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Abortion and Kantian Ethics
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Abortion is one of the most controversial ethical issues because it concerns the taking of a human life. It is not something to be taken lightly because it is the termination of what could, potentially, become a human being. There are very many ways of looking at abortion, which make it hard to decide whether or not you are for it. This paper looks at abortion from a Kantian perspective. I will first start by briefly exposing Kant's theory called the Categorical Imperative. After this I will turn to a discussion of why abortion is immoral from a Kantian perspective. Finally, I will be giving my opinion about why Kant's theory cannot answer the complex dilemmas surrounding abortion.
Immanuel Kant - a German philosopher who is regarded one of the best philosophers of the 18th century and of all time - believed that human beings occupy a special place in creation and morality can be summed up in one ultimate principle, from which all our duties and obligations are derived. He called this principle: the Categorical Imperative. It is based on a standard of rationality and we are bound by it because of our rationality. According to the Categorical Imperative, to act morally is to act from motives that everyone, everywhere could live by (universality). Kant's theory is part of the Deontological ethics â€“ "duty" or "obligation" based ethics - that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of intentions or motives behind action such as respect for rights, duties, or principles, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions (Consequentialism). Kant believes you should never base your actions on the consequences because they are never that clear. To illustrate the point, one could imagine a madman with a gun intent on murdering a random member of the public. If, by chance, his target turns out to be an even more evil individual who was intending to slaughter thousands of innocent children, our first madman who â€˜does good' by shooting him, however there is no doubt that this does not show good will which is for Kant the only thing in the world which can be considered entirely good.
The Categorical Imperative has two formulations. The first formulation (or first maxim) called the universal law formulation is based on the idea that a moral maxim must have universality: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can and at the same time will that it should become a universal law". Kant divides the duties imposed by this formulation into four subsets: Perfect and Imperfect duties and duties to ourselves and to others. According to his reasoning, we first have a perfect duty not to act by maxims that result in logical contradictions when we attempt to universalize them. Take for example the moral proposition "It is permissible to steal". If everyone were to steal then there would be no property left and the notion of stealing itself which presupposes the existence of property is meaningless. And so the proposition has logically negated itself. Not to steal is an example of a perfect duty to others. Second, we have an imperfect duty, which is the duty to act only by maxims that we would desire to be universalized. In simple words, imperfect duties are those duties in which the maxim of our action passes the first test of: "If everyone else were to do it, would I still be able to live in such a world?" but fails the second: "If everyone else were to do it, would I still want to live in such a world?". Take the example that Kant gives of a man who finds in himself a talent which could, by means of some cultivation, make him in many respects a useful man. But he prefers indulgence in pleasure to troubling himself with improving his fortunate natural gifts. It is clear that a system of nature could indeed exist in accordance with such a law but he can't possibly will that this should become a universal law of nature since any rational being would necessarily will that all his faculties should be developed, inasmuch as they are given to him for all sorts of possible purposes. To develop one's talents is thus an example of an imperfect duty to one's self.
The second formulation (or second maxim) is based on the grounds that rational nature exists as an end in itself meaning that every rational being exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end". This means that a human being is the most important factor in any moral equation. A human being can never be allowed to be the means by which a goal or purpose is achieved. The value of a human comes from their being a rational, reasonable being. The suffering of an individual person could never be justified because a greater number of people benefit. Take the example of a person who makes a promise to borrow money from his friend knowing that he can't keep that promise. According to Kant, his act is immoral because he is using his friend as mere mean to get the money and not treating him as an end in himself, he should rather explain his situation to his friend and let him decide whether he chooses or not to lend him the money.
Having explained Kant's ethical theory, let's see how we can apply it to the issue of abortion. First let's start by defining abortion. According to "Encyclo" (online encyclopedia), Abortion is deliberate termination of a pregnancy at some point between conception and birth. By this definition of abortion we can clearly see that abortion is related to deliberate murder since it is the "deliberate termination" of a life. By Kantian ethics we have a perfect duty not to murder since it fails Kant's first test of the universal law formulation. In fact if everyone were to murder each other there couldn't exist such a world since there would be no procreation or continuity, you wouldn't be able to live in such a world and the proposition is logically contradicting itself. Another way to look at murder is through Kant's second formulation. When killing someone we are not respecting his rationality and thus not treating him as an end in himself which makes murder immoral. Now the question becomes if this deliberate termination of pregnancy can be considered similar to murder or not. At first glance, this seems to be a complicated issue but after careful examination we find it is equivalent to the problem of: What is the moral state of the baby in that stage (pre-birth)? Most Kantians believe that all potentially rational things are morally considerable and that life is present from the moment of conception of the baby which makes sense since the baby in this phase possesses a characteristic such as a genetic code which is necessary and sufficient for being human. Since not killing a baby is a perfect duty then it is also always wrong to end the life of a baby even in the pre-birth stage which by its definition makes abortion immoral.
I think that the main controversial issue with the Kantian view of abortion is at which point of the development, the baby is considered a rational being meaning what developmental stage does a collection of cells become a human, and a human becomes a person? It is really difficult to draw this boundary since it has to do with when the soul is added to the body during the developmental process. The easiest way is to consider that potential life begins at conception and thus is sacred from that point on. This makes sense because in all cases one can argue that the fetus even if not considered a rational being will eventually grow to become one if nothing or no one interferes and therefore it would be immoral for us to kill it since sooner or later he is to definitely become a human by the natural flow of things and this is the main reason for considering potential life morally considerable.
But what if we don't consider the baby at pre-birth stage a rational being? Even then applying the universality in Kant's first principle makes it immoral to end potential life. If everyone would end potential life then the world wouldn't be able to persist anymore and clearly no such universal law could exist. Now one may think about changing the maxim to: One is allowed to end potential life (instead of one ought to end potential life). This maxim is more controversial since when universalizing it can pass Kant's first test. In fact if everyone were to be allowed to end potential life there could exist such a universal law under the assumption that not everyone in the world are going to end potential life since a lot of people in deed aspire to have babies at some point in their lives. But this makes the maxim weak since still in the extreme case people might all decide to end potential life thus causing the law to fall.
This applied issue of abortion raises again one of the biggest arguments against Kant's deontological theory. This simply asks what happens if the duties or principles clash? If the choice is to save the baby or the mother, who is chosen? Kant's absolutist approach will necessarily lead to moral paradoxes in the complexity of actual experience. This shows that absolute moral truths cannot exist in reality, as they cannot always be true, they must be compromised by some circumstances. Whatever moral truths Kantians use, they cannot answer the complex dilemmas surrounding abortion. That is not to say that the approach as a whole is wrong just because it does not work in one instance (e.g. preservation of life when have to choose mother or baby). Rather that any absolute moral principle will eventually face a circumstance where a subjective judgment has to be made, and thus perhaps a balance must be struck between absolutes and pragmatic approaches.
Finally Kant's Categorical Imperative based on reason, universality and respect for persons clearly attacks abortion as being immoral since it is the killing of a potentially rational being. Nevertheless a balance must be made between absolutes and pragmatic approaches since most controversial complex issues such as abortion, homosexuality, cloning, etc. don't fit into any absolute moral principle.