Abortion Debate: Michael Tooley & Don Marquis (Video)

Michael Tooley is the author of the 1972 paper Abortion and Infanticide, one of the most influential works supporting abortion from a bioethical point of view. Don Marquis is the author of the 1989 paper Why Abortion Is Immoral. Marquis, also from a bioethical point of view, argues from a point against abortion. These two philosophers are secular and do not argue from a religious or sanctity of life position. Tooley expounds upon the idea of neo-Lockean personhood as the basis for his support for abortion, while Marquis argues from the perspective of a human biological organism beginning at, or shortly after, the moment of conception. I wont spoil the debate, but here are some of the key premises Marquis and Tooley’s initial positions.

Sanctity of Life

The sanctity of life position is largely religious in nature. Marquis begins with a syllogism explaining it this:

  • All human beings have the right to life.
  • Fetuses are human beings.
  • Therefore, fetuses have the right to life.

Both Marquis and Tooley reject the sanctity of life position and the soundness of this syllogism. While they agree that a fetus is biologically human, they do not accept that the biological nature of a fetus is sufficient. Citing Peter Singer, Marquis noted the objection that this is speciest in nature. That is, simply because something has a biological characteristic, such as being homo sapiens, does not automatically confer upon it a moral weight. Further, Marquis and Tooley object due to overcommitment. This means that most of us generally accept that even if an organism is a biological homo sapiens there may be justification to end its life. For example, in the case of brain death or a persistent vegetative state.

Michael Tooley

Michael Tooley approaches his support for the moral permissibility of abortion based on the nature of personhood. Specifically, what he calls the neo-Lockean person. This position is based in the notion that individual rights, or a right to life, does exist for the neo-Lockean person. It is not conventionalist and even if an action were to exist that could benefit others, it would not be justified to impose upon the neo-Lockean person. A major premise of this position is that the only thing that can be harmed in a morally significant way is that which has conscious desires. A plant or a rock, for example, would be excluded.

Given that both a dog and a human being have conscious desires, criteria must exist to distinguish between the two. Tooley refers to the distinguishing criteria as momentary subject experience and continuing subject experience. Both a dog and a human being are able to experience momentary subject experience, thus it is wrong to harm either. However, it is only wrong to harm those that experience only momentary subject experience in the moment. As a result it only has a right to momentary life. Alternately, an organism with continued subject experience has a right to continued life.

To define a continuing subject experience further, one must have memory, beliefs, intentional desires, an awareness of causality, self-awareness and continuous personality traits. However, the existence of the neo-Lockean person does not stop if these capacities stop. Rather, what is important is that these states, as underlying personal survival and identity exist, as long as they are able to arise with continuity in the future. To illustrate, a person does not cease to become a neo-Lockean person when they fall asleep.

This means that a neo-Lockean person is more than his or her brain, more than the physical makeup of the human organism and not identical to any temporal or extended part, such as an immediate conscious state.

Applied to abortion, embryos and fetuses do not fit the criteria for a neo-Lockean person. It is even questionable if a baby up to a certain age does. As a fetus is not a neo-Lockean person the abortion of a fetus is never a violation of the rights held by neo-Lockean persons.

Don Marquis

Marquis argued from the biological point that all human life, from the moment of conception, is genetically homo sapiens. Marquis stated that rights are granted upon conception or, at least, before three weeks of age for certain. At this point there is potential future value. And the denial of said future value is what makes abortion fundamentally wrong. This is largely the position of Marquis in full.

Marquis reiterated that this is not a sanctity of life position. It is acceptable to end the life of one who is terminally ill, in a vegetative state or otherwise has no future value.

I want to state that I am not short-changing Marquis with a short write-up. This really is his position in full. It is simply less complex than that of Tooley.

View the Debate on Vimeo

I believe it is fair to say that Don Marquis is unique in that he is one of few secular individuals who has non-religious philosophical arguments contrary to abortion. The vast majority of the anti-abortion debate is dominated by religious views. Nonetheless, because religious views are often rejected out of hand (as they rightfully should be) the religious tend to gravitate toward Marquis for external validation. This is how I first discovered the work of Marquis. I will not comment extensively on the debate, everyone can watch it. I did want to point out some important objections to the position of Marquis, a few from Tooley and a few from myself:

  1. Animals. Animals also have future value and desires. If we accept taking the lives of animals we fall into the same trap of speciesism both Marquis and Tooley rejected in the sanctity of life position.
  2. Extraterrestrials. If an intelligent extraterrestrial existed, most would say it is not acceptable to kill it any more than it is to kill a human being.  By valuing the future potential of the biological homo sapiens we exclude the value of non-human intelligence.
  3. Amputation. If biology defines the human being and thus its future value, how much of the human being are we able to remove before it ceases to have value? If we amputate only the head, but keep it alive (in a vat?), most would say that this is still a human being, but the rest of the body is not. This indicates that it is not biology a la Marquis, but neo-Lockean personhood a la Tooley that is the valued standard.
  4. Lack of future value. Marquis gave an example of his friend with dementia who, by his account, may have no future value. Does this allow us to kill the conscious, but yet feeble or mentally ill?
  5. Revisiting animals. Marquis stated that the future of value must fundamentally apply only to the future of value that homo sapiens hold. Is this not a form of special pleading?
  6. The initial premise of Marquis: we are human beings, thus persons, at conception. Is this not a form of begging the question when the issue is, in part, if a fetus is a person?

I am not shy to say that I find the position of Tooley, which is  personhood criteria, superior to the biological standard of Marquis. And I am not alone in this. The idea of personhood is fundamental in modern bioethics, while few use the narrow definition of simply being a biological homo sapiens as criteria in significant bioethical issues. I am also unconvinced (and you may agree after watching the debate) that Marquis feels solid about his own position. He described it as, to paraphrase, “a simple idea from an old Kansas boy.” As I said before, the work of Marquis has been embraced by the religious and socially conservative opponents of abortion. It provides a form of secular external validation. However, for Marquis himself I suspect it may be little more than a thought experiment he has gone with due to the notoriety of the position. It is in my opinion inferior to Tooley’s personhood criteria or the alternate personhood criterion at use in modern bioethics.

Watched the debate? What do you think? Let us know your feelings.


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