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Tough Questions

June 28th, 2004

Few topics in the modern world stir such emotions and debate as abortion. In America a single court case has become legendary, and part of the popular psyche: Roe vs. Wade, in which the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to prevent a woman from seeking an abortion. In China the One-Child policy and the traditional desire of a son to carry on the family have lead to an epidemic in the abortion of female fetuses. Religious groups and feminist argue over the “Right to Life” and a “Women’s Rights.” The depth of conviction to Pro-Life and Pro-Choice has lead to violence, including the bombing of clinics that offer abortions and the murder of doctors who perform abortions.

Abortion is a moral dilemma that challenges our ethical beliefs. Many people’s ideas on abortion come from the beliefs of their religious teachers and are stepped in centuries of doctrine and interpretation by the leaders of their religion. These beliefs are too many and too complex to be critically assessed in this paper. Instead this paper will focus on ethical ideas grounded in non-religious writings. Specifically the ethical ideas found in the writings that are the foundations for the three major non-religious ethical systems of the Western world, Aristotelian, Kantian and Utilitarianism.

The Aristotelian system is based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, written in the fourth century before Christ. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, written in the 1780’s by Immanuel Kant is the basis for the Kantian system, and John Stuart Mill’s essay “Utilitarianism,” written in the 1860’s, is the “definitive statement” (1) of Utilitarianism. Although these three works do not compromise the whole of the ethical theories they advance they are the seminal works in their respected theories, and will serve as the basis of the following discussion. What insights can these works give us into the ethical question “is abortion moral?”

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle laid out his theory on how to achieve an ethical life, but Aristotle’s ethics differ a great deal from the modern concept of ethics. Aristotle is concerned with how an individual can live an ethical life, not with how a society can make ethical choices. For Aristotle’s community oriented ideas one must look to his Politics where he says of abortion; “when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation.” (2) The qualifier, “before sense and life have begun,” strikes strait to one of the central questions of abortion; when does the fetus become alive, and more broadly, when does it gain a right to life? This is a question that will come up again and again in our examination of abortion.

Though Aristotle’s Ethics deal with the individual, he states that it is not for everyone, some people are excluded form ever achieving the good life by their circumstances. Aristotle lays out three conditions that must be met before a person can strive for the good life. The person must have good health, must not be ugly and must have at least moderate wealth. The fetus seams to fall outside of all these preconditions. Even so if we look at the potential of the child should it be born we can extrapolate some from these conditions.

Aristotle says that the ultimate goal of human life is the activity he calls eudaimonia, which is a complex term but for the sake of this argument can be thought of as being approximated by its stock translation, happiness. In order to achieve eudaimonia any child born must meet the three prerequisites that everyone else is subject to, health, wealth and beauty. What if we could detect whether or not a fetus would be unable to achieve one or more of these preconditions?

Modern technology gives us the ability to detect may diseases and defects which could prevent a child from living a healthy life, diseases like sickle cell anemia or down syndrome can be detected very early in a pregnancy. If a fetus is found to have a debilitating condition that will prevent it from living a healthy life should the fetus be aborted? What if the condition is not detected till late in the pregnancy is an abortion sill justifiable? Aristotle’s views expressed in Politics about “life and sense” seam to suggest that he would say no to the second case but what of the first case? How do we determine when a fetus has life and sense? This question rages in modern arguments both for and against abortion and usually relies on religious beliefs. Aristotle gives us no answer.

Many of the same questions arise if we examine the beauty precondition. With the use of sonic-grams a doctor can detect many deformities in the physical appearance of a child. Is an abortion acceptable if a defect is detected? Though the question of beauty seams outdated in today?s world of equal rights some people might still ask if it is not better to abort a fetus which suffers from sever physical deformities and try to re-conceive. However this argument belongs better to the Utilitarian view of life.

The question of wealth is hard to view with respect to the fetus, as the fetus will be dependent for some time on the wealth of its parents or guardians. Raising a child requires means, whether it is measured in money or in goods, wealth is needed to live, to provide the basics of life. Is it morally acceptable to bring a child into the world if the parents do not have the means to care for it financially? What if the parents could provide for the child but it would put strain on their meeting the prerequisites for Aristotle’s ethics?

Is it ethically justifiable to bring a child into the world when the child cannot hope to meet all of Aristotle’s preconditions? Is an abortion justifiable if the birth of the child will cause the parents to not meet one of the conditions? Whose happiness is more valuable, whose rights to a pursuit of eudaimonia is more important? Aristotle provides no answers to these questions in Ethics and his open-ended comment on abortion in Politics provides us with little guidance. Aristotle says that if a couple has “children in excess” then an abortion is an acceptable way of ending an unwanted pregnancy. One interpretation of this is that if a couple has children and another would put some sort of strain on their, and the other children’s, pursuit of eudaimonia, such as financial strain, then an abortion is justifiable. But only acceptable “before sense and life have begun,” though here again Aristotle offers no insight into how to determine when life and sense begin.

Kantian Ethic

Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics raises more questions than it settles about abortion but what of Kant’s ethic? The Kantian system is a duty-based ethic, focusing on the duty to the Categorical Imperative, which Kant clams, is an a priori principal and the fundamental principle. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant gives several formulation of the Categorical Imperative that he clams to be equivalent. Kant clams that the morality of all beliefs on how to act, which he calls maxims, can be determined by deciding if they are in accordance with the Categorical Imperative.

The most famous formulation of the Categorical Imperative is the first; “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will it become a universal law.” (3) Kant says this means that if you are faced with a decision you must first ask yourself what maxim you hold to determine your choice. Then you must say, what if my maxim was universal law, i.e. everyone in my situation acted as I would act. And finally ask yourself if you can will that your maxim become universal law without causing a contradiction. If you can do all these then the maxim passes the test, and is a morally sound maxim, if not then your duty to the Categorical Imperative forbids you from acting on that maxim.

In the case of abortion the test does not seam to solve anything, if your maxim states that in situation X you will have an abortion, And you see no problem with all women in situation X having an abortion, and you can will that all pregnant women in situation X should have an abortion, then your maxim passes the test and is morally sound. The problem results form willing the maxim to be universal, a person with pro-choice beliefs might not have any trouble saying, “yes, any woman in situation X should have an abortion.” While a person with pro-life beliefs could say, “no, abortion is always wrong.” There is also another, more subtle, problem here. Kant states that the morality of any act can be determined from the a priori Categorical Imperative. But in the case of abortion the Categorical Imperative gives no guidance on it’s own, the personal beliefs of the person effect their ability to will a maxim into universal law. The beliefs a person hold before asking if their maxim would cause a contradiction if universalized determine the answer to the question. So this formulation of the categorical imperative does not provide us any help in determining the morality of abortion, and in fact the question of abortion seams to contradict Kant’s belief that the Categorical Imperative is the only thing needed to determine the morality of any maxim.

Another formulation of the categorical imperative which is almost as well know is “so act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” (4) This formulation leads us to ask, if the mother is choosing to have the abortion because she “is not ready for a child,” whether financially or because she is not willing to change her life style, or any similar reason, is she violating the Categorical Imperative by using the fetus as a means to her own ends? Conversely suppose that she has decided that the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative demands she have the child and that she does not want the child, is she using herself merely as a means for the fetus’ ends? Here also we find the same problem that Aristotle identified in Politics, when does the fetus gain life and thereby become a member of “humanity”? It appears that Kantian ethics, as laid out in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals does not provide us with any firmer grounds to judge the morality of abortion than did Aristotle’s ethics.


The last major ethical system in the western tradition is Utilitarianism, best know through John Stuart Mill’s essay of the same name. The basis for the Utilitarian outlook on ethics is the Greatest Happiness Principle, or the Principle of Utility. This principle states that “the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable, is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality.” (5) Utilitarianism further states that an act is either right or wrong based on how well it promotes happiness and reduces pain for “all concerned.” Applying the Principle of Utility to abortion raises two central questions, should the fetus be included in our calculations of the pain and pleasure of “all concerned,” and if so how do we measure the pain and pleasure of all the participants.

The question of the status of the fetus returns us to the question of “life and sense.” raised by Aristotelian and Kantian ethics. Is the fetus a person whose interests must be taken into account when judging the morality of an abortion? If so when does “life and sense” begin and the fetus become a person whose pleasure and pain must be take into account in our determination of the morality of abortion? Here as in with Kant and Aristotle we find no answer to the question of when life begins, and so we are left to look elsewhere for answers to this question.

Assuming the fetus must be taken into account in our calculations of pleasure and pain brings us to the second question; how do we judge the pleasure and pain all the participants will endure? How do we determine the pleasure that the child will receive from life? How do we determine if its life will be one of happiness or of pain? This question is complicated more by modern technology. Today we can detect debilitating defects and illness in a fetus early in a pregnancy, however we also have the technology to treat many diseases and deformities, allowing a child born with a deformity or illness to live for many years whereas in the past the child would almost certainly have died young. Should we abort a fetus if we detect that it will suffer from a debilitating disease? Will this disability cause the child to lead an unhappy life? What of the parents, where do they fit into the equation? If the child is born with a disease or with a deformity it may place a great deal of stress on the ability of the parents to support the child, leading to the parents life being less pleasurable. Does the potential happiness of the child outweigh the potential pain of the parents if the fetus displays a disability, or if the parents would be under strain to provide for the child?

Mill is vague on how to decide between the quality and quantity of pleasures and how exactly this is to be taken into account in the pleasure and pain equation. How do we decide how much pleasure or pain a life will have before the life is lived? How do we determine whether this pleasure outweighs the pain and suffering that the mother might have to endure if she gives up something she wants to have the child, if she leaves school or a career? What about the mental suffering that a woman may incur if she chooses to have the abortion but latter regrets it? Mill, like Kant and Aristotle, offers us no concrete answers to the questions raised by abortion. He leaves it to us to determine how to apply the Principle of Utility to the many situations that might arise.


The three main Western ethical systems as laid out in their seminal works do not provide a suitable answer to the question “is abortion morally acceptable?” In fact in attempting to apply the ideas of these systems to abortion we have raised a great number of questions, without providing answers to any of them. Much of this is due to the way the normative ethics are written. As Aristotle said more then two thousands years ago, “any account of conduct must be stated in outline and not in precise detail.” (6) Kant, Mill and Aristotle did not write the answers to every moral question which faces us everyday, they could not possibly do this. What they have each attempted to do is provide us with a basic framework with which to determine what is ethically right. It is up to us to apply these frameworks to the particular situation in order to determine its morality. There are some situations that seam to defy the norms that these ethical systems put forth, and abortion is one of them. Abortion is a very complex subject, although the goal is always the same, the artificial end of pregnancy, the circumstances and reasons for seeking an abortion differ with every woman who seeks one.

Though we have asked many question in applying ethical systems to abortion and answered none, one question we have asked should be repeated outside of any particular system; when does the fetus become a person? Beginning with Aristotle’s clam, in Politics, that an abortion may be sought out “before life and sense have begun,” the status of the fetus has been a question raised in the examination of each ethical system. Neither Aristotle nor Kant nor Mill attempts to answer this question, leaving us to draw our beliefs on when life begins from other sources. An answer to this question would go a long way towards answering our moral dilemmas over abortion. If we know at what point a fetus is a person we would know whether the second formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative applied to the fetus. We would know if we had to take the fetuses’ pain and pleasure into account in our calculations for greatest happiness in Utilitarianism. Although a rule for determining when a fetus is a person would answer a great number of questions, there would still be many unanswered questions left for us to work through.

In the end, none of the three ethical systems provide us with any hard and fast answers to our questions over the morality of abortion, leaving each of us to decide for ourselves. But perhaps it is enough that they make us examine our beliefs and the effects of our decision. Too often in today’s world we do not think of the possible consequences of our actions. In asking tough questions about such dilemmas as abortion we are forced to examine our own ethics and question the beliefs that are the foundations of those ethics. If we are ever in the unfortunate position of having to decide whether or not to have an abortion Aristotle, Kant and Mill will not be there to tell us what to do, but they can help us to know what questions to ask ourselves.


  1. Mill, page 12.
  2. Aristotle, Politics, page.
  3. Kant, page 31.
  4. Kant, page 38.
  5. Mill, page 283.
  6. Aristotle, Ethics, page 93.


  • Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by J.A.K. Thomson. Penguin Books Ltd, London, United Kingdom 1955.
  • Aristotle. The Politics. Translated by T.A. Sinclair. Penguin Books Ltd, London, United Kingdom 1981.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated and edited by Mary Gregor. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom 1997.
  • Mill, John Stuart and Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism and Other Essays. Edited by Alan Ryan. Penguin Books Ltd, London, United Kingdom 1987.

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