Person A: Do you think abortion is morally wrong?

Person B has two morally acceptable answers to this question, they can either say "Yes, I believe abortion is morally wrong" or "No, I don't believe abortion is morally wrong." Both of these answers indicate that Person B cares about ethical discussions in society, and they care about morals, therefore undeserving of emotional criticism. However, what if they said:

I don't care.

This answer indicates that they have no interest in ethical discussions in society and could imply that they are more deserving of emotional criticism since they don't care about right or wrong. Would this be enough to draw a conclusion on Person B?

The conversation could continue in many ways, but one way it could continue is:

Person A: Even if the fetus inside is still considered a living human being with rights and is in pain during the abortion process?

Person B: I don't care if the fetus is a baby, or whether the baby feels pain or not, it's the parents' fault for not strapping up or planning enough before sex, we are just watching natural selection take place between animals.

I think most people would agree that Person B is a morally reprehensible individual after their second statement, but could this be concluded from their first?

This question is not specific to abortion by the way, it could be about indifference to any ethical discussion; abortion is just a convenient example here.


10 Answers 10


Some distinctions that have to be made in this context:

  1. Indifference to ethical questions in general vs. to specific ethical questions.
  2. Neutral indifference (a passive absence of concern) vs. indifference on account of hostility (we might suppose an automatic positive concern for something otherwise, so that if we find an absence of concern in such a case, we suppose that active negation "caused" the absence: this is Kant's assessment of how radical evil affects our moral attitudes).
  3. Indifference to given phrasings of these questions: one person might be "allergic to" the use of the word "moral," or the word "ethical," or "virtuous," etc. We see this often enough in those who dislike using the word "evil" while being happy to use words like "irrational" or "unjustified/unjustifiable." Another English/adjacent example is refusal to use the word "sin," by those who think "sin" has overwhelming religious connotations (and/or where religiosity is identified with theological considerations). (Note that there are authors, e.g. Stephen R. Donaldson, who use "sin" to refer to the concept of wrongdoing in generic relation to the concept of making amends (punishment, forgiveness, redemption, etc.) and so without an internally compulsory theological sense in play, although Donaldson, for instance, does situate his relevant narrative (his Thomas Covenant novels) in a fictional setting with various divine beings at work.)

So we have to differentiate a respondent who says, "I don't care about question X," to express a passive lack of an attitude for or against answers to X, from a respondent who would care about the question were it worded differently, or who is expressing hostility towards the question in any form, etc.


You should start by considering the argument that there is no absolute way to categorise ethical and unethical- it is a subjective judgement. Given that, categorising indifference to ethical discussions as being ethical or unethical is just another subjective judgement.

That said, if one is to make ethical judgements, you might suppose they should at least do so on a consistent and informed basis (although, again, there is no absolute requirement to do so).

On that basis, if you wanted to make an informed judgement of person B you would need to know more of the context. As another commenter has mentioned, Person B might simply be fed-up with what they see as pointless debates, or they might have just had a personal tragedy and be too pre-occupied to care, and so on.

  • I agree with you marco on the whole ethics is subjective thing. What do you do if someone pulls the "So you think the ethics of murdering someone is subjective?", do you stand by or make exceptions?
    – user63990
    Jan 28, 2023 at 19:41
  • 2
    @AshtonDowling Many thanks. I would say the ethics of murder is subjective. Today in most countries most people consider murder unethical, but that does not make it objective. Jan 28, 2023 at 20:06
  • @MarcoOcram Even what constitutes murderer can be subjective.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 28, 2023 at 20:49

On the contrary, indifference to ethical discussion is sometimes the only ethical choice.

One example is when the power of the agenda is not held by the stake holders. In such cases, you would be guilty of changing the topic by just participating.

Plenty more examples exist, how about you think of those and list them up here. That would be one of few occasions when something useful would be asked of this forum.


Person B has two morally acceptable answers to this question, they can either say "Yes, I believe abortion is morally wrong" or "No, I don't believe abortion is morally wrong."

Why would you assume that these are the only two morally acceptable answers?

An equally morally acceptable answer would be It depends which is neither yes nor no.

This answer indicates that they have no interest in ethical discussions in society

No it does not. I don't care could also mean that the person is lacking the capacity¹ to form (or have) an opinion on this matter. It's definitely not a conclusive statement at all.

¹ by "capacity" I mean any capacity, like time or means to get to information etc. not just mental capacity.

  • In the case that they didn't have the resources to form an opinion, they would say "I don't know" not "I don't care." And also, you are presupposing the person is in a rush or has external preoccupations, but this isn't the context of the question, hence "ethical discussion" and not "random ethical question asked to someone while they are busy" - you can't escape the question that way.
    – user63990
    Jan 29, 2023 at 16:50
  • 1
    @AshtonDowling And also, you are presupposing the person is in a rush or has external preoccupations I am not. I'm saying there's a lot of reasons why a person might say I don't care. I disagree with the premise of your question.
    – Marco
    Jan 29, 2023 at 17:10

One thing I'd like to add is that there is no absolute duty to respond or have an ethical position. If you want to force a "duty to have an ethical position", you do so by interfering with other "duties" and "rights" of the person: shouldn't the person have a "right" to be left alone for example?

In general, any "duty" or "right" will have to be considered in the context of other "duties" and "rights", none of which can necessarily claim to be more absolute than the others. See: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freedom-speech/.


You might be inferring that the person is indifferent to the question, when actually they have strong views but prefer to keep them private. You have no right to demand that someone tells you their views on a subject or enters into a debate. The way you've presented it, they may well perceive that you have strong views, they're not going to be able to change your views, and they have no desire to get into an argument.


Indifference to the consequences of your actions is unethical

If you were to, say, knowingly vote for a politician who's against abortion, but you disregard ethical concerns related to the harm that banning abortion causes to parents, that would be unethical.

That vote could lead to harm done to others, so that would make your action unethical under ethical frameworks like utilitarianism, at least. To take a position of indifference suggests that you don't care about the harm you're doing to others, and instead you just prefer to do whatever you want, roughly speaking. That's not all that ethical according to most ethical frameworks.

One could say you agree with them more generally, that's the basis you have for supporting them, and they're responsible for their own decisions. But consider the more extreme case of giving an angry person a loaded gun. If they shoot someone else, you certainly have some moral accountability there. You gave them the ability to do something bad.

Indifference to ethical discussion is not (necessarily) unethical

One might consider the ethics of a matter to be settled, in which one can be indifferent to discussion on the topic while still being ethical.

  • It is good to try to convince others to act ethically (and therefore to engage in ethical discussion), but I wouldn't say it's unethical to not do this.

  • On the other hand, if you hold to pure consequentialism, a deliberate action would be no different from a deliberate decision not to act. One might argue that not trying to convince others to not do harm (and not trying to prevent harm) is not all that different from doing harm oneself.

  • Avoiding engaging in this discussion might prevent one from seeing other perspectives that might change your mind about what the ethical decision is. That's not to say it's unethical any time you avoid such discussion, but it does suggest that it would be responsible to try to make sure you have all relevant information and perspectives to make the correct decision.

  • this is the obvious answer. i would just add that Indifference to what you can do nothing about is the virtue of serenity "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change"
    – user64448
    Jan 29, 2023 at 23:39
  • maybe it hasn't been upvoted due to the presumably mistaken assumption that only consequentialists must be concerned with consequences. isn't consequentialism the claim that only consequences matter?
    – user64448
    Jan 30, 2023 at 0:08
  • "Everyone agrees that the consequences of our actions matter morally – but some people think that only the consequences matter" so it's not that we never harm others or that harm does not exist (and blindness to either suggests a lack of virtue) only that we are sometimes obliged to do so.
    – user64448
    Jan 30, 2023 at 0:37
  • @not_me_either Consequentialism is indeed about looking at actions purely based on the consequences. That's not to say considering consequentialism means only caring about the consequences as a rule (it can be, and often is, combined with deontology), but rather it's a set of frameworks for evaluating the effects of a decision to provide one measure of morality. And as far as I know consequentialism encompasses all moral frameworks that involve analysing actions based on their consequences, although one can use ideas from a moral framework without knowing the theory about that framework.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 30, 2023 at 1:00
  • "consequentialism encompasses all moral frameworks that involve analysing actions based on their consequences" we may be talking past each other but while virtue ethicists take virtue as central they may "make room for... consequences, and rules... and have something to say [on consequences]" and "It should go without saying that the virtuous are mindful of the consequences of possible actions. How could they fail to be reckless, thoughtless and short-sighted if they were not"
    – user64448
    Jan 30, 2023 at 3:16

I offer me two sikkas for what they're worth.

Some things are amoral i.e. neither moral nor immoral. A rock on the red plains of Mars is such a thing. Whatever it does - rolls, breaks, etc. - doesn't affect any living creature (Mars is lifeless) either positively or negatively. Ergo, the rock is morally indifferent which could be reformulated as it's a category mistake to say the rock is good or that the rock is bad.

On dear ol' earth, it's a different story. A boulder may roll down a hill and crush a car, killing an entire family (re natural evil).

To cut to the chase, if you're alone, in a lifeless environment, you could assume a don't-give-a-damn attitude and yet be not unethical. The moment you're amongst living creatures, that same stance is immoral for now you're in a position to benefit (good)/harm (bad).


Is indifference to ethical dicussion by definition unethical?

Q: Do you think abortion is morally wrong?
A: No comment.

This is an example of indifference to an ethical discussion. I don't see how a person's morals can be determined with so little information so I cant determine the morality/ethics of their indifference. A simple "I don't care" is indifferent to a lesser degree but provides no more information about the morals of the person answering the question than "no comment".

  • 1
    This is an example of indifference to an ethical discussion. is wrong. It's a display of indifference to an ethical discussion. You're making the point that this is not enough information to make a judgment about the morality of the person that refuses to comment on that matter. Why throw that out of the window for No comment? There are A LOT of reasons why a person might say No comment - they might just be annoyed of the impending discussion. That doesn't mean they're indifferent about ethical discussions. You're simplifying the matter WAY too much.
    – Marco
    Jan 30, 2023 at 8:12
  • What I wanna say is: you're saying No comment is not enough information to determine a person's morality, but in the same instance, you're saying it's an example indifference to an ethical discussion - effectively making a judgment about the situation in the same way you just deemed unfit!
    – Marco
    Jan 30, 2023 at 8:18
  • Point is: Q: Do you think abortion is morally wrong? A: No comment. is a horribly bad and flawed example for "indifference to an ethical discussion".
    – Marco
    Jan 30, 2023 at 8:24

There are many systems of moral philosophy. Things that are moral in one system might be immoral or neutral in another. It does not make sense to ask if an attitude or action is ethical or unethical, unless you specify the moral system.

If we could all agree on the best moral system, there would be no such thing as moral philosophy.

Some more precise questions you could ask:

  1. Suppose issue X is immoral in a given system A. Does it follow that indifference to discussion of the morality of X is an immoral attitude within system A?

  2. Do any well-known moral systems A give positive or negative answers to the above?

I will also point out that moral systems tend to concern actions and not attitudes, thoughts, or feelings. An attitude is only moral or immoral if it tends to lead the holder to a given moral or immoral action.

For the moment I will replace X being abortion with X being the action of hitting a newborn baby with a hammer. Most genuine moral systems recognize this as an evil action.

You and your friend see a man in a dark cloak. He has goat horns and a halo of smoky flame. In one hand he holds a newborn baby. In the other he holds a claw hammer. He places the baby on the black granite altar at his feet and raises the hammer to strike.

You turn to your friend. "This is awful!".

Your friend shakes their head "I am not interested in discussing the morality of the situation."

Which of you is in the right? Which is in the wrong. In this example it depends on what you both do next. There are many actions open that are consistent with your attitudes to discussing the subject.

Perhaps you rescue the baby while your friend stands idly by. In this case you are in the right.

Perhaps you continue berating your friend and the baby is smooshed. In this case you are both in the wrong since you did not try to save the baby.

Perhaps your friend rescues the baby, not for any abstract moral reason, but because the crying baby evokes an emotional reaction.

Perhaps your friend recognises the cloaked man as the arch-devil Mamon, picks up a rock, and brains the devil out of hatred. Perhaps he catches the baby after. Perhaps he ignores the baby and it dies anyway. Perhaps he attacks Mamon out of hatred, but as a side effect he gives you the opportunity to catch the baby.

Perhaps your friend is motivated by selfishness. He recognises the baby is his nephew. He hates his nephew and he hates his sister. But if the nephew dies she will become doubly insufferable at Christmas. So he tries to save the child to save himself the frustration.

On top of this, we must consider the potential harm to one or both of you caused by trying to save the baby. If you both know the archdevil Mammon can incinerate any mortal with a mere thought, then there is no use trying to save the baby. You will only get yourself and your friend killed as well.

Even if the man is just a man with a hammer, there is potential risk to you and your friend by trying to interfere.

You must log in to answer this question.