Featured Philosop-her: Gina Schouten

Gina Schouten

Gina Schouten is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University. Before coming to Illinois State, Gina completed her PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013. Her research interests include political legitimacy, educational justice, gender in the family, and diversity problems within the discipline of philosophy. She is currently working on a paper that extends her previous work on stereotype threat in academic philosophy, in which she argues for the expansion of pre-collegiate philosophy instruction as a possible remedy for the underrepresentation of women in the field. Other projects in progress include a series of papers concerning the legitimacy of political interventions to alter the gendered division of labor.

What do we owe the violinist? Some musings on the ethics and politics of abortion

Gina Schouten

Though abortion is a profoundly controversial ethical issue among the population at large, it seems to be fairly decisively settled among feminists. Feminists who endorse women’s full equality in workplaces, politics, and intimate relationships have generally regarded strong protections for reproductive freedoms as essential to securing that equality. I agree that efforts to achieve women’s social and political equality are likely to be frustrated by restrictions on abortion. My sense is that these facts have been taken by many feminists to settle at least the politics of abortion, if not the ethics as well: Women’s equality is an urgent requirement of justice, and that equality depends upon women having the capacity to decide whether and when to have children. Thus, we must assure women access to the tools necessary to choose freely whether and when to become pregnant; and, at least so long as that capacity cannot perfectly be assured, we must assure their access to the tools necessary to end pregnancies that they do not want.

But the urgency of securing women’s equality, and the fact that abortion restrictions frustrate that goal, do not suffice to settle the ethics or politics of abortion.

There are, of course, many different kinds of people who think of themselves as feminists, and some so called “pro-life feminists” argue that women’s interests are actually furthered by restrictions on abortion.[1] These arguments are unpersuasive. But it seems to me that there are some genuine feminist commitments that challenge the moral permissibility of abortion, and that challenge the impermissibility of policies that aim to restrict it.

I assume that restrictions on abortion frustrate the cause of women’s equality. Even so, I want to suggest, tentatively, that such restrictions may nonetheless be justified, all-things-considered. Judith Thomson’s now iconic defense of abortion asks us to assume that the fetus is a person.[2] Still, she argues, this does not suffice to show that it is impermissible to kill it: If the fetus is a person, then its interest in the use of the woman’s body to sustain its life is a morally relevant interest. But according to Thomson, that interest is, in many cases, decisively outweighed by the interests of the woman whose body it is.

On what grounds is this weighting so decisive?

Some of our most basic feminist commitments entail that, if the fetus becomes a member of the moral community at some point during fetal development, then at that point its interests become morally very weighty indeed. Feminists have powerfully drawn attention to the ubiquity of dependence, and the implications of dependence for our moral and political theorizing. We all rely on the care we receive from others to meet our basic needs and to flourish, and our dependence does not lessen our moral claim to have our interests respected and considered in moral decision-making. Moral theorizing is flawed, for example, insofar as it lacks the resources to secure the status of children, people with disabilities, or other dependents as direct and unambiguous moral subjects. This commitment of feminists also makes vivid the fact that moral obligations can compel us even when those obligations are not voluntarily undertaken. Thus are we owed care during times of dependency even if we have no intimate relations who are intrinsically motivated to provide that care.

Because they have so compellingly drawn attention to these implications of our common need for care, feminists are especially well-positioned to recognize a crucial, if contingent, point about the ethics of abortion: Whether or not fetuses are members of the moral community whose interests must be taken into account, their neediness does not suffice to exclude them from the moral community; nor, if fetuses have morally relevant interests, are those interests rendered less weighty by virtue of the fetuses’ reliance on others to have them met. Presumably, the fetal interest implicated in the abortion debate is something like the interest in receiving the care necessary for survival. That seems, prima facie, to be a strong interest. If that interest is not weakened by the fetus’s dependence, then we have some presumptive reason—conditional on Thomson’s assumption that the fetus’s interests are morally relevant to begin with—to think that interest is morally weighty indeed.

Women have a morally weighty interest in reproductive freedom. But as Thomson rightly points out, very morally weighty interests can be in tension with other very morally weighty interests. Under some conceivable circumstances, then, very morally weighty interests can justifiably be frustrated. If this is right, then the fact that abortion restrictions are very bad for women does not yet suffice to show that those restrictions are unjustified, all-things-considered. I am genuinely unsure whether the fetus’s interests are morally relevant, and if so, at what point during the pregnancy they become so. But contra Thomson, I think that answering these questions is of paramount importance. And if the fetus does have moral status, then one initially appealing strategy for discounting the weight of its claims is ruled out by feminist commitments: Dependency does not lessen one’s moral status.

The slogan “the personal is political” captures another paradigmatic commitment of feminism. The personal is political because intimate relationships can give rise to profound vulnerabilities, and these vulnerabilities can generate claims of justice that are no less urgent in virtue of arising in intimate relationships. On these grounds, feminists have rightly resisted those who would classify the family as a “private” realm and afford families presumptive immunity against political intervention. The vulnerabilities of unpaid caregivers, we argue, generate demands of justice even when those receiving care are intimates whom the caregiver loves, and even when the resulting inequalities occur between intimates, such as between the caregiver and her spouse. Because the personal is political, we endorse political protections to secure women’s equality not only in the workplace but in the home as well.

It is tempting to treat abortion as a personal issue. But the personal becomes political when the choices we make have profound implications regarding others’ lives. I have suggested that even the strongest and most compelling interests—such as the interest in securing women’s bodily integrity through reproductive freedom—can conflict with others that are similarly strong and compelling. If fetuses’ interests are morally relevant, then it is difficult to see how we could avoid classifying reproductive choices as political.

Of course, even assuming that fetuses are members of the moral community whose interests must be accorded weight in moral and political calculations, women’s quite strong interest in exercising control over their bodies may be decisive. The importance of reproductive control in securing women’s most basic equality might render their interest sufficiently strong and fundamental to override any countervailing considerations. But even if women’s reproductive freedom is overridingly important, there are nonetheless reasons to keep track of morally important trade-offs that we make in securing it. The difference between a moral calculus in which the fetus’s interests do not matter and one in which they matter but are outweighed might have relevance for both our rhetoric and our policy endorsements.

If we recognize the fetus’s interests as morally important, though, is it so obvious that they are outweighed, even by the extraordinarily strong interest in protecting rights to reproductive freedom? I worry that we might, after all, have some obligation to stay plugged into the violinist. The needs and vulnerabilities of others generate powerful moral obligations, and feminists have long been banner-carriers in the recognition of those obligations. Moreover, if the vulnerability of the fetus is morally important, then it has many of the hallmarks of the personal and yet still political vulnerabilities that feminists have been particularly adept at theorizing.

In considering this possibility, we must remember that ubiquitous dependency generates ubiquitous moral obligations as well: There are serious costs to doing the socially necessary and morally obligatory work of caregiving. We must develop policies to share the costs of discharging such obligations fairly, and to compensate those who incur costs that cannot be shared. If fetuses are morally significant, then the vulnerabilities of those who care for them are particularly urgent, since the most serious harms are entirely non-transferrable. If fetuses’ interests generate moral imperatives, and if pregnant women are uniquely in a position to provide the care they need, the rest of us have obligations to share the costs of providing care insofar as sharing them is possible, and to take other steps to ease resultant vulnerabilities when sharing is not possible. If sustaining fetuses turns out, under some circumstances, to be morally obligatory care, then feminists should endorse protections and social supports for those who perform it and call for new social and medical technologies to share its costs more broadly.

Thomson was right that the fetus’s having morally relevant interests does not suffice to show that abortion is morally impermissible. But we must also recognize a corresponding—if far less welcome—insight: The moral relevance of women’s very strong interest in reproductive freedom does not suffice to show that abortion is morally permissible, or that restricting it is always illegitimate. If we assume with Thomson that the fetus is a person, then our obligations to care for it are weighty indeed. Even if we acknowledge that restrictions on abortion would frustrate profoundly worthy feminist goals, we should consider whether, after all, the ethics and politics of abortion crucially depend on the moral status of the fetus and the moral weight of its interests.

Because I believe that restrictions on abortion are likely to undermine women’s equality, I want for the ethics of abortion to be settled decisively in favor of the woman’s right to choose, and for the politics of abortion to be settled in favor of strong protections for that right. But when I scrutinize my conviction that abortion is permissible and that robust protections for access to abortion are desirable, I am dismayed to find that conviction in tension with other commitments I have that I take to be distinctly feminist. I welcome any thoughts about whether the tension is genuine or merely apparent, and, if it is genuine, how it is best resolved.

[1] I set aside questions about what views are properly regarded as “feminist.”

[2] Thomson Judith J. (1971). “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(1): 47-66.

Featured Philosop-her: Connie Rosati

Gil, csr2

Connie Rosati is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona.  She received the Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan and the J.D. from Harvard Law School.  Her research interests lie primarily in metaethics, the philosophy of law, and constitutional theory.  She is currently working on a book on the nature of personal good.

The following post is an excerpt from work in progress on the kinds of normative reasons facts about our good provide.

“On Reasons of Personal Good”

Connie Rosati

Among the many things I came to believe when I was young was that people should be prepared to make at least some significant sacrifices for one another, including at least minimal physical sacrifices.  In particular, I came to believe that, other things equal, people ought to donate blood.  After all, what could be a more important, while still minimal physical sacrifice, than donating a pint of a bodily fluid that would readily replenish itself?  As it happened, I didn’t weigh enough to give blood.  So I vowed that if I ever met the minimal weight requirement of 110 pounds, I would make a donation.  I did not stably meet that requirement until my mid 40s.  Periodically, it would cross my mind that I had once committed myself to giving blood, if ever I could.  Time continued to pass, however, without my ever doing much more than checking, on a few occasions, for the location of the local American Red Cross.

On Wednesday, January 13, 2010, I again located the nearest Red Cross blood donation center, but this time, I scheduled an appointment.  On Saturday, January 16, 2010, I became an “FTD,” as the forms identified me:  a first-time blood donor.   When I arrived, the receptionist informed me that they were running behind, and my 12:00 appointment would be delayed by half an hour; I could come back another day if I wanted, she said.  But I figured, no doubt correctly, that doing it later might well mean doing it never, and so I stayed, waiting until nearly 1:30, at which point another staff person took me into a room to check my hemoglobin and complete the required questionnaire.  Giving blood was mostly uneventful, except for the part when, just after they finished drawing a pint and filling several vials, I passed out (twice).

There were, as it happens, excellent reasons for me to have arranged to donate blood when I did.  A massive earthquake had just shaken Haiti to its knees, and news reports were grim.  No doubt the disaster was in the back of my mind when I called.  But in truth, it served more as a reminder of a vow as yet unkept than as a direct impetus to action.  Perhaps it played some unconscious part in my doing what I did when I did it, but I can’t say that I felt any sense of urgency about donating blood, and when asked by the staff person why I had decided to become a donor, I didn’t mention Haiti.  I had, in fact, already donated money to the Red Cross in response to the tragedy.  And when I returned home after donating blood, I made a second monetary contribution.  Surely donating money was enough and probably mattered more than donating a pint of blood, at least so far as Haiti was concerned.  Given the lag time between when I made the donation and when the blood would be usable, and given the complexities of the blood distribution system, I couldn’t rationally have been moved by the thought that my blood would help someone in Haiti.  Of course, someone, somewhere, at some time would presumably benefit, and I could rationally have been moved by the thought of that benefit, but it was no particular part of my thinking.  The consideration of such a benefit was among the reasons for doing what I did, but it wasn’t the reason for which I acted.

It seems to me that I was ultimately moved to act, at least in part, by the fact of that long-ago vow, that somehow a commitment made by me then weighed with me now.  Suppose, that I am right about this, that among other considerations, the fact of my having once made a vow did move me to act 35 years later.  Did that fact give me normative reason to act?  Do facts about our earlier vows or commitments give any of us normative reason to act?  And if so, do they give reasons weighty enough to sometimes make a difference to what we ought to do?

As I shall explain, facts about earlier vows and commitments are among the things that can give an agent a special kind of reason—reasons of self-constitution—and such reasons are reasons of personal good.

Reasons of personal good include at least the following.  There are first, intrinsic reasons of personal good.  These are reasons that exist in virtue of the fact that something is good for a person at a time.  The fact that an individual is engaged in activities that are currently a part of her flourishing, for example, is a source of reasons for doing what is constitutive of engaging in those activities, reasons distinct from whatever reasons morality may provide for doing so.  Her engagement in parenting is a source of reasons to attend to her children.  Her career as a lawyer provides reasons for carrying out the sundry tasks involved in the practice of law.  There are also instrumental reasons of personal good.  These are, as the name indicates, reasons that are grounded in facts about the means to be taken to attain or maintain what is now good for an individual.

In addition to facts about what is good for a person at a time, there are facts about what could be good for her, what could become a part of her good.  The fact that something might be good for a person provides her with pro tanto reasons as well.  Because they arise from facts about a person’s possible good, a good that could be hers if she were to choose it and do the necessary work to bring herself into a relation of fit with that possible good, let’s call these conditional reasons of personal good.

Conditional reasons are among what we might call constitutional reasons of personal good.  Constitutional reasons are reasons to constitute our good in particular ways.  A person might have constitutional reasons to make certain things a part of her good, to make her possible good her actual good.  Constitutional reasons include reasons that bear on whether to pursue some ends rather than others, whether to undertake various sorts of education or training, whether to lead a particular sort of life.  They also include reasons to undertake acts that will constitute, sustain, or reconstitute oneself as a particular sort or person.  They include, that is, reasons of self-constitution.

Now here we must consider certain peculiarities about the good of persons.  As persons, creatures with the capacity for autonomy, we live our lives not only with conscious awareness, but with a kind of self-awareness.  We each have a certain need to make sense of ourselves to ourselves, and so we reflect on ourselves and our doings.  We care about what sort of persons we are, whether for moral or aesthetic reasons or reasons of expected benefit, and we sometimes deliberately seek to alter or develop ourselves.  We each have a self-ideal, a normative conception of the sort of person we are and of what our lives are about, though we typically embody that self-ideal imperfectly.  Sometimes we find that we have changed in unexpected ways so that we have strayed from our self-ideals, or we become aware of ways in which we fail to fit our self-ideals, so that we are not as we conceived ourselves to be.  As a consequence, we may experience a need to “reconsolidate” ourselves, to get back to who we were so as better to match our self-ideals, or to revise our self-ideals as we adjust to the persons we have become, perhaps integrating aspects of our former and current selves.  Our ability to function effectively as autonomous agents, and so our ability to lead flourishing lives partly depends on our having and acting from effective self-ideals.  If a person has a self-ideal that is too at odds with what she is really like, if she has a conception of what matters to her that is too at odds with how she acts, her ability to be self-governing and her ability to achieve a good life will be impaired.

A person’s ability to develop and sustain an effective self-ideal requires activity on her part.  Aristotle famously emphasized the role of practice and habituation in the development of moral virtue, and the need for practice and repetition, as well as the cultivation of habits, is important, too, in developing and sustaining an effective self-ideal.  Habits, though, may be just so sturdy, and a person may, due to poor choices, self-deception, a lack of self-knowledge, laziness, or circumstances beyond her control, come to act in ways that are “out of character”—not in keeping with who she conceives herself to be.  She may also simply fall short of her self-ideal, because she has not fully developed habits and practices in line with her self-ideal.  As a consequence, she may need to deliberately undertake to perform actions that she would perform as a matter of course, were she acting in line with her self-ideal, thereby working to make it true of herself that she is as she conceives herself to be.

No doubt we all fail to do some of the specific things that we take to be a part of being the sort of person we conceive ourselves to be.  And no doubt failing in this respect is compatible with leading a satisfying life.  Nevertheless, having specified some things as significant in this way, we create reasons of self-constitution, when circumstances permit, to undertake the actions in question.  In my own case, although many acts would have been ways of acting as the person I conceive myself to be, there was a particular act that I had singled out, and I had done so by vowing that I would someday do it.  Because of its relationship to my self-ideal, and because of the importance of our having effective self-ideals to our flourishing, it seems to me that I had reasons of self-constitution to give blood in a way that I did not have to do a great many other things.

Let me now bring the forgoing discussion to bear on the questions raised earlier.  Here are my answers.  The fact that a person made an earlier vow or commitment can give pro tanto reasons to act, even many years later.  The kinds of reasons such facts give are reasons of self-constitution, which are reasons of personal good.  These reasons can be significant enough to at least sometimes make a difference to what it makes most sense for a person to do.  Reasons of self-constitution have this significance because they concern acts that are a part of our efforts to form, develop, and sustain effective self-ideals, and so to constitute ourselves as particular sorts of people.

Featured Philosop-her: Christine M. Korsgaard


Christine M. Korsgaard, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard, is the author of four books.  Creating the Kingdom of Ends is a collection of essays on Kant’s ethics and Kantian ethics. The Sources of Normativity is an investigation into modern views about the foundations of obligation. The Constitution of Agency is a collection of essays on practical reason and moral psychology.  Self-Constitution explores the foundations of morality and practical identity in the nature of human action.  She is currently working on Fellow Creatures, a book about the moral and legal status of non-human animals, and The Natural History of the Good, a book about the place of value in nature.


Provisional Rights and the State

Christine M. Korsgaard

Considered as normative entities, rights have an unusual feature: there is a sense in which they do not exist until they are instituted legally. For this reason, someone being abused or disrespected in certain ways can voice the exact same response by complaining that she has no rights or by protesting that she does have rights.  In the text below, adapted from a section of a paper in which I defend the view that both non-human animals and the world’s poor have rights against humanity collectively speaking, I argue that Kant’s doctrine that natural rights in the state of nature are “provisional” gives us the best way to understand this feature of rights.  At the same time, it grounds his argument that we have a duty to live together in the political state.


So far, what I have said has been ambiguous between two claims: that animals should have rights and that they do have rights.  There is a reason for this ambiguity, for there is a problem about what is going on when someone makes the case for a legal right.

If I say that I am arguing that someone “should have a right,” that has the disadvantage of making it sound as if all I am saying is that there is something to be said in favor of her having the right, some reasons that would support the policy of giving her the right.  But that may not seem like the correct way to argue for a right, since a right ordinarily functions as a trump and a trump requires something stronger than some considerations in its favor. If I have a right to something, call it X, then you have no right to deprive me of X. My right is supposed to be a decisive consideration against your depriving me of X, however good your reasons for depriving me of X would be if I did not have the right. So to say that I have a right to X not just to say that there is a very strong reason for me to have X: it is to say something about the relations in which I stand to those against whom I claim the right. However good others’ reasons are for depriving me of X, they will be wronging me if they do so. That includes my relations to society collectively speaking.  But if my right is a trump even against society collectively speaking, how can society collectively speaking be in a position to grant me the right? When someone claims that she has a right, she is claiming precisely that no one is in a position to deny her that to which she has a right. But if no one is in a position to deny her the right, then it seems as if no one is in a position to grant her that to which she has the right either.  What she is saying is precisely that this is not the sort of thing that others may withhold or to grant, however good their reasons.  Consider, for instance, the idea that a nation might give its slaves a right to their freedom. Is another human being’s right to her freedom something that it is ours (all of us? the rest of us?) to give?  How can society give someone his freedom, if it was already his own by right?

Some philosophers propose to deal with this problem by invoking the idea of a “moral right” and saying that moral rights are the grounds on which we should establish legal rights. That enables them to split the difference – the moral rights do already exist, although the legal ones do not.  Then we can say that what society does when it enacts laws protecting people’s rights is not granting them rights they did not already have, but protecting their moral rights by making them legal and so coercively enforceable.

That can sound sensible until we remind ourselves what exactly a right is.  A right, at least according to Kant and others in the natural rights tradition, is – by definition – a claim that may legitimately be coercively enforced. You have a right when you have a claim on others to act in a certain way and it is morally legitimate for you (or for society on your behalf) to defend yourself with the use of force against violations of that claim.  Not all moral claims, we believe, may be coercively enforced.  I cannot sue you for hurting my feelings or being rude to me or have you thrown into prison for breaking my heart, though you should not do these things.  I cannot have you arrested if you fail to open a door for me when my arms are full of packages or to help me change a tire by the side of the road.  How do we draw the distinction?  Some philosophers would argue that the distinction should be drawn on pragmatic or consequentialist grounds: on whether the costs of coercive enforcement are worth preventing wrongs of this kind. Kant, however, believed that the distinction is based on principle. Since coercion is in general wrong, we may only use it against coercion itself, when we are “hindering a hindrance to freedom.”  According to Kant, I am free when I can pursue my own ends and in doing so I am not subject to the wills of other people. I am not made subject to your will when you try to break my heart, for I am perfectly free not to care.  I am not made subject to your will when you fail to open a door for me, for that doesn’t stop me from going through the door.  But I am made subject to your will when you enslave me or make use of my person or my property without my consent. So my claims against your doing those things are coercively enforceable – that is, they are rights.

This account of what makes a moral claim one of right makes trouble for the proposed use of the distinction between moral and legal rights. It follows from it that if there are any rights, there is a sense in which they already have the status of law: that is, they may legitimately be coercively enforced. This, after all, is why we think it can sometimes be morally legitimate for people to fight even their own governments for their freedom: because they have a coercively enforceable right to that freedom even if there is no positive law upholding it. On this view, natural right is underwritten by natural law; indeed they are almost the same thing. So the state cannot be seen as making it possible to coercively enforce a claim that is already there, since the claim was not only already there, but already coercively enforceable too.

Now this may not seem like a big problem.  For of course there is still a question about the relation between law in this natural sense and the positive statutes that are actually passed by some political society. So why shouldn’t we say that a state that makes a law establishing a right is simply acknowledging a natural right that is already there, by making its own laws match the natural laws?

But there’s a problem with this too, which was brought out first by Hobbes, and then, following him, Kant. They pointed out that there is a sense in which rights do not exist even morally until laws upholding them are enacted by political society. After all, to say that a right exists morally is not only to imply that you are entitled to defend your claim with force.  It is also to imply that people have a moral obligation to respect your claim.  But Kant and Hobbes argued that no one can be morally obligated to respect my rights until he has some guarantee that I will respect his rights. For if I force you to respect my rights without giving you a guarantee that I will respect yours, then I am putting you in a position where you are subject to my will and so unfree. Or as Hobbes put it, a person who respects the rights of others when they do not respect his “would but make himself a prey to others, and procure his own ruin.” Hobbes and Kant argued that it follows that no one has a duty to respect anyone’s rights until some mechanism of enforcing everyone’s rights is in place. Since a right involves a duty on the part of others to uphold that right, and others cannot have that duty unless their rights are upheld as well, rights occupy what we might call interpersonal space – my rights and yours can only be realized together.

Kant argued that it is only the political state that can provide guarantees of the enforcement of everyone’s rights. So if I say, “I have a right to X,” I make a demand on others that I am not in a position to make unless we live together in a political state: claims of right presuppose the existence of the political state, that is, it presupposes our membership in a collective body with a General Will devoted to upholding the rights of all.  Claims of right presuppose this even if we are in the state of nature and the political state exists only in idea, so when I claim a right in the state of nature I commit myself to supporting the existence of a political state.  According to Kant, this means that we have a duty to live in the political state.  Our rights in the state of nature, are, as Kant put it, “provisional.” They exist in the sense that we have the right to defend them, but not in the sense that anyone else has a duty to respect them.  It is only when the state is actually formed that they become, again as Kant put it, “conclusive.”

Kant’s distinction between provisional and conclusive rights explains the status of so-called natural rights much better than the distinction between moral and legal rights does. Provisional rights are in one sense already legal, since the right-holder is morally entitled to coercively enforce them.  In another sense, however, they are not yet quite moral, since no one else is obligated to respect them.  What society does when it legalizes a right is neither to grant the right holder something that is already his own and not society’s to give, nor to acknowledge a merely moral right that is already there by making it enforceable. What society does instead is to realize a right whose existence is essentially incomplete or imperfect in the state of nature.