Sunday, September 07, 2008

Is it bad for babies to die?

Brandon comments:
[Y]ou find birth a comfortable point [for granting the legal right to life] at least in great measure because you put the point of personation at such a late point in development. Even a lot of pro-choice people would put it at least a bit before birth; and most people would be extremely uncomfortable putting it in 'later infancy'.

Nobody wants to sanction infanticide, of course, and we all agree it's bad to inflict pain on any sentient being; but I wonder whether it's really so unusual to (after reflection) conclude that a baby only becomes a person in later infancy. I will assume, as per my recent post 'Evaluating Life and Death', that personhood tracks whether one is apt to be harmed by an early death. So a newborn is a person iff it is (apt to be) harmed by an early death. Do most people really think babies are harmed by death?

Now, it's a tragedy for the parents when a newborn baby dies. So to prevent this from confounding our intuitions, consider an orphanage. Suppose one day all the newborn babies in an orphanage spontaneously (and painlessly) disintegrate. Assume nobody else cares. Has any harm occurred? Does this make the world a worse place? It doesn't seem so to me. (But maybe I've simply internalized my theory too well. So let me ask: what's your intuition?)

If the example instead involved, say, four year old children, then it would be obvious that their deaths harmed them (assuming they otherwise would have grown up to live decent lives). This is because four year olds are obviously people, who own their futures and may suffer the loss of them. But in the case of newborns, with no self-conception, and no hopes or dreams for the future, it seems equally obvious that the opposite is true. Disintegration makes no difference to them; it doesn't harm them; there's no loss. What this indicates is that they are not yet people with futures of their own.

Of course, that's not to say that infanticide is okay. We've all internalized the rule that extends a right to life at least to the point of birth, and that's for the best. It's a good rule, and so an appropriate component of our practical morality, which determines right and wrong. But that shouldn't stop us from recognizing that the true point of personation is in fact a fair bit later.


  1. I don't think the orphanage case eliminates the confound; it's not just parents but any reasonably sympathetic human being who feels the loss. So we have to abstract from our own sympathetic reactions to the matter; but it's not really clear to me that any sort of assessment of harms will survive abstraction from all sympathy.

    To try to get clear about what your theory would suggest: It seems to me that your theory suggests the ability to be harmed depends on having the conception of something that can be harmed. This would mean that if we had a group of newborns and found a way to suppress their mental development in such a way that, despite having all other features in common with human beings, they never developed a self-conception, that we would never have harmed them by denying them that self-conception. Would you hold the line on a scenario like that?

  2. Very Objectivist.

  3. Very subjectivist, I'd say.

    Babies may not have a subjetive notion of future life, but objectively speaking they do.

    Suppose a given person doesn't know her rights yet. Does that mean she doesn't have them?

  4. What if someone argued (as many "pro-life" advocates do) that saving *potential* persons is the issue. Then all those babies, pre-person, will have been ethically harmed by having their right to life revoked (either directly by abortion or indirectly by refusing to recognize <4 year old as a person)?

    I don't think one has to analyze whether the non-person can be conferred a right; by the virtue of definitions s/he cannot. But I do think it is a question as to whether those who are persons wish to *grant* rights to those who have none under the current ethical system. For it would seem that granting rights carries a more profound ethical weight than adhering to a normative framework that is already in place. For example, the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th were waged to overturn certain norms in favor of a more inclusive worldview.

  5. Let me revise the first sentence of the second paragraph above to avoid a contradiction: "I don't think one has to analyze whether the non-person can be considered to have certain rights; by the virtue of the definitions s/he cannot." I obviously meant to say that the "non-person" has no rights as such, but the attention is on whether those who have rights can give comparable ethical status to those who have none.

  6. I'm not sure why the badness of a death has to track an identified person (or entity) with interests at all. Let's leave humans aside for a moment. Suppose a tree, undiscovered by humans, in the middle of the rain forest suddenly falls down. Let's take this tree out of its ecology for a moment and say it wasn't producing oxygen, its death won't return nutrients to the soil, etc., etc.

    I think we'd still say that the world with the living tree is better than the world with the dead tree.

  7. Brandon - in addition to an explicit self-conception, I think a person may implicitly construct a self through the pursuit of long-term projects, etc. Hence my mention of 'hopes and dreams for the future'. If you cut all that out as well, so the resulting human is clearly not a person (as I'm using the term) then yes, I don't think there's any "them" there to be non-hedonistically harmed.

    Adriano - no, not subjectivist. Constructivist, perhaps. I think there are certain psychological conditions that have to be met in order for a collection of human timeslices to constitute a person. But that's a perfectly objective matter, and nothing to do with what anyone "believes" or "knows" about the matter.

    [Out of time. Will respond to others another day...]

  8. Let me make my point clear: it's subjective in another sense. I didn't mean your method is subjective, I meant you're using a subjective characteristic which is developed in human childhood with time. What I meant, more than that, is that human fetuses will surely grow to develop their personhood.

    So I might concede your point that there is a collection of human timeslices which constitutes a person. And I meant this to be subjective — in the sense that we're talking about the subjectivity criteria: the psychic development of the child. But what we objectivelly know is that human embryos are growing to develop subjective characteristics, and so their personhood.

    If a baby dies, does that harm him? Yes, it does, because he was deprived of the rest of his personal life. Does that also affect his parents? Of course. And the reason why this affects his parents might just be that that baby was a person that didn't come to be.

  9. Thanks, Richard; I suspected as much. I take it, then, that you would deny that animals, plants, and fungi can be harmed?

  10. Brandon - I think (timeslices of) animals can be hedonically harmed (i.e. by pain). But yes, I'd deny that plants and the like have real interests at all.

    Adriano - I'm using a psychological criterion. It's needlessly confusing to call psychological facts 'subjective in some sense', so I recommend against such terminology.

    Jared - I don't know what you mean by "ethically harmed" (I guess 'wronged'), but I'm talking about harms to one's welfare interests. So I mean to start off with a question of value or axiology, not deontic morality. The question is whether painless death is harmful / affects a baby's welfare, and whether this death [non-instrumentally] reduces the sum value of the world (makes it a worse place than it would otherwise have been).

    "I don't think one has to analyze whether the non-person can be conferred a right; by the virtue of definitions s/he cannot."

    We're using different definitions. I'm defining 'person' in terms of psychological properties, and making substantive (non-analytic) claims about their moral status. And I absolutely think that rights may be appropriately bestowed on non-persons (as I use the term). But see here for my derivative understanding of 'rights' (you might say I really think there are no rights, strictly speaking, only things of 'comparable ethical status').

  11. Paul - good objection. I'm making some big assumptions here. I'm assuming certain 'moral asymmetries of existence' hold. In particular, I assume it typically doesn't make the world any worse to prevent an averagely good life from coming into existence, but it does make the world worse to cut short a person's life once it has begun (if in doing so you make that life as a whole worse than it would otherwise have been). This assumption is my basis for moving between claims of worldly disvalue and claims of personal harm.

    I should say that I think the asymmetry assumption only holds in certain contexts (described in the linked post). In particular, it requires that there already be sufficiently many entities of the type in question that another one doesn't affect (improve) the overall 'shape' of the world. So I can allow that if there were relatively few babies, or trees, an extra one might add value to the world -- and a death decrease value -- even if it has no interests to be harmed itself. But I don't think we should assume additional entities always add value, or we end up with Parfit's repugnant conclusion. (So I don't think an additional common tree makes the world intrinsically better, or its loss worse.)

    If you're still unconvinced, perhaps you could simply assess the welfare question directly: do you think anyone is harmed in my orphanage example? (I just prefer the indirect route since I find it easier to assess.)

  12. hmm... addressing the welfare question directly, my intuition is that yes, someone is harmed in the orphanage example (the newborn) -- I don't share the sense that the newborn doesn't have interests. The closest thing I have to an argument for that probably relies on some counterfactual claims like the following: someone is harmed by an action X iff in the closest possible world where X does not take place, that person's (or candidate person's) life goes better than in the actual world. Then for the newborn, the closest possible world seems to be one where goals, etc., are developed, and maybe achieved...

    Another way of getting to this intuition, perhaps, is to appeal to the arbitrariness of picking a particular time-slice of someone's life as the locus of their interests. If we accept the continuity of identity, such that I'm the same me at ages 1, 10, and 100, then why shouldn't the aims and aspirations that I will (again, in the closest possible world) develop at age 40 count against killing me at age 1?

    (I have some issues with the repugnant conclusion, but that's probably something for an entirely separate discussion, and I'm not sure yet that I can strongly articulate them.)

  13. Paul, I share that account of harms. Our difference is in the metaphysics of identity: I don't think the newborn is a temporal part of a person's life at all. Enduring persons come into existence when a mind is sufficiently developed. What exists before then is a different entity entirely, and one that doesn't really endure in any non-trivial sense. If newborns only exist in the moment, then alternative possibilities for future moments do not affect them. They merely affect what comes (or would have come) after.

  14. Richard: how do you account for the fact that we generally experience our identity as extending backwards to our birth? We speak, for example, of "my birthday" and "my first words," our parents tell us what we were like as babies, we count our place of birth as our country of citizenship... these seem to be trivial facts, but they point out a strange asymmetry, if the newborn's identity doesn't include the older self, but the older self's identity includes the newborn.

  15. I don't think folk practices and philosophical theory are in the same business. (Cf. my response to Jack on metaphysics vs. folk counting.) It's trivial that our parents convey true things through this talk. But that's precisely because such talk is not metaphysically loaded.

  16. But folk practices have to be relevant to something as phenomenologically loaded as our identity. If I think that "I" includes me when I was a baby (can our language even accommodate anything else?), pity the poor philosopher who tries to suggest otherwise.

  17. I'm unmoved. Are you suggesting we're infallible on such matters? Some folks believe they used to be a cow. More seriously, we have a lot of pre-theoretical beliefs, and they're not all mutually consistent. Some will have to go. Prior to doing philosophy and working out the most coherent conceptual scheme, I don't think you can necessarily predict which ones. (Note that I'm especially concerned with the theoretical role that personal identity plays in ethics, and there's no guarantee that anything in "commonsense ontology" can adequately do the job.)

    And again, our language doesn't have to "accommodate" anything. You can't read metaphysics off language, so the latter is not held hostage to the former.

  18. I guess what I'm really aiming for is something like a Moorean fact. It's not just that we have pre-theoretical beliefs about things like the continuity of our identities, it's that they're incredibly strong pre-theoretical beliefs. I know that the person who shows up in my memories from age 3 (as far back as they go), and who was given birth to by my mother is the same person who is me at least as firmly as I know that here is a hand and here is another.

    For that matter, think of all the other things that would have to break if we dumped the folk understanding of identity as continuous to birth. I've already alluded to one of them: it becomes harder to make sense of the motherhood relation if the person who was born isn't the same as the person who is the adult. The main reason we think someone is one's mother is because that someone gave birth to one... It's rather unsatisfying to replace that with some kind of genetic definition or something.

  19. No need to appeal to genetics, you can point to exactly the same qualitative facts (involving childbirth, etc.) as before, you just need to be a bit more careful how you describe it.

    Really, nothing would break. Metaphysics doesn't do much. I'd happily be a pluralist about it actually. You can say that in some sense you used to be a baby, etc. It's just not the sense of personal identity that's relevant to ethics, ascribing welfare values, etc.

  20. hmm... will have to think more about this. I'm not sure why the sense of personal identity that's relevant to ethics would be some arcane metaphysical one rather than our really iron-clad folk knowledge, but I don't have a strong conviction there.

  21. Richard,

    "Enduring persons come into existence when a mind is sufficiently developed. What exists before then is a different entity entirely,"

    I think the claim that we are non-identical with the pre-self-conscious infant that we developed from is problematic. There are two reasons that I say this. Firstly it is difficult to know how to understand the claim that identity begins with self-consciousness. Self-consciousness entails awareness of one's own ongoing conscious processes. But as Jeff McMahan points out in 'The Ethics of killing' (p350), those conscious processes necessarily precede self-consciousness. So the view that the self-conscious infant is different from the pre-self-conscious infant seems to involve the latter becoming aware of consciousness - not of themself (since they are not the same as the pre-self-conscious infant), but of a different entity, whose consciousness then becomes their own.
    If this seems incoherent it may be that I have not described it well, or it may be that the idea itself is not coherent. (I share McMahan's view that the latter is the case)

    Secondly, consciousness and self-consciousness do not emerge overnight in the infant/child. Those who have advanced the idea that personhood develops with the onset of self-consciousness have struggled to say when exactly that occurs (is it one month, 6 months, 12 months, 2 years, 4 years?). There is the epistemic problem of identifying self-consciousness in children, but also the fact that self-consciousness evolves gradually. There are some features of self-awareness that are detectable in newborns very soon after birth (eg facial imitation behaviours)
    see Gallagher. The Moral Significance of Primitive Self-Consciousness: A Response to Bermúdez. Ethics (1996) vol. 107 (1) pp. 129-140

    If infants have some degree of self-awareness, and some psychological continuity with the later fully-conscious child and adult it may be that they can be harmed by their death - although this harm is less than the harm that would be experienced by someone fully conscious. (McMahan refers to time-relative interests, and he argues that newborn infants have a time-relative interest in continuing existence - but reduced compared to a fully conscious adult)

    In response, it could be accepted that SC evolves gradually, but argued that the newborn does not have enough self-consciousness to grant moral significance to the harm of its death. But the question of moral significance depends upon the weight of countervailing reasons, and the question that you asked was a slightly different one, about harm.

    So this is what I currently think in terms of whether an infant is harmed by their painless death.
    If the infant will have a life worth living - they are deprived of the future wellbeing that they would have experienced. Their life goes worse for being shorter whether or not they are aware of it. (This harm is the same as that of a fetus or embryo deprived of the same future)
    They are also harmed by being deprived of a future to which they were psychologically connected (in the sense that the future person who would have experienced it is them). (This harm is greater than that of an embryo or early fetus, though not much different from that of a late-term fetus).



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