The Moral Community

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Nowadays, the issue of abortion is frequently discussed. There are a set of ethical and moral aspects concerning this problem, which cannot be solved today due to the existence of a great number of different attitudes to abortions. The main side of the moral problem lies in the question whether a fetus can be considered a member of the moral community or not. American philosopher Mary Anne Warren in her article On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion argues that the moral and legal aspects of this issue are closely related. Firstly, what quality makes people recognize that some creatures have a personality and, therefore, should be included in the moral community, where members have equal rights? Secondly, what constitutes the very “moral community”? Is it always necessary to include someone in circle of all human beings? These three questions give a perspective of abortion morality and, in fact, solve the problem of moral community definition.

It is obvious that in order to answer the question it is necessary to define and give characteristics to the notion of moral community itself. According to Warren, “the moral community is the set of beings with full moral rights, and consists of all and only persons” (“The Ethics of Abortion,” n.d.). Traditional inference of abortion opponents are constructed in the following way: 1) one cannot kill an innocent person; 2) fetus is an innocent person; 3) therefore, one cannot kill the fetus. According to Warren, in this syllogism the word “person” in the first and second assumptions is used in different senses (Warren, 1973). In the first case, a person is regarded as an individual and as a member of the moral community. In the second - as a representative of the species, that has a set of genes being typical for Homo sapiens.

In this perspective, Warren identifies five basic properties, which, she believes, more or less accurately describe the characteristic feature of personality. The first one is sensuality - ability to perceive objects and events external and/or internal to a creature, especially the ability to experience pain. The second trait is reasoning - developed capacity t solve new and relatively complex problems. The third one is the ability to self-activity - an action that is relatively independent from both the genetic and the other kind of direct control. The fourth trait is the ability to communicate - regardless of the means used, but over a fairly wide range of problems. The final one,   is the presence of the concept of self and identity, no matter whether it is just a generic (We) or individual (I), or both (Warren, 1973).

Of course, from a philosophical point of view, one can endlessly argue about the definition of these qualities. However, for the arguments proposed by Warren, it is not required. Warren suggests that no matter how we define them, hardly anyone will dispute their significant importance to a person’s cognitive process. Warren also appeals to human practical ability to distinguish between these features and, in accordance with their differences, consistently build the relations with the objects of external reality (Warren, 1989). When punishing a board, people do not aware of hurting it; people do not join the lamppost met on the street in a verbal dialogue; and they do not ask for their pet dog to help solve mathematical problems. If someone “like us” seriously (and not just in a fit of poetic inspiration) will enter into a conversation with a flashlight, he/she is naturally deemed insane with all the medical and legal consequences. Therefore, the connection between key features and moral community members holds.

To my mind, Warren’s arguments about moral community features are rather weak.  For instance, in relation to the ability to experience pain, Warren’s judgments seem to be controversial. They are built on earlier prevailing medical view that babies do not actually perceive pain. Therefore, it was assumed that the operation in newborns can even better to do without any anesthesia. Now, serious discussions are held around this issue (Steinbock, 2011). In addition, if you accept the proposed scope of the discussion by the author, the position of Warren looks quite convincing and strong. Difficulties arise for the author when we use the proposed arguments, extending the scope of the discussion.

Warren proves that if there is the justification of killing a fetus, then for the same reason we can speak of justification and infanticide (i.e. the killing of a newborn). Newborn, as well as the fetus, do not have any of the of reasonableness indication and therefore is not a member of the moral community, and it can be killed. In addition, we can examine the cases with people, which have degenerative diseases of the nervous system. The point is when a person has Huntington’s, Alzheimer or other similar diseases, one or more Warren’s features are absent. Therefore, these people are not the members of the moral community and killing them is not a crime from the moral viewpoint.

The main weakness of Warren’s arguments is the time perspective. She takes only small period of a human being development, when nothing depends on the society and community. However, when extending the considered framework, the thing gradually change. One of the examples of an abortion in the long-term perspective, is killing the future member of the moral community. As for killing a disabled person - it is “removal” of the former member of a moral community. In addition, in case the genetic disease, such as Down’s syndrome, infantine cerebral palsy, and other similar ones, people sometimes never become the members of the moral community depending on the severity of the disease. In case if Warren’s opinion is right, then there is nothing special in killing these people. Here, the example of a famous scientist Steven Hawing is applicable. This outstanding person moves only his facial muscle. Therefore, if to take off his computer, this person cannot be called a member of a moral community.

Warren represents very narrow and local approach to the abortion problem. To my mind, her definition of the person and its specific features are not quite characterizing. One can observe a wide variety of people demonstrating the absence of this or that criterion, but this does not mean that it is right to take their life from the moral viewpoint. Warren presents very evident and specific research and her argument seem quite convincing, but this is until one turns to deeper and wider considerations.

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