Thursday, 28 May 2009

Abortion & euthanasia

IT IS ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL TO READ AND REVISE pgs 208-225 within the Tyler & Reid
religious Studies textbook:

When answering an abortion question one has to understand that this is a issue which relies on :

a] a notion of rights , especially for the mother [p215] ; secondly the utilitarian notion of 'rights for the unborn' which seem more like justifications to abort the foetus that could potentially live a life including pain and disability, have a relatively 'poor quality of life' or is unwanted.
b] the religious notion of the Sanctity of Life, of Life as a gift given by a Loving Creator God and the rights of the foetus as such [p215]
c] the notion of personhood - and the legislation that follows from this within the revised mixed strategy with the inclusion of the potentiality considerations. remember in the US an embryo/foetus is considered a human being but not a human person in order to permit abortion but also to charge any third party who caused an unwanted miscarriage with a criminal offence . Definitions [p209]
d] the moral worth and dignity of the foetus :

This last issue will be the main structure of any answer: You must mention the developmental stages ; e.g. the legal limit of 14 days for embryonic experimentation , the 24 weeks legal limit for reasons other than significant medical/psychological harm to the mother [which permits abortion up to birth], implantation, the development of the primitive streak , the neural groove [where the developing brain connects to the developing spinal cord [17 days] ] , resemblance [10-12wks], autonomous reactivity [12-16wks] the quickening, the variance and movable nature of viability with scientific advancement, and birth.

Remember the five main ideological strands:

Conservative: [Religious] [The roman catholic response provides the best definition of this stance]
[Secular] in that as it is impossible to determine where a group of cells becomes a human being/person ; therefore all moral considerations must treat the embryo foetus as a human being from conception.

[The conservative view has to overcome the difficulty of the significant observable difference between a fertilised ovum and a newborn baby ; especially considering 32% of embryos do not implant; and 20 % of developing foetuses do not survive to full term]

Extreme liberal [radical feminist] : a reverse of the conservative secular argument ; that as it is impossible to determine where the mother's tissue becomes an independent entity and human being ; the embryo/foetus MUST be considered as nothing more than tissue of the mother until birth and the cutting of the umbilical cord. Even if it is deemed a human being or person , this is an irrelevance as the rights of the mother over that part of herself countermand any rights of the foetus.

[the extreme liberal view has obvious difficulties in that to most people a late-term foetus is far from a a piece of human tissue as innocuous as a kidney or liver, and abortion cannot be considered as morally irrelevant as having a haircut as the extreme liberal would imply - there are also the issues of pregnancy through rape [the woman should have little psychological concern that she's carrying a rapist's child - it is merely a piece of tissue; nor should there be much anguish at miscarriage [it is not the loss of a child] - but there is a major crucial problem inherant within this stance : that of surrogacy - as one woman provides the fertilised ovum , and another sustains and grows the foetus - to whom does the foetus belong ? For the extreme liberal this brings great difficulties.

Moderate Liberal :

a] Animalistic - The embryo and foetus should correspond to whatever one deems as an appropriate ethical stance regarding the dignity and worth of higher animals.

b] The Mixed Theory: This is the major stance [combined with the notion of personhood] which is adopted within western societies. It considers both the secular conservative and extreme liberal indeterminacy [no absolute cut-off point where one can say a foetus becomes a human being] position as specious and unworkable.
There have to be limits where abortion is permissible [usually for any reason ; as the destruction of a non-human is innocuous] until a certain cut-off point where only medical/psychological harm to the mother may justify abortion [this is predominantly legislated at viability]. Thus at early term pregnancy abortion for any reason is permissible , at late term one requires a serious reason, and there is a fuzzy region mid-term where there is an openness for debate on the issue.

The mixed strategy , in attempting to accomodate liberal and conservative terms , sides strongly with the extreme liberal view in regards to the moral insignificance of the embryo and early term foetus - it is merely a matter of a time limit for abortion - even justifications as potentially morally reprehensible as wilful pregnancy/abortion for cosmetic [clearing of skin] or increasing sexual libido reasons are deemed as morally irrelevant ; providing the abortion occurs within an early timescale.

In order to accommodate the potential difficulties with justifying late-term abortions ; mixed strategy approaches became even more sided with the extreme liberal view by introducing the 'parasitical principle' in that in order for the foetus to survive within the womb it requires oxygen , nutrients, warmth and protection from the mother ; and the mother cannot be expected to be enforced into this position of providing for the dependant foetus. [Ref Judith Jarvis Thompson's Violinist analogy and the justifications within US Law in Roe vs Wade]

c] Potentiality - this position seeks to limit the 'moral irrelevance' factor within the mixed strategy by declaring that the fertilised ovum,embryo and foetus are unique entities worthy of degrees of respect as such ; therefore abortion for any reason is morally repugnant ; and only a serious reason would make it justifiable.

Biblical passages and statements against abortion.

When my bones were being formed, carefully put together in my mother's womb, when I was growing there in secret, you knew that I was there -you saw me before I was born. The days allotted to me had all been recorded in your book, before any of them ever began. Psalms 139:15-16

Before I was born, the LORD chose me and appointed me to be his servant. Isaiah 49:1

"Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived."
Isaiah 46:3

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."
Jeremiah 1:5

You shall not kill by abortion the fruit of the womb.
Didache (an early Christian document c100AD)

"From the time that the ovum is fertilised a new life is begun which is neither that of the father or the mother. It is the life of a new human being with its own growth. It would never become human if it were not human already"
Document on Procured Abortion (1974), Roman Catholic Church

"Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception; abortion and infanticide are the most abominable of crimes"
Statement from the Roman Catholic Church

'If you do make a mistake don't destroy the life ... because also to that child God says, "I have called you by your name, I have carved you in the palm of my hand: you are mine"'
Mother Teresa

'Ever noticed that those who support abortion all happen to have been born ?'
Ronald Reagan

The AQA book provides a reasonably good set of resources for different religious considerations of Abortion ; ensure you know a couple of religions inside-out ; but I'd recommend you learn the Roman Catholic position plus another you feel most familiar with.
ADVICE : Remember that although there are many social concerns ; you're arguing about the ethical positions addressing abortion. Using justifications like 'making abortion illegal would be wrong as it would lead to backstreet abortions' are a concern , but not one which addresses the rights and wrongs of abortion itself ; especially in regard to the moral worth and dignity of the foetus. If you wish to argue that the Rights of the mother outweigh all other considerations [parasitical principle , subsequent duty of care etc] be sure that you are able to counter all the opposing positions. If you wish to argue against abortion from a conservative position , you must adress every opposing viewpoint and have valid, cogent responses to each ; especially in regard to an early term embryo who does not resemble a human being or possess the majority of human physical attributes or faculties ; you may have to argue from the point of 'what it will become without direct intervention to prevent it becoming that developed human being' - that from point zero it is a potential human being like you or I.

You could be asked to apply something/ everything you've learned in the abortion arguments to one specific issue - embryonic research or foetal euthanasia or the notion of personhood or religious rights to life - DON'T PANIC ! You have all the necessary provisional material to answer the question ; you merely just have to change the emphasis of those arguments accordingly to ensure they directly answer the question.

Euthanasia :
It's unlikely that you'll get a euthanasia question on its own [although IT IS possible] ; but it's strongly recommended that you revise every aspect of it in case one specific aspect comes up as a secondary aspect of a question.

Although you must use the AQA arguments pro and con [very weak - using these on their own won't provide a good grade] ; it is highly recommended that you include the extra Tyler & Reid arguments [220 onwards] & the notion of palliative care and the hospice movement.

In order to gain extra points I strongly advise that you use the James Rachels arguments to argue the potential dangers with merely accepting passive over active euthanasia.
1. As active euthanasia immediately stops pain and suffering ; and passive allows a further short-term period of pain and suffering - if the justification for passive euthanasia is to prevent pain and suffering ; surely active is better ?
2. We are legally allowed to withdraw treatment from any newborn Downs syndrome babies with duodenal atresia [twisted bowel] ; whereas a non-Downs baby must undergo minor surgery to save their lives. As we are allowing the Downs baby to die for no other reason than because they have Downs , this leads to two consequences:
either a] we can kill/allow to die all Downs children ; or b] All Downs babies should and must be treated.
3. Two brothers wish their nephew to die : If one brother drowned him in the bath , or in another scenario the other brother saw the child slip in the bath, bang their head and drown without rescuing him . What is the ultimate ethical difference if both consequences result in the death of the child ?

[THE ANSWER TO 3 IS KNOWN AS THE 'in absentia corollary'. In the first case the child would not be dead ; in the second he would have died anyway; only if there was a duty of care could there be deemed any legal cupability; moral culpability is of course very different]

4. Allowing to die vs. Direct intervention to end life. When a doctor withdraws treatment are we fooling ourselves that the doctor is not making a direct action to end life ? If there is a duty of care, and a doctor abrogates that responsibility; is this not a direct act of omission ? The doctor is actually doing something in refusing to provide further treatment. [rather than one of commission which active euthanasia requires].

ADVICE : Remember this is a very sensitive subject and writing in any extreme way supporting either a strong pro or contra position for or against euthanasia without due concern will make you seem callous and heartless ; denying either a person's rights to 'die with dignity or live with dignity'- and antagonising an examiner will lose you points . Read all the arguments inside and out; and look out for fallacies appealing to either sentiment or the removal of duty/responsibility of care in order to accommodate utilitarian notions of increasing pleasure/eliminating pain, or those which introduce notions of personhood - especially for those in PVS or suffering dementia/alzheimer's. Yet again you have to give every side a voice and counter each one ; even with those arguments with which you might possibly agree. Remember too the hospice movement and palliative care ; but remember the difficulties in arguing against personal autonomy [J S MILL] for those who wish to die and want someone else to kill them in assisted suicide. The AQA book is adequately proficient in explaining most religious approaches to euthanasia , but if you wish to mention the Roman catholic position - it is better that you use the Taylor and Reid [for instance DON'T use the Hans Kung quote , as most catholics consider hans kung to be very far from a real catholic - if you get a catholic examiner they'd go ballistic!]
remember too that you're being placed in a position where you'll be expected to "SHOW OFF YOUR KNOWLEDGE" - if you can remember a few different viewpoints from different religions - use them !

Wednesday, 27 May 2009


Utilitarianism is an ethical system which pre-supposes we are have some degree of freedom and responsibility for our actions. [i.e. it is not hard determinist]
It is non-relativist in that - although not absolutist - one is obliged to perform ‘right’ action ; one has a duty to perform those acts which promote greater utility.
Utility may be defined as that which is useful, beneficial , increases pleasure or happiness, diminishes pain or suffering.
Unlike deontological forms of ethics , Utilitarianism is teleological and consequentialist ; in that it is concerned solely with the justification/moral worth of an act by its ends and consequences ; not its means, motives or intentions.

At the dawn of the Industrial revolution, and post the American and French revolutions, [where social injustice, inequality and the rights of the majority became significant social and political concerns ] ;
Jeremy Bentham concluded; and subsequently adopted the principle that:

“Right actions are those which produce the greatest pleasures for those affected by their consequences ; wrong actions are those which do not.”

In order to assess and determine a standard for judging personal and private action [it‘s rightness dependant upon its ‘Utility‘ or usefulness ] ; Bentham introduced the hedonic calculus to calculate the most pleasurable and least painful action :
The action’s :
a] intensity
b] duration
c] certainty
d] propinquity [nearness] vs. its remoteness.
e] fecundity [the chances of there being further pleasures]
f] purity [the chances of there being less further pain]
g] extent

With this process one could be able to ascertain right action by quantifying happiness.
Yet within this system lie two major difficulties:
a] The inability to determine or predict one or more of the factors within the hedonic calculus.
b] a danger of narcissistic self-gratification and indulgence ; which John Stuart Mill considered a ‘wallowing in lower pleasures’.
Thus Mill introduced the principle that utilitarianism’s primary moral concern should be towards the quality rather than quantity of the act ; and should aspire to the higher-order goods such as art, culture and intellectual/social improvement.
Mill also considered that personal autonomy , when it affected solely the private individual and had no influence on society ; was not within any remit for the social majority to either influence or legislate against. The harm principle dictates that the majority may only act against the will of the individual if it is to protect and prevent harm to others.

Utilitarianism’s strengths include its consideration for that which actually affects others - the consequences of an action ; where the intention and motive may be irrelevant or ambivalent .
It also takes into consideration that circumstances change and there must consequently be an alteration within the ethical judgment and determination. There is no [potentially cruel and unjust] inflexible categorical imperative.
Utilitarianism is a communal ethical system where the benefits to society become paramount.
What is important is human well-being and their happiness here-and-now ; not in some future metaphysical and possibly non-existent ‘Heaven’. The greatest good for the greatest number is an obviously good ideal and needs no reliance upon religion or legal system to validate it.
The principle promotes a democratic voting system wherein the majority [which includes the weak, poor, dispossessed and disenfranchised] have a voice in the decision making rather than some influential minority [e.g. church or aristocracy].
Utilitarianism’s fundamental weakness is that it is too simplistic in nature ; giving no consideration to either means or motive .
It is also always predictive in nature ; the consequences of an action being indeterminate ; even though experience may provide some guidance ; there is no guarantee that the consequences will correspond to the intention towards them.
There is also no guarantee that the wishes of the majority are right.
There is also the difficulty in that as utilitarianism insists that it is solely the consequences of an action which provide ethical worth ; potentially any action , providing it brings about beneficial consequences ; can be justified.
There is also no credit given towards that which human beings generally naturally judge a person’s character : their motive and intention behind the action.
Utilitarianism comes directly into conflict with concepts of universal human rights and justice as there is no inherent 'right or wrong', actions have only instrumental value, and motives towards a consequence are neither 'good nor bad' merely morally neutral ; if people are required to be used as means to an end to produce greater utility - that action is justified - the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
It also makes no allowance for human relationships and requires that one should adopt a clinical, cold and possibly callous assessment of a situation - any appeal to sentimentality, empathy or interpersonal relationships must be deemed an irrelevant obstruction to producing the utmost utility.
It also has a highly simplistic notion in that happiness can be equated with pleasure ; when human experience, history and cultural traditions reveal that self-sacrifice and heroism are highly admired.
Is not happiness - an abstract subjective concept - immeasurable ?

Because there were major criticisms and concerns with Bentham's 'Act' Utilitarianism; Rule utilitarianism was developed by Mill to counter the more self-centred aspects of Act's overly pragmatic flexibility towards one's own whims and desires.
For rule utilitarians, the correctness of a rule is determined by the amount of good it brings about when followed. In contrast, act utilitarians judge actions in terms of the goodness of their consequences without reference to rules of action. It stresses the greater utility of following a given rule in general, arguing that the practice of following some rule in all instances will have better consequences overall than allowing exceptions to be made in individual instances, even if better consequences can be demonstrated in those instances.Rule utilitarianism deems that people are happier if their society follows rules to guarantee people know what types of behaviour they can expect from others in given situations. Therefore utilitarians can justify a system that keeps to the rules unless there is a strong reason for breaking them.
A major criticism must therefore be that adhering to rules which are axiomatically lacking in promoting utility in a specific circumstance, irrespective of the collective benefits; cannot be considered as right action within that situation for the individual ; and to make any attempt to resolve or remedy that lack of utility would resort to a return to a personaist , subjective 'act' utilitarianism ; which contravenes the overriding principle inherant within rule utilitarianism that the needs of the many outweigh any needs of the few; or one.
This imbalance between the precedent given towards majority interest and the ignoring of minority concerns led to a restructuring of utilitarianism to accommodate and reconcile this conflict.
Preference utilitarianism , whose main proponent is Peter Singer ; insists that any severe detriment to the minority within rule utilitarianism e.g. the justification of slavery , or the execution of an innocent in order to prevent a riot and further death ; must be remedied by a compromise between all parties to a 'best preference satisfaction' where rather than the the best-possible pleasure for one party , a solution is found in which the possible optimal preference for happiness is achieved for all parties.

There are various types of questions you may get asked:

* You may get asked to explain Bentham's Hedonic Calculus or Mill's Utilitarianism
* You may be required to evaluate the theory or compare it to another theory.
* You may be asked to apply Utilitarianism to one of the issues studied.

The following are AS exam questions written by OCR:

(a) Describe and explain the main principles of Utilitarianism. [33]

(b) ‘Utilitarianism has nothing at all in common with religious ethics’. Discuss. [17]

(a) Explain a Utilitarian approach to issues raised by fertility treatment. [33]

(b) ‘A Utilitarian approach to issues raised by fertility treatment leads to wrong moral choices.’ [17]

(a) Explain the main differences between Act and Rule Utilitarianism. [33]

(b) To what extent is Utilitarianism a useful method of making decisions about euthanasia? [17]

This AS question is from January 2005:

(a) Explain how Utilitarianism might be applied to embryo research. [33]

(b) To what extent can embryo research be justified? [17]

This question is from June 2005:

(a) Explain the main differences between Utilitarianism and the ethics of Kant. [33]

(b) 'Happiness is the most important consideration in ethics.' Discuss. [17]

This A2 question is from June 2005:

Compare and contrast Utilitarianism with the ethics of the religion you have studied. [45]

This AS question is from January 2006:

(a) Explain how Bentham's version of Utilitarianism can be used to decide on the right course of action. [33]

(b) Evaluate a Utilitarian approach to abortion. [17]

This is an AS question from June 2006:

(a) Describe the main strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism. [33]

(b) ‘Utilitarianism is a good approach to genetic engineering.’ Discuss. [17]

This A2 exam question is from June 2006:

'Utilitarianism is the best approach to environmental issues.' Discuss. [45]

This AS question came up in January 2007:

(a) Explain the main differences between Act and Rule Utilitarianism. [33

(b) ‘Rule Utilitarianism ignores consequences.’ Discuss. [17]

These questions are both from June 2007:

(a) Explain the main strengths of Mill’s version of Utilitarianism. [33]

(b) ‘Mill’s Utilitarianism has no serious weaknesses.’ Discuss. [17]

(a) Explain how Utilitarianism might be applied to the issues surrounding the right to a child. [33]

(b) ‘Utilitarianism can lead to wrong moral decisions.’ Discuss. [17]


When dealing with the religious aspects of Utilitarianism one must address its inherant conflicting ideals with the major religions which generally adhere to deontological 'natural law' ethical systems, the commands and statutes by religious founders, or even 'virtue ethics'.
Yet many progressive or reformed versions of the major faiths have a predilection towards a relaxation of the ethical inflexibility to a more situationist approach.
Fletcher's 'situationist ethics' is prone towards adopting a pragmatism and relativism which veers towards corresponding with preference utilitarianism ; where rather than maintaining a rigid legalistic system of ethics ; a flexibility towards compromise and accommodation for the benefits of the entire faith community may be considered as the best option e.g. contemporary liberal christian groups allowing remarriage for the divorced , or the blessing of same-sex unions.
Although utilitarianism is antagonistic to major religions in that one's moral authenticity , worth and dignity usually corresponds with a good motive and intention and an idealised sense of duty ; there are some religious groups which enforce the major ethical concerns are those which sustain, support and promote their religious community - and for these the application of a utilitarian ethical system may be collectively beneficial e.g. within reformed liberal judaism, sufism, reformed progressive christianity and community-based faith structures e.g. Quakers[Society of Friends] ; Baptist chapters , Jehovah's witnesses etc. The notion of the pleasure/pain principles could very easily be accommodated into certain varieties of Buddhism; where the renunciation of self-interest for the sake of the collective could be achieved through a utilitarian agenda structure where only the ultimate objective would differ; but not the means of achieving it.