In part one, I looked at Benatar’s argument for why coming into existence is always bad.
In part two, I looked at Benatar’s argument on how bad coming into existence really is.
In part three, I looked at Benatar’s anti-natalist position where he argues that having children is always unethical and any sort of coitus that leads to procreation is unethical.
In this post, I will be looking at Benatar’s argument on abortion. As you can imagine, he’s for it, but up to a certain point. And this is where he talks about the pro-death position. Typically, the burden of proof has been on the defender of abortion on the justification of abortion. Benatar flips this: abortion should be the standard; those who don’t have an abortion must give justification on why they don’t. The failure to abort may almost never be justified.
In short, here is his argument:
1. Procreation is wrong. (This is argued in part three.)
2. If procreation is wrong, then one must prevent oneself for another to come into being.
3. Among other things, abortion is a way to prevent another to come into being.
4. If abortion is a way to prevent another to come into being, then abortion is permissible.
So we’ve covered the “why” and the “how”, now we can talk about the “when.” Exactly when does one morally come into existence? Benatar argues that a being comes into existence biologically at conception, but one morally comes into existence much later. A moral being has interests. Here, Benatar looks at the philosophy surrounding “interest.”
Four Kinds of Interests:
1) Functional: “Those things that facilitate an artefact’s functioning are said to be good for the artifact, or to be in its interests, and those things that compromise its functioning are said to be bad for it, or against it’s interests. Thus, rust is bad for a car and having wheels is good” (p. 135).
2) Biotic: Much like functional interests except these beings are alive. Plants are a good example.
3) Conscious: These are interests that only conscious beings can have. Examples would include an interest of avoiding pain.
4) Reflective: These are higher-order cognitive capacities such as self-awareness, language, symbolization, abstract reasoning.
These interests are incremental. So what type of beings have interests? After looking at four philosophers’ view of interests, Benatar concludes that having an interest in something is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for moral standing.
Another question: what type of interests are morally relevant? Benatar argues that “conscious interests are the minimum kind of morally relevant interest” (p. 139). His argument is as follows (from p. 141, I also change the numbers to letters to avoid confusion with the numbered argument above and the continued argument below):
(A) To say that an interest is morally relevant is to say that it matters (morally).
(B) If an interest is to matter morally, it must matter to the entity whose interest it is.
(C) For an entity’s interest to matter to it, there must be something that it is (that is, feels) like to be that entity.
(D) There can only be something that it feels like to be a particular entity if that entity is conscious.
(E) Therefore, only conscious beings can have morally relevant interests.
Benatar argues that fetuses only become conscious late in the gestational period, meaning that fetuses gradually gain moral interests.
Objection 1: It seems that pro-lifers would object. Their complaint is that biotic interests should count. Thus, abortion is wrong in all stages.
Benatar’s Reply to Objection 1: If we’re going to be consistent, then the interests of plants, bacteria, viruses should also count. Pro-lifers will not embrace this view.
Objection 1.2: Biotic interests should count only for humans.
Possible Reply to Objection 1.2: This seems arbitrary. Why is it that only human life has biotic interests and that has bigger prominence?
Next, Benatar gets at the heart of the problem by answering when consciousness begins.
To test this, we must look at this empirically and Benatar offers evidence from an EEG. In short, an EEG records electrical activity of the brain and it provides the main element that I think Benatar finds the essence of consciousness: wakefulness. However, he stresses that they are not equivalent: “While consciousness is supervenient on the function of the [cerebral] cortex, it is only possible in the wakeful state. In this sense, the brainstem and thalamus only support consciousness indirectly. Since arousal states–wakefulness and sleep–are states of the brain stem and thalamus (even though they usually have cortical consequences), and consciousness is a function of the cortex, wakefulness and consciousness are separable” (p. 144-145).
One can obviously be conscious but not awake, but can one be awake but not conscious? Yes. They are people in persistent vegetative states. Thus, being awake isn’t a sufficient condition for consciousness, which again shows that they are separate things. It seems that Benatar gives his definition: “a being that lacks the capacity for wakefulness will also lack the capacity for consciousness” (p. 145). Benatar also uses evidence of studies where researchers induces pain to fetuses. Those beings which were older than 28 weeks had certain facial characteristics that exhibited pain behavior. It’s much too complex to be a simple reflex. Benatar, along with the scientific studies he has looked at suggests that neonates become conscious around 28-30 weeks of the gestation period. Therefore, one exists morally around that time. Prior to that, abortion is not only permissible, but obligatory. Continuing the argument, then:
5. If abortion is permissible, then one is allowed to have an abortion.
6. Coming into existence is a harm. (This is argued in part one.)
7. Doing an unnecessary harmful thing is wrong.
8. If coming into existence is a harm, then coming into existence is wrong.
9. Therefore, coming into existence is wrong.
10. One has an obligation to prevent an unnecessary harm if it is within one’s power.
11. If coming into existence is wrong, and abortion is a way to prevent another to come into being, and one has an obligation to prevent an unnecessary harm if it is within one’s power, then one is not only permitted to have an abortion, but one is obligated to have an abortion.
12. Therefore, one is obligated to have an abortion.
After that time period, it gets tricky but Benatar suggests killing the fetus after that time period is only prima facie wrong. Moreover, Benatar is a gradualist, it seems, when it comes to the abortion debate but after 28-30 weeks of the gestation period. As one becomes more interested in existing, the harming that interest becomes more severe. Late-term abortions and perhaps even infanticide may be permissible if it prevents a continuation of an unpleasant future existence.
R.M. Hare’s Argument Against Abortion and Benatar’s Replies
Benatar looks at two possible arguments against abortion. I’ll look at them separately and see how Benatar answers them.
The first is from R.M. Hare with his “Golden Rule” argument. Basically, Hare’s argument is that we should do to others as we are glad was done to us. Because we are glad that no one aborted us, we have a duty not to terminate a pregnancy which will result in the birth of a person having a life like ours.
Benatar’s Objection 1: Not everyone is glad not to have been aborted. Even if there are those who are glad to have been born, this still assumes that this preference is the standard which Benatar has challenged. Those who are glad to have been born are mistaken, as was shown in part two. Being ignorant on an issue doesn’t make the action justified. Benatar brings in a nice analogy: “Imagine, for example, a widespread preference for having been introduced to cigarettes, which was based on ignorance of the risks of smoking. Employing Professor Hare’s rule, people with such a desire could reason: ‘I am glad that I was encouraged to smoke, and thus I should encourage others to smoke'” (p. 154). Thus, just because one is glad to have come into existence isn’t a good reason for bringing others into existence.
Benatar’s Objection 2: Even if we are mistaken that the potential person was glad to have been born, we must err on the side of caution. If the person is born and that person was not glad to have been born, then that person will suffer their whole life. If the person was aborted and it turns out that the person would’ve been glad to have been born, there would have been nobody who suffers. Either way, it’s better not have existed.
Don Marquis’s “A Future Like Ours” Argument and Benatar’s Replies
Marquis states that abortion is wrong because it destroys a future like ours. Generally, Marquis allows abortion up to fourteen days after conception. Anytime after that is to take away a future like ours.
Benatar’s Objection 1: Benatar agrees with Marquis on that account except he extends the permissible time period up to 28-30 weeks. However, Marquis notes that this is because of the value of those future experiences that are going to be had by the person. But of course, Benatar finds the value of future experiences not valuable overall. Thus, “for killing to be wrong, the future must be a valuable one, but it must also be the future of a being that already counts morally” (p. 157), which fetuses don’t count as moral beings until 28-30 weeks in the gestation period.
Benatar’s Objection 2: If we follow Marquis’ thoughts, it leads to an odd conclusion: killing a fetus is worse than a thirty-year old because the fetus would have a longer future and would be deprived more. This is an absurd conclusion. Typically, we consider the death of a thirty year old much worse than the death of a fetus and the typical reason is because the thirty year old has a vested, deeper interest in existing than the fetus does.
Possible Response from Marquis 2: I think Marquis does have a reply to this. There is more than one reason why killing is wrong. It is worse to kill an admirable person than one who has never done anything for anyone. The very young have not done anything admirable. By this standard, it is usually worse to kill the elderly than the young. Also, even if it’s true that killing some people is worse than killing others, it is just too complicated to figure out each person’s likely future. So legal prohibitions against killing should treat all killings as more or less the same. Now this is an odd response. Frankly, I think Benatar has a good point.
Overall, Benatar wants to show that even though one is obligated to have an abortion, this does not entail that women should be forced to have an abortion since that would go against their right to reproductive freedom that was shown in part three. Instead, Benatar recommends that women abort and if she doesn’t, she needs an excellent reason not to, which Benatar thinks there aren’t any reasons.