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March 26, 2006

For Moral Status, You've Gotta Have a Mind

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

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.

March 26, 2006 in Politics of Choice | Permalink


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In other words, Ender's Game rocks, but Ender's Shadow sucks.

Posted by: Mickle | Mar 26, 2006 5:55:25 PM

The first comment is by Mickle from Westmark! I'm feeling good about this thread already...

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 26, 2006 6:01:41 PM


The study about fetal pain -- isn't that the study authored in part by people with connections to abortion clinics and the abortion lobby (as discussed in my post here)?

I think so. That's about as bulletproof as those cigarette company studies showing no connection between smoking and lung cancer.

As for your main argument, there is much to commend it, but I think it too easily dismisses the significance of snuffing out potential.

It would have been a tragedy for the musical world if Mozart had been killed at age 18 rather than 35, no?

But, given what we know, would it have been no tragedy for the musical world if he had been killed at age 1, because he had not yet shown any musical talent?

Of course not. It would have been an even bigger tragedy.

Where does your argument take account of the real loss in destroying the potential for life?

Posted by: Comrade Patterico | Mar 26, 2006 6:19:00 PM

Why does a fetus have to have a "mind" (as you define it) before it becomes an object of moral concern?

Or are you confusing a moral concern with a legal concern?

They are not the same.

I can, and do, support the idea that an adult woman in her first trimester of pregnancy seek, if she so desires, an abortion without any governmental interference. It does not follow that her action is, within that parameter, automatically moral. Since the majority of first trimester abortions are done for reasons other than health of mother or fetus, I would judge such convenience abortions immoral. I would not celebrate them nor be proud of them. I wouldn't criminalize adultery, but I find the majority of it as immoral.

Not all conservatives believe "conception" is the demarcation where government should ban abortion. As Patterico explored earlier, there is quite a lot of "gray" area where it concerns "personhood".

Obviously, you have outliers such as Peter Singer or Dr. Cranford who would legally strip children under two or the disabled of their "personhood" delivering their fate to the sole discretion of their caretakers.

Hopefully we will be a little wiser before following in the path of the Netherlands or North Korea where it concerns eugenics.

Posted by: Darleen | Mar 26, 2006 6:21:25 PM

If a bunch of tobacco scientists could get their research published in a top-notch peer-reviewed journal (which JAMA is) I'd believe them.

The trouble with arguments like your Mozart argument, Patterico, is that they generalize in rather freaky ways. There are also a fair number of good people out there who were born out of wedlock. It'd be a bad thing for the world if they had not been born. This doesn't, however, give unmarried women a reason to bear lots and lots of offspring.

Human life will go on, and I think the probabilities are best if it goes on in ways that mothers can plan for themselves. So let's give the mothers all the resources they need to do their planning.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 26, 2006 6:24:22 PM

Darleen, what I'm pointing out is that our moral beliefs are generally centered around concern for creatures with minds. Look at how you generally evaluate how you should treat a creature -- do you consider whether it has unique DNA, or do you consider its hopes and desires and whether it would suffer from your actions?

I think you'll find that you do the latter thing. All I ask is that you look at abortion the same way you look at everything else. My arguments here are (in part) about trying to remind people what really matters to them.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 26, 2006 6:31:40 PM

Neil is right on the money here. But Neil-you're sounding an awful lot like Peter Singer with this talk of moral status resulting from consciousness and capacity for pain.

I mostly agree with Singer, so I have no problem with that. Do you take his more extreme positions (personhood of non-humans, acceptability of infanticide) as well? If not, how do you draw the line once you accept the premises?

Posted by: Mark | Mar 26, 2006 6:52:32 PM

Neil- great posting today, by the way. Thought-provoking stuff, as per your usual.

Posted by: Mark | Mar 26, 2006 6:54:59 PM

Rock on, fellow unreconstructed Benthamite!

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Mar 26, 2006 7:06:17 PM

Neil, what are the possible legitimate counterarguments to your position?

The Mozart thing you took care of in your post: any one of those cells liposuction destroys could be Mozart. Who knows? It may be immoral to destroy them, but at the same time it's utterly impractical to preserve them. And they're no different in potentiality from the cells from which we all grew.

Darleen I don't understand your position. Are you arguing that liposuction morally reprehensible? I for one respect choice. I also think some choices are morally neutral. Abortion is one of these; or, at the least, not being able to engage in abortion, if it's a position thought through with any consistency, leads to all kinds of impracticality: see the above graph. Suicide--whether self-performed or carried out by a medical professional--is a wholly different matter, since the thing that's dying is making the decision.

I think Singer's main problem is that he uses a metric based on human consciousness to measure personhood, so he simply reinstates anthropocentrism. I think Cary Wolfe might have made that point in Zoontologies, but I make it too in a forthcoming article (on medieval matters).

Posted by: Karl the Grouchy Medievalist | Mar 26, 2006 7:08:25 PM

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.

I think there are examples right here on earth. Some marine mammals are like that. I was incredibly moved by the seals at the NY Aquarium this weekend. It wasn't just that the mother seal was solicitous of her baby. It was that she seemed enjoy nursing so much.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Mar 26, 2006 7:13:40 PM

I think we also need to take into account that the women carrying the fetus is undoubtedly a person. Isn't the liberal argument that a woman has the right to decide what should happen to her own body? The fetus cannot survive outside of her body, and therefore it is part of her and she should have authority over it.

Maybe this is included in the immoral/illegal distinction made above.

Anti-abortion laws are unconstitutional because they infringe on the autonomy of women, and abortion opponents are often anti-women just under the surface.

"Those sluts should have no right to make decisions about their own bodies. It will destroy our patriarchy"

Maybe there is some trap politically to making this sort of argument, but I find it resonates with me better than the personhood arguments.

Posted by: DC | Mar 26, 2006 7:18:07 PM

Thanks, Mark... you know the darkness of my heart too well...

Personally, I'm a Singer- and Bentham-style hedonic utilitarian. Never having read Singer's argument for infanticide, I don't know what to say about it. As for animal rights, I have a view on meat consumption that many people regard as amusing.

I haven't given any of my argument for hedonic utilitarianism in the above post. It's based on a worry about the reliability of moral intuition. I won't go into the reasons for that worry here, but it has to do with the way emotions cause us to see moral properties in the world. I think pleasure is the only thing that we can know to be good without moral intuition. Since the goodness of pleasure can be detected without any emotion standing between you and the pleasure -- just like the darkness of black can be detected without any emotion standing between you and the black -- it escapes this problem. Phenomenological introspection is generally reliable, and it delivers the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain. Of course, once we know that pleasure is actually good, a few of our old intuitive means for acquiring moral knowledge look reliable again. (Sympathy, for instance.) I think you can basically underwrite everything in the above post using sympathy as a means of moral knowledge (it picks up on suffering in other minds), so my general intuition-bashing shouldn't end up totally killing the intuition-pumping that I do above.

The argument in my post, as you can see, doesn't actually depend on the premises of my argument for utilitarianism in any way. You could be Kant or a virtue ethicist or just about anything else, and accept all of that.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 26, 2006 7:20:06 PM


"Amusing" doesn't begin to describe your views on eating meat.


The abortion issue is, at least for me, needlessly complicated. Abortion as an abstract is neither moral nor immoral. It is when "abortion" becomes "an abortion" within a specific context that it becomes moral or immoral. And that is a very fluid, hard to pin down idea. It is entirely possible for an abortion to actually be the result of a selfish, hedonistic and short-sighted decision, therefore immoral. It is also entirely possible for the same person, at another context of life, to make a decision to have an abortion that is the absolute right thing to do, not only for herself, but her family and even for the fetus itself.

That is why abortion as a choice must remain legal for all women. The government simply isn't capable of making moral choices for people; even if it somehow were, to try and parse out every conceivable situation in which an abortion would be right or would be wrong is utterly impossible.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 26, 2006 7:53:38 PM


Oh for heaven's sake, liposuction = abortion? Can we have this debate in good faith? Lipsuction or arguing that any pro-life stance is tainted by the hidden motive of sex-phobia is to be totally and insultingly dismissive of people you disagree with.

In the normal course of pregnancy one ends up with a child. In the normal course of liposuction, one ends up with less fat cells. Fat cells magically turning into ANYTHING other than fat cells reminds me of 1 am potsmokefilled dormroom bull sessions. "Hey, do you that maybe one of your cells is a complete universe in itself and if you masturbate, man, you might be destroying galaxies?" "no shit, man?" "no shit!"

Might be nice to leave that aside for a moment and get back to what should happen when a mother's interest conflicts with her unborn childs.

The LAW balances conflicting interests all the time. At what point do we terminate the rights of parents to raise their own children? How do we set traffic speed limits? How do we deal with drug addicts? How do we deal with abandoned newborns (see "Safe Haven Laws").

At the point where a fetus becomes viable...ie capable of surviving OUTSIDE of the woman's body, then the fetus' interest in LIVING should take precedence over the woman's interest in killing it for non-medical/health reasons.

I categorically reject the arguments of Singer and Cranford dealing with legally stripping living human beings of their "personhood" by way of an arbitrary standard. Who is Singer or Cranford to say that society should not suffer certain 'less than perfect' people, for instance that autistic young man who got a chance to play basketball and sunk six baskets, to live? Singer and Cranford are moral monsters, proving that a medical or academic degree is no guarantee of decency.

Exploring just the etymology of the word "antisemitism" shows the lengths people will use "science" to figleaf evil ends.

And please, Neil, pleasure as the only measure of good? Was Gacy "good" because he got pleasure from his acts? Bundy? Dahlmer? Can you morally square the "good" of a rapist who acts out of pleasure with the "bad" of his pain receiving victim?

Posted by: Darleen | Mar 26, 2006 8:03:33 PM

The government simply isn't capable of making moral choices for people

The government does that every day, in every state of the nation.

Posted by: Comrade Patterico | Mar 26, 2006 8:09:09 PM

I'm sure what you say here is basically right, but in trying to think up a potential problem case for you, how about something like this...

A woman finds out she's pregnant. Persuaded by your post, she figures that since the fetus presently has no moral status (it's early in the first trimester), there's nothing she could do right now which would "wrong" the fetus. So, she decides to go out and drink heavily, having a good time. And in fact, the woman decides to do this every night until right before the fetus is capable of feeling pain (or otherwise having a mind). Because of this heavy drinking during the early stages of pregnancy, the fetus is eventually born as a human being with serious birth defects.

Now presumably the woman in this story acts in a way which is morally blameworthy. The child she eventually has was wronged by her. The question is how your view could make sense of this. I don't think this case is a show-stopper for you -- I can sort of envision different replies you might make. The point is only that I'm curious how you, specifically, would want to reply.

As a final point, notice that while it generally seems that killing a person is morally worse than maiming a person (ignore cases where the maiming leads to "a fate worse than death"), in the present case you need to give something like the opposite response. That is, you need to say that by drinking heavily and thus, in effect, "maiming" her future child, the woman has acted in a morally blameworthy way. On the other hand, if she had had the abortion and, in effect, "killed" her future child, the woman would have acted in a way which was not morally blameworthy. (Appreciate the scare quotes.) Why is it that here, things get reversed?

Posted by: Justin | Mar 26, 2006 8:27:29 PM

Body cell nuclei turning into humans isn't just a fantasy anymore, Darleen. The technology that works in sheep and will soon be perfected with people. The "potential to be a unique intelligent being" view of fetal worth ends up committing you to exactly the absurdities that you describe the absurdity of.

And before the fetus has a mind, it doesn't have any interests. So conflicts of interest can't arise at that point. If it's aborted, it'll never have any interests, preventing any conflicts. If you want to worry about the interests of people that will never be, that pushes us back to Patterico's comment, and my response to you will be similar to my response to him.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 26, 2006 8:30:25 PM

Nicely argued, but I think the Ampersand post previously cited makes a pretty convincing case that the driving motivation behind the anti-abortion movement is the desire to punish women, rather than concern for the fetus. So don't expect to persuade many people on the other side.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen,PhD,ARNP | Mar 26, 2006 8:31:11 PM

Darleen, "pleasure as the only measure of good" doesn't imply that a person's act is good if it increases his own pleasure. Hedonistic utilitarianism tells us to increase the total pleasure of the world, and the pain that Gacy and Bundy and Dahlmer inflicted on others outweighs whatever pleasure they themselves took from their crimes.
Neil, as a fellow unreconstructed Benthamite, I think you should forget your (admittedly amusing) distinctions and just become a full-fledged vegetarian. I posted a comment on your linked-to post to that effect. One argument which I forgot to mention is that even if I'm wrong about the other stuff, when you tell the general population you're a vegetarian, it gets them to think about the issues involved, while merely claiming that on the basis of some complex philosophical reasoning you place some restrictions on your diet lacks the same emotional punch.
Then again, maybe your categorizing produces enough utils just by virtue of its hilarity to justify itself...

Posted by: maybevroomfondel | Mar 26, 2006 8:36:15 PM

Good stuff, Justin. Here goes:

You can only harm a creature if at some point, its mind exists. One way to harm it is by taking harmful actions before its mind exists. This is immoral. But if its mind never exists, it can't be harmed.

This is why early-term abortion isn't like killing a real baby. It's actually more like using a condom so that there never is a fetus. Rather than destroying a mind (and harming a creature), you prevent a mind from existing.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 26, 2006 8:38:37 PM

Ah, and yes, Lindsay, there are some friendly non-humans with minds quite near us in the universe. Cuddly, too.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 26, 2006 8:49:38 PM


You DO understand that an induced abortion is a positive act? That if a woman is passive during pregnancy, odds are that she'll end up with a child?

Thus the "right" to an abortion is, at best, a misnomer. A woman has no more "right" to an abortion than to a ham sandwich, or a pedicure. If no doctor wants to provide an abortion, is a woman's "right" being unjustly circumvented? If a doctor is forced to provide to perform an abortion, is that not a unjust abbrogation of his/her rights?

A fetus is morally entitled to concern and has moral interests, even if the law should ignore those interests until viability. A child is morally entitled to good balanced meals, a set bed time, limited television and help with homework from his/her parents. But the law will ignore those moral entitlements until such time parents put a child in physical danger through neglect, abuse or truancy.

Law is the baseline of morality. It is those moral values society feels it has a compelling interest to codify into law - murder, rape, theft, assault, etc -- in the interests of civilization. Law is not a substitute FOR morality -- there is no law forcing you to write a Thank You note to Aunt Velma for the homecanned peaches -- but if you operate from a set of moral values that tells you that showing gratitude for a gift is a good thing, then you will know right from wrong even if there isn't a Thank You Note Policeman looking over your shoulder.

Just 'cuz something is legal doesn't make it moral in all contexts.

Posted by: Darleen | Mar 26, 2006 8:49:59 PM

Did you ever come up with a solution to whether "neutrals" -- the hypothetical people with minds, thoughts, and subjective experience, but no desires, pleasure, pain, or emotions -- had moral status?

Posted by: Julian Elson | Mar 26, 2006 9:18:25 PM

Wait... the question isn't whether neutrals had moral status. It was whether they had desires or engaged in actions. Never mind.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Mar 26, 2006 9:25:32 PM

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