Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Abortion

Posted: November 19, 2013 by Josiah Batten in Abortion, Apologetics, Culture of Death, Feminism
Tags: , , , , , ,

One of the most vexing questions people ask me is “What is your argument against abortion?” This is vexing not because I don’t have an argument, but because I have several arguments against abortion. I don’t think we’re limited to just one here.

But one argument I’ve thought about is based on Kant’s categorical imperative, namely the formulation of it that states we should only act in a way that we could universally will to become a standard for all other people. That is, if we can’t will that others act in the same way we do in every single case, we should not act this way.

So consider this argument:
1. If we will for one woman to get an abortion, we should will for all women to get abortions.
2. If all women get abortions, we will go extinct.
3. We should not will for our own extinction.
4. Thus, we should not will for all women to get abortions.
5. Thus, we should not will for any woman to get an abortion.

This is really just an extended edition of modus tollens, and we could break the argument into two arguments:
1. If we will all women to get abortions, we will our own extinction.
2. We should not will for our own extinction.
3. Therefore, we should not will for all women to get abortions.

And argument two:
1. No person should be exempted from universal moral laws.
2. It is a universal moral law that abortion is wrong (see the argument above).
3. Therefore, no individual woman should be permitted to get an abortion.

Now some people might object and say “Perhaps abortion is only permissible under Circumstance X, Y, or Z; and we could universally will that any individual under those circumstances get an abortion.” Kant had little room for this type of reasoning, he did not tend to allow exceptions to moral laws based on circumstance.

I am not quite as intense as Kant in that regard. But that’s not the point. Suppose there are circumstances under which abortion should be permitted, there is a vast difference between permitting something and willing it. I may permit my football team to kick a field goal, but I will for them to score touchdowns. It is only in non-ideal circumstances that abortion should even be considered permissible (and I would argue these are relatively few in number). But I still don’t will it, and given any other choice I would likely opt for that.

In the United States, most abortions are not out performed out of medical necessity, and so the arguments presented here would at least eliminate vast numbers of abortions. Additionally, I’m not aware of too many people that want to argue for the extinction of the human race. Hence, they’ll have to attack Kant’s categorical imperative, and it’s a surprisingly defensible rule of thumb.

God bless,

Joey

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Comments
  1. Witty Ludwig says:

    Funnily enough, I remember in a childhood essay using Kant as one of my components for arguing that abortion is morally justifiable. That aside, what I really wanted to comment on was the fact that Kant, as much as he is accepted by many, is also very much rejected by many. One famous criticism, for instance: Most people I know would disagree on telling the insane, axe-wielding murderer where my friend is hiding, opting for the small lie over facilitating their death etc. (Cf. “On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns”).

    Still, it was this criticism that bolstered my own Kantian argument for abortion being morally permissible at the time! Swings and roundabouts.

    • Josiah Batten says:

      Yes, Kant’s application went to extremes. I’ve heard, but have not verified, that Kant would have himself tied down at night to avoid accidentally doing something wrong.

  2. 1. Human beings have bodily autonomy.
    2. Women are human beings.

    C. Women have bodily autonomy.

    Thus, if a woman wishes to end her pregnancy, she as a autonomous human being as the right to do so.

    2. If all women get abortions, we will go extinct.

    Wow, way to reach for a hypothetical all for the just cause of denying women their agency. 😛

    • Josiah Batten says:

      Human beings have bodily autonomy to a degree. While bodily I’m fully capable of whacking other humans in the head with hammers, I ought not do so.

      Now, you might say “Well yes, but those other people have bodily autonomy too.” That’s exactly the point. If someone, like an unborn child, is necessary for the existence of human beings at all (or is a human being him/herself), then he/she should be entitled to the same protections we would offer more developed humans.

      Regarding “reaching for the hypothetical,” this is inherent in Kant’s categorical imperative. He demanded it have UNIVERSAL application. The UNIVERSAL application of abortion would result in human extinction. Abortion is necessarily the sort of thing you can’t support in every case.

      On denying women their agency, I fully support women as women. It is me, not you, who affirms and views as beautiful a women’s biological function of child-bearing. I affirm women as women. you want to divorce women from biological needs and functions in the name of some unspecified “agency.” Forgive me if I have a hard time believing you are really primarily concerned about women.

      • then he/she should be entitled to the same protections we would offer more developed humans.

        Can you describe which protection that can be ‘universal’ than calls for involuntary servitude of another? Or is enslaving another not something we should be trying to make into a universal?

        I fully support women as women.

        You do? It certainly sounds like you’re trying to make them out as incubators first and human beings second.

        you want to divorce women from biological needs and functions in the name of some unspecified “agency.

        My what a cunning application of the naturalistic fallacy. Thank you for proscribing the limits of female autonomy so distinctly.

        Forgive me if I have a hard time believing you are really primarily concerned about women.

        Oh, you mean that whole notion of treating women as full human beings that have rights to their body – because I am not concerned about women?

        I’ll take that under advisement.

      • Josiah Batten says:

        Involuntary servitude? You consider motherhood involuntary servitude? I certainly hope you have paid your own mother back for the years of slavery and oppression you put her through.

        It’s quite clear this conversation is going no where. We can pretend that we fundamentally have the same presuppositions and just disagree on how best to apply them, but we both know that would be a lie.

        This is not fundamentally a disagreement about abortion, but about the nature of reality. We clearly don’t agree on that, and so it is going to be fruitless to discuss one particular issue like abortion.

        I am a Christian theist. I believe in the Triune God. I believe He has ordered the world in a particular way, and contra to your claim, if theism is true, I’m not committing the naturalistic fallacy. I believe people can have different roles without becoming unequal as persons.

        What’s funny is you claim to be so concerned about women and their rights. But abortions are routinely performed more frequently on female fetuses than on male fetuses. If abortion is so good for women, why does it so predominately end more of their (at least potential) lives?

  3. Witty Ludwig says:

    “What’s funny is you claim to be so concerned about women and their rights. But abortions are routinely performed more frequently on female fetuses than on male fetuses. If abortion is so good for women, why does it so predominately end more of their (at least potential) lives?”

    This seems a slightly facetious comment, if I may. Statistically, it would be bizarre if in all cases divided at exactly 50%. If it happened to befall men more, you could easily concoct some sceptical reasoning towards why this is the case. If you’re trying to point out that China very really contributes to your statistic then, in all intellectual fairness, that’s a different argument altogether.

    • Josiah Batten says:

      It’s not only China, but India, Korea, and several other countries. Additionally, when immigrants come to the United States (and Canada), the practice is often carried on here. Granted, an exact 50/50 split would be very unlikely, but that’s not the point. It is the case that many abortions are performed not because a couple doesn’t want children, but merely because the fetus is perceived as being the wrong gender.

  4. Involuntary servitude? You consider motherhood involuntary servitude?

    Whoa, easy there with the righteousness indignation. This is what I said –

    Arb:Can you describe which protection that can be ‘universal’ than calls for involuntary servitude of another?

    When women cannot choose what goes on in their body their rights have been subsumed to another. Being forced to carry to term is servitude as it use of your body without your consent.

    This is not fundamentally a disagreement about abortion, but about the nature of reality.

    Oh indeed, you seem to think women are here on earth as broodmares. If disagreeing with this debasement of women impinges upon your conception of ‘reality’ so be it.

    I am a Christian theist. I believe in the Triune God. I believe He has ordered the world in a particular way,

    Men invent all sorts of fantastical ways to justify taking away women’s rights. Your appeal to magic is nothing new under the sun – it still doesn’t justify denuding women of their rights as human beings.

    But abortions are routinely performed more frequently on female fetuses than on male fetuses.

    And this is surprising how? Patriarchal societies (reinforced by the magic you believe in) systematically devalue women in any stage of development.

    So, I am here combating the assault on the rights of women and their bodily autonomy. That the attack comes from a religious platform is unsurprising, religion is almost always opposed to female freedom.

    If abortion is so good for women, why does it so predominately end more of their (at least potential) lives?

    The right to determine their reproductive future is what is good for women as they are the ones best able to decide what is good for them and their families.

    • Josiah Batten says:

      “Oh indeed, you seem to think women are here on earth as broodmares. If disagreeing with this debasement of women impinges upon your conception of ‘reality’ so be it.”

      And you seem insistent on arguing against a caricature and knocking down straw men, attributing to me positions I do not uphold and arguing against assertions I have not made.

      If you want to argue against the idea that woman are broodmares, I will join you in doing so. I believe women bear the image of God (as men do) and so have inherent worth and value, and as persons are equal to men.

      But I also believe the same of fetuses. I believe they are (tiny) people, but still bearers of the image of God with inherent worth and value.

      You accuse me of believing in “magic.” But suppose God does not exist (I don’t know if you are an atheist or not, though your comments seem representative of the thought of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett), why should I care about “agency” or “bodily autonomy” at all? If we are mere matter, then a human (male or female) has no more value than a rock. A woman complaining about bearing children, in a materialistic world, is nothing more than Alka-Seltzer fizzing in water.

      The real “magic” seems to me to be using ideas like “agency” and “autonomy” in a materialistic world. They are just like rabbits that keep getting pulled from the hat. I don’t know how that many rabbits are kept in the hat, but I do know there’s some weird trickery going on here.

      • @JB

        And you seem insistent on arguing against a caricature and knocking down straw men, attributing to me positions I do not uphold and arguing against assertions I have not made.

        Just following your stated position to their logical conclusion. However, we’ll back up.

        If you want to argue against the idea that woman are broodmares, I will join you in doing so. I believe women bear the image of God (as men do) and so have inherent worth and value, and as persons are equal to men.

        But I also believe the same of fetuses. I believe they are (tiny) people, but still bearers of the image of God with inherent worth and value.

        God doesn’t think so as roughly 50% of implantations fail, so she’s quite prolific in terms of terminating pregnancies. So why the problem when women decide to do the same?

        More to address your point then is this. If the rights of women are not to be subsumed to another being, fetal or otherwise – what is your solution? You’re saying I’m mischaracterizing your position, but if you argue against women procuring an abortion – as it is their legal medical right – how are you not against women and their rights?

        Other adults do not have rights to my organs, nor is organ donation mandatory. Even the dead are to have required to give consent before their organs are harvested.

        Pregnancy is the use of a woman’s organs. Without her consent, their use must cease as it is unjust, and unlawful.

        why should I care about “agency” or “bodily autonomy” at all?

        One would assume that, being raised in human society, the feelings of empathy and altruism toward others have been nurtured within you by those around you. No magic required.

        If we are mere matter, then a human (male or female) has no more value than a rock.

        Your opinion of the godless is noted.

        Did want the long view on this one? Cosmically speaking you are absolutely correct. We are not special in anyway except that we have consciousness and can comprehend our role and importance in the Universe – pretty close to zero.

        Do I need sky-daddy to make the scary reality all better and chase away my existential fears? No, I embrace this small span of time I have and treasure it immensely; free from the fear of a spiritual North Korea that purports to love me, but will have me burn eternally if I don’t believe.

        No thanks. I do not need magic to live a good ethical life. 🙂

        The real “magic” seems to me to be using ideas like “agency” and “autonomy” in a materialistic world.

        Denying reality and empirical evidence in order to continue to believe in magic isn’t exactly an original trick. I have no problems with *you* believing in whatever ooga-booga that fills the ooga-booga shaped hole in your heart.

        When you seek to inflict your magic based beliefs on other people, that is where my problem with your beliefs starts and thus the reason why I am here telling you why you’re wrong.

  5. Josiah Batten says:

    “If the rights of women are not to be subsumed to another being, fetal or otherwise – what is your solution? You’re saying I’m mischaracterizing your position, but if you argue against women procuring an abortion – as it is their legal medical right – how are you not against women and their rights?”

    Thank you for that question, I think this might actually lead us somewhere, or at least get us to the point where we are not equivocating. If by “right” you are talking about legal rights, then of course women have the “right” to an abortion, that’s simply a matter of knowing the relevant laws and court rulings.

    But that is not the sense in which I mean to talk about “rights” for present purposes. I’m referring more to ethical rights, not legal rights. The law may grant “rights” that are unethical, and ethically we may argue for rights that are illegal. So we have to make sure we’re distinguishing the correct type of right.

    Now I think you also brought up a question about ethical rights. From what I understand (and correct me if I’m wrong), your argument could read like this:
    1. No human’s rights should ever be (at least involuntarily) subsumed to another human’s rights.
    2. In some cases, pregnancy results in the involuntary subsuming of a mother’s rights to the fetus.
    3. If a human’s rights are going to be involuntarily subsumed to another, that human has the right to act to avoid this.
    3. Therefore, the mother should have the right to terminate the pregnancy (abortion).

    Now I think this is at least a valid argument. But it seems there are at least three weaknesses:

    First, it is not the case that abortion is the only way to avoid a pregnancy. In a large majority of cases, various forms of birth control could work to do the trick.

    Second, this still doesn’t resolve the question of who’s rights should be subsumed to who’s. If the fetus is actually a human, then his/her rights also should not be subsumed to the mother’s. Hence, there is a problem with this first premise. In cases like this, it can’t equally apply to the mother and the fetus. If the fetus is not a person, that would take a separate sort of argument to prove, and one that has not been provided.

    Third, given your admissions about the cosmic meaninglessness and insignificance of life, I’m not sure where you get the notion of rights. I’ve given my accounting of it, which you obviously disagree with, but you have not. True, socially we learn things like empathy and altruism, but who cares? These seem to be deceptive constructs to trick us into living by moral laws that don’t actually exist (on your worldview).

    You obviously believe in rights, but from whence do these rights come? Accuse me of believing in magic all you want, but our positions come down to this:
    I perceive rights in the world, and see moral standards, so I think such things as rights and standards actually exist.
    You perceive rights in the world, and see moral standards, but admit life is really cosmically meaningless so despite our perception of rights and moral standards its really just a pointless blip that constrains our behavior for the sake of social convenience.

    I’m not so convinced that I’m the one denying reality here.

    • Witty Ludwig says:

      “I’m referring more to ethical rights”

      Just to clarify, ‘Christian rights’ is it safe to assume?

      “True, socially we learn things like empathy and altruism, but who cares? These seem to be deceptive constructs to trick us into living by moral laws that don’t actually exist (on your worldview).”

      You should be careful, here. The word ‘exist’ can cause all sorts of erroneous implications here. I would imagine you’re quite right if by ‘don’t actually exist’ what you really mean is: *are not physical*. This is a similar linguistic trap to saying that chairs exist but permission to sit on a chair *doesn’t actually exist*. Muddled language games.

      The fact that people obey moral codes to some degree or other is why cultures can use words such as ‘morality’ effectively even if, as I suspect in the case of the person you’re addressing above, such a person doesn’t believe in an *objective* set of rules, independent of our cultures, that underpin all of them. Which is also my position, I should add.

      I’d suggest that empathy is the source of all ethics. But this is a subject I have been writing on for some time! Still not ready!

      • Josiah Batten says:

        I wouldn’t want to use the term “Christian rights,” because that assumes a “right” only applies to a specific group. It would seem to me something that only applies to a specific group is not a “right” but a “privilege.”

        I mean “right” as in the “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” moral entitlements that apply to all people everywhere.

        And I don’t simply mean “are not physical,” since I believe there are real non-physical things that exist (and that “rights” would be among them!). I was saying on the previously espoused worldview, “rights” of any type don’t exist at all. They don’t exist as physical things, and certainly don’t exist as non-physical things.

        I would be interested to read about empathy being the source of ethics when it is ready.

    • First, it is not the case that abortion is the only way to avoid a pregnancy. In a large majority of cases, various forms of birth control could work to do the trick.

      Very true. But then again, in discussing these matters it is easy to disconnect from the reality of what is happening. Christian’s are fighting not to cover contraception in their medical insurance plans – again evidence to how ethically sound religious reason is, once exposed to the real world. So we have to assume that contraception – because fatuous religious reasons – isn’t always available.

      Second, this still doesn’t resolve the question of who’s rights should be subsumed to who’s. If the fetus is actually a human, then his/her rights also should not be subsumed to the mother’s.

      Hey, assign the fetus full human worth, full rights, full humanity. This is necessary to make my point.

      Does another adult person have rights to your body that supersede your own? The answer in every case is “No”. Even if use of any of your organs would save their life, you still have the right to say no because it is your body and your organs, bodily autonomy if you will.

      So, why are you proscribing supererogatory rights to the fetus? Do you wish to create a class of human being that has the right to deny others their will. Seems like a less than ethical state of affairs to me.

      Third, given your admissions about the cosmic meaninglessness and insignificance of life, I’m not sure where you get the notion of rights. I’ve given my accounting of it, which you obviously disagree with, but you have not.

      Wow, and you don’t seem to see the painful undulations you are undertaking to try and justify the existence of your sky-daddy? You have read the bible right? it is full of rape, torture and genocide – sure there are good bits – but nothing that is particularly original or divinely inspired (other mythologies feature sacrifice/death/rebirth etc. well before christian mythology took over).

      Human beings are social creatures, over time we have evolved keeping the structures in place that favoured our continuing existence. Empathy, altruism exist today because they have been repeated selected for over time.

      True, socially we learn things like empathy and altruism, but who cares? These seem to be deceptive constructs to trick us into living by moral laws that don’t actually exist (on your worldview).

      Empathy and altruism deceptive constructs huh? The jebus-shaped hole in your heart must be proud of statements like that. Empathy is fundamental to any sort of useful ethical system. You would denythe empathic impulse because you have the dire need to describe your moral system in terms of “what sky-daddy said”. Uncritical acceptance of *any* moral system brings into stark relief the purported morality of said system.

      That should be testament enough to the corrosive power of religious thought.

      • Josiah Batten says:

        If empathy and altruism exist because there were repeated over time and help us survive, I could argue (from your premises) that religion exists for the same reason. So why do you accept empathy and altruism as real, but reject religious belief?

        I don’t deny the empathic impulse, I asserted that on your worldview you SHOULD deny it for the same reason you are now denying religion.

        Feel free to continue trying to score rhetorical points by using terms like “sky daddy” and parroting the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. It’s pretty clear this conversation is beginning to run in circles, so I’m going to bow out.

  6. tafacory says:

    “So consider this argument:

    1. If we will for one woman to get an abortion, we should will for all women to get abortions.
    2. If all women get abortions, we will go extinct.
    3. We should not will for our own extinction.
    4. Thus, we should not will for all women to get abortions.
    5. Thus, we should not will for any woman to get an abortion.”

    You make quite a considerable logical leap in your assumptions from premise 1 to premise 2. Implicitly you assume that the mere possibility of women being allowed to legal receive abortions will result in all women, in fact, desiring abortions. This assumes that once it is fully legalized on a general basis, women everywhere from every culture around the world will no longer care about having children. They will no longer value the continuation of the human species. They will no longer feel social and cultural pressures to be mothers. They will no longer derive joy from bring life to this Earth and raising their children to maturation. All of that will suddenly and irreversibly disappear. Now, how likely is that to happen, really?

    Moreover, there are a variety of hypothetical situations which could result in the extinction of humanity by ALLOWING all fetuses to mature and be born. Overpopulation could lead to massive starvation and famine. It could also lead to international wars due to immigration and racial/ethnic/cultural tension. Or what if there is another Black Plague but twice as deadly and that moves twice as fast? These are just a few.

    Finally, we could even argue against this from a Nihilist perspective. Life is nothing but misery and suffering. In that case, wouldn’t the extinction of humankind be a reprieve from the continual Hell in which we exist currently? Think back to the problem of evil, both moral and natural; wars, poverty, diseases, natural disasters, theft, adultery, bigotry, slavery, etc. As a result, the idea that abortions will result in extinction is alarmist and highly unlikely, downright improbable even. But even if it weren’t, there are still formidable objections to the first argument you present.

    “And argument two:

    1. No person should be exempted from universal moral laws.
    2. It is a universal moral law that abortion is wrong (see the argument above).
    3. Therefore, no individual woman should be permitted to get an abortion.”

    Now, if argument two hinges on the success of argument one, as you state in premise 2, then I have nothing left to really say. Until you can answer my previous objections, Argument 2 is superfluous. But even so, all the regular objections that can be raised against Kant’s Categorical Imperative still apply. The CI is not pragmatic, it leads to further moral dilemmas, and it’s too idealistic.

    Just some food for thought.

    • Josiah Batten says:

      I do not assume “the mere possibility of women being allowed to legal receive abortions will result in all women, in fact, desiring abortions.”

      First, as I’ve stated in previous comments, this is an ethical argument, not a legal one.

      Second, as an ethical argument, it is an application of Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant held there could be no exceptions to moral rules. This was clearly pointed out in the version of the categorical imperative referenced, in a later paragraph in the post, and in comments.

      Thus, I am not saying that allowing one abortion will result in all women wanting abortion. I’m saying that, if we morally seek an abortion in one case, Kant requires it to be sought in every case. And abortion sought in every case becomes a problem very quickly.

      The possibility of counter-examples to this argument is interesting, and I thank you for pointing them out. I would say, as an initial thought, there are many things that COULD result in extinction, but universal abortion definitely WOULD result in extinction. Additionally, a disease is quite different morally than an intentional action on our part.

      One could argue anything from a Nihilist perspective. It all becomes a personal whim. If you can furnish arguments for taking nihilism seriously I would like to hear them.

      Notice the second argument you quote depends on the success of of the first broken down argument. There are a total of three arguments in the original post.

      Finally, I’m aware there are certain problems with the categorical imperative, as there are with every ethical theory. But it’s still a major player in ethics and worth consideration among thinking people. And the CI does not intend to be pragmatic, in fact Kant specifically veers away from pragmatism, because it’s a false philosophy.

      • tafacory says:

        I still think there’s some confusion. You state “Kant held there could be no exceptions to moral rules.” The point I want to raise is that the Categorical Imperative does not necessitate vague or overly broad moral principles to be universalized. It seems to me, and I may be wrong, that you interpret Kant as saying we have to utilize vague, general, absolute principles. However, I think he was arguing merely for a principle which could be universalized at all. How detailed or vague the principle is, is irrelevant. For example, I think Kant would be perfectly accepting if every reasonable person were to agree that “Abortions are immoral unless the health of the mother is in danger due to becoming pregnant or the child is a product of rape or incest” rather than the more watered down “Abortion is immoral.”

        And that’s one of the criticisms raised against his system. If we utilize absolute standards, sure we have solid morality but it leads to all kinds of practical problems. However, if we whittle those standards/principles down to something more specific to be more inclusive of all “reasonable people” then we end up with useless moral tautologies that do nothing for us.

        And the reason why Kant’s moral philosophy fails is precisely because it’s not pragmatic. It does not lead us to solving moral solutions which should be the foundation of any new or modified code of ethics. If it cannot help us to choose between alternative courses of action or instill us with certain values, it is useless. Just my view point.

        Overall, great article. Looking forward to reading and discussing more with you in the future.

  7. Josiah Batten says:

    Tafacory,

    I’m not sure that Kant would take that approach though, primarily because of what we see in his “Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns.” He refused to articulate a principle like “We can never lie, unless by doing so we can save someone’s life.” It’s because of this line in his thinking that I question whether he would articulate a principle like “Abortions are immoral unless the health of the mother is in danger due to becoming pregnant or the child is a product of rape or incest.”

    And I misunderstood what you meant by pragmatic, my apologies there. Of course a moral system has to be applicable to real life situations.

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