Virtue Theory and Abortion

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Rosalind Hursthouse, in her essay “Virtue Theory and Abortion,” puts forth her theory of virtue by first introducing the mechanics of the theory and then applying it to the particular moral controversy of abortion. The introduction to the theory involves an explanation of and then contrast with deontological and utilitarian theories. She demonstrates the premise of deontological theory as declaring an action right only when it goes in accordance with a moral rule. She then demonstrates the plethora of explanations of “moral rule” that have been given throughout the centuries.

These range from definitions that show morality to issue from God, to ones that show morality to come from democracy and rationality. She contrasts this later with virtue theory, as it considers virtue from a much different perspective than is seen in deontology’s morality. She then presents a view of utilitarianism and outlines its premises. She chooses act-utilitarianism and shows that according to this theory an action might be considered correct only when it produces the greatest amount of good for the people involved. This can be realized only when happiness in maximized as a result of the action that has occurred.

She then comes to the premises of virtue theory, and explains the first as showing an action to be right only when it is identical to what a “virtuous person would do in the circumstances” (Hursthouse, 249). However, she explains that this gives no guidance about how one should act unless one can determine the interpretation or description of a “virtuous person. ” It is necessary, she holds, to thoroughly explain this so that one avoids the usual pitfall of defining the virtuous person as one who acts in accordance with the definitions of morality proposed by deontologists.

On the contrary, a virtue (according to virtue theory) is a trait that is necessary in order to promote the wellbeing of the human. Literally, Hursthouse writes, “a virtue is a character trait a human being needs to flourish or live well” (249). She then goes on to identify a connection between virtue and the idea of eudaimonia (flourishing). Hursthouse then identifies some criticisms of virtue theory which she considers to be ill-founded and that have the effect of obscuring the true ideas of the theory. The first is that the concept of eudaimonia is too obscure for the theory to be a fully conceived one.

Hursthouse admits the difficulty of the idea to grasp, but then she points out the greater obscurity of terms used in other theories (such as rationality and happiness). She then demonstrates that in comparison with those other terms, eudaimonia (flourishing, well being) supports its theory as much as any other. The idea that virtue theory is more obscure than others in this respect, Hursthouse denies, offering a discussion of how these other theories have garnered disputation precisely because these concepts have been so difficult to grasp, explain, and agree on.

Hursthouse also defends virtue theory against the criticism that it is intentionally and “trivially circular” (250). She explains the argument that the terms presented in its premises are explained each in terms of the other, so that no idea can really be considered foundational or axiomatic. Rather than denoting the correct action in terms of the agent of virtue (and vice versa), Hursthouse argues that the theory specifies (as it should) the virtuous person in terms of the virtue, and then goes on to specify the virtues themselves. These virtues are precisely the character traits that are necessary in the nurturing of well being.

Hursthouse also shows how virtue theory does in fact answer the question of what one should do, rather than just that of what one should be. These questions, she demonstrates, are answered in part by formulating principles. Each virtue issues from itself an instruction toward something positive. It tells one to act justly, kindly, bravely, et cetera. On the other hand, each vice issues an instruction against something negative, which would be the polar opposites of the previously mentioned virtues (such as cruelty, stinginess, cowardice et cetera).

Hursthouse then vehemently points out that the theory does not involve the identification of a virtuous person of antiquity (such as Socrates) and then wondering how he or she would act in a given situation. Rather, the theory appeals to these virtues and, in a given situation, asks the question of whether one is behaving in accordance with justness, kindness, bravery or any other virtue. Finally, Hursthouse denies the claim that the theory involves the reduction of morality to a few virtues and thereby denies access to the complexity which one finds in actual, real-life problems.

She identifies the moral concepts that accompany the virtues of the theory, so that the moral concept that is concerned with “the good for others” is found alongside the virtues of benevolence and charity. Rather, the theory centralizes the human being (as opposed to the person) as one who is in possession of the character traits necessary to promote eudaimonia. This is considered so because virtue is a naturally occurring phenomenon in a species that needs it to live well. She then explains the difference between action assessment and action guidance when facing a dilemma in which both courses of action inevitably lead to distress.

Hursthouse then gets into the application of virtue ethics to the issue of abortion. She employs the terms that are related to the virtues of the theory in conjunction with the different circumstances under which one might contemplate the act of abortion. She does indicate the difference between abortions done for frivolous or “light-minded” reasons and others which are done for modest and reverent reasons. Other abortions she does indicate might occur in response to the vices of greed or foolhardiness. Hursthouse criticizes the idea of abortion as being a “right.

” She argues that the forging of solid and beneficial relationships do not and cannot depend on the continual insistence on the “rights” of the individual parties. Under circumstances in which eudaimonia is to be promoted, the assertion of individual rights become unfounded. When rights are always promoted, harm generally comes to the other parties involved. This introduces the irrelevance of the right of a woman to choose when one examines abortion from the perspective of virtue theory. What does matter is the question of whether getting an abortion, given the circumstances, would constitute a virtuous or vicious action.

The debate concerning abortion often surrounds the idea of when life begins and whether or not the fetus can be considered a human life. The discussion also usually involves whether the fetus is able to feel pain. According to virtue theory, Hursthouse declares, these discussions are also irrelevant as they circumvent the moral issue altogether. Within these misguided and abstract contexts, the discussion of abortion is reduced to one that desires to generalize it by causing it to be governed by a general rule. However, the result has been to remove it from the context of humanity.

She demonstrates that were an alien to overhear these discussions, it would have no idea of the realities concerning humans and childbirth. The discussion itself should be transplanted—taken out of the realm of the abstract and placed directly into real life situations. The ideas gleaned from these philosophical discussions are irrelevant simply because they address the question of the fetus’ status rather than the question of how the knowledge of the biological facts should inform the actions of a virtuous human being.

Here Hursthouse acknowledges the relevance of the biological facts but also identifies the relevance of the emotions that people generally have in relation to these facts. She points toward the significance of love (as in the love of parents toward children) and the strong ties that result from such bonds. She demonstrates through this that since pregnancies give rise to all these very important relationships, the surgery that leads to the termination of one must be accorded a vastly different significance from one that removes, say, a tooth or an appendix.

She underscores this point by indicating the differing attitudes people who believe in the similarity of abortion and an appendectomy have toward deliberate and spontaneous abortion. The light-mindedness she mentioned earlier comes out in the effect of the scenario in which one reacts to a couple’s grief over miscarriage by wondering why someone fusses over the loss of something comparable to an appendix. In effect, such a conception of abortion (as akin to an appendectomy) is against virtue theory, as it demonstrates the very light-mindedness and callousness that is considered a vice in the theory.

A theorist who is act-centered would perhaps find nothing wrong with a person’s considering grief over miscarriage to be unnecessary as long as nothing is said to hurt the couple’s feelings. However, the point being made by Hursthouse is that virtue theory highlights the fact that people would be truly inclined toward grieving along with those who have had the miscarriage—and these are the actions that stem naturally from the character traits promoted by virtue theory.

Virtue theory does find ways of defending those who are criticized by anti-abortionists as being virtue-less because they (may) choose to remain childless. This school of thought can be opposed through the theory, as it can be seen that many more virtues exist in the world than just the one of creating new life. Since parenthood has the attribute of being time consuming, it often precludes participation in other intrinsically worthwhile pursuits, and this allows for justification of childlessness in favor of other commitments.

However, virtue theory frowns upon the adoption of abortion for the sake of increasing one’s freedom to continue engaging in the irresponsible activities that led to the pregnancy in the first place. This, according to the theory, would be considered an unjust action in response to a vicious character trait. On the other hand, some people who choose abortion because they consider themselves not to be ready for the role of mother (or father) may be acting not from light-mindedness, but from modesty, humility, and reverence.

Overall, Hursthouse demonstrates that there are several ways to approach the discussion of abortion from the realm of action, and that not all the approaches place abortion in a good or bad light. Much depends on the circumstances surrounding the situation.

Work Cited

  • Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue Theory and Abortion. ” Ethical Theory: A Concise Anthology. Heimir Giersson and Margaret Reed Holmgren (Eds. ) Orchard Park: Broadview Press, 2000.

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