Moral Philosophy and Political Problems

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<ul><li><p>Moral Philosophy and Political ProblemsAuthor(s): Amy GutmannSource: Political Theory, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Feb., 1982), pp. 33-47Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.Stable URL: .Accessed: 09/05/2014 20:16</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>Sage Publications, Inc. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Political Theory.</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 9 May 2014 20:16:55 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>MORAL PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICAL PROBLEMS </p><p>AMY GUTMANN Princeton University </p><p>LAR WORSE THAN CALLING a political philosopher's conclu- sions wrong is accusing his method of being misconceived. Since this accusation is intended to undercut the very enterprise in which a philosopher is engaged, it precludes consideration of the substance of his particular arguments. In this brief article, I want to pursue several such undercutting criticisms directed against the method of contempor- ary Anglo-American political and moral philosophy. I shall begin by considering those made by Philip Abbott in "Philosophers and the Abortion Question."' I shall then turn to a series of criticisms that suggest that acontextualist accounts of our moral principles given by analytic philosophy provide no support for further moral or political argument. </p><p>Abbott identified philosophic method too narrowly by its reliance upon hypothetical microexamples employed to test the moral validity of our intuitions or to aid us in justifying our moral preferences and principles. A broader and more accurate characterization of analytic moral philosophy would focus not on the use of microexamples, but rather, on the attempt to resolve by moral reasoning particular contemporary political and moral controversies. The attempt to bring moral reasons to bear upon political problems separates moral philoso- phy from philosophical analysis that stops at the clarification of concepts and from analyses of the political reasons for preferring one resolution to a moral conflict over another. Clarification of concepts is often a necessary prelude to the task of resolving a moral argument, and finding a politically prudential solution need not be unprincipled. But the emphasis of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy is upon the resolution of contemporary moral problems by applying, refining, and rendering consistent our moral intuitions. </p><p>A UTHOR'S NOTE: I am grateful to Stephen Holmes and Dennis Thompson for their comments on an earlier version of this article. </p><p>POLITICAL THEORY, Vol. 10 No. 1, February 1982 33-47 33 0 1982 Sage Publications, Inc. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 9 May 2014 20:16:55 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>34 POLITICAL THEORY / FEBRUARY 1982 </p><p>I </p><p>Although Abbott makes "no attempt to evaluate the general philosophical effort to clarifying public policy in general," he does intend his criticism of the way philosophers have handled the abortion issue to raise "serious doubts concerning the viability of philosophy's recent excursion into public policy."2 I want to consider and finally reject both Abbott's doubts in the specific case of abortion and his more general and interesting criticisms that aim at undermining analytic philosophy. </p><p>Abbott repeatedly attacks philosophers' use of extreme situations.3 I assume he means situations that are beyond the range of human experi- ence and (to the best of our knowledge) are extremely unlikely ever to occur, or situations that are within the range of human experience but constitute very hard cases to apply otherwise acceptable and firmly grounded moral rules to. An example of the first sort is Judith Thom- son's hypothetical case of "people seeds" drifting about in the air like pollen.4 An example of the second is that of several people stranded on a lifeboat, where one can survive only if he or she consumes the other two. Both situations do indeed throw "our moral habits into chaos,"5 or at least temporarily into uncertainty. Moral principles must be justified within a social context, in which human relationships follow some patterns. But this need to ground moral principles in a context does not imply, as Abbott would have us believe, (1) that our moral habits are always grounded upon correct moral principles, (2) that we can know whether they are correct without resorting to moral reasoning, or (3) that we always have moral habits to guide our actions in situations that demand a moral decision. </p><p>Which moral habit is thrown into chaos by a philosophical treatment of abortion? The habit of not aborting a fetus? That habit ceased to prevail in our society long before Philosophy and Public Affairs came upon the scene. Abortion can itself be characterized as an "extreme" moral situation because it is not clear how our firmly grounded moral principles concerning murder and self-defense apply to abortion cases, in part because we are not sure what status the fetus has as a living being, and in part because we are not sure what it would mean morally to kill a fetus even if it is a human being. Let us grant to Abbott that our emotional reaction to seeing an aborted fetus is morally relevant.6 That reaction still ought not to determine our answer to the abortion question any more than a soldier's agony upon seeing the mutilated body of a </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 9 May 2014 20:16:55 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>Gutmann / MORAL PHILOSOPHY 35 </p><p>combatant whom he killed should settle his or our judgment of the rightness of his action. </p><p>The germ of truth in Abbott's attack is the moral relevancy of our "6normal" or "natural" reactions to a fully formed fetus. Our identifica- tion with developed fetuses (like the soldier's identification with enemy combatants) may create a primafacie case for allowing them to live. But the question still remains whether, when all other relevant things in our social situation are considered, a fetus has a right to life, or (if Abbott is disturbed by this language of rights) whether a mother has a duty to bring the fetus to term. If either a right or duty exists, at what point in the development of the fetus does it obtain? Abbott's invocation of our moral habits and emotional reactions toward a fetus does not answer this question. </p><p>Abbott concedes that the emotional reactions and habits that we now have towards fetuses may not be a firm basis for moral judgments: "Grief is in some ways socially structured and induced in some ways independent of the actual life of human beings."7 Thus, he leaves us without an alternative basis for making a moral decision concerning abortion. Instead we are given another indirect indictment of philo- sophical method derived from the fact that philosophers of abortion "have conjured individuals that are able to reject the emotion of communal solidarity in a way that makes them'greedy individuals."'8 This assumption that individuals are greedy flows from philosophers' refusal to support the traditional family and from their corresponding use of a rights model to explain the morality of personal relationships. Indeed, questions concerning women's rights were not paramount within societies firmly grounded upon traditional family structures. But the implication that traditional family structures lacked greedy individ- uals and that theories justifying traditional family structures foster communally minded individuals blinds us to the dominant, if not greedy, position of men, and to the extreme dependency imposed upon women within those families. In addition, parents within the modern family, for all their individualistic faults, may demonstrate more loving and less instrumental attitudes toward their children than did parents within traditional "noncontractual" families.9 </p><p>"Rights models" are individualistic in that they ascribe rights to individuals rather than to families or to groups considered assuigeneris entities, but they do not necessarily assume that individuals are or should be egoistic, let alone greedy. Whether a rights model is individualistic in this latter sense depends entirely upon the content of </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 9 May 2014 20:16:55 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>36 POLITICAL THEORY / FEBRUARY 1982 </p><p>the rights ascribed to individuals. A society based upon Nozickean rights would encourage people to look out for "Number 1," but the social welfare rights for which Bernard Williams and other analytic philosophers have argued presupposes a society in which individuals accept obligations to ensure the basic welfare of their fellow citizens. '0 Philosophical analyses in favor of welfare rights or communal rights of ownership establish mutual obligations among citizens that go far beyond libertarian claims of obligations of noninterference. Some even argue for our natural duty to further such just communal institutions. " I </p><p>The implications of my argument for abortion should now be clear. First, rights models of abortion need not have the pernicious conse- quences that Abbott attributes to them. Everything depends upon the nature of the rights and correlative obligations ascribed to parents and fetuses. Second, Abbott's discussion misleadingly implies that all moral dangers stem from the attribution of rights to women.'2 One could just as easily (and misleadingly) turn the table on Abbott and consider a philosophical world of "greedy fetuses" in which women had an absolute duty to bring fetuses to term regardless of the conditions under which those fetuses were conceived and of the consequences (short of death) for the future life of the pregnant women. Neither scenario of near-absolute duty or of near-absolute freedom is morally acceptable. Yet Abbott's arguments point solely toward the natural duty model, whereas Thomson's analysis at least leaves room for recognizing maternal obligations toward those fetuses which were intentionally conceived. </p><p>II </p><p>Let us now return to Abbott's charge against the use of fantastic hypotheticals by philosophers. He would surely be correct if he were suggesting that our moral principles cannot always be tested by using extreme examples. We may, for example, have good reason to support the principle that enemy noncombatants not be killed during war. We can still consistently concede that this principle may be violated under the unusual conditions that the enemy threatens to obliterate our entire civilization (assuming that it is worth preserving) and we have no effective defense other than bombing their civilian cities. Yet there are other situations in which extreme examples undermine our moral intuitions. Why would extreme examples not call our intuitions into </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 9 May 2014 20:16:55 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>Gutmann / MORAL PHILOSOPHY 37 </p><p>question in cases in which we cannot find any morally relevant differences between the "normal" conditions under which we apply our intuitions and the hypothetical conditions that are suggested to us by philosophers? </p><p>A blanket condemnation of the use of hypothetical examples makes as little sense as an uncritical reliance upon them. Their value simply cannot be established on the level of methodological principle. There are good and bad uses of hypotheticals just as there are appropriate and inappropriate invocations of our emotional reactions to moral dilem- mas. Our judgment must depend upon the intended use of hypotheti- cals, not (as Abbott's indictment implies) upon the unusualness of the example. Take Thomson's example of a women trapped in a tiny house with a rapidly growing child who will crush her if nothing is done to stop his growth. 13 Abbott treats this example as if it were misleading because of its bizarreness, one more instance of an example that forces us "to contract whatever morality we have left."'4 But Thomson uses this example to criticize the extreme antiabortionist view that if a third party has no right to choose between the life of a mother and the life of her child, then the mother has no right to save her own life, if she has the means to do so. Thomson does not claim that this hypothetical es- tablishes more than a mother's right to self-defense in situations in which her life is threatened by the life of a fetus. '5 Whatever its limits, surely this argument is an important response to a position found within Papal encyclicals and the writings of antiabortionists who rhetorically ask: "What cause can ever avail to excuse in any way the direct killing of the innocent?"'6 Most of Thomson's extraordinary examples are simi- larly used to undercut extreme antiabortion positions. </p><p>This observation suggests a significant limitation of philosophers' excursions into the abortion problem: None of their hypothetical examples go so far as justifying or condemning abortion under the more common conditions (such as pregnancy caused by carelessness) in which many women believe that they have a right to an abortion. In these cases, we are left with our "raw" moral intuitions concerning abortion, which conflict because of our different upbringings and remain largely untouched by philosophical argument. I shall later consider some criticisms of this ultimate reliance of philosophers upon our moral intuitions. </p><p>In addition, many criticisms intended to undermine philosophical method on more careful examination turn out to be instances of bad philosophy. To step beyond the abortion issue, we might consider </p><p>This content downloaded from on Fri, 9 May 2014 20:16:55 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>38 POLITICAL THEORY / FEBRUARY 1982 </p><p>Robert Nozick's use of a woman's right to marry whomever she wishes in order to cast doubt upon a principle of democratic socialism that people ought to have a say in matters affecting their lives.'7 Surely Nozick's defense of woman's integri...</p></li></ul>


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