August 30, 2006
More On Minds
I'm excited that Ramesh Ponnuru has responded to my review of The Party of Death with a long article of his own. It goes into a few issues that I would've discussed in the review, if not for length limits. So if you liked Monday's Goldberg-Klein intra-ethnic conflict between this blog and the National Review, sit back and enjoy today's Indian-American action! (We were thinking of hiring George Allen for halftime entertainment, but we decided that'd be a bit too edgy.)
I argued in my review that the rights a creature has (including the right to life) depend on the nature of its mind. Ponnuru responds that they can't depend on the immediate state of a creature's mind:
It cannot be that human beings (or any other beings) have value because they have the immediately exercisable capacity to perform mental functions (or to laugh, sing, love, or mourn). Plainly people who are asleep, under anaesthesia, or in reversible comas have value.
Since basing value on immediately exercisable capacities won't work, Ponnuru suggests that we base it on what he calls the "radical capacity" to perform mental functions -- that is, the capacity to perform these functions at some future stage of one's existence. Since fetuses could mentally function as adults after a couple decades, they have the same right to life as adult humans.
But we don't ever base rights on radical capacities, and for good reason. If radical capacities were at the foundations of rights, fetuses would have the right to vote, hold property, marry, and do all sorts of other things, since they have the radical capacities for the mental qualities on which these rights depend.
So we need some intermediate position between the immediate and radical positions. Fortunately, there's one close at hand. Consider the way we talk about the mental qualities of sleeping people. When I'm asleep, you can still say that I desire John Edwards to become president, hope to get a job as a philosophy professor, and believe that today's Iranian youth will eventually democratize their country from within. This is what philosophers call the dispositional sense in which people have mental qualities. It's in the dispositional sense, too, that you can say I desire Edwards to become president even while I'm thinking about totally unrelated things. We certainly aren't talking about radical capacities when we attribute beliefs to people -- I have the radical capacity to believe a whole bunch of things that you shouldn't accuse me of believing, even when I'm asleep.
Embryos don't have dispositional beliefs, desires, or any other mental properties -- the neural hardware to support these simply hasn't shown up yet. And that's why it's untrue to say that an embryo wants anything at all. People who are sleeping, anesthetized, or in reversible comas can be said to have dispositional mental qualities -- we attribute desires and beliefs to them. The very same dispositional mental qualities tracked by our ordinary mental talk -- "belief", "desire", "hope" -- are the ones that most liberals would say moral status depends on.
My review criticizes Ponnuru for basing the right to life on biological humanity. In his article, Ponnuru thinks I've mischaracterized his position: "Sinhababu’s argument would be valid if I indeed treated biological humanity as a necessary condition for a right to life. Instead, I treat it as a sufficient condition." But then why is Ponnuru attacking the liberal view this way on page 86 of his book?: "By treating human organisms and "persons" as separate, though mostly overlapping, categories, it assumes that a distinction can be made between a person and the body that person merely "inhabits"." Ponnuru goes on to argue that making this distinction will commit liberals to a bad theory of how the mind and body relate. But it seems that his position, as expressed in his article, depends on a distinction that he rejects in the book. If "human organisms" and "persons" are not separate but overlapping categories, how can biological humanity be anything but a necessary and sufficient condition for personhood?
Ponnuru spends some time at the end of his article criticizing my suggestion that given the continuously variable nature of mental qualities, it's right to set birth as the point where the right to life begins. This is an issue on which I expect disagreement, and it's not unreasonable to think fetuses have some kind of right to life at the beginning of the third trimester when pain perception begins. (Personally, I think that fetal anesthesia should be required at that point for abortions, though the fact that the fetus is still probably below many animals' mental capacities makes it incorrect to attribute a right to life beyond that of animals.) A big part of the reason that many people think the right to life begins earlier, I'd say, is because they're simply confused about the nature of the fetus' mind, and fall into the ancient human temptation to posit minds where there aren't any. For this, as always, science and philosophy provide the cure.
Ponnuru says that "the right to vote isn’t as basic a human right as the right not to be deliberately killed." If by "basic" he means "significant", he's correct. But this doesn't mean that we should start treating humans as having a right to life even when it's clear that they don't have minds of any sort -- and when the sacrifices that this would impose on women are very large.
August 30, 2006 | Permalink
sit back and enjoy today's Indian-American action!
Any descendants of French Hugenots on the NRO staff?
Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Aug 30, 2006 10:43:42 PM
In his article, Ponnuru thinks I've mischaracterized his position: "Sinhababu’s argument would be valid if I indeed treated biological humanity as a necessary condition for a right to life. Instead, I treat it as a sufficient condition." But then why is Ponnuru attacking the liberal view this way on page 86 of his book?: "By treating human organisms and "persons" as separate, though mostly overlapping, categories, it assumes that a distinction can be made between a person and the body that person merely "inhabits"." Ponnuru goes on to argue that making this distinction will commit liberals to a bad theory of how the mind and body relate. But it seems that his position, as expressed in his article, depends on a distinction that he rejects in the book. If "human organisms" and "persons" are not separate but overlapping categories, how can biological humanity be anything but a necessary and sufficient condition for personhood?
I just don't get this at all. Who is arguing for what now?
Posted by: Stephen | Aug 30, 2006 11:25:55 PM
But then why is Ponnuru attacking the liberal view this way on page 86 of his book?: "By treating human organisms and "persons" as separate, though mostly overlapping, categories, it assumes that a distinction can be made between a person and the body that person merely "inhabits"."
I'm on your side in this debate (well, more or less, but definitely not on Ponnuru's), but you kind of ignored the part where he admits that he may have sloppily referred to "humanity" since humans are the only persons we know about right now. I think your argument succeeds here if your goal is to critique Ponnuru's expression of his argument in his book, but that's an argument about an argument, not about what's true. Ponnuru clearly believes that hobbits and aliens would have rights, at least if they have life cycles and mature capabilities akin to those of humans. As far as I can tell, you're not arguing that that belief traps him in an inconsistency, just that he didn't really say that in his book. But who cares about his book, we want to know the truth. So there's really no point in pursuing the issue.
Posted by: Christopher M | Aug 31, 2006 1:17:30 AM
I think that this radical capacity stuff is very strong. In fact, I think it's a lot stronger than Ramesh Ponnuru really wants it to be. Does anyone care to take a stab at what the full implications of this view are? I'll try later, but I'm tired at the moment.
Posted by: Julian Elson | Aug 31, 2006 2:07:20 AM
Isn't the cat let slip out of the bag [*1] when "capacity" is turned into "immediately exercisable capacity" and that becomes the opposite of "radical capacity" in a dichotomy ...
... with the most ordinary sense of the term capacity lost in the excluded middle?
I am not incapacitated as a typist by falling asleep, but I may be if I develop carpal tunnel syndrome. If there is every prospect of that getting better with proper care, I would be temporarily incapacitated, and if not, permanently incapacitated. The ability to use simple adjectives flags that we are not working with extreme sense of the word here.
Between this "radical" capacity and this "immediately exerciseable" capacity is the normal sense of capacity. In the sense that the capacity utilization of a factory is not recorded as dropping from 85% to 0% because there was a blizzard and factories were closed for two days. In the sense that ever since I have lived here I have had the capacity to walk to the grocery store, even if the grocery store happens to be closed or I happen to be asleep for part of the day.
WRT abortion, for me there are two questions. The first is in what circumstances it is a legitimate social decision whether to allow abortion, and the second is in what circumstances abortion is right or wrong. And I believe that this common sense of capacity may be involved in the first, just as this post suggestes it is involved in the second.
In the first question, the issue is viability, since if the fetus is not viable independent of one particular woman, it is a biological dependent of that one woman, which makes it an intrinsically private decision.
However, the specific boundary line is subject to technological change. The earlier that a fetus may be raised successfully in vitro, the earlier the fetus becomes capable of being (in the ordinary sense) dependent on society rather than on one particular woman.
[*1 As I write these words, my cat is commenting, but I am reasonably confident she is either commenting on whether or not neck scratching or bowl filling should be performed on my part, and not on whether or not I should playing with the phrase let the cat slip out of the bag.]
Posted by: BruceMcF | Aug 31, 2006 7:37:11 AM
Moving Mountains By Moving Minds. This could be easier than one might think. At least that's what Karl Rove would probably say. What a leader. Trust me Neil, John Edwards can only become President of the United States in your mind.
My main man Mel, the Uniter, Martinez has a message to John Edwards and this so-called Presidential "One America" quest. You were a Senator and could have done something in your life besides creating a Trial-Lawyer-Feeding-Frenzy assault on doctors who deliver babies just to make millions and millions. Now OBGYNs are afraid of Trial Lawyers and are running every single medical test under the sun to protect themselves. Its called Defensive Medicine. Patients, their insurance companies and tax payers are paying these added costs and health care costs are out of control in America. HHS Sec. said last week about the rising cost of health insurance, "Employers hair is on fire over this."
Martinez Cup-O-Tea for ezra, neil and all liberals. Liberals hate the young. Senator Martinez is shedding Florida Sunshine and Fairness in America. The Tax Equity and Affordability Act: A Solution for the Uninsured
A single person will get $2,000 from the Federal Government to purchase health insurance. A 25-year-old male can purchase portable HSA health insurance for $500 a year (non-smoker) and deposit the rest of the tax credit into their Health Savings Account (HSA), tax free. A family will get $4,000 a year and a 30-year old couple with 2 children can get HSA health insurance for less than $2,000 and some some states like Pennsylvania its even less expensive which results in higher HSA deposits, which may be placed in mutual funds. But only at your option. While it is true HSA funds may be used to purchase new cars and beer by paying a 10% penalty, most young people are smarter than that.
Nina Owcharenko, Senior Policy Analyst for Health Care in the Center for Health Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation is all over this. Guess who has a Heritage employee as an appointed insurance agent? If you say, "Your wife," you would be entirely too correct.
Nina Reports today on TEA AcT: Ownership and Portability. This tax credit option would also allow individuals to own the health care policies that they purchase. Ownership automatically creates a new dynamic in the health care system. Individuals would have a direct impact on the products, services, and delivery of care that are made available to them. After they secure access to health insurance, they would also be able to keep it regardless of any changes in their work status. This would reduce the heavy churning in the existing health insurance system that directly contributes to uninsurance. In other words, personal ownership of health policies would largely resolve the major problems of gaps in health care coverage and the absence of portability. Insurers and providers would also be held accountable for their performance by the patients themselves, not by employers or government bureaucrats.
Congress has done virtually nothing to address the persistent problem of the uninsured or the pernicious dynamics of the distorted health care market, which frustrates consumer choice and open competition. Current tax and regulatory policies are outdated and growing less relevant to the everyday lives of Americans. Labor markets are increasingly fluid, with millions of Americans changing jobs and even careers, and the older system of employer-based health coverage is declining.
Meanwhile, uninsured individuals and families must often secure medical services through the costly and inefficient system of uncompensated care. Preserving the status quo does nothing to help the uninsured and fuels efforts to expand government-run health care programs, thus increasing government control over the personal health care decisions of Americans.
Members of Congress should seize the opportunity to provide individuals with the ability to control their own health care decisions. The TEA Act gives individuals who do not fit into the current health care system an alternative way to secure private health care coverage. The bill embodies sound public policy and is based on free-market principles that promote fairness, choice, and personal ownership.
Democrats, Duck & Cover, the Shockwave of reform is at hand. When I worked on Mel's campaign I was paid with a T-Shirt. It says: Bush / Martinez FAN. that brought a big smile on my face because I was a member of Fortis Action Network (FAN).
In Neil's MIND this post will be removed. If it stays, just remember you heard it here first. ezra will have the most informed reply to Nina that will come from the left.
Neil: Wake UP before its too late.
Posted by: Ron Greiner | Aug 31, 2006 9:02:06 AM
In fact, I think it's a lot stronger than Ramesh Ponnuru really wants it to be
For example, radical capacity doesn't prevent me from using people in irreversible comas for any manner of experiment or fun or violence. I doubt Ponnuru would take it that far, but what's to stop him?
There's another angle to take on all this, but I don't know what ethical approach might result from it. From an article (publication date still TBA to me), drawn from my diss., which treats the human/animal boundary in the Middle Ages:
[I've just summarized Coetzee's Lives of Animals] But the route Coetzee’s Costello takes—-through art rather than philosophy—-does not take her outside Wolfe’s [Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites] argument that, so far as animal rights thinkers are concerned, “the animal other matters only insofar as it mirrors…the human form that is the ‘source’ of recognizing animals as bodies that have sensations, feel pain, and so on.” In these systems the subject whose capacity for feeling pain, fear, and love is most acute, that is, the human, becomes the model for determining other creatures’ capacities for these traits and, therefore, their rights. What Costello imagines Sultan [a captive ape] thinking is what she might think in such a situation; because she would be distressed, Sultan must be rescued. Thus the human reenters the discussion under another sign: “human” feelings are determinates of animal rights because they are what matter most in a human umwelt. This umwelt is imagined not as an umwelt, not as subjective and inescapably immanent after all, but rather, at least insofar as it grounds ethics, as an objective understanding of the world that describes ideal capacities for measuring sensation and desire that transcend any sensory or appetitive limitations. This is ethical provincialism, whether in Levinas, Lacan, and Heidegger’s assurance of the uniqueness of human subjectivity or in animal rights philosophers’ idealized human consciousness or corporeal sensitivity disguised under names such as “subject-of-a-life.”
After a while, I turn to Derrida's "The Animal that Therefore I Am (More to Follow)." Critical Inquiry 28 (2002): 369-418, which, along with his other work (sadly interrupted) on animals, I highly recommend for getting us pass the impasse of Ponnuru v. Sinhababu (or, mutatis mutandis, the debate of the two Peters, Carruthers v. Singer).
Posted by: Karl the Grouchy Medievalist | Aug 31, 2006 10:32:01 AM
Ron reminds me of the Time Cube. Which sounds interesting, but there's really no way to play off it. Give me Fred Colon or Captain Carrot any day.
Posted by: Cyrus | Aug 31, 2006 10:34:18 AM
Seriously, why is Ron still on the blog? He can't make a single post without plugging HSAs. Fred and Toke are contrarians, but they're good at addressing the issue at hand.
Posted by: Kylroy | Aug 31, 2006 10:55:06 AM
Kylroy: Your website starts off with a quote from America's first Republican:
"The perfect liberty they seek is the liberty of making slaves of other people." -- Abraham Lincoln
Maybe ezra lets me post here because I enrolled America's 1st tax free HSA, back when they were called MSAs. Maybe ezra wants you to prove me wrong.
Kylroy you can compete in the market place of ideas. Banning is not always the solution to your problem.
I am the only one who says that John Edwards initiated a Trial-Lawyer-Feeding-Frenzy on the medical specialty of delivering babies. Now everybody is paying the price for Edwards and other trial lawyers to line their pockets to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Defend that if you want.
The President said last week, "These trial lawyers need to back off."
Posted by: Ron Greiner | Aug 31, 2006 11:55:34 AM
In what strange world is uncompensated care "inefficient"?
I walk in, I pay my bill and we're all done. There are no large companies, no beuracracies, no governmental departments, no fleet of medical insurance coders and reams of paperwork.
Costly? yes in the short term, but certainly not ineffiecient.
also "While it is true HSA funds may be used to purchase new cars and beer by paying a 10% penalty, most young people are smarter than that."
I dont know what Ivy league school he went to (and I dont care to waste the energy to research it.) But a good % of any large amount of money that college students come into filters into cds, electronics, and beer. Its already a known problem in the loan system.
..and Kylroy.. I agree, that thing seems like it was cut and pasted from some other posting.
Posted by: david b | Aug 31, 2006 11:56:24 AM
Christopher M. makes good points on "necessary".
With regard to animal cruelty and mental capacity, I think there is an additional factor. People with obvious mental capacity have attachments and or desires for their pets, and those desires should be respected. Assume the kitty in the reversible coma - with no mental capacity to speak of, there still is a moral claim that the wishes of those that care about said kitty be respected.
I think this is a problematic point for abortion ( I am pretty fervently pro-choice). The parent's have a much stronger similar claim on a fetus, or child. But so do grand parents, and for that matter in a certain type of culture, society as a whole might come to view all human fetuses. The problem of disentangling those interests is very difficult in my opinion, although, I think the trump card is that a woman gets to control her body.
The problems that I am speaking of actually becomes much, much more obvious if you grant for the sake of argument that the mental capacities required for human level rights are not present until 6 months after birth. I think from that perspective it is much easier to see society's (seemingly legitimate) sense of attachment to the new born (even more so to grand parents). Granting parents the right to terminate up till 6 months, I think clarifies that there is more going on than mental capacities. Like most things, it can get very complicated.
Anyways, great review and response to Ponnuru.
Posted by: theCoach | Aug 31, 2006 1:17:17 PM
Sorry david b, I have never discussed my main man Mel "The Uniter" Martinez and the new TEA Act before.
Nina's comments above are dated today.
You are also incorrect about your so-called reams of paper and claims processing. People with insurance get the predetermined cost for a service or supply. Only the people without insurance are paying 3 times more. Your doctor couldn't tell you what his charges are at the time of service.
Also david, if you get testicular cancer, would paying $120,000 out of your checkbook cause you grief? If you can't pay you better have insurance so everybody else isn't stuck paying your bills.
The point is, if one person spends their funds on beer, that should not stop those who will take care of themselves. That's your choice david b. My son is 22 and he has a brand new baby. It's not his fault that some college students have low IQ's like you suggest.
ezra will have a much better handle on explaining the TEA Act than you. I think ezra will like it because he is open minded, sometimes.
Posted by: Ron Greiner | Aug 31, 2006 1:38:49 PM
Assume the kitty in the reversible coma - with no mental capacity to speak of, there still is a moral claim that the wishes of those that care about said kitty be respected.
In other words,don't harm the kitty, not be of the kitty itself, but because of what the kitty represents to someone else. I think this is a varient of property rights, as articulated in such places as here:
He that kills another’s ox, sins, not through killing the ox, but through injuring another man in his property. Wherefore this is not a species of the sin of murder but of the sin of theft or robbery.”
Posted by: Karl the Grouchy Medievalist | Aug 31, 2006 1:55:40 PM
Thanks for the response, but I think there is a notable difference, as I would not really classify it as property rights, or at the very least it is not a neat fit. Consider Terry Shiavo. If you grant that she was in an irreversible coma, the decision goes to her husband not because she is his property. Rather it has to do with an emotional attachment to her, that I regard as having moral weight. You could classify it as guardianship, but I don't think that is quite right morally, although that is probably the only way to classifiy the implications in a legal sense.
Posted by: theCoach | Aug 31, 2006 2:58:40 PM
Pharyngula has some business up about fetal pain and anaesthesia for abortions.
Posted by: Josh | Aug 31, 2006 4:21:46 PM
As a reply to Christopher: I appreciate Ponnuru's qualification about how he was only sticking to the actual world as we know it. But if he's only saying that humanity and personhood are co-instantiated throughout the actual world, it's entirely mysterious how his argument (I cover it in somewhat more detail in my review) is supposed to go. Basically he's just offering a negation of our claim, but no actual argument against it.
And yes, it is an argument about an argument, and your criticisms of that are perfectly fair.
Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Aug 31, 2006 6:25:47 PM
If you grant that she was in an irreversible coma, the decision goes to her husband not because she is his property. Rather it has to do with an emotional attachment to her,
Let's imagine a Michael Schiavo who cruelly wanted to keep his wife alive in the (mistaken) notion that she was suffering, while her parents wanted her to be allowed to die. Michael still gets to make the call. Motive and emotional attachment aren't the determinants here; what matters is legal proximity, which is a varient of property rights: spouse trumps parents. It's an arbitrary boundary (to a degree, as arbitrary, we might say, as saying that a foetus becomes a person outside the womb), but I wouldn't want it any other way. As the Werewolf says, we have to draw the line somewhere. Otherwise, we'd have to begin measuring emotional attachment, which I can see resulting only in some kind of modern day King Lear with all affected parties--rather, all parties who feel they've been affected--pleading their affection before some judge. Spouse has to trump parent. Parent might just as well trump spouse, but some line has to be fixed to determine who gets to make decisions about a person or piece of flesh or plot of land when that thing can't be heard to make decisions for itself.
In short, as you said, emotional attachments and property attachments don't map perfectly onto one another, but in a legal sense, it seems that the fit is close enough.
What else I can't quite get a handle on is where the state or community fits into this.
So far as I can gather, Ponnuru's book seems to be a lot of solemnly intoned elementary points that don't engage with the necessary material or ideas. Perhaps good enough for a student's first draft, but not good enough to be taken seriously. In other words, he hasn't done his homework. I think he can be ignored.
Posted by: Karl the Grouchy Medievalist | Aug 31, 2006 7:59:49 PM
On topic: theCoach - Whose interests can trump that of the woman? Regardless of how fervently her partner, her partner's parents, or her parents may wish her to produce offspring, I don't see how their wishes can overrule the woman's right to the integrity of her body.
Off topic: Ron, you've given me the impetus to do something I've been meaning to do for a few weeks: Go out and get a really good comment killfile script. The one I have now works for scienceblogs, but I understand there are some that will take care of most others. Once I've got it, your verbiage will turn into "dumb comment removed". And I won't feel the least bit guilty.
Posted by: jackd | Aug 31, 2006 10:26:10 PM
But we don't ever base rights on radical capacities, and for good reason. If radical capacities were at the foundations of rights, fetuses would have the right to vote, hold property, marry, and do all sorts of other things, since they have the radical capacities for the mental qualities on which these rights depend.
This is where Ponnuru's distinction between basic and other rights comes in. He agrees that the rights to vote, hold property, and so on, don't apply merely on the basis of radical capacities, because such rights aren't basic rights (he might have called them "radical" rights). He seems to hold that the most basic rights (of which right to life and possibly some kind of broad respect may be the only examples) apply simply in virtue of being human. Now, this isn't a strong argument by itself, in that he doesn't really give much reason to accept it, but it's an alternative to your claim that we must turn to an intermediate view of capacities to base rights on, the necessity of which step you don't argue further for either.
The notion of dispositional capacities is useful, but as Coach points out, it can't fully solve the problem. The dispositional mental capacities of infants up to as old as a few years are less than those of some animals in which we don't recognize a right to life similar to that accorded to infants. And of course some adult humans have diminished mental capacities, below those of some higher animals, and yet are treated as having a full right to life.
In general, it's a big challenge for those who take a pro-choice view based on mental capacities to explain how we should deal with infants and animals. Coach is undoubtedly on the right track with his or her suggestions, but the issues are pretty hard to deal with in a fully satisfying way.
Ponnuru's view has its own problems, as I've mentioned elsewhere. In my view, this is an issue without any obvious cut and dried solutions, despite the rhetoric one often hears on both sides.
Posted by: Sanpete | Sep 1, 2006 1:44:36 AM
Instead of focusing on sleep, I want to focus on a certain kind of (imaginary) coma.
Joe is some ordinary 33 year old guy. One night while driving home from work, he gets into a terrible accident, leaving im in a reversible coma. Here's how the coma works. Right now, Joe's brain is mush -- he has the same occurrent mental states that a newly conceived human being would have (i.e., presumably none). Six months from now, given ordinary therapy, medicine, etc., Joe will begin to be capable of pain perception. Nine months from now, Joe will have the same sorts of occurrent mental states a newborn infant would have. And 3 years from now, say, Joe will have made a complete recovery, even remembering everything that happened before his accident.
The idea, then, is that both in terms of occurrent mental states and in terms of mental capacities (short term "immediate" capacities, long term "radical" capacities, whatever), Joe is *exactly* like a fetus. His "recovery" will mirror a fetus's "development" perfectly. So then, the question is whether, on your view, Joe would have the same moral status as a fetus. If so, killing him would be just as morally permissible as abortion is.
You could bite the bullet here and say Joe really is just like a fetus, but I take it that this will be pretty unattractive. Another idea would be to try to point to the fact that Joe has an actual life history (including various forward-looking life plans, etc.) while a fetus has no such history, and try to draw a morally significant distinction between the two on this basis. Going this route would seem to involve complicating your present account though, since having a life history isn't a matter of having occurrent or dispositional mental states (again, the Joe/fetus case makes this clear). So then, how would you want to play it?
Posted by: Justin | Sep 1, 2006 4:01:51 AM
Good to see you here, Justin!
Here's what I'll say about your example. Consider the teletransportation cases, where all the information about your physical structure is beamed from Earth to Mars so that you can be reconstructed on Mars, exactly as you were, after they destroy your body on Earth. And suppose that instead of reforming you exactly as your old body is destroyed, they wait 9 months on Mars before re-forming you. Would it be okay, during those 9 months, for someone to destroy the machine on Mars so you'd never be re-formed?
This case looks sort of like that to me. What we have here is a situation where a person who existed in the past and will exist in the future temporarily doesn't exist. I don't really consider the current fetus-minded person in Joe's body to be Joe -- it lacks the relations of psychological continuity that personal identity reduces to. If you permanently and immediately reshape the molecular structure of my brain so that my skull suddenly contains a brain identical to that of Saddam Hussein, I'm gone forever. I don't continue to exist as that Neil-looking guy who wants to invade other countries to set up Baath Party hegemony in the Mideast.
Three years in the future, when we've got a guy exactly like pre-accident Joe, I might want to say he's the same guy as pre-accident Joe. (I'm not sure, though.) If so, it might end up being a case in which I'd have to reject the transitivity of personal identity. But I don't think that's a disaster in sufficiently weird cases -- this is another of Parfit's crazy fusion cases, I suppose. (In other words, post-accident Joe was fetus-brained Joe, and post-accident Joe was pre-accident Joe, but fetus-brained Joe wasn't pre-accident Joe.) I was always okay with rejecting transitivity in Parfit's fission cases, so why not in fusion cases?
So I'll say that fetus-brained Joe is not the same person as pre-accident Joe. Killing him isn't a crime because of what it does to him. If it's a crime, this is because it cuts short the life of pre-accident Joe. And this seems crazy, because I denied that pre-accident Joe even exists at the time. What we seem to have is a crime against someone who doesn't even exist at the time.
And here we go back to the teletransportation case. For any moral theory, temporally gappy people are going to be hell to deal with. It doesn't depend on whether you base moral value on dispositional mental properties or radical capacities or anything else. You'll end up with obligations to people who just aren't there.
On second thought, maybe this isn't so bad. We have obligations to dead people, sometimes, if we've made promises to them when they were alive. And maybe that's why we shouldn't kill fetus-brained Joe. It's not for his own sake. It's for the same sort of reason that we'd keep a promise to pre-accident Joe. And in this case, it's something on which his future existence depends.
Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 1, 2006 7:50:21 AM
Now, as is obvious, I'm not a philosopher, but what immediately strikes me: Joe's different from a foetus because he doesn't exist inside another person with rights.
You might argue that the community of fellow beings (whether human, posthuman, or otherwise) in which Joe exists constitutes a womb, not of course in a physical sense but in a pretty good analog for determining both the rights of both pregnant woman/foetus and community/Joe and the dependent nature of Joe's existence even when he was fully conscious. Except of course that the foetus never partially constituted and shaped the woman as Joe presumably constituted and shaped his community, and, of course, to make this analogy really work, you'd need an analog for men in my community/womb model(bullies who can't get pregnant whose stake in determining the rights of pregnant women is only emotional).
At any rate, you can see where I'm going with this. Ponnuru's pre-Darwinian, pre-Uexkull (the one b. 1864) humanism is tedious enough, but rights of individuals have to be understood in and through the community as well. Otherwise we're entirely in a fantasy land.
Posted by: Karl the Grouchy Medievalist | Sep 1, 2006 9:57:10 AM
The trouble is, Karl, if you somehow became rather small, lost your way, and ended up inside another person (massively improbable counterfactual, of course) we would care about you just as much as we did when you weren't lost. There would be serious questions of how to save you without infringing up on the rights of whoever you were inside, but we wouldn't stop caring about you.
Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 1, 2006 10:18:28 AM
Neil: I disagree with your views on gappy people, partly because of the sorts of reasons Justin gestures at here:
"Joe has an actual life history (including various forward-looking life plans, etc.) while a fetus has no such history, and try to draw a morally significant distinction between the two on this basis."
-- and partly because of reflections on personal experience. Taking the second one first:
I am epileptic. This means that there have been some (luckily, not many) episodes in what I think of as 'my life' in which my mind is, for a bit, completely absent. If sleep is like a computer being, well, asleep, in which case it might still be running a program, a grand mal seizure is like that same computer being struck by lightning and completely spazzing out, and then (over a period of a few hours, in which I am in a sleep deep enough that it's not clear that the word 'sleep' is the right one) rebooting.
I've always taken it to be an open question whether I should count as the 'same' person before and after. Moreover, I think it's very hard to answer, since there is no actual difference either in my experience or in the way I lead my life that would answer the question. I do, however, think it would be wrong of you to use the opportunity presented by my having a seizure to kill me, and that if you did, it would be murder.
Why do I think this? There are a lot of properties of persons that have this form: once started, they continue to exist either occurently or dispositionally (unless given up etc.), but they do not exist beforehand. Take, for instance, wanting to be a doctor: once I decide to become a doctor, I "want to be one" whether asleep or awake, whether thinking about it or not, until I decide that I'd rather be something else, or I just lose track of the whole idea. One way to think about these properties is to say: if I am to attribute them to someone dispositionally, then it has to be the case that I couldbe actually exhibiting/exercising them right now. But here the 'could' is unclear: 'could' relative to what set of assumed background conditions? Suppose I'm asleep: is the relevant sense 'could if I woke up'? Does it matter whether (say) I'm a very deep sleeper who normally takes about fifteen minutes to entertain anything aptly described as a thought? Should we not ascribe e.g. plans, ambitions, tastes, etc. to such a person? Personally, I think we clearly should, and those fifteen minutes are irrelevant. Similarly with most gaps that we know the person will recover from.
Also, there are a lot of properties that we attribute to people over time, and not just at an instant. Consider being in love: I think it's conceptually impossible to be really, seriously in love for only a second. It's just not that kind of property, any more than being a deeply creative artist or a true friend is.
Also, there are practical things -- aims, debts, obligations -- that do not 'mind the gap'.
Now: I imagine that there is some possible gap that's so long that it would make me think: while my attribution, to a person, of continuous and dispositional properties, and moral/practical properties like 'being obliged to do X', normally tolerates gaps, this is too much. Maybe a gap of a million years. But I think this is largely because it's hard to imagine a lot of the particular properties holding for that long. My obligation to make restitution to someone -- what happens to it when not only is the person long since dead, but the entire world has changed as radically as it probably would over a million years? My being in love -- oh dear, my beloved died almost a million years ago! How does it absorb that fact? My ambition to become a doctor: are there still doctors after a million years? Are there still people, other than me? Etc.
However, a gap of nine months can be accommodated, and should be. The person is still a going concern. The gappy person would still have her ambitions and aspirations, and killing her would be as much a violation of her autonomy as it would be without the gap. She is still a friend, a mother, a mediocre athlete, and so on.
Note this, though: it makes no sense to talk about people having these properties before they have e.g. initiated a friendship, decided to become a doctor, etc. The fact that we can quite happily talk about someone in a gap being a good athlete or a good friend in no way shows that we can do so either before that person has ever exercised any athletic capacity, had any friends, etc., or after that capacity is permanently gone.
Posted by: hilzoy | Sep 1, 2006 1:51:13 PM
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