Saturday, January 09, 2010

Harming Future Humanity, Future Persons, or Persons' Futures

Non-identity cases force us to distinguish harming people in general from harming particular future persons. (Suppose that someone would have lived a happy life, but instead I bring it about that a different, less happy, person comes to exist in their place. This is an impersonally worse outcome -- "bad for humanity", we might say -- though there's no particular person who is worse off than they otherwise would have been.) Frances Kamm further suggests that we need to distinguish harming future persons from harming an already-existing person's future. She claims that some harms are permissible to impose on future persons but not on already existing persons, as the latter have additional rights.

I'm skeptical. But first let me suggest a point of agreement: it may be worse to handicap an existing person than a future person. But this is not because of any difference in the moral status (or rights) of the agents. It's because depriving someone of an ability they already [know they] possess may constitute a greater harm (e.g. by interrupting their life projects, and forcing negative revisions to their self-conception) than preventing them from acquiring the ability in the first place. So, to ensure that we hold fixed the weight of the harm done, let's compare two cases of preventing a future ability from developing.

Kamm discusses a case roughly along the following lines. Suppose that Billy has some gene that will become activated in adolescence, which causes enhanced cognitive development. To keep things simple, let's just say it'll increase his IQ by 20 points. Now suppose (never mind the absurdity) that we can remove this gene and somehow use it to give two other people the benefits instead. Should we do so? Kamm claims that it depends on the timing:

(1) Suppose we have isolated a particular sperm and egg, such that the resulting conceptus will grow into Billy. But Billy doesn't exist yet. In that case, Kamm thinks it would be permissible to extract the gene -- causing the future person Billy to have IQ of 120 rather than 140 -- so that others might benefit in his place.

(2) Suppose that Billy is eight years old (but doesn't know about his genetic potential, and we could magically extract the gene from a distance without anyone ever knowing, so that his two possible futures are exactly identical to those found in the previous case). Kamm claims that Billy, as an existing person, has a right to keep the genetic endowments he now possesses, so that it would be wrong to magically extract the gene.

I don't share Kamm's intuitions here, so I have trouble seeing this as a (fundamental) morally relevant distinction (though of course it may be worth instituting existence-dependent "rights" of this kind for pragmatic reasons). But it's an interesting suggestion, at least. I'd be curious to hear others' thoughts...


  1. Hi Richard, a few points:

    1. I'm not sure your example helps clarify things. The kind of benefit that would have to accrue to others would have to be really large (in order to compensate for the harm done) Whether or not we can agree on the merits of aggregation, we both agree that the person's welfare is what is desirable for his/her sake. Whether or not Billy is aware of what has happened to him, we can both agree that he has been greatly harmed. In order for this action to have been permissible, the counterbalancing good must have been massive. As such, this makes it an extreme case and most rights theorists admit of exceptions in extreme cases. Intuitions about the existence of rights may not be probative.

    2. At least in the 8 year old Billy case, there is a Billy for whose sake it is undesirable to extract 20 points off his potential IQ. In the egg and sperm case, there isn't any Billy whose welfare we have reason to be concerned for. At least on this count, there is an additional wrong making feature of the situation in the Billy case.

    I dont know whether I'd go as far as scanlon and say that Billy can reasonably object while in the egg and sperm case, the person who is formed instead of Billy cannot object because she would not have existed in the first place otherwise.

  2. Murali - you've missed the whole point of the case. (We're not talking about standard non-identity cases here. This is a different distinction.) In particular, it's stipulated that the intervention in case #1 does not change the identity of the resulting person: whether we intervene or not, the sperm and egg will fuse to become Billy. If we leave matters alone, then Billy will come into existence with the capacity for 140 IQ, whereas two others (Chris and Dan, say) will grow up to have IQs of 120. If we intervene, Billy will still come into existence, but this time he'll only have the capacity to reach IQ 120, whereas Chris and Dan both will grow up to have IQs of 140.

    Kamm would say that Billy doesn't have any right (or reasonable claim) to come into existence with exceptional capacities. Instead, she thinks, he merely has a right to keep the capacities he comes into existence with. So, she thinks, even though it would be wrong to deprive him of his genetic endowment once he exists (as in case #2), there is no such objection to bringing him into existence with a lessened genetic endowment (as in case #1) -- even though the causal consequences for Billy are the same in both cases. Kamm thinks there's a morally relevant difference here, due to the timing. The question is: do you agree with her?

  3. n particular, it's stipulated that the intervention in case #1 does not change the identity of the resulting person:

    If this is the case, Kamm is wrong in treating this as a case about future persons. If we stipulate that it will be the same person, then it is a case about harming a person's future and not about harming future persons. In particular, what does the work in the differing moral response to future persons and person's futures seems to be whether there is an appropriate target for our concern. Once we stipulate that the identity is fixed, then we have an appropriate target for our concern and it is akin to talking about a person's future. OTOH, if the identity is not fixed, then we lack an appropriate target.

    But even if we grant Kamm her premises, in order to see whether one is more injurious to their rights, we have to ask whether one can reasonably object to having their potential genius removed while they are 8 and at the same time not object to having their potential similarly nerfed while they are in their gamete stage.

    To do some armchair mind-reading, it seems that she is responding the the intuition that it is absurd if the mentally retarded could claim that their rights had been violated. But her intuition should be different if it became the case that a mad scientist injected the mother with a substance that caused her next child to be born with down's syndrome. Not only would the mother's rights have been violated, (her bodily integrity or something), a case can be plausibly made that the child's rights have been violated. (We assume that the injection is non-identity changing in the relevant senses, and has an effect even though the child has not been conceived yet)

  4. To make a an analogy, while we cannot reasonably object to dying of natural causes (including random acts of God) e.g a lightning strike, it is not the particular method of death that is excusable, but that the method was not under anyone's control. However, we would certainly object to being tied to a lightning rod in the middle of a thunderstorm (more so than being tied up somewhere safer, even though that too is objectionable). Its not the method per se (electrocution) that is we are objecting to, but that someone is doing it to us. A person lost in the desert cannot reasonably object to anyone for dying of thirst, but a person held against his will in a basement, or kidnapped and left in the middle of the desert.

    How a person reaches the circumstances matters (in terms of whether a persons rights are being violated in being subject to the circumstances)

  5. Um, Kamm is also well aware that the new distinction she's proposing is different from the old non-identity cases. And I can't imagine why you think her view here stems from a failure to recognize that only agents can violate rights (really, this is just absurdly uncharitable).

    In fact, Kamm does hold that future persons have some rights, e.g. to not have their potential reduced below some minimum "threshold" or reasonable baseline. It might be wrong to manipulate the sperm and egg in such a way that future Billy will come to have Down Syndrome. The question here is whether there are also some rights (e.g. to maintain one's above-average endowments) that only come into force once one actually exists.

    I think that deontologists should probably agree with Kamm here. Let me introduce a third version of the case to illustrate why...

    (3) As in case #1, but suppose that the sperm/egg did not naturally contain the IQ-boosting gene. Instead, the gene was artificially synthesized and implanted in the gametes. But then we realize that we could extract the gene from this sperm/egg, and use it to benefit both Chris and Dan instead. That seems like a better idea, so we do it: Billy is thus conceived with the genetic potential for just 120 IQ rather than 140.

    I take it that case #3 is clearly permissible. Billy has no special right to receive the beneficial synthetic gene. Even if scientists implant the gene into the sperm or egg that Billy will later develop from, still he has no reasonable claim for the genetic material to remain there rather than be shifted to others who would receive a greater benefit from it. The intuition Kamm relies on here is the idea that we don't really "own" the genetic material from which we stem, until we actually exist along with it. Before then, the "loss" of such material is morally equivalent to a mere "failure to benefit" us with it; we have no stronger claim on it than that. [And if this is the right explanation of case #3, the same will obviously hold of case #1: intervention there will be permissible for the same reason. The mere fact that the genetic material was "naturally" part of the sperm/egg doesn't seem to be a morally relevant difference.]

    So I think Kamm is correct to see intervention in case #1 as permissible. Where we disagree, of course, is that she thinks the person in case #2 has a special right to keep the beneficial capacities they were born with. I'm a consequentialist, so I think that if others would benefit more than Billy is harmed, then that's a trade-off worth making. But I think Kamm's view is the most plausible one for a deontologist to take here.

  6. The mere fact that the genetic material was "naturally" part of the sperm/egg doesn't seem to be a morally relevant difference.

    I'm not sure about this. We are not, generally obligated (there are exceptions e.g. welfare), to give people more than they are naturally endowed. (It may be supererogatory, but its not clear that it is obligatory) A person cannot generally object reasonably to not being born with extra artificial endowments. i.e. it is not owed to anybody as a matter of justice. This would be true even if the person were born with down's syndrome.

    But lets leave that aside for now.

    I dont know whether I should properly be called a deontologist, I'm more of contractualist (Scanlonian-Kantian). Anyway, whether or not it is a tradeoff worth making is a separate issue. The issue at hand is the degree of badness associated with removing the genetic potential in each of the 3 cases.

    On the face of it, it is less objectionable (in that it is not as undesirable that the maxim be universal law) that a trait I was not naturally endowed with be removed before I am even conceived. There is a sense in which it is not mine. Yet, it is more objectionable that a trait which I was naturally endowed with be removed, whether before or after conception (even though the end result is the same in both cases). In contrast, I would object to having any trait removed (without my consent) even if it is artificial and has not manifested itself yet. It seems then that the process by which the traits are acquired seems relevant. The genetic potential naturally present in a sperm and egg belong to it. It is generally bad to subtract from it and generally good to add to it, but not necessarily obligatory.

    Any additional potential does not really belong to the future/potential person, but he/she may gain squatting rights if they are in possession of the additional potential for long enough, even though said potential has not manifested yet.

    One avenue in which the discussion could be pursued is in when does a biological trait/potential metaphysically "belong" to a being?

    If squatting made sense, then it would seem that the longer we leave any "beneficial" trait in a person or his precursors (i.e. the egg and sperm out of which he was formed. The assumption being that a person can have reasonable interests in the processes that went into his formation), the more wrong it is to subsequently remove the trait. Of course for objectively bad things like downs' syndrome, it is, in general, better to remove/cure them no matter how much time it has been "squatted on".


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.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.