PBA410H: Don Marquis' Future Like Ours argument

(A) fetus? (B) infant (C) suicidal teen (D) temporarily comatose adult (E) other living human adults (e.g. majority of people around us)

In (B)-(E), killing is clearly wrong; (A) is in dispute. What's the explanation for (B)-(E)? Does it cover (A) as well?

About Don Marquis:

Don Marquis (born 1935) is an American philosopher whose main academic interests are in ethics and medical ethics. Marquis is currently Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kansas… Marquis is best known for his paper “Why Abortion Is Immoral”, which appeared in The Journal of Philosophy in April, 1989. This paper has been reprinted over 80 times, and is widely cited in the philosophical debate over abortion. The main argument in the paper is sometimes known as the “deprivation argument”, since a central premise is that abortion deprives an embryo or fetus of a 'future like ours'“.

Goals and Assumptions

  • Aim is to show that abortion is generally immoral
    • Assumes that if we can prove a fetus has a right to life, it is wrong to abort it
      • Responding to people who believe in pro-choice arguments based on ‘personhood’
    • *Marquis’ argument is irrelevant to Violinist Argument defenders

"Standoffs" in the abortion debate

The debate: characterizing the fetus

  • Prolife:
    • life starts at conception
    • fetuses possess unique DNA and so are human individuals
    • Therefore, abortion is wrong
  • Prochoice:
    • fetuses don’t have personhood
    • fetuses are not rational agents
    • fetuses aren’t social beings
    • Therefore, abortion is not wrong
  • Marquis: The justifications for both sides are, for the most part true

The debate: finding a general moral principle

  • Pro-life
    • it is wrong to take a human life
    • killing babies is wrong
  • Pro-choice
    • being a person/rational agent gives one intrinsic moral value
    • it is only wrong to take the life of a member of the ‘human community’

Problems with the prochoice side (According to Marquis)

  • Principle embraces too little:
    • Infants, young children, severely disabled, temporarily unconscious, and mentally ill people are not rational agents
    • It’s hard to fix this without arbitrary/ad hoc reasoning
  • Principle is ambiguous
    • Why should psychological characteristics make a moral difference? Why not a biological characteristic instead? (ableism?)

Problems with prolife side (according to Marquis)

  • Principle embraces too much
    • Human cancer-cell culture is both living and human
    • You can say instead “it is wrong to take a human being’s life” but Marquis doesn’t think it is obvious that fetuses are human beings
  • Principle is ambiguous
    • Why should biological characteristics make a moral difference? Why not a psychological characteristic instead? (speciecism?)

What makes killing wrong?

  • Both sides are missing the essence of the issue
    • In order to generalize a principle as to whether abortion is wrong, we must understand why killing in general is wrong, and then see how that applies to abortion
    • So we must ask why it is wrong to kill adult humans like ourselves
  • First premise: it is wrong to kill us
    • Why?
      • NOT primarily because it harms the person who kills us
      • NOT primarily because it harms our friends and relatives
      • It is wrong because of its harm on us, the victim

How does killing harm us?

  • “The loss of one's life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer. The loss of one's life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one's future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim.”
  • It is not simply the loss of your life, but the loss of your entire future and all values it would contain, even if you do not value it currently

Support for Marquis’ claim that it is wrong to kill someone if they will have a ‘future like ours’

  • The primary wrong-making aspect of killing is the loss of the victims future because:
    • It explains why killing is regarded as the worst crime
    • It explains why those dying prematurely (eg. Cancer, AIDS) see their premature death as a very bad thing
      • A better theory would require a natural property of killing which better fits the attitudes of the dying

Implications of this view

  • Not “speciesist”
    • Incompatible with view that it is only wrong to kill humans
      • A species from another planet that has a future like ours cannot be killed
      • If a species on this planet has a future sufficiently like ours then it cannot be killed
  • It is wrong to kill children and infants, for they have a future like ours
  • Euthanasia is permissible in cases where one’s future is not comprised of valuable experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments
  • Abortion is prima facie wrong
    • Because a fetus has a future that is identical to an adult humans’, it follows that it is wrong to kill a fetus, and so abortion is wrong.
    • This does not claim that fetuses are persons. It merely claims that fetuses have valuable futures

  • Note on future-like-ours theory
    • This isn’t a complete account of the wrong-making aspects of killing. But it is a sufficient reason to believe certain killings are seriously wrong. (sufficient but not necessary)
    • If something doesn’t have a future like ours, it still might be bad to kill it for some other reason

Prochoice counterarguments

Note: any counterargument needs to be equally intelligible and have a different ethic on abortion

Desire Account

  • People strongly desire to continue to live. Killing interferes with this fundamental desire.
  • Fetuses don’t desire to live
  • BUT neither do the unconscious, the sleeping, those who are tired of life, nor suicidal teenagers
  • It isn’t current desires but potential future desires that make it wrong to kill them

Discontinuation account

  • People value their experience living (as well as their activities and projects) and wish for it to continue. What makes killing wrong is the discontinuation of that experience.
  • Fetuses don’t have an ‘experience of living’ which it would be wrong to discontinue
  • But this would also make all euthanasia wrong, even in cases where someone’s present and future experiences of living are all (likely) negative
    • Marquis thinks this is inadequate: we want killing to be wrong only when someone will have a valuable future
    • But to fix this is to basically state the future-like-ours theory

Requirement of sentience in order to be a "victim"?

  • PC claim: Embryos cannot be victims so cannot be wronged. Lives composed of only metabolism cannot be victimized. Mentation is required.
  • explains why we are fine killing plants
  • except that we don’t kill plants because they won’t ever be rational, not because they aren’t rational now
  • this is why harmed infants are victimized
  • this is why we are justified in calling terminated embryos “victims”

Concluding notes

FLO doesn’t have a religious basis, doesn’t rely on ‘speciesism’


  • “An objection I commonly hear to this argument is that it would mean that contraception is immoral, since sperm and ova also have a “future-like-ours.” But this rests on a common pro-choice strawman of the pro-life position. We argue that the human zygote is valuable because it is a living human organism, a member of species Homo sapiens. Sperm and eggs are mere haploid cells, from the larger parent organism (the man or woman who provided it). The sperm and eggs are not human organisms. As such, they do not have a “future like ours,” that is, a future of experiences, plans, etc., that all human beings will experience. Their future is to provide genetic information for the new human organism, then to die as soon as they contribute their genetic material” 1)
    • i.e. a sperm left alone in a man's body, or an egg left alone in a woman's body, will never develop into a toddler or a teenager. Human part vs. human whole

Problems for pro-lifers?

FLO doesn't seem to answer enough q's e.g. why are cannibalism or necrophilia wrong? Or sexually assaulting a permanently comatose person? Premise of human dignity answers those Q's

  • though FLO helps explain our intuition that death of a child seems, all other things being equal, to be more sad than death of an elderly person – grief over their lost futures
  • FLO would justify killing of, say, anencephalic babies
  • FIXME connection to assisted suicide debate. Question about whether or not the terminally ill, suffering person, has anything in her future which she will value at that point. Link to social science on fluctuation in the desire to die, seems to give evidence that people can find value in their existence even after initial suicidal ideation or between episodes of suicidal ideation.
  • FIXME problem for PL Position: why does Marquis question whether the early embryo is yet an individual? Unclear

In conversation

Blaise: “I use it in a rough way often - like every month or two? - when trying to get at why killing is wrong in general. Like, once in particular at George Brown Casa Loma, I think it helped get through to one guy as a complement to the HRA. I'm not using the argument in detail, but taking his/Kaczor's guidance to inform some of the questions I'm asking.

  • Q: Okay, so, you agree that it'd be wrong for someone to just kill any of us on the sidewalk here, right?
  • A: Yeah, that's wrong
  • Q: Why? Why is that wrong? Like, forget abortion for a second - why do you think it's wrong to kill an innocent adult human being?
  • I don't remember what his answer way in particular, but I remember it was 100% applicable to pre-born children. I find that's often the case - unless someone sees that coming and they put it some stupid arbitrary distinction which you can deal with using SLED or the science of when life begins…I don't remember how he answered specifically, and when I pointed that out, in addition to having gone at him with the HR argument and general apologetics for a while, what I do remember is he changed his focus to kind of asking how it could be practical to be pro-life…
  • Guy: So… can I ask you a question?
  • Me: Of course…
  • Guy: Do you have sex?
  • Me: 😐 Yes…
  • Guy: Okay, so like, what happens if you get a girl pregnant? [continues on about sex and contraception and premarital relationships etc etc]
  • 😅 It was an interesting opening to talk about how I don't think we should be willing to kill to have sex, and why I waited until I was married. Guy also assumed I was 10 years younger than I am. It's the hair.
  • But more seriously, I often use those questions - but it's less often that I go into Marquis' actual answer (future like ours) or Kaczor's Thomistic take on it (flourishing like ours). That, I use maybe once a year ish, if talking to philosophy students or something, to combine the HRA (Beckwith's Substance View or Kaczor's Endowment View) with the FLO argument (Marquis/Kaczor) to make a more comprehensive secular case. That's not something I commonly use on the streets, only on occasion.
  • I guess I might use it a little more often if someone asks why I think after I've asked them those questions, especially if I've also addressed pain (pain isn't what makes killing wrong, it's what makes killing worse), e.g. “I think killing you or I would be wrong because it's denying an individual human being their human rights, just like killing a pre-born child would do the same thing. It's not pain or the method of killing that makes it wrong, it's taking away their future, taking away their life.” 🤷🏻‍♂️”

Matthew B: I can't recall a vivd memory of using that argument. But, when people are very set on very specifc life experiences that make life meaningful… Then reminding them that abortion completely denies a very young human person of those meaningful life experiences, could be effective in illustrating a serious injustice? Especially when we know that this child should grow and develop and have extraordinarily meaningful life experiences

Katie: Yes, what Matthew said! When I’m arguing the difference between wrongness of killing born vs preborn, I point out that it’s not the fact that someone had a past and past life experiences that makes killing wrong - it’s that you’re depriving them of all future experiences. It hurts the families of the born more, yes, but as far as why we shouldn’t kill, it’s because we are robbing someone’s future, and that is true of born and preborn alike.

FIXME similar argument made by A. Pruss https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=R9dGgHqEt2M&t=70s

FIXME decent video/animation overview of argument https://youtu.be/UHYWu6UWEe0?si=h46B9-eLoDgPfHdD