I just completed my training as a moderator in democratic deliberation in anticipation of a forum with Indiana University’s Political and Civic Engagement Program (PACE). The forum is part of an annual campus-wide deliberation on various – and often controversial – topics. This year the topic is abortion and reproductive rights. Insert bioethics everywhere.
The topic of reproductive rights, particularly abortion, is polarizing on many fronts: women’s rights, religion, medical malpractice, and access to healthcare are just some of the qualms associated with this overarching political and ethical issue. While my peers are knowledgeable, informed, and civically active, throughout these discussions it is apparent that many are unaware of the ethics behind these morally charged issues.
When navigating such issues, my ethics training is like a security blanket – even if my opinion is tested, I have a sound ethical framework and argument to fall back on. It’s almost like I’m cheating. I’ve decided to write up a crash course on ethics and give everyone access to this security blanket. Because that’s the ethical thing to do (the number of ethics puns I am omitting from this post is outrageous. You’re welcome).
Disclaimer: In many cases, I find that my ethics training prevents me from taking a finite political stance on controversial issues. Abortion is one of those cases. I have no idea where I stand on abortion.Which bothers me. A lot. It’s messy, muddled, and morally charged. But this isn’t about me; this is about ethics. Ethics and Beyonce.
The Ethics of Reproductive Rights, featuring Beyonce
First things first. There is a general accepted framework when thinking through ethics:
P –> +++ // —
Okay, but what does this mean? P is your agent (i.e. you, me, Beyonce, the 2 year-old in Target that won’t stop screaming). The arrow is your action (cheating on a test, Beyonce being Beyonce, the 2 year-old’s mother giving the screaming child candy). The pluses and minuses are your consequences. They can be positive (anything related to Beyonce/having hot sauce in your bag) or negative (losing your professor’s trust for cheating on the exam, a toddler rampage).
There are three general approaches to ethics: Virtue Ethics, Utilitarianism, and Deontological Ethics. Each approach places stress on a different aspect of this framework, prompting a different theory to shape your thinking.
1. Virtue Ethics
When you think of Virtue Ethics, think Aristotle. This theory places its emphasis on the agent, or the doer of the action. The agent’s character is key here, specifically its vices and virtues. The goal is to allow your vices and virtues to guide your actions in any given situation; to be ethical is to act virtuously no matter the outcome or circumstances. For example: say your friend illegally downloaded Beyonce’s latest song Formation. What does this say about your friend’s character? She is virtuous in that she has excellent taste in music. Her vices, however, are extensive: disloyalty to the music industry, breaking the law, stealing from Beyonce, dishonesty. This does not bode well for our friend’s character. In short: in virtue ethics, the ethicality of an action is determined by the actor’s character. If you are a fundamentally good person, in theory you will behave in an ethical fashion. If you are a vicious person, you will steal Beyonce songs off the internet. There are objections to this theory, mainly that it lacks concrete rules or a finite way of making choices, making it difficult for one to determine what is virtuous across situations.
Utilitarianism is fairly simple; it is all about consequences. The main man behind this theory is Jeremy Bentham. Under this theory, your goal is to maximize utility for the greatest number of individuals. Utility can be defined in many ways: happiness, number of Chipotle burritos consumed, number of hours spent watching Beyonce music videos; it is all about maximizing the positive consequences. For example: if I have the choice between buying myself Adele tickets and Beyonce tickets or buying myself and a few friends Beyonce tickets, I should opt to just buy the Beyonce tickets. This will maximize utility in the form of Beyonce-happiness for more individuals. And dancing. It would also maximize dancing.
3. Deontological Ethics – specifically, Kantian Ethics
This is my personal favorite. The man behind this theory is Emmanuel Kant, who, as my friends can attest, I have been known to call bae. This theory is all about our actions. From a Kantian perspective, we have a moral duty to do what is right and follow a specific set of principles. An action is right or wrong in itself, regardless of the outcome. Under this theory there are two classes of duties: general duties we have toward everyone: do not lie, do not murder, do not try to eat my guacamole; and personal duties: a duty to keep my promises, to follow the Golden Rule, to make time to sit on the floor and watch The Mindy Project. Under this theory, nothing and no one is a means to an end; we are all valuable. In other words, you and I have the same moral duties and value as Beyonce, and must be treated as such. For example: Say I forgot about a homework assignment that’s due in 20 minutes. My friend did her assignment, and she always pays attention in class; she must have done it right. I could just copy her work – she wouldn’t mind, I’d get the grade, and I could just teach it to myself later, right? Under Kant’s view – No, you cannot. You’re using your friend as a means to an end – neglecting her value as a fellow rational being and just trying to get yourself ahead, even if she says she doesn’t mind. It’s the action itself; permission doesn’t matter. Having permission to kill someone to get tickets to a Beyonce concert doesn’t make it ethical. Sorry.
Okay. Now, insert abortion.
Here is a loose outline of a strong pro-life argument, from a Kantian perspective:
- Murder is morally wrong in all cases. (Murder is considered a violation of the golden rule and a violation of one’s rights to life)
- Abortion is murder.*
- Abortion is morally wrong in all cases.
*Note: This contains the implicit premise that a fetus is a person and therefore has a right to life. The topic of personhood could be an entire blog in itself, so we’re going to keep this simple and say yes, for this argument, – a fetus is a person.
Now, let’s look at a strong pro-choice argument, also from a Kantian perspective (because Kant is bae):
- A woman should be able to control her own body.
- Abortion is a personal medical choice.
- Abortion should be considered a women’s personal medical decision.*
*This argument is assuming government intervention is out of the question, and this decision should solely be the woman’s.
These premises are focused on the woman’s right to control over her body. The key contention here is that both parties agree that murder is morally wrong, but the pro-choice camp doesn’t see abortion as murder.
Two questionable points arise from these differing views:
A woman’s rights to choose
And a fetus’ rights to life
This argument hinges on the rights of a person – in this case the fetus – and if this right to life trumps a woman’s right to choice. When addressing the question of personhood, we can look to the Sorites Paradox, or “the Paradox of the heap.” Think of a pile of sticks, at what exact point does that pile become a heap? At 12 sticks? 27 sticks? 58? This is the paradox of personhood. At what exact point does that mass of cells become a person? At conception? When it has fingernails? At birth? Personhood and human potential is where I struggle to determine my stance on abortion and reproductive rights. That tiny mass of cells has the potential to do great things. That tiny mass of cells could become Beyonce. But that woman has the right to choose what she does with her body. That woman could also become Beyonce.
Ethics is hard.
There is a popular example within the ethics community that argues for the moral permissibility of abortion in certain cases. This is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “Violinist Example.” I’m going to tweak this a bit and turn it into Samantha’s “Beyonce Example.”
You wake up one morning to find yourself back to back with Beyonce in bed. No, you are not dreaming, if anything this is a nightmare – Beyonce is dying of a lethal kidney ailment and only you can save her! Jay Z examined all available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to save her. Therefore, he kidnapped you and plugged Beyonce’s circulatory system into yours. If she is unplugged from you, Beyonce will die. I repeat, no more Beyonce. But, in nine months, she will be fully healed and can safely be unplugged from you. You just have to stay in this bed for the full nine months back to back with an unconscious Beyonce. Visits from Jay Z are not guaranteed.
Okay. What do you do? There are two arguments here:
- Your right to choice vs. Beyonce’s right to life: If you unplug yourself, as you have the right to do, you will cause Beyonce’s death and revoke her right to life. In other words, an abortion robs the unborn child (fetus, mass of cells, zygote, whatever you chose to call it) of its right to life.
- A right to life vs. an act of kindness: It could also be argued that by unplugging yourself, you are exercising your rights and merely depriving Beyonce of something – in this case the use of your body – to which she has no right. Allowing Beyonce to use your body is simply an act of kindness. In other words, an abortion does not violate a fetus’s rights, but merely deprives it of the use of the pregnant woman’s body.
And that is ethics – with a side of Beyonce. I highly recommend you bring this up at the dinner table, in class, and with strangers on the bus. Beyonce is queen and has hot sauce in her bag. Ethics is important and educational. Therefore, an ethical Beyonce with hot sauce is the real queen.
In honor of making it through this post, here is Beyonce’s latest music video, Formation (ethically sourced).