A fertility clinic is on fire. In the storage area at the back of the building theres a portable freezer unit containing 100 live human embryos. In the reception lounge at the front, trapped under a chair, theres a screaming three-year-old child. You can save one, but as soon as you open the door and let in the oxygen the fire will take the building. Which one do you save?
You see where Im going here, right? This sort of question is bread and butter for moral philosophers: think of a scenario where the answer is obvious, then extrapolate principles that can be applied to situations where the answer isnt obvious. Most people choose to save the child. From this it must follow that they dont value an embryos life the same as a childs, or even at one-hundredth the price.
Try asking a pro-lifer this question and see how they respond. Ill tell you how they dont respond, or at least havent lately in my many arguments with them since joining Tumblr: they dont answer I would save the embryos, of course. Its very sad about the one child in the reception lounge, but it would be immeasurably sadder to lose all the children in the freezer. Instead the answer you repeatedly get is I would probably save the one child, but thats an emotional response and doesnt have anything to do with right and wrong. And you have to prod them to get even that much. Generally they evade the question until youve asked it three or four times.
First off, if morality isnt about emotions, what is it about? Most moral philosophers will tell you that morality isnt objective, because you cant get from an is statement like (in this instance) A child is in danger to a should statement like I should save the child except by calling in another should statement like One should always protect children, and if you try and prove that second should statement you just go around the circle again, and so on forever. Without rational proofs or empirical backing, all you have to call on is your moral instincts. And here theyre pretty clear.
Pro-lifers, as a rule, seldom get their morality from philosophers, but they are disproportionately likely to pay at least lip service to a certain 1st-century populist rabbi who will be found to have said (following Rabbi Hillel) that morality is an expression of love and consists of doing for other people what you would want for yourself, and obviously love and empathy are both subjective emotional states. But religion doesnt break the circle; You should do what God says is just another should.
Personally I think the philosophers are overly pessimistic. A should statement can, in fact, be objectively true if it rests on an I want statement; if I want functional teeth then I should cut back on sugar, if I want to sleep tonight then I should get off the internet. (To use more technical language, should statements may have no truth-value, but they do have utility-value.) Might there be some should statement that applies to any possible I want?
Well, if were really pedantic about what counts as possible, then no there wont be, because for any should, someone can always say I want to do the opposite of that. But there are some shoulds that at least apply to any plausible I want, and one of them is You should not destroy anything you might need, and one thing you can count on always needing is other peoples trust. And it just so happens that our moral instincts evolved to allow us to trust one another. I have made a longer, but not necessarily clearer, case for trust-based morality here.
Now if you want to earn peoples trust, you cant weigh every decision separately according to how much itll make them trust you, because then they have to worry that one day your calculations might tell you to harm them. You have to behave in a way that allows them to predict you wont do that. Your actions must not only be benevolent, but clearly and consistently benevolent. For an individual, that means practising virtues kindness, fairness, courtesy, charity, patience, and so on. For an institution or a society, it means treating people according to a consistent code of rights. And this is where we can start to buckle down to the abortion problem, because here it seems that one persons right to life conflicts with another persons right to bodily autonomy. Its conflicts like this that send us looking for a deeper principle that can resolve them, and I say that principle is trust.
The pro-life position is that abortion is murder. Murder is the breach of the human right to life, and I do hope I dont need to explain how that might erode trust between people. Two questions arise here. First, who or what has the right to life, and who or what does not? Where do you draw the boundary? And second, if you have to choose between one persons right to life and anothers right to bodily autonomy, which one should win? Always life, always bodily autonomy, or sometimes one and sometimes the other?