The most interesting aspect of ethics is at the margins, those situations where absolutists are challenged to hold to their principles because of unforseen variations that no general analysis could anticipate. The absolute ban on torture as unethical becomes shaky under the “hidden nuclear bomb” scenario. Capital punishment opponents find that their compassion evaporates when asked whether Hitler or bin Laden deserved execution.
This is the Ethics Incompleteness problem, which I last wrote about at length in March of 2014:
“The human language is not sufficiently precise to define a rule that will achieve its desired effects, that is work, in every instance. There are always anomalies around the periphery of every normative system, no matter how sound or well articulated. If one responds to an anomaly by trying to amend the rule or system to accommodate it, the integrity of the rule or system is disturbed, and perhaps ruined. Yet if one stubbornly applies the rule or system without amendment to the anomaly anyway, one may reach an absurd conclusion or an unjust result. The Ethics Incompleteness Principle suggests that when a system or rule doesn’t seem to work well when applied to an unexpected or unusual situation, the wise response is to temporarily abandon the system or rule and return to basic principles to find the solution. No system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing to a single system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a pre-determined formula for determining what is right breaks down.”
I was watching the Jeff Goldblum remake of “The Fly” (written and directed by David Cronenberg) last night, and rather than being properly horrified by Geena Davis’s nightmare of giving birth to a yard long fly larva, I found myself wondering how anti-abortion absolutists would handle her unusual dilemma. The film follows the tragedy of scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum ) who has developed a means of teleportation. The process involves a computer breaking down a body, then transmitting the atoms electronically to a receiving “pod,” and reassembling them there. Unfortunately, when Seth tests the device on himself, an unnoticed fly gets into the sending pod, and the result is a version of Brundle that has fly DNA mixed in. (In the memorably campy Vincent Price original, what arrived in the receiving pod was a man with a giant fly head and a fly with a tiny human head.) Gradually Brundle mutates in form and mind into a monstrous hybrid, but before he knows what has happened to him, he impregnates girl friend Davis. Soon she realizes that something with insect DNA is gestating inside of her, though all tests show a healthy human embryo. Not surprisingly, she wants an abortion.
Would those who argue that abortion is murder maintain that she shouldn’t be able to have one, or that aborting the fetus is wrong? Let’s make the problem harder: let’s say she only learns that she has a fly-baby in the third trimester, when our laws wil not permit abortions unless the mother’s life is in peril. Some questions:
1.The baby looks human, even though, by this point, the father does not. Would we take the position that an abortion would be lawful and ethical because this isn’t a human baby? Seth Brundle, though mutated, presumably has all of his rights as a citizen and human being, regardless of his new fly component. How would we deny the same to his son, who is arguably more human than he is, being only 25% fly, rather than 50%?
2. Would abortion opponents who make (illogical and hypocritical) exceptions for rapes and incest only really argue that these are better reasons to abort than the knowledge that your unborn child isn’t fully human, or even fully primate?
3. Is the proper analogy the abortion of a seriously deformed embryo? Nothing in the tests show that little Buzz (I think that’s what I would name him) isn’t healthy. The analogy now defaults to the question of whether to abort a child with a high probability of possessing a so-called “lethal” gene. Under current law, however, such an abortion would not be legal so late in the pregnancy.
4. Davis says that if no one will abort Buzz, she will do it herself. Should that have any bearing on the decision whether to permit the abortion?
Note that through all of this, the proud father has turned into something that looks like an animated meat loaf and is running around dissolving people’s hands by spitting up on them. I would conclude that the Ethics Incompleteness Principal applies to the ethics of the situation (the law is another matter), and that of course a woman is not behaving unethically to abort an unborn child that she knows is a part-human, part insect monstrosity. I am not sure I wouldn’t approve of her throwing it out the window after it was born. Obviously I would apply the same logic to Rosemary’s Baby.
Do you agree?