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Atheist ethicists: not as ethical as you might think

By D Bnonn Tennant

Some thoughts in response to a desire utilitarian’s defense of abortion.

In the comments of my useful thoughts for debating abortionists, Pedro Corso asked me if I could suggest a way to refute the pro-abortion argument of one Alonzo Fyfe, a self-styled atheist ethicist.

The view he puts forward is described in these two posts, if you’d like to peruse them for yourself (I’ll just quote a couple of relevant portions):

The main issue

The first point of Alonzo’s argument looks as follows, and this is really what undergirds his whole effort. So if this falls, the rest falls:

There is no value without desire. A being or entity cannot benefit or be harmed in any morally relevant sense unless it has the capacity to want things, and the things it wants can be given or taken away.

I see at least three obvious problems with this statement…

1. How does human desire, all by its lonesome, “cause” a moral state of affairs?

In what sense does desire cause moral status? Is an agent’s desire for X a sufficient condition of X’s becoming morally obligatory? That seems fairly problematic, since then Ted Bundy would have been morally obliged to rape and murder women. But if desire for X is merely a necessary condition of X’s being morally obligatory, what is it that “completes the equation” and decides whether or not X actually is morally obligatory? And how does the mere desiring of something “make” it a moral issue? How does “S desires X” imply something like “S ought to do X”, or “T ought to X with respect to S”, or however it ends up looking?

2. How is “oughtness” not viciously circular for Alonzo?

This raises the question of what it even means to say we “ought” to do something under Alonzo’s view. Since he is a desire utilitarian (see the sidebar on his blog), he will probably say something like, “well, we ought to do X if X will promote human flourishing or prevent human suffering.” But that just pushes the problem back a step. Why, on his view, ought we promote human flourishing and prevent human suffering? He seems to have a vicious circle on his hands. You can’t build a system of ethics on a viciously circular assumption.

3. If Alonzo is right, there’s nothing wrong with castrating my son

Most fundamentally, the notion that people can’t be harmed or benefited in morally relevant ways without having the capacity to desire things which can be given or taken is just obviously wrong. By that logic, since my 2 year old son does not want to have sex, I am not harming him in any morally relevant way by painlessly castrating him.

Now, I assume Alonzo would not agree with that. (If he would, there’s obviously little I can say to him, but also little I need say to him—who is going to seriously listen to someone about the alleged lack of moral harm in abortion, when he also denies the lack of moral harm in castrating toddlers?)

So assuming Alonzo wants to avoid this ethically absurd conclusion about toddler castration, the only way I can see for him to do so is by modifying his position to say it is wrong to take away something a person may come to desire later. In other words, he would need to admit that removing the potential for something constitutes moral harm just as much as removing the thing itself. But that would put paid to his entire argument for abortion. If it is wrong to remove a 2-year old’s potential sex life, then a fortiori it is a heck of a lot worse to remove a fetus’s potential life in general.

So those are three basic but, from the looks of things, rather insurmountable problems which Alonzo needs to give persuasive answers to if he wants us to even begin considering his view.

Other difficulties

Alonzo also makes some other blunders. I’m not going to mince words about them—they simply show he’s not a good thinker. As such, we shouldn’t be inclined to take his ideas very seriously. Anyone can set up a blog with a grand-sounding title and pretend to be an expert, but it won’t do us any favors to pretend that means much. In fact, I hope you won’t think that I’m pretending to be an exert. I’m not. I just happen to be all right at spotting obviously bad thinking.

Here’s a sampling of some of his bungles:

1. Pain is not desire

A pain response is not equivalent to desire. The mere fact that a fetus can feel pain doesn’t suggest it has desires. The philosophy of desire is a complex and controversial field, but generally people tend to agree that S desires X if X appears good to S, or if S is disposed to take pleasure in X or act towards bringing X about, or perhaps if S’s attention is repeatedly directed toward considerations that seem to count in favor of X.

These all tend to hold that S must have some ability to hold X in his mind as an object of desire. A mere instinctual response is not sufficient. But it doesn’t seem a baby has the ability to hold anything in its mind as an object of desire until well after it has been born. It may instinctually want things, and instinctually act in certain ways to get them, but Alonzo has a lot of work cut out for him to get from there to saying that a fetus desires anything. You would think he would know that if he wants to seriously maintain this ethical theory of his.

Either that, or he needs to convince us that a mere instinctual response warrants moral status.

2. Modal confusion of d00m

what benefit comes to a person who, instead of being conceived and aborted, was not conceived at all? I do not see how anybody is made better or worse off by either action.

This is just inept. There’s an obvious, critical, categorical difference between the two situations:

  1. A fetus exists. We can therefore coherently speak of its being made better or worse off by our actions.
  2. A fetus does not exist. We can therefore not coherently speak of its being made better or worse off by our actions!

For Alonzo to admit that he sees no difference between (A) and (B) in terms of anybody being negatively or positively affected is simply for him to admit that he sees no difference between a coherent and an incoherent state of affairs. Not a very promising admission from someone who is trying to articulate a reasoned defense of abortion. And yet he goes on to use this embarrassing mistake as the basis of an argument:

I could look back and say, “If my mother had an abortion, then I would not be here.” Some people take this perspective, then harvest the horror of not having existed to manufacture a sentiment against abortion. I can just as easily look back and say that if my parents had not had sex, then I would not be here. This does not allow me to imply that their having sex on that particular occasion was their duty, and that they would have wronged me if they had not done so.

This comparison is simply absurd, for the obvious reason that while parents do owe duties to children they have (eg, a fetus), they don’t owe duties to children they don’t have!

Speaking of which…

3. Denying parental duties

I am grateful because this life that I have was their gift, not their duty.

This is where you see a lot of pro-abortioners go—they have to deny parental duties altogether to make abortion work as a coherent position. As soon as you admit that parents have duties, it is obvious that those duties extend at least as far as not killing their children, regardless of how old they are.

But if Alonzo has to deny one of the most fundamental moral intuitions we have to make his case, then his case is obviously not going to convince most sensible people. When it comes down to really thinking through the issues here, most people will vastly prefer to give up abortion than give up a fundamental, bedrock part of our social fabric.

In the end, he is still arguing for taking the life of a human being—a human child—and he is making the case on a foundation of sand. Now, I harbor no illusions about my chances of convincing him of his error. But in terms of his ability to make a positive case for abortion that will convince anyone who clings to what we know inwardly to be true about the actual nature of right and wrong…well, I’m not exactly quaking in my stylish yet affordable boots.

4 comments

  1. Pedro Corso

    Thanks for that post. I feel very clarified now.

    Just some points here:

    Wasn’t he talking about aversion to pain in his posts? Because, if someone has pain, it surely develops an aversion to pain too.

    I think his arguments are made off empathy-only. Like: if you cut someone’s power to desire, then THAT’s immoral. But then again, everything on this argument just burns to the ground. His arguments have no salvation.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Pedro, yeah I think he was talking about aversion to pain. But he couched that as a desire. Every organism capable of pain has an aversion to it, but that doesn’t indicate that it has any desires—let alone that this entails moral duties of any kind. Not without a lot of further explanation at least.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if his arguments are based off empathy. But that doesn’t get him around the issues I raised. Does he think we ought to act empathetically? If so, why? He can hardly appeal to empathy itself without being viciously circular in his reasoning.

  3. Alonzo Fyfe

    Before I start, please note that I will not litter my comments with remarks about how good or a poor of a thinker you are. I would rather comment on arguments than on people I do not know. It is particularly objectioniable to attibute ideas to somebody they do not hold and say and to say “he is stupid” rather than “My interpretation of what he wrote is stupid”. Indeed, if an interpretation seems stupid, that should be taken as evidence that the interpretation needs work.

    (1) How does human desire, all by its lonesome, “cause” a moral state of affairs.

    Answer: It does not.

    Desires are the only end-reasons for intentional actions that exist.

    When you say that something “should” or “should not” be done, this requires making a reference to a reason for action for doing what should be done or not doing what should not be done. Since desires are the only reasons that exist, such a claim must either refer to a desire, or it is false.

    Moral reasons are a particular class of reasons. Moral reasons refer to desires that people generally should or should not have. That is to say, they refer to desires that people generally have reasons to promote or inhibit. Because desires are the only reasons for action that exist, any claim about the desires we should or should not have either must refer to (other) desires, or it is false.

    Consequently, it is not the case that a desire that X is sufficient condition for X to become morally obligatory. It must be the case that the desire that X is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote.

    An aversion to responding to speach with violence (a right to freedom of speech) does not require a desire to speak. It requires the many and strong reasons that people generally have to promote an aversion to responding to words with violence – reasons that are offered whenever anybody actually tries to defend the right to freedom of speech.

    (2.) How is “oughtness” not viciously circular for Alonzo?

    Actually, it would be wise to read more than just the side bar to my blog when you want to report what I believe. In fact, I have several posts where I reject “promote human flourishing” and “prevent moral suffering” as moral standards. Just do a search for the word “flourishing” and you will come up with a number of examples.

    Specifically, there are several different types of “ought” claims. There is simple “ought”, practical “ought”, and moral “ought”

    Simple “ought”: To say Y ought to do X is to say that is a reason for action that exists for Y to do X. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Therefore, to say Y ought to do X is to say that there is a desire that P and doing X will realize a state of affairs in which P is true.

    Practical “ought” looks at all of the desires that a person has or will have. “You ought to quit smoking” says that smoking will realize states of affairs that will thwart far more desires than it fulfills. Since future desires cannot reach back in time and influence current action, people often do things that thwart future desires and are, consequently, things that they ought not to do in the practical sense.

    Moral “ought” looks at the desires that people should have. By “desires that people should have” I mean “desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote using social tools such as praise and condemnation.” Desires are the only reasons for action that exist – they are the only reasons people have to promote other desires using tools such as praise and condemnation.

    Going back to my earlier example, people have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to responding to words with violence (the right to freedom of speech). In this sense, responding to words with violence is something that people morally ought not to do.

    (3) If Alonzo is right, there’s nothing wrong with castrating my son.

    Actually, it would be wrong to castrate your son. He may not want to have sex today, but he may well in the future want to father a child. That future desire will be frustrated. It is a poor parent who acts in ways that will thwart the very strong and perfectly acceptable future desires of their own children. People have many and strong reason to promote a strong aversion to thwarting a child’s future desires. Consequently, people have many and strong reasons to respond to such an act with social tools for promoting such an aversion, such as condemnation and punishment.

    However, in the case of abortion, there is nothing that the person “will come to desire later.” There are no future desires to be thwarted.

    If one asserts that the thwarting of future desires is morally relevant, then failing to conceive a child is as immoral as abortion. Failing to conceive a child also prevents the fulfillment of future desires.

    That is the absurd conclusion you have to avoid, but cannot.

    (4) Pain is not desire

    Actually, an aversion to P is a desire that not P. Consequently, an aversion to pain is a desire that one not be in pain.

    Animals – even very basic animals – have an aversion to pain.

    (5) Modal confusion of d00m

    The idea that we cannot speak intelligably about the happyness of – say – the potential child that a couple could have if they were to intentionally get pregnant – is false.

    Furthermore, the future prospects of a child not conceived are identical to that of a child that this conceived but fails to implant in the uterus which is identical to that of a child aborted before it has an desires.

    (6) Denying parental duties

    You are begging the question here. The argument concerns which duties exist – which concerns the duties that people generally have many and and strong reasons to promote – and a conceptus without desires does not have any reason to promote or inhibit any duties because it has no interests.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Alonzo, some quick comments:

    By “desires that people should have” I mean “desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote using social tools such as praise and condemnation.”

    More simply, you mean desires that people generally have many and strong other desires to promote. So you’re reducing moral obligation to what most people happen to want. But it’s fairly obvious to anyone without the need to shoehorn an ethical system into his atheism that “you should do X because most people want you to do X” is not a properly-formed moral statement.

    Going back to my earlier example, people have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to responding to words with violence (the right to freedom of speech). In this sense, responding to words with violence is something that people morally ought not to do.

    Simply claiming that the first statement is equivalent to the second doesn’t actually make it so; especially when it obviously isn’t. There is no entailment that a desire to avoid responding to words with violence makes doing so morally obligatory.

    However, in the case of abortion, there is nothing that the person “will come to desire later.” There are no future desires to be thwarted.

    This is just obviously false. A normal embryo, left to its own devices, will inevitably come to desire sex in exactly the same way a toddler will inevitably come to desire sex (to stick with the previous example).

    If one asserts that the thwarting of future desires is morally relevant, then failing to conceive a child is as immoral as abortion. Failing to conceive a child also prevents the fulfillment of future desires. That is the absurd conclusion you have to avoid, but cannot.

    I’ve already explained this assertion trades on a basic modal error. One cannot thwart the future desires of a nonexistent human being, because a nonexistent human being does not have any desires, future or not. One obviously can thwart the future of desires of an existent human being. You can’t eliminate this modal error by simply asserting you haven’t made it.

    (You’re also ignoring the plain fact that failing to bring someone into existence is morally quite distinct from purposefully ending someone’s existence. But that’s kind of beside the point given the prior modal fallacy you’re committing.)

    Actually, an aversion to P is a desire that not P. Consequently, an aversion to pain is a desire that one not be in pain.

    Again, you’re just making assertions in lieu of giving counterarguments to what I’ve already discussed. As such, my refutations of your position remain untouched.

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