Moral issues are complex. Likewise the philosophical arguments that bear on these issues. What are the practical implications of this complexity? In a recent article (http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~dmoller/Welcome_files/Moral%20risk%20pdf%20draft.pdf) Dan Moller argues that the practical implications are more significant and far-reaching than we commonly recognize.
Moller focuses on the moral permissibility of abortion (MPA). Moller’s argument runs roughly as follows. MPA is an issue over which reasonable people disagree. Reasonable disagreement is possible with respect to MPA in part because the philosophical arguments for and against MPA are very sophisticated and appeal to moral principles that are in principle contestable or far from obvious. That being said, suppose I have reviewed all the philosophical arguments for and against MPA and by the light of my reason I have concluded that abortion is in fact morally permissible. I am confident that my belief is correct, but of course I also recognize–I would be unreasonable not to–that it is possible that I am mistaken. I am not an infallible reasoner, and, moreover, I could be wrong in my assessment of the relative weight of moral principles (autonomy vs. beneficence, say). Indeed, I’m also aware that there exist people much smarter than myself who disagree with my conclusions, after examining all the arguments I have examined. So I’m confident–I’ve examined the arguments as scrupulously as I can–but admit the possibility of error.
Now suppose that I get pregnant. After alerting the tabloids, I begin to think about whether I want to keep the child. Given my moral beliefs, abortion is an option, and indeed the option I select after considering the significant costs of raising the child on my own (the child’s mother has run off with someone else). But then I recall that my moral beliefs may be mistaken, and recognize that if they are mistaken, then in having an abortion I will in fact be committing murder (or its moral equivalent). That seems like a serious moral risk. Am I so confident in my moral belief about MPA that I am willing to risk committing murder? Well, what’s the alternative? The alternative is that I ‘play it safe’ and have the child, perhaps putting it up for adoption, perhaps not. Either way there will be costs, but these costs would hardly justify committing murder, which it is at least possible that I will be doing if in fact my moral beliefs about MPA are mistaken, which they may be.
So: wouldn’t it be immoral of me to have an abortion under these circumstances, despite my carefully considered belief that abortion is morally permissible? It does seem somewhat reckless, doesn’t it? In electing to have the abortion, I would risk violating another human being’s right to life, whereas no equivalently bad outcome would be risked if I elected to bear the child.
So what Moller offers us is a kind of second-order argument against the morality of abortion. Abortion may be morally permissible, but we’re not in a sufficiently secure epistemic position to know this beyond reasonable doubt, and so we ought to err on the side of caution. In fact, we’re morally obligated to err on the side of caution, for otherwise we would be acting in a morally reckless manner, which is (intuitively) wrong.
I am going to post some thoughts on this interesting argument shortly. In the meantime and after, I hope to hear from you.