What about human life entitles it to moral consideration?

Chandler Hatch

Chandler Hatch

Assistant Professor
School of Arts and Sciences

Chandler Hatch is a philosopher who joined the Humanities and Languages division in January 2022. Before joining Ahmedabad University, he completed his PhD at Harvard University, where he taught courses on the history of political philosophy, ethics, logic, and the philosophy of mind.


Is abortion anti-life? Does life begin at birth or conception?
When human life begins is hotly disputed. Some have also used the foetus' ability to survive outside the womb as a marker of when the foetus should be protected. In addition to the question of when life begins, there are also related controversies regarding what about human life entitles it to moral consideration. Some think that our ability to feel pleasure and pain is what makes us count morally. For those who hold such views, the moment of conception seems not to have much moral significance since the ability to feel pleasure or pain apparently does not seem to arise until later in development. Some think that our capacity for reason is what makes us count morally. You might think that these thinkers would claim that foetuses, infants, and the severely mentally disabled do not count morally because they can't reason, but some of these thinkers argue that having a capacity is not the same as having developed the capacity. An infant or even a foetus can have the capacity for reason without having developed that capacity, perhaps even if they will never be able to develop it. Where they come down on the abortion debate depends on what they think can be said to have the capacity for reason. Still others think that our membership in the human species is what makes us count morally. Some of these thinkers may hold that membership in the species begins with conception. I describe each of these views not because I think they each have an equal claim to being right but to illustrate that it is important to consider what about a human life entitles it to moral consideration. There is a rich philosophical literature that can help us decide which of these views (or others) is most defensible.

Would it be correct to say that giving birth could sometimes be as much anti-life as abortion, considering that sometimes abortion is a medical necessity?
It is certainly important to consider the risk that childbirth can pose to the person giving birth. It also seems important to distinguish between failing to promote life and actively harming life. A doctor who is not willing to perform an abortion for people who are at grave risk of dying from childbirth is not actively harming them. On the other hand, a law that prevents them from getting an abortion actively interferes with their pursuit of life. Another distinction that may be important in these debates is between what ethics requires and what right requires. We ought to be protected in our right to do some things that we ethically ought not to do. For example, suppose I'm going to Mumbai to visit a friend, and you would like me to take a gift to her. It would save you the money and trouble of mailing it, and unless I take it, it won't get to her birthday on time. Given that it won't inconvenience me much and would be a great help to you, it seems that ethically, I ought to do it. Nevertheless, I have a right to refuse. Now, of course, in abortion, the stakes are much higher, but it may be important to separate our judgments regarding what people ethically ought to do in a particular case from our judgments regarding what they should have a right to do. Even if you think that in a particular case one ought not to abort a foetus, it is still possible that one should be protected in one's right to do so because of the risks and costs it imposes on one's body. We're just scratching the surface of the debate, but a lot of helpful work has been done on these questions in moral and political philosophy.