Define general terms related to abortion

Unit 6 DB: Cheating

Consider the ethical problem of Maggie and her math test. What is the difference between the first and second scenario in regards to how you assess her moral culpability? Explain how her actions could be considered cheating or not. How are her actions, in either scenario, morally justifiable or not? How do you think she justified her actions to herself? What would you have done in her situation?

11.1: Introduction to the Abortion Issue

1. 11.1 Define general terms related to abortion


Many moral issues involve special terms or phrases that need defining, and the abortion issue is one of these. Before going on to discuss abortion, it will be beneficial to examine a few terms that relate to this issue.


An  abortion  is the premature termination of a pregnancy—that is, termination prior to birth. A  spontaneous abortion  is the same thing as a miscarriage, whereas an  induced abortion  is caused by the woman herself or by another, usually a medical doctor.


A  zygote  is the cell or group of cells that results from the union of the sperm and egg cells.


The term  embryo  refers to the developing human individual from the second through the seventh weeks of  gestation , or pregnancy.


The term  fetus  refers to the developing human individual from the eighth week until birth.


The term  child  is normally used after the fetus is born. However, as you shall see, it is also often used by strong pro-life advocates to refer to the developing human individual from shortly after conception onward.


The very useful term  conceptus , coined by Daniel Callahan (1930– ), means “that which has been conceived.”1 It is useful because it is a neutral term that can be used to refer to the developing human individual from conception until birth, thus avoiding the many emotional overtones given to the other terms by both sides of the abortion issue.


Viability occurs somewhere between the 26th and 28th weeks of gestation when the conceptus is considered  viable , that is, able to survive outside of the mother’s womb. Birth usually occurs between the 39th and 40th weeks of pregnancy.

Ultrasonic Testing

Early in a pregnancy, at least by 12 weeks, an ultrasonic test can be performed on the woman’s abdomen to determine various information about the embryo or fetus (depending on when it is performed). It is done by a sound/echo system from which pictures can be seen. Since this is a test that is basically noninvasive, it may be performed at various stages of pregnancy to acquire information about the embryo or fetus, including gender, heartbeat, and even to some extent possible birth defects. In the latter case, it is not as accurate or conclusive as amniocentesis.


In  amniocentesis , which can be performed after the 16th week of pregnancy, a needle is inserted into the  amniotic sac , where the conceptus is gestating, and some of the amniotic fluid is withdrawn. When this fluid is tested, a great deal of information about the conceptus—its sex and the presence or absence of certain abnormalities—can be determined.

Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS)

CVS  is another tool that can be used to diagnose genetic defects in the fetus as early as the ninth week of pregnancy. In CVS, a flexible catheter, inserted vaginally, is guided by ultrasound along uterine walls. Suction allows the catheter to extract fetal cells from the threadlike projections (villi) on the chorion, the outermost embryonic layer. The advantage of this procedure over amniocentesis is obviously the fact that results and diagnoses can be acquired much earlier, allowing for early abortion if the woman desires it. The disadvantages are that some studies have revealed the CVS may be the cause of limb deformities in children born to mothers who had the CVS procedure.2

11.1.1: General Statement of the Abortion Problem


Two basic principles come into conflict in the abortion issue:

1. The Value of Life Principle (basically in relation to unborn life, but also in relation to the life of the mother).

2. The Principle of Individual Freedom, that is, the mother’s right over her own body, procreativity, and life.

Another basic question that comes into play in this issue is when human life begins and, perhaps more importantly, at what point it is to be valued and protected to the same extent as the lives of human beings who already have been born.

Yet another conflict between the positions for and against abortion centers on so-called absolute rights. According to the strong  antiabortion (pro-life) position , the conceptus has an absolute right to life from the moment of conception onward. According to the strong  abortion-on-request (pro-choice) position , however, women have absolute rights over their own bodies and lives. Both of these positions, and the arguments used to support them, will be discussed in detail later in the module.

From colonial times to the nineteenth century, the choice of continuing pregnancy or having an abortion was the woman’s until “quickening” (the time when she is first able to feel the fetus move). An abortion in the first or even second trimester was at worst a misdemeanor. In 1800, there was not a single statute in the United States concerning abortion, but by 1900, it had been banned at any time in pregnancy by every state. According to Carl Sagan (1934–1996), this was due mostly to the change from an agrarian to an urban-industrial society and to the lowering of birthrates in the United States. Sagan also states that the newly formed American Medical Association (AMA), in trying to enhance its status and the status and influence of physicians, put a great deal of force behind the laws so that the choice concerning abortion was taken totally out of the hands of women. Finally, in the 1960s, a coalition of individuals and organizations, including the AMA, sought to overturn laws against abortion and reinstate the previous values, which were later embodied in Roe v. Wade in 1973.3

11.2: When Does Human Life Begin?

1. 11.2 Evaluate the exact point when human life may be considered to have begun


The first question to be examined in any discussion of the morality of abortion must be, “Is abortion the taking of a human life?” In Chapters 10 and 11 of his book Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality, Daniel Callahan (1930– ) outlines several arguments for determining when life exists. He finally settles on the  developmental view  as the best approach to understanding the “conceptus.” According to this view, one recognizes that life is present from conception but allows for the possibility that there may be a later different point at which such a life can be considered to be human.

It would seem to be obvious that human life in potentiality is existent in various stages of development during the nine months of gestation. The word potentiality refers to the stage of zygote and to nothing previous; although some potentiality exists in both the sperm of the male and unfertilized ova of the female, they must be brought together under the appropriate conditions for there to be the beginnings of a new life. Once an ovum has been fertilized, a process is begun that, barring accidents (miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion) or intentional actions (induced abortion), will eventually result in the birth of a human being.

Value of Life Principle


In order to make decisions consistent with the Value of Life Principle, revering life and accepting death, it is important to recognize that human life in potentiality exists from conception. The conceptus passes through various key stages of development:

1. All human life starts from a fertilized egg the size of a period at the end of a sentence; one cell then becomes two and then four, and by the sixth day the egg has implanted itself on the walls of the uterus.

2. By the third week, the forming embryo is about two millimeters long and is developing various parts, but it looks a little like a segmented worm.

3. By the end of the fourth week it has grown to five millimeters (about one-fifth of an inch). Its tube-shaped heart is beginning to beat; it has gill-like arches and a pronounced tail; and it looks something like a newt or a tadpole.

4. By the fifth week, gross divisions of the brain can be distinguished and developing eyes and limb buds appear.

5. By the sixth week, it is 13 millimeters (about half an inch long); its eyes are still on the side of the head, as in most animals, and its reptilian face has connected slits where the mouth and nose eventually will be.

6. By the end of the seventh week, the tail is almost gone, sexual characteristics can be discerned, and the face is mammalian but somewhat piglike.

7. By the end of the eighth week, the face resembles a primate’s but is still not quite human; some lower brain anatomy is well developed, and the fetus shows some reflex response to delicate stimulation.

8. By the tenth week, the face has an unmistakable human look, and it begins to be possible to distinguish male from female fetuses.

9. By the fourth month (16 weeks), one can distinguish faces of fetuses from one another; the mother can feel the fetus move by the fifth month; the lungs don’t begin to develop until the sixth month; and recognizably human brain activity begins intermittently around the middle of the seventh month.

10. Brain waves with regular patterns typical of adult human brains do not appear in the fetus until about the 30th week of pregnancy—near the beginning of the third trimester. Fetuses younger than this, however alive and active they may be, lack the necessary brain architecture—they cannot yet think.4

At which of these stages can we say that the conceptus is a human life?

There is, of course, some validity to this argument. Obviously, less human potential has been realized at earlier stages of development, but at any of these stages potential human life does exist.

Antiabortionist Argument


Many antiabortionists argue that human life is an actuality at any stage after conception. Although it is certainly true that by an abortion actual life is being taken or prevented from continuing, it is very difficult to positively state, in some of the earlier stages at least, that the life is fully human. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to argue that the fetus is not an actual human life in the womb after the 12th week, when “the brain structure is essentially complete and a fetal electrocardiograph through the pregnant woman can pick up heart activity.”5 The argument that viability or actual birth, when the child can breathe on its own, is the only point at which human life begins relies too heavily on humans’ being able to survive without life support of some kind. Many human beings are dependent on some person or some machine in order to stay alive, and it is difficult to argue that if they cannot breathe for themselves or eat and drink on their own, they are not actual human beings. The length of time that a child, once born, is heavily dependent on both of his or her parents is in itself almost a refutation of the viability argument, or the argument “once born, now human.”

What the available data essentially illustrate is that there is human life either in potentiality or in actuality from the moment of conception. This means that the Value of Life Principle is definitely involved in any consideration of abortion. We cannot say with any validity that the conceptus is nothing more than—as one woman phrased it—“an intrusion upon the woman’s body,” like some unnecessary tumor or invading virus. It is not even like any of her organs, which of course may be removed for various reasons. It is, rather, a very special organism, one that develops slowly but surely into a human life, and one must recognize this fact when discussing what is to be done with or to it, either for its own good or for the good of someone else (usually the woman who is carrying it).

The biological, genetic, and physical data remain the same regardless of the position we take concerning when human life begins, and they do not in themselves answer the important question, “At what point in development is the conceptus to be valued to the extent that terminating its life would be equivalent to terminating the life of someone already born?” This determination, as we shall see, is not made solely on a basis of biological or genetic data; rather, it is made on some sort of moral bias or assumption.

The strong pro-life position takes the genetic view that human life is to be valued from conception onward. The strong pro-choice position, on the other hand, takes the view that human life does not have value until birth. There are, of course, various positions between these two extremes, such as the view that human life is to be valued only from the moment of viability onward.

Journal: Beginning of Human Life

When, in your opinion, does human life begin? Substantiate your answer with as much evidence and reasoned argument as you can.

Antiabortionist Argument


Many antiabortionists argue that human life is an actuality at any stage after conception. Although it is certainly true that by an abortion actual life is being taken or prevented from continuing, it is very difficult to positively state, in some of the earlier stages at least, that the life is fully human. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to argue that the fetus is not an actual human life in the womb after the 12th week, when “the brain structure is essentially complete and a fetal electrocardiograph through the pregnant woman can pick up heart activity.”5 The argument that viability or actual birth, when the child can breathe on its own, is the only point at which human life begins relies too heavily on humans’ being able to survive without life support of some kind. Many human beings are dependent on some person or some machine in order to stay alive, and it is difficult to argue that if they cannot breathe for themselves or eat and drink on their own, they are not actual human beings. The length of time that a child, once born, is heavily dependent on both of his or her parents is in itself almost a refutation of the viability argument, or the argument “once born, now human.”

What the available data essentially illustrate is that there is human life either in potentiality or in actuality from the moment of conception. This means that the Value of Life Principle is definitely involved in any consideration of abortion. We cannot say with any validity that the conceptus is nothing more than—as one woman phrased it—“an intrusion upon the woman’s body,” like some unnecessary tumor or invading virus. It is not even like any of her organs, which of course may be removed for various reasons. It is, rather, a very special organism, one that develops slowly but surely into a human life, and one must recognize this fact when discussing what is to be done with or to it, either for its own good or for the good of someone else (usually the woman who is carrying it).

The biological, genetic, and physical data remain the same regardless of the position we take concerning when human life begins, and they do not in themselves answer the important question, “At what point in development is the conceptus to be valued to the extent that terminating its life would be equivalent to terminating the life of someone already born?” This determination, as we shall see, is not made solely on a basis of biological or genetic data; rather, it is made on some sort of moral bias or assumption.

The strong pro-life position takes the genetic view that human life is to be valued from conception onward. The strong pro-choice position, on the other hand, takes the view that human life does not have value until birth. There are, of course, various positions between these two extremes, such as the view that human life is to be valued only from the moment of viability onward.

Journal: Beginning of Human Life

When, in your opinion, does human life begin? Substantiate your answer with as much evidence and reasoned argument as you can.

11.3: Arguments Against Abortion

1. 11.3 Examine some of the arguments against abortion


The strong pro-life position accepts the  genetic view  as to when human life begins and when it is to be valued as such. According to this view, human life starts at conception; that is, as soon as the chromosomes from the sperm of the father and the ovum of the mother are united, a human being exists that must be valued in the same way as if “he or she” were already born. The basis for this argument is that because a person’s genetic makeup is established at conception, and because, once established it “programs” the creation of a unique individual, the human being exists from the point of conception onward and must be valued as a human life. If we are truly concerned about protecting and preserving human life, the argument continues, then the safest position for us to hold is this one. Because people cannot agree on when human life actually begins—or, in a religious sense, when the human “soul” is present—by valuing a conceptus as human from conception onward we are ensuring that we do not act immorally or irreverently toward human life, and especially toward innocent, unborn human life.

Journal: Abortion as Murder or Mercy Killing

Would you view abortion as murder, mercy killing, self-defense, or merely the elimination of human tissue that is not yet a person? Give reasons to support your answer.


11.3.1: The Sanctity or Value of Life Argument


Arguments concerning the sanctity or value of life have been discussed in prior modules, but this factor becomes even more crucial in relation to the issue of abortion precisely because the conceptus is innocent and cannot defend itself from being killed. The sanctity or value of life argument states that every unborn, innocent child (and this term, or the term person, is used by the strong pro-life advocates instead of the terms “embryo”, “fetus”, and “conceptus”) must be regarded as a human person with all the rights of a human person from the moment of conception onward. The word innocent is a key one here: Some strong pro-life advocates may accept killing in self-defense, capital punishment, or war as moral because the lives involved are often not “innocent.” This argument holds that the conceptus not only has a right to life but also that his or her right is absolute. This means that it overrides all other rights that might come into conflict with it, such as a woman’s right to determine the course of her own procreative life or even her right to decide between her own life and the life of her conceptus if her pregnancy is complicated in some way.

Journal: Value of Human Life

Discuss if human life is intrinsically valuable? Give reasons to support your answer.


11.3.2: The Domino Argument


According to pro-life proponents, the domino argument is most forceful when applied to the abortion issue. They argue that recent history offers proof of the validity of the domino argument, stating that the individual killings, mass tortures, and  genocide  committed by the Nazis under Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) began with the legalization of abortion. They feel that abortion is more likely to set in motion the domino effect than any other type of act because it is not as visible or blatant as the murdering of already born children or adults. Because women never see their conceptuses, it is easier for them to disregard the human life involved; however, the argument continues, the minute we display a disregard for any form of innocent human life, born or unborn, we will start the domino effect, which can end only in a complete disregard for human life in all of its aspects.

11.3.3: The Dangers of Abortion to the Mother’s Life


Another argument against abortion states that abortion procedures are dangerous to the mother’s well-being, life, and future procreativity. These dangers have two aspects: the medical and the psychological.

Medical Dangers


The medical dangers argument is that abortion involves an intrusion into the woman’s vagina and womb that poses some danger to her body, especially these two parts of it. In order to understand specifically what these dangers are, we will briefly examine the abortion methods used at various stages of pregnancy.

1. Uterine aspiration. In this method a suction machine (aspirator), which consists of a plastic instrument at the end of a hose, is used to “aspirate,” or suction off, the conceptus and related material. This method generally is used prior to the 12th week of pregnancy, but it is an improvement on dilatation and curettage (D&C) in that it does not require the use of a sharp curette. There are still possibilities of infection, however, but there’s much less chance of uterine perforation. This method has come to replace the D&C in most early abortion situations.

2. Saline abortion. This procedure, like the hysterotomy, usually is performed during later pregnancies (after the 12th week), and generally is preferred to the hysterotomy (see item 3). In this procedure, a needle is inserted through the abdominal wall into the amniotic sac, where the conceptus is floating. Some of the amniotic fluid is drawn off and replaced by a glucose, saline, or prostaglandin solution. In about 20 hours, the woman goes into labor and usually delivers a dead fetus. There is some danger inherent in the injection of such substances into the amniotic sac. Also, even though the doctor performs the abortion procedure, he or she doesn’t need to be present during delivery, which may cause problems when complications arise. This method can also cause some psychological problems because the woman involved has to go through labor just as if she were having a baby, yet the result is a dead fetus.

3. Hysterotomy. After the 12th week of pregnancy, a miniature caesarean section can be performed. An incision is made in the abdominal wall and the conceptus and related material are removed, after which the incision is closed. There is always danger involved in major surgery, and once a caesarean operation has been performed on a woman, any babies she may have in the future may also have to be delivered by caesarean section.

4. Partial birth abortion. Also referred to as “dilate and extract” or “intrauterine intercranial abortions.” This type of abortion most often is done during the fifth month of gestation but sometimes during the end of the second trimester (around the 26th week), and usually only for very serious situations, such as the health, including mental health, of the woman, or if the fetus has been found to be dead, badly malformed, or suffering from a serious defect. The procedure involves the dilation of the woman’s cervix, after which the fetus is partially removed from the womb, feet first. The surgeon then inserts a sharp object into the back of the fetus’s head, removes it, and inserts a vacuum tube through which the brains are extracted. The head of the fetus contracts at this point allowing the fetus to be more easily removed from the womb.

5. Self-induced abortion. Almost all of the experts agree that self-induced abortions are probably the most dangerous of all abortions because they are not done under proper medical supervision. They easily can result in infections and hemorrhaging, complications that can kill both the fetus and the woman. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for allowing abortions to be legalized has been to discourage women from performing self-induced abortions.

Aside from the potential dangers of abortion methods in general, abortion increases a woman’s chances of having miscarriages in later pregnancies; this is especially true for young girls who have had an abortion. Also, repeated abortions increase the level of danger. All of this leads pro-life proponents to conclude that pregnancy and childbirth are normal functions of a woman’s body and that artificial interruption of these functions can cause medical problems that make such procedures hazardous to women.6

Journal: Moral Conditions of Abortion

Discuss the conditions under which it is moral and immoral to have an abortion. Give specific reasons to support your answer.


Psychological Dangers


The psychological dangers argument is that it is psychologically very destructive to a woman to authorize the “killing of her baby.” A woman who has committed such a terrible act, pro-life supporters argue, has to live with a great deal of guilt. In fact, the emotional scars will never be eradicated from her psyche, whereas if she had gone through with her pregnancy, even though it might have required a psychological adjustment, it would never compare with having to adjust to the guilt resulting from an abortion.

11.3.4: The Relative Safety of Pregnancy


One of the strongest arguments put forth for abortion is that pregnancy can endanger a woman’s health and even her life. The pro-life people, however, maintain that these dangers have been virtually eradicated by advances in medicine. Society is at the point now, they argue, where with only a very few exceptions a woman can be brought safely through a pregnancy. In the case of those few exceptions, as Father Josef Fuchs (1912–2005), a Jesuit theologian, puts it, “There is in fact no commandment to save the mother at all costs. There is only an obligation to save her in a morally permissible way. . . . Consequently only one obligation remains: to save the mother without attempting to kill the child.”7 Father Fuchs seems to be suggesting here that if the mother cannot be saved, then her life may have to be sacrificed in order to allow her child to be born, an action not morally acceptable to many, if not most, people.

11.3.5: The Existence of Viable Alternatives to Abortion


If a child is unwanted or if it is to be born deformed in some serious way, viable alternatives to abortion do exist. There are literally millions of childless couples who would love to adopt a child and raise it as their own. As a matter of fact, the number of babies now available for adoption (especially Caucasian babies) has dropped tremendously ever since abortions became legal in the United States. There are many fine, reputable agencies that can place children unwanted by their natural parents in homes where they will be cared for and loved. And even if such homes cannot be found, there are governmental institutions in which unwanted or deformed children can be placed and cared for by trained personnel. Certainly the fact that a conceptus is unwanted or handicapped cannot be a moral justification for “murdering” it, according to the pro-life people.

Journal: Workable Alternatives to Abortion

What workable alternatives to abortion would you recommend, and why?

11.3.6: The Irrelevance of Economic Considerations


Many women desire an abortion because they feel they cannot financially afford to go through a pregnancy or raise a child. The pro-life proponents argue, however, that where innocent, unborn human life is involved, economic considerations cannot come first. If a woman becomes pregnant, she, along with the conceptus’s father, must accept the financial responsibility for the birth and raising of their child. There are agencies in society—welfare, Medicaid, and private charitable organizations—that can give financial assistance to pregnant women whether they are married or not. According to this argument, families that are financially overburdened should be judicious about having more children, but if the woman does become pregnant, she cannot use financial problems as a reason to “take the lives of unborn children.”

11.3.7: Accepting Responsibility for Sexual Activities


The responsibility for sexual activities argument states that whenever women engage in sexual acts with men, whether contraceptives are used or not, they must realize that pregnancy may ensue. Furthermore, they must accept the responsibility for their actions, whether or not the men shoulder the responsibility with them, and they cannot sacrifice an innocent human life because of their carelessness or indiscretion or because of the failure of a contraceptive device. A woman is responsible for not getting pregnant in the first place, according to the argument, and there are many methods she can use to avoid pregnancy. However, if it does occur, it is her responsibility to go through with it and give birth to her child.

11.3.8: Argument Against Abortion in Cases of Rape and Incest


Pregnancies resulting from rape are fairly rare, and those resulting from  incest  are rarer still. If rapes are reported in time, contraceptive procedures can be used effectively. If, however, women do become pregnant after rape or incest, this argument maintains that the destruction of innocent unborn human life is still not justified. Women must go through with the pregnancies and, if they do not want the children because of the circumstances of their conception, they should put them up for adoption or place them in government-run institutions. In any case, according to this argument, innocent, unborn conceptuses should not have to pay with their lives for the sins or crimes of others.

11.4: Arguments for Abortion

1. 11.4 Examine some of the arguments favoring abortion


The argument for abortion essentially states that a woman ought to be allowed to have an abortion, regardless of the reason, if she requests it. Furthermore, she ought to be able to have her abortion without suffering recrimination, guilt, or restrictions, legal or otherwise. This position is based upon several arguments.

11.4.1: Absolute Rights of Women Over Their Own Bodies


The central argument for absolute rights of women over their own bodies is that women, like men, should have absolute rights over their own bodies, including procreative rights. In the past, women, because of an “accident of nature”—the fact that they are the ones who get pregnant—have not shared in these equal rights, but now that birth control is possible, they can. These rights also must include abortion, which is, according to this argument, just another method of birth control that is used when other methods fail or have not been used. To carry this argument one step further, any conceptus is a part of a woman’s body until it is born; therefore, she has absolute say over whether it should continue to live in that body or whether it will be allowed to be born.

There are several corollaries to this major argument.

1. First, there is the assumption that enforced maternities should not take place. No woman should be forced or even urged to go through her pregnancy against her will; she, and she alone, must decide her future.

2. Second, it is male domination that is responsible for strict abortion laws. Because men do not know what it is like to be pregnant, they can afford to be “highly moral” about the lives of conceptuses.

3. Third, female freedom is ultimately dependent on full and free control of procreative life, and this includes abortion as well as other methods of birth control.

For example, let us say that a woman wants to pursue a career in medicine, which requires a long and arduous period of study. If she gets pregnant for one reason or another, unless she has complete control over her procreativity, her life’s desires may never in fact be realized. The implication is that a woman shouldn’t have to go through pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a child if this could completely destroy her life plans. How many men are required to make such a sacrifice? The answer is virtually none, and according to the absolute rights argument, this is unfair to women. A man always has complete control over his sex life, except in cases of forced sexuality such as rape or child molestation, and a woman is entitled to the same freedom and rights. True, both she and the man can share the responsibility for contraception, but abortion must also be available when these methods fail or are not used for one reason or another.

Journal: Mother as Decision Maker

Do you agree that the mother must be the one to make the final decision on whether to have an abortion? Or, should anyone else be involved in the decision? If so, who should it be? Give reasons for your answer.


11.4.2: Birth as the Beginning of Human Life


The pro-choice point of view assumes that until a child actually is born, human life does not exist, at least not to the extent that the conceptus should have the same rights as people who already have been born. As mentioned earlier, as long as the conceptus is within the woman’s body, it is a part of her body and is subject to her decision as to whether it is to be carried to term or not. Most pro-choice women probably would argue that abortions should be performed as early as possible, both because the conceptus is less developed and because this is safer for the woman. However, abortions should also be allowed later in pregnancy if, for example, a woman discovers that the conceptus will be born seriously deformed, which can’t be determined until around four months after conception. In any case, because, according to this argument, an unborn conceptus at any stage of development cannot be considered to be a full human being, its right to life is not absolute; rather, this must be subordinated to the woman’s right over her own body and life, which is absolute, just as men’s rights are.

Journal: Fetus Having Moral or Legal Rights

Does the fetus have legal or moral rights? Give reasons to support your answers.

11.4.3: The Problem of Unwanted or Deformed Children


Since the arrival of significant birth control methods, including abortion, it has been possible to ensure that every child born into the world is thoroughly wanted. And now that people can limit the size of their families, they can better control the quality of their lives and the lives of their children. This argument states that given present-day conditions—overpopulation, pollution problems, and economic difficulties—only children who are planned for and really wanted should be brought into the world, and abortion makes this possible. If a woman becomes pregnant, she must bear the responsibility for her pregnancy and should not pass this burden onto society. If she is willing to bear the child and raise it, she should be allowed to do so, but if she does not intend to take responsibility for it, she should have it aborted rather than put it up for adoption or have it institutionalized and allow it to become a burden upon others.

There are two additional assumptions that contribute to the pro-choice position on unwanted or deformed children.

Adoption As a Poor Solution

According to pro-choice advocates, adoption is not as viable an alternative as the pro-life forces would have us believe.

1. First, even if a woman agrees to put her child up for adoption after it is born, she still has to go through nine months of pregnancy, which will hamper her freedom and life a great deal.

2. Second, it is much more difficult, both physically and psychologically, to go through pregnancy and give a child up for adoption than it is to have a conceptus aborted before it is born.

3. Third, adoptive children don’t always have as pleasant an existence as pro-lifers would have us think. Adoptive children often feel rejected when they discover that their natural mothers gave them up. Often they go in search of their natural parents regardless of the love and quality of their adoptive parents and homes. Also, some of these children end up moving from foster home to foster home, enduring a poor quality of life.

Lack of Humane Institutions

One of the arguments of the pro-life people is that orphaned and handicapped children can be maintained in institutions established by society for this purpose. The pro-choice people answer, however, that life these days is difficult enough for children who are wanted or “normal,” and they question why women would want to give birth to children who are not wanted or who will be handicapped, especially those with serious handicaps. Furthermore, the quality of the institutional or even private care available for deformed children is below minimum and sometimes inhumane; therefore, bringing children into such situations is much worse than terminating their lives before they are born. It goes without saying, according to pro-choice people, that no woman, with or without a family, should be required to give birth to or raise a deformed child unless she wants to. With the availability of the amniocentesis and CVS procedures described earlier, women can, in many cases, know between the fourth and fifth month of pregnancy whether or not their child will be deformed, and they can choose whether to abort the deformed conceptus or to give birth to it.

11.4.4: The Relative Safety of Abortion


The argument of the pro-life people, the one that states that abortion is dangerous to women’s medical and psychological well-being, is flatly rejected by the pro-choice people.

The Medical Aspect

First, according to the pro-choice position, the only dangerous abortions are either self-induced abortions or those that were performed by unqualified personnel in unsanitary conditions at the time when abortions were not legal. Many more women lost their lives from these procedures than have done so since abortion has been legalized. As long as abortions are performed by qualified medical personnel in qualified medical settings, the risk for all of the procedures, according to the pro-choice argument, is minimum. Essentially, abortion in the first 12 weeks is a minor procedure that carries with it almost no risk. Later abortions are, of course, more complicated, but even in such cases, given the appropriate medical care and facilities, women can be brought through abortions quite safely.

As a matter of fact, pro-choice people would argue, abortions are much safer—especially in the early stages of pregnancy, when they are most often performed—than going through nine months of pregnancy. This is particularly the case when the woman has some sort of debilitating illness (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, or a diseased heart). They maintain that the drain on a woman’s strength, health, and body caused by going through pregnancy leaves marks that can far outlast the short-term effects of an abortion procedure, especially when abortion is performed early in the pregnancy.

The Psychological Aspect

Some women who decide to have an abortion may, of course, feel guilt, but many women do not experience any such feelings because they do not consider the conceptus to be a human being in any respect. Furthermore, if guilt feelings do exist, they can be overcome either by the women themselves or with counseling. The pro-choice people go on to say that most of these guilt feelings, if they do exist, will be temporary, and that they are nothing compared to the psychological damage of going through nine months of pregnancy and then bearing an unwanted and/or deformed child.

Also, if a woman has to spend 18 or more years raising a child when she really doesn’t want to, the psychological damage she suffers may be longer lasting and much more detrimental than a few hours, days, weeks, or even months of guilt over having to abort an unwanted conceptus. Moreover, going through a pregnancy and having to give a child up for adoption will cause greater psychological damage than having an early or even a late abortion. The pro-choice people also believe that this psychological damage extends to the child itself once it is born. What psychological damage will be wreaked upon children who grow up unwanted and unloved by mothers who were forced to have them against their will? Physical and emotional deprivation extending to child abuse and even death is far worse, the argument states, than not letting the

11.4.5: Refutation of the Domino Argument


As far as the domino argument is concerned, pro-choice people argue that there is no hard evidence showing that legalizing abortion is likely to result in a loss of reverence for human life in any other area. They point to the many laws against capital punishment in existence around the world; the laws against mercy death and mercy killing; and other laws against murder in all forms. They also argue that the Hitler example does not provide support for the pro-life position. They maintain that Hitler’s motives were never  beneficent  in any sense of the word—that he was out to destroy any enemies of the Third Reich, innocent or not.

The pro-choice people argue further that they are not favoring mandatory abortion in any way, shape, or form; rather, all they want is free choice for women who do not want to go through with pregnancies. Making abortion legal does not mean that eventually all Jewish women, for example, would be forced to abort because they and their offspring would be considered unfit or subhuman as was the case in the Third Reich; it only means that women of all races and religions would have a choice in terms of abortion. They argue further that the availability of abortion has not made women more callous toward human life, but that it has, in fact, made them more loving of the children that they really wanted and planned for.

11.4.6: The Danger of Pregnancy to the Mother’s Life


Another argument of the pro-choice advocates is that pregnancy does pose dangers to the health and life of women. Furthermore, they believe that if human lives have to be traded off, the life of someone already born, in this case the pregnant woman, should obviously take precedence over the life of an unborn conceptus. They would disagree strongly with Josef Fuchs, maintaining that abortion is a permissible way to save a woman’s life when it is threatened by a complicated pregnancy. In fact, they believe that even if there is only some risk to the woman, she still has the right to choose to save her own life over that of the unborn conceptus.

11.4.7: Argument for Abortion in Cases of Rape and Incest


The pro-choice people would argue that rape and incest are two of the most serious crimes committed against a woman and that under no circumstances should she be forced to endure an unwanted pregnancy resulting from either of these actions. There is no argument, they feel, other than the woman’s own desire to go through with the pregnancy, that would justify putting her through the torment of pregnancy and childbirth under these circumstances.

11.4.8: Pro Choice Views of Responsibility for Sexual Activities


The pro-choice advocates would agree with their pro-life opponents that women must accept responsibility for their sexual activities, but they believe that this responsibility definitely includes the right to terminate a pregnancy. They are particularly disturbed by the notion that “if a woman is stupid enough to get pregnant despite the availability of contraceptive devices and the ability to abstain from sex, then it’s her fault, and she must go through with the pregnancy.” To them, this attitude reflects society’s desire to punish women for their carelessness or indiscretions. They feel that no matter how pregnancy occurred, the woman does not deserve punishment any more than does the man who also is responsible for the pregnancy; in no way should a woman be abused or discriminated against for exercising her free choice in dealing with her problem.

11.4.9: Abortion as the Woman’s Choice


The final argument for the pro-choice position is that abortion is purely a medical problem and, therefore, women should be legally free to make a private decision about their bodies and their lives that should not be intruded upon by others. No one else has to go through the pregnancy; no one else has to go through the childbirth; and no one else has to then devote 18 or more years to raising the child; therefore, the final decision to abort or to go through with pregnancy must be the woman’s and hers alone with no interference from anyone else or any part of society.

11.5: The More Moderate Positions on Abortion

1. 11.5 Examine the moderate positions on abortion


The strong pro-life and the strong pro-choice positions embody the extreme approaches to the abortion issue. There are, however, more moderate positions that can be found all along the spectrum between these extremes. It is difficult to characterize all the moderate positions on abortion, for some may allow abortion in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in danger, but not for other reasons. Some may allow abortion up to viability but not after, whereas others may allow it up to 12 weeks, but not after. Some may allow abortion for psychological reasons or in cases of fetal deformity, whereas others may not. Because of this diversity, this section will present a set of basic assumptions that the more moderate positions might hold and that will also embody criticisms of the two extreme positions.

11.5.1: An Unresolvable Conflict of Absolutes


One aspect of the abortion issue that most moderates would agree upon is that neither of the extreme positions is workable: They are both based on unresolvable and conflicting “absolutes” that, in turn, are based on questionable premises. The first approach to this problem generally taken by moderates is that there are no absolute rights—there are strong rights, but there are no rights that supersede all other human rights.

No Absolute Right to Life


The Value of Life principle is important, but it is not the only value there is—that’s why there are other principles. Many people have sacrificed their lives for ideals that the other principles embody: goodness, justice, freedom, and honesty. It is also true that the Value of Life Principle involves other aspects besides the mere right to existence—even the right to existence of innocent, unborn life.

One of these other aspects of the Value of Life Principle is the survival and integrity of the human species.

Four aspects of the Value of Life Principle are:

1. This aspect includes the problem of overpopulation and the burden placed upon society when children are born with deformities.

2. A second aspect is the right of families to procreate and reproduce their own kind without hindrance. Obviously, this aspect comes into conflict with the first aspect in cases where families exhibit a high risk of passing on genetic deficiencies that may cause burdens upon society as a whole.

3. A third aspect is the integrity of bodily life, which involves the protection of human beings from life-threatening situations such as war, capital punishment, poverty, mercy death and mercy killing, suicide, and abortion.

4. Finally, a fourth aspect is the freedom to live life in the way that we want to—an aspect that affects both the pregnant woman and the conceptus.8

Now, the Value of Life Principle involves a great deal more than just the right to life of the unborn (although this is definitely included), and that is why one cannot say that anyone has an absolute right to life.



Generally, those who hold a moderate position feel that the genetic or strong pro-life view of when human life begins draws the line too early, even though this provides for the safest and most consistent means of protecting human life from its earliest stages onward. It is difficult for moderates to accept the idea that a group of cells—regardless of their potentiality—can be considered a human being with full personhood and all the rights accorded to human beings who are already born.

On the other hand, waiting until birth to assign value to developing human life seems wrong because it disregards the significance of the increasing potentiality toward human life that occurs throughout the entire gestation period. The attempt to determine when a conceptus becomes human has caused people to draw some rather ridiculously fine lines.

For example, what essentially is the difference between a fetus in the 38th week and one that is newly born? Is this difference significant enough to allow one fetus to be valued as human, whereas the other is not?

In her essay “Ethical Problems of Abortion,” Sissela Bok essentially holds, like Callahan, to the developmental viewpoint.11 She also argues well for the difficulty of defining the term human being and lists instead some cogent reasons for protecting life. Bok goes on to say that these criteria do not lead her to the conclusion that early human life is unimportant; on the contrary, she believes that the conceptus definitely should be considered, along with the mother, as having value. However, she is led by these criteria to suggest that abortion on request should be allowed up to the end of the first trimester (the first 12 weeks, or three months). Between the 13th week and the 26th to 28th weeks (when viability occurs), special reasons, such as severe malformation of the conceptus, should be required to justify an abortion; and from viability onward, abortions should not be allowed except when the fetus is dead; the fetus is alive, but continued pregnancy would place the woman’s life in severe danger; the fetus is alive, but continued pregnancy would grievously damage the woman’s health and/or disable her; and the fetus is so malformed that it can never gain consciousness and will die shortly after birth.

These guidelines, Bok adds, do not in any way suggest that abortion can be morally justified for everyone. Doctors, nurses, and prospective parents who feel that participation in an abortion would adversely affect their lives and their feelings are perfectly justified in refusing to have or perform an abortion at any stage in pregnancy.12 Generally, then, Bok’s position (which coincides with Callahan’s) could accurately be described as the “moderate” position as to when human life begins and, more importantly, when it has sufficient value to cause it to receive the same protection as already born life.

Cases: Abortion


Abortion continues to be one of the most divisive moral and social issues in America. This issue elicits deep emotional responses and the ongoing debate centers on moral issues and rights based philosophical arguments. The absolute positions are popularly known as Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. The former position argues that abortion is not morally acceptable and the latter argues that abortion is morally acceptable, with a qualification; namely, if the woman chooses. Between these opposing views are a number of mediating positions. Arguments for mediating views are generally based on the reasons for an abortion or the stage of fetal development.

Cases for Study and Discussion

Case 1 Dilemma of Teenage Abortion

Janice, 15, and Bob, 16, have had sexual intercourse several times, and now Janice has discovered that she is two months’ pregnant. Janice’s mother was raised a Roman Catholic, and she does not want her daughter to have an abortion. Neither, however, does she wish to raise or help Janice raise the child. Instead, she wants Janice to go through with the pregnancy and give the child up for adoption. Janice’s father is an agnostic, and he wants her to have an abortion because he knows that Janice is a good student and is interested in a law career—he is a practicing lawyer himself. Bob, who wants to be an engineer, also wishes Janice to have an abortion, and he is willing to see that all of her expenses are paid. Janice herself is quite confused about what she wants. She has been raised a Roman Catholic and shares some of her mother’s misgivings about abortion, although she is not as committed to her faith as her mother is. She has talked to a young, sympathetic priest at her church, but he has told her she must not have an abortion as this would be a mortal sin. She has also gone to an abortion clinic to discuss the abortion procedure and its cost. What should Janice do, and why? Support your statements.

Case 2 Middle-Aged Couple Deciding on Abortion or Not

Mary, 38, is married and has three children, ages 10, 15, and 18. Her husband manages a service station, and Mary has been working part-time as a bank teller. They are having a difficult time financially because their 18-year-old has just started college and they bought a new house a year ago. Although Mary was using a contraceptive, she now discovers that she is one-month pregnant. She and her husband do not want any more children—indeed, they had thought they were finished bearing and raising them. Adding to their other reasons for not wanting any more children, they are also worried by the knowledge that women who have pregnancies late in life have a greater chance of bearing a child with Down’s syndrome. They finally decide that Mary should have an abortion. Were they right in making this decision? Should Mary wait until the fourth month and have an amniocentesis performed to see if the baby has Down’s syndrome? If the baby does, then what should they do, and why?

Case 3 Tay-Sachs Couple

Leonard, 25, and Rachel, 23, discover that they are Tay-Sachs carriers after Rachel has become pregnant, and the doctor informs them that they have a one-in-four chance of bearing a Tay-Sachs child. Tay-Sachs is a fatal disease that is both degenerative and particularly horrible. They decide to wait until the fourth month of Rachel’s pregnancy to have an amniocentesis performed. The results, which they receive in Rachel’s fifth month of pregnancy, show that she will indeed give birth to a child with Tay-Sachs. What should they do?

Case 4 Young Couple Whose Fetus Has Down Syndrome

Lupe and Robert, both in their early twenties, are having their first child. Because Lupe had some problems early in her pregnancy, her doctor recommends that an amniocentesis be performed. At four months of pregnancy she undergoes the procedure, and the results six weeks later show that Lupe will give birth to a child with Down syndrome. The results do not indicate how severe the mental retardation will be or if there are any other deformities. Lupe and Robert want children very badly, but they would rather not have to raise a mentally retarded child, especially because they are young enough to try again for a normal child. What should they do?

Case 5 Middle-Aged Couple Have an Abortion Because of Sex of Fetus

Bill, 37, and Isabel, 35, are married and have three daughters. One night when they had sexual intercourse Isabel forgot to wear her diaphragm, and she became pregnant as a result. After adjusting to the idea, Bill and Isabel decided it would be nice if they could have a son, because they already have three daughters. However, because Isabel is 35, she decides to have an amniocentesis performed to see if her fetus has Down Syndrome. After the procedure has been done, the genetic counselor informs Bill and Isabel that the child will be normal as far as the test can determine and also that the child will be a girl. Because Bill and Isabel do not want another girl, Isabel has an abortion, after which she has herself sterilized so that she can have no more children. Do you feel that she did the right thing?

Case 6 Multiple Births

Because of the increase of treatments for infertility, many multiple births have resulted after such treatments are completed. Two recent cases occurred, one in which a pregnant woman who discovered she was going to have twins decided she could afford only one child and had an abortion, which set off heavy protests in England. A second woman, on finding out that she had four to six fetuses, wished to abort about half of them because she said she didn’t want and couldn’t afford that many children. To what extent do you think such requests for abortion are moral or immoral? Explain in detail. Do you feel at all differently about this type of abortion than you do about single-fetus abortions? Why or why not?

12.2.1: Rule Nonconsequentialist Views


As might be expected, the rule nonconsequentialist views, most typified by Kantian Duty Ethics, would be opposed to any of the four acts. Kant would argue that one cannot universalize lying, cheating, breaking promises, or stealing because they all would be contradictory. For example, if one said that everyone should always lie, then that one would contradict the meaning of truth telling; if a person said that everyone should break promises, then promises would no longer have any meaning. He would also state that one would be treating human beings as means rather than ends if one were to lie to them, cheated them, broke our promises to them, and stole from them. Although Sir William David Ross might allow any of these if serious matters warranted it, his basic position, like Kant’s, is that generally we should not lie, and so forth. This same position is held by St. Augustine (354–430) and by John Wesley (1703–1791), the British founder of Methodism.

This traditional view that lying, cheating, breaking promises, and stealing are always wrong, then, is fairly strong in our history. Sometimes these actions are viewed as the next worst immoralities to taking human life, and in some cultures and their moral codes, they are worse than killing and death. Very often, for example, a culture will punish such immoral acts by death, whereas in others, the violation of these important moral codes will bring such disgrace upon the perpetrator and even his family that he will be seriously ostracized from the group and may even commit suicide, seeing death as more honorable than living under such circumstances.

12.2.2: Consequentialist and Act Nonconsequentialist Views


The reason for not including act nonconsequentialism with rule nonconsequentialism is that even though act nonconsequentialists do not use consequences in their decision making or consider them important, in their approach to morality, which is based upon feelings or intuition alone, they would not necessarily take a stand for or against these issues unless they felt like it. It seems quite possible that they might feel like lying or breaking promises at one time and not feel like it at others; therefore, although they might establish a permanent position against doing these acts on the basis of their feelings in general, they would not have to opt either for or against and could change their positions on these matters from situation to situation based upon how they feel at any particular time.

Consequentialist theories would bring ends, results, or consequences into the picture whenever lying, cheating, breaking promises, or stealing is contemplated. Obviously, if consequences would warrant it, then any of the preceding could be acceptable. Consequentialists, even rule utilitarians, could not, based on this theory, say that we should never lie, cheat, break promises, or steal. Instead, they would state that these should or should not be done based upon whether or not what one did brought about the best consequences.

Ethical egoists would allow for doing any of these, provided that they could be reasonably sure it would be in their best interests to do them. They could, of course, not ever do any of them or do some of them only sometimes, but there certainly would be no absolute prohibition against doing any of them because it might be in their self-interest to do them.

Act utilitarians might do or not do any of them if they thought the action would bring about the best consequences for everyone affected by the act. If they thought lying would bring about the best consequences for everyone, for example, they certainly would lie.

Rule utilitarians might have rules against all four actions if they thought that bad consequences generally would ensue if people didn’t basically adhere to rules prohibiting the four actions. They would have to make exceptions, of course, to those rules or qualify those rules in circumstances where violating the rules would definitely bring about the best consequences for everyone.

Although people may fall into any of these different categories—given that there are ethical egoists, Kantians, and act and rule utilitarians—it is likely that most of us feel such acts are wrong in general because they tend to destroy the trust that is so essential to vital human relationships. People like to think, for example, that others will not lie to them, cheat them, break promises they make to them, or steal from them. Yet many are realistic enough to realize that someone may do these things, and they therefore must be on their guard.

The recipients of lies, cheating, broken promises, and theft often feel disappointed, resentful, angry, and upset—reactions that do not engender contentment or happiness. In addition, their ability to trust the offenders is diminished and may lead to a general distrust of all human relationships. In my estimation, most people will not hold to principles of “never” or “always” where lying, cheating, breaking promises, or stealing are involved; though generally against them, they will permit them in certain circumstances. Of course, what the majority does has nothing to do with what it ought to do, but in a practical sense we should be aware of the impact of these actions on our daily lives. In what follows, the major arguments pro and con will be presented for each action, and each of you can decide for yourselves which arguments are the most compelling.

12.3: Lying

1. 12.3 Review some of the arguments for and against lying with respect to different situations


A major argument against lying is that it misinforms the people lied to and thus may frustrate them from reaching their own objectives. For example, suppose a wife and mother of two children wants to stay home with her children, but her husband says he is going to school and wants her to take a job so that he can continue. After a month, he decides not to stay in school and drops out but tells his wife he is still attending. By so lying, he has thwarted her wish to stay home and raise their children. His lying has not only blocked his wife’s objective but has also deprived his children of their mother’s care.

Journal: Arguments against Lying

What are the arguments against lying, cheating, breaking promises, and stealing, and to what extent do you agree or disagree with them? Be specific. Present any other arguments you can think of and justify them as fully as you can.


In another example, Jane thinks she has a chance for a promotion at the company where she works because the present manager tells her so, although he has actually selected David for the job. Thus Jane may decide not to seek a better job elsewhere or may turn one down, hoping she will be promoted where she is. The manager, first of all, has led Jane to believe she has more alternatives than she really has, which is a violation of the Principle of Justice—it’s unfair to her. Second, although she would much rather stay with her present firm if she could move up, the manager’s duplicity has caused her to lose confidence in what, for her, may have been the best alternative.

Distrust in Human Relationships


One of the major arguments against lying is that it causes a breakdown in human relationships. If you think about it, human relationships are at their best when people can trust each other.

Lying not only causes distrust but also resentment, disappointment, and suspicion in the deceived. For example, if a woman has been continuously lied to by her husband and the marriage relationship therefore collapses, she may continue to distrust all future relationships with others, especially men. Thus, lying not only has ruined this relationship for her, it has also affected all future relationships as well. This may explain why some people who have been lied to say, “It’s not so much what you did [e.g., had an adulterous affair], but that you lied to me about it.”

Human relationships generally depend on the communication of thoughts, feelings, and information. Because lying essentially amounts to a failure to communicate honestly, human relationships are very hard to establish or maintain when their main foundation—honesty—is undermined or destroyed.

The Domino Argument


The  domino argument  bears looking at in connection with lying. The domino argument in itself, without further evidence, will not influence people to refrain from performing certain acts. Nevertheless, one always should be aware that what people do may affect us and others by contributing to additional problems or reverberations beyond the initial action.

Those who are against lying believe that one lie tends to beget others in order to maintain the first one. As Bok states,

It is easy, a wit observed, to tell a lie, but hard to tell only one. The first lie “must be thatched with another or it will rain through.” More and more lies may come to be needed; the liar always has more mending to do. And the strains on him become greater each time—many have noted that it takes an excellent memory to keep one’s untruths in good repair and disentangled. The sheer energy the liar has to devote to shoring them up is energy the honest man can dispose of freely.9

For example, in refusing to tell dying patients the truth about their condition, a situation is set up in which many other lies must follow so as to back up the first. It might be argued that lying will make the patients try harder to recover (even though recovery may not be possible), and that knowing their true condition will only depress them and make communication with them harder and their last days terrible. The initial lie will seem reasonable in this setting. However, if patients ask any serious questions about their condition, then more lies may have to be told. Precautions must be taken to prevent any information or even hints from leaking through to disrupt the growing web of lies that began innocently enough as a way of providing “protection” for the dying patient.

Added to the difficulties of maintaining the initial lie (which was one of omission, not commission) is the fact that many people are involved in the care of such a patient. Thus, as the patient’s situation worsens and more procedures (or fewer, when a doctor deems there is nothing more to be done) have to be done, the patient may ask questions of all these people, causing more lies to be told: “I don’t know; you must ask your doctor. You’re going to get better. There’s no need to worry.” The irony of all this, according to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926–2004), who has worked with dying patients for many years, is that all those she dealt with knew the seriousness of their illnesses whether or not they had been told, and many even knew when they were going to die.10 This means that the deception was not only painful and blocked communication, but it also was not really necessary because the truth was generally known to everyone involved—even those whom the lies were supposed to protect.

Additionally, once a lie has been told, further lying in other situations becomes easier, often to the point where liars can no longer distinguish between what is or is not the truth as they know it. And if a liar gets away with one lie that he has told in order to “save his neck,” in no matter how trivial a situation, then future lying becomes easier and sometimes almost a way of life. Habitual lying, of course, increases the chance of discovery, leading to the breakdown of trust and the dilution, if not destruction, of vital human relationships. Therefore, although the domino argument may not in itself prohibit one from doing an act, in the case of lying it is especially pertinent and should be carefully considered.

Journal: Domino Argument

What is the “domino argument,” and how does it apply to the four moral issues described in this chapter?


Unfair Advantage or Power for Liars


Another argument against lying is that because most liars do not themselves wish to be deceived, to deceive others gives liars an unfair advantage. This is, of course, a violation of the Principle of Justice. A perfect example of the power one person can have over another may be found in Shakespeare’s play Othello. Iago, Othello’s aide, weaves one of the most insidious webs of lies ever seen in drama and literature. By the end of the play, Iago has not only controlled Othello’s every move but also caused the death of Othello’s wife, Desdemona, about whom most of the lies were concocted, and the injury and death of several others, including Othello himself. The power Iago has over most of the people in the play is almost unbelievable, and all of it is attained through the diabolical cleverness of his many deceptions.

Self-Destructiveness of Lying


A major disadvantage in lying is that once liars are found out, their word is no longer trusted, their deceptions fall apart, and their power is decreased or lost. The Watergate affair during President Nixon’s (1913–1994) administration exemplifies this loss of power. Few people are as powerful as the president of the United States, and Nixon evidently maintained some of that power through various deceptions. As long as the public generally did not know this, he retained and even increased his power, but once his lying and dishonesty had been discovered, he definitely lost prestige and was forced to resign rather than be impeached. On the other hand, President Bill Clinton (1946– ) also lied to the public about his sexual affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky (1973– ), which certainly increased distrust of him and also caused many people to lose respect for him. However, he did not seem to lose a lot of power as president, probably because he was not lying about his presidential or political actions, but rather his personal life. Although most people were disgusted by the affair and his lying about it, they felt it did not relate directly to his duties and actions as president.

Another effect on the liars themselves, according to proponents of this argument, is that lying undermines one’s own self-image. In other words, liars lose self-esteem because of their deceptions, and the more often these occur, the greater the loss.

Effects of Lying on Society


Bok assesses the general overall effect of lying on society as follows: “The veneer of social trust is often thin. As lies spread . . . trust is damaged. . . . When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse.”11 Many people in the United States and the world were shocked by President Nixon’s lying in the Watergate affair. Trust in politicians and lawyers, shaky to begin with, fell to a new low. Some faith was renewed through the efforts of Archibald Cox (1912–2004) and Leon Jaworski (1905–1982), chief prosecutors, and Senator Sam Ervin (1896–1985), who was in charge of the investigative committee, but the American public certainly experienced a loss of morale and faith in its leaders that hadn’t occurred before to such an extent in the nation’s history. Most people feel that a person’s word is his or her bond and that it should be possible to trust everyone. Therefore, every breach of honesty destroys that belief, causes cynicism, condones lying, and destroys the thin “veneer of social trust.” If the holder of the highest office in the land can and does lie, then why should not anyone else at any level of human relationships? Let’s hope that most people won’t let a bad example influence them in this way, but the temptation is certainly always there.

Journal: Effects of Lying on Society

To what extent do you feel that lying, cheating, breaking promises, and stealing really have an effect upon society in general? Give specific examples or illustrations.

12.4: Arguments for Lying

1. 12.4 Discuss the key arguments for lying


Most ethicists and others would not argue in favor of lying all the time, although some people might. Inveterate liars usually will not lie all the time because they can then be more strategically effective when they do. If one lies all of the time, one has a greater chance of being found out and of losing at least the semblance of trustworthiness, something a “good” liar needs to maintain.

Most arguments for lying suggest that sometimes there are good reasons for telling lies. Therefore, to state unequivocally, as do Kant and others, that lying is never moral and should never be allowed would be impractical and in some situations perhaps immoral. In some cases, they say, lying should be encouraged. For example, people ought to be able to lie when they need to or when lying could prevent the occurrence of a more serious moral infraction, such as killing.

Journal: Arguments for Lying

What are the arguments for lying, cheating, breaking promises, and stealing, and to what extent do you agree or disagree with them? Be specific.


Defense of the Innocent, Including Self-Defense


According to Bok, “Deceit and violence . . . are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings. Both can coerce people into acting against their will.”12 In most instances, however, ethicists deem lying to be less harmful to human life than violence, especially when the latter terminates human life. With some exceptions, if killing or allowing innocent lives to be lost is wrong, and if one can save such lives by lying, most ethicists allow for lying in such instances. For example, if an extremely angry man is looking for his gun to kill someone, and if you know where it is, these ethicists will state that you are justified in lying and not telling him where it is in order to save the lives of his intended victims. He may indeed find a gun somewhere else, but you at least have done all you can, by lying, to protect the potential victims.

Another example would be a wartime situation in which a member of the underground knows where other members are hiding. He would be justified in lying about their whereabouts rather than risking their capture and death.

One question arising in such a case is this: What constitutes defense of the innocent or self-defense? In the preceding two examples, the situation is clear, and in either case one can see that lives would be protected by lying. However, what about the president of a major corporation vital to national defense who is accused of embezzling funds and lies about it? When found out, she might argue that even though she was not protecting herself by her lie, as president of the company she felt a responsibility to lie to protect shareholders, workers, and also the “innocent public” for whom her corporation manufactures defense products. Are her contentions justified? First, it might be seriously argued that for her crime to be covered up, only to surface at a later date, would cause even more problems in the future. Second, it’s unlikely that her being found out and removed from the presidency would seriously affect the lives she is presumed to be “protecting” by lying, because someone else could function as president.

Journal: Effects of Lying on the Liar

To what extent do you feel that doing these things really has an effect upon the one who does them? Give examples to show how they do or do not have an effect.

National Security


Many ethicists argue for lying in order to maintain national security, an act that certainly may protect many innocent people. For example, if a woman spying for her country is caught, she may then lie about information she has in order to protect her country’s security. Presidents and other members of the government sometimes state that they cannot reveal certain important information to the press or public because “it would endanger national security.” Such people certainly should have some discretion in revealing information that would seriously affect national security, but they must be very careful not to abuse this right in order to protect their own self-interest.

For example, President Nixon often claimed that the reason he lied about the Watergate affair, the tapes, and everything else, was that telling the truth would have endangered national security. Obviously, national security was affected very little, although morale may have been. One could argue for national security in this instance only on the broadest basis, as, for example, that other world powers might condemn the United States because of its president’s actions. It would be Nixon who would lose prestige, however, not the nation as a whole, which cannot take the responsibility for its president’s actions. National security could be used as a valid reason for lying in certain circumstances only as long as it was not abused by members of the government or the military. President Clinton never used national security as an excuse, and indeed his actions did not seem to affect his or the United States’ status worldwide. What he did certainly affected people’s opinions of his character, but many foreign countries that have a more liberal view of sexual activity than the United States, while not necessarily supporting his actions, did not see them as detrimental to our country’s relations with them.

Trade Secrets in Business


Ethicists favoring lying might argue that businesspeople may lie justifiably, either by omission or commission, rather than reveal vital trade secrets to their competitors. They aver that no businessperson has an obligation to tell competitors of his or her inventions or patents, which would give competitors unfair advantage. This permission to lie can also be extended to anything that would be in the business’s self-interest, such as false and misleading advertising and lying for unfair advantage over other people or companies. Very often arguments sanctioning lying in business try to separate actions in the business world from those in life outside it, on the principle that in business anything goes, whereas one should never lie to loved ones or friends.

“Little White Lies”


Many people, including some ethicists, allow for unimportant or harmless “little white lies,” which are told to avoid hurting people’s feelings or to protect those lying from embarrassment. The arguments for these lies are that people need to have leeway in social intercourse and daily activities in order to keep things running smoothly.

Consider the following examples:

· If one woman asks another how an expensive new dress looks on her, the other woman might answer that the dress looks fine even if she doesn’t think so because she doesn’t want to hurt the asker’s feelings.

· In another case, a young man might ask a young woman for a date, but she doesn’t want to go out with him because she dislikes his looks and personality. Rather than hurt his feelings and to save herself from the embarrassment of telling him her real reasons for not wanting to go out with him, she will lie and state that she already has a date when she really doesn’t.

In all of these instances, the liars usually feel that what they are lying about is unimportant, and that lying is a tactful way to avoid hurting people’s feelings and save the liars some embarrassment. Further, they argue, in getting along in the world, lying sometimes can maintain the “social veneer” rather than crack it, as is advocated by the people who argue against lying. In other words, rather than hurting someone or suffering embarrassment, and as long as no serious harm is done, it’s all right to lie to prevent either from happening.

Journal: Little White Lies

Defend or attack the position that “little white lies” are not important or serious in any way and are in fact needed in our everyday human relationships.


12.5: Moderate Position

1. 12.5 Examine the moderate position on lying


As with other topics in this course, a moderate rather than a strict pro or con attitude toward lying is the one most people probably favor. It advocates that, generally, one should avoid lying if possible and lie only as a last resort or clearly to save a life. This viewpoint is well expressed by the old saying “Honesty is the best policy.” Moderates feel that lying is a serious matter, however little or white the lie. Moderates agree with those opposed to lying that the domino argument makes sense—that the more you lie, the easier it is to do so, and that one lie leads to another and another and another. They also agree that lying tends to break down the “social veneer,” brings harm to those deceived, and destroys the integrity and human dignity of the liar whether or not he or she is caught.

Further, they believe that it’s important to consider the consequences of any lie, however trivial. For instance, the woman who has lied to her friend about her dress may lose that friend if her lie is found out. Moreover, if by lying she encourages her friend to wear an unbecoming dress, then her lie has hurt, not helped, her friend. In the example about the man rejected for a date, if he happens to learn that the woman didn’t have another date, then his feelings will be hurt much more than if she had told him the truth. Thus, moderates argue, the consequences of even white lies may be worse than if one had told the truth.

A point moderates stress is that lying is not the only other alternative to giving someone truthful information that might hurt. As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has stated, the important question is not whether one should tell the truth, but how one should tell the truth, or how a person should share information, important or not, with others who are asking questions or who need to know what the truth is.13 In other words, one does not have to be brutally frank. One can tell the truth, however terrible, but gently and with intent to support and to give hope wherever possible. In the case of the women and the dress, for example, the friend could tell the one who asked, “Actually, I don’t think that dress especially suits you, and I suggest you take it back and buy another. Because you thought enough of me to ask my opinion, may I help you return the dress and look for one that would be more flattering to you?” By replying in this way, the woman would not be lying, and she would be giving her friend some hope and encouragement about purchasing another dress that would be more becoming.

Even in situations where the truth is frightening to both hearer and deliverer, it can still be stated without materially harming another. Take a situation in which a family has been in a serious car accident and a wife/mother was killed, the husband/father is very critical, and the son is basically all right. What do you tell the father who asks about the others in his family? Do you lie and say that they are all right, or do you tell the truth? First, you should stress that his son is doing well. Because of his critical condition, you would merely say that his wife was also injured in the accident (the truth) without saying anything further until he becomes stronger. However, if he asks you point-blank “Is she dead?” or states, “She’s dead, isn’t she?” Dr. Kübler-Ross says that you should be truthful but try to stress that his son is alive to give him a reason to try to recover.14

The basic thrust of the moderate position, then, is that one should generally try to tell the truth because telling lies often causes more problems than not doing so. Moderates also feel that:

1. If people do choose to lie, they must try to make the consequences of their lying as harmless as possible.

2. People should try to avoid habitual lying and be aware of the risks of telling even one lie or a white lie.

3. People should also be aware that lying may have a deleterious effect not only upon the deceived but also upon the deceiver.

4. People should never lie about important matters that may affect the recipient of the lie significantly.

5. Lying is allowed when there is no other recourse and when innocent life is really at stake, such as in the cases cited earlier concerning the enraged killer in search of his gun, the member of the underground during wartime, and the captured spy. Every other type of situation must be fully justified and the consequences carefully weighed. People should favor telling the truth, however, remembering that how they tell it is as important as the telling.

Cases: Lying


Most ethical systems have explicit prohibitions against lying. All lies are intentional and the practice of lying is a violation of the Principle of Truth Telling or Honesty. Yet, paradoxically, every liar must respect the power of truth because without a concept of truth, lying is impossible. Honesty is a necessary pre-condition for all meaningful human communication.

Although lying is not a direct violation of the Value of Life Principle, lies attack the life of a person and the liar, by lying, shows no respect for the one to whom he or she is lying. When analyzing these cases in addition to the Principle of Truth Telling and the Value of Life Principle, keep in mind the Principles of Goodness, the Principle of Justice or Fairness and the Principle of Individual Freedom.

Cases for Study and Discussion

Case 1 80-Year-Old Woman Whose Son Dies from a Heart Attack

Jesusita, 80 years old and with a bad heart, is living in a convalescent hospital where she is visited regularly by her 50-year-old son, along with other members of the family. Her son dies suddenly one night of a heart attack. The remaining members of the family feel that she shouldn’t be told of this because of her own weak heart, and in collusion with the hospital staff, no one tells her. After a week, Jesusita asks why her son hasn’t visited her, and the family tells her he is on a business trip, hoping she will forget about him. But the next week she asks where he is and when he will return. She also wants to know why he hasn’t called her or written a letter or postcard from where he is. The family tells her he is very busy but should be back soon. Another week passes, and Jesusita becomes very restless and upset about her son not visiting her; she becomes harder and harder to care for, and she cries a lot. The staff and family gather to discuss what to do about the situation. They wonder whether they should tell her the truth now or think up some more excuses.

1. Did they do the right thing in the beginning by lying to Jesusita?

2. If she were your mother or grandmother, and your brother or uncle had died, what do you think she should be told? Why or why not?

3. If you had done what they did or if you were staff dealing with this situation, what would you advise? Do you feel she should be told the truth now? If so, how would you do the telling? If not, how would you suggest this situation be handled?

4. Do you think it would have been better to tell her the truth in the beginning? Why or why not? Do you think not telling her in the beginning has made the situation better or worse? Why or why not? If so, in what ways?

Case 2 Wife and Child Abuse

Mike and Barbara Barnes live next door to you with their two children—Casey, a boy, and Shelley, a girl. Mike often comes home drunk and usually acts violently toward Barbara and the children, giving them black eyes, bruises, and even broken bones. One night, after a particularly severe beating of all of them, Barbara visits you after Mike has passed out. She tells you she is going to a shelter for battered wives and children and asks you not to reveal to Mike where they have gone. Having always prided yourself on your truth telling, what do you tell Mike the next morning when he asks you to tell him where Barbara and the children have gone, expressing remorse for what he has done? Do you adhere to your past principles and tell him the truth, or do you lie to him? Why or why not? What exactly would you tell or not tell him, and why?

Case 3 Adulterous Affair

Tom has been having an affair with his secretary, Francine, for about a year now, but both decide to end it. Francine leaves the company and gets a job in another state. Tom doesn’t think that his wife, Carol, knows about the affair, but he feels very guilty and wonders whether he ought to be honest about it and tell her. He doesn’t intend to have another affair and feels that he does love his wife and their three children. Yet he has strong guilt feelings and an urge to confess his adultery to Carol. He asks one of his friends, Doug, who knows of the affair, what he should do, and Doug tells him to leave well enough alone: “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” Doug says. Tom goes to confession and tells the priest what he has done. This particular priest (some might not say this) advises him to tell Carol, express his remorse, and promise never to do it again. Carol notices how preoccupied Tom is and asks him if there is anything wrong. What should Tom do? Should he tell Carol the truth or not? Why? Suppose, if he tells Carol about the affair, she asks for a separation and maybe even a divorce? And if he chooses not to tell her the truth, can he alleviate his strong guilt feelings? Would it be better or not in this case to tell the truth? Why?

Case 4 Bill Clinton’s Affair

President Bill Clinton had a sexual affair with a 21-year-old White House intern and then lied about it in court and in the media. He was then brought up for impeachment but was not impeached. To what extent do you think he should have been impeached? Why do you think he wasn’t? Is what he did morally wrong? Why and in what sense? To what extent do you think what he did affected his position as president? Do you think his lies were worse, less worse, or about the same as President Nixon’s? Why? To what extent do you think a president’s personal life should be beyond reproach? Is it possible for a president to have a questionable personal life and still be an effective leader? Why or why not?

12.6: Cheating

1. 12.6 Analyze rationales for and against cheating


Cheating, like lying, involves deception and dishonesty, except that lying is basically verbal, whereas cheating generally is nonverbal. Lying, as Bok defines it, is a statement of deception. Cheating, on the other hand, is an action meant to deceive. For example, if students copy the answers from your test, for which you have studied hard, that’s cheating. If you tell them to stop cheating, and they deny that they have cheated, then that’s lying.

Cheating can take many forms. As stated earlier, adultery usually encompasses both “cheating on one’s spouse” and lying to cover up the action. People can cheat on their income tax, on forms used in their businesses (e.g., deductions for expenses), in games played with others (whether simple games or serious gambling, e.g., poker), on insurance claims, on tests in school as already mentioned, on applications for employment or unemployment, and in sports.

Cheating, like lying, is a serious infraction of most moral systems because, like lying, it shatters the trust needed for the continuance and survival of human relationships. For example, if you buy a used car that is supposed to have 40,000 miles on it, but the dealer has turned the odometer back and it really has 140,000, then you have been cheated. You probably will never buy a car from that dealer again and may be wary even of honest businesspeople. If you are playing poker with presumed friends whom you think you can trust and you discover that one of them has been playing with marked cards, you probably will never trust that person again—certainly not in a card game where you stand to lose a good deal of money.

12.6.1: Arguments Against Cheating


Obviously, cheating is unfair and unjust to those who are dedicated to “fair play.” It’s as if everyone, including the cheater, is playing by rules understood by all, but the cheater then abrogates the rules and deceives everyone else. For example, if other students are trying to get good grades and you cheat and get them, then your getting grades unfairly may deny the other students what they have earned and truly deserve. In addition to demeaning the importance of their careful studying, one may also skew the grading scale so that some students who might have gotten better grades through honest studying get worse ones.

In the same way, people playing in a game with a cheater may lose the game unfairly. This of course is a violation of the Principle of Justice and Fairness and also of a general code that most people observe when playing games or gambling. Game players generally agree to abide by the rules. If it’s a trivial game and someone cheats, we won’t want to play any further, because the game has lost its value. In a gambling game like poker, some deception is accepted, as when you fool your opponents into thinking you have a good hand when you don’t. But one does not mark cards, deal from the bottom of the deck, or bring high cards into the game in a dishonest manner. In casino gambling, cheaters when caught are often ostracized, and in illegal gambling, they sometimes have been beaten or even killed. Players in such games are expected to follow the basic rules and to take them very seriously.

Another argument against cheating pertains to the serious effect it has upon others with regard to professional qualifications or licensing. If, for example, medical or law students cheat when acquiring the crucial facts they must know in their intended professions, then their not learning them could cause loss of life or other kinds of harm to others. The cheating is even worse when it results in obtaining a license on the basis of presumed qualifications falsely attained. To some people, cheating on an exam or two doesn’t seem very serious. “After all,” the student may say, “when am I ever going to use this dull and ancient anatomy information?” If such a student, however, becomes a surgeon and neglects to perform an important procedure because he or she missed really learning something about anatomy in medical school, then someone’s life could be in danger.

We have looked at the harm that can be done to others by not being properly qualified or being falsely licensed because of cheating, but the effect on the cheater is also significant. People who cheat hurt themselves in the long run, which is another argument against cheating. If something bad occurs as a result of people’s cheating, then they can be held responsible and subject to the law, both criminal and civil, and perhaps even lose their license to practice their profession.

And cheating, like lying, can become a habit. It’s easier to cheat than to study or do other hard or necessary work. Successful cheaters may become lazy and generally will cheat again at an opportune time. This weakens their moral fiber and can affect their whole lives adversely, especially if they get caught. If people know that a person cheats the needed trust for vital human relationships, as in lying, will be broken, and that individual won’t be able to maintain strong relationships. As in the gambling example, no one wants to play poker with a known cheater because the basic code and rules of the game are then destroyed. Further, if businesspeople become known as cheaters in their dealings with others—for example, in the manufacture of their products—their credibility is weakened as much and maybe more so than if they had lied.

12.6.2: Arguments for Cheating


Many people who condone cheating regard the world and society as a “dog-eat-dog” jungle of corruption where one can survive only by using corrupt means such as cheating. They believe that “all’s fair in love and war” and anything else and that people should cheat if necessary to get what they want and need. Such people see the world as so competitive and ruthless that in order to survive, one may have to break all the moral do’s and don’ts and lie, cheat, break promises, and even steal if it will get them ahead.

Also found, along with this viewpoint, is the idea that winning is the most important thing in life, so if one can’t win fairly, then win any way possible. In moral teachings, good sportsmanship and fair play are supposedly held in high esteem, but in specific cases and instances, winning sometimes takes precedence over moral teachings. Often the obsession with winning is seen in sports involving children. In many of children’s competitive sports, such as baseball, the main goal in teaching is to have the children enjoy playing a game. To fulfill this goal, good, mediocre, and poor players are distributed evenly among the competing teams, and the rules decree that everyone must play at least one inning. Often, however, if it’s a close game, the manager will not use the lesser players, or play them so little that they learn nothing. This may win games, but it does not fulfill the stated goal nor is it fair to the lesser players on the winning manager’s team or to the other managers and their team members.

Right along with the “dog-eat-dog” theory is the “everybody does it” argument. This assumes that because most people probably cheat at some time in their lives, everyone is justified in also doing so if necessary. The argument further says that it’s commonly known that all people cheat on their income taxes, on insurance claims by including other earlier damages, on expense vouchers, in golf games, and on their wives or husbands. One problem with this attitude is that it is questionable whether most people do these things. Another problem is that even if some or most people do these things, this does not mean that people ought to do them. History reveals that even the majority can be morally wrong, so “everybody does it” is not a very supportable or justifiable argument for doing something.

Many argue that cheating is all right if you can get away with it. Being caught is what’s bad, not cheating. And the less chance you have of being caught, the more justified your cheating will be. This attitude could work with consequentialist, but never with nonconsequentialist theories. And even with consequentialist theories, being caught or not has nothing to do with whether an action is right or wrong. Only if one can show that greater good consequences can come from cheating could a person justify it in any way.

Cases: Cheating


Cheating is related to lying and always involves some form of lying, deception, and dishonesty. And, in most cases, the cheater is not satisfied by gains that occur as a result of cheating. The cheater is often plagued by self-doubt and wonders, for example, “Could I have passed the test honestly?” People do not trust or respect liars and cheats.

Cases for Study and Discussion

Case 1 Cheating on a History Test

Mike has an average of between a C+ and a B– in his history class, and the last exam he is taking could make all the difference. He has studied, but he didn’t finish one section on World War II. When he starts the test, he discovers many more questions than he expected on that section. He needs a B in this class to get into graduate school. He notices that Renee, sitting next to him, seems to know the answers to the questions he needs. She likes him a lot and has not minded his looking at her tests before. A student stops to talk to the teacher on his way out of the testing room, and Mike sees that the teacher’s vision will be blocked long enough for him to get the correct answers from Renee. Should Mike cheat or not? Consider the following questions in your deliberations:

1. Would it make any difference to your answer if the test grade were not as crucial to Mike’s career? Why?

2. Considering that Mike has a good chance of not being caught, why shouldn’t he cheat?

3. What arguments would you give to justify Mike’s cheating or not cheating? Be specific.

Case 2 Damaged Fender Included in Claim

Dick and Lorraine have been insured with Farmer’s Mutual for their automobiles and house for ten years. During this time they have filed one claim for only $500, and the costs of premiums have risen 100 percent. One day, while backing out of the garage, Lorraine badly damages the right fender, but she and Dick delay having it fixed. After several weeks, someone hits the right side of the car, while parked, damaging everything but the right front fender. In attempting to get the car repaired, they try to decide whether or not to include the fender, which is much more than their deductible allowance, in their estimate of the damage. Should they? They feel that the insurance company has made literally thousands of dollars from their premiums alone, not to mention those of other clients. They argue that the big corporations have made millions from their subscribers; they won’t miss a few hundred or even a thousand dollars. Many of their friends have done the same thing on occasion, saving themselves hundreds of dollars. Because the fender could easily have been damaged in the same accident, it’s unlikely their cheating would be discovered. What do you think they should do, and why? How would you answer all of their arguments for including the fender in the claim if you believe they shouldn’t? If you believe they should include it, explain why, and provide arguments you would add to justify their action.

Case 3 Ethics Professor Forging Letter of Recommendation

Mark, an ethics professor, has completed a manuscript for a new book entitled Being Moral. Before submitting it to a publisher, he writes a phony letter of recommendation from a well-known ethicist and sends it with his manuscript, reasoning that because there are so many ethics books on the market, his manuscript won’t have a chance without something special to recommend it. The publisher accepts the book for publication. Just as he begins to distribute it, he discovers that the letter is a fake. At first the publisher thinks he might publish the book anyway, but then he decides not to, given the fact that the author is an ethicist and the book is about ethics. Was what Mark did wrong? Why or why not? Do you think the publisher was wrong to pull the book off the market for the reasons given? Why or why not? Does what Mark did seem worse to you because he is a teacher of ethics? Why or why not? How would you feel about using such a text knowing what the author had done? Be specific.

12.7: Breaking Promises

1. 12.7 Evaluate arguments for and against breaking promises


As stated earlier, a promise is a declaration, a vow, or an agreement into which a person enters freely. To the extent that a person is forcefully or subtly coerced into making a promise, he or she should not be expected to keep it as if it were made freely.

12.7.1: Implied Agreements


There are many implied agreements that allow individuals to live safely and meaningfully with others in various groups and societies. Some of these are as follows:

1. Not to do harm to one another.

2. Not to lie or cheat.

3. To obey laws imposed for the general good.

4. To stop at red lights and stop signs.

5. To treat each other with respect and dignity.

6. To keep promises we make.

This module, however, will deal only with direct promises such as “I promise not to tell anyone what you have just told me because you have asked me not to.”

12.7.2: A Form of Dishonesty


Breaking promises, like cheating, is a form of dishonesty, and it also constitutes outright lying when the person making the promise has no intention of keeping it. An example is if you say to someone, “I promise I won’t tell anyone what you told me,” but then think to yourself, “Wait until Maureen hears this!” Not intending to keep the promise one just made violates the same bases of trust abused by lying and cheating and therefore is considered by most people to be an important moral issue.

12.7.3: A Person’s Word


In earlier times, a person’s promise or “word” was an integral part of his or her reputation, and many promises and agreements were made verbally or by just shaking hands. Some promises—usually personal ones—are still made in this fashion, but many are now written down, witnessed, notarized, and otherwise elaborately executed. One reason for this is the complexity of many contracts and agreements (sets of formal promises). But also, such written and carefully executed agreements are necessary because in modern society fewer people actually honor their agreements or promises.

However, even written agreements and promises (contracts or policies) do not guarantee that promises will be kept. Some people who violate them think they won’t be caught or that no one will take the time or trouble to sue them. There are many aspects involved in keeping or breaking promises, and therefore this is an important issue that arises in all types of human relationships and activities.

12.7.4: Arguments Against Breaking Promises


Next to lying, no action has a greater effect on relationships than breaking promises. One of the most emotional statements a person can make to another is, “But you promised!” When a person is asked to promise something, or when we promise on our own to do something, most people tend to believe our word. If we break our word, it weakens our relationship with that person. For example, a superintendent of a school district urged many of the older faculty in the district who were close to retirement to leave by July 1. One of the incentives promised was that they could keep their almost full-coverage health plan although the active faculty was having to change to a health plan with less coverage because of financial difficulties within the district. However, on July 1, the superintendent moved everyone—retirees and active faculty—into the new plan with lesser coverage. Breaking his promise aroused tremendous protest in the district among both retirees and active faculty. After much discussion and concern on the part of both faculty and retirees, the situation finally was rectified, and the superintendent had to make good on his promise. However, the lack of trust that existed between him and the active faculty and retirees made it difficult to form agreements on other matters.

As in lying and cheating, the domino theory is relevant here. Once a person breaks a promise and gets away with it, it’s easier to break other promises, especially when convenient. For example, if a spouse commits adultery, it’s easier to continue doing it with the same person or with others. In other words, it can become a way of life, as with lying or cheating. Of course, a person may break a promise for a serious reason, but one must be on one’s guard against breaking one’s promises, so that it doesn’t become a habit.

Because people depend upon the promises made to them and the implied and direct agreements they have with others, breaking them can seriously affect their lives. For example, in the health-plan situation described earlier, most, if not all, of the older faculty retired earlier than they wished to, mainly because of the health plan. Many would have worked another year or two to gain more retirement benefits if they were not to benefit from their previous good health plan. So the superintendent’s keeping or breaking his promise had a most important effect on their lives. In another example, if a woman promises to marry a man within a year, and he works hard toward that goal and sacrifices to build a nest egg, if she breaks her promise because she has found someone else whom she has been seeing for six months, she will significantly hurt the man to whom she made the promise.

Social Trust and Personal Integrity


There is no doubt that breaking promises also affects society in general. Kant’s position is that if we were to establish a rule that promises should always be broken, then the word promise would be totally contradicted and lose its meaning. It amounts to saying, “I promise . . . but I have absolutely no intention of keeping my promise.” Promises sometimes must be broken for good and serious reasons, but the intentional breaking of promises must seriously concern society in general. Much of what people do is based upon promises or agreements, so when these start to break down, the “thin veneer” of social trust begins to warp and crack. This loss of trust is very evident with regard to promises in political campaigns. Voters generally are somewhat cynical about politicians, many of whom seem to promise the moon but when elected show more concern for helping special interest groups or for gaining money or power for themselves. Indeed, some politicians who do try to keep their promises, especially with regard to controversial issues (abortion, for example), sometimes fail to achieve reelection. As a result, many candidates for office tend to dodge important issues and promise nothing really significant during their campaigns. This further weakens the trust people have in their elected representatives.

A final argument against promise breaking centers upon the loss of personal integrity for the person who fails to keep promises. As with lying and cheating, promise breaking involves not only loss of reputation for honesty with other people but also loss of one’s self-esteem. A person may have a difficult time living with him or her self once that individuals has “gone back on his or her word” and let someone down. Even those who behave as if they don’t feel any guilt may actually feel it within. For example, many spouses who break their marriage vows (promises) experience tremendous guilt feelings, regardless of whether they are found out. When they are, the guilt feelings are multiplied not only because of the injury to their spouses but also because of the adverse effects upon their children and the entire family unit. Most people have some moral sense and therefore cannot escape from their promise breaking totally unscathed.

12.7.5: Arguments for Breaking Promises


One argument favoring promise breaking is that an individual who has made a promise should have the right to break it when the circumstances under which it was made change. An example would be that of marriage vows made when the spouses were in love. If they “fall out of love,” then the situation has changed and the vows should no longer apply. Suppose, for instance, that the sexual relationship of a married couple is no longer vital, because one spouse has become indifferent to that aspect of their relationship. Proponents for breaking promises might feel therefore that the other spouse has no obligation to remain faithful.

Another example might be if a person borrows some money from a friend and promises to pay it back at a certain time. Later, however, he loses his job and decides to forget his promise and not repay the loan because the situation has changed so drastically. It could be argued that despite this the borrower still has an obligation to pay sometime and ought to make arrangements to do so. But defenders of his action would dispute this on the basis that individuals must have the right to break such a promise when it interferes with their own interests and welfare.

Those who defend promise breaking also believe that promises can be broken when important moral conflicts are involved. For example, suppose Bruce tells his good friend Louise that he is secretly going to a cabin in the mountains they both know about because he is having financial difficulties and although he wants her to be able to contact him, he doesn’t want anyone else to know where he is. He asks her to promise to tell no one of his whereabouts, and she agrees. Later she is visited by police, who reveal that Bruce’s partner has been violently murdered and that Bruce is their prime suspect. Is she still obligated to keep her promise to Bruce, or should she break it to aid the police? Proponents of promise breaking would argue for the latter, in that protecting human life takes precedence over keeping one’s word.

Other Justifications


Promise breaking proponents also feel that promises may be broken when doing so will do no harm or when they seem trivial. Suppose, for example, that a family has a rule that their children have only one piece of candy a day, but Freddie takes three pieces and makes his sister Marie promise not to tell on him. She agrees, but when their mother arrives home, Marie immediately tells what Freddie has done, and he is punished for breaking the rule. When he asks Marie why she broke her promise, she explains that she had her fingers crossed, so the promise didn’t count. To defenders of promise breaking, the situation is trivial and has caused no real harm. Of course Freddie was punished, but the counterarguers would point out that Freddie did indeed break the rule, and in any case it is still a minor issue.

Another example is when someone makes a small bet, let’s say a dime, and then when he loses refuses to pay (a form of promise breaking) because he thinks the bet is too trivial to honor. Is there any serious harm done here? Some would argue that breaking promises, even in such small matters, still tends to destroy the social trust that exists in all human relationships and therefore is never minor. As was pointed out in Sissela Bok’s discussion of “little white lies,” the whole social fabric is injured when even the smallest promises are broken. Could Freddie ever trust Marie again to keep her promises? Did the person who won the dime but was not paid learn something about this so-called friend that would lead that person never to trust him again in either small or large issues? This argument should be scrutinized closely, not for the triviality of a situation or the little harm done within it, but for what it can mean in a larger sense.

Another argument for promise breaking centers on situations in which promises are made that later may and perhaps should (in the view of the promise maker) be broken. Suppose, for example, a friend on his deathbed reveals that he has made you an heir to his estate because he wants you to use the money to care for his cats and dogs, leaving out of his will his two devoted children. He begs you to promise to execute his wishes so that he can die in peace. You do so, but after his death, feeling that his children should inherit most of the estate rather than the animals and that what he has done is morally wrong, you break your promise so that his estate will go to his rightful heirs. Your action in this unusual situation would be defended by proponents of promise breaking in that what you do after your friend’s death will not be known by him, and also the children deserve the inheritance more than the animals.

The Latin phrase  caveat emptor —“let the buyer beware”—is used by some to sanction promise breaking. The implication is that it is foolish and naive to believe that a promise will be kept simply because it was made, and that it is more realistic to accept that it probably will be broken. In a way this shifts the responsibility onto the recipient rather than the promise maker and entirely reverses the concept of social trust under which we live. It certainly promotes an atmosphere of wariness and distrust in human relationships.

Journal: Promises and Agreements

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the statement that “promises and agreements need to be written down more today than in the past because fewer people actually honor their promises and agreements?” Why? Give examples to support your position.


Cases: Broken Promises


Acts of promise breaking often involve lying and, at the very heart, breaking promises involves dishonesty and cheating. Furthermore, breaking promises diminishes a person’s integrity and reputation because that person’s word is no longer believed. In other words, the person who does not honor agreements is considered untrustworthy. Like lying and cheating, breaking promises is one of the least acceptable moral violations.

Cases for Study and Discussion

Case 1 Promise Not to Smoke

Bernard and Janice are considering marriage, but Bernard smokes and Janice can’t stand smoking. She will marry Bernie only if he quits. Before they are married, he promises to do so and presumably does. He is a psychiatric nurse and works in an atmosphere where almost all patients and staff members smoke. After several years of marriage, Janice discovers that Bernie never gave it up but just hasn’t smoked at home. He evidently brushed his teeth and used breath mints before he came home, and the smell of smoke on his clothes was attributed to the atmosphere in which he worked. Very upset, she feels that he has broken an important promise to her. Do you feel that this promise was a trivial one and that Janice is being unreasonable? Why, or why not? Does the fact that this promise was made in connection with their marriage have more significance than it otherwise might? Why? Their marriage later ended after a series of other broken promises, not the least of which was an affair of Bernie’s that constituted a negation of his marriage promises or vows. In your experience, to what extent do people who break a promise on one occasion continue to do so on other occasions? Give examples.

Case 2 Promise to a Dying Friend

Harold and David, in their mid-twenties, are avid mountain climbers. David has been dating Harold’s sister, Doris. During a mountain-climbing expedition by just the two men, Harold is seriously injured and is dying. He begs David to promise to marry Doris, who, as Harold knows, is very much in love with David. Moreover, Harold is worried about what will happen to her when he dies. Because Harold is David’s best friend, David promises he will marry Doris. After Harold dies, David tells no one about the promise. He enjoys Doris’s company, but he doesn’t love her and breaks his promise to marry her. Did David do the right thing? If no one knows about a promise, does it have to be kept? Why or why not? Under what conditions, if any?

Case 3 Mother Lying to Teenage Daughter

Wanda is divorced from her husband and lives alone with her ten-year-old daughter, Sandy. She has told Sandy that she will always tell her the truth about anything she asks, and if she doesn’t know what the truth is, she will find it out for her. After about a year without dating, Wanda meets Howard, and they begin seeing each other. After a while, they discreetly engage in sex, usually when Sandy is with her father on weekends. Sandy suspects this and finally gets up enough courage to ask her mother about their relationship. Embarrassed and concerned about her image with Sandy and feeling that Sandy is too young to understand, Wanda tells her they are not having sex. One weekend Sandy comes home unexpectedly and finds Wanda and Howard in bed together. Sandy is very angry with her mother and asks how long this has been going on. Not wanting to lie to her anymore, Wanda tells Sandy, “For a couple of months.” Sandy yells, “You lied to me!” and “You promised you would always tell me the truth!” Wanda also becomes angry and tells Sandy she is too young to understand what’s going on, and when she gets older, she will. She also tells her that what she does when Sandy is not around is none of Sandy’s business. Should more leeway be allowed in keeping or breaking promises where children are involved because they may be too young to understand? Why, or why not? Does Sandy have a right to know the truth about her mother’s life outside of their immediate relationship? Why, or why not? Are Wanda’s reasons for not telling Sandy and her reactions to Sandy’s anger justified? Why, or why not? How do you think Wanda should have dealt with this whole situation if you don’t like the way she did deal with it? Why? Be specific.

12.8: Stealing

1. 12.8 Evaluate arguments for and against stealing


A basic assumption in most societies and cultures is that stealing is an immoral act. If the victim of theft needs what is stolen from him to survive, then the theft is even more reprehensible. Stealing applies not only to the taking of material things but also to the stealing of ideas (e.g., plagiarizing), inventions, and other creations by an individual.

12.8.1: Arguments Against Stealing


Stealing involves taking someone else’s property without that person’s permission. This is a violation of property rights, which often are considered to be as important or even more important than life itself. Many people feel strongly, for example, about governments taking private property or forcing people to sell their property for the “public good.” Often when people won’t willingly sell their property, they can be forced by the state to do so. In one way or another, it will condemn the property so that a freeway, public building, or even a private building can be constructed on it. Property rights, especially in a democracy, are considered important, and stealing therefore is strongly condemned. Even in societies where property is owned by the state rather than private individuals, stealing is forbidden because it is stealing from the state, which actually means stealing from all the people of the state.

Like lying, cheating, and breaking promises, stealing severely breaks down trust among people. People who have earned their possessions feel that they have an inalienable right to them. When a theft occurs and the thief is known, any relationship with that person will be difficult to maintain because of the loss of trust. If one has ever been the victim of theft, and one suspects someone you know such as a friend or even a relative, you can never truly trust that person again. Moreover, if one were actually to catch that person stealing, then the relationship with him or her will usually be destroyed.

For example, most of us feel we can leave money or jewelry around our homes without locking them up, but once such things are stolen, a prudent person will probably take more precautions against everyone, including family and friends. Once stealing has taken place, trust is abrogated.

Another argument against stealing is that it is an invasion of privacy. The thief violates the privacy of the victim’s person, home, car, or office.

A further assault on privacy takes place when a thief steals a wallet or a purse and then has access to the person’s identity and credit cards. This can interfere with the victim’s daily life until matters can be straightened out and new cards obtained.

Some people, of course, are habitual thieves and steal for a living. They had to start somewhere, which recalls the domino theory. Once people steal and get away with it, they may tend to steal again, especially if they discover that they can get what they want easier and faster than if they have to work at a steady job. Stealing becomes a pattern, a way of attaining what the thief aspires to—“if you want or need something, just steal it” can become the motto by which they live. Consider the number of thieves who spend time in prison and return to stealing after their terms are up and they are back in society.

In addition to the invasion of privacy, victims of theft also suffer the loss of hard-earned or cherished items. When people’s cars are stolen, for example, they may get them back and the insurance may pay for damages, but the loss has been a terrible inconvenience, and their cars are not the same after thieves have used and abused them. When ideas, inventions, or other aspects of creativity are stolen, the victims suffer even greater loss, for it involves the products of their own thinking. An example would be if someone discovers or invents something that revolutionizes an industry or our lives, and a big corporation steals it from the inventor so that she gets no recognition, reimbursement, or reward for her own ideas.

Military and Government Secrets


Many feel that stealing military or government secrets in wartime and also peacetime is justified in the interest of national security. Therefore, if the United States knew that one of its enemies had a secret weapon that it had recently developed, our undercover agents would be perfectly justified in stealing the plans for it if it would enable our nation to keep ahead of its enemy in military preparedness.

An interesting reversal of this argument is the justification of stealing one’s own country’s secret documents so as to expose injustice. The Pentagon Papers, for example, were stolen and given to the press in order to reveal improper practices by the government and the military in conducting the Vietnam War. The justification for this theft and the revelation of the contents of the stolen documents was that the immorality should be exposed and not allowed to continue. It’s interesting to speculate whether the same people who would justify stealing secrets from foreign powers for national security would also justify stealing from our own government to reveal immorality and corruption.

Similar to these two instances is the stealing of trade secrets in business activities. To exceed or stay abreast of one’s competitors, one needs to know what plans they have that might give them control over the entire market, including oneself. Some support such theft (it’s called “industrial espionage”) as being a necessity in the competitive business world we live in. Others see and abhor it as simply stealing.

Journal: Cheating/Lying

To what extent and in what instances do you lie, cheat, break promises, and/or steal? Why or why not? Be specific and give examples.

Cases: Stealing


It is generally assumed that people are entitled to what they have inherited, invented, created and earned justly. Stealing involves taking something without permission, without a moral warrant. Accordingly, stealing is, in most cases, considered morally wrong. Are there some situations in which stealing can be morally justified? If so, why? The cases in this module will ask readers to think about the above dilemmas.

Cases for Study and Discussion

Case 1 Theft of a Title for an Ethics Text

Seven years ago, Victor published what has become a popular ethics textbook called Ethics with Applications. The book is now in its third edition. Looking through flyers for new ethics texts, he sees one with exactly the same title as his. Dismayed, he immediately contacts his editor, who tells him that titles, unfortunately, cannot be copyrighted but are fair game for anyone who wants to use them. Victor angrily writes both the publisher and the authors of the other text, complaining that they have stolen his title. They never answer him, and he remains extremely upset. He would never knowingly steal someone’s title and can’t understand their action. Even though what they did is legal, are they morally obligated not to use Victor’s title? Why, or why not? Should they at least apologize for doing so? Is there anything else they could do to make things right, or do they need to? Why, or why not? If titles cannot be copyrighted, then can this be considered stealing? Why, or why not? Is this an important or trivial issue, to your way of thinking? Why, or why not?

Case 2 Stealing Food

During wartime, Katia and her family have been starving because their town has been bombed and is under siege. She breaks into someone’s house, finds food in the kitchen, and steals it for her family. Is she justified in stealing in this instance? Why, or why not? Be specific. Would it make any difference if it were during peacetime but times were hard, and Katia couldn’t get a job and earn money to buy food? Why, or why not?

Case 3 Looting

During riots in various cities throughout the United States, many poor people looted TV and appliance stores for items they said they were denied by a corrupt society that segregated and oppressed them. Some of them said that such items were not really luxuries because most Americans had them. Do you believe that this stealing was justified or not? Why? If not, how does it differ from stealing food? Is there anything to the poor people’s arguments? Why, or why not? Are there any times when you would justify stealing? If not, why not? If so, when? Be specific.

Case 4 Changing of a Will

Leroy died suddenly, leaving behind him Margaret, his wife, who was suffering from atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) of the brain, for whom he had cared devotedly because she was practically an invalid. In his will, he left his substantial estate to her, to go upon her death to his side of the family. He had actually earned all the money because Margaret had never gone to work. Margaret’s sister, Anne, and her husband, Eric, an attorney, agreed to take care of her, putting her into a skilled nursing facility near their home for which all expenses were paid from Leroy’s estate. While she was still alive, they changed Margaret’s will, splitting the estate 40/60 in favor of her side of the family. They had a doctor certify that she was mentally competent to make such a change, but Leroy’s family, who had visited her, noticed that she was capable of very little in the way of decision making. As longtime friends of Anne and Eric, they had trusted them not to do anything improper. When they learned that Anne and Eric had changed Leroy’s will under what they felt to be very shady circumstances, they accused them of stealing. Do you believe that what Anne and Eric did was theft? Why, or why not? Do you feel they had a right to change Leroy’s will? Why, or why not? If they felt their side of the family had been wronged, was there anything that Anne and Eric could have done differently to rectify the problem? What, and why? This action ended a friendship of many years’ standing and caused hard feelings on both sides. Are such effects worth considering in such a situation? Why, or why not?