are not moral agents. They only become persons when they are born.
Nevertheless I accept the SCOTUS ruling that abortion is legal only up to 28 weeks unless other conditions, life of the mother and so on, are evident.
1) So you’re saying that we can treat anything that’s not a person any way we want? Do you believe a person is morally justified in torturing a cat?
2) You haven’t justified your second premise, you’re assuming it. Why aren’t the unborn persons before they are born?
“Do you believe a person is morally justified in torturing a cat?” — Moral statements are false. I wouldn’t do it because I find torturing animals repulsive.
“Why aren’t the unborn persons before they are born?” — Because the SOCTUS said so. Personhood is a legal concept.
Why do you find torturing animals repulsive? If someone else found torturing animals fun and exciting, you wouldn’t say they are morally wrong to do that?
Okay, yes, SCOTUS has disqualified the unborn from personhood, but they also disqualified black people in southern states at one point in our history, and women have historically been treated as less persons than men have. So wouldn’t you agree that SCOTUS can be wrong about what a person is or is not?
Right and wrong don’t figure in. Morals are just preferences.
So someone who tortures animals is not doing anything wrong? It is fine for that person to torture an animal?
If you really believe that moral claims are false, why are you having such a hard time saying that torture or rape are okay for someone to do? Why can’t you own up to your own moral viewpoint?
I have at least 3 objections regarding Marquis’ argument: The first is that Marquis’ argument implies that the worst death we can have is one at the earliest point we begin to exist as opposed to say, at 20 years old. Yet I think this is clearly false. The second thing I would say is that, imagine we inject kittens with a magic serum that give’s them complex psychological capacities. They now have an FLO. Yet I don’t think that killing a kitten after the injection but before their psychological capacities become enhanced is any less wrong than if they… Read more »
With Marquis’ argument using future consciousness as the property which gives life value, I am wondering how he doesn’t fall into the trap of Speciesism and arbitrarily choose a property which gives our species value over others. Do you think this is an issue, or at least an issue in Marquis’ mind?
No since not all members of the human species have a FLO. And if they did, it would not be speciesit since it is not species membership per se that he considers morally relevant to the wrongness of killing.
I see what you mean, but I think the Speciesism problem in this case is not dependent upon whether or not all members of a species have a FLO, but if the property which is necessary for FLOs is species dependent. In this case, it would be a human consciousness. But because animals don’t have this property (which is debatable depending upon your view of mind) then it *seems* to be a case of choosing a trait of one species as a moral reason to not do them harm. And to the best of my understanding, that is Speciesism.
Well being a human is not necessary to have an FLO. There may be intelligent aliens with an FLO yet they are non-human.