Can Ethics Require Future Knowledge?

Obviously this argument on abortion is not one I favor; you've all been around long enough to know what I think about abortion, and if not, you can work through the arguments given in the comments of this old post from Cassandra's place. Those of you who didn't hang out there often will recognize a number of your comrades from the Hall!

But I'm not here today to talk about my position on abortion, or even this professor's position on abortion. I'm here to talk about a weird feature of her metaphysical argument that seems to me to disable it as an ethical argument.

The first thing she asserts that an unconscious, unfeeling early stage fetus lacks moral standing (e.g., any right not to be killed for convenience). That's a familiar enough stance, and if you accept it as true the rest of her argument that nothing morally bad happens in early stage abortions follows:

1) This kind of being has no moral standing.
2) An action is morally bad only if it harms a being with moral standing.

3) The action of killing this being is not morally bad.

Obviously the way to reject that argument is to reject either or both of the premises, 1 or 2. That's not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is the way that she then goes on to assert that all of us, when we were early stage fetuses did have moral standing. This is because each of us, in that stage, were early-stage persons. It's only the fetuses that don't have a future that lack moral standing.

As a metaphysical argument, I can grasp what that's supposed to mean. For illustrative purposes, imagine an all-knowing being sitting in judgment on the issue. This being can see, now, which of the many fetuses have a future or do not have one. A certain number will die in miscarriages, for example; those lack moral standing. Others will live to be fully-grown human beings, and these do have moral standing.

As an ethical argument, though, this approach surely fails. Ethics is practical philosophy: it's supposed to answer the question, "What ought I to do?" Since human beings cannot possibly have the knowledge of which fetuses have a future, this model can't provide us with any sort of ethical guidance except insofar as our actions determine that the fetus does not have a future.

Ordinarily it would be a big red flag to argue that another being is allowed to determine whether or not one has moral standing! But this leaves us in a very strange place, ethically: it seems to argue that early stage abortion is always a non-issue morally unless you fail at it. The one thing that you ethically must never do is to try and fail to kill a fetus, because then it might prove to be a person later -- meaning that it (he or she!) already had moral standing, and you attempted murder.

That seems impossibly weak ground for such a conclusion. It would also create the weird case in which your action was blameworthy because it was attempted murder, but if you had succeeded it would not have been a murder at all. So you attempted to do something that was not wrong (nor right, as an act against a being with no moral standing), but committed a crime because you failed to do the non-wrong, non-right thing.

That's just not going to work.


Anonymous said...

Woman Fails Logic 101.
This is what I call Moody Blues thinking.
Remember the poem from nights in white satin?

.....Cold hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the colors from our sight
Red is gray and yellow white

This is fairy dust ,unicorn farts, type of thinking, thinking based on the goals of satifying the tingles of her vagina.

Ethics cannot require future knowledge, because its impossible to know the future knowledge when you are making a decision. This woman fails logic big time.

I went snooping about this woman out on the internet &
the comment from "rate my professor" is timeless:

Completely useless--was clearly making things up as she went along, and hadn't even done the reading she herself had assigned. She got flustered when challenged. Is this really the much-vaunted "education" Princeton offers?


Anonymous said...


Hot Air has a take with comments well worth reading & the post is titles

Bananas: Princeton Philosopher Explains Why It’s Okay To Abort Babies Who Don’t Have A “Future” Or Something

.....A woman’s choice is moral whatever it may be because morality is subjective. That’s basically Harman’s position, although rather than embrace something as problematic as subjective morality, she’s trying to shoehorn it into some inane future/not a future calculus that all comes down to the mother’s choice anyway. This reeks of her starting from a conclusion she knows she must reach — abortion is moral — and then trying to tunnel through an intellectual mountain to get there. Keep going until you see daylight!...........

The comments at Free Republic are telling as well:
Liz Harman of Princeton University joins James and Eliot to talk about the ethics of abortion.

........You will not believe this.
This woman is actually on the faculty of the Philosophy Dept. ant Princeton University.
Think about that. Even disregarding the abortion issue entirely, this passes for logic at a major university. She is teaching others ... not just her views on abortion, but how to non-think like her.
Beyond depressing ... major doomage.....

.......She is a
I am not sure she has achieved “moral status” even now......

.......There is no difference between murder of the unborn, and the murder of the aged.
They are both actions of State, bent on regulating the numbered populace, and the populace that can support the State. Neither the unborn nor the aged can serve the State, therefore, they are the most likely, and explained with great ‘compassion’, “for the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”.......

........I firmly believe the intentional dumbing down of the public school system and resulting Common Core Standards have been specifically designed to do exactly what you say: teach citizens NOT to apply any logic. If you compare the current curricula to that of the past when a classical education model was in place, people had been taught HOW to think versus our current day education system which teaches WHAT to think. Furthermore, math is logic. The goofy ass Common Core methods of doing math have reduced and eliminated any logic from being introduced to students. When this current generation grows up we’re in big time trouble. Think things are bad now? Just wait.........

.......I agree. No logic at all.
I’m pro-life as well, but this illogic goes well beyond the abortion issue. Essentially she is saying that we can destroy anything, or prevent anything from happening, and then say it was never meant to be anyway because our actions preventing a future thing or event.
We could, for example, cut down an entire rainforest and then say it was not never meant to continue to exist because we decided to make it not exist.......

Well it sure looks like Nepotism is alive and well at Princeton. Read this one.

Elizabeth Harman joins father on the philosophy faculty

How about this article? Looks like a nice inter tribal Jewish puff piece of literature, doesn't it?
Begs the question, Did she get her job on merit or connections?

This whole exercise in the end, brought me back to Mother and what she said along time ago.

“It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”
― Mother Teresa


Grim said...

Ethics cannot require future knowledge, because its impossible to know the future knowledge when you are making a decision. This woman fails logic big time.

I imagine she can do formal logic just fine -- she'd never have gotten a Ph.D. in philosophy without that capacity. But as Aristotle says at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, you never get the precision in ethics that you get in strict logic. There are practical issues that make it impossible to approach questions of right conduct as if they were logical questions, or mathematical ones.

I'm not surprised she thinks this is an acceptable move, though, as this feature of needing future knowledge for ethics is not unique to her. It's a problem that is characteristic of one of the three major camps on ethics. Those three camps are Virtue Ethics, Deontology (i.e., ethics from moral duty), and Utilitarianism. Of the three, Virtue Ethics is the oldest but the least accepted among philosophers today.

Utilitarianism is based around the idea that what makes something right or wrong is how much pleasure it enables, minus how much pain it entails. Now, that can't mean 'right now,' because otherwise the ethical thing to do would always be to get drunk and not worry about the hangover or the bad health. Also, it can't be just one person's pleasure taken into consideration; otherwise, the ethical thing to do would be to take slaves to make life easier on the self.

Something like this position is as old as Plato, who has Socrates argue that it all comes down to knowing what will be most pleasurable and least painful in the Protagoras. (Socrates argues a better position most of the time.) But the problem is knowledge: how can you know what will, in the future you're only guessing at, create the most pleasure and least pain?

Consequentialist ethics in general have this feature: the condition the rightness of an action on something you can't possibly know at the time you have to decide if it's the right thing to do. But Utilitarianism is one of the three major schools of ethics, and it's bedeviled by this same issue.

Grim said...

Looks like a nice inter tribal Jewish puff piece of literature, doesn't it?

What makes you think that they're Jewish? I'm clearly pretty insensitive to that stuff -- not that I care whether they're Jewish or not, but I don't understand why it strikes you as something clear and obvious. It reads to me like a piece about a daughter following in her father's footsteps, and a tribute to him for having raised her to love philosophy.

Krag said...

She's an idiot.