At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Dan Marquis contends that except in “rare cases,” abortion is immoral, and it is immoral, he further argues, because the fetus has a “FLO”—a “future like ours.”

Before arguing that abortion is wrong, Marquis first attempts to show what makes killing in general wrong. Killing is wrong, he concludes, because it deprives the person killed of a “future of value.”  Marquis writes: “The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future.”

Marquis elaborates, explaining that when a person’s life is extinguished, that person is deprived of both what he values presently about his future, as well as what he would have valued later on in his life.

Since a fetus too has a future of value, a FLO, abortion is wrong for the same reason that killing anyone is wrong.

Marquis notes some virtues of his account.

First, it is silent with respect to questions concerning the relationship between such concepts as “human being” and “personhood,” as well as concomitant issues like “natural rights.” Instead, the FLO theory simply notes that a fetus is no different from any reasonably healthy adult in having a future of value. Thus, if it is wrong to kill the latter because of this consideration, it is no less wrong to kill the former because of it.

Secondly, Marquis’ FLO account accommodates several moral intuitions of ours.

  1. For starters, he believes that it does not imply that “active euthanasia” is always, or even generally, wrong: a person who is terminally ill or in pain will not suffer the loss of a future of value if his life is ended.
  2. The FLO theory leaves open the possibility that non-human species, whether mammalson Earth or extra-terrestrial entities, may have futures sufficiently similar to ours to make it just as immoral to kill them as it is immoral to kill us.
  3. On this account, it is just as wrong to kill infants and small children as it is wrong to kill adults.

Thirdly, Marquis insists that his approach does not rely upon illicit reasoning of the sort on display in the (all too common) argument that since killing persons is immoral, it must also be immoral to kill potential persons. The relevant moral category of the FLO theory is not personhood, but having a future of value.

Marquis’ position is attractive for its originality, as well as for its author’s desire to avoid the routine cluster of issues that tend to bog down the abortion debate. Yet originality is no substitute for truth.

And the truth is that Marquis’ position is not without its problems.

Marquis rightly recognizes that it is indeed invalid to reason from the wrongness of killing persons to the wrongness of killing “potential” persons. Presumably, what renders such reasoning illegitimate is not that the premise speaks to one type of being while the conclusion addresses a fundamentally different type of being. What renders the reasoning invalid is that it proceeds from what is allegedly true of one type of being—persons—to what is allegedly true of what practically amounts to a non-being: a “potential” person is a virtual no-thing.

But if this is Marquis’ reason for rejecting this argument, then hasn’t he just given a reason for rejecting his argument?

Here’s the point: the future is just as potential, just as much of a non-entity, as a so-called “potential person.” The future has not yet happened.  It is, quite literally, nothing.

There is a further problem: From the fact that a person values X, it does not follow that it would be immoral to deprive him of X. For example, Jones may value an affair with Smith’s wife, but this certainly doesn’t imply that it would be impermissible for Smith (or his wife) to deny Jones the affair.

Simply put, it is far from obvious that the wrongness of killing stems from depriving a person of a future that he values.

Closely related to this last consideration is a third problem. It can be argued that Marquis equivocates on the word “value.”  Though he speaks of a future of value, what he really means—and he says as much from time to time—is a future that one values. However, the difference between these two ways of speaking is not inconsiderable.

Whether or not this is his intention, the phrase, “a future of value,” suggests that the value in question is objective, i.e. transcends the preferences and desires of the person whose future it is.  In stark contrast, the word “value” in the phrase, a “future that I value,” is subjective: the future is valuable because, and maybe only because, I value it.

For as thought-provoking as Marquis’ FLO theory of the wrongness of abortion undoubtedly is, it nevertheless raises at least as many, if not more, of the same problems as those theories that it rivals.



Few holidays are as “politically incorrect” as is the day that Americans reserve to commemorate the birthday of Christopher Columbus. Such is the ferocity of the smear campaign to which Columbus has been subjected for decades that he has been made into a villain among villains in the rogues’ gallery of history.

Geoffrey Symcox, of the Medieval and Renaissance Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, says of Columbus that while a “brilliant mariner,” he was nevertheless “an unrelenting social climber and self-promoter who stopped at nothing—not even exploitation, slavery, or twisting Biblical scripture—to advance his ambitions [.]” He continues: “The fact that Columbus brought slavery, enormous exploitation or devastating diseases to the Americas” has always been ignored by scholars and laity alike, for all that mattered is that he was “the great bringer of [the] white man’s civilization to the benighted idolatrous American continent.”

“Native American” activist Ward Churchill—the same disgraced University of Colorado professor who made national news when he referred to the thousands who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 as “little Eichmanns”—wrote that Columbus Day celebrations rank “very high” among those “expressions of non-indigenous sensibility” that “contribute to the perpetuation of genocidal policies against Indians [.]”

Russell Means, an American Indian activist, once said that next to Columbus, Hitler “looks like a juvenile delinquent.” And during the 500th year anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, the National Council of Churches released a statement imploring Christians to abstain from celebrating.  “What represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some,” the statement read, “was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others.”

There are a few things to note about the bad press that Columbus began receiving in the second half of the 20th century.

First, this crusade against Columbus—and that’s exactly what it is, a crusade—is not inspired by any disinterested pursuit of historical accuracy. In fact, none of this is about history at all. Rather, like so much else of what passes for “history” today, it is nothing more or less than “retrospective politics,” as the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott once labeled the enterprise of dressing up brute partisan polemics with references to “the past.”

This brings us to our next point. A real historian should try as much as possible to resist making any moral pronouncements regarding the characters of his subjects.  Those who seek to reduce Columbus to a caricature of evil personified reduce themselves to the simplest of polemicists. And that Columbus’s critics are practically to a man and woman of the same leftist political orientation should be more than enough to establish that they seek to promote an ideological agenda.

And what is this ideological agenda? At this juncture in our civilization, most people who pay any attention to these matters know well enough the answer to this question.

The campaign against Columbus isn’t about history, it is true, but, ultimately, it isn’t even about Columbus.

It is nothing more or less than a wholesale condemnation of Western civilization.

As “community organizer” extraordinaire Saul Alinsky knew well enough, to be successful, the organizer must concretize the abstract institutional arrangements against which he rails by giving them a face. “The System” is too vague. The organizer, to be effective, must single out a specific target for attack.

Columbus’s detractors are the Western world’s malcontents. In convicting this white, Christian man, Columbus, of the worst of sins, his enemies hold him up as the quintessential poster boy for all Westerners of European stock.  Columbus is merely a symbol of the brutal racial oppression upon which the West was founded.

Anyone who doubts this thesis need only consider that the same kind of charges made against Columbus—he was an “exploiter,” a “racist,” an “enslaver,” and a “genocidal murderer”—have been made by leftists against any number of people traditionally regarded as Western heroes.  Many of America’s Founders are a case in point.

The effort to discredit Columbus is of a piece with the effort to discredit Western civilization itself. It is a part, an integral part, of a movement to demoralize Western peoples by depriving them of those of their heroes who have occupied a particularly esteemed position in their collective consciousness, those of their heroes who signify for them some of the noblest, the most essential, moments in the life of their civilization.

That there were indeed injustices visited by Europeans against the Indians is undeniable. It is no less true that to know only this is to know virtually nothing. For now, suffice it to say that Columbus was no saint.  However, neither was he a villain.  He was a man whose vision and courage contributed immeasurably to both the new and old worlds, the Americas and Europe.  Countless numbers of peoples have been reaping endless blessings from Columbus’s efforts ever since.

Happy Columbus Day!



John T. Noonan, a Catholic jurist whose work on abortion regularly features in ethics textbooks, contends that the traditional definition of a human being remains rationally superior to its competitors. A human being, Noonan insists, is anyone who has been conceived by human parents.

The most common rival to conception is that of viability: the fetus becomes a human being once it is viable, i.e. capable of surviving outside of the mother’s womb.

Noonan notes what he takes to be three key problems with this humanity-defining criterion.

First, the notion of viability is the hard and fast standard that it is thought to be. It possesses “considerable elasticity.”

Second, this last point is proven by the fact that, given the enormous advances in technology, the fetus, courtesy of artificial incubation, could be “viable” at almost any time.

Third, viability, in the sense of self-sufficiency, occurs neither with birth nor even well after birth. Infants, toddlers, and small children remain utterly dependent upon the care of others.

That Noonan is correct about the inadequacy of viability as a criterion for humanity is true enough. But it should be noted that his last objection against the viability thesis commits the fallacy of equivocation: When proponents of so-called “abortion rights” appeal to the viability of the fetus, Noonan must know, they allude to the self-evident fact that until such time, the fetus is uniquely dependent upon its mother. Thus, they reason, it is up to the mother to determine whether she will continue to care for the fetus until such time that others could assume responsibility. Yet once others can assume responsibility, then the fetus is no longer uniquely dependent upon its mother.

Of course, none of this should be interpreted as a defense of the claim that the unique dependence of a fetus upon its mother endows the latter with a “right” to abort. But there can be no progress on this issue if clarity is lost to us.

Noonan also considers the standard of experience: “A being who has had experience, has lived and suffered, who possesses memories, is more human than one who has not.”

The problem with this account is twofold.

First, from the earliest stages of pregnancy, the pre-natal entity—first the zygote, then the embryo—is experiencing its surroundings. So, by the gauge of “experience,” the zygote is a human being.

Second, if what is meant is that the more experience a being has, the more human it is, than what this implies is that whole classes of beings otherwise considered human—children, the young, etc.—are either not human or minimally human.  Noonan also cites the admittedly rare case when aphasia has deleted its victim’s memories.  If experience is the test of humanity, then must we conclude that along with a person’s memories, aphasia also eliminates his or her humanity?

Here, it would be helpful to know how those who appeal to experience in determining humanity employ this concept. “Experience” is a concept that admits of a multitude of conceptions, to borrow Ronald Dworkin’s terminology. It is an empty concept until it is given content.

Typically, “experience” is invoked when it is meant to refer to sentience, the capacity for pleasure and, more importantly, pain. The zygote, it is obvious, is not sentient.  Neither, for that matter, is the fetus prior to a certain juncture.  Still, it is anything but a foregone conclusion that sentience bestows humanity—animals of various sorts are sentient too—and it certainly isn’t axiomatic that sentience gives rise to rights.

Noonan also deems as wanting the sentiments of adults and the sensations of parents as criteria for humanity.  They share the same fundamental problem: both imply that the humanity of a being—in this case, the fetus—is a dispensation bestowed by others. Noonan, however, expects for us to recognize that this just can’t be correct. Here he appeals to the historical record while reminding us that these are precisely the criteria relied upon by those  members of religious, racial, and other groups who, because of their inability to empathize with the members of other such groups, have dehumanized  the latter.

Finally, Noonan contends that social recognition is equally insufficient to establish humanity—and for basically the same reason that these last two criteria fail.  If “society”—meaning the majority—constitutes the ultimate arbiter of who is human, then those of its members who at any given moment are unpopular or held to be undesirable could find themselves divested of their humanity.  Again, he revisits history to remind us of the great evils to which this position has lead.

In the last analysis, Noonan concludes, there is only one non-arbitrary line by which to demarcate the human from the non-human.  And this line is conception.

It is at conception that a self-evolving entity with a unique genetic code—a human genetic code—comes into being.  It is at this moment that a human being emerges.

Abortion, then, is nothing more or less than the killing of a human being. As such, it is almost always wrong.

Noonan, I believe, has indeed succeeded in laying waste to the five humanity-defining criteria on which he sets his sights. That being said, his argument is vulnerable to two criticisms.

The first is that in exposing weaknesses in each of the criteria, Noonan does not necessarily reveal their arbitrariness: the criteria can be inadequate without being arbitrary.  Just because there is some measure of imprecision in a standard does not mean that the standard is without its effectiveness in doing the work assigned to it.

To assume otherwise, it seems, is to presuppose that, at least when it comes to the question of defining a human being, any list of criteria that isn’t exhaustive is capricious and, thus, worthless. But perhaps a search for something like necessary and sufficient conditions with respect to this issue is an exercise in futility.  

The second fault to be found in Noonan’s reasoning is that he uses the same idiom as his opponents: Abortion, in these terms, pertains to the relationship between one human being—“the fetus”—and another—a pregnant woman. He further ensconces this scheme when he expressly says of abortion that it violates the Christian injunction to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.”

The problem, however, is that the unborn is not just another neighbor of its mother. The relationship between a woman and her child, especially when that child is in her womb, utterly dependent upon its mother and her alone for its sustenance and protection, is radically unlike any other.

Any discussion of abortion that fails to take this fact into account falls short.



Judith Jarvis Thomson is a veteran philosopher who, several decades ago, penned a thought-provoking essay that features in virtually all of the contemporary texts used in college-level ethics courses. Her objective is to show that what she takes to be the standard argument against abortion fails to preclude allowances for abortion in cases of rape, the endangerment of the mother’s life, and even those instances when a pregnancy is unplanned.

According to Thomson, the conventional argument against abortion goes something like this: (1) All human beings or persons have a right to life; (2) The fetus is “a human being, a person, from the moment of conception;” (3) Therefore, the fetus has a right to life; (4) Therefore, abortion is wrong.

Now, as a matter of fact, Thomson rejects the second premise: she does not believe that “the fetus” is “a human being, a person,” from “the moment of conception.” However, she notes, even if we assume that it is true, not nearly as much follows from it as the opponents of abortion suppose.

By way of a particularly clever thought experiment, Thomson first tries to establish that even if a fetus is a person with a right to life, abortion in the case of rape is no injustice—i.e. it is not a violation of this right.

Imagine, she says, that one morning you awake to find yourself attached to a world famous violinist that happens to be suffering from a fatal kidney disease. While you slept, “the Society of Music Lovers” abducted you, for upon canvassing the world high and low for a suitable blood match for the violinist, it discovered that you and you alone are the only eligible candidate.  You and you alone can save his life.  The problem, though, is that you will now have to remain hooked up to the violinist for the next, say, nine months.  If you unplug yourself from him, he will surely die.

In this hypothetical scenario, because you have been forced against your will into “carrying” this violinist, you are like the woman who has conceived as a consequence of rape. The violinist, then, is an analog to the fetus.  Even though both the violinist and the fetus are innocent persons with a “right to life,” Thomson thinks that it’s obvious that in neither instance does this “right” generate for the coerced person a duty to shoulder the burden of remaining attached to someone for whom responsibility was never volunteered.

“If anything in the world is true,” Thomson declares, “it is that you do not commit murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if you reach around to your back and unplug yourself from that violinist to save your life.”

Similarly, by (what Thomson takes to be) parity of reasoning, “if anything in the world is true,” it is that the rape victim acts permissibly in aborting the fetus within her.

But is this all that obvious?

For starters, it should be observed that Thomson implies that an agent’s obligations must be grounded in his consent: unless a person agrees to this to that set of arrangements, he has no duties with respect to them.  This line of thought, however, is deeply problematic, for as ethicists from at least the time of Aristotle have known, it is precisely in just those associations that are not the products of choice—our families, local communities, and the governments under which we are born and live—that the stuff of the moral life is to be found.

It is not that choice or consent is morally irrelevant; sometimes—often in fact—it makes all of the difference. But to impute to consent the character of dogma, to make it the be all and end all, is to turn it into a fetish while reducing the richness of moral life to a one-dimensional caricature.

And to make consent the defining feature of the relationship between, not a woman and “the fetus” inhabiting her “body,” but a mother and her child, is to do this most intimate and unique of human relationships a grave disservice. To this last point, we will return.

Secondly, it is worth noting that the act of detaching oneself from a dying person is an arguably very different sort of act from that of aborting—i.e. killing—a fetus.  In the first instance, the intention is not to end life; it is nature or the illness from which the violinist suffers that is the cause of death.  In the second event, the fetus’s demise is the result of the abortionist’s intent to kill it.

Thomson, to be fair, anticipates this objection. Rather, though, than meet it head on, she substitutes for the violinist analogy one featuring a woman stuck in a tiny house with a rapidly growing child who threatens to crush her to death unless she kills him first.  Though the child is innocent in the sense that he means no harm, the woman would still be justified in killing him if this is the only way that she could save herself.

Similarly, a woman whose life is threatened by her pregnancy would be acting permissibly if she pursued an abortion.

On its face, this argument seems plausible as far as it goes. But does it go that far?  In fact, is this even an argument?

While Thomson may be correct in claiming that a woman does not act wrongly in pursuing an abortion when the pregnancy threatens her life, she hasn’t actually argued for this conclusion.  Or, if you will, what argument can be found is fallacious, question-begging.  No one, least of all a believer in rights, thinks it is permissible to defend one’s life—or the lives of others—at all costs. Whether abortion is a morally acceptable course of action to take in this situation is exactly what is in question.  Thomson needs to supply an argument to prove that it is.

At any rate, we can surely envision circumstances in which killing an innocent person in order to save one’s own life or the lives of others—even the lives of those, like our children, who are nearest and dearest to us—would be unconscionable.  For instance, suppose your child has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers inform you that unless you kill, say, the child of a king, his heir apparent, they will kill your child.   Few people, particularly those, like Thomson, who argue from the standpoint of a rights-based ethics, would even think to look upon such an act as anything other than murder.

There is one final consideration that must be borne in mind: When discussing the relationship between a mother and her child, the language of “rights” is woefully inadequate. And when it is the relationship of a mother to her unborn child, it is even that much more improper, for such a relationship is unique in that it is uniquely intimate.

That is, the relationship in which the issue of abortion centers is not an adversarial one between two rights-bearing individuals but, rather, an intrinsically loving relationship between a woman and her offspring, a rapidly growing human being that is utterly dependent upon her and her alone.

In evaluating the moral standing of abortion, it is this relationship that must be our focal point.