I’ve been involved in an ongoing debate on torture and abortion over at TPM blog and thought I’d post here to point people there. I do a blog there about once a week.
One comment on my blog led me to an article by Ralph Peters in the New York Post. In an amazing coincidence, this article fit right into the path of the debate at TPM. The discussion I started was based on the view that an argument commonly given for torture is also, at the core, the same sort of argument that is given for abortion. The original is in the post, but here is a variant based on Peters’ discussion of executing terrorists.
Case for torture (and killing): it is acceptable to torture (and kill) terrorists because they lack a moral status that would justly protect them from torture (and execution) and applying torture (and killing) will result in saving the lives of thousands. People might mistake terrorists for people, but they are actually “sub-human creatures.”
Case for abortion: it is acceptable to kill a fetus because it lacks moral status that would justly protect them from death and allowing abortion will result in better lives for women. People might mistake a fetus for a person or a pre-person, but it actually is not.
Common principle: it is morally acceptable to harm another being provided that 1) the being lacks a “protective” moral status and 2) the benefits of doing so would outweigh the harms.
My point here is not to argue for (or against) torture, killing, or abortion. Rather, my intent is the same as in my original post: to present what seems to be a common, underlying principle used by defenders of torture and defenders of abortion.
The obvious reply that some folks will give is that terrorists are obviously people. But, they are only obviously people to some people. To folks like Ralph Peters and folks I have argued with, terrorists are not people in a moral sense. The usual argument is that their misdeeds have (in a way Locke argued for) made them the moral equivalent of man-killing animals and thus subject to death. As such, they may be tortured and killed justly. This is not to say that Locke would endorse torture or agree with Peters, of course.
The obvious reply that some other folks will give is that the fetus is obviously a person or pre-person and hence it is wrong to harm it. But, they are only obviously people (or pre-people) to some people. To some folks who are pro-choice, the fetus will be seen as lacking the qualities needed to make it a person. As such, a woman may justly have an abortion.
Obviously, people differ quite a bit in what is obvious to them.
Both types of folks do seem to accept the same basic principle that harming non-people is acceptable based on the consequences. In the case of terrorists, some folks argue that the terrorists have robbed themselves of their moral status as people by their actions. In the case of the fetus, some folks argue that it lacks the developed qualities to be a person. But the key to each moral argument is that the target is lacking in the needed moral status and hence it not morally protected. Thus, harming it is acceptable.
This seems philosophically interesting but also psychologically and politically interesting. After all, the “left” is stereotyped as pro-choice and anti-torture. The “right” is stereotyped as pro-torture and pro-life. However, they seem to often be operating on similar principles and use similar arguments. Their difference (which can be seen as critical) seems to lie more in the details. That is, they both agree we can hurt/kill others (or, more accurately, other things) but disagree over who (or what) we can hurt/kill.