Monday, November 16, 2009

Can Death Harm Non-Persons?

I've previously suggested that only persons (roughly, beings with an enduring sense of self) are harmed by death. There are two ways that one might argue for this.

(1) One might appeal to a 'preference' view of welfare. On this view, beings are harmed by having their preferences thwarted (but not by the mere prevention of future preference formation and satisfaction). So if a being lacks future-directed preferences, depriving them of a future doesn't deprive them of anything they want, and hence does them no harm.

To reach the desired conclusion, we need to add a further premise: only persons (self-aware beings) can have future-directed desires. Other animals are, on this view, presumed to ultimately care only about their present happiness. As an empirical conjecture, this sounds implausible. But part of the difficulty is in attributing ultimate desires to animals at all. We can say of a person that they desire the candy as a means to pleasant gustatory sensations, but is animal eating behaviour similarly rationalizable in terms of any further goal? If not, do we really want to say that animals value eating non-instrumentally, as an end in itself? This seems to over-intellectualize what is going on. The philosophical use of 'preference' or 'desire' (as indicating an individual's ultimate values or concerns, on reflection) doesn't seem to apply to simple (non-rational) minds.

Even if animals lack philosophical preferences (or values, or ultimate desires), it's obviously bad for them to suffer pain (and presumably good for them to enjoy pleasure). So we might need a two-part theory of welfare. The hedonistic component would apply to any beings whatever, telling us that pleasure is good for them and pain is bad. And then a supplementary 'preference' component would apply to beings with philosophical preferences, telling us that people are harmed by thwarting their deepest desires, and benefited by having such desires fulfilled. I find this plausible enough, but now that we've gone beyond a preference account of harm, it isn't clear why depriving an animal of future pleasures (by death) shouldn't count as an additional form of harm.

(2) For this, we need to appeal to claims about personal identity and a self's persistence through time. Many philosophers (from Locke through to Parfit) have been convinced that some kind of psychological continuity is what matters in survival. Here's why: If a mad scientist scanned my brain, disintegrated my body, and then wiped your brain and implanted all of my mental traits (memories, beliefs, values, personality, etc.) in its place, then it seems that I have gotten the better half of the deal. I have survived and you have not. Though your body is the one that lives on, it is our minds that matter, and it seems that your mind has been replaced by mine. In making this judgment, we implicitly judge that it is the content of a mind that matters -- the memories, beliefs, desires, and so forth -- not its "location" in a particular body, or even a particular brain.

Suppose this scenario goes ahead. I awake in your body and return to my old life (as best I can). Does this make any difference to you? Suppose you're told beforehand that after your mind is wiped and replaced with mine, I'll go on to live a happy life. Or maybe you're told that I'll be killed the next day. You might for altruistic reasons prefer the former news, but do you think that you are harmed if the latter outcome occurs instead? If not, this goes to show that preventing future pleasures from being experienced in your body is no harm to you, if you are not the one who will get to experience them.

That's the first premise. The second premise is that only persons have "personal identity", or the kind of psychological continuity (to a sufficient degree) that matters in survival. For a simple-minded animal with no enduring projects or values, it is (morally) as if their mind is 'wiped' at each moment. Many of the aspects of the self that we care about in survival do not endure, as the minds of non-persons are not sufficiently advanced to possess a full 'self' in the first place.* So, if a non-person dies, the being that dies is not the "same one" (in any morally relevant sense) as the one that would have experienced pleasure in the future had it lived. So the one that dies is not harmed, or deprived of any benefit, by death.


* = [They may possess some of the psychological features we care about -- memories, even 'personality' to an extent. It's an interesting question whether this is enough to support a corresponding degree of interest in survival. Perhaps all that we can justifiably conclude here is that non-persons do not share as strong an interest in survival as full-blown persons do?]


  1. I'm not convinced that your (2) quite does what you are suggesting it does. (Or, alternatively, I'm not sure I'm fully following your argument.) You ended your point about (1) with the question of whether depriving a beast of future pleasures constitutes an additional form of harm beyond that of thwarting future-directed preferences. Then you say at the beginning of (2) that "for this" we need to call in personal identity as psychological continuity; the beast, i.e., nonpersonal animal, is like someone whose mind is continually wiped. But this seems to be closely related to the future-directed preferences point -- at the very least the same underlying capabilities provide both future-directed preferences and psychological continuity. So I'm not clear why the same question doesn't arise yet again: why can't the deprivation of future pleasures for a beast, capable of psychological continuity, count as an additional kind of harm, distinct from that which we attribute to animals capable of psychological continuity?

    As I said, it's quite possible that I'm just not seeing the exact way in which (2) is supposed to advance us beyond (1), rather than getting us to the same point from a different direction.

  2. Here are plausible things to say: If I was mean to my dog, I should make it up to him by giving him a treat. If I'm looking out for my dog's welfare, I should give him shots so that he lives a longer and more enjoyable life in the future. It would be more fair to give each of my dogs a treat today than to give one of them a treat today and then the same one a treat in a month. It would be better for my dog to live a long and enjoyable life than to die prematurely.

    These ideas do not fit well with your conclusion. Probably the best explanation of these ideas involves the idea that my dog is psychologically connected with his future self and consequently it is better for him that his future self enjoys himself. And this goes against the second premise. One question remains; which is more plausible, the conclusion and the second premise, or the alternative I have sketched? I say that the alternative I have sketched wins.

  3. Brandon - my argument in part (2) is roughly that (i) a being can only be deprived of a future if the future in question would have been theirs; (ii) whether one possesses a future in this way depends upon whether there is the right kind of psychological continuity between the current and future beings; (iii) the right kind of psychological continuity (including continued projects, values, etc.) cannot be found in the minds of non-persons or 'brutes'. Hence brutes cannot be deprived of a future.

    Rather than just talking about what sorts of things are harms and benefits in general, as in (1), this argument goes further in specifying the conditions under which [preventing] a future harm or benefit could be a harm or benefit for a currently existing individual. For example, in the case in which my mind is implanted into your body, the future benefits are not benefits to you. Likewise, it is claimed, any future pleasure of a chicken is (in the absence of appropriate psychological continuity) not a benefit to the currently existing chicken. They are, in effect, different beings that inhabit the same body at different times.

    Nick - that does sound plausible! Part of that might be explained by our tendency to anthropomorphize our pets. More of it is probably explained by our intuitive 'Cartesianism' (as Parfit would call it): it is difficult to really internalize the reductionist view of identity. Here's a test: Do you also think that, if your original dog is about to die, it would be better for him if we create a duplicate who goes on to live a "long and enjoyable life" in his place? We typically assume that ordinary survival involves something rather special above and beyond the kind of psychological continuity found even in duplication. The intuitions you report might ultimately rest on this dubious assumption.

  4. Hmmm. I suspect that background views about moral value and other theoretical commitments drive some of these discussions about harm. (I've had arguments like this with other people so I'm venting my spleen here)

    For example: it seems obvious to me that I harm a tree when I poison it. The tree doesn't know a thing about having been harmed, and it doesn't experience the harm in any mindy sort of way (because it's got no mind). It's not clear that I do anything wrong by harming the tree qua harming the tree, though there might be follow-on effects that imply harm to other entities (for whom their being harmed is a moral issue).

    But it seems that the tree was genuinely harmed by being killed by the poisoning... how else would you describe it? By virtue of being a living thing, it seems as though it's apt to be harmed. Apt for free-standing moral worth, that's another issue (I know there's a story required here to flesh this intuition out, but for the moment the intuition alone will do). Being harmed and being wronged are not the same thing.

    Just with respect to harming, compare this to throwing acid on a painting for example: it's clearly damage, but calling that damage `harm to the painting' seems silly in a way that it does not in the tree-poisoning case.

    I anticipate that I'd be accused of anthropomorphising trees, but I'd like to pre-empt that by suggesting instead that you are:
    1) anthropocentrising(?) the grounding of moral value,
    2) conflating harming and wronging.

    What ya reckon?

  5. Richard,

    One area where I get hung up is your use of the word 'harm.' In a physical sense, harm seems to be relatively clear: if it causes pain, discomfort, etc., the object has endured harm. But, when discussing a loss of potentiality, does harm break down? The thought of non-existence may visit harm upon me now, causing me some kind of psychic discomfort. But, if I were to die painlessly and instantly, have I then been harmed? It's correct to say that any future pleasure has been truncated, but if we are merely corporeal beings, it seems you are simply describing a biological organism that has ceased its potential to have positive inputs.

    This potentiality seems to be sticky. Not only does it bring into question, for me, the notion of harming a sentient being, but what do we say for those that may one day have that chance? Infants at a young enough age, for instance. Early enough in life, they seem to have no more self-directed preference than an animal, and yet certainly more potential in the long term to have positive inputs (they have, in fact, maximum potential for positive inputs, for they are at that moment all unrealized). For an infant to die means no harm in the (1) first sense you mention, that they have no future-directed preferences; but, you are in fact (2) preventing future pleasures.

    If harm is simply negative pain inputs, then death is no harm at all, regardless of pre-death cognition. On the other hand, it seems that nonexistence, at least to some, is the greatest harm a person could ever encounter, again, regardless of pre-death cognition. Strangely enough, a non-rational animal may fight harder to maintain its existence more than a clear-headed man aware of his mortality. If death has been visited upon both a feral beast longing to fulfill its biological impulse to live, and upon a Socrates or Buddha who does not fear death, can we be sure that no harm has been done to the beast and all harm to the enlightened?

    Toolbit out.

  6. Do you also think that, if your original dog is about to die, it would be better for him if we create a duplicate who goes on to live a "long and enjoyable life" in his place? We typically assume that ordinary survival involves something rather special above and beyond the kind of psychological continuity found even in duplication.

    Richard, you might have to spell out exactly what you mean by duplication. Is it sort of like the 6th day (Arnold Schwarzenegger movie) thing? That in itself is a difficult intuition to put your head around even . Also, it is not clear that even if intuitions are different for animals and humans, the difference is due to a qualitative difference between us and our less rational cousins. It could be that the degree to which a being exhibits continuity of "personality" may weigh to various extents, proportionally, on how much value, or disvalue is gained from such a procedure.

    Or more to the point, it is not clear that our intuitions will be different on the two accounts, given that we are considering the creature's well being only, and not any other selfish considerations (I enjoy my pets company. Or I miss my wife etc)

    2) conflating harming and wronging.

    GreatLeaping Crab, even if Richard acknowledges the distinction, it is not clear what work the distinction is supposed to do. So, we can trivially acknowledge that poisoning the tree is harming the tree. But this just passes the buck. The question is about its moral significance. What type of harms are morally significant?

    It still remains that the ability to have interests is important. However, it could very well be an error to assume that there is a qualitative difference between us and non-rational animals with regards to how enduring their interests are. i.e. we cannot simply take the catesian assumption that animals' minds are being recreated at every moment, that everything is purely instinctual. It could just be that better fore-brains means that we are capable of looking further ahead with regards to our interests. While it would not do to anthropomorphise animals, it would be a similar mistake to de-rationalise them. Clearly, they are capable of some interests. Animals hunt, search for food, fight for mates etc etc. They may not have profound long term thinking or even any serious medium term ones, but the may have interests that exist somewhere in the medim-short term of the spectrum. And primates and dolphins may in fact have longer term interests. While cockroaches may be severely limited in tyhat regard.

  7. Toolbit, harm can basically be cashed out as decreases in welfare (or negative welfare) and welfare becomes what is desirable for a person's sake.

    And of course cf scanlon, we can cash out desireable as what we have reason to desire. In the end Neil may still be right and given epistemic limitations, we can only be sure that we have reason to desire pleasure and fear pain.

  8. @ Murali:
    Well at the start of his piece Richard makes it clear that he's talking about harm and welfare, and is arguing to the conclusion "that only persons (roughly, beings with an enduring sense of self) are harmed by death". It's explicitly a claim about wellbeing and harm, not about moral significance. I wasn't trying to address the subsequent comments, which have wandered a bit.

  9. GLCrab - see this old post. (I argue that the sense in which trees can be "harmed" is not the normative sense.)

    Toolbit - what Murali said. (See here for more background.) Even if we are "merely corporeal beings", we may be describing an outcome that those care about us would thereby have reason to (dis)prefer, for our sakes. [Contra Murali, I think we can be pretty confident that this goes beyond hedonism.]

    By the way, Toolbit, you're quite right that the same issues here extend to infants (and indeed fetuses) as well as non-human animals. Don Marquis famously argued that abortion is wrong because it deprives the fetus of a "future like ours". My response would be that death does not deprive the fetus of this, because a fetus lacks sufficient psychological continuity to possess a future at all. (The resulting person is not really the "same being", in the morally relevant sense, as its earlier biological stages.)

    Murali - by duplication, I mean creating an atom-for-atom replica of an organism. An even stronger version of the thought experiment would merely retain the psychological, as in "cognitive uploads" (or transferring a mind from a brain into a synthetic structure like a computer). It's plausible that cognitive uploading is better for people than death is. Yet it doesn't seem plausible that dogs or other beasts would benefit from this process. So if ordinary survival is only as good as this kind of psychological continuity, then it follows that beasts don't benefit from survival. (We ordinarily think otherwise because our ordinary conceptions of survival and identity over time are incoherently inflated -- as revealed in fission cases and the like.)

  10. I am reminded of Peter Singer's "All Animals are Equal". In it, he makes what seems to me an unassailable argument that any attempt to deprive of non-human animals the rights we grant our own mentally disabled is based on bias no more justifiable than racism or sexism.

    If we accept Singer's argument, then this post can also be used against the severely mentally handicapped and coma patients and the like. Whether people find that acceptable, I don't know. But at least I find that intuitively repugnant.

  11. Right, my argument also implies that severely mentally disabled humans (being 'non-persons' in the cognitive sense) aren't harmed by death.

    It's a separate question what 'rights' anyone should have. Even if there's no fundamental moral difference between a severely mentally disabled human and a relatively intelligent dog, there may be pragmatic reasons to accept a policy of extending rights to all humans -- even those who don't benefit from them -- e.g. to reduce the risk of mistakenly killing a person who isn't actually so retarded as one thought.

  12. Contra Murali, I think we can be pretty confident that this goes beyond hedonism.

    Well, my comment about hedonism was just to say that Neil's argument (which he summarised for me over lunch some time ago) kind of makes sense. But I didnt say that it was infallible. (i.e. it may work. Not that his argument does work)

    For instance, given that we have perfect epistemic access to only our own pleasure, we of course will find that it is desirable. However, it does not follow that all pleasure is desirable as such. In fact, if we were to make the move and say that if we were aware of other's pleasure in the same way that we were aware of our own, we would find it just as desirable too, that opens us up to a lot of different putative goods which we would rationally desire only if we had complete knowledge of these things too.

    Richard, re uploads and continuity. Are we able to able to adequately distinguish between what is simply desirable for the sake of the dog against what we would do for the sake of our dog. In the latter, at least some work is being done by the understanding that we are not necessarily that invested in the wellbeing of the dog.

    At least on my intuitions about the amount of continuity dogs have, it seems that they have psychological continuity, even if it is a lot fuzzier. Given that it is fuzzier, the harm vis a vis personal continuity is much less if continuity stops. i.e. it seems that at this point, our main difference is about how much personal continuity dogs have.

    The resulting person is not really the "same being", in the morally relevant sense, as its earlier biological stages.)

    This is highly questionable. Given that I (personality wise), at 24 am quite different than I was when I was 4, I am not sure that a similar analogy cannot be made to extend backward. Of course, there could me a me-ness that persists between 4- 24. But it is not clear that infants and maybe third trimester foetuses dont have this me-ness, or for that matter dogs.

    Furthermore, it is not clear that psychological continuity (PC)is important in this sense. (as opposed to judging whether one is capable of having interests) we want to make the distinction between PC being important to judge whether a being has interests in a robust sense, interests themselves being the thing that is actually important vs PC being used to see whether the interests are relevant at a particular time.

    After all, if we can desire for the sake of a mother that her daughter gets good grades even if she never finds out about it (it being the case that she dies of a heart attack before the daughter reaches home) then it is similarly desirable that a person's projects are successful even after his death. We would desire for the environmentalist's sake, even after his death, that the rainforests not be destroyed.

    If we can extend interests forward beyond the point at which the personality for whose sake we desire these things still exists, we can extend these interests backwards to a point in time before he exists in any meaningful sense.

    i.e. if a person is harmed if his will is not carried out post mortem, then it is difficult to say why he is not harmed (in the meaningful sense) when things are done which would be injurious to the interests of the future self.

  13. Okay I think I understand the position better now, and the source of disagreement. Would it be (roughly) correct to say that you believe the following two sets to be extensionally equivalent:
    1) things capable of normative valuation
    2) things with (direct) normative value

    If so...
    Pre-theoretically, this would seem (to most folks I think) like a surprising coincidence. I suspect there's an uphill battle here selling it (and its consequences) if you've only got pre-theoretical intuitions to appeal to. Or I could be wrong and just too alienated from reality by my own theoretical commitments. Do you have a post laying out or motivating the guts of the idea? I know it's not an uncommon view but I was wondering what your exact take on it was.

    As a general comment, I'm a bit wobbly regarding your claims about what 'senses' of harm there are (and other claims about sense-distinctions for that matter, they seem to do a bit of work for you)... do you intend these to be empirical claims about the as-used senses of the words in common language or is this more in the realm of fining up technical terms? Limiting yourself to the second is all well and good but if so it's not entirely clear that's what you're doing, and I'd be interested to hear more about your methodology in either case. (I guess that's a request for a new post topic...)

  14. GLCrab - No, that isn't it. At least, I take it that simple animals aren't "capable of normative valuation" (assuming that means making value judgments), and yet they have momentary welfare -- pain is bad for them, or undesirable for their sakes.

    On the general issue, I'm never much interested in "common language". I'm just highlighting an important normative concept, namely that of what would be [un]desirable for a being's sake (insofar as one cares about them), and contrasting this with a seemingly uninteresting, non-normative concept, namely that of biological "harm".

  15. Murali - I agree that dogs have some psychological continuity. The claim is just that it doesn't seem to be of the right kind for the existence of a psychological continuant (e.g. duplicate or upload) to be a benefit to them.

    On your final point, see my 'temporal acrobatics of harm'. I agree that existing people can be harmed by events before their birth or after their death. But you cannot harm merely possible people (e.g. by preventing "them" from ever coming into existence), since there is no such "them" to be harmed. (See 'reifying possibilia'.)

  16. The claim is just that it doesn't seem to be of the right kind for the existence of a psychological continuant (e.g. duplicate or upload) to be a benefit to them.

    But now, you have to spell out why the difference is qualitative such that the existence of a psychological continuant wouldnt benefit them at all (as opposed to just a lot less)whereas it would benefit us. i.e. why isnt the difference berely quantitative. We simply have more processing power and capacity.

    Richard, calling the child/being/whatever merely possible, does not capture the modal situation here.

    Post conception (or past the point where miscarriages are sufficiently low) it is not the case that there is merely a possible person there. It is that a process has been set into place that will eventually (more or less) become a person with interests, desires, etc etc etc.

    I think this is related to the same way we epistemically privilege green over grue. Or maybe why we privilege the the question of God's existence over the existence of russel's teapot.

    The fact that if you have an abortion there ceases to be a future child (and hence any interests that reach back in time) merely means that the interests are indeterminate, not that the interests are non existent or irrelevant. It may take a subsequent argument as to what is to be done with indeterminate interests, but it cannot be simply swept under the rug as non existent. (simply because we mean that the interests are like Schroedinger's cat, indeterminate between existing and not existing)

    Granted, we cannot simply give it the same consideration as other interests whose ontological status is less controversial either. But at this point, an argument as to whether or not those indeterminate interests do or do not count must be produced. Ot simply cannot be assumed.

  17. I'm not sure that appeals to a desire fulfilment view of wellbeing could help one establish that only people, in your technical sense, can be harmed by death. A creature may have a "de se" desire to experience pleasure, say, and arguably the "egocentric proposition" that is the object of that desire would be fulfilled by the creature's experiencing pleasure in the future even if the creature lacks the capacity to form future-directed desires. If so, the desire fulfilment view of wellbeing would imply that death could harm even nonpersons.

  18. "People are harmed by thwarting their deepest desires, and benefited by having such desires fulfilled."
    This does not seem to differ from the basic hedonistic system of pleasure in non-rational minds. If a chicken walks to a piece of food ready to eat it, but it is picked up by a human before it reaches it, it will, by your definition, be harmed; an expected pleasureful event in the near future was thwarted by a human. The chicken desires the food, that is why it walks to it. By removing the food, we are harming the chicken, by your definition. Even if this pursuit to a ’desire’ lasted only a few moments, it was still a planned action.
    I don’t believe that it is plausible to say that beasts do not have future-orientated minds. They may be concerned with their present states predominately, but they still must act to achieve that happiness. The mere fact that a beast will move himself to the location of food shows future-orientated planning.

    Also, I do not see how ’harm’ can exist in the context of death. A painful death might harm momentarily, in a physical way, but after death, there is no longer any object to be harmed. Death may thwart a preference, but it does not allow for this thwarting to be known. We might say that something harms if it causes damage. Death does not damage future preferences, because these preferences exist only in the mind. Death does not bring harm, it simply negates the existence of these preferences. Death does not harm because there is no longer any object to be damaged.
    The idea of death may cause harm; this knowledge of future nonexistence may thwart future preferences, but death itself does no harm.

  19. Tyler - desire fulfillment diverges from pleasure in cases where the agent has false beliefs. (Suppose the chicken thinks it is eating the food, but really it's hallucinating. Is it getting what it wanted? It depends whether we interpret the chicken as ultimately desiring the food itself, or merely the subjective pleasure. But it's hard to believe that either attribution is literally warranted. Chickens don't really have desires like we do.)

    There is, of course, a cheap sense in which we may speak of animals having "desires" (or proto-desires) about the near future. They may engage in simple forms of planning, etc. But these are superficial states, not at all the same sorts of mental states as the "deep desires" or values that people have.

    "Death may thwart a preference, but it does not allow for this thwarting to be known."

    The view I described is one on which what is bad for you is for your deepest desires to be thwarted in fact. It doesn't matter whether you know about it. More generally, you shouldn't assume that harms must be experienced in order to be genuinely bad for someone. See my post, 'Confusing Welfare and Happiness'.

    A methodological point: pre-theoretically, it seems clear that death is (typically) bad for a person -- something they have reason to want to avoid. If your understanding of harms cannot make sense of this datum, then there is something wrong with your understanding of harms. For a possible corrective, try 'Must harms be temporally located?'

  20. If the self isn't continuous, when you destroy a rabbit, you destroy not one being's future, but instead countless future beings.

    So you don't consider the loss of potential being to be relevant, as they can't very well feel pleasure or pain about their non-existence, nor can their non-existent (potential) desires be thwarted. Is that correct?

  21. Aren’t there some deep-seated ontological mistakes happening here?

    Most of these interpretations above pre-suppose a sort of dualism whereby a being is considered to be something different from the physical object where it is. They also implicitly favour living beings over non-living beings when, if we are being metaphysically strict, isn’t it fair to say that life is a description of a certain sort of physical behaviour of certain arrangements of matter that are ontologically no different to weather patterns or gravitational orbits? The universe doesn’t much care for the difference between a rabbit and a person and a rock.

    The question, then, is whether we can have rational notions of personal identity, morality, and the importance and sanctity of life when we as living beings are fundamentally no different to all the other matter around us?

    Of course we can, because we are coming at this question from the very perspective of living beings. Based on this (subjective) viewpoint, we naturally (and rightly) apply quality judgements to other matter around us. Things similar to us, we favour. Things different, we devalue. That is why it’s less repugnant to kill a rabbit than a person, less repugnant to kill a broccoli plant than a rabbit, and less repugnant to destroy a rock than kill a broccoli plant. In fact that last action is such a different thing in our world-view it doesn’t even share the same name.

    So let’s make these quality judgements from behind our human eyes and feel absolutely no shame in doing so; they are after all the only eyes we have. But let’s stay honestly subjective here and not get all metaphysical about it, when doing that presupposes some very large assumptions about exactly how important we are to the universe at the level of ontological reality.

    To sum up

    1. ‘Death’ can harm persons, non-persons, and rocks equally.
    2. Any one of various subjective viewpoints on this topic.
    (depending on whether you want to frame your discourse in strict ontology or existential/phenemological terms)

    Pick one; but don’t try to pretend that certain viewpoints within 2 are more *metaphysically* coherant than any others.

  22. Alrenous - Yeah, that's basically it. I should add: we might have some (impersonal) reason to bring additional happy rabbits into existence, but killing an existing rabbit and "replacing" it with a new one is no harm at all.

    Matt - moral (or, more generally, normative) realists aren't committed to thinking that "the universe" cares about things. The claim is that any rational being -- any who can care about things for reasons -- may have more reason to care about some kinds of deaths than others.

    This is not purely "subjective". There's really no reason to care about the destruction of a roadside pebble, and if one does care about this (all else equal, so modulo some compelling backstory) then one is being irrational. (Not all desires are equally reasonable.)

    If we find it "less repugnant to destroy a rock than kill a broccoli plant" then I think we're making a mistake. The mere fact that we have an attitude doesn't suffice to make it justified. If you disagree, then you're just denying the very possibility of moral philosophy. You could discuss this on one of my meta-ethics posts (as linked above), but in this context -- where we're trying to make progress on a particular normative dispute -- such radical skepticism isn't so helpful. (Imagine interrupting a scientific discussion by insisting that for all the scientists have proven, it might all just be a dream! Maybe, but rejecting the presuppositions of a discussion is not a way to advance the discussion at hand. It's instead to request a change of topic.)

  23. Hello Richard,
    Yes, I understand what you're saying and I agree. But I wasn't trying to deny moral philosophy, only limit the sorts of things we can refer to when when do it.

    My point is just that moral philosophy is a topic bounded by the limits of human perception. In the world of discourse A, the world of quarks and photons and the ontologically real, morality does not exist.

    In world B, the world of human experience, it is a hugely important topic.

    I'm just trying to make sure we understand this and don't try to talk about moral facts as if they exist in themselves, without us. I want us to keep an awareness of the subjective nature of morality and not try to weasel out of this with metaphysical justifications for our opinions.

    "If we find it "less repugnant to destroy a rock than kill a broccoli plant" then I think we're making a mistake." - you might, but some others might disagree. And I don't think you can coherantly make a *metaphysical* argument for your position.

    More accurately, this is like interrupting a scientific discussion to point out that some of the scientists have started talking about how their results make them feel all warm and fuzzy - it's not something that has any meaning in this context right now.

  24. Matt - If you're not just engaging in a wholesale dismissal of moral philosophy, then it's not clear what you are up to. What precise step of my argument (which of the two premises) are you objecting to?

  25. Richard,
    Well, I was really just offering a cautionary tone and wasn’t really engaging with the actual argument itself. For this you raise a fair challenge and I apologise! Let me try to be productive rather than simply trying to guide the debate, and frame my argument in the context of what you’re actually saying!

    Your premise of having a preference-based morality, or a pleasure-based one, seems rational enough and I think generally fits with the kind of morality that I’d agree with myself.

    However, we then move into shakier territory. I deny not only the premise of your (2) above but the very need to make it. The judgement that it is the content of a mind which matters, and not the state of a particular body, gets us talking metaphysically and presupposes a dualist view of personal identity. This can be challenged. On a strict metaphysical level, we have no reason that I can see to separate ‘a person’ from the matter that exists where they are. In fact I would go so far as to deny the existence of persons in this ‘world of discourse’ or ‘mode of enquiry’ at all. I can’t even see a rational way to argue for the persistence of any compound objects or persons over time.

    However this is not a useful way to think any more. We’ve gone completely off the tracks and, as you note, we are now denying morality entirely along with almost everything else in the world. How did we get here? By wanting to talk about strict ontology / metaphysics in a debate about morality.

    To keep things appropriate, we don’t need to take things to this level. In the world of discourse or mode of enquiry that is the meaningful world of human perception (a world which is immune to Cartesian or Humian doubt, mereological nihilism et al), persons and animals are meaningful beings and here we can have this conversation. It may be a world of fictions but it is all we really have and therefore the most meaningful one of all. Here we need to simply ask what is rational and ask the sorts of questions Nick does about his dog. Is this a sensible way to talk and to live our lives? I think it is.

    It seems that I exist (and this is the bedrock for everything else) and in much the same way, it seems that you exist, and that your dog exists. It seems that other people and dogs feel pleasure and pain, and inasmuch as I know how these things seem to make me feel, I happen to think that the best way for us all to live is by acting to maximise or minimise these sensations in others. On so on, the rational basis for morality can be built up.

    We don’t need to appeal to claims about personal identity and persistence through time for this to work. It’s overthinking things and leads us down dark routes of skepticism. But what this does lead to is moral relativism and the understanding that morality is a sort of quality judgement or on the world, a consensual fiction. I say that’s fine, because so is everything else.

    So I think we can go from 1) Immoral acts are those which deny pleasure or future-pleasure, straight to 2) Only persons can have future-pleasure and brutes cannot. Then I can say that I don’t much like that, because it seems to me that animals have a concept of future-pleasure. My cat comes up to me in the morning acting affectionate because he wants me to give him breakfast and remembers that this time of day is when that happens. It’s rational to call him a psychologically continous being and I choose to value psychological continuity immensely when I find it in my world.

    I think that I’ve now done all that I need to to refute your argument and I don’t think that any dip into metaphysics is helpful or required.

  26. Hi Matt, I think we need to reconsider many of our ordinary moral beliefs in light of the (metaphysical) facts. For example, I agree with you that objects don't really endure through time in the way that folk imagine. Where we perhaps disagree is that I think that this metaphysical fact has moral significance. We shouldn't just ignore it and pretend that animals (or, indeed, people) will endure into the future.

    To see this methodology in action, see my previous responses to Nick and Murali. Compatibly with a clear-headed understanding of reductionism about identity -- that is, the claim that persons do not really 'endure' in any way that is a deep 'further fact' over and above the fact that we have temporal stages that are physically and psychologically related in various qualitative respects, so that ordinary survival is not really any better than being duplicated or uploaded -- we still reasonably care about "our" future stages, i.e. we care about the existence of future minds that are relevantly similar to our current minds. Psychological continuity thus suffices as far as the interests of persons are concerned. But it is not plausible to say the same in the case of animals. I assume most people would agree with me that concern for my particular cat does not give me any reason to have it duplicated or uploaded prior to death. Such psychological continuity does not suffice, intuitively, to advance the interests of brutes. We do not value it. What we value is the idea that our pets really endure into the future, in a way that goes above and beyond the kind of continuity found in duplication. But this idea is an illusion. This thing that we value is not to be found in the actual world. Once we understand what is really going on in case of the 'ordinary' survival of our pets, we find that this is not a process that we especially value after all.

    That's why metaphysics is relevant here. Even if you insist that one's fundamental values are subjective, we still need metaphysics to discern whether or not the world contains what you value. If you ultimately value process P1, but not P2, and you mistakenly take some real-world process to be an instance of P1 when really it is P2, then you are making a mistake by your own lights when you value that real-world process.

    (Of course, if you find on reflection that you really do care about whether your cat's psychology is duplicated/uploaded before it dies, then my argument here won't get any grip on you. But you should at least be able to see why my argument would have rational force for those who share my view that cats aren't benefited by being duplicated or uploaded.)

  27. Richard,
    Well put; you're somewhat convincing me. I think that perhaps I'm wrong then to flatly deny any consideration of metaphysics in moral philosophy. I do think we need to limit how deep it cuts though and understand what we're talking about.

    An example might be if we could create artificial creatures (or people) perceptibly indistinguishable from real ones. Rationally I seem to have as much reason to be moral towards them as real people. In my basic ontology the robots and people seem as real as each other (i.e. not at all). Perhaps a touch of metaphysical questioning could sort out some practical differences in how we should treat them. Perhaps not. Either way, I agree we should at least have the conversation.

    Otherwise I suppose a madman can tell us that it is rational for him to morally care for any object he can conceive of as having consciousness.

    I think we're now talking about a new world of discourse though - a scientific or philosophical dissection of the world of perception. Practical metaphysics. We're still not cutting through to objective reality (whatever that is). As above though, I don't think we need to, or can, or that this concept even makes much sense for how live our lives.

    Okay, but having said all that - you know, I DO care about the uploaded cat. Common sense perhaps tells me I shouldn't, but if the copy is truly alike the original in every sense, then rationally, I will argue, you should care for it just the same.

    And I think that you would. Imagine Tibbles2 coming up to you, rubbing against your leg in the exact way Tibbles did, looking at you with the same eyes, looking for affection. We've already established that our 'clear-headed understanding' is that fuctionally the uploading process is no different to ordinary existence over time. I'd further challenge you then to not have a meaningful emotional or moral response towards Tibbles2 there in the moment. Perhaps if this were an everyday scenario our view of commonsense morality would evolve with it.

    Ultimately I don't think that you've done enough to seperare human conciousness from brutes. As per my last, cats seem psychologically connected in much the same way as people do (remembering breakfast time etc) and I can't imagine an uploaded cat missing anything a 'real' cat has. They are not different beings to me (and yes, this goes for people too, albeit that challenges commonsense a little further).

  28. Right, once Tibbles2 exists we'd no doubt react similarly (assuming it's a physical duplicate -- harder to interact with a disembodied 'upload' of a cat mind in a computer!). But the question is the prior one of whether we think we help the dying Tibbles by creating Tibbles2 to eat his breakfast tomorrow. It seems like that'd be nice for Tibbles2, but irrelevant to Tibbles.

  29. But Tibbles2 = Tibbles for me, in every way that could possibly matter. Tibbles2 IS Tibbles in exactly the same way that Tibbles + 1 Minute will be Tibbles.

    That is to say, strictly metaphysically, Tibbles2 does not in fact equal Tibbles. But in that way of looking at it neither does Tibbles + 1 Minute equal Tibbles. In fact Tibbles does not exist in such a way.

    But in every way that matters, Tibbles2 is to be considered identical with Tibbles. It makes as much sense to me to say that we’re helping Tibbles by uploading him and then feeding Tibbles2 than it does to say that we’ll help Tibbles by feeding him in a minute’s time.

    And my point before is just that, you know, I think you would behave the same way to the cat and *feel that it was Tibbles*, not just something that you know logically you should consider equal to him.

    Of course the moral quirk with my view is that should this uploading/copying procedure become physically possible, one could do it without the original creature dying. Then we have two identical Tibbles. I think we would have to consider them both Tibbles and our moral concern for Tibbles should now extend to the welfare of both beings.

    All of the above applies for me whether Tibbles is a cat or a person.

  30. Rationality seems completely irrelevant (e.g., it would be absurd to say that I get to kill those who are not as good at math as I). On what basis do you suggest that animals don't have minds that persist through time? This doesn't make sense in terms of our current understanding of evolutionary cognitive science at all. See Eric Kandel's _In Search of Memory_ where his model organism for long-term memory, Aplysia, is much more evolutionarily distant from us than most animals that people eat. I don't see the point of bringing up whether an animal is a "person" or not--that just seems to be a way of bringing in some hidden assumptions via your unstated definition of a person to circularly demonstrate what you set out to prove. As I explained in my previous comment the burden of proof is on you.

    You seem to be taking uncritically a lot of folk notions about how our minds work (and consequently how animals' minds don't). Besides _The Symbolic Species_ which I mentioned earlier, I think _Strangers To Ourselves: Discovering The Adaptive Unconscious_ might be illuminating.

  31. Ruchira you might have to do a little reading on Personal Identity to get the picture of why Richard and others think this way. Drop in on the "Personal Identity Review" post as well.

  32. BTW as I think I've posted somewhere else we can in fact have interests that aren't based on desires and as I know at least one philsopher has said - don't remember who- there can be a difference between being aware of harm and being subjected to harm.

  33. Hi Richard,

    I know this is an old post but I would appreciatte your thoughts.

    You affirm that death cannot harm non persons and that preference satisfaction of alleviating pain and experiencing pleasure does matter.

    My problem is that if any non person is in pain, and they have no future directed preferences, wouldn't it follow that death would be a reasonable justification for ending any instance of pain? An interest in not suffering seems to lead to exactly that.

    If killing non persons does not deprive them of future experiences, then why in any moment of agony should we choose to fulfil hedonistic preferences over killing them? The way I interpret you, if any non person in pain is killed, the interest in not suffering is fulfiled, and they are not deprived of anything. If it is claimed that fulfiling hedonistic pleasures is preferable to killing non persons, by what account can we claim that?

    1. Hi Colin,

      Even though the killed non-person isn't harmed by death, we might nonetheless have (less stringent) "impersonal reasons" to prefer a world with more future pleasure rather than less.


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