Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Vulcan Interests and Moral Status

Inspired by David Chalmers' recent Zoom talk on 'Consciousness and Moral Status': consider affectless (but otherwise phenomenally conscious) vulcans. They can perceive, and think, but have no positive or negative feelings of any kind.  Do they matter?  Is there anything in their lives that is (intrinsically) good or bad for them?

I think these are importantly distinct questions.  One way to see this is to note that even if (as I am inclined to think) their vulcanized lives contain no basic goods or bads, this very fact might be (extrinsically, comparatively) bad for them.  We would have strong moral reasons to devulcanize them, if possible, and provide them with the capacity for valenced experiences.  Crucially, this moral reason stems from concern for the very being that already exists: It is importantly different from simply bringing into existence a new conscious being where none was before.  So vulcans have one important kind of moral status -- they are morally considerable individuals -- even though in the ordinary run of things (i.e., while remaining a vulcan) nothing we did could be basically good or bad for them: their welfare is stuck at zero.

Compare this to our reasons for dezombifying a phenomenal zombie.  I think we may have some reason to do the latter, as we have some reason to bring additional (good) lives into existence.  But I do not think that the reason stems from concern for the zombie as an individual.  They do not currently have zero welfare, but rather no welfare at all, since there is no mental "they" there in the first place -- just complex machinery.

One crucial difference is that the vulcan (but not the zombie) can be psychologically continuous with the subsequent valuable future.  That future can thus qualify as one that is prudentially valuable for the current vulcan.  They could reasonably anticipate that something wonderful was going to happen to them (though whether an affectless being could really have the concept of something's being wonderful is a further question -- I'm inclined to think they couldn't have such valenced concepts, which is part of why I think they're stuck on zero welfare while vulcans).

As a result, even if we hold that valenced or affective experience is essential to the basic welfare goods and bads, we should not hold that affective experience is essential to moral status as such.  A being lacking affect might have good normative reasons to acquire it, and we could have good reasons to assist them -- for their sakes.

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