Motherhood and Mistakes about Defeasible Duties to Benefit


Authors
Fiona Woollard
University of Southampton
Abstract
Discussion of the behaviour of pregnant women and mothers, in academic literature, medical advice given to mothers, mainstream media and social media, assumes that a mother who fails to do something to benefit her child is liable for moral criticism unless she can provide sufficient countervailing considerations to justify her decision. I reconstruct the normally implicit reasoning that leads to this assumption and show that it is mistaken. First, I show that the discussion assumes that if any action might benefit her child, the mother has a defeasible duty to perform that action. I suggest that this assumption is implicitly supported by two arguments but that each argument is unsound. The first argument conflates moral reasons and defeasible duties; the second misunderstands the scope of a defeasible duty to benefit. This argument has important practical and theoretical implications: practically, it provides a response to a highly damaging discourse on maternal behaviour; theoretically, it provides the framework for a clearer understanding of the scope and nature of defeasible duties to benefit.
Keywords ethics  motherhood  pregnancy  defeasible duties
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Reprint years 2016, 2018
DOI 10.1111/phpr.12355
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