Friday, July 14, 2006

Opposite Day: abortion edition

[To continue a grand blogospheric tradition, the following is a guest post from my evil twin Ricardo. Be warned that he has some terribly misguided views. Hopefully commenters will point out the flaws in his arguments!]

All humans are created equal. From the highest genius to the severely mentally disabled, all are equally members of the human kind. It is membership in this kind, rather than one's peculiar individual characteristics, that bestow moral worth. It doesn't matter how smart you are, if you're a human being, then your life matters. Your life matters because you're a human being, not because of your contingent cognitive abilities.

There's no good reason to refrain from extending this to unborn human beings. An individual human life begins at conception. That's a natural fact. All human beings have moral worth in virtue of their kind. That's a moral fact. Put the two together and you reach the pro-life conclusion that fetuses have moral worth, just like you and me. They may yet lack our cognitive capabilities. But we've seen that such superficial individual differences are morally irrelevant. What matters is our underlying commonality, or shared human essence. Undeveloped human beings deserve the same respect as anyone else.

My humanism is not arbitrary. We should extend our moral concern to any relevantly similar kinds of creatures (e.g. elves and hobbits, were such to exist). Further, if humans were relevantly different, say if we had evolved to be identical to chickens, then we would not have had this special moral status. So what is the relevant difference, you ask? Here we find the grain of truth in pro-choice thought: cognitive capabilities really are morally relevant, in some sense. Indeed, that much is undeniable. But we shouldn't jump to the hasty conclusion that the particular cognitive capabilities of individuals are what matters here. Rather, what matters are the general cognitive capabilities of the species-kind.

This teleological conception of kinds is nicely explained by Rad Geek in his guest post here. Note that even if you chopped a leg off every cat in the world, that wouldn't change the fact that cats are four-legged creatures. It would just mean that each actual cat was missing a leg. Superficial maiming cannot affect a cat's underlying nature. Each cat remains a four-legged creature in kind (that's what it is), despite actually only having three legs (that's how it is). Similarly for humans: the rational animal. Some individuals may fail to realize their rational capacity, but this accidental character has no bearing on the more fundamental question of what kind of being they are. They remain human beings, hence rational in kind, and thereby worthy of moral respect.

The argument is especially strong in case of merely temporary failures to exercise cognition. We would not consider it permissible to kill an unconscious person, after all. This is because we recognize the unity of their life: they remain one and the same person, whether sleeping or awake. It doesn't matter what state they happen to be in at the moment you kill them. If you kill the sleeping person, you kill the whole person. Similarly, there's a sense in which fetuses are cognitively advanced creatures, or "persons". Of course, their current time-slice is comparatively underdeveloped. But this very organism, one and the same individual, would naturally develop into a fully mentalistic person. The fetus and the person are one and the same individual, so if you kill the fetus, then (by the law of identity) you kill the person.

This argument is easily misunderstood, especially by those pro-choice advocates with a fondness for straw, so let me clarify. I am not arguing that fetuses have moral worth just because they could ("potentially") be turned into persons. Rather, they have worth in virtue of what they already are. If cloning technology advanced to the point where a person could be made from the DNA in fingernail clippings, this would not elevate the moral status of such clippings. Despite containing human DNA, fingernail clippings are certainly not individual human lives. They could only attain moral worth after being transformed into a different kind of thing (a human being). A fetus is a human being already; no transformation is required, it may simply develop. (Note the distinction: development is change within a kind, in contrast to transformation across kinds. I might develop your argument, or I might transform it into a parody. In the latter case, I've changed it into a different kind of thing.)

In summary: we all typically recognize that moral status accrues to individuals in virtue of their kind, or what they (fundamentally) are, rather than their individual characteristics, or how they (superficially) happen to be. This is reflected in our respect for the mentally disabled, and in the truism that "all humans are created equal". It is a mystery why pro-choice advocates fail to extend this standard understanding to the unborn. Despite the special name, "fetuses" are not really a fundamentally different kind of thing from you or me. They are human beings, simply at an earlier stage of development. It's true that they lack our cognitive characteristics while in this stage of development. But that doesn't detract from their essential nature, their humanity, their membership in the kind of rational animals; neither should it detract from the moral status that they hold in virtue of the kind of beings that they -- we -- are.



  1. Well, obviously, humans are not of moral worth because of their kind, they are of moral worth because of their capacities. We discourage the making of distinctions in worth between developed humans on the basis of their capacities for pragmatic reasons; this is well known to be such an irresistable lure to corruption that experience teaches us we are far better off prohibiting it than making the hopeless attempt to find a non-corrupt way of applying such distinctions. However, we make exceptions to the rule of making no distinctions in cases where especially clear lines can be drawn. For example, we consider a human whose brain has completely and irretrievably failed to no longer have moral worth; though we give the convenient name "brain death" to suggest that such a human has ceased to be of the human kind, this is obvious sophistry, and in fact it is their lack of capacities and the irretrievability of same which removes their moral standing. Birth provides a nice, sharp line at the beginning of life, before which capacities are so minimal as to make the being of negligible moral worth (moral worth remains negligible for some time after birth, but there's no equally convenient line, though the tradition in some historical cultures of considering infanticide morally neutral up to some specified amount of time, I believe in at least one case up to 8 days, after birth, seems another perfectly reasonable way to draw lines).

    I realize that some of the assumptions made in my argument are controversial, but I consider that unimportant since they are all true.

  2. Doesn't all life have moral worth? Regardless of whether it is human? All life is a miracle from the smallest insect to humans. Is it immoral to stab a dog with a knife just for fun? Yes. I would call anyone immoral if they bought puppies or kittens or rabbits from the pet store only to stab them and throw them in the garbage for kicks and giggles. Why? Because life has moral worth regardless of its form and shouldn't be ended without good reason.

    Now don't get me wrong, I am not advocating a completely anti-killing position. I am a soldier and an avid hunter. I have killed more animals than I can count and face the reality that someday I may have to decide whether or not to kill a person. When I do kill, I always have a reason greater than the moral worth of the animal(providing food for example). Yet every life that leaves this world, whether a deer, fish or rabbit, something precious is lost forever. The decision to kill should never be made lightly. It is relatively easy to decide to kill an animal for food compared to deciding to kill a human but both are moral decisions.

    My point...if it is immoral to kill a puppy for no reason other than it annoyed me, why would anyone consider it moral to kill a fetus because it is an inconvenience or because you feel like it? If you have a purpose and good reason then maybe you can argue it is moral but how many good reasons are there. A fetus hasn't really provided you with a lot of reason to kill it (although the person it grows into may). So what is a good reason to kill a fetus? The life of the mother? I have not actually heard of such a situation in real life but I suppose it is debatable. Any others? I'd love to hear them.

  3. I agree with Will,
    I don’t think you need to consider abortion on a level with murder - but I do feel it is "in itself" immoral. (yes maybe circumstances justify it - but circumstances might also justify killing someone or beating them up and that doesn’t make those two things morally neutral).

    an interesting though.. I wonder how many pro abortion vegetarians are there out there...

  4. Ricardo el tramposo, you should know better than to engage in such wanton discrimination. "All humans are created equal"? In America, we judge people as individuals based on the content of their character, not as mere members of some category that we can fit them into, and I would hope that you do the same in your hemisphere. To do otherwise is dehumanizing and wrong. Just because you vote Green, that doesn't mean you need to turn into a silly, multiculturalist lefty who fetishizes categories and treats individuals merely as tokens of a type. So-called "liberals" may trot out the claim that "It is membership in this kind, rather than one's peculiar individual characteristics, that bestow moral worth" when the category suits them, but that is really one of the most perversely illiberal things that one can say. You have to be able to see past the fact that the fetus is human, or else you're making the same mistake as the typical racist.

    There's another small matter that gets buried under your four dimensionalism: the fetus and the person are not "one and the same individual", at least not in the sense relevant to personal identity. You dismiss the fingernail people as too far-fetched and different from ordinary human development to be a relevant point of comparison, but that's no excuse for failing to consider some more pertinent hypotheticals involving full and partial brain transplants, teletransportation, and becoming a blend of you and Greta Garbo. As those examples should make clear (at least to any rational animal that is realizing its rational capacity), personal identity is all in the mind, and so mindless fetuses need not apply.

    Your entire argument also proves far too little (besides your own allegiance to the patriarchy). Even if we grant that a fetus is a time slice of a four dimensional individual, with worth simply for being an instance of the human "kind", that doesn't mean that abortion is wrong. There are still small matters of autonomy and personal responsibility, words that I hope still mean something, even to people like you. It's as simple as this: a four-dimensional male has no right to violate a woman's body by putting his nine-month long temporal part inside of her. If he "can't live without her", that's his problem.

  5. Thanks for a thought provoking piece! I really liked it, but wasn't sure whether you just wanted to state your position, or provide us with any reason why we should accept it.

    I take it that your argument for the moral worth of fetuses is roughly:

    P1 The kind Homo sapien is one membership of which confers moral worth.
    P2 Fetuses are of the kind Homo sapien.
    C1 Therefore fetuses have moral worth.

    This in itself doesn't move the debate very far forward unless you offer some support for P1 (and of course, as bral notes, it doesn't establish much about the permissibility of abortion unless one thinks that a fetus having 'moral worth' would effect whether abortion is permissable).

    It looks like the big argument for P1 comes in the fifth paragraph. As you rightly state '[w]e would not consider it permissible to kill an unconscious person'. Now P1 does conform with our moral intuitions about whether is permissible to kill unconscious people. But since P1 isn't the only suggestion about what confers moral worth that conforms to our moral intuitions here, this doesn't go any way to establishing it (as opposed to any other account that can adequately deal with unconscious people). So you go on to offer more argument. This is where I found things to get really interesting, but I'm not confident I've worked out exactly how the arguments go (consider this a request for clarification!), so I apologise for anything I get wrong. With those caveats in place, here goes!

    You go on to claim that we consider it is impermissible to kill the unconscious 'because we recognize the unity of their life: they remain one and the same person, whether sleeping or awake'. Even though I'm not entirely sure how this supports P1 (is it that P1 is somehow supported by our more reflexive intuitions about why it is wrong to kill the unconscious, namely, because of their personhood?), it looks like personhood is playing a large role in the argument, and that's where I have reservations. That's because even if we think that personhood is important for moral worth (that the kind person is one membership of which confers moral worth), it's not clear that all things of the species kind Homo sapien are persons.

    A similar problem crops up when you say 'But this very organism [a fetus], one and the same individual, would naturally develop into a fully mentalistic person. The fetus and the person are one and the same individual, so if you kill the fetus, then (by the law of identity) you kill the person'. It seems to me that the conclusion is true only if what is the fetus is a person. And that follows 'by the law of identity' only if (a) anything that is a person is essentially a person, and (b) what it is for a fetus to 'develop' into a person is for there to be one object that at t1 is a fetus, and at t2 a person. I don't see that both of those (particulary (a)) are obviously true. If they're not, we can consistently claim that killing a fetus is not killing a person, although it is killing something that can develop into one (but who denies that?).

    So, if you are appealing to any intuitions about the moral importance of personhood in your argument for P1, I think we can capture those intuitions without thinking fetuses have moral worth to fetuses. Do you have further arguments for why anyone should accept P1? Is the notion of 'fundamental kind' doing something important here?

  6. Protagoras, I don't think there can be any dialogue between you and most people (not just pro-lifers) on the issue of abortion since there would be no common ground upon which to build one. I don't say that derogatively, just matter-of-factly. Most people (in fact, all the people that I've discussed the issue with) agree that all humans are of equal moral worth or value (and not all, I don't even think half, of those people were pro-life). Of course one's capacities as, say, a surgeon might render her more valuable for a medical team; but that doesn't necessarily result in her life being more valuable than that of 85-year-old Mrs. Harper who can't do much of anything anymore (or Mrs. Harper's 1-year-old great-grandson who can't do much of anything yet). Rather, the issue on which the vast majority of people differ (and the issue which seems more reasonable on which to differ) is whether a fetus is a human being or not.

    Will, this is an off the topic question, but I have to ask it anyway. You suggest that it is immoral to kill anything (you specifically mention a puppy) for the simple reason that it is annoying or an inconvenience. What about ants? Don't many people kill ants simply because they're an inconvenience. (I don't think an innocuous pile of ants in the garage is life threatening.) What about bees? What about spiders? Are 90-percent (admittingly arbitrary number) of the world's population murders?

    Russ, I agree with your formulation of Ricardo's argument. But I think you should be more concerned with disproving P2 of that argument. In fact, in your penultimate paragraph you argue against P2, not P1. That, I think, is the better approach to take since most people who accept P1 regard it as being overwhelmingly apparent and not worth arguing for or debating. Also, denying it would result in a multitude of abhorrent consequences.

  7. I know Richard is sympathetic to Protagoras' indirect utilitarian line of response. But many (like Don Jr.) would think it a rather large bullet to bite, to say that the problem with disregarding damaged humans is fundamentally epistemic rather than intrinsically (im)moral.

    In response to Will, I meant to be arguing that fetuses have the same moral status as other humans, which we typically think to be greater than that of birds or bees. (Though in regard to the issue of aborting for adequate reasons, Richard insists that I mention his old post on abortive virtues.)

    Bral - you sound like my twin! Sadly, I think he often overestimates the extent to which he is really "realizing" his rational capacities. The problem with racism is that it's arbitrary -- races are not fundamentally different "kinds" at all. We're all human, deep down.

    You might appeal to the use of statistical racial profiling, but there's no analogy: in that case, one uses group statistics to inductively infer an individual's properties. But it all occurs on the superficial level. The proper analogy would be to racial essentialists. But their mistake is fundamentally factual, not moral. If the races really were (contrary to fact) essentially different kinds, like different species, then it might be entirely appropriate to treat them differently.

    Though we may wish to introduce an assymmetry discussed in RadGeek's post: kind-membership provides a safety net, rather than a ceiling, for appropriate consideration. An outstanding individual of a normally mediocre kind (say, a super chimp) should be treated as what they are: outstanding. A damaged individual of an outstanding kind (say, disabled humans) should likewise be treated as what they are: outstanding! Both aspects contribute to (but don't negate from) one's full value.

    As for the "proves too little" charge, I'm assuming that values of autonomy and bodily integrity can be outweighed by another's right to life. Nobody thinks a woman has the "right to choose" to leave her infant to starve if she decides it's distracting her from her career or whatever. I find it bizarre how supposedly "left-wing" feminists start sounding like Randian egoists on this issue. (Yes, folks, you really can have moral obligations to other people, even if that's "inconvenient" and not something the more selfish among you would voluntarily choose!)

    Russ - I think essentialism about kinds is fairly widely accepted. Do you really find nothing odd about the claim that you could have been a poached egg? No, anything human is essentially human. If told of an object in another possible world that it isn't human, we can be sure that it isn't either of us (assuming we're sure of our actual humanity, of course). Similarly for the temporal case: if you insist that fetuses aren't persons, but you are, then you must also hold that you were never a fetus. (In fact, that's Richard's position. Crazy fella.)

    My main argument for P1 came from appeal to our commonsense view that "all humans are created equal", that this extends even to severely disabled humans, etc. Granted, one may go the Protagoras/Richard line and reject this premise. But I doubt most people would be willing to do this after full consideration of its implications.

  8. Don,
    I would think you should take diminishing levels of care not to kill animals as they drop down the chain.

    because a human is valued far above a puppy (in a head to head) and a puppy far above a frog and a frog far above a spider etc at some point down the chain you must be showing pretty minimal care.

    All life has worth, not all life has equal worth.

    I think people don’t argue P1 because they know they can't defend it (except via faith or via ways that potentially reflect badly upon them).
    That doesn’t mean it is invalid to use - the very fact that most people accept it makes it valid in a sense.

    Hey, Richard isn't even sure he was himself a few seconds ago. Like me he seems to enjoy catching philosophical bullets with his teeth.

  9. Ricardo, you misunderstand me. I accept that anything that is a human is essentially a human (and that HUMAN is a sortal concept). But I was suggesting that persons aren't essentially persons. I accept essentiallism about kinds, but deny 'person' picks out a pure kind.

    In the spirit of one's man's modus tollens is another man's modus ponens, my response to Olson's 'Was I ever a fetus?' is to say that as we were once fetuses, and fetuses aren't people, we aren't essentially people. It may be that 'person' is a phase sortal (I'm not really sure whether I think that non-humans can be persons, which I guess it depends on)... And it looked like personhood was doing the work in your arguments. The thing about taking personhood to be important is it stands up well to the argument from marginal cases: the sleeping & the mentally retarded are still people (and not just in the sense (whatever sense that might be) in which a fetus is), but animals aren't.

  10. ps, don jr., I think that Ricardo is using the term 'human being' to mean member of the species Homo sapien, and in this sense I don't think we can deny P2 (I suppose we could ask a biologist). And I also disagree strongly that denying P1, when human is understood to mean Homo sapien leads to absurd consequences with e.g. sleeping people; that's why I pointed out that P1's ability to deal with such cases is no argument for it, as it is not the only way to deal with such cases.

    But you're right, there is more loaded sense of 'human', exemplified I think when we talk of things like humanity, and I think it is up to disagree with Ricardo that fetuses are humans in that sense (do fetuses have any humanity? well yes, if you mean are they of the species Homo sapien, but that's not normally what we're talking of humanity ('oh, the humanity!')) we could deny they are human in this sense - i think that's similar to what i have in mind when i deny they are people.

  11. Ah, thanks for the clarification. In that case, as you predicted, I think the notion of a "fundamental kind" can do some work here. If personhood can come and go, it is better understood as a superficial property, describing "how" one happens to be, rather than addressing one's deeper nature, i.e. the question of "what" one is. (There's a wonderful paper by Joseph Almog called 'The What and the How' which elucidates this distinction.) While one could consistently hold that moral status is the kind of thing that could come and go in the superficial way of mental personhood, I think there's something attractive about the position I've described which instead locates it in the depths of one's being.

  12. Don-

    I thought of that very question as I wrote the post and I am as guilty as most people in killing way more insects than strictly necessary. But then, I've never claimed to live a virtuous life. Genius points out that most humans consider a puppy more important than a frog and there is some sort of relative chain of importance. I suppose a fetus would fit somewhere in that chain too. But how is the chain formed? On what basis? Is it more wrong to kill a puppy because it is cute than a frog? Or is it the size that matters? The only way I can see creating a chain is through pure utilitarianism based on the aesthetics of the animal to the particular person rather than any moral code.

    My original post was inspired by my study of Jainism a branch of Hinduism that literally believes every animal is the rebirth of a human soul and therefore has a moral worth equal to humans. Jainism also believes in complete non-violence which leads to a rather stark lifestyle. They literally try to avoid stepping on insects.

    It does seem to me that there is some moral worth to all life because it is life. As such, any decision you make to end any life is a moral decision and fundamentally different than deciding to rip up a piece of paper that belongs to you.

    Many times the abortion debate boils down to pro-choicers saying that the fetus is part of the mother and destroying it is morally equivalent to the mother deciding to have her finger amputated. In other words, it is seen as a private non-moral decision. I argue that ending any life is a fundamentally moral decision and therefore ought to be considered in terms of its morality or immorality. As for the ants in the garage, maybe it is a moral decision. I would argue killing every ant in the world is certainly immoral. Killing a single ant seems quite insignificant to the world but then in the grand scheme of things killing a person is rather insignificant. I certainly have other moral flaws I am worrying about fixing before I worry about whether I should kill an insect but maybe all of us need to think a little bit about how amazing the lives we destroy are whether it is an ant, a frog, a dog or a fetus. Biology shows us miracles on the smallest scale and perhaps humans in general tend to take it for granted. I would argue that is a moral flaw shared by most (all?) of us. Go sit in the woods and watch life for a few hours. Watch an ant go about its day. Maybe it will give you a little different perspective than finding the annoyance of a few ants in the garage. You can kill an ant and it wont affect you, but does that make it right? Someone killing a fetus doesn't really threaten or affect me, but does that make it right? The bombing in Bombay didn't really affect or directly threaten me either. Why would we consider killing a fetus a morally neutral decision just because it doesn't affect us? I would argue the immorality of killing is not dependent on the life being killed being human. In terms of the rest of the discussion I would change

    P1 The kind Homo sapien is one membership of which confers moral worth.
    P2 Fetuses are of the kind Homo sapien.
    C1 Therefore fetuses have moral worth.


    P1 Life confers moral worth.
    P2 Fetuses are of the kind life.
    C1 Therefore fetuses have moral worth.

    Note that I do not believe that it is immoral to kill anything with moral worth. Sometimes it is moral to kill a person, sometimes it is immoral not to kill a person but "all things being equal" (I hate that phrase) it is immoral to kill something with moral worth.

  13. Vitalist intuitions aside, life is mere mechanism. There's nothing especially meritorious about bacteria or houseflies. Note also that there's no clear dividing line between life and non-life. (Biologists dispute whether viruses count as "alive". Advancing technology may also raise the prospect of "artificial life". The issue becomes merely terminological in the end. Something so arbitrary could not do the heavy ethical work you ask of it.)

    Granted, some lifeforms may have aesthetic worth -- killing ants might be bad like ripping up an artwork. But it's not because you've harmed the ants. Non-mental beings can't have genuine interests, and so can't be genuinely harmed. (That raises difficulties for Ricardo's view too, requiring appeal to some dubious four-dimensionalist claims, say about a fetus inheriting the moral interests of its later temporal parts.)

    The appropriate standard here is not life, but sentience. That's a genuine difference, which goes beyond mere mechanism, and enables creatures to have interests (and hence be subject to harms and benefits).

  14. (See this post for more detail of my views on this matter. They contrast quite starkly with Ricardo's, as you might expect...)

  15. Genius, nice response to my ant question.

    Russ, so you think that a fetus is a human but not a person? Is this correct? If so, that is an interesting supposition. Could you then clarify your distinction between human and person? (Note: I too make a distinction here, but I'm sure it's for different reasons than you—for example, I think that God the Father is a person but not a human.) If this (i.e., what I say in my first sentence to you) is not correct, could you just clarify your distinction between human and person?

    The conflict here seems really to be a mere accident of semantics. In order for the dialogue to flow better I think you should replace "Homo sapien" (in your formation of Ricardo's argument) with "person," and we'd all be on the same page, I think (though we ought to consult Ricardo to make sure, since it is his argument). It seems you are using homo sapien to mean "person or potential person" and then labeling a fetus as a potential person (thus lacking moral worth), whereas I (and I think Ricardo too) am understanding a fetus to be not only a homo sapien but also a person.

    In your understanding of fetuses as potential persons, Russ, is there then any non-arbitrary stage at which would you say a fetus becomes a person? Because you deem, it seems, the transition from non-person to person to have moral significance I think there would need to be a non-arbitrary stage to account for that morally significant transition. (Note: This is not like the transition from young-adult to adult, which might arbitrarily be stated as 21 or 23 or somewhere around there, for that involves nothing of morally significance to account for.) Doesn't it, though, seem odd to suggest that humans—or homo sapiens, assuming your use of the term—develop moral worth?

  16. Richard,

    If sentience is what confers moral worth (an argument I reject but will accept for the sake of argument and to avoid straying futher from the topic than I have) when does sentience occur and how do we recognize it? A 1 day old infant is not significantly more sentient than it was the day before. We know that a baby can survive being born severely premature, is it sentient?

    Even among animals sentience does not create the clear line you seem to believe. If all animals were mere "mechanisms" we wouldn't see different behaviours from animals of the same species. Personalities are especially notable in larger animals (dogs, horses, cats, deer) maybe not in insects but then I haven't studied them nearly as closely. So how do we determine sentience in a person or animal? How do we determine which creatures have "genuine interests" and which don't?

  17. Don, actually I agree with Russ' interpretation; P2 is meant to be an uncontroversial, "merely factual" claim. ("Homo sapien" denotes a biological kind. I don't know why you try to reinterpret this as "person or potential person". Hobbits are persons, but they ain't human.) The moral "oomph" comes from P1, the claim that all humans have (equal) moral worth.

  18. Will, that's a hard question. It seems clear that there *is* a principled distinction between entities with minds and entities which lack minds. (I can't make sense of the idea of a "borderline" almost-but-not-quite-conscious-mental-state. Either there is something it is like to be a creature, or there is not. One might feel "blurry". But that's a definite mental state of blurriness. If you sort-of feel something, then you are definitely feeling something.)

    But though such a line must exist, it's unlikely that we could ever identify it with any great precision. At least we can identify clear cases on either extreme. Brainless zygotes and embryos obviously don't have minds. Three year old children obviously do. Somewhere in between, the difference occurs. (In fact, there are two crucial steps: the first is to base sentience, the ability to feel pain, etc. The second is to personhood, with persisting personal identity. It's bad to *hurt* either, but only the latter is harmed by being *killed*. I've written more about this here.)

    Your last argument is bad because the "personality" we observe is merely behavioural traits/dispositions. We could program these into a robot. Behaviour is mere mechanism. (Compare the philosopher's "zombie world".) We infer mentality from complex behaviour, but this is a theoretical inference, not direct observation. (Of course, I do agree that those complex animals have minds.) But this is getting a bit off-topic...

  19. Richard,

    While I can see why you choose sentience as your measure of value it appears to still be arbitrary - i.e. saying "sentience is what matters" is a statement of opinion. In fact sentience seems even more susceptible to your arguments than "life" is (no clear dividing line etc).

    > Your last argument is bad because the "personality" we observe is merely behavioral traits/dispositions.

    I wonder what basis you have for that assertion. Presumably not experience, and not induction (since the only similar example we KNOW about IS sentient).

    > We could program these into a robot.

    This is a pretty weak argument. Acting sentient is evidence that you are sentient (and evidence is all there ever is) – that its possible that in some convoluted example someone might not be is just irrelevant.

    I am 'sentient' I don’t know that you are - you could easily be a android or zombie - but presumably you accept it would be odd for me to just assume that you are a zombie because it is theoretically (in the loose sense of the word) possible. At least as long as I am pretty sure no one is busy programming humans to deceive me.

  20. Why does sentience matter? That is, why does anything have moral worth and how do we know that it is sentience which has this moral worth? Is it simply pragmatic (and is all morality simply pragmatism)?

    I agree that sentience is probably the best concept to base moral worth on, but am having a hard time articulating why.

  21. Ricardo, I did not mean to reinterpret your terminology. I apologize. I also acknowledge that I was incorrect to equate human with "person or potential person." That was a mental slip. I think, though, the argument as you have framed it complicates the discussion. Since the crux of the issue is whether or not a fetus is a person it would be best to have that supposition discussed. The argument as Russ has it (which you acknowledge as a correct formal presentation of your argument) doesn't mention person at all.

    You say the moral "oomph" comes from P1. I agree. Presumably, the reason you endorse P1 of Russ's formulation is that you believe the fetus to be a person. (Is this correct?) The reason, it seems, Russ rejects P1 is because he doesn't believe the fetus to be a person. Thus we have the crux of the issue: Is the fetus a person? However, with your argument (assuming Russ's formulation to be accurate) the crux of the issue (Is the fetus a person?) is left implicit rather than made explicit.

    All of that is of minor significance though as long as the crucial issue has been identified, for then we can momentarily abandon the overarching argument and discuss the specific issue (which I began to do in the last paragraph of my last post, and which Richard, Will, and Albert have been doing in their discussions of sentience in the last couple of posts).

  22. No worries, Don. I was actually hoping that my main argument could avoid issues of personhood altogether. I say that whether a fetus is a person or not is derivative on the question of how we understand personhood. See my second comment responding to Russ above.

    In short: either personhood is a fundamental kind (determining "what" one is, or the essential nature of one's deep being), or it is a more superficial property (say of exhibiting certain mental capacities), and hence merely a matter of "how" one happens to be. If superficial, then it's inappropriate to play such a vital moral role. But if fundamental, then since a fetus is the same individual as the adult it grows into, they must be the same fundamental kind, and hence the fetus is a person too. So, overall, we find that either fetuses are persons OR else personhood is not what's morally important.

    But I get all this from my prior premise that what really matters is the "kind" of being that one essentially is. That's what's central to my position. I think talk of persons is a distraction, though I can accommodate it (as outlined above) if pushed.

  23. Genius and Albert: I just find it intuitively obvious that sentience (understood as phenomenal consciousness, or there being "something it is like" to be you, or - roughly - being capable of feeling pleasure and pain) is tied to having interests. It just seems axiomatic -- like 2+2=4, I'm not sure what to say to those who don't grasp the necessity of it. But I do talk a little more about the issue in my post on "soulless materialism", which addresses the topic more directly than the present post. [I wouldn't want to hijack Ricardo's thread ;-)]

    Speaking of Ricardo, I think he pretty blatantly begs the question in claiming that "a fetus is the same individual as the adult it grows into". At least, he knows I disagree with that claim, so it's at least dialectically ineffective to take it as a premise! But perhaps others would be more sympathetic to such claims than I am...

  24. (On the animal behaviour issue, I was merely pointing out that their behaviour doesn't necessitate anything beyond physical mechanism going on. A zombie world is metaphysically possible, after all. So I was disagreeing with Will's claim that "If all animals were mere "mechanisms" we wouldn't see different behaviours from animals of the same species." But it doesn't really matter for the broader issue, so I'll leave it at that.)

  25. Ricardo, I am starting to think that maybe a fetus does have the same moral worth as you and me.


  26. Ricardo,

    Thanks for the clarification. I don't know how I missed that comment of yours to Russ. It seems like it was the only comment I missed. Your what/how distinction seems to be akin to the distinction I've seen made by others between being a person (the "what") and functioning as a person (the "how").

    I completely agree it is incorrect to have something that plays such a vital moral role simply supervene on certain qualities (e.g., mental capacity, sentience, etc.) which may or may not be possessed, depending on the current stage, by a life form of a certain, as you would put it, "kind" (namely, homo sapien). That would seem to result in absurd conversations such as the following:

    Mother: Can I have an abortion now?
    Doctor: You sure can. Your child has no, or at least very low, moral worth as of right now.
    Mother: Excellent. [Phone Rings.] Oh, one second, Doctor.
    [. . . 1 minute later . . .]
    Mother: Okay, I'm ready.
    Doctor: Oh, I'm sorry. Your child is a highly valuable being now.

    Talk of persons and personhood might seem a distraction to you, but I think that is usually, at least in my experience, where the major difference arises in abortion discussions. All other objections (those aside from the claim that a fetus is not a person) to the notion that abortion is wrong (e.g., mother's right, value gained at birth, etc.) I think most serious thinking people view to be either ridiculous or beside the point. Personally though, it just seems somewhat ridiculous, or at least extremely odd, to suggest that a being (of a certain "kind") can develop moral worth.

  27. Protagorus - I find it funny that you seem fine with creating a completely arbitrary "line" of worth 8 days after birth, but are totally against creating one even 3 months before birth.

  28. Good call Attila. Am I correct in assuming that Richard and Ricardo are actually the same person? If so, this is the most terrifying thread I have ever read. I hope it's indicative of a soul in turmoil, searching. To be able to look at the argument above, and call Ricardo the evil twin...

    What begins to dawn on the intellectually honest is that all humanist morality is arbitrary. Some accept this and get on with their lives, while others see it as a problem and create alter-egos to distance themselves from responsibility for the demise of anything recognizable as a first principle. This argument demonstrates (more cogently than I have ever see before) that all pro-choice arguments begin with the premise that abortion is right as rain, and proceed to make any contortions necessary to justify this premise, because all egg heads know that question-begging is verboten, and they would never stoop to that level.

    Let me break it down for you: you proceed from eating meat to allowing abortion, to allowing euthanasia, to enforcing abortion, to enforcing euthanasia. Thus goes the religion of human progress. Gotta love democracy. For until democracy, those that believed in first principles stood a shot at standing before madness such as this. Now, the will of the people will see to it that there is none of this sentimental crap. They do not want to suffer, to toil. Since human suffering is the greatest of evils, they have a point. Yes, start with sentience, Richard. Good luck finding your way back to sanity before someone kills you in your sleep.

  29. For the record, my view does not imply that it's okay to kill people in their sleep. See here for details.


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