Tough Questions Answered

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What Would Kant Say About Abortion?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Immanuel Kant is a famous philosopher who lived in the eighteenth century.  One of Kant’s most lasting contributions to philosophy was in the field of ethics.  He believed that moral laws could be derived from reason, and that all immoral behavior was, therefore, unreasonable or irrational.

Kant argued for the idea of the categorical imperative, a law of morality that all humans have a duty to obey.  His first formulation of this categorical imperative is the following: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  Kant believed that all moral duties could be deduced from this categorical imperative.

What does this categorical imperative mean?  In essence, if you want to decide whether an act is morally good, then you should be able to will that everyone else would act in the same way.  In other words, the act must be universalizable.

What about abortion?  Kant would say to the woman who wants to have an abortion: “Can you will that every other woman would have an abortion when she is pregnant?”  If the woman says “yes,” then abortion is moral.  If she says “no,” then abortion cannot be moral.

It seems to me that a woman who wanted to have an abortion could not will that every other woman also have an abortion when she is pregnant.  Why?  Because in one generation the human race would go extinct and nobody could have an abortion.  To will that all women have abortions would mean that no women could have an abortion after the current generation died off.  By Kant’s reasoning, this makes abortion irrational and, therefore,  immoral.

Again, according to Kant, abortion would be immoral because it would be irrational to will that every pregnant woman have an abortion.  The act of every pregnant woman aborting the fetus inside her would, ultimately, end abortion, which is completely irrational.

You may not agree with Kant’s categorical imperative, but it does give us an interesting perspective on the issue of abortion.  Fundamentally, those who support a woman’s choice to have an abortion can only support some women choosing abortion, not all.  Presumably and ironically, if all women decided to have abortions, the pro-choice movement would have to become pro-life.


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  • Jeff

    How did intelligent thinking men find this man a voice of reason and moral intellect? We as Christians understand we cannot will to do good, or not sin without the power of the Holy Spirit, and we still struggle at times. How could anyone possibly believe, Christian or not, that you could will multitudes of people to do anything! While his thoughts become honorable as you extrapolate the possibilities as you have, a moral law that is universalizable would be wonderful. The problem is in the willing of others to do the same.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Kant would say to the woman who wants to have an abortion: “Can you will that every other woman would have an abortion when she is pregnant?” If the woman says “yes,” then abortion is moral. If she says “no,” then abortion cannot be moral.”

    You could replace ‘woman having an abortion’ with ‘Man becoming a monk’, or ‘woman becoming a nun’, or ‘Anyone choosing not to have children’, or even ‘Student studying to become a plumber’.

    If every man became a monk, or every woman become a nun, or every person decided not to have kids – then the population would die off.

    And if every young person trained to be a plumber then there’d be no-one to look after the farms and we’d starve.

    That is not a good argument against any of these choices.

    Either Kant got it wrong or you’ve got Kant wrong.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    You are mixing moral issues with non-moral issues. As I read Kant, he differentiates between hypothetical imperatives (regarding non-moral and conditional issues) and the categorical imperative (regarding moral and unconditional issues).

    Hypothetical imperatives are conditional and not related to morality. “If you want to make a living, you should become a plumber.” “If you want to choose a fulfilling career, then become a monk.”

    The categorical imperative has to do with unconditional moral law, and that is why he believed any moral rule must be applied universally to all people.

  • Andrew Ryan

    How are you working out that you need to assign morality to abortion and not to being a plumber?

    At any rate, you’re viewing it too simplistically – it would make more sense to ask “What would happen if every woman in that woman’s circumstances had an abortion?”

    A woman might be having an abortion because not to have one would kill her and the baby. It would make no sense to extrapolate from her abortion the effect on the world if every pregnant woman in the world made the same choice, despite only a tiny percentage of them being in the same decision.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I remember from studying Kant that he used the reasoning you lay out above to show that lying is always wrong no matter what circumstance. He was given a scenario where a friend asks you to hide him in your attic from a murderer. You do. Then the murderer knocks on your day and asks if the friend is hiding in your house. Kant confidently replied that you must tell the murderer the truth.

    This strikes me as an obvious flaw in an approach where you ignore the details of any individual scenario.

  • Boz

    What about abortion? Kant would say to the woman who wants to have an abortion: “Can you will that every other woman would have an abortion when she is pregnant?” If the woman says “yes,” then abortion is moral. If she says “no,” then abortion cannot be moral.

    Haha, that is a sneaky framing of the question. Try this:

    What about abortion? Kant would say to the woman who wants to choose whether to have an abortion: “Can you will that every other woman would have the choice to have an abortion when she is pregnant?” If the woman says “yes,” then abortion is moral. If she says “no,” then abortion cannot be moral.

  • The Chisel

    unfortunately Bill, abortion (and most events in life) have some sort of “condition” that makes each and every person and their circumstances unique. Therefore there is not and never will be a universal answer to this question.

    Kant’s logic cannot be applied to this subject.

  • http://aisforatheist5760.blogspot.com A is for Atheist

    Kant’s Categorical Imperative is flawed, and in my view, Utilitarianism is a better framework for morality. Utilitarianism means doing what is right for the overall good, and I can present examples which would go against Kant’s Categorical Imperative, but would be right for the overall good.

    For instance if I were in a situation where I was held hostage with others, and the abductor said that “Anyone here named Cathy is going to die.” I would lie and tell him my name was Ann–which goes against Kant’s theory. There are many examples which go against Kant’s Categorical Imperative, so it is not a good framework for morality.

    But speaking of abortion, according to Christianity, the Christian god is all knowing. Thus, the Christian god knows if a fetus will grow into an evil monster, so perhaps, just as many Christians claim the slaughter of the Canaanite children (Deuteronomy 7:1-2) was justified because those children could grow to be evil monsters if they were allowed to live. According to this logic, those fetuses that are aborted today could also have grown into evil people, and your god is orchestrating their termination because as Christians claim, he knows best “in the larger sense.” Just like the Canaanite children could grow to be evil monsters if they were allowed to live, so could the aborted fetuses have grown to be evil monsters, so your god did not allow them to be born. Furthermore, the question then arises as to why Yahweh allowed “evil monsters” such as Hitler to be born in the first place, who then went on to kill more than 6 million of his “chosen people.” It makes no logical sense that an all-good, all knowing, and all powerful god would kill an entire group of “potentially evil” people, but fail to eliminate the fetus of one of the worst mass murderers in human history–the murderer of his own so-called “chosen” people!! Therefore, according to what is written in the bible, your god is not against abortion, as he orchestrates it. “…EVERY decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33)

  • http://aisforatheist5760.blogspot.com A is for Atheist

    Boz has shown what is wrong with Kant’s categorical imperative. But it is not just “if the woman says yes or no,” that counts, the problem is that “she can will that every other woman would have the choice to have an abortion when she is pregnant?”–in other words, it can be universalized.

    The other problem is that Kant wanted the categorical imperative not to be based on ends and motives of the will. According to Kant it is not based on the will’s relation to the effect hoped for from the action. It is, “irrespective of the ends which can be brought about by such an action.” Now consider Pratt’s claim that: “It seems to me that a woman who wanted to have an abortion could not will that every other woman also have an abortion when she is pregnant. Why? Because in one generation the human race would go extinct and nobody could have an abortion. To will that all women have abortions would mean that no women could have an abortion after the current generation died off. By Kant’s reasoning, this makes abortion irrational and, therefore, immoral.”

    Now J.S. Mill has argued that in fact Kant does base the CI on the consequences. In Pratt’s example the bad consequences would be that in one generation the human race would go extinct. Of course Prat, like others who would agree with Kant, would think that Kant is making a logical point that it would lead to the contradiction that abortion is permitted and it is not permitted (because there would be no humans left.)

    At any rate, you can see that the choice to have an abortion, and thus to have an abortion, if so chosen, can be universalized without any contradiction.

  • http://aisforatheist5760.blogspot.com A is for Atheist

    Actually, Kant’s categorical imperative allows too much into the moral sphere. For one could universalize all manner of behaviors that have nothing to do with morality. The maxim “if any action consists of tying one’s left shoe before the right, then it ought to be done” is clearly unrealizable. However, tying the left shoe before the right is not a duty and usually has no moral significance at all. Therefore, Kant’s categorical imperative allows too much into the moral sphere.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    I agree with you. If the moral rule was advocating abortion only in specific and rare circumstances, then I think the categorical imperative would allow for it. Good point.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    I am not a Kantian, and I believe that his approach has serious flaws, as you do. I just thought it would be interesting to look at how we might apply his categorical imperative to the issue of abortion.

  • http://carlyjo02.wordpress.com/ Carly JO

    Boz, I think you’re wrong. Your words: “‘Can you will that every other woman would have the choice to have an abortion when she is pregnant?’ If the woman says ‘yes,’ then abortion is moral. If she says ‘no,’ then abortion cannot be moral.”

    That is a sneaky phrasing of the conclusion.

    Shouldn’t you have written if the woman says “yes,” then the choice to have an abortion is moral?

    On another account, would you not then have to define what circumstances would warrant a choice, or exception to the universal law? I define them as follows:

    1. If continuing pregnancy will kill both child and mother. *If one will live it is then the choice of the mother.

    2. If the baby is the product of rape. *This is difficult to know for sure, but I am not suggesting pragmatism, just a moral framework. I struggle with this one as well, since the child should not be punished for the sins of a rapist… anyways.

    Given those situation, a mother might say “no”. But if a woman merely has sex without a condom or other birth control (or if it fails) and becomes gets pregnant, I believe it to be immoral to abort. In other words, stupidity and passion are not acceptable motives to kill a fetus.

  • The Chisel

    I think we must have posted at the same time.

    I must have assumed that you were using Kant’s logic to establish a position, not to open a conversation.

    Anyway, my short ansere is; no, I don’t feel it’s (Kant) a sound perspective to be applied in this topic.

  • Michael Hyder

    Jeff, though I do not agree with Kantian ethics, it is also very narrowly (and incorrectly) portrayed in this very short blog post. The reason that intelligent people have found Kant and other philosophers voices of reason is because the moral/ethical position that you derive from the Bible leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Also, Bill’s wording of Kant’s First Formulation is misleading. Kant doesn’t argue that if something is morally right you should be able to will everyone to do it, as if by supernatural control.

    Kant actually states it this way “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” You can tell by the context that Bill intended this same meaning, but again, his wording here is a little confusing.

  • Michael Hyder

    “That is a sneaky phrasing of the conclusion.

    Shouldn’t you have written if the woman says “yes,” then the choice to have an abortion is moral?”

    Carly, you are absolutely correct in pointing this out. You are also correct in pointing out that Kant’s argument is conspicuously lacking a definition of circumstances. However, you have created a false dichotomy here, implying that if women aren’t raped or in danger of death due to childbirth then there motives for abortion must be “stupidity” or “passion.” This is both untrue and unfair to women, not to mention extremely nieve.

    You speak about “punishing” a child via abortion for the “sins of a rapist.” Aren’t there many instances where NOT aborting would be a punishment to the potential child? Would you like to grow up to a single mother, knowing you’re the product of rape? Would you like to be the child of a drug addict? a prostitute? someone who is mentally ill? someone incapable of caring for you so you wind up bouncing from foster home to foster home until you eventually end up in prison? There are MANY people among us who are demonstrably unfit to not only be parents, but to even bear children in the first place. Why on Earth would you advocate that the small percentage of the population who, for whatever reason (be it selfishness or just common sense) realize that they are not suitable candidates for having children should have them anyway. If you really care about the well being of children, all of this must be taken equalling into account. One of the most appalling aspects of the “pro-life” movement is its emphasis on the “rights of the fetus” and its subsequent disinterest in the well being of that fetus once it is born and enters society.

  • Anonymous

    Michael, you’re right, and I appreciate you pointing those things out. I struggle with those thoughts deeply, and have for a while. You’re right in saying I’m naive, because I am. Only by some strange series of very fortunate events I have never been faced with a pregnant girlfriend. In that light I do want to make a very objective argument defending my original view, and in no way claiming it to be right in all or any situations, since I am quite removed from the pain of a, not only unwanted but, forced pregnancy.

    I could make the argument for the horrible state of the world. The likely hood that a boy will be addicted to pornography before his teenage years, and things like that. The statistics for ‘bad things’ about our world are overwhelming. Most likely any child will have emotional problems from something. There are no good situations, but only varying degrees of bad ones in which to bring a child into the world.
    This is a very fatalistic approach, I know, but I believe it to be very real, if not completely accurate. It raises the question: How bad do the circumstances need to be to warrant an abortion?
    Perhaps that’s a question worth answering in each individual case. Just some thoughts.

  • Frategorical Drunkperative

    Your response, like a lot of the responses here, are only looking at Kant’s first maxim and not philosophy as a whole. The situation you laid out, where lying would be percieved as good, is actually not. Even though you’re dealing with a guy with a gun to your head, you are your own moral agent and not responsible for the actions of the gunman. So, you could lie to save yourself, but you wouldn’t be morally correct in doing so. Working for the overall good is well and good, except many groups in the past have commited horrible atrocities in the name of the greater good and completely believed they were morally right. For instance, Christianity throughout the ages. The “no, no this is for the greater good even though it looks bad.” argument doesn’t really fly because then “the greater good” is subjective and irrelevant, and often determined by religious whim.

    so even if your friend comes to your house and asks to hide in your attic, a guy shows up with a knife and asks where he is and you say the attic, not lying, and your friend dies, you’re still not morally responsible for your friend dying since the killer is his own moral agent and youre not responsible for his actions, you can only control your own actions. Alternatively, there is nothing wrong with you locking the door and calling the police, or wrestling him to the ground after he walks into your house, shooting him with a tranquilizer, sicking your dog on him…etc.

    applied to the issue of abortion, we complicate matters still. the main subject of debate still hinges on whether or not the fetus is human. There is really no way around this issue because if the fetus is human, Kant would probably say it is immoral to have an abortion because killing is always wrong, no matter how you dress it up, societal benefits, convenience, accepted social norms. If a fetus is not a person, Kant would say that abortion is okay because you arent killing a rational being, and you arent imposing your will upon anyone else, that is, treating them as means to an end rather than ends themselves.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Saying you’re not responsible, someone else killed your friend, is a cop-out. You point to past atrocities committed in the name of ‘the greater good’. One can also point to atrocities that could have been prevented by ‘innocent bystanders’ who shrugged and said “I’m not the one doing the crime so I have no obligation to stop it”.

    In the thought experiment you mention, one presumes that simply calling the police or tackling the killer is not an option – it’s lie or your mate gets gutted.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    You said, “Aren’t there many instances where NOT aborting would be a punishment to the potential child? Would you like to grow up to a single mother, knowing you’re the product of rape? Would you like to be the child of a drug addict? a prostitute? someone who is mentally ill? someone incapable of caring for you so you wind up bouncing from foster home to foster home until you eventually end up in prison?”

    Wow! Michael, these statements strike me as the height of confusion. You honestly believe that if a person were given a choice of being killed or growing up in a single parent home as the product of rape, that the person would choose being killed? Really?

    This seems eminently easy to test. Why don’t we take a poll of people who were born because of rape, and see whether they wished their mothers had killed them. Let’s poll people whose mothers are prostitutes or drug addicts and see whether they would choose death.

    I feel extremely confident that the vast majority of these people would choose life, even under the less than ideal circumstances they are in.

    It is frightening to me when people judge other people’s lives as unworthy of living. That is exactly the kind of thinking that was behind the 20th century euthanasia movement.

  • Molter

    So, does anybody know if Kant actually said anything about abortion?

    One student claims that the second formulation prohibits abortion, because the fetus is human and destroying it treats it as a mere means to some other end.

    “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

    Another student points out that rationality is the defining character of an end for Kant. Non-human animals lack rationality, and therefore fall outside the kingdom of ends. Human fetuses also lack rationality, so a fetus is not “humanity” in the sense of the second formulation of the categorical imperative.

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