Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fetal and our potentiality

Consider this standard story:

Whatever value fetuses have derives from their potentiality (and here various distinctions matter) to grow into humans that actually have various valuable features, features that are not simply potentialities. Typical human adults actually have the valuable features that ground their moral status, while fetuses only potentially have these features. The question of the moral status of the fetus, then, is the question of how far their potentiality makes it possible to extend to them the moral status that typical human adults have (and, likewise, to extend the moral status of typical human adults to atypical ones).

I have argued in earlier posts that the kind of potentiality fetuses have does call for the extension of moral status. But I now wonder if this whole line of thought doesn't presuppose a mistaken view, namely that the moral status of typical human adults is grounded in the actual possession of valuable non-potentiality features. Specifically, I worry that this line of thought has too optimistic a view of the human race.

The feature of human beings that matters most centrally seems to be the moral life. But in practice our moral life just isn't all that good. We are full of self-deceit, akrasia and dollops of malice, in different combinations. Is it really the case that typical human beings are morally good in such a way that their actual moral goodness gives them the kind of moral status we are thinking about?

And in any case, even if, say, 70% of adult human beings do have such moral goodness, what about those of us who are in the other 30%? They, too, have moral status. No matter how many crimes one has committed previously, no matter how wicked one is, one has the moral and legal right to a fair trial, to a punishment that does not exceed the gravity of the offense.

What I said about the moral life also goes for the intellectual life: the typical human's intellectual life just isn't much to be proud of. Just think of all the fallacious forms of reasoning we engage in. Plus, I do not know how central the intellectual life is to moral status. Suppose there was a race of super-intelligent mathematicians who had no drive but to prove interesting theorems and no moral life to speak of. Would they have the kind of moral status humans have? I don't know. (It could be that they would have to have the rudiments of a moral life, in that they would have to be attuned at least to the values of truth and beauty to practice mathematics well. So it could be that the thought experiment is impossible.)

Now, it may well be that the above thoughts are too pessimistic. The George MacDonad quote here seems quite significant. But I still think this is worth thinking about, and I think there is something to the idea that the moral status of typical adult humans comes not so much from actual valuable properties, but from their innate potentiality for the good moral life. It is what we should (eventually?) be, not what we are, that is central to our dignity on this suggestion.

26 comments:

Enenennx said...

AP you say: "I think there is something to the idea that the moral status of typical adult humans comes not so much from actual valuable properties, but from their innate potentiality for the good moral life."

Imagine a born anacephalic child. Does this child have innate potentiality for the good moral life, as you describe? It would seem not. Does this anacephalic child then not have moral status and the rights associated with a moral status? As an entity without moral status, can we end it's life?s

I have a slight fear of talk that values potentiality over actuality (as you suggest in the phrase that state moral value comes from a potentiality "not so much from" an actuality. A mass murderer is by law in some states allowed to be executed, even though that murderer has the "potential" to become a person in good moral standing again. Thanks for you thoughts. Cheers.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. The kind of potentiality I am talking about is more logical and normative than physical.

Logical: The anencephalic child could logically come to have a good moral life (if the brain grew back), and may indeed have a good moral life after death.

Normative: Anencephaly is a defect in humans but not in oak trees, just as lack of sap is a defect in oak trees but not in humans. The anencephalic child is the sort of entity that ought to have a good moral life. That it does not do so is a defect.

2. I think capital punishment is only permissible under rare circumstances that we don't have in the U.S. presently. And even in those circumstances, the criminal has moral status. If the criminal did not have moral status, she wouldn't have the right to a fair trial, for instance. Moreover, it is murder to kill a criminal on death row except by a legally constituted execution, and this emphasizes the criminal's moral status. In fact, the execution itself, when done in the appropriate way, emphasizes the criminal's moral status. We do not execute oak trees or alligators.

Enenennx said...

Why when something doesn't reach some "potential" you are calling it a defect. If you don't achieve peak physical performance do you have a defect?

Alexander R Pruss said...

"If you don't achieve peak physical performance do you have a defect?"

There can be a good-enough level of physical performance which is sufficient for not having a defect.

Enenennx said...

"good enough"

Yet another arbitrarily decided term, yes? A "good enough" will always be less than a potential when a potential is predetermined or pre-chosen. You seem to be trying to choose a place on a spectrum and arbitrarily choosing to say at such a point something exists. Thanks for your time, I'm just going to have to mull it over.

Is a tree that doesn't produce sap, "good enough"? Yes, for the purposes it ends up serving. If the purpose is chosen beforehand to be sap-producing, then, and only then, does it have a defect.

Mike Almeida said...

It's worth considering analogies. Suppose you've planted a field of corn. Two days later, someone rakes through the field destroying the potential crop. Why is what they did wrong? Suppose Sue has recently conceived a child. Without her knowing it, Tom gives her drug X that will cause Sue to abort in the next few hours. What makes Tom's action wrong?

Compare hypothetical cases in which the rate of growth is much greater. Suppose it took 4 seconds for a fetus to develop the properties of personhood. Why is it absurd to claim that it is permissible to abort the fetus in the first second or two, but not in the fourth second?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mike:

The case of giving an abortifacient drug without the mother's knowledge is an interesting one. I think, though, that those who think that fetuses lack moral status will assimilate it to the case of giving someone a contraceptive without their knowledge. The latter is wrong independently of what one thinks of the moral status of contraception, because it is a wrongful interference with the functioning of the adult's body (I am not saying all interference with bodily functioning is wrongful, but this one is).

In other words, pro-life and pro-choice folks will disagree as to who is the victim in the case. The pro-life folks will say that both the fetus and the mother are victims, while the pro-choice folks will say that only the mother is a victim.

The sped-up development case is more compelling, I think. I wonder if some of its compellingness doesn't come from the fact that violinist-type considerations would be unlikely to apply over such a short time? I have long had a suspicion that if human pregnancy and parenthood weren't so difficult (though, of course, often coming with more than sufficient compensatory rewards), few would challenge the moral status of the human fetus.

Enenennx said...

Prof AP you say: "I have long had a suspicion that if human pregnancy and parenthood weren't so difficult (though, of course, often coming with more than sufficient compensatory rewards), few would challenge the moral status of the human fetus.?"

I can't respect this suspicion when it may be read as a sort of ad hominem. That is, you appear to be saying that the majority of pro-choice advocates are pro-choice just because they don't like the prospect of dealing with the difficulties of having and raising a child, and not only that, you suggest they are blind to the "sufficient compensatory rewards" that can come with having a child.

Alexander R Pruss said...

No bad motivations are here ascribed to anyone. One way to take my remark is: Were it not for their compassion for women who have to undergo the difficulties of pregnancy and parenthood, few would challenge the moral status of the human fetus.


Moreover, I was making a general claim about society. Among academics, the percentage would be higher.

Enenennx said...

"I have long had a suspicion that if human pregnancy and parenthood weren't so difficult (though, of course, often coming with more than sufficient compensatory rewards), few would challenge the moral status of the human fetus."

Is that like saying: I've always been suspect of Catholics who believe the Magisterium is always and forever correct and any evidence or argument that is contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium is automatically wrong. Is it like saying I suspect Catholics who believe this are incapable of honestly going where the evidence leads, or worse, that they are incapable of presenting certain arguments in their best light because the cognitive dissonance that would result might end up being crippling. One might suspect that Catholics who believe this are unable to therefore best handle certain arguments or be best equipped at handling those arguments, or, perhaps, those best arguments might be, subconsciously, avoided, or at worst subverted, and I therefore should not take the arguments they are handling as truth-seeking. Cheers.

Enenennx said...

"Among academics, the percentage would be higher."

The percentage of what? Do you suspect the percentage of academics who believe the conceptus and early fetus have the moral value of children is higher that the general population?

Is it likely the majority of people who have abortions don't believe the conceptus or early fetus is an entity with moral value? This seems most likely. [The opinion has to be taken at the time of the decision of course, and not after years of badgering about how horrible it was a that a girl did such-and-such by a certain segment of the population.]

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Enennex writes: "Why when something doesn't reach some "potential" you are calling it a defect."

It depends. Right now I have the potential to speak Russian. I probably never will actualize that potential. But it is not a "defect" that I don't speak Russian. On the other hand, if were to lose use of my vocal chords because of disease, I would still a "being that speaks" even if I never speak again. The defect--the absence of vocal chords--does not change the sort of being I am. I am still a being who has the essential property of the ability to speak, though I lack the power to exercise that ability since I have a defect. However, the owl outside my window does not have a defect because it cannot speak, since it is not the sort of being that has the essential property of the ability to speak.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The percentage of those who think the fetus doesn't have moral status would be higher among academics, or so I conjecture.

If pregnancy did not carry the costs it does, I surmise that a lot fewer people would have the intuition that abortion is permissible, because I suspect that for many pro-choice people--especially non-academics--the intuition that abortion is permissible does not arise from a careful study of the details of fetal development, but rather from compassion for women in difficult situations.

Here is one thing that suggests this. Most non-academic pro-choice people think that human newborns have full moral status minutes after birth, and that killing a human newborn is murder. (A number of prominent academic pro-choice people, like Tooley, Singer and Warren, disagree and think that killing a newborn is not murder.) But there is no significant difference between the intellectual and moral development of a newborn a minute after birth and a minute before birth. This suggests that people's judgments are not based on analysis of fetal development, but on something else.

Enenennx said...

FJB, I don't see how the lose of something once actualized is comparable to something never actualized.

You can't lose something you don't have. And "you" don't exist if certain components aren't assembled and correctly functioning. "you" might have a history that adds moral value if "you" have existed prior, but "you" don't have this moral value if "you" didn't exist previously, for not until a certain point is there a "you". I don't know that point. Do you?

Alexander R Pruss said...

You can lose an inheritance.

Enenennx said...

Loss can only be experienced by certain entities. Conceptuses do not experience loss.

Can you lose your inheritance before you actually have it? You can lose the lottery to, so what? An inheritance (or lottery winnings) are "yours" if and only if certain things come to transpire. A conceptus can only become something which experiences loss if and only if certain developmental things transpire. I don't know what point that is, do you?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sure, you can lose your inheritance, by being disinherited. But people haven't inherited prior to being disinherited.

Does loss require experience of loss?

Francis J. Beckwith said...

You're right. You cannot lose what you don't have. But you may not acquire a power that you by nature are ordered to develop. So, you can be wronged if in fact you are prevented from acquiring that to which you are entitled. Consider this example from my book Defending Life (Cambridge University Press, 2007):

For example, what would be wrong if a developmental biologist manipulated the development of an early embryo-clone in such a way that the result is an infant without higher brain functions but whose healthy organs can be used for ordinary transplant purposes or for spare parts for the person from whom the embryo was cloned? Given the dominant accounts of moral personhood – views that claim that a being’s possession of intrinsic value is contingent upon some presently held property or immediately exercisable mental capacity to function in a certain way – it is not clear how intentionally creating such deformed beings for a morally good purpose is morally wrong. I suppose one could argue that it is morally wrong because the unborn is entitled to her higher brain functions. But as abortion-choice proponent Dan W. Brock argues, “this body clone” could not arguably be harmed because of its “lack of capacity for consciousness.” Yet he concedes that “most people would likely find” the practice of purposely creating permanently nonsentient human beings “appalling and immoral, in part because here the cloned later twin’s capacity for conscious life is destroyed solely as a means to benefit another." This, however, makes sense only if the cloned twin is entitled to his higher brain functions. But according to the view embraced by most [abortion-choice advocates or ACA], one cannot have rights (including entitlements) unless one has interests (and interests presuppose desires), and the pre-sentient fetus has no interests (because she has no desires). So the entitlement account does not do the trick for the [ACA]. It seems to me that the substance view is the account of human personhood that best explains the moral repugnance one feels when one first appreciates the prospect of these activities becoming commonplace in our society under the rubric of reproductive rights: it is prima facie wrong to destroy the physical structure necessary for the realization of a human being’s basic, natural capacity for the
exercisability of a function that is a perfection of its nature. Although this provides moral warrant for the legal prohibition of intentionally producing deformed human beings for an apparently good purpose, it also grounds significant legal restrictions on abortion, a procedure that destroys the physical structure necessary for the realization of a human being’s basic, natural capacity for the exercisability of a function that is a perfection of its nature.

Enenennx said...

FJB, you say: "But you may not acquire a power that you by nature are ordered to develop. So, you can be wronged if in fact you are prevented from acquiring that to which you are entitled."

In scenario one, western medicine applies antibiotics to a newborn's eyes to prevent possible blinding by the natural organism chlamydia. In scenario two, a 3d world's newborn does not have access to western antibiotics and ends up blinded by a chlamydial infection. Which "nature" ordered the western child's eyesight, and which "nature" caused the 3d world child's blindness. You seen to be positing that there are more that one "nature". You are only asserting this and have neither demonstrated it or provided evidence for more than one "nature".

What there is, is multiple outcomes all brought about by the same nature. To say that there are powers that nature orders sounds odd. Was the 3d world nation child "wronged" by nature?

Additionally, what "powers" are you entitled to. When a "future like ours" argument or a "substance argument" is handled these presuppose that their is a "you" that exists at stage conceptus. You are assuming what you set out to prove.

Enenennx said...

AP says: "Does loss require experience of loss?"

Scenario one: A relative tells you that you are doing to inherit a fortune. The next day that relative tells you that you are no longer going to inherit the fortune.

Scenario two: A relative decides that you are to receive an inheritance, but does not tell you. The next day the relative decides you are no longer going to receive the inheritance.

What exactly is lost in scenario one? It is not the inheritance. The expectation of inheritance comes to an end, but it doesn't even seem that you can say you lose the expectation of inheriting the inheritance, for you will always have had that experience (it will just have lasted for only a day).

In way what can it be said that the inheritance in scenario two is lost?

You and FJB seems to be asserting that there is a category of entities that by their existence ought to currently be granted the future rights they might obtain based on the idea that said entity has the potential to become the future entity that we agree has rights. In this category you place conceptuses. Maybe if you described or named something else which belongs in this category I could better strive to wrap by head such an idea.

Enenennx said...

FJB you say: "For example, what would be wrong if a developmental biologist manipulated the development of an early embryo-clone in such a way that the result is an infant without higher brain functions but whose healthy organs can be used for ordinary transplant purposes or for spare parts for the person from whom the embryo was cloned?  "

Nothing.
Let's do this step wise.
What would be wrong to clone a human heart from heart cells?
What would be wrong to clone a lung from lungs cells?
What would be wrong to clone a liver from liver cells?
What would be wrong to clone a rib from rib cells?
What would be wrong to clone an esophagus from esophagus cells?
What would be wrong to clone a thorax from a combination of the above cells?
What would be wrong to clone a body to encase the above if special steps were taken to ensure sentience was not present, for example we clone a body without a head?
Nothing.
It would be a life saving industry. And a variant of it will exist in the future.

The cloned entity's consciousness is never destroyed, it never existed. With enough genetic manipulation every cell can be teased into totipotentiality, and hence have the possibility and substance to have a future-like-ours.


You don't go on to provide an argument for why creating organs in a body without sentience would be wrong to do so. You provide an argument from "Ewwwww", an appeal to emotionality, and an appeal to intuition. These are logic fails, yes? Cheers.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Certainly, in both scenarios I lost an inheritance, but in one case I didn't know it.

Here's a variant.

Scenario 1. You mail me $1000 cash without telling me, as a surprise. A thief fishes it out of my mailbox before I get to it.

Scenario 2. You mail me $1000 cash without telling me, as a surprise. I open the envelope, but minutes later a thief extracts it from my pocket.

In both cases, my property has been stolen (as soon as mail arrives in my mailbox, the contents are my property, unless a different prior arrangement has been made), and I have lost by the thief's actions. But only in the second case have I experienced it.

Enenennx said...

AP, did you miss the question?

[from my earlier comment] You and FJB seems to be asserting that there is a category of entities that by their existence ought to currently be granted the future rights they might obtain based on the idea that said entity has the potential to become the future entity that we agree has rights. In this category you place conceptuses. Maybe if you described or named something else which belongs in this category I could better strive to wrap by head such an idea.

For example does a dog embryo have the rights that a future cow has? Or does this embryo only have rights in relation to it's human owner. If I kill someone's dog's embryo, one that would have "naturally" and "properly" filled it's "innate" essence by actualizing as a grown dog, would this be as wrong as dispatching a grown dog? How about a primate in this example? If you cannot thick of another entity along the spectrum on life other than conceptuses which have rights because of their essence, are we not special pleading?

I continue to want to know your thoughts on recombination after twinning, and whether the one embryo did wrong to the one that was consumed.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. Embryos don't do wrong, just as newborns don't do wrong, because they lack the kind of understanding that wrongdoing requires.

2. Dogs and cows don't have rights of the sort people do, though their good should be taken into account to some degree in moral deliberation. The same goes for dog and cow embryos.

3. Currently the only animals I know of who have the capacity for moral decision making are humans. If it turned out that whales have it as well, then I would have conclude that killing innocent whales, from conception through adulthood, is murder.

Enenennx said...

One: If someone goes to kick you in the shins, and you move your leg away, did you lose a kick in the shins?

Two: The capacity for moral decision making is required to do wrong, but not to experience wrong? But then you special plead that human beings comprise the entirety of the set of things-which-cannot-do-moral-wrong-but-can-be-wronged, even though the set of things-which-do-not-have-moral-decision-making-abilities is much larger.

Unless you are saying the killing of a cow embryo is murder, the same thing as human abortion. You intimate that their (the cows) good (what I imagine to be the fulfillment of their predilections) should be taken into account "to some degree" in moral deliberation. Is it wrong to kill an organism with consciousness? Is this an argument for vegetarianism? Or by "to some degree" how are you (again, seemingly arbitrarily) deciding what degree that is.


Sorry to be so slow, but your handling of whatever argument you are making seems disjointed. And I am spending time trying to piece it together, I take responsibility for it's appearing to me incoherent.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's obviously wrong to kill a six-month-old human infant. But a six-month-old human doesn't make moral decisions. So the class of entities that have rights and the class of entities to which obligations apply are different.

I also think fundamental rights cannot be gained or lost--fundamental rights do not get earned and are inalienable. So if x has a fundamental right at time t1, and x existed at time t0, then x also had that right at time t0. Therefore, a being that has fundamental rights at any time in its life also has them at all earlier and later times in its life. Since you have fundamental rights now--this is uncontroversial--you had the fundamental rights at all times during your existence, even before you had the capacity for moral decision-making.

The remaining question is: When did your existence start? And for that I refer you to this paper.