Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Being a bad person and doing wrong

Until recently, I assumed everyone agreed to something like this principle:

  1. If performing an action constitutes you as a bad person, the action is morally wrong.

Virtue ethicists, of course, make this a biconditional that defines wrongness, but I would have assumed that just about everybody would agree that the conditional (1) is true.

But I am now thinking that (1) is not accepted as widely as I thought it is. What makes me think this is the way that Thomson’s violinist case resonates with so strongly with so many people, and presumably continues to do so even if one adds the necessary proviso that the violinist is one’s own minor child (otherwise it wouldn’t be applicable to typical cases of abortion). Yet it seems utterly obvious to me to that:

  1. If the violinist is your own minor child, disconnecting from the violinist makes you a bad parent and a bad person.

But one cannot consistently accept (1) and (2) and think it is morally permissible to disconnect from the violinist when the violinist is one’s own child.

I would love to see empirical data on whether people who find the violinist case compelling deny (1) or deny (2). Thomson herself probably denies (2).


Angra Mainyu said...


I don't know what Thomson and others will think, but I suspect at least for some of them, it probably will have to do with what you mean by "your own minor child".
Perhaps, some (many) will see a significant difference between a case in which you have decided to have a child and/or to raise them, etc., arguably acquiring obligations to care (regardless of genetics), and a case situation in which a child counts as yours if they were made with your reproductive cells (or something like that), but you have no other connection to them.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's interesting. Pro-life people generally think two things about the fetus:
A. The fetus is a person.
B. The fetus is the child of its biological mother.
Thomson grants A in the paper for the sake of the argument (and only for the sake of the argument), but as far as I remember does not address B. I was assuming that if A is true, so is B. But you're right, that can be questioned.

Some thoughts on B. First, there does not seem to be a relevant difference between the fetus and a newborn if A is true and if the biological mother had no choice about whether to continue the pregnancy until birth. But in the absence of adoption by someone else, it seems clear that the newborn is the child of the biological mother. And I think it would be the general intuition that if the violinist were replaced by a newborn, the mother would be a bad mother to disconnect.

I do not think we need any decision to acquire obligations to care for our biological children. The case of siblings is instructive. In typical cases, one has less input about whether one has a sibling than about whether one has a child, but nonetheless one acquires duties to one's siblings. These duties are not as stringent as one's duties towards one's children, but are nonetheless pretty stringent.

Duties just drop down on us. That's life.

Angra Mainyu said...

I mentioned that alternative given the context of the discussion, and as speculation about what they might think, but my take on this is that trying to figure out whether it's her child or whether it's a person is a mistaken way to look at the matter. I would say that if - say - the zygote were a person from conception, that would be a quirk of the semantics of the English word "person", and wouldn't make the killing (or experimenting on, etc.) of embryos impermissible. Similarly, if that's her child, then I would reckon that there are situations in which one has no obligations towards one's child.

That aside, I agree that sometimes duties just drop on us. A question is when.

Regarding whether it's her child, I think there is a sense in which the newborn is her child even if someone else adopts her. For example, "she gave her child up for adoption" is a usual expression. However, even if the woman was forced to continue the pregnancy until birth, there still may well be differences between the situation and that of the fetus, which is bigger the less developed the fetus we're comparing the newborn with is: further interaction between an ever more developed fetus in the womb and the woman will very likely have an impact on the mind/brain of both of them. A bond that wasn't there before the fetus developed enough of its brain will be there, regardless of whether she likes it or not. This will happen even if the fetus is not made from her reproductive cells and does not have any DNA relation to her.

You mention obligations towards one's siblings. But are those not also the result of some social interaction, at least to a considerable extent if not always?
One can ask that question even of parental duties.

For example, let's say that some evil scientists kidnap Alice and take many of her ova. They fertilize the ova, and implant some of them on other women, some of them on advanced artificial wombs. Let's say that most of the embryos develop and are born, etc., and Alice eventually finds out how they were made. Does she has parental obligations towards all of them?
What if they kidnap Bob, and use their sperm cells to make millions of zygotes, half of which end up growing into children? Does Bob have parental obligations as well?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I do think Alice and Bob have parental obligations in these cases, yes. Of course, the obligations will be very hard to fulfill, and would probably eat up much of their lives. But we live largely for others, and the case is not much different from that of someone who has one child but who due to disability requires incredible amounts of care.

As for siblings, consider two cases:

Case 1: Twins are born, and days after birth one of them needs a kidney transplant from the other.

Case 2: A child is born, and days after birth a stranger needs a kidney transplant from the child.

In Case 1 it is a lot easier for the parents to justify imposing the burden on their child. I think the best way to explain this is that the children have strong imperfect duties towards each other.

p.s. I don't want too much to ride on the personhood issue. I think having the kind of dignity that makes it wrong to be killed when innocent is a property one cannot acquire or lose. Therefore, I think the crucial question is of numerical identity: am I the same entity as the fetus? If yes, then if I have that kind of dignity, so does he.

Angra Mainyu said...

Fair enough, so we have different intuitions about parental rights. That might explain some of the disagreement.

Regarding the twins scenario, I don't have clear intuitions as to whether it's acceptable, perhaps because I don't have a good idea how much future harm is to be expected as the fetus grows up. I'm leaning towards unacceptable, but I might be getting the impression that the harm is greater than it actually is. But in any case, they did developed together in the same womb, so there was interaction (as there is interaction between the woman in the fetus in its late stages of development), which is not present in the sort of scenarios I'm considering. I think that that is a more likely candidate (if the transplant is permissible) than genetics, since it seems to me it's clearly impermissible if the stranger is a genetic sibling made from one of the embryos by the evil siblings in my scenario.

In re: numerical identity. Fair enough, but by assessment in that regard is similar to that of personhood, in the sense that it seems pretty clear to me that it's not wrong to, say, (lethally) experiment on human embryos for the sake of advancing science, or kill them if frozen because one no longer wants a child, while of course I think all of that would be unacceptable with regard to, say, a 5 years old child. For that reason, I think that either there is no numerical identity, or the property in question is one that can be acquired or lost.