A Ku Indeed!

Confucius and Abortion

Posted in China, Chinese Philosophy, Life, Politics by Chris on December 13, 2008

Sam Crane has an interesting post up at Useless Tree on the subject of Confucianism and abortion. Sam raises a number of thoughtful questions, and his post has led me to think a bit more about this issue. I haven’t reached any conclusions at all, but it has led me to ask a few questions myself about how to frame a discussion of this issue.

Sam starts by wondering what a Confucian would think of this statement from the Vatican: “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.” He suspects that the Confucian would reject it, given that the fundamental foundation of “personhood” (and the dignity it carries with it) doesn’t lie in the mere existence of biological human life (as appears to be the case for the Pope), but rather in a form of relationally-based and achieved social integration. So, as Sam puts it, for the Confucian “the key ethical question would not be when biological life begins but when social life begins.” As a result, the abortion debate, if it turned on personhood concerns, would be framed and analyzed in a different way.

If we frame the debate in this way, as suggesting that abortion permissibility rides on the answer to the question of “when personhood begins” then abortion for the Confucian may not seem particularly problematic, because the fetus will not be a person – at the very least not a full-fledged robust one. The reason for this is clear: a fetus is not capable of social interaction.

So when does this begin? As Sam notes, “social life” begins with an entity’s presence or significance being illustrated through integration into ritual (li). This could be through the caring role of a mother attending to a newborn via a number of rituals from breastfeeding to diaper changing. Interestingly, however, Sam adds that it could start earlier, in the placing of “that first hazy sonogram on the refrigerator door in anticipation of a new child”. Although I find this point intriguing, on the whole it does seem to be the case that in the classic sense a fetus (or even a baby) is not going to be capable of “full” social interaction. So even if it has some degree of personhood, it’s not a robust sense of personhood. So from this point of view, it seems that a fairly liberal view on abortion will be consistent with Confucian thought. Of course, as Sam points out, situational factors will also be important at this point, and it won’t be a “yes or no” blanket answer to the permissibility of abortion.

But I wonder if a more conservative case can be made out, just to play devil’s advocate. At the very least, what would be the obstacles to a prima facie permissible stance on abortion by Confucians? I’ll list out a few thoughts, starting with the not-so-controversial and then working up to the very controversial (if not certifiably nuts). These are just some loose thoughts — some reflections on what might be usable to construct roadblocks to an accepted abortion decision in some given situation.

1.Intentionality matters. So, it could be that a mother who already has six children would need to put those children at risk if she decided to have another child, and so as a result abortion might seem to be a way of assuring the well being of one’s current progeny. That said, it is clear that such a mother could have nothing but selfish motives about the way in which she goes about the abortion decision. The mother might “treat abortion as a birth control device” and put little forethought into not getting pregnant in the first place. This seems problematic to me, on Confucian grounds. In such a circumstance, I wonder if the vicious motivation of the mother extends now outward to the action, making it impermissible (at the very least, it might be that “yi” or appropriateness has an action-guiding and action-assessing component which would come apart in this circumstance; the “objective features” may open up abortion as a proper action, but the intentional features may assess it as impermissible).

2. The fact that intentionality matters (that one should think about the right things, or feel the right things) for a Confucian, I think, is buttressed in some way by Sam’s discussion of incorporating the fetus into ritual. When one puts up the first sonogram onto the refrigerator, it could be that one has attributed human personhood or significance to the fetus (at least to some degree). One is taking part in a ritual performance that bestows human significance on the fetus. As a result, it seems that ritual generates obligation: one is under a prima facie obligation to care for the fetus, or for the fetus to factor into the weight of one’s deliberations in a way that recognizes this status (to some degree). For example, and thinking of Rosalind Hursthouse here, to think of possibly aborting a fetus and attaching to the value of the fetus (in deliberation) a similar weight that one might attribute to getting a haircut would be a sign of lack of virtue (insensitivity and callousness). As a consequence, having an abortion would not be appropriate (yi).

3. Furthermore, as another issue stemming from (2), the question might arise whether it matters if the mother herself has incorporated the fetus into these rituals. After all, if rituals can generate obligations, the question would remain: what if I don’t perform the rituals? Am I then off scot free, so to speak? If I don’t hang up the sonogram, does it matter how I “feel” about the fetus, or what weight I give it in my deliberations? It may not –matter for the Confucian: perhaps all that matters is that one’s local community does so in a generalized way to create the prima facie obligation for care towards the fetus. In other words, a person can run afoul of the correct rituals (li).

4. Another issue stemming from (2) might be that the longer the pregnancy continues, the more prima facie impermissible the abortion will become, given the fact that the fetus is (or should be, seen from a societal level) integrated into more and more rituals that attribute human significance to the fetus. On this level, Confucian thought may line up well with our pre-theoretical intuitions about how abortion becomes more and more ethically problematic (prima facie) as a pregnancy develops, even if it is the case that the fetus is not “socially interacting” any more at month 8 than it is at month 2.

5. It may be the case that the mother is under a prima facie obligation not to harm her body, this being a gift from her ancestors. The mother has a prima facie obligation to her parents and ancestors not to abuse her body, and the abortion might even be seen as a rejection of the continuation of the ancestral line. Having children may be one’s responsibility, and so abortion would run up against this.

6. Traditional abortion foes suggest that either (a) capacity for personhood or (b) actual personhood make abortion not permissible. One can see a possible Confucian argument for (a); perhaps it is this itself that is being recognized through the slowly developing rituals mentioned above.

7. But I wonder – and this is way out there, so bear with me – whether a possible reading of (b) could be given. Here’s what I mean: although it is typically understood that “ren” is an achievement term, or that personhood is something an individual has to strive for (and doesn’t just have from the get-go), perhaps it is too narrow to suggest that the achievement of ren is always an achievement of a single individual. Instead, perhaps it is always, on some level, a relational achievement. Moreover, perhaps it is an achievement whose burden within the relationship shifts as time progresses from one party to another. Perhaps, for the fetus, personhood is conferred upon it by its parents (say) through the way in which it (the fetus) allows the parents to fulfill certain role relations (motherhood, fatherhood) via participation in the rituals discussed above. So the fetus is a person when it is treated in such a way that allows the parents to (via parenting rituals) be ren. As the child grows, being a good/ren parent may require the active participation of the child, and as a result, for the child to “be ren” would require a more active role on the part of the child him/herself. As the child gets older and takes on more roles, “being ren” will require more and more active participation on the part of that single individual (whereas the fetus can be passive). In any case, if this were in any way workable (I’m really way on there on a limb here in #7) – then the fetus would be a person, and as a result abortion would not be permissible at all (given the stipulation that abortion would not be permissible if the fetus is a person, and I’m not suggesting that this framing is the right one to use, but just here for the sake of argument).

Well, just some half-baked thoughts between grading papers. Alright, I admit it, #7 is really out there. But what fun would a blog post be if it didn’t include something crazy? J


8 Responses

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  1. Justsomeguy said, on December 15, 2008 at 10:58 am

    I dunno, let’s run through those:

    1) I think this is largely irrelevant. Confucius warned against absolutist maxims, so saying that “abortion is acceptable” is distinct from saying “all abortions are acceptable”. If the intention is bad, clearly the act that follows is also bad. But that just means that abortion is sometimes unacceptable which is something that could be said about literally everything.

    2) Two things: is potentiality actuality and is personhood a permanent condition? That some people could bestow personhood on their fetus does not mean that all people do, or that all people are under an obligation to grant this status. While Confucius clearly thought that some rituals were better than others, he did not think all people were bound by the same ritual framework (it is better to be Chinese, but barbarians have rituals too and when you are with barbarians you should obey their rituals). Furthermore, once granted, can it be revoked? Let’s suppose I ritually grant personhood to the unborn (hang the sonogram, play music for it, read it stories, whatever). Am I under any obligation to continue to observe that state or would cutting off that relationship be no more serious than leaving the room the person is in or ending a conversation?

    In terms of classical Confucianism, probably the best model for this situation are the po, hun, shen and gui (not to start that whole conversation again). When do those things arise? Aquinas thought the fetus became ensoulled after a certain amount of time (40 days for males, 80 for females). I have to imagine that some Daoist systematizers had a similar scheme for that sort of thing. Confucius said we should revere the young because of their potential, so it follows that we should revere the unborn as well. However, ancestral worship involved honoring virtue and repaying merit. The unborn clearly lack the latter (and potentially lack the former) so are we under any obligation to venerate their spirits and (more importantly) if the spirits are not venerated what could happen to them? Would abortion lead to the production of gui? How were stillbirths viewed in ancient China? I’m admittedly ignorant in this area, so I’ll let the experts field this one.

    I think some Xinxue Confucians might have a harder time with this discussion in terms of potentiality. If everyone can be a Yao or a Shen, that is one thing. But if everyone is a Yao or a Shun, then the potentiality argument becomes a whole lot more complicated.

    3) I think a lot of this was covered in 2. I terms of the proper Confucian answer, there must have been a ritual and explanation for stillbirths. Whether or not it still exists is another question. My understanding is that there is a long history of herbal abortificants in China, so I can’t imagine the unborn were conceived as being human. In fact, didn’t Shennong teach about abortificants? If a Sage King said it was OK, I have a very hard time thinking that Confucius would object.

    4) I think that makes sense. The more ritual significance we give to a thing, the more involved with it we become. A swallow does not a summer make, nor a hanging sonogram a person. But there is a tipping point in terms of swallow-seeing that forces the individual to conclude it is summer.

    5) Having male children is certainly an obligation. More importantly, having successful, human male children. Think of the later appropriations of Buddhist stories, like where the filial daughter-in-law carves herself up to feed the family. Clearly some instances of mortification are acceptable and even laudable. So aborting a male child does raise some questions that aborting a female child does not. It becomes a cost-benefit analysis: what will best honor my ancestors? Many children or few successful children? Clearly this is an entirely situational question and its answer goes back to part 1.

    6) I think 2 covered that one pretty well.

    7) I’ve always sort thought of ren as a relational achievement, an intersubjective state. But I’m also really influenced by Tu Weiming on that one and I can understand that some people take issue with some of the liberties he takes. But we still need to pinpoint when the relationship begins and what the parent-child relationship consists of. If ‘reciprocity’ is the foundational aspect of any relationship, I would have to ask in what manner the unborn can reciprocate the rituals in question?

  2. Justsomeguy said, on December 18, 2008 at 11:45 am

    Where did your response go? Huh? Did I dream that last night?

  3. Chris said, on December 18, 2008 at 11:50 am

    Hey…what the hell???

    Where DID it go? I have no idea — I didn’t delete it. This is wierd. It was a long reply too!!!

    Oh man, I hope there isn’t a bug hiding in this blog somewhere. I don’t want to lose any more posts.

    Jeez. I have a pile of finals in front of me at the moment, but I should be wrapped up by tomorrow. I’ll retype it then — check back.


  4. Justsomeguy said, on December 20, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    No rush. Grading takes a lot of time and energy. I’m in no rush. At least I got to read it. I agreed with most of it, I was gonna say more but, well, I don’t remember specifics right now.

  5. Chris said, on December 21, 2008 at 7:35 am

    Just Some:

    I’ll be back here to fix this. I’m so pissed that the post got lost, and it takes twice the energy to re-respond to a lost post than it takes to post the original! Hopefully you have the feedburner subscription? This way you’ll get the email as soon as I make the response?

    I would like to continue this conversation — you made many excellent points, and I was curious what you had to say to my (now lost in the ether) replies.

  6. Chris said, on December 21, 2008 at 9:29 am


    Maybe it might be better to take on theses issues in piecemeal. Let me start with (1), because it’s very complicated, I think.

    It is not uncontroversial to say that if the intention is bad, the action is bad. I would guess that many people reject it, actually. I wonder whether (I’m not certain) Confucius holds it, and if so, what version of it.

    (a) One possibility is to suggest that he’s saying that exemplars (“what would the exemplar do?” or WWED?) sets the action guidance in a situation. So perhaps, in this situation, Yao or Shun (or someone exemplary) would have an abortion (or not). But then there’s the issue of why you do what action guidance suggests, and moreover how you do it. If the “why and how” don’t follow from virtue, or perhaps follow from vice, then the what (action) should be assessed as pu-yi, or inappropriate. In such a sense, action guidance and assessment come apart. Perhaps Analects 2.7 is a good example of such a hypothetical case where they split. It is in this sense that I would argue that intentions do matter, because whether an action follows from virtue or not is imperative for Confucius, though what the situation will demand is context specific, and could vary from one context to another.

    (b) There’s another possibility, which is more radical. Perhaps what is right (guidance, action specifically) flows from what one intends. So perhaps the fact that “appropriateness” is context-specific is itself partly a function of the suggestion that, given the constitution of a particular person, “being virtuous” might actually issue in the obligation to do a specific thing; in such a sense what is virtuous (in guidance) tracks the way in which one sees and feels the world, in a way. This would open up the door to a variety of different senses of action guidance.

    (c ) A third might try to combine (a) and (b). Perhaps “WWED” in the literal sense, thinking of what the ideal fully developed virtuous agent would do in that circumstance, is itself unhelpful. I can imagine, say, an agent who is simply unprepared to do WWED in a given situation. It may even harm the development of an agent to do WWED in this sense (perhaps it is unrealistic for the agent to be expected to do something this advanced at his/her more rudimentary stage of virtue cultivation, say). Perhaps doing WWED in the guidance sense would inevitably result in inappropriateness, assessment-wise (due to a lack of sufficient internal cultivation). That said, perhaps WWED is itself indexed to the capacities and abilities of the agent in that situation. So, say, given the fact that the agent is developed to an X-degree (in virtue), we ask “WWED-indexed-to-X” in that situation. In that way, action guidance is set in such a way that allows for the possibility of the agent engaging in a performance that can be assessed as appropriate, and thus for the cultivation of virtue.

    Option (c ) is something I’ve played with, specifically trying to connect it up with the notion of “shu” in the Analects. But that’s another post!

    In any case, those are just some half-baked thoughts that might provide a context or background for my thinking on these applied questions (such as abortion).

  7. Justsomeguy said, on December 22, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    Thanks for replying. I agree, reposting is so painful. You’ve already mulled these ideas over once, to have to do so again?

    A) I was thinking of 2.7 while I was writing my reply. And I agree it is important to really think what it means to ask WWED? It is pretty easy to veer off into Protestantism and simply try to re-create the actions of some of those exemplars but that is precisely not the point of virtue ethics. “What motivated the exemplar to act that way?” is bound to be a better question. Confucius didn’t think that Wen (I think) appointing his depraved brother to a high position was a good thing, but he did think that even in making a mistake, Wen’s intentions were good. So I can agree there is a split, insofar as doing something inappropriate is concerned. However, an appropriate action requires both correct intention and correct action. I’m inclined to think Confucius would have considerably sterner words to someone who didn’t feed their parents at all than he does for someone who merely feed their parents.

    B) I think that interpretation jives with the unity of understanding and action.

    C) Hmmmm. I’m not so sure how I feel about this one. While I think that the ethical system that Confucius espouses is fluid, and that different situations require different actions so action becomes highly contextual, I’m not so sure he’d veer off into the sort of relativism expressed here. After all, he castigated his students when they fell short and advocated remonstrating rulers. That would seem to suggest that he felt that, despite specific people having only attained a virtue level of X, he expects them to act virtuously, period. I imagine you’ll counter that by pointing out that Confucius said that you can’t carve rotten wood. On that issue, I’d take your Confucius and raise you a Mencius explaining how killing a bad ruler isn’t actually regicide. Then I’ll trace that back to the whole ‘rectification of names’-bit Confucius is always droning on about. What this suggests to me is that if a person gets themselves into a situation that is beyond the level of their virtue, what they do is de facto inappropriate because they have no business being in that situation!

    To bring it back to the discussion on abortion, a specific example of this sort of thing would be teenage pregnancy. Let’s suppose a 13-year old girl gets pregnant. Happens all the time. Because of the various roles that our society assigns to 13-year old girls, that girl has (in a ritual sense) no business being pregnant. It is like a local ruler using nine rows of dancers, it is simply beyond the pale. Given that, no matter what the girl does in this situation, she will be acting inappropriately. Which is why she shouldn’t act. She should defer the situation to her parents or to parental figures if there is any confusion regarding proper names (which, in my somewhat biased opinion, a 13-year old girl getting pregnant pretty much demands!).

    And I think that could be related to shu. The 13-year old girl doing her best not to get pregnant would be a component of her zhong as it relates to both her parents and her society. Her parents making the right decision with regards to her pregnancy would be the shu aspect of the relationship. At least if it is done right. And 15.23 suggests how the parents ought go about formulating their response.

  8. Justsomeguy said, on December 22, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    I meant eight, not nine. Rows of dancers, that is. But I think the meaning is maintained even with that mistake.

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