Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Indeterminate Identity and Abortion

In response to Edelman's claim that embryonic brain development "involves a dimension of randomness," Mark Vernon writes:
It is the suggestion that not everything is present in the zygote and that external forces subsequently act on the foetus to eventually create human individuality that leads to the conclusion that human life does not begin at conception or kick in at any one time.

I'm not convinced that Edelman's new biological theory adds anything new to the ethical debate. I mean, it's not exactly news that genetic determinism is false. And everyone else recognizes that "not everything is present in the zygote" -- Edelman's "stochastic processes" aside, how we develop as individuals will at least depend upon the cultural environment we're raised in, etc.

Perhaps the thought is that the potential variance here is so great that we're not talking about a single person developing in different ways; rather, the differences are so vast that they would amount to distinct people. That is, it's not just indeterminate how the fetus will develop; it's indeterminate who the fetus will grow to be. And, we might think, if the fetus' future identity is indeterminate, it cannot presently be identical to either person, and so presumably isn't a person at all.

But again, it's not clear how this argument depends on Edelman's theory, given that most of us already believe that a newborn has the potential to develop in very varied ways (within genetic constraints, just as Edelman grants).

In either case, it remains open to the pro-lifer to deny that even vast psychological differences entail that the possible future persons are numerically distinct. (They are simply alternative future states that the one person could grow into.) After all, the most coherent pro-lifers will be animalists about personal identity, in the sense that they identify human persons with human organisms -- and there's no real question that the latter come into existence at conception.

Am I missing something?

8 comments:

  1. "And, we might think, if the fetus' future identity is indeterminate, it cannot presently be identical to either person, and so presumably isn't a person at all."

    I'm not sure I see how the conclusion that the fetus isn't a person at all is supposed to follow from the indeterminacy of its future identity. After all, if we accept the view that the cultural environment that one lives in, etc., can affect the person that one later becomes, it seems that we must accept some psychological conception of personhood (e.g. Parfit's), and it would seem that it is equally indeterminate, on such a view, who a 6 or 14 or 25 year old will be in the future. But of course this doesn't imply that such 6 or 14 or 25 year olds aren't persons now.

    Vernon's view that Edelman's approach "leads to the conclusion that human life does not begin at conception or kick in at any one time" seems simply false. The biological life of a human organism clearly begins at conception. What Edelman's point might be taken to imply (e.g. if your suggested interpretation is correct) is that conception does not mark the beginning of the existence of a person who will cease to exist only when the organism dies.

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  2. "I'm not sure I see how the conclusion that the fetus isn't a person at all is supposed to follow..."

    Right, I was thinking that the fetus is a special case in that it's only remotely plausibly a person if it's identical to a person it will develop into. That is, it's less plausible that a fetus currently is some person other than a person it will later become. (Whereas we'd have no such qualms in case of the 6 year old, once we've granted the indeterminacy claim.) Though you might also question the preceding inference from indeterminate future identity to present non-identity.

    I agree with the rest of your comment.

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  3. "In either case, it remains open to the pro-lifer to deny that even vast psychological differences entail that the possible future persons are numerically distinct. (They are simply alternative future states that the one person could grow into.)"

    Even conceding this point, the pro-choicer(?) might insist that it is personal identity -and not numerical identity- that matters.

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  4. Like a little quantum mechanics photon, destroying a embryo which could become a million different people is like chopping off the potential history of 1/million of each of those people the sum being approximately 1.
    So its rather the same to do that as to kill one embryo that would definitely become a certain person.

    Unless you allow addition you get ridiculous situations where its better to go into a room and shoot randomly 100 bullets so you are 99.9% sure to kill the other person there than to go into the same room and shoot the guy for a lesser chance of killing him.

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  5. Cihan - isn't "personal identity" just numerical identity as applied to the particular case of persons? (Given that I'm essentially a person, the question whether I'm one and the same person as B collapses into the question whether I'm one and the same entity as B.) Pro-choicers should instead reject the animalist criterion of personal identity, and insist that they never were a fetus (they merely came from one).

    Genius - I don't deny additivity. Rather, I assume there's nothing wrong with killing a merely potential person (with merely potential rights!). The strongest pro-life position will instead claim that the fetus is already a person -- presumably the same person it will be once fully developed. My reconstructed argument suggests that this crucial claim is undermined if the fetus is not presently identical to any future person in particular. (Cf. my previous comment.)

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  6. Im not sure there is any difference (in a real sense) between the future of an actual person and the future of a potential person (or some hypothetical sum of them).

    It seems as arbitrary as saying you shouldn't kill anyone who's name you know.

    I know that would cause great problems for philosophy and how to determine what is a worthy action but I'm not sure that should be relevant to this.

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  7. I guess I could be wrong but can't you have numerically identical individuals who are different persons?

    Can't you just take someone and through neuro-engineering erase all their memories, values, personalities and install other memories, values and so on? Wouldn't that person not be his "old self"?

    For me, personal identity is "identity" as it is applied to personhood and doesn't necessarily relate to numerical identity.

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  8. Cihan - in that case I'd say that the two persons are also numerically distinct (i.e. they are not one and the same). Once we grant that they're different persons, it would be puzzling to still insist that they're one and the same being -- unless, perhaps, you thought that their essential kind was not 'person' but 'organism', or something like that. (One and the same organism might constitute several numerically distinct persons over the course of its lifespan.)

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