Sunday, March 26, 2006

For Moral Status, You've Gotta Have a Mind

[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.

25 comments:

Aidan said...

Not that I feel any great desire in general to defend conservative stances on abortion, but I think there are a couple of suspect moves, or at least unclarities, in your argument. Here's the main one. You write:

'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.'

If these are the kind of criteria we use for the right sort of mindedness for us to have moral obligations, then it's not at all clear young children count. And appeal to potential for manifesting these traits looks just as illicit here as with the views you critise (I'm not yet convinced that this is in fact all that illicit, but I'll leave that aside for now).

So if manifesting sufficiently rich intentional capacities (to use too many big words) is what's important for determining moral obligation, I think we're in serious trouble; it looks like a criteria that wildly undergenerates - we have obligations to Mr Spock and Frodo, but not a one-month-old human child.

I take it that you were trying to avoid something like this charge in the final paragraph (though with respect to animals rather than young humans), but I think you're understating the difficulties in showing that capacities to feel pain and pleasure, etc, have the kind of association that is required here to mindedness of the sort you take to be morally significant. If it's just taken as obvious, I think your opponent might with some justice accuse you of presenting an argument that rests on a way of drawing the line between the minded and the not-minded that's as controversial as the distinction between creatures that are or are morally significant that it was meant to illuminate. If it's not assumed, but acknowledged to demand argumentation, I'm not sure I've seen the argument yet.

Phew. Sorry for how wordy this comment is - in my defense I've just been reading a particularly badly written paper by McDowell.

Aidan said...

Ok, I want to add a brief summary of what I was groping to say earlier, since I'm not happy with how I said it.

You say that it's pretty obvious that when it comes to moral status, it's all about minds. I'm responding; that's only obvious (if at all) on certain accounts of what it takes to have a mind (or at least, what criteria we should use to determine if a creature has a mind), and you haven't been clear on that.

The first set of criteria for mindedness look pretty uncontroversial, but now it's not at all obvious that it's all and only creatures who display those traits that we take to have moral significance. Capacities to feel pain, etc, look like better candidates for traits that morally significant creatures should display, but it's not clear then that minds are the key factor.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Just to be clear here, Aidan, I'm using "mind" to refer to a very broad range of mental phenomena. They don't just have to be states like beliefs and desires that have propositional content. Pleasure and pain, or even color-experiences are sufficient for mind as I'm talking about it. (uh, these don't have propositional content, right? if I remember correctly, even Tye says there's some difference between their content and real propositional content, though I can't remember exactly what.)

Aidan said...

I wasn't taking you to be restricting attention to mental states having propositional content. Did I say anything to suggest otherwise? But anyway, if the conclusion you're pushing for is just that the creatures we have moral obligations towards are those displaying minimal mental capacities, then the following was misleading:

'It seems pretty clear to me that we detect their [ET, Mr Spock, etc] moral status by seeing that they can think and reason and love and feel happy and care about others.'

This suggests a stronger claim, since the thought seems to be that moral status is tied to behavior indicative of a quite sophisticated mental life (since as you say, that's how we'd detect their moral status were such a case to arise). So I was taking you to be sliding between the stronger claim and the weaker one.

So let me see if this is a fair account of what you're up to in the first part of the post. You want to defend a view according to which it's capacity to feel pain that's key, but not in this post. So you're going to push the more general claim that it's just some mental capacities that we hold relevant to determining moral status. The opposed claim that fetal life gets its value from being human is bad because it misses the common factor in our deeming certain human creatures and other (perhaps merely possible, perhaps actual) creatures manifesting mental capacities to have a priveledged moral status (and crucially, this common factor is absent in, say, first-trimester foetuses, so the *real* reason we think that children and adult humans make moral demands on us doesn't support the conclusion that the foetus has that moral status from conception).

If that's the dialectic, I think I can explain why I was thrown by the passage quoted above. As I tried to articulate, I didn't see how the quite of behaviour it discussed would have the kind of relevance for moral status the passage suggested it would have. But if you were just generalising your pain thesis, and including a few examples of other mental states a creature might have that might justify assigning it a different moral status to, say, a tree, then I can see I was off-track above. Am I more on track now?

Man, I really should get the homework I have due tomorrow morning done, and stop posting blog responses.

david said...

Just a quick pedagogical point. When you are making the case that DNA is not necessary for moral status, you might consider looking at historical examples in addition to sci-fi examples. For instance, you could argue like this:

Not so long ago, we didn't know there was any such thing as DNA, so our biological theories didn't give any significant role to micro-level objects like DNA. Those biological theories could have (but didn't) turn out to be correct. If they had turned out to be correct, then it would be the case that nobody has human DNA. But even if this were the case, it wouldn't be the case that nobody has moral status. Thus, DNA cannot be necessary for moral status.

I have found that in some cases, this is a fairly effective reply to people who don't like the first type of approach, because it mentions aliens, etc., and is thus too 'far-fetched' (or whatever) for them.

Aidan said...

Sorry David, forgive me, but I don't see how this is a 'historical example' - it looks like it's explicitly counterfactual. And while Neil's aliens possibility isn't nomologically impossible, yours looks like it might well be; so if anything, Neil's cases are substantially less problematic, even if people tend to find them more plausible.

Richard said...

Neil, while I agree with your conclusions, your characterization of conservative positions seems awfully straw-mannish.

The position we need to argue against is not that human cells have moral status, nor that anything which could be turned into a human being has moral status. Rather, the claim is that actual (biological) human beings have moral status. The conservative sees the fetus as a human organism, not merely "cells with human DNA". The cloning example is no help here, since what you describe is a procedure to turn cells into human beings. But the cell itself is not itself already a whole natural organism like a fetus is.

Now, I don't much like the conservative's biologistic/teleological position here. But it needs to be addressed.

david said...

Well, yes, I was speaking loosely when I called it a historical example.

I don't know if the case I describe is nomologically impossible. If 'nomologically impossible' means 'inconsistent with physical laws,' I doubt it. I'm no physicist, but I would be surprised if there were physical laws guaranteeing that DNA exists wherever people exist.

More to the point: Even if the case is nomologically impossible, I'm not sure I see the relevance of that. I think the case is clearly logically possible, and I don't see why that isn't all you need to use the case.

david said...

Aidan, I just re-read my earlier comment, and I think I know what you might have meant by your 'nomological impossibility' point. I said:

"Not so long ago, we didn't know there was any such thing as DNA, so our biological theories didn't give any significant role to micro-level objects like DNA. Those biological theories could have (but didn't) turn out to be correct."

I think you might be thinking that it could be nomologically impossible for 'micro-level objects' not to have a significant role. That seems more plausible to me than the claim that it could be nomologically impossible for DNA not to have a significant role. However, the case doesn't really require that micro-level objects have no significant role. It only requires that DNA has no significant role.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Richard, I think the arguments I present in the first part work against that position. Biological humanity clearly isn't a necessary condition for moral worth, since we regard lots of nonhuman creatures as morally worthy. (of course, this isn't enough for the argument, since I need to show that it isn't a sufficient condition). But when we look at how we discover the worth of these creatures, it starts to look odd that there would be any strong connection betweeen biological humanity and moral worth. We discover their worth not by looking at their species membership, but by looking at their minds. What unifies the different creatures we see as morally worthy? The simplest explanation seems to involve their minds.

The point of the cloning example is to respond to the Don Marquis kind of argument where potential personhood is seen as conveying a special kind of moral status. The point is that obligations to potential persons would entail our having to save cellular nuclei, since (given the possibility of cloning) they're all potential persons too.

This post was written for a lay audience, which introduces some unclarity.

Richard said...

Fair enough, my comment was probably overly harsh for what was a fine post overall. To hammer the last nail into the pro-lifer's coffin, I think you just need to address the following response:

[puts on conservative hat]
We can agree that minds play an important role, and that it's cognitively advanced species that matter here. But humans and hobbits are cognitively advanced species. They matter. Human and hobbit fetuses are humans or hobbits (respectively). So they matter too.

Another way to put the point is to say that fetuses are cognitively advanced creatures. Of course, their current time-slice is comparatively underdeveloped. But this very organism, one and the same individual, would naturally develop into a fully mentalistic person. The fetus and the person are one and the same individual, so if you kill the fetus, then (by the law of identity) you kill the person.
[/hat]

(Myself, I deny that people were ever fetuses, in the sense of identity which has moral signifiance - i.e. personal identity. I think that we replace our fetuses instead. But the biologistic picture does take some arguing against. Your point about "what we look for" is helpful, but probably not sufficient on its own.)

Jonathan said...

I worry about the positive view, Neil. You say:

a capacity for pain is really what makes fetal life merit our moral concern.

Two worries. First, do you really want to commit to the moral insignificance of any being that has no capacity for pain? What if Putnam's super-spartans showed up? Second, an epistemic worry. For all that neuroscientists get excited about this sort of thing, we don't really understand how the phenomenology of pain works, and we don't really have any good way to know what sorts of things can and cannot feel pain. What makes you so sure about the first trimester? Third (ok, I just thought of a third one), most people think that animals can feel pain, but almost everyone thinks it's ok to kill them if they're not going to be well-taken-care-of. Indeed many people think it's ok to kill them if it'll make a meal slightly tastier. If it's all about pain, then why do animals have fewer rights than people?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Jonathan, I'm actually an old-school hedonic utilitarian when it comes to normative ethics. Do to the Superspartans whatever amuses you. Animals have more rights than people without minds, because they have minds.

In the official version of the post, I cited this JAMA article to support my claims about fetal pain. Apparently, scientists think that thalamocortical connections are a necessary condition for pain experiences in humans, and first-trimester fetuses lack those.

Anonymous said...

What about the environment? What about sacred non-existents? What about groups (nations, clubs)? Can't these things be wronged?

Neil Sinhababu said...

By the way, Richard, I think the position you describe is harder to argue against.

Anonymous, I think we talk in a metaphorical way when we discuss wronging those things. It's like when we say that the heat-seeking missile knows where the airplane is. This isn't real knowledge, but a metaphor thereof.

Anonymous said...

Maybe, but that's something you'd need to defend in order to establish your strong claim of necessity (i.e. no moral status without the right mental capacities). Moreover, it doesn't seem true of (e.g.) the nation case, about which the more natural position seems to be that the truth of such claims (e.g. "The nation of Japan was harmed by economic sanctions") is parasitic on genuine harms to real citizens.

Anyway, back to your main claim, what about entities who presently lack the relevant capacities but who will subsequently regain them? Given the way the future will unfold, can't they be harmed prior to regaining their senses? If yes, you've overstated your case. But even if not, our talk about harming such entities certainly doesn't seem metaphorical.

PS. Check out Liz Harman's new paper: "Sacred Mountains and Beloved Fetuses".

Neil Sinhababu said...

If we regard harming a nation as harming many of the residents of the nation, then there are actual minds involved, and everything works. I'd regard other talk of harming a nation as metaphorical.

You can certainly harm someone that doesn't exist yet. (See Justin's comment on the other thread, and my response, for a discussion of this.) But if they never exist, you can't harm them. So preventing someone from existing doesn't harm anyone.

Anonymous said...

Re: the first point, I agree that the analysis would apply *if* we understand harm to a nation (e.g.) as harm to its (mentally endowed) population. In fact, I don't think this is a good analysis, since (sticking to this one case) when we talk about harm to a nation we don't mean harm just to those mentally endowed entities who happen to carry the relevant passport. We mean (something more like) obstacles to future growth and influence, the decline of industries, compromising the integrity of various social structures, decreasing the likelihood of a prosperous future that had seemed likely prior to the action, etc.. Recalling your prior analogy (i.e. that, a la the missile case, harm to nations "isn't real [harm], but a metaphor thereof"), it seems to me anyway that such bad consequences are both genuinely harmful and real (i.e. not merely metaphorical).

Re: your second point, the kind of case I had in mind concerned not those who don't (yet) exist, but rather existing individuals who (owing to some accident or whatever) happen to lack the relevant mental capacities but will subsequently regain them.

Jonathan said...

Something is fishy.

Neil sez: Jonathan, [1]I'm actually an old-school hedonic utilitarian when it comes to normative ethics. [2]Do to the Superspartans whatever amuses you. [3]Animals have more rights than people without minds, because they have minds. (My numbering)

So, [3] suggests that minds matter. The only way to consistently combine this with the [2] is to say that minds matter only when they have a capacity for pain. This seems unmotivated. Why think that minds matter when there's pain, but not otherwise?

And I'm not seeing any consistent way at all to combine [3] with [1].

Jonathan said...

Well, technically [3] can combine consistently with [1], where [1] is read literally as a claim about what view Neil has. I meant, of course, that [3] is inconsistent with hedonistic utilitarianism.

Neil Sinhababu said...

How is [3] inconsistent with [1]? The notion of rights I want here is something that will be grounded in hedonic value. The truth-values of rights claims will be grounded in the truth-values of claims about what system of permissions, protections, and obligations will maximize pleasure.

Jonathan said...

Huh. I guess I'm just having a hard time seeing how any purely maximizing hedonistic system can think that the presense of a mind has this kind of moral significance. Do you think that having a mind makes pleasure more pleasurable, and pain more painful?

Or, to put it more generally: why think that purely maximizing hedonistic considerations will favor a system according to which it's more important to keep the creatures with minds happy than those without them? (You seem to be conceding, unless I'm confused, that you don't have to have a mind to feel pain and pleasure.)

Neil Sinhababu said...

Oh, I never meant to concede that! Just the opposite-- I want to define "mind" broadly so that anything that experiences pleasure or pain has a mind. Experiential states are kinds of mental states. So to a maximizing hedonist, minds are in fact a big deal. Does this clear things up?

Jonathan said...

Aha! Ok, that helps.

So, help me to clarify your view. Do non-human animals have minds (and feel pain)? If no, then on your view, it seems that animals shouldn't have rights at all (except insofar as it makes up happy to endow them with rights). If yes, then presumably, something like vegetarianism is morally obligatory for most of us, no?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Many nonhuman animals have minds and feel pain. My views on eating them are widely regarded as amusing, and can be found here.