Wednesday, April 23, 2008

An argument concerning abortion

Note: Portions of the argument below sound like I accept consensual euthanasia. I don't: intentionally killing juridically innocent persons, whether they consent or not, is wrong. But I don't make use of this belief in the argument, and my argument is in large part aimed at people who do not share this belief of mine on euthanasia.

This post is divided into three sections, the first giving a standard argument against abortion, the second giving a standard response, and the third arguing that the standard response is unsatisfactory, at least if one allows that one can rationally desire to die, a thesis that I am not sure of, but that few people who are not already pro-life will deny.

Part I: A standard argument against abortion: This takes two steps. First, one shows that a typical fetus would have a future of the same sort that we do were she not killed. This may involve metaphysical arguments to establish that the future is indeed the fetus's future in the sense that the fetus is identical with the adult human being. (I argue like this here.) The second step is to show that at least one of the reasons that it is wrong to kill you or me is that it would undeservedly deprive you or me of this sort of future, so that it is wrong to kill a typical fetus for exactly the same reason.

Part II: One standard response: Grant, at least for the sake of discussion, the claim that the fetus would have a future like ours, but deny that the undeserved deprivation of a future life like ours makes the killing wrong. Instead, what makes it wrong to kill someone is that doing so goes against the person's interests, which are defined in terms of the desires that the person has (on a crude version of the response) or would have in ideal mental circumstances (on a less crude version of the response), desires whose fulfillment requires the continuation of life. The reason for going for the "ideal desire" view is some version of the example of the suicidal teenager: it is wrong to kill the suicidal teenager even if the teenager lacks all future-directed desires. But, one argues, in ideal mental circumstances, the teenager would want to live, so a better story is the ideal desire one.

Part III: A response to the response: It is not the case that what makes it wrong to kill x is that x actually or ideally has desires that require the continuation of life. For suppose George does not actually or ideally desire the continuation of life. He is miserable, abandoned by all friends, no longer capable of engaging in any of his past projects, in the grip of a painful terminal illness. It seems not that implausible to suppose that George could rationally desire to die, so that he not only actually but also ideally has the desire to die. We may also suppose that he has no fulfillable ideal desires incompatible with the desire to die. Now some strongly pro-life people will deny the idea that one can rationally desire to die, but I suspect there are very, very few pro-choice philosophers who will dispute this. Moreover, even someone completely opposed to euthanasia can hold that it is rational to have the desire to die as long as one adds that it is wrong to act on that desire (other than maybe by praying for death).

So, to recap, we suppose, and few pro-choicers will deny us this assumption, that George rationally, consistently and ideally desire to die. By the response in Part II, what makes it wrong to kill people is actual or ideal desires that require future existence. But George doesn't have such desires, and hence it follows that is not wrong to kill him. But this is absurd.

A reader might say: "So, you've shown that if you accept Part II, you accept the permissibility of euthanasia. Almost everybody who is pro-choice already accepts the permissibility of euthanasia, so this is no reductio." But that would be a mistake. For I did not say that George consents to being killed. All I said is he desires death. It is one thing to desire something and another to consent to it (see this post). And I suspect that most pro-choice folks will agree that it is wrong to kill a non-consenting innocent adult, even if that adult desires to be killed. For it is the consent rather than the desire that matters here. Why would George not consent? Here, a myriad of possibilities is available, including religious views, views about the sanctity of life, views about the way that killing him would dehumanize the killer, etc.

So it is not enough to establish the lack of actual or ideal desires presupposing future life to show that a killing is permissible. Step II fails.

Could we say that the fetus consents to being killed, so that we could say that it is permissible to kill someone lacking actual or ideal desires presupposing future life if the victim consents to being killed? No: the fetus plainly does not consent. Could we say that the fetus would consent if it could be asked? We have no reason to suppose that. In the typical case, the fetus would be asked to give up a future like ours with no compensating benefit to the fetus, and there is no reason to suppose a positive answer to a deal like that. Alternately, perhaps, we could handle the consent question in the way we handle it in practice: appoint a proxy. But note that a proxy cannot have a potential conflict of interest, and in the case of abortion, the mother does have a potential conflict of interest—if she's considering abortion, this is not unlikely to be the case because she takes the pregnancy to conflict with her interests or the interests of her significant other or of her other children. Rather, the proxy has to be one who considers primarily what is good for the individual that she is a proxy. I suspect that, given "future like ours" considerations, in typical cases such a proxy will not agree to abortion.

Could we instead say that the fetus does not dissent from being killed, and it's permissible to kill someone who (a) lacks actual or ideal desires presupposing future life, and (b) does not dissent from being killed? That requirement seems too weak. It would be wrong to shoot George without positive consent from him (if he's capable of giving it) or presumed consent or proxy consent, I think.

A final option (Frank Beckwith suggested something like this): Perhaps the pro-choice opponent can say that having (actually or ideally) desires, or desires of a certain sort, is part of what makes one a person, and so it is not the case that killing someone who has the desire for life is wrong because it goes against that desire, but what makes it wrong to kill is that it is a person who is non-consensually killed. If one takes this view, then it seems one gets a completely different account of the wrongness of killing from that given in Part II. It is not the having of desires presupposing future life that makes it wrong for one to be killed (at least if innocent), but, simply what makes it wrong to kill x is that x is a non-consenting person. Her desires are beside the point: only the consent matters here. However, this account of what is wrong with killing is inferior to the Marquis account in Part I. For it fails to show how killing someone is different from doing other things that the person does not consent to, such as patting on the shoulder. Patting on the shoulder may be wrong without consent (though probably not always wrong), but is clearly much less of an evil than killing someone. Nor is it that the victim actually or ideally has ideally a stronger desire not to be killed than not to be patted, or that she more strongly dissents from being killed than from not being patted, since neither of these might be true, at least if we assume that one can rationally desire to be dead.

So it seems to me that it is hard to rescue Part II, and hence the Marquis argument's claim that if a fetus has a future like ours then it is wrong to abort the fetus survives.


Beancan Tatterpants said...

This seems spot on.

1. It seems reasonable that such a person A, being a set of values, would include in the set all time indexed versions of A; A at T1, A at T2,...and that time spent as a fetus must be included in that set.

2. The argument making killing unethical based on future desires seems troublesome, especially if the future does not actually exist. It also soft-pedals the concept that the fetus is alive, which it is. Killing is less about robbing future states or goals and more about robbing current existence.

The key argumentative question there is whether the being has to be aware of its existence in order for it to be murder. If you kill a being when it's a four-celled embryo, is it really murder? That seems absurd.

Great post, although I feel the need to stay on the sidelines of this particular political debate since I don't have a uterus.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks a lot for the comments.

One can't take away present existence: one can only take away future existence.

If self-awareness is necessary for murder, then children less than about 1.5 years of age can't be murdered. This strikes me as absurd.

I know that for some people the idea of killing a four-cell embryo being murder is absurd. But fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite absurd that a tiny plastic-encased thingy that's slightly over an inch in length and less than a tenth of an inch in width, weighing less than 0.1 oz, would contain the collected works of Thomas Aquinas, Plato, Aristotle and Newman, seven volumes of Leibniz, about six volumes of Kierkegaard, half a dozen Bible versions, 71 volumes of the Jesuit relations, a lot of volumes of Church Fathers, the Catholic Encyclopedia, texts of all the Church Councils, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, half a dozen dozen dictionaries, a large bunch of fun novels and short stories, six hours of audio, appointments, personal notes, address book, and other stuff. Yet my PDA has plugged into it an SD card with all that and more.

Likewise, it seems absurd that a tiny four-cell embryo has the property that if you just take physical care of it (basically, provide it with protection, oxygen, hydration and nutrition), it will grow into an adult human being. But so it is. Once we realize this, we realize that small doesn't mean insignificant.

Beancan Tatterpants said...

Ah, my sentence wasn't very clear. I meant that the idea that killing a four-celled embryo isn't murder (or question it even) was absurd. But I'm glad you went further with your comment.

There seems to be a lot of debate about when to begin seeing the embryo as a living thing, and it seems that the simplest answer is "when it becomes a being".

Isn't it also fascinating that each and every one of us has a T1 in our set of values? Like you said, we were all once fetuses. An epic idea when you really think about it.

Thanks for the post.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sorry for the misunderstanding.

As for the question when we get a living being, I agree with you--it happens exactly when we get a being. When does that happen? Is it when the sperm first penetrates the ovum? Is it when a new DNA molecule is formed? I think there is probably about a 4-12 hour uncertainty window where it is not completely clear whether a new being is there yet. Fortunately, right now nothing of moral significance turns on this uncertainty (e.g., no abortions are done within the first 12 hours, and stem cell extraction is done later, too). My inclination, not based on a lot of thought, is to say a new being is formed from the sperm and ovum roughly when the membrane of the ovum becomes impermeable to other sperm.

Enigman said...

Yet another brilliant argument. It deserves better comments than the following, but still... I'm not sure that killing George would be necessarily wrong. It depends on how much he desires death, and whether the killer knows enough about the matter, I think. But I'm prepared to accept that it is wrong... And the foetus is a living human being from when it is a zygote. But maybe the question should be, when is it a person, with personal rights?

I think that a soul becomes attached to a foetus somehow. Maybe it does not; but if it does then it probably does so after the stage at which it is possible for the foetus to divide into twins. Maybe not; but on balance, evidence for dualism is evidence for such a later arrival of personal rights to life (note that bacteria are biologically alive, angels are not).

I see the problem with murder as a problem with the deliberate human separation of soul and brain (human or animal). Again only a maybe, but a reasonable one (for those who agree with you about George), and so maybe the loss of future life is not the main thing. E.g. if it were then there would be something similarly wrong with not putting the sperm and the egg together (whereas for many pro-choicers that's absurd), to put something between them would not be the killing of a living being (as swatting a fly is) but it would be similarly wrong (as swatting a fly is not).

With so many maybes, it might be wrong not to let the woman (if wombs are involved, or the ethical overseers of the scientists if not) decide. After all, the religious aspect includes it being her responsibility, and the foetus going to Heaven directly (perhaps to be fitted with a perfect body) without her having to suffer the woes of this fallen world even if she is not (as it seems to me likely it is) just an empty biochemical vessel.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am actually sympathetic to the separation of soul and body view, though my preferred formulation of it is that death is the destruction of the body (often a corpse remains, but a corpse is the ruin of a body).

It seems to me that with so many maybes, the right answer would be that we should protect life. To use the hackneyed example, if I am hunting and I see a figure in the distance and don't know if it's a deer or a man, I had better not shoot.

I don't see why the individual should decide this question. It would make sense to have the individual decide the question if the question were an individual one, for instance if some became persons at fertilizations, others at fifty days, others at a hundred, and others at birth, and somehow there was a good chance that the mother would be able to tell which category hers fell in. But surely that's not so: presumably, in just about all cases, we have just about the same answer.

Let's put it this way. Suppose that medical research shows that a drug D often cures some non-fatal but common disease, and this drug is used by about a million people a year. Suppose, however, that there is a new type of cancer that has recently showed up, which kills a million people every year, and that it is not clear what the cause of this cancer is. Scientific study of the cancer finds two hypotheses as to the cause of this cancer, and the evidence between them is balanced. According to H1, the cause of the cancer is something beyond our control, maybe a change in the earth's magnetic field. According to H2, the cause of the cancer is the following: Drug D interacts with urine to produce a chemical C, which is then excreted by the patient into the sewage system. Treatment systems are unable to remove C, and C eventually comes back into human consumption, and causes the cancer, in roughly one-to-one proportion to the number of users of D.

So, now we have a 50% chance that D causes a million deaths a year. This seems more than sufficient to legally ban D. It would surely be wrong to take a 50% risk of causing a million deaths a year by keeping D legal.

Moreover, it does not appear appropriate to leave the choice whether to take D up to the individual patient.

So if there are a lot of maybes, we should opt for preventing killing. And look: we know that it's a killing of a human organism, a member of our biological species. That is not at all controversial. What is controversial is whether this is a person. But surely there is a reasonable presumption that a member of our species is a person.

That said, I think one can do better than maybes in terms of arguing for a pro-life position. But I think it's important to note that maybes are actually enough to justify restrictive abortion legislation, except in cases of danger to mother's life where one needs more than maybes.

Enigman said...

I agree with you about the hackneyed example (of course) but if someone else is hunting (in her deerpark) and she believes that it is certainly a deer (and that her pleasure in hunting outweighs its rights) then does your uncertainty in knowing whether or not it is a man (your uncertainty in knowing whether or not she is wrong) mean that you should assume that she is wrong, and try to stop her shooting it/him? It seems to me that you (as her guest in her deerpark) should asume that she is right.

But let's say that you can see clearly that it is a man. Then of course you should try to stop her shooting him; but I'm wondering if pro-lifers can see that clearly, or if there are just a lot of maybes really. I can only see maybes, and a belief that that is enough (although I've not delved into this, as I shrink from politics, so there may, as you say, be more to it, for all I know). Regarding your D analogy, note that the death of the foetus is certainly not that bad an outcome for the foetus - either it was never a person, or else it goes straight to Heaven.

Enigman said...

...oops, that should've ended: "or else he goes straight to heaven." But incidentally, I'm also suspicious of the "50% risk," in your D scenario. If we have no evidence between competing hypotheses, e.g. I am and I am not a brain in a vat, then to me it seems that there is not necessarily a 50% risk, e.g. of New York not really existing; and so I just see a lot of maybes there, nothing definite about (possibly analogous) abortions.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was assuming there was some reason to believe each hypothesis, but it was balanced. There certainly is reason to believe the fetal personhood hypothesis. For instance, it's plausible that personhood is an essential property, and it's plausible that we're animals. If so, then personhood begins when the life of the animal that we are begins. But the life of the animal that we are begins at fertilization--this is clear.

The reason I might defer to a hunter in her own deerpark is because I have reason to believe that she knows significantly and relevantly more about the contents of her deerpark than I do, and hence is not unlikely to be in an epistemic position of judging that she's not shooting at a person.

But does a pregnant woman know more about whether the fetus in her womb is a person than someone who is not pregnant? Well, maybe there is some kind of emotional knowledge here. But it seems implausible to suppose that such emotional knowledge would stand up to scrutiny as a justification of killing the fetus. For one, while some pregnant women don't feel that their fetal child is a person, some do feel that. But the case does not vary between pregnant women. Surely if x's fetal child at stage of development D is a person, so too y's fetal child at stage of development D is also a person. So the evidence of what x feels must be balanced against the evidence of what y feels.

As for the D analogy, modify the case. The one million potential victims of D are small infants. I don't know if unbaptized infants go to heaven--limbo is still a "possible theological hypothesis"--but if fetuses do, so do small infants.

In this case, we do have a complicating factor--the deaths are likely to cause significant grief to the parents. But I do not think this is why D should be banned. Suppose that the million infants, for some odd reason, are all orphans whom nobody cares for. It still seems clearly wrong to allow the use of D.

Enigman said...

Re your D analogy, I would not ban D given your scenario; rather, I would look for C, since failure to find it would make H2 very unlikely, H2 being already unlikely (it is only an amazing coincidence that the figures were both about a million, even granted H2). The alternative to H2 is not H1 but, what is most likely, either H1 or that the cause is unknown but potentially within our control, upon investigation. After all, D is a very useful drug; and if one started banning useful things because of unlikely hypotheses, where would it all end?

But medical ethics are horrendously complicated (whence the professionals work within utilitarianism I guess). Suppose there was known to be only a 1 in a million chance of a fatal side-effect with a fairly useful drug. That might be acceptable, even though the decision to allow the drug would, were the drug popular, be the decision to allow a few deaths too. But it's quite unlear to me that that is the same risk as some estimated 1 in a million chance of some new drug turning out to be totally lethal.

As for leaving the choice (whether or not to take D) up to the individual patient, what if the patient believes (as I do) that there is not any risk of H2 (for such reasons as those above)? Or what if some experts decided that there was no evidence for, and hence only a 50% chance of, there being a God. There are huge social costs to having people believe in the various religions (and if there was a God, the experts reason, and there was anything important that the religions had been doing, then God could either ensure such things directly, or miraculously save some religions) so the experts ban religious actions and education - or should it be up to the individual to work such things out?

Legistlation seems like too blunt an instrument. There may be people who are too stupid to make a considered decision by themselves, but the answer to that problem is to bias the most accessible information a certain way. I have no problem with pro-lifers making it easier for women to bear children and then give them up for adoption, with responsible pro-lifers advertising such charitable facilities in the surgeries of the doctors who perform abortions; indeed, with such advertising, properly regulated, being legally compulsory.

Enigman said...

...oops again, I did not see your most recent reply, to which I shall reply shortly...

Enigman said...

Hmm... personhood is, I think, more complex even than medical ethics! E.g. personhood is an essential property of our souls, whereas being incarnated as animals is not. In the absence of a reason for taking zygotes to be people, one that is widely recognised as very clear, we should not legistlate against the woman's right to choose, but against the analogous-hunt-saboteurs. It is not that the hunter is known to see clearly, but that we should presume that she can. It is not that she knows that her foetus is not a person (analogously that eating meat is not wrong) but that the default position is that it is her choice... maybe!

Alexander R Pruss said...

This is too dualistic for my taste. I am a mammal, not a soul, though I have a soul. I came into existence when the mammal came into existence. The mammal came into existence when the parental gametes merged into a new organism.

I think that, in the absence of decisive arguments about times of ensoulment (and I am not saying there is an absence of such arguments!), we should presume every member of our species to be a person. Suppose a large number of people in our society believe that blue eyed members of our species are not persons. I think we should presume them to be wrong, and legislate likewise. Likewise if they think that this of pre-verbal members of our species (e.g., embryos or six-month old infants).

So it's not right to see the debate as about a mere weird hypothesis that embryos are persons (one perhaps like the hypothesis that hedgehogs are persons). It's not a mere weird hypothesis. Rather, it seems to be a very plausible view to think that we are what we seem to be, namely members of the species homo sapiens, and we come into existence when members of our species begin their existence, and this they clearly do at fertilization, just members of all other species of sexually reproducing organisms on earth do. It is the opponent of this presumption who would need to present evidence that some members of our species are soulless, say.

Enigman said...

But nor is it weird to think that if we are just like other animals, except that we can decide what our own rights are, then it would be silly to give a zygote in a womb any rights over the woman whose womb it is. The woman has feelings, for example. If she did not, if she was a heartless monster, then maybe she would not deserve any rights. Maybe we just presume that she has rights because we presume that she has feelings. Were there creatures like us biologically but without feelings (cf. the zombies of Chalmers, or maybe the damned souls, lacking all 'Christian' feelings) is it our intuition that they would have rights to compare with ours?

I suspect not; and a zygote certainly does not have any feelings. It does not even have one nerve cell, being itself just a single cell. It is going to split into two cells, and if the process continued it might be a girl, with feelings and rights (much as a sperm and an egg could be). And even as it is, the zygote probably has a sex (as do many plants). But don't we want to give even dogs some basic rights (e.g. to life, if that would not endanger people) because we suspect that they have feelings? Etc... Whence I'm unconvinced that the onus would be upon the pro-choice position, ceteris paribus (which they never are).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think that actually having feelings is relevant. If I am in a coma, but am expected to recover, to kill me would be plainly murder, even though I don't have any feelings while in the coma.

Moreover, the complexity of feelings that an infant has at one week of life is probably less than that which a full-grown pig has. But apart from some unduly consistent philosophers, we all think the infant's right to life needs to be protected, and few of us think that the pig has a right to life.

In any case, even if there were strong arguments on both sides, I think one should opt in favor of the safer view: not to kill what might be one of us.

Enigman said...

Maybe having an actual propensity for finer feelings is important, not just displaying them, but also not just having the potential to develop such a propensity. That sounds weird, but beliefs (for example) are similar: Having an actual belief is important sometimes, not just displaying it (it is important that you are no nazi even when you are asleep) and not just being able to acquire it (all nazis were potentially not nazis). But maybe not; these waters are a bit deep for me.

But very important too though, and the problem of the default position especially. It ought to be obvious, independent of the other positions, and yet I don't see how it could be. You say to go for the safer view, but that's the problem - which is that? Cf. how a pig might be one of us (one of us sapient beings with natural rights) and arguments can be made for and against vegetarianism and such. But it seems wrong that we ought to legistlate to outlaw pig-farming just because such arguments can be developed to a philosophical degree, leading to many arguably good ones on both sides. (And whether or not a pig is more or less valuable than a month-old foetus is precisely the question)... And nor can it be simply a matter of what people commonly believe, since the default position is a matter of what people ought to believe.

So I suspect that there is no non-question-begging default position. To me allowing abortion seems like the safer view, since when it is outlawed women die, experience shows us; whereas it seems highly unlikely that foetuses would be wronged by being aborted, since even if a month-old foetus is a person, with human rights, which I find slightly unlikely, nonetheless there is a good God (while a more principled, moral-philosophical argument that aborting such a foetus would surely be wrong could be no more certain than such principles, and whatever it is that justifies our adoption of them)... And yet the evidence is inconclusive, but we must nonetheless try to decide rationally, so there must be some objective rule whose application yields the correct default position!

enigman said...

I am a mammal, not a soul, though I have a soul. I came into existence when the mammal came into existence. The mammal came into existence when the parental gametes merged into a new organism.

(i) When you die, are you then your soul? If so then, since you will then be you, and are now you, then you are now your soul. (That is a lot like your argument that a zygote is a person.) And if not then what is it, what is it doing?

(ii) You are a mammal, but if you are not just a mammal (with few rights to life) then you did not necessarily come fully into being with your zygote. Does your DNA code for so much, as you clearly are? If not then why should you have come into existence when it did? But if you are essentially a thinking subject, with very plausibly some need for some actual nerves to work with and upon, then you would not have been you until your foetus had developed some nerve cells. Plausibly you would not have been you until there was some need for you to interact with your body, whereas most of the development of the foetus is clearly governed entirely by its DNA.

not to kill what might be one of us

Some religious people use this principle to justify not just veganism but sweeping away the bugs from before their feet. But I guess it depends upon how you define "one of us." If Chalmers' zombies were possible, I would not count one of them as possibly one of us, in the apposite sense (right to life), for all that they would seem to be mammals of our species.

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. The problem of how I can survive with only a soul is a special case of the problem of constitution. Consider Sid the Snake. Suppose in ten minutes we will cut off his rear one tenth and he will survive. Then, the exact same argument you use would show that then he will be identical with the remaining 9/10, and hence that now, before the cutting, he is not the whole snake, but only the front 9/10 of the whole snake, which is absurd. He is the whole snake.

There are several solutions to this conundrum. One is that constitution is not identity. After the cutting, the snake won't be identical with his remaining 9/10, but will be constituted by it; before the cutting, the snake is constituted by the front 9/10 and the rear 1/10. Likewise, after the destruction of my body, I won't be identical with my soul, but will be constituted by it; right now, I am constituted by soul and body.

My preferred solution to the problem is to deny that substances have parts except in a "virtual" sense (they behave as if they have parts, and they can shed parts if one cuts them). Thus, while it is correct to say that I am ensouled, it is not correct to say that a soul is a part of me.

2. When I said I am a mammal, I took that to mean that I am identical with a mammal. If I am identical with a mammal, then I came into existence when that mammal did. I think I am essentially a thinking being in the sense of being essentially the sort of being that normally thinks at some point in its life. This does not mean that I think at all stages of my life.

3. Somewhere we need to draw the line at what conjectures about personhood we take into account and what we do not. Mere logical possibility is not enough. But the hypothesis that we are identical with certain mammals is a widely accepted hypothesis, seems to be both a part of the human self-image as "rational animals" and a part of the scientific image of humans as parts of the biosphere, and hence is not a crazy view.

enigman said...

Thanks for the clarifications (very good of you). You are ensouled, and identical with a mammal. It's odd that if an ensouled foetus splits into twins then one of the foetuses gets a new soul though. There is this mammal, to which someone is identical, and he used to be ensouled with his brother's soul. Odd, but cute rather than crazy.

I wonder why one's human right to life (over the womb's whole's right to evict one) should follow from one's being an ensouled mammal though. From being born into a human society seems intuitive and natural enough (from which I deduce that our being ensouled at birth is not crazy either (that we might choose to extend that to large foetuses seems akin to our granting some rights to dogs and such, and so the slippery slope is avoided))...

Alexander R Pruss said...

Twinning is a form of asexual reproduction. Humans are capable of sexual reproduction between puberty and a certain upper age bound (quite high for men, lower for women). They are capable of asexual reproduction for the first 14 days of their lives.

Birth seems really arbitrary. A full-term fetus minutes before delivery is surely no more a person than a 24 week pre-term fetus minutes after delivery.

Besides, if one didn't think that, say, a two-day-old embryo is already a person in the womb, wouldn't it be really weird if it was a person as soon as it was taken out of the womb? Yet that is what what a birth criterion would imply, since surely taking out of the womb is birth. (One might say that it is only birth if one doesn't need life-support afterwards. But that would mean that a full-term newborn who needs life-support is not a person.) I suppose one might say this if one had a Cartesian view of the soul which allowed ensoulment to happen at an arbitrary time. I see the soul in the hylomorphic way, as what makes an organism be the kind of organism it is. As a result, the soul of the human being is what makes the human a human organism, and hence it comes into existence as soon as a human organism does.

I want the right to life--i.e., the right not to be undeservedly killed by creaturely decree--to be an inalienable right. An inalienable right comes into existence when the entity that bears the right comes into existence, and ceases to exist when the entity ceases to exist. It is not an achievement (in the way in which learning to talk or think is), nor is it something conferred on us by society or our membership in it (if an adult human popped into existence without any human society, she'd have the right to life--e.g., the right not to be undeservedly killed by aliens).

One particular worry I have is that a right that is alienable tends is likely to come in degree. If what makes one of us be a being with moral significance is, say, the ability to talk, think, act, or be socially connected, then those of us who are better at these things will, likely, have more moral significance than those who are less so. And that, I think, is false.

enigman said...

Are you saying that both twins had the same soul, and that it divided between them, a bit like an amoeba? I guess that makes hylomorphic sense. So similarly, if a brain was divided and the two halves were put into two clones of the original body, that would give rise to two souls? But if the brain was divided and it remained in the original body, there would be just the one soul? (And presumably chairs and such have souls too? Actually, I've just been thinking through all my reasons for presuming Cartesian souls, and can't find a single one that must conflict with the Aristotelian view. I've just never really entertained it before. Is there a good book on this subject?)

Birth is not that arbitrary. The soul was naturally taken to enter the body with its first breath, and there is a certain degree of poetry to that. (And if a human was born who never breathed I would take that to be exceptional, maybe miraculous, not as refuting the hypothesis in general (nor a sign that that human had no soul).) This is a Cartesian intuition, and it could be arbitrary, but the idea of a special event (like a first breath) seems natural, seems to fit with the rest of Creation. Maybe the soul is more loosely joined to the foetus before then (to allow the two to get used to each other, and maybe they do that gradually, from the first nerves arising, in an exremely loose way), but even so the separation of the two would be less severe before then (would not quite be killing a person). (We feel differently on seeing a foetus aborted, but we do on seeing a fresh corpse mutilated, so such intuitions are unclear.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

I do not think souls split. Rather, in cases of symmetric splitting (we really don't know how twinning works in humans; maybe by budding, and maybe symmetrically, and maybe sometimes one and sometimes the other) the older organism dies, and is succeeded by two offspring, with new souls.

Once artificial wombs start being used (I have moral reservations about their use, but that won't stop it), I think the notion of birth as a unique event will become rather less plausible.

Enigman said...

Well, as powers change, the significant events change. Maybe it will become sensible to affix rights to certain types of brain activity. But does that undermine the case for first breath now?

It seems that there are 'rights' that we give to beings because we want to, and rights that we believe they have because of what they are. For a dualist, the latter depends upon ensoulment (waking up fully in the world, with the first screaming breath perhaps) although that may be a fuzzy affair (so that different rights are acquired gradually at different times, largely dependent upon the social meaning of those rights), but the former can depend entirely on sentiment (which is of course our main guide to the latter too). But I doubt that we could distinguish very well between our reasons for our beliefs about the latter from our doing of the former.

On symmetric splitting, it seems there would be a Parfitt-style worry: If a pre-twin was attacked by a weird virus that rapidly took over half of its cells and then cleared off, and the foetus subsequently developed into what was essentially one of the twins, it would not seem like the pre-twin mammal died, but rather that it got poorly and recovered... but such details are also by the by, I'd guess.

SoWasRed said...

Hi Dr. Pruss.
I really enjoyed this post of yours. It got me thinking quite a bit.
I'm not too inclined philosophically, but you made your argument clear enough that even I was able to understand it.

ds said...

The reason for going for the "ideal desire" view is some version of the example of the suicidal teenager: it is wrong to kill the suicidal teenager even if the teenager lacks all future-directed desires. But, one argues, in ideal mental circumstances, the teenager would want to live, so a better story is the ideal desire one.

Doesn't this undermine the critique of Marquis here, after all one can argue that while a fetus, like the teenager does not have "actual" desires to live, in ideal mental circumstances he would.

Moreover, couldn't Marquis simply cash his view out in an ideal desire way: Its wrong to kill an adult because he has a future of value, a future is valuable if its such that were you fully rational and informed you would desire it. If a fetus were fully rational and informed it would desire its future. Therefore, killing a fetus is wrong.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I worry that it proves too much. In "ideal mental circumstances", a hacksaw blade would desire to continue to live. :-) But it's not wrong to scrap it if it gets blunt.

Now, you might say, and very reasonably so, that the ideal mental circumstances have to be kind-relative. Thus, the ideal mental circumstances for a human involve high-level cognition, while the ideal mental circumstances or a hacksaw blade involve no cognition at all. But now the defender of abortion will say that the ideal mental circumstances for a fetus do not involve high-level cognition, because a fetus is a relevantly different kind of thing from an adult human. I disagree, but I fear that this is where the debate is at.

As Stavro As said...

how can i find the quote from your artical?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Which quote?