[I just posted this at the Ezra blog, but since it's pretty heavily philosophical I wanted to put it here too. There's a couple links there that I haven't bothered to copy here. In any case, I'm wondering whether the cloning part has any potential as the core of an applied ethics paper. I'm fairly proud of it...]
I've been arguing about abortion with some conservatives today, and it's time to do a little philosophy. (Finally! A chance to use my professional competence for the greater good!) I'll argue against two conservative views about what gives fetal life its value: (1) that the fetus is an instance of human life, and (2) that the fetus has the potential to be a unique intelligent being. These views would make the fetus worthy of protection from the moment of conception.
I'm one of those liberals who thinks that mental capacities of some sort are necessary before the fetus is a legitimate object of moral concern. There's plenty of disagreement about exactly what these mental capacities are, but I'd say that a capacity for pain is really what makes fetal life merit our moral concern. Since a first-trimester fetus is incapable of feeling pain -- the capacity for pain only kicks in somewhere around the end of the second trimester -- I don't see any moral problem with first-trimester abortion. It's not even a moral issue worth worrying about. I won't argue for my specific pain-oriented version of the view here (that's going to be a whole book someday) but I will defend the general view about the importance of a mind.
First, let's look at the view that the fetus is worth protecting because it's an instance of human life. If "human life" just means "something alive that has human DNA", there's tons of human life out there that we rightly don't have concern for. The life forms I'm talking about are our individual cells. Nobody crusades to ban liposuction because it slaughters millions of human cells in a weight-loss genocide. As all of us understand, being alive and human-DNA-containing isn't enough.
Furthermore, it seems to me that the fact that something is human doesn't really play any essential role in how we morally regard it. Think of Yoda or ET or Spock or Athena or Frodo. Killing any of them would be just as evil as killing a human being. Their moral status doesn't arise out of their being members of the human species, since they're not -- it arises out of something else. It seems pretty clear to me that we detect their moral status by seeing that they can think and reason and love and feel happy and care about others. (They're also benevolent creatures, on top of that, so we like them a lot.) All these things are aspects of their minds, and that's where our obligations towards them are grounded.
Don't be thrown off by the fact that all the examples I've cited are fictional. There probably are actual examples of friendly non-humans with minds somewhere in the far reaches of the universe, and if we ever meet them, I hope we don't do something stupid and kill them all. If you share this hope, you probably understand that being an object of moral concern isn't really about being human. Instead, it has something to do with having a mind. I'm guessing that your friendly attitudes towards fictional non-humans come out of the same deep understanding.
Now let's look at the claim that the fetus' moral status comes out of its having the potential to become a unique intelligent being. This is one of those claims that can seem fairly hard to argue either for or against, since it's hard to find other test cases for whether the potential to become a unique intelligent being makes something morally valuable. But as it turns out, such test cases have become available.
With the new technologies we're developing these days, most of the cellular nuclei in the world can be grown into unique intelligent beings. Just scoop out the nucleus of a fertilized egg, and plug a nucleus from some body cell in its place. Put the fertilized egg into the right part of a woman, and nine months later a child will be born. The child's genetic material will be derived entirely from the body cell nucleus that you stuck in. So we've basically got the potential for a unique intelligent being in every single body cell. If moral status comes out of potential to make a unique intelligent being, liposuction is a horrific evil, because it destroys millions of potential intelligent beings.
I've been describing the science behind reproductive cloning. If you think cloning is immoral, that doesn't make any difference to the argument -- the argument depends only the possibility of cloning, not its morality. And the fact that you have to put the nucleus into the right environment to develop its potential doesn't block the argument either -- fetuses themselves have to be put into the right environment for their potential to develop.
The objection that the resulting person (a clone) isn't sufficiently unique doesn't really work either. Plenty of our body cells have mutations in them that will result in slight genetic variation from the parent. So you'll get a slight bit of genetic variation. And that's before environmental differences do all their mighty work in making the clone into a truly unique person (really, this is probably the thing to look at the most). Another problem is that if you impose a strong requirement of genetic uniqueness before potential intelligent beings attain moral status, you end up having to say that identical twins can be aborted. At that point, the position just starts looking really weird.
What seems like the simple and obvious right answer to me is that we only have moral obligations to creatures with minds. This isn't to rule out the possibility that we have obligations to the higher animals -- for example, obligations not to beat up dogs and cats. After all, they have minds of some sort, with the capacity for pleasure, pain, beliefs, and desires. (Some philosophers deny the belief/desire stuff for animals because they think beliefs and desires are necessarily tied to language, but that has always seemed wrong to me.) So we have some obligations to them too. It's plausible that certain complex moral features of creatures -- perhaps a self-conception or a capacity for reason -- cause us to have more complex obligations towards them.
In any case, I think it's fairly obvious that when it comes to moral status, minds are what it's all about.
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