A Future of Value
In my previous article, I examined the argument against abortion that I consider to be the strongest, the Substance View. This argument, by philosopher Don Marquis, is also a very strong argument and, when used in tandem with the Substance View, offers a very powerful cumulative case against abortion.
This argument comes from Marquis’ 1989 article Why Abortion is Immoral. According to pro-choice philosopher David Boonin, this Marquis’ article is “widely viewed by philosophers as containing the single most powerful argument against abortion.” (David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, 2003, p. 20.) All future citations in this article are from Marquis’ article Why Abortion is Immoral.
Marquis begins by examining several pro-life and pro-choice arguments, and concluding that they’re generally at a stand-still. For example, take the following two paragraphs:
“Consider the way a typical antiabortionist argues. She will argue or assert that life is present from the moment of conception or that fetuses look like babies or that fetuses possess a characteristic such as a genetic code that is both necessary or sufficient for being human. Antiabortionists seem to believe that (1) the truth of any of these claims is quite obvious, and (2) establishing any of these claims is sufficient to show that an abortion is morally akin to murder.
“A standard pro-choice strategy exhibits similarities. The pro-choicer will argue or assert that fetuses are not persons or that fetuses are not rational agents or that fetuses are not social beings. Pro-choicers seem to believe that (1) the truth of any of these claims is quite obvious, and (2) establishing any of these claims is sufficient to show that abortion is not a wrong killing.”
He examines several more of these apparent symmetries in the abortion issue. Believing himself to have found the deciding factor in the abortion debate, he begins from a premise that is uncontroversial. It is wrong to kill us (that is, you and me). Why is it wrong to kill us? Marquis provides a discussion of the reason:
“Some answers can be eliminated. It might be said that what makes killing us wrong is that a killing brutalizes the one who kills. But the brutalization consists of being injured to the performance of an act that is hideously immoral; hence, the brutalization does not explain the immorality. It might be said that what makes killing us wrong is the great loss others would experience due to our absence. Although such hubris is understandable, such an explanation does not account for the wrongness of killing hermits, or those whose lives are relatively independent and whose friends find it easy to make new friends.
“A more obvious answer is better. What primarily makes killing wrong is neither its effect on the murderer nor its effect on the victim’s friends and relatives, but its effect on the victim. The loss of one’s life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer. The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim.”
What makes killing any of us wrong is not simply the fact that our life is taken against our will (as this wouldn’t explain why it is wrong to kill suicidal people). What makes killing us wrong is that we are robbed of all of the experiences, activities, etc. that we would have experienced had we been allowed to continue living. It is also uncontroversial that killing children is wrong, for the same reason. Some may believe that infanticide is morally permissible, but if this account of the wrongness of killing is correct, then that also makes infanticide morally wrong. Incidentally, this also accounts for why abortion is seriously wrong. The embryo/fetus also has a “Future Like Ours,” that is, a future with similar experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that they will come to experience.
Marquis also mentions that having a “future like ours” is a sufficient condition, not a necessary one to account for the wrongness of killing. As he writes, “Some persons in nursing homes may lack valuable human futures, yet it may be wrong to kill them for other reasons. Furthermore, this account does not obviously have to be the sole reason killing is wrong where the victim did have a valuable future. This analysis claims only that, having that future by itself is sufficient to create the strong presumption that the killing is seriously wrong.”
An objection I commonly hear to this argument is that it would mean that contraception is immoral, since sperm and ova also have a “future-like-ours.” But this rests on a common pro-choice strawman of the pro-life position. We argue that the human zygote is valuable because it is a living human organism, a member of species Homo sapiens. Sperm and eggs are mere haploid cells, from the larger parent organism (the man or woman who provided it). The sperm and eggs are not human organisms. As such, they do not have a “future like ours,” that is, a future of experiences, plans, etc., that all human beings will experience. Their future is to provide genetic information for the new human organism, then to die as soon as they contribute their genetic material. 
Additionally, Marquis addresses this in his article. He writes, “…this analysis does not entail that contraception is wrong. Of course, contraception prevents the actualization of a possible future of value. Hence, it follows from the claim that futures of value should be maximized that contraception is prima facie immoral. This obligation to maximize does not exist, however; furthermore, nothing in the ethics of killing in this paper entails that it does. The ethics of killing in this essay would entail that contraception is wrong only if something were denied a human future of value by contraception. Nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception however.”
Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours argument, coupled with Beckwith’s Substance View, creates a very powerful cumulative case as to why abortion is a serious moral wrong. I have yet to see a pro-choice advocate convincingly argue against either of these two positions.
 I owe this observation to my friend and pro-life advocate Josh Brahm.
Some guy called it – it really was Don Marquis!
Indeed it was. 😀
I'll just wait for your post on personhood 🙂
"We argue that the human zygote is valuable because it is a living human organism, a member of species Homo sapiens."
This strikes me as a contradiction. You just finished arguing that killing is wrong because of future interests, not because of genetic composition.
"…[A]ll human beings will experience…[a future of experiences, plans, etc.]"
Not necessarily. My understanding is that many zygotes are miscarried and never experience those things. Someone like Terri Schiavo also, arguably, would never have meaningful experiences.
"Their future is to provide genetic information for the new human organism, then to die as soon as they contribute their genetic material."
Do you have a reference for this idea that sperm and egg just hand over genetic material and then go off and die? To what do they hand the material over? Even if that is true, the genetic material would become part of the new human being, so could it not be said that it has potential future interests?
No, it can't be said that sperm and egg have potential future interests. They are not organisms. It makes about as much sense as saying your hair has an interest not to be cut.
I addressed the case of people like Terry Shiavo in the article. Also, people die of natural causes. There are people who die of heart attacks in their 20's. That does nothing to disqualify Marquis' argument.
Additionally, there is no contradiction in my article. Killing is wrong because of future interests, but as Marquis said it's a sufficient, not a necessary condition. There may be (and are) other reasons that it's wrong to kill human beings.
"I addressed the case of people like Terry Shiavo in the article."
You mean when you quoted Marquis as saying "Some persons in nursing homes may lack valuable human futures, yet it may be wrong to kill them for other reasons"? How does that response explain the following quotation: "What makes killing any of us wrong is…that we would have experienced had we been allowed to continue living"? You use of the phrase "any of us" seems to clearly indicate that you intended it as all-encompassing. If it does not include all of the unborn, it cannot be used to support a ban on abortion.
"Also, people die of natural causes."
"Additionally, there is no contradiction in my article. Killing is wrong because of future interests, but as Marquis said it's a sufficient, not a necessary condition. There may be (and are) other reasons that it's wrong to kill human beings."
But the objection was not addressing other reasons; it was addressing whether the "future-like-ours" argument was sufficient to deem killing sperm and eggs wrong. If the "future-like-ours" argument is sufficient to deem killing wrong, genetic composition is, by definition, irrelevant.
"No, it can't be said that sperm and egg have potential future interests. They are not organisms."
Again, that strikes me as changing your argument when the questions become too hard. If this "future-like-ours" argument is sufficient, how could "organism" status — whatever that means exactly — matter?
Yes, it can be used to justify an abortion because it explains why killing fetuses is wrong, just like killing any other human is wrong. The case of Terry Shiavo or an elderly person in a nursing home may not have a future like ours, but it may still be wrong to kill them for another reason.
You were using the case of natural miscarriages to try and show that embryos don't have a "future like us," but it does no such thing. Embryos and fetuses still have a valuable future like us, even if some of them abort naturally. Plus, not all fusions of the sperm and egg are human conceptions. Some are hydatidiform moles or some other non-human entity, which explains why many of them spontaneously abort.
You're attacking a strawman. Sperm and eggs are mere cells that belong to the parent entity, the father and mother who contribute genetic material to the new human individual that is conceived. They are haploid cells, the resulting zygote begins as a diploid cell that develops itself, from within, into a more mature version of itself. They are different entities; sperm and eggs are mere cells of the body, the zygote is a brand new human entity, genetically distinct from her father and mother.
No, it's not changing the argument, it's you refusing to address the argument as I give it. Before the resulting human conceives, there is nothing that is being denied a future by using contraceptives (such as condoms). Only after the sperm and egg fuse together, forming a new human entity, is there a human being with a "future like ours." Sperm and eggs are just parts of the male and female who are contributing genetic material to the new human organism.
For what it is worth, I botched the quotation. Here is what I intended: "What makes killing any of us wrong is…that we are robbed of all of the experiences, activities, etc. that we would have experienced had we been allowed to continue living."
"Yes, it can be used to justify an abortion ban because it explains why killing fetuses is wrong…"
But, as I pointed out, many zygotes are miscarried and never have any experiences. So abortions do not deprive them of those experiences.
"mbryos and fetuses still have a valuable future like us, even if some of them abort naturally."
How can an embryo have a valuable future if he or she has been miscarried?
"Only after the sperm and egg fuse together, forming a new human entity, is there a human being with a "future like ours."
How is that assertion not arbitrary and capricious? Marquis defines a future like ours as the loss of future experiences. If someone must meet some arbitrary standard for someone to recognize their loss as a loss, how would that not stop anyone from declaring anyone else as a non-person or non-alive for any reason whatsoever?
>The case of Terry Shiavo or an elderly person in a nursing home may not have a future like ours, but it may still be wrong to kill them for another reason.
In which case Marquis was wrong, by definition, to say that possible future experiences are a "sufficient to create the strong presumption that the killing is seriously wrong." It does not argue for the immorality of killing a person who will spend the rest of her life utterly braindead.
This argument is not logical. The future of a dead embryo is nonexistent. You cannot argue that an action is immoral because it prevents a thing that won't exist.
Potential futures are not actual things. They're concepts. Can you argue for the immorality of preventing the actualization of a concept?
That's not true. To say that something is sufficient means if that obtains, then it is enough. So while Terry Shiavo may not have had a future of value, the fact that you and I do is enough for it to be strongly immoral to kill us. That doesn't mean the principle, itself, is mistaken. You're confusing sufficient with necessary conditions. A Future of Value is a sufficient condition, not a necessary one (where it *must* be present to be immoral to kill someone).
Hi, just nitpicking, but hair isn't a good thing to compare a sperm to, since hair is basically dead.
Thanks for the info. That's an example I tend to hear from the pro-choice crowd, so I thought I'd usurp it to make a point. lol