Gewirth's Ethical Rationalism and Abortion: a Response

Nathan Jun, Loyola University Chicago

In the preface to his seminal work, Reason and Morality (1978), Alan Gewirth writes: “The most important and difficult problem of philosophical ethics is whether a substantial moral principle can be rationally justified.” Taking this problem as his point of departure, Gewirth proceeds to outline his own solution, one purported to rely solely on deductive and inductive logic. His approach moves from an analysis of the generic features of human action to the derivation of a universal principle of morality — the “Principle of Generic consistency” (– which must be accepted by every rational agent on pain of self-contradiction.

This approach fails on several accounts, especially in its understanding of agency and moral personhood. The deficiencies are particularly evident in Gewirth’s position on the rights of unborn children. My aim in this paper is to criticize Gewirth’s position through a careful analysis of its presuppositions. After summarizing his methodology, I demonstrate that (1) Gewirth’s attempt to quantify personhood is unrealistic; (2) that his position on abortion rests on the unintelligible notion of “comparable conflict” between mother and unborn; and (3) that he implicitly assumes that personhood is naturally, and not functionally, defined — thereby contradicting himself. Ultimately, I outline an alternate view of personhood, one which avoids the criticisms to which Gewirth’s theory is particularly susceptible — namely, that personhood is a natural component of human beings from the start, rather than a gradually acquired trait.

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