Absolutism vs. Relativism in Abortion

The NYTimes published two articles about abortion in the last couple days. The first was a review by William Saletan of the book Embryo, A Defense of Human Life by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen. The second was an article about the science of trying to detect pain in infants and possibly fetuses as well.

The two juxtaposed reminded me of the tendency of the abortion debate in this country to degenerate into moral absolutes -- and simplistic ones at that. This is the subject of the Saletan article, but I believe it also applies to discussions of fetal pain.

In the Saletan article, he paraphrases George and Tollefsen's argument that because the embryo possesses a developmental program -- i.e. human DNA -- this potentiality implies an equivalent moral worth to a human being ex utero:

"To be a complete human organism," they write, "an entity must possess a developmental program (including both its DNA and epigenetic factors) oriented toward developing a brain and central nervous system." The program begins at conception; therefore, so does personhood.

The argument's absolutism is crucial. In the last three months, scientists have announced two ways to get stem cells without killing embryos. One method is to extract a single cell from the very early embryo. The other is to reprogram adult cells to make them embryonic. But if embryos are morally equal to people, then the first method violates patient consent and the second leaves unresolved crises in embryo research and in vitro fertilization. George and Tollefsen would ban research that poses even slight risks to an embryo's health. They would abolish production of spare I.V.F. embryos and require every fertilized embryo to be transferred to a womb.

The argument is brave but risky. Shifting the pro-life case from religion to science puts it at the mercy of scientific discovery, with all the attendant surprises. Indeed, the human program turns out to be quite complicated. It discredits the authors' absolutism.

George and Tollefsen reason that the embryo is fully human and its life therefore inviolable, because its program is self-contained. "Nothing extrinsic to the developing organism itself acts on it to produce a new character or new direction of growth," they write. The embryo has all the "structures necessary for providing the new individual with a suitable environment and adequate nutrition." It can "get itself to the uterus," "burrow" into the uterine wall and begin "taking in nourishment" from "a congenial environment."

I have two responses to their argument:

  • First, I have talked about the argument of potentiality equaling personhood before -- in a review of Stem Cell Century by Russell Korobkin. Korobkin argues, I think correctly, that this is a misapplication of potentiality. Just because something has the potential for personhood does not mean that it has the same moral worth. It boils down to this issue: if you were fleeing a fire and were forced to choose between a baby or a petri dish filled with embryos, potentiality or not you would grab the baby first. This is not to suggest that embryos are not a special class of things; they are morally privileged. But in the comparison between a developed person and an embryo, the developed person wins.
  • Second, the suggestion that embryos develop according to a program is nonsense. There are considerable interactions between the mother and the developing embryo. Further, the environment plays a considerable role -- think of all the diseases that can affect an newborn because of what the woman did while she was pregnant. If George and Tollefsen believe that women are just passive vessels, then I encourage them to try and make a baby without one.

More generally, I think their logic reflects a trend within the abortion debate to resort to moral absolutes. Pro-lifers argue that "all human life is always sacred," and there is no reason to disagree with them; however, the statement that all human life is sacred elides the complex issue of definition. Likewise, pro-choice advocates have shown considerable resistance to the attribution of any moral worth to a developing embryo on the grounds that this attribution might be extended into the realm of legal privilege.

This is what I was thinking when I read the second article about whether fetuses can feel pain:

Rosen's own hard look at the evidence came a few years ago, when he and a handful of other doctors at U.C.S.F. pulled together more than 2,000 articles from medical journals, weighing the accumulated evidence for and against fetal pain. They published the results in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005. "Pain perception probably does not function before the third trimester," concluded Rosen, the review's senior author. The capacity to feel pain, he proposed, emerges around 29 to 30 weeks gestational age, or about two and a half months before a full-term baby is born. Before that time, he asserted, the fetus's higher pain pathways are not yet fully developed and functional.

What about a fetus that draws back at the touch of a scalpel? Rosen says that, at least early on, this movement is a reflex, like a leg that jerks when tapped by a doctor's rubber mallet. Likewise, the release of stress hormones doesn't necessarily indicate the experience of pain; stress hormones are also elevated, for example, in the bodies of brain-dead patients during organ harvesting. In order for pain to be felt, he maintains, the pain signal must be able to travel from receptors located all over the body, to the spinal cord, up through the brain's thalamus and finally into the cerebral cortex. The last leap to the cortex is crucial, because this wrinkly top layer of the brain is believed to be the organ of consciousness, the generator of awareness of ourselves and things not ourselves (like a surgeon's knife). Before nerve fibers extending from the thalamus have penetrated the cortex -- connections that are not made until the beginning of the third trimester -- there can be no consciousness and therefore no experience of pain.

Sunny Anand reacted strongly, even angrily, to the article's conclusions. Rosen and his colleagues have "stuck their hands into a hornet's nest," Anand said at the time. "This is going to inflame a lot of scientists who are very, very concerned and are far more knowledgeable in this area than the authors appear to be. This is not the last word -- definitely not." Anand acknowledges that the cerebral cortex is not fully developed in the fetus until late in gestation. What is up and running, he points out, is a structure called the subplate zone, which some scientists believe may be capable of processing pain signals. A kind of holding station for developing nerve cells, which eventually melds into the mature brain, the subplate zone becomes operational at about 17 weeks. The fetus's undeveloped state, in other words, may not preclude it from feeling pain. In fact, its immature physiology may well make it more sensitive to pain, not less: the body's mechanisms for inhibiting pain and making it more bearable do not become active until after birth.


Let's set aside the scientific question of whether fetuses can feel pain. That is not a subject about which I am qualified to comment. Let's assume that they can.

If fetuses can feel pain, are we morally obliged to provide anesthesia? You could argue one side and say that no we are not A) because fetuses are not human beings, B) because anesthesia may have health consequences for the mother, and C) because the requirement may make abortions more difficult to obtain. On the other hand, we feel morally compelled to provide pain medication to animals that are being euthanized, and they are definitely not human. We do this because we believe that living things have moral worth and should not feel unnecessary pain.

Having considered that issue and the one above, I have the following question for you: can concrete and simple moral statements be made about these issues? This is the moral absolutist stand: that moral maxims can be formulated with respect to these issues and that these can be used to guide human behavior.

My argument is that moral absolutism is inappropriately applied in these cases. In situations of such moral complexity as regularly arise with biotechnology, the only appropriate standard is a morally relative standard -- i.e. a standard takes into account the context. Further, people arguing for moral absolutes misunderstand to the purpose of moral standards.

To prove my case -- in part that the bogeyman of moral relativism has been horribly exaggerated -- I want to quote a passage from historian and critic Jacques Barzun's monumental work From Dawn to Decadence where he deals with the issue directly:

In the realm of ethics, the most blatant absurdity of the day is wrapped up in the bogey word Relativism. Its current misapplication is a serious error, because it affects one's understanding of physical and social science and derails any reasoning about the morals of the day. Nine times out of ten, the outcry against Relativism is mechanical, not to say absentminded. Everybody is supposed to know what the term means; it has become a cliche that stands for every laxity; corrupt or scandalous conduct is supposed to be the product of a relativist outlook. When linked with Liberal politics, it implies complacent irresponsibility.

The Relativist denies (so runs the charge) that there is a fixed Right and Wrong, better or worse. This makes for a readiness to follow fashion in behavior -- "anything goes," everybody does it." Relativism and conscience are diametrical opposites. What in all this is the meaning of relative? It means flexible, adaptible, a sliding scale that gives a different reading in similar situations. Morality says: "Do not lie." The relativist says: "In view of this or that fact, I shall lie without hesitation or remorse" -- to head off a criminal, to spare anxiety, or any other good reason. The anti-relativist then infers that the same person will cheat, steal, and so on up the ladder or immorality, always justified "relatively" to some particular; or -- even more likely -- with no excuse, because Relativism turns habitual and supports no idea but that of self-indulgence.

Another count in the indictment is that Relativists make no distinctions among moral codes, religions, or cultures. All these, relatively to their place and time, their history, their means of subsistence are equal in value: as 5 is to 10, so 10 is to 20 -- multiply and you get 100 = 100. This grievance has in view the stance of the historian and the anthropologist, who in their descriptions believe that to understand one must sympathize. To illustrate: the anthropologist asserts that the man who can count up to five in a tribe ignorant of numbers is a mathematical genius. The historian who finds a 16C ruler granting toleration to all Christian sects calls him a pioneer moralist and humanitarian. The denouncer of Relativism infers from these relative judgments that the five-digit man and Einstein are equals and the tolerant ruler on a par with the framers of the United States Constitution. This is a gross error in logic. The relative judgment implies no ultimate estimation or preference.

It is here we begin to see the Absurd concealed in the misuse of the term. Western civilization justly boasts of having developed the idea and the machinery of Pluralism. It accommodates in one polity contradictory religions, moral codes, and political doctrines, all equals in status. Nothing is said about their respective merit or value, let alone their being equal, which would be meaningless. From this social and cultural tolerance those who assail Relativism do not dissent; the benefit from it; they never mention it. Now the opposite of the Relative is the Absolute, and the Absolute means one principle only, a single standard of thought and behavior. One must therefore ask the anti-relativist: "Whose Absolute are we to adopt and impose?" The plural state is full of them, down to the several sects of any one religion. How far a society can allow diversity under Pluralism is a real issue. The rival claims of two large language groups can split a nation badly -- witness Belgium and Canada. But blaming Relativism whenever diversity creates disorder beclouds a type of situation that must be settle politically. Meantime, the absurdity remains of espousing Pluralism and groaning about the absence of an absolute that would cure moral ills.

Reflection shows further that anybody who thinks at all uses the relative standard continually; it is the operation the mind goes through in all judgments. To compare to lengths, one relates each to a yardstick. A judge or jury relates the facts of the case to the law. Under an absolute code the same relativing procedure would still be needed to judge offense and punishment. No standard works like an automatic machine, nor can a civilized society do without variable standards that call for relativist application: the law is the law, but the judge sentences the first offender less heavily that the second or third. Unequal treatment within typical situations is the rule of intelligent action: the child's meal or medical dose is related to his size and age.

But are there not at least a few fundamental principles of conduct that the whole world acknowledges as binding and not subject to change? Apparently not. Not even "Thou shalt not kill." At the start of the admirable common law, in the 11C, wergeld was the rule; that is, paying for murder done; murther originally denotes a fine (The absolutely uniform human conscience does not seem to exist.

It is true that for civil peace and comfort most societies reprove and punish killing and all kinds of injury to the person, lying and breaking promises in serious matters, and cheating and stealing -- if property is part of the system. But the particular laws vary infinitely and stand in contradiction from time to time. In the one realm of property, the western businessman's moral conscience in the year 1880 differed radically from that of his descendant in 1980. The same disparity occurs from place to place: what is (criminal) bigamy in the Occident is the first step in gaining status in parts of Africa. When the anti-relativist deplores the present state of morals he is judging it relatively to a previous state, which he believes was fixed and eternal.

Perhaps to clear the mind of the stubborn cliche, one should speak of Relationism. One would then notice that science is Relationism first and last. The whole effort is to establish relations between phenomena, ultimately between pairs of well-defined sense impressions, by the medium of a material or numerical yardstick. This done, all proportions can be derived for practical uses. Form in art -- fitness in anything -- consists in a subtle or vivid relation between parts that cannot be arrived at by means of an absolute formula. In society tact is the great art that makes for civility, for civilization, and tact is nothing by the subtlest relationism in action. (p. 760-763 in the paperback edition, emphasis mine, italics in the original)

In short, Barzun argues that relativism is the application of specific moral principles to non-specific situations. The world is gray and muddy; it requires effort and thought to apply an absolute standard relative to the particular situation at hand.

Nowhere is the necessity of moral relativism more evident than in biotechnology. Nowhere is it more difficult to define terms like "personhood" and "moral value" than in the moving target of biotechnology -- always continually expanding the realm of human possibility. It is for this reason that I think the aspiration towards clearly defined moral absolutes is misguided. In all likelihood, whatever moral principles we define will be misapplied to the technology of the next generation.

This is not to suggest an abdication of moral responsibility. We still need to have a national conversation about the rightness or wrongness of these technologies. However, I do not believe that those who would paper over moral quandaries with platitudes are contributing to this conversation.

As a side note, I highly recommend Barzun's book. It is the most cogent and insightful history book, I have ever read. I say this even though I consider the title misleading. The title suggests a pessimism about Western society in decline ala Harold Bloom, whereas Barzun views modern decadence as the prerequisite ground-clearing for an impending cultural Renaissance.

It is one of my three favorite books -- the others being Atlas Shrugged and The Great Gatsby. (I will let you speculate how I can still like Rand after what I said about moral absolutism.)


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""To be a complete human organism," they write, "an entity must possess a developmental program (including both its DNA and epigenetic factors) oriented toward developing a brain and central nervous system." The program begins at conception; therefore, so does personhood."

Why does everyone who doesnt understand 'epigenetics' insist upon using it to defend their views?

Epigenetics isnt a 'program'. I can change mine now by not eating certain foods. Cancer patients have altered epigenetic profiles. Humans spontaneously abort embryos left and right because of epigenetics. We screw up in vitro fertilization constantly because of epigenetics. Mama doesnt eat folic acid, baby gets spina bifida-- epigenetics.


Barzun has some good points, but also seems to be playing semantic games.

For example, those who state opposition to "moral relativism" may not oppose lighter criminal sentences for juvenile offenders than for adults. Moral evaluation of a situation may be nuanced.

However, post-hoc moral rationalization is dangerous. It enables a pattern of acting for one's immediate convenience, followed by any twisted justification that will allow a person to continue to view themselves as morally righteous. This is what I think most people have in mind when they describe "moral relativity." It's also a hypocritical pattern of behavior, as it tends to vilify behaviors where oneself is the victim, while the same behavior woud be justified if oneself were the agressor.

Prior articulation of a moral code or prior moral debate or contemplation strikes me as a better way of encouraging rationally consisent moral behavior, however nuanced the situation may be.

By Spaulding (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

I don't understand their reasoning;
doesn't - posess a program oriented towards developing -
just means - it isn't yet - ?
An acorn isn't a tree;
a crisis that can lead to war isn't a war;
to insist on treating those equally is just stupid.

One thing I know for certain: the passive vessels would be an awesome band name.

All you have to do is postulate that adult humans have no moral worth, and everyone's happy. You get around all philosophical problems.

By El Christador (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

I don't find that definition of relativism very useful. I think it's largely encapsulated by this quote:

Morality says: "Do not lie." The relativist says: "In view of this or that fact, I shall lie without hesitation or remorse"

As a liberal who often complains about moral relativism, there are many times I would lie without hesitation or remorse. An absolute morality only means that you can use facts and rationality to justify an action, rather than having to resort to "well, in this culture it's ok." So I would evaluate an action on a utilitarian basis ("more good than harm would be done if I lie right now") and that basis (good > bad) is absolute. It's not to say the rational argument is always, or even usually, trivial, or even possible to evaluate fully at all. That doesn't make it relative, it just makes it complicated.

Also: no matter how much I read about abortion, Peter Singer's treatment of the topic is by far the best. When a pro-lifer can tell me why they eat pigs but won't kill a fetus, then I'll discuss the matter. (I eat pigs AND would take out an unwanted fetus without hesitation).

Fun article! I have to disagree with the argument against potentiality, though (not necessarily the point that the argument makes, just how we get there). The criteria for choosing the infant over the petri dish leans more on the side of deciding which is more likely to survive the catastrophe than deciding which is more potentially human. If the petri-dish-embryo isn't pitted against a baby, then you're still having to build an argument against potentiality.

so well put.

i may have found a new favorite science blog! great post! this mindset needs more voices within both the scientific and political communities... specifically the talking point about how pro-science folks (i don't like the terms pro-life/pro-choice... its pro-science/anti-science, call a spade a spade already)... anyway, the pro-science community has a fear of delegating "some" moral privilege to embryos, lest their inch be legislated into a mile... this is, in my opinion, THE pinnacle detail preventing any REAL open discussion on this topic. let's discuss the embryo as compared to the stool sample... as far as laboratory assets are concerned. then i think we will find that 100% of people are actually in complete agreement on something regarding this very divisive issue. synergy. i'm liking it already.

Well this is really old, but it's still open to comments, so I might as well...

It seems to me that this article misrepresents what 'anti-relativists' or 'absolutists' are saying. At least, I've never heard anyone make the arguments that this post is trying to refute (e.g. that context does not matter in the application of moral principles: are there really people out there who go around saying this?).

My understanding of the debate between moral absolutism and moral relativism lies in the answer to this question: The blogger says at the end, "We still need to have a national conversation about the rightness or wrongness of these technologies"; will that be a conversation about preferences or about objective truth?
A relativist will say preferences, and the majority rules. An absolutist will say about object truth and the majority may well get it wrong. But there is nothing in this absolutist view which says this truth must be simple or straightforward or obvious. Factual reality is not generally any of these things, but it is objective and independent from anyone's opinion: there is no reason to think that objective moral truth would be otherwise.

By Nevertaken (not verified) on 04 Aug 2010 #permalink