Monday, March 15, 2010

Gradual variation of moral standing

For simplicity, suppose all utilities are commensurable.

No finite amount of utility justifies killing a being with moral standing. Take this to be stipulative of moral standing, and further take it as a substantive thesis that adult humans have moral standing. For any being x at a time t, let u(x,t) be the greatest (finite or infinite) number u with the property that if u' is any number smaller than u, then it is wrong to destroy x at t to produce u' units of utility. For instance, if the units of utility are average human lives, maybe u(adult dog, now) is 0.0001—it would be wrong to kill a dog to produce less than 0.0001 times the value of an average human life, but it would not be wrong to kill a dog to produce 0.00011 times that value. The exact calibration will be obviously controversial, and some people will say that the right number for a dog is 0.1 or 0.5 or even 1. We could call u(x,t) the "moral significance of x at t". Note that x has moral standing at t if and only if u(x,t) is infinite.

Now consider the following plausible assumptions:

  1. No earthly critter changes at all significantly in its natural properties over a period of time in its life that does not exceed the Planck time (5.4x10−44 seconds).
  2. If x is an earthly critter, and u(x,t) changes very significantly over a period of time, then x changes at least somewhat significantly in its natural properties over that period.
  3. If u(x,t2)>100u(x,t1)+100, where the units are average human life utilities, then u(x,t) has changed very significantly between t1 and t2.
These have the following logical consequence:
  1. If x is an earthly critter that has moral standing at some time in its life, then x has moral standing at all times in its life.
Add two more premises:
  1. I was once a fetus.
  2. I now have moral standing.
  1. The fetus I have grown out of had moral standing.

This argument is based on this argument by Mike Almeida.

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