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Utilitarianism On Liberty And Other Essays On Abortion

Philosophy 341, Fall 2006

Final Study Guide

You are responsible for all this semester's material, but there will be more questions on material since the midterms. There may be some true-false or short-answer questions, but there will also definitely be one or more essay questions.  The answers to the essay questions should demonstrate both your knowledge of the readings and lectures and your ability to write well-organized essays. Neither a fine essay that shows little knowledge of the lectures and readings nor a set of scattered remarks showing your knowledge constitutes "A" work.

In preparing for the examination, you should review both the readings and your lecture notes. The essay questions are reasonably general, so you don't have to worry about memorizing minor details, but good answers (of course) will show your mastery of details that are important for the particular arguments you will be making.  Here are some questions you might think about to prepare for the examination:

1. Locke and rights: What is the essence of his view? What are rights? What's the difference between saying "A has a right to X" and "It is is right for A to X?" How are rights and duties related? Where do rights come from? Do they depend on society? What are, from Locke's view the morally relevant facts about, for example, abortion?

2. Surrogate motherhood: Give the main "Lockean" argument why surrogate motherhood contracts should be permitted and enforced. Give two criticisms that might be made of this argument. What should a Kantian or a utilitarian say about surrogate motherhood?

3. Utilitarianism: When is an action or policy right? How do right and wrong depend on the circumstances? Does utilitarianism make right and wrong relative? Should utilitarians constantly be calculating the consequences of each of their actions? How should one apply utilitarianism to policy questions?

4. Capital punishment: What is a retributivist theory of punishment? What ambiguities are there in saying that individuals should receive the punishment they deserve? Would a utilitarian defend the view that in sentencing P for a crime, the judge should consider what punishment given to P would maximize total happiness? How could a utilitarian defend the claim that criminals should receive the punishments they deserve, or would a utilitarian have to reject this claim? How could a utilitarian argue in favor of capital punishment (c.f. Mill and van den Haag)? How could a utilitarian argue against capital punishment?

5.  Mill's On Liberty: What does Mill's principle of liberty say?  Does it give necessary conditions or sufficient conditions for interference with individual liberty?  What is the relevant notion of "interference"?  What does Mill mean by "harm"?  How does Mill argue for his principle of liberty? How (if at all) does Mill's principle of liberty apply to each of the issues discussed this semester?

6.  Same-sex marriage:  How helpful is Mill's principle of liberty in resolving this issue?  What are the strongest arguments on each side of the issue? What is the relevance of the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality to the question of whether same-sex marriage ought to be legal?  Why is the question whether same-sex marriage should be legal of moral importance?

7.  Cloning:  What position would Mill take on this issue?  What position would a utilitarian take?  What problems are there with applying Mill's principle of liberty or utilitarianism to the question of whether cloning should be permitted?  What relevance does the repugnance most people feel toward cloning have to the determination of whether cloning ought to be legal?  What is the strongest argument in support of making cloning legal?  What are the main arguments against making cloning legal?  What is the moral significance of the fact that cloning is unnatural?

8. Kant: What are the two formulations of the categorical imperative? Why do we need it? What does it mean to treat people as ends in themselves? Why does a benevolent action caused by someone's desire to help another person have (in Kant's view) no true moral worth? How is Kant relevant to the abortion controversy?

9. Abortion: State the two versions of the standard anti-abortion argument made by those who stress the right to life. Explain how Thomson criticizes one version of that argument in the essay discussed in lecture. What exactly is the relevance of the violinist example? Explain why it does not apply only to the case of rape and why it is better not to see it as an analogy to abortion. Explain what the slippery slope argument is and why it is fallacious. What is the difference between the slippery slope argument and the no relevant difference argument? Why does Warren think that abortion is morally permissible? Why does Brody think that abortion is morally impermissible even when the mother will die if no abortion is performed? Discuss his lifeboat analogy and why our intuitions in that case are so different than in Thomson's violinist case. Does Brody believe that abortion is always morally impermissible? Explain how and why Marquis shifts the question from a concern with the right to life and how Marquis would respond to Warren. Does Marquis have an answer to Thomson? What would a utilitarian say about abortion? What would a utilitarian say about Marquis' essay?

10. Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide (PAS). What are the main arguments in defense of permitting people to refuse treatment? How can one defend a policy that permits one to refuse treatment but does not allow PAS? One answer, in terms of active versus passive euthanasia is criticized by Rachels. What are his main criticisms? Sullivan defends current policy instead by invoking the doctrine of double effect and the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary treatments. What is his defense? How does Rachels respond? Why does Emanuel reject PAS? What, in his view, are its main benefits and its main risks?

11. Make sure that you understand what a valid, sound, and rationally persuasive argument is and that you understand what necessary and sufficient conditions are!

In a recent Public Discourse essay, Brandon McGinley mentioned a discussion, carried on over several presentations at a conference hosted by the Pennsylvania Family Council and ISI, about the role that John Stuart Mill should play in the politics of the pro-life movement. As he noted, I suggested that Mill should be considered an important figure for our thinking, while others were critical of that claim.

The reasons for criticism are clear: Mill was a utilitarian, who held that what is “right” is simply whatever brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. Mill’s defense of utilitarianism is considered a touchstone of moral philosophy, but its theses are quite problematic. Mill reasonably sought to modulate his predecessor Jeremy Bentham’s hedonistic value theory. For Bentham, the only thing good was pleasure, and the only thing bad, pain. Mill adopted the same claim, yet attempted to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures so as to avoid some obvious objections: why, for example, would it really be the case that, as Bentham thought, “pushpin is as good as poetry”?

But in making this change, Mill inadvertently made clear the Achilles heel of utilitarianism and all forms of consequentialism. For when a more plausible value theory is substituted for Bentham’s hedonism, it becomes clear that there is no real sense to the expression “greatest good for the greatest number.” That expression requires that it be possible to weigh essential human goods against one another. Yet instances of goods such as life, friendship, and knowledge appear to be incommensurable.

Moreover, attempts to weigh goods so as to determine the “greatest” good inevitably turn into rationalization. If there is no truly greatest good, then the claim that one has found one is no more than a rhetorical cover for expressing one’s preferences. Think of abortion. Coming from a consequentialist framework, many say that preventing the suffering of an unready mother, or even an unloved child, is the greater good which may or must be promoted by killing that child.

Clearly, there are good reasons to balk at an unqualified endorsement of Mill as a leading light of the political thought of the pro-life cause. But Mill’s influence and importance go beyond and indeed transcend his utilitarianism. In particular, Mill’s great work On Liberty should be acknowledged by pro-lifers as essential for two related reasons.

Liberty and Neutrality

On Liberty is rightly considered a founding document of “liberal” political theory—political theory, that is, that takes freedom and equality as its key concepts and argues that the state and its activities should respect these two features of human persons. But proponents of so-called “political liberalism” have argued that a further feature of liberalism should be a commitment to “neutrality”: various—perhaps all—aspects of public and political life should remain systematically neutral, refusing to choose between or favor any competing conceptions of the good. Thus, substantive conceptions of the good, including, of course, religious conceptions, should play no role in political argument, legislation, or constitutional essentials.

This argument has been directed not just against religious conceptions, but even against viewpoints identified and defended purely on grounds of reason. The implications for the life issues are then drawn out. The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson argues, for example, that restrictions on abortion are not compatible with liberal democracy because they are grounded on reasons, including conceptions of the good, with which other citizens may reasonably disagree.

The argument attempts to settle by fiat the abortion question without allowing any argument, religious or secular. And political liberalism’s commitment to neutrality suffers from further difficulties, including its deep inability to itself be neutral toward competing conceptions of the good, favoring, as it clearly does, individualistic and autonomybased conceptions over communitarian forms of life with rich ties to tradition and social obligation.

I won’t pursue those deficiencies here. Rather, I would like to argue that a liberalism—call it “Classical Liberalism”—indebted to Mill provides much surer ground on which to base a sound politics, and a defense of unborn life.

Abortion and the Harm Principle

According to Mill’s “Harm Principle,” it is impermissible coercively to restrict another’s actions unless those actions threaten harm to another person. The Harm Principle thus provides guidance for what may rightly be considered within the authority of the state to restrict by means of criminal legislation.

This principle strikes some as insufficiently robust, in not making offense or immorality as such legitimate grounds for criminal legislation. But this principle amply supports the idea that the law should protect the unborn from abortion precisely insofar as abortion harms the unborn. All that is required to make this case is to show that unborn beings in a human womb really are human beings, as developmental biology reveals, and that the Harm Principle should be considered to extend to the protection of all human beings.

And here other tenets of Classical Liberalism may play their role. For not just freedom, but equality is a central marker of Classical Liberalism; all beings equal with us—with the one writing and those reading this essay comprising the class of beings that the law is to protect, and to render immune from deliberate harm. But in what respect are we—the beings who are reading and the one writing this essay—genuinely equal? Not as regards intelligence, attractiveness, wit, or moral character; we can assume there are many variations in these characteristics across us all. Rather, we are equal as regards only our humanity, and all other human beings are equal to us in precisely that respect.

So Mill’s political thought does indeed provide a low but solid foundation for the essential convictions of the pro-life movement: that the unborn, by virtue of their common humanity, deserve the full protection of the laws. But it provides something else as well, something at increasing risk in our increasingly illiberal society.

Freedom of Thought and Expression

In the second chapter of On Liberty, Mill defends an expansive conception of freedom of thought and expression. The liberty he defends in these respects extends even to those principles and precepts so seemingly obvious to a majority that it is inconceivable to them that they might be wrong. Yet on two suppositions, Mill argues, they must be willing to give opposing positions adequate freedom of consideration and expression, even refraining from exercising a merely social sanction against their defenders.

The two suppositions are that the dissenting view might be right, or at least partly so, in which case the majority will have been deprived, by their suppression of that view, of the chance to correct their error; and that the dissenting view is wrong. Here it might seem there could be no ill effects in stifling error, but Mill correctly, in my view, recognizes that a true view that is in no need of defending itself against objections will eventually become a dead dogma, in which not only the grounds, but even the meaning itself of the true claim will be lost to its proponents.

Mill concludes his discussion in Chapter Two with a number of claims whose timeliness can hardly be doubted. Some say, according to Mill, that free expression of dissent may be permitted so long as it is temperately expressed. Mill, of course, has no quarrel with temperate expression, and neither should we. But much worse, he points out, is “to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion.”

If anything has a claim to be suppressed, it will be these offenses, over merely intemperately but honestly presented opinions. But Mill argues that these greater flaws may still be committed by people of good will, and that it would be impossible to find a reasonable procedure for screening out only those sophistical claims that had been made for the sake of mischief.

All the more so, then, must we be tolerant of dissent when intemperately expressed. And here Mill makes, I think, a very astute observation:

With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally against both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation.

And Mill goes on:

The worst offense of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed.

Mill foresees with great accuracy the current strategy of “liberal” polemic against dissent, which moves rapidly from claims about that dissent’s incivility, and alleged dishonesty, to attacks on the character of those engaged in the dissent. No good social cause can hope ever to be successful if it is blocked from opportunity of free expression and public argument. A classical form of liberalism such as that defended by Mill thus offers not only an approach to law and politics conducive to the protection of unborn life; it also offers an approach to culture and public discourse without which the pro-life cause cannot hope to flourish.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. He is the author ofLying and Christian Ethics(Cambridge, 2014).