Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pro-Life, Pro-Zombie?

Here's a curious line of argument. Many pro-lifers hold that an individual has moral status in virtue of its biological kind (being "human") rather than its particular cognitive qualities (being a self-aware "person"). But then, our counterparts in the zombie world are presumably still biologically human. They're physically identical to us, after all, and biology supervenes on physics. As far as biologists are concerned, they are "individual human lives" the same as you and me. So the bio-focused pro-lifer would seem committed to the view that non-conscious zombies have moral status. But that's absurd. (At least, it's absurd to think that they have anything like the kind of moral importance that conscious people do. Maybe complex physical structures can have a kind of value, like ant colonies, or New Zealand's pancake rocks. But I assume the pro-lifer wants to make a stronger claim than that embryos have the value of ants and rocks.)

The upshot is that sophisticated pro-lifers shouldn't be focused on mere biology. It isn't really mere "life", in the third-personal scientific sense, that matters. Rather, it's a special kind of life -- or, rather, the lives of a special kind of being, namely: sentient rational animals. If we understand the kind 'human' in this psychologically loaded sense, then zombies don't qualify as fully human. But embryos - immature members of our kind - do qualify. Sure, they may not yet be sentient or rational themselves. But they are members of a kind with these traits. Intuitively: their acquisition of these traits will occur through natural development (in which they remain the same kind of thing that they already are), rather than radical transformation into a fundamentally different category or kind of thing. (My evil twin explains this picture in more detail, here.)

[Of course, those of us who are pro-choice will insist that it is one's individual traits, rather than one's general kind, that matters morally. But I don't wish to get into that debate here -- see the linked discussion thread instead. The purpose of this post is simply to work out what the most plausible version of a pro-life view would be. I'm especially interested to hear from any actual pro-lifers, whether they are pro-zombie and if not why not -- especially, whether they endorse my evil twin's conception of the pro-life view.]

18 comments:

  1. Why not just talk about a world without souls?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't know what "souls" are supposed to be, so I don't imagine the strongest pro-life position would rely on any such confused concept.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That's a really interesting argument. I think it is very dangerous to say that the view that non-conscious zombies have moral status [is] absurd. My reluctance stems from the point that the zombie argument is supposed to be phrased in purely microphysical terms (something that I take problem with). Can we assign moral status when we are just talking about "microphysical duplicates," or do we need to go to a higher level to talk about "persons"? (It is messy business arguing that morality is supervenient on microphysical states, although I suppose it can be done). At the very least, it is hard to see how any concept of "moral status" arises within a microphysical view.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What do you mean by 'moral status' in this context? Is it merely being morally considerable in the sense of being a subject of moral consideration, or is it being morally considerable in such a way that moral agents have some sort of obligation with regard to you, or is it being morally considerable in such a way that moral agents have obligations directly to you?

    ReplyDelete
  5. What makes "the view that non-conscious zombies have moral status" absurd? Is knowing the absurdity of this view like knowing the pancake rocks are beautiful, something you can just see? If so, I might be morally blind.

    ReplyDelete
  6. So, I can't help but to think you wrote this just for me after I commented on one of your posts. If not, then, what a coincidence. Just as a preface, while I find that the whole KIND argument is interesting, I think that defending the specieism response is difficult and a bit arbitrary (I'm a vegan, so I don't think humans are "special" in any sense).

    So, I was never really sure what moral importance meant. If by moral importance, we mean taking their preferences into consideration, then I, as a pro-lifer, would not grant this importance to either zombies or zygotes. We COULD consider them, but I wouldn't say it's required. But, if by moral importance you only mean taking their life into account, then yes, I would actually bite the bullet and say it would be immoral to kill both zombies and zygotes (and all animals, and even plants, btw, but bear with me because obviously we have to eat). But then, what zombies are we talking about? If they are attacking us (or in the case of the zygote, threatening our lives), just like if an animal would be, I would say we should have no problem in killing them; that killing is not immoral. Specifically it's not immoral because they can't exercise higher capacities at that point. I'm an extreme pacifist as well, and this is because I think one can always reason with someone who has capacities, so, Ghandi style, it would be morally required to let yourself be killed. But then, that is morals, not law (I think, for practicality's sake, a govt. may allow self-defense killing even though it's immoral).

    Anyway, to address the KIND argument, I think, since we are not a more special kind of being than animals, it would be wrong to kill them. Again, tho, one could make the argument that in order not to die oneself (from starvation) it would not be immoral to kill animals, or babies for that matter, for food, if need be. However, it should be avoided just like killing zombies should be avoided. So, be vegan, though I don't think one has to go that far, vegetarian is enough. Why? Well, it comes to this simple distinction in moral importance, which I also made above.

    When comparing preferences, then the sentient being's preferences matter more than a non-sentient being's preferences, and I think some sort of utility maximization argument could be made (persons, by the standard definition, are utility monsters). When comparing lives, the same holds, so in this case, medical reasons to abort don't even need to get into intention, killing a fetus is ok if it avoids mother's death, you don't have to argue about not intending the death of the fetus. However, one cannot cross the two, and life is more important. The life of a non-person matters more than the preferences of a person, and vice versa (switch person with non-person).

    Thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
  7. And let me just point out that, while I don't think it's a good ARGUMENT in defense of pro-life views, it seems quite inevitable, given our biology, to NOT have some sort of respect for our own species. I think, perhaps irrationally, that when the lives of two non-persons are in question, one being human and another being non-human, the answer would be obviously human. So, under the same view, if aliens came down, or some animal became sentient somehow (thought experiment, whatever), then it may feel this same kind of compassion towards it's entire species, and then perhaps we would hold those kinds of beings more important than others. But this seems irrelevant to the abortion debate, amirite?

    ReplyDelete
  8. If a chicken were hooked up to your internal organs for life support (to bastardize the famous violinist case), most people would not feel the slightest hesitation in allowing you to unplug the chicken, letting it die to restore your personal freedom. On any sane view, the interests of people can very easily trump those of chickens. Or, I'd suggest, those of zombies. And so, if embryos are not more morally significant than zombies, it seems that abortion too is going to be permissible.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Off the top of my head, I don't think that it is a good reconstruction of the sort of pro-life argument you have in mind to say that it is membership in a biological kind per se which bestows moral status on an individual. Rather, membership in the biological kind human being is taken as an indication of membership in a kind that is not strictly biological, the kind being made in the imago dei . In the traditional Christian world view, the biological kind human being is composed of individuals who are made in the imago dei. But this is not a metaphysically necessary connection! Zombie humans have different causal histories than we do (on the Christian picture), and so may not have the imago dei, and thus may not have moral status in the same way that ordinary humans do, though they may have some moral status in a different way. So, I don't think the best reconstruction of the pro-life argument you're considering is going to end up committed to zombie humans having moral status in the same sense, and for the same reason, as human beings.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm only interested in secular arguments.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Ok, that's fine, and probably makes it more interesting, since pro-lifers (e.g. Robert George) often make natural law arguments that are meant to work independently of theistic assumptions. In this case, the argument often goes like this: Each one of us was an infant, embryo, and a zygote: zygotes and embryos become the same sorts of beings that we are, and do so through a continuous process of development- they are the same sort of thing throughout. Thus zygotes and embryos are the same sort of being as we are, namely a human being. At this point, you want to say that 'human being' denotes a biological kind. But it is not obvious to me that this is the right way to understand the pro-life argument in question. Why not: embryos are the sorts of beings who, under the right conditions, will be in a position to exercise the sorts of capacities that adult human beings typically exercise (reasoning, volition, etc.). In fact, this is precisely what George says. See http://str.typepad.com/weblog/files/embryo_ethics.pdf, p. 27.
    Since zombie humans lack even the potential for developing these human capacities, they need not have moral status the same way that normal human beings do. I take it that this is roughly what you meant to suggest in the second paragraph. Our difference, then, is that I think this is the only charitable reading of the pro-life argument under discussion-- i.e., I don't think that pro-lifers are focused on mere biology in the first place, whereas you want to argue that they are but they shouldn't be.

    ReplyDelete
  12. That's helpful -- thanks. (I had assumed that many pro-lifers appeal to biological kinds, but if I'm wrong about that, that's fine. I'm most interested in the question what they should be appealing to, and it sounds like we agree there.)

    ReplyDelete
  13. Richard,

    Interesting post. I agree with most of it, but I'm not as quick as you are to deny moral status to zombies. (Interestingly, this came up in Q&A recently when a visiting speaker gave a talk on the knowledge argument and phenomenal consciousness.) Can't we say that zombies are Kantian agents? I would have thought that we could show respect (or disrespect) for their autonomy even if we cannot make them suffer.

    Of course, this sets zombies apart from embryos which I think have no significant moral status.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi Clayton, I think that consciousness is essential to intentionality, so zombies don't really have thoughts or minds at all. (See also: 'Zombie Rationality'.) But I guess this is controversial.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Richard,

    Thanks for that illustration. However, I think the chicken violinist is much different than the dietary restrictions I meant to portray and ultimately doesn't really threaten my argument at all (I'm actually surprised you brought it up). Even as a pro-lifer, I think the main impetus we have for disconnecting anything that is connected to us in the violinist case is because the connection was forced upon us, ie. our ability to express our preferences was frustrated, be it by an embryo or by a chicken or a person (remember that Thomson wanted to argue that whether it is a fetus or even a person, it doesn't matter, we do not hesitate to unplug, and I think she has a good point in showing that just because we value life or personhood, practical matters may preclude an absolutist interpretation). What you should have said is, "On any sane view, the interests of people can very easily trump those of persons, if connected against your will, let alone chickens, zombies or fetuses." But I would argue that this is less of a moral argument, and more of a political one.

    According to the moral framework I presented above, though, I do not think it would be moral for a person to hook themselves up to a person in a coma, say, and then unplug them, even if it restores their personal liberties (their personal liberties be damned, in fact, they shouldn't have hooked themselves up in the first place). The leap I ask you to take is that the same goes for those who wish to hook up to a chicken and then kill the chicken. I do not view living beings so easily dismissed. In this case, the interests of the person are their preference for having chickens hooked up to them and then killed. I think this practice would, in fact, be immoral, and I think it would be a sane thing to believe. Notice that more and more people do and would say that animals should not be treated as our playthings, let alone fetuses (even though in my view they are the same) or persons. In both cases (forced or voluntary connection), my argument is internally consistent and, I would say, is consistent with most people's intuitions (except for that leap I asked you to make). It does not seem that the chicken violinist really gets at the heart of the problem you seem to have with my argument.

    You probably want to find a thought experiment where a pro-lifer would be compelled to dismiss the life of a chicken or other animal as inferior to that of the preferences of a person, but not if it were a fetus. Assuming one can actually think of such an example, then, yes, I would say that it would counter my argument. But, again, it does not seem the chicken violinist poses any threat, and I think it will be hard to find an example that does. Remember, being a vegan, I think we are biased towards humans, so this argument will indeed call for a rational appreciation of the lives of animals. But your pro-choice views asks one to make the same kind of leap when it comes to the rational depreciation of the lives of infants. In either case, I think the current standard view is flawed.

    Thoughts? Notice I didn't have to talk about kind of being.

    ReplyDelete
  16. As a zombie, I resent not being considered sentient and fully human. I hope that one day we can live in a world where the rights and moral status of zombies are treated as more than a philosopher's joke.... BRAINS!!!

    ReplyDelete
  17. If you are genuinely interested in good pro-life cases argued from a secular perspective that don't argue from the zombie point of view you can't go past Dr Flannagan's material listed under the search label feticide.

    He writes on a range of angles, including from a religious perspective, but a lot of his material is not so scroll through the pieces that come up from that URL and you will find plenty written from secular angles. His material is excellent and in fact his current top blog post is a reference to his latest publication on abortion, Abortion and Capital Punishment: A Response to Beverly Harrison published in the Spring 2009 edition of Think: A Journal of the Royal Institute for Philosophy.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I have posted my comment on this as a blog post on my own site as it was a bit lengthy to leave as a comment. Response to Richard Chappell's "Pro-Life Pro Zombie"

    ReplyDelete

Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)