Mother Knows Best: Pregnancy, Applied Ethics and Epistemically Transformative Experiences
I was awarded a 5 month non-residential research fellowship at the Experience Project to work on my project "Mother Knows Best: Pregnancy, Applied Ethics and Epistemically Transformative Experiences."
The aim of the project was to explore whether there is some morally relevant knowledge that is accessible only, or primarily, to people who have been pregnant - and the ramifications for the debate about abortion and in applied ethics more widely.
The project springs from my dissatisfaction with the philosophical literature on abortion after pregnancy. Although, I've been interested in the ethics of abortion for many years, following my pregnancy, most of philosophical literature suddenly appeared cold, bloodless. It did not reflect what pregnancy is like.
At the same time, I noticed how difficult it was to explain what it is like to be pregnant to someone who had not had that experience.
This is worrying: could there be knowledge which is crucial for ethical debate on issues such as abortion which is only accessible to people who have been pregnant? How should philosophers respond to this?
I think there are two types of knowledge relevant to the debate on abortion which are gained through pregnancy. First, knowledge about what pregnancy is like: this is important because without understanding what it is like to be pregnant, we cannot judge what we are asking of someone if we require them to remain pregnant against their will. Second, I think being pregnant gives one a fuller understanding of the value of a human foetus: it is not simply a piece of tissue but nor is it equivalent to a baby. I think of this as something like the fuller understanding of the value of work of art that you get when you have actually seen it rather than just heard it described - but this analogy isn't quite perfect.
If there is morally relevant knowledge that is only accessible through pregnancy, this has wider implications for applied ethics more generally. There may be similar missing information in debates on famine relief, just war theory, etc. Each of these involves experiences we may struggle to grasp without undergoing. At worst, our very ability to do applied ethics is threatened.
My conclusion, however, is optimistic. I propose a system of ‘dialogue with epistemic humility' that makes meaningful work in applied ethics possible even when knowledge gained through epistemically transformative experiences is relevant.
During the Fellowship, I produced two draft papers: Mother Knows Best: Pregnancy, Applied Ethics and Epistemically Transformative Experiences This paper was published in the Journal of Applied Ethics. The published paper is open access and can be found here. Each year, the Society for Applied Philosophy awards an essay prize for the best essay published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy. The paper is chosen by the journal's editorial team. Mother Knows Best was chosen as the prize-winner for 2021. One feature the editorial team especially noted was the paper's discussion of the methodology of applied ethics.
Abstract L.A. Paul argues that interesting issues for rational choice theory are raised by epistemically transformative experiences: experiences which provide access to knowledge that could not be known without the experience. Consideration of the epistemic effects of pregnancy has important implications for our understanding of epistemically transformative experiences and for debate about the ethics of abortion and applied ethics more generally. Pregnancy is epistemically transformative both in Paul’s narrow sense and in a wider sense: those who have not been pregnant face significant barriers to acquiring the knowledge made accessible through pregnancy. This knowledge is crucial for engaging with the ethics of abortion. The epistemically transformativeWIDE nature of pregnancy may require us to use new methods to try to partially grasp what pregnancy is like, such as, for example, significant engagement with narrative literature. Because pregnancy is also epistemically transformative in a narrow sense, we need to work out how to engage in ethical reasoning when relevant knowledge is not fully accessible to all. This argument has implications beyond the debate about abortion. Philosophers in many areas of applied ethics will need to work out how to respond appropriately to epistemically transformative experiences.
Your Mother Should Know: Pregnancy as an Epistemically Transformative Experience and the Value of the Human Foetus This paper was published in the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly. The published paper can be found here. If you are not able to access the paper, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract An important strand in the debate on abortion focuses on the moral status of fetuses. Knowledge of the moral value of fetuses is needed to assess fetuses' moral status. As Errol Lord argues, acquaintance plays a key role in moral and aesthetic knowledge. Many pregnant persons have acquaintance with their fetus that provides privileged access to knowledge about that fetus' moral value. This knowledge is (1) very difficult to acquire without being pregnant and (2) relevant for assessing the moral status of fetuses. This has implications for public debate on abortion and the research methods of philosophers working on abortion.