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November 02, 2005

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Perhaps Marquis only needs to argue that you harm a fetus by aborting it. To kill something is to cause smething bad to happen to it. To cause something bad to happen to a fetus is to harm it and harming something is prima facie wrong. The issue of whether the fetus is a person does not arise.

Christian, I think your argument has a false premise. I say, to kill something is not to cause something bad to happen to it. When the thing is killed, it's no longer there. So how could anything happen to it, good or bad? Killing something may, of course, harm it. But if so, that's because killing the thing prevents good things from happening to it. (I take that to be all in the general spirit of Marquis's view that the harm of death is deprivation.)

Now, in the case of a fetus, killing it does not prevent any good things from happening to it, because nothing good would have happened to it anyway. It would have lived for a little longer (a few months, say), but during that time it wouldn't have received any of the benefits that Marquis talks about -- no happy experiences, no completed projects etc. So killing the fetus does not harm it.

Your probably right that killing a fetus does not deprive it of much. So, the harm caused by depriving it of stuff isn't really too substantial.

But...if you were to kill me, you would definitely do something bad to me. You would also deprive me of good stuff, and that would be bad too, but disregarding that, killing something is doing something bad to it.

But, even if you disagree, I never mentioned personhood. So, we can disagree about whether aborting a fetus harms it or is prima facie wrong without getting into the metaphysics of personhood.

I happen to think, though, that without getting into the metaphysics the argument over abortion is missing out on really important stuff.

Campbell,

Interesting topic! I have lots of questions, but I'll start with just a couple. You say:

"How could a fetus be a baby? These are just different things; one cannot be the other."

Simple reply: yes it can, because things change. The fetus becomes a baby. It's the very same thing existing at different times. So what's the argument here? Is it just the anti-3D argument based on Leibniz' Law? (Marquis would be unmoved. He is not a 4Dist.) Is the point here just to motivate your move to 4Dism?

Grant the 4D picture. You say: "People receive benefits; human beings do not." This makes it seem like you're endorsing a general principle about benefits and harms, according to which only people can be benefited or harmed. Is that right? If so, what's the argument? I get that you don't want double-counting (though I'm not really sure why that sort of double-counting is supposed to be a problem). But why not say that only human beings, or only living organisms, can be harmed, rather than only people? That would solve the double-counting problem too. And if we said that, then Marquis is at least partly right: we don't have to figure out whether fetuses are people in order to know whether we harm them by killing them. (On the other hand, we might have to figure out whether fetuses are people in order to figure out whether it is *morally wrong* to kill them.)

Further I think Marquis has to also rely on some variety of the doing/allowing distinction as well since otherwise on the same grounds as the harm to foetus, the death of sperm or eggs is going to count as equally immoral.

In any case the move to take the question of personhood away from the abortion debate is nothing new, it is the most important bit of Judith Jarvis Thomsons famous article. Although doing it on the conservative side is novel I will admit.

But you are right it can't be done, it would be like some one defending animal rights by saying he look whether they have moral status or not doesn't matter, but they can be wronged...

Which by the way ought to be the relevant question, harming doesn't necessarily imply wronging, but this is what Marquis needs.

Campbell,

Like you, I'm inclined to say that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fetus. A few weeks or so ago, I asked (blog, class discussion) whether they would resent their mother's behavior if they were to discover that their mother had planned on aborting the fetus from which they came only to fail due to the fact that she was cut off from any facilities that provided such procedures. Many admitted that they would not. Some insisted they would. I'm very sceptical of this last group because the reasons they offered would seem to justify feelings of resentment if they discovered they were the result of an accidental pregnancy that occurred as a result of contraceptive failure.

I'm curious, but must Marquis say that YOU would have been wronged had the fetus from which you came were aborted? It seems to me that this must be his view, but I'm not at all confident on this point. Even if the answer is 'No', doesn't it matter whether any of us actually would think we would have been wronged?

If we wouldn't (and shouldn't?) feel we would have been wronged, then it seems there will be stretches of time during which there would be subjects (which may or may not have ever been a fetus) which wouldn't have been unjustly deprived of something which on Marquis' view would have been unjustly deprived of something (i.e., the good experiences of those now past moments). This means Marquis gets it wrong even if the facts about personal identity go his way or don't matter to the correct application of the principles he's using.

Suppose we accept the 4D picture. I think it’s a mistake to use the phrase ‘human being’ to refer to the entity that begins with conception and ends with death. For one thing, to do so exposes the position to the kind of objection raised by Ben: if we admit that the fetus is a human being, then surely harming human beings is wrong, etc.

But the main reason for thinking that the phrase ‘human being’ is a mistake here is not strategic, it’s conceptual. In fact I’m not sure that there is a good name for the entity in question, because it doesn’t seem to be a well-defined entity at all. Why not consider the salient entity to be the one that begins with the (separate) formation of the relevant sperm and egg? This, of course, would give rise to the kind of worry mentioned by David Hunter: actions resulting in the death of sperm and eggs will now count as immoral. And the doing-allow distinction doesn’t do enough, unless we want to hold that the active and deliberate taking away the futures of sperm and eggs, via use of birth control, is also immoral.

I see very little reason for thinking that I was ever a fetus – no more reason, really, than for saying that I was once a sperm, or that I was once an egg, or that I was once a separated sperm-egg pair that eventually came together, or that I was once a protein molecule that ended up in one of these sperm. And if this is so, then it is not true that the fetus (or sperm, egg, molecule, etc.) has a future in the relevant sense. (If there is right now a protein molecule in some steak that I’m going to eat later today, would we say that it has a future?) At any rate, Marquis needs an argument to convince us otherwise: to convince us, that is, that the relevantentity in question is the one that begins at least as far back as conception (and no earlier, unless he is willing to assert very strong moral claims regarding birth control, possibly masturbation, etc.) And this means, of course, entering into precisely the metaphysical fray that he wanted to avoid.

Ben,

I don't understand your simple reply. If the fetus changes from a fetus to a baby, then there's an earlier time at which the fetus is a fetus and a later time at which the fetus is a baby. But nothing can be both a fetus and a baby at the same time. So, at the later time the fetus is not a fetus. But I don't see how that is possible.

I confess, I am thinking of this in a 4D way. Perhaps that makes a difference, but I'm not sure how. On the 4D picture, as I understand it, there is an object which has one temporal part, a fetus, at the earlier time and another temporal part, a baby, at the later time. This object changes from a fetus to a baby, but is itself neither a fetus nor a baby. (On the spatial analogy, my car has a part that is a wheel and a part that is a headlight. But my car is neither a wheel nor a headlight; it's a car.) I'm less sure how the 3Dist would describe the situation. Perhaps you can help me out there.

Regarding your second point, I didn't mean to say that only persons receive benefits. I meant to say only that no human beings receive benefits -- though now I'm not sure I even want to say that much. I think that, for the purposes of my argument, I could get by with a weaker premise, something like: no human being that has a fetus as a proper part receives benefits. (As you can tell, I'm still not sure about all this.)

Here's another way to motivate the double-counting worry. Grant that I overlap with, but am not identical to, a human being. It's plausible, I say, that when I completed my PhD, an important project of mine, I thereby received some benefit. But did the human being also benefit? I want to say no. It's my project, not the human being's. I'm the one who completed it, not the human being. So I benefit, and the human being doesn't.

Ben, I don't understand your simple reply. If the fetus changes from a fetus to a baby, then there's an earlier time at which the fetus is a fetus and a later time at which the fetus is a baby. But nothing can be both a fetus and a baby at the same time. So, at the later time the fetus is not a fetus. But I don't see how that is possible.
Really? Unbeknownst to you, when I first met you I pointed at you and said, "That postgraduate student will in three years be a non-student." Lo and behold, I was right. The postgraduate student changed from a postgraduate student to a non-student. It happened without a miracle, and without any noticeable violation of the laws of logic, identity, metaphysics, etc.
Personally, I am pretty sure that I used to be a fetus. (Best reason: My mom says so, and she should know.) I used to be something that used to be a fetus, and x used to be y is transitive.

Jamie,

Let me try the following.

When you said "That postgraduate student will in three years be a non-student", what you meant was "That thing which is now a postgraduate student will in three years time be a non-student" (or, in 4D terms, "That thing whose current time-slice is a postgraduate student has a later time-slice that is a non-student"). The thing in question -- namely, me -- did change from a postgraduate student to a non-student. But the postgraduate student is not me; it's only a part of me. So the postgraduate student did not change from a postgraduate student into a non-student.

The main fallacy here, repeated a number of times, is that one thing can be accurately described by a number of different descriptions. I am a husband, father, and philosopher; I was not always any of these. But that is not to say that there are four things here: a husband, a father, a philosopher, AND me (a person, I guess).

Thus, the fact that I am not now a fetus does not show that I never was; the fact that I am not now a tenured professor does not show that I never will be; the fact that human beings are not always persons (in the psychological sense) does not show that persons are not human beings, and so on.

Besides which, the idea that only persons can be harmed strikes me as crazy. Can't I harm a tree, by cutting its bark off? I think I can certainly harm animals. And some of them are no more sentient than at least a third-trimester fetus.

Heath,

I think I agree with nearly everything you said (except the bit about committing repeated fallacies, of course). Does anything I say above imply otherwise?

Campbell, when I said "That postgraduate student", I was pointing at you. As I used it, the expression referred to you. That postgraduate student was, in fact, you.
These are obvious truths. The task of temporal parts metaphysics is to give some plausible account of their truthmakers, not to decide whether they are true.
You were once a postgraduate student. And you were once a fetus. I don't see why the second of those claims is any more metaphysically problematic than the first.

"So, when were you born?"
"I was never born. I came into existence the moment after a fetus was born."

Troy,

I share your worry about the term "human being". In an earlier draft, I wrote "human organism" instead, but decided I didn't like that for some reason. I also toyed with "human animal". In any case, whatever we call the entity in question, I entirely agree that Marquis needs to tell us what's so special about it, such that it has a valuable future while the other entities you mention do not.

Jamie,

Is it also an obvious truth that I was once a sperm? Or a sperm plus an egg, which came together later? Obviously I can (in principle) point to the particular sperm and the particular egg that came together in the process that resulted in me. But it certainly doesn't follow that, in any literal sense, the sperm or the egg (or the pair of them) was me. Similarly, we can identify a particular fetus that existed starting in April 1970 that we could, knowing what we know now, attach my name to. But I do not see either the necessity nor even the plausibility of saying that that fetus, particularly in its early stages, really was me.

Suppose Eric has always wanted to go to Greece. And suppose that after he dies, Eric's wife has him cremated and takes the ashes to Greece. Would we then say, well, fortunately Eric got what he wanted -- he did, after all, get to go to Greece in the end? This would be misleading, because Eric's ashes are not Eric -- though they may be all that is left of him after a particular point in time (the point when Eric stops existing). But the case for identifying Eric with his ashes does not seem to be much weaker, if at all, than the case for identifying Eric with "his" fetus. Eric's fetus, I think, is not Eric -- though it may be all that exists of him prior to some particular point in time (the point when Eric starts existing).

Troy,

Is it also an obvious truth that I was once a sperm? Or a sperm plus an egg, which came together later?
No. Nor is it an obvious truth that anyone used to be a fetus. Still, it seems to me to be true, because it seems to me that x used to be y is transitive. It seems pretty clear to me that each neonate used to be a fetus. Not to you?
I agree that Eric's ashes are not Eric, of course. But I think they used to be Eric. Do you think the ashes used to be Eric?

Jamie,

I must confess, I'm confused. I think I agree with all you say about the postgraduate example. But I still want to say that the fetus doesn't survive after birth. (Something survives, but not the fetus.) Perhaps another example will help. Suppose that a boulder gets struck by lightening, shattering it into a thousand pieces. Should we say that the boulder is now gone? Or should we say that the boulder is still there but now it's a pile of rubble? The former, I say; the boulder is now gone. Likewise with the fetus. After birth the fetus is gone. It's not that it's still there but now it's a neonate.

Regarding Eric's ashes, I'm tempted to say the following (though I'm really not sure). Strictly speaking, it's not the case that the ashes used to be Eric. Before the cremation there were no ashes; so there's nothing they used to be before the cremation. Still, I admit, it does seem right to say "the ashes used to be Eric". But perhaps that's speaking loosely.

On the issue of whether I was ever born, I want to say that, strictly speaking, I wasn't. I can say truthfully "I was born in 1973". But that's because what I mean is not really that I was born in 1973, but something a little different (can't say what, exactly). Here's an analogy. You ask me why my car is dented. I answer, "I hit a tree". I speak truthfully, even though it was not me that hit the tree, but my car.

Campbell,
Sometimes people make a distinction between "substance" kinds and "phase" kinds. My substance kind is what I really, most fundamentally am; if I stopped being a member of that kind, I wouldn't exist anymore. ('person,' 'object,' 'organism' are possible examples.) Phase kinds aren't like that; I can exist without being a member of it. 'Sitters' is a phase kind; all the sitting people are members of it, and stop being members of it when they stand up; they don't stop existing when they stand up. (Pardon abundant use/mention distinctions, I'm tired.) I think 'fetus' is a phase kind. You seem to think it is a substance kind - once a fetus stops being a fetus, by going through the birth canal, it stops existing and is replaced by a fundamentally different kind of thing - a baby. Is that your view?

Also, you haven't said whether you agree with Jamie that the 'used to be' relation is transitive.

Campbell,

I think the heart of the problem is that, when using your 4D picture, which is fine in itself, you then take another step and suppose that certain descriptions only refer to the time-slice of which they are true. So, e.g., there is a pattern of argument you use which goes like this:

X is fetus
Y is a baby
Nothing can be both a fetus and a baby at once
So, Y never was a fetus.

Another instance:
X is a human being
Y is a person
The conditions for being a human being and the conditions for being a person differ
So, Y is not a human being.

But this is like arguing:
X is a husband
Y is a father
The conditions for being a husband and a father differ; in particular, they pick out different time-slices of a 4D individual
So, Y is not a husband.

Or like:
X is a pre-linguistic infant
Y is an analytic philosopher
Nothing can be both a pre-linguistic infant and an analytic philosopher at once
So, Y (and all other analytic philosophers) never were pre-linguistic infants.

Ben,

I certainly think that a thing can cease to be a fetus without ceasing to exist. So that would make it a phase kind, right? But then I'm not sure I get the distinction, because I also think that a thing can cease to be a person without ceasing to exist. Perhaps this is the sticking point: although I think that something (actually many things) can cease to be a fetus without ceasing to exist, I don't think that a fetus can do this.

And I should add: yes, I agree that the relation x used to be y is transitive.

Heath,

I think a point of clarification is in order. I didn't mean to be arguing for the claim that I was never a fetus. (Perhaps my title was poorly chosen.) In particular, I didn't mean to say that this claim is implied by another claim for which I did argue, namely, that the fetus's future does not extend beyond birth. That is, I take it that the claim "I used to be a fetus" is consistent with the claim "the fetus I used to be is no more".

I did claim that a certain view of personal identity implies that I was never a fetus. But I didn't offer any arguments in support of that view. My point was just that Marquis's position seems implausible, given such a view; so an adequate defence of his position will need to address the issue of personal identity. That's all.

Now, a more substantive point, which seems like it might be important here. Earlier, you pointed out that:

one thing can be accurately described by a number of different descriptions.

This seems entirely correct to me. But it doesn't follow that, for any two descriptions, one thing can accurately be described by both descriptions at once. Consider, for example, the descriptions "x is square" and "x is a circle". Nothing can satisfy both descriptions at once; nothing can be both a square and a circle at the same time. I claim that the descriptions "x is a fetus" and "x is a baby" are mutually exclusive in the same way; nothing can be both a fetus and a baby at the same time. But the descriptions "x is a philosopher" and "x is a father" are different; it's perfectly possible for something to be both a philosopher and a father at the same time.


Ben,

I now see the tangle that I've got myself into. Clearly, you could cease to be a philosopher without ceasing to exist. But my last response to you commits me to say that a philosopher could not cease to be a philosopher without ceasing to exist. So I'm forced to conclude that you are not a philosopher. (It's nothing personal, I swear.) This is indeed an odd conclusion, and good evidence that I've gone wrong somewhere. But let me persevere.

I say that you are not a philosopher. Part of you is a philosopher, but the whole you is not (and you are the whole you). Similarly, part of my shirt is red, but the whole shirt is not. In the latter case, the parts are spacial: the shirt is red in some places, but the shirt is not red. In the former case, the parts are temporal: you are a philosopher at some times, but you are not a philosopher.

But, Jamie will protest, it's just an obvious truth that you are a philosopher. Whatever metaphysical view we adopt, it had better not have the consequence that such an obvious truth comes out false. I agree. But I suggest that, even on the metaphysical view I seem to have landed myself with, we can understand the sentence "Ben is a philosopher" in such a way that it (normally) comes out true. Perhaps in normal contexts the sentence means, not that you are a philosopher, but that some salient part of you is, e.g. the current part of you. When I say while driving in my car "this road is narrow", I don't mean that the whole road in narrow, but only that it is narrow around here. Similarly, we might say "Ben is a philosopher" is elliptical for "Ben is a philosopher around now".

Campbell,

I re-read your post and have tried to construct an argument parallel to your original. Assume that a person is a minor before their eighteenth birthday and not a minor afterwards, and that we are wondering whether it is okay to arbitrarily execute minors.

Schmarquis writes:

The future of a standard minor includes a set of experiences which are identical with the futures of adult human beings.

Now, this claim is false. The future of a minor does not extend beyond the eighteenth birthday. Thus, if execution deprives the minor of any future at all, it is a relatively short one (a few years or so). Perhaps it will be argued that a minor may continue beyond the eighteenth birthday, but in the form of a legal adult. But that makes no sense. How could a minor be an adult? These are just different things.

The minor won’t be an adult and a minor at once, she will change into or continue as an adult. One and the same thing is at one time a minor, at another time an adult. Killing the minor deprives this being of a long future including adulthood.

I now introduce a technical term: “beneficiary.” A beneficiary is the time slice of a person who is actually, at that time, receiving a benefit.

But perhaps the death of the minor harms something else: the person of which the minor is a temporal part. But (by definition) it is beneficiaries who receive benefits, and persons are not identical to beneficiaries, and no double-counting. So the person of which the minor is a part is not harmed either.

That beneficiaries are not (identical to) persons does not mean that beneficiaries are not (predication) persons.

Now, on the substantive issue it seems to me that your position boils down to

(1) Only persons can be harmed. (2) Fetuses are not persons or parts of persons. So, (3) fetuses cannot be harmed.

Marquis is taking issue with (1), on the grounds that anything with a harmable future can be harmed and fetuses are such beings. That is why he thinks abortion can be argued about independently of personal identity. But if you are not willing to grant him that, then you are right, the issue turns on questions of personal identity.

Sorry I couldn't get the indentation to work.

Heath,

I think your "parallel" argument has a false premise (so, of course, I don't think it's really parallel). It's not the case that only beneficiaries, as defined, receive benefits. Persons receive benefits, and they are not beneficiaries so-defined. But perhaps your point is just that, even granting the view of personal identity I sketched, I've not made out a strong enough case for the claim that the fetus is not part of something that will receive benefits in the future. If so, I tend to agree; that's a weak point in the argument.

As to your summary of my position, it's supposed to be more like this:

(1) Abortion causes harm only if it deprives something of benefits in the future.
(2) Abortion deprives something of benefits in the future only if the fetus is part of a person.
So, (3) Whether abortion causes harm depends on whether the fetus is part of a person.

(This can't be quite right, because the parents might also be harmed. But you get the idea.) I also happen to think that the fetus is not part of a person. But I haven't argued for that here.

Marquis could perhaps say that abortion does not harm the fetus but that it harms the future person who would have existed but for the abortion. That is of course a weaker claim, because the harm is not to anyone who actually exists. However, if one considers the question in consequentialist terms, the distinction becomes much less relevant.

For my part, I’m not yet convinced that I used to be a fetus, or even that that view is plausible (particularly if we are talking about very early fetuses – pre-conscious ones, say.) Do I reject the transitivity of ‘used to be’? I think I accept it, but I’m not sure. After all, I think I accept the principle that ‘If A is not bald, then losing one hair will not make A bald.’ And yet, I certainly believe that if A lost a sufficient number of hairs, he would be bald. I’m not sufficiently well versed in the literature on vagueness, etc. to know whether I can simultaneously accept both of these things. So my acceptance of the principle remains at least a bit tentative. Likewise for my acceptance of the principle of the transitivity of ‘used to be.’

When I say that I doubt that I used to be a fetus, I’m not denying that there is a causal chain connecting my (current) self with a certain fetus. But there are causal chains connecting me with all sorts of little bits of matter that existed at that time – various molecules that went on to be incorporated into my body at various points – and I certainly do not think, with respect to every one of those bits of matter, that each of them is something that I used to be. So I want to know what the justification is for privileging the fetus over any other bit of matter that might have existed at that time and which went on to be incorporated into my body.

For that matter, I don’t think that Eric’s ashes used to be Eric. They used to be part of Eric, perhaps (though in a different form, of course.) Or, if we prefer, part of Eric’s body. But there were all sorts of molecules that were part of Eric’s body that were released during the cremation process and are no longer with the ashes. So why privilege the ashes? That’s why I much prefer to say that the ashes are all that is left of Eric – the only thing with respect to which we can point and say, "That was part of Eric." Similarly, one might be tempted to say that the fetus, at a certain time, is all that yet exists of me. But in both cases, even that cautious claim is misleading – there are, again, other bits of matter that were, or will be, part of the person in question; we just can’t identify them.

The crucial question, of course, is whether the particular bit of matter known as the fetus can be said to ‘have a future.’ Marquis, again, writes that “The future of a standard fetus includes a set of experiences, projects, activities, and such which are identical with the futures of adult human beings and are identical with the futures of young children.” But this claim seems to raise some extremely difficult questions. In what sense can a thing that is non-conscious (not just unconscious, but non-conscious) be said to have a future that contains all sorts of experiences? And why, again, are we justified in privileging the fetus over all the other bits of matter that came together to act as parts of my body at one point or another, by claiming that it had this sort of future whereas (I presume) these other bits did not? (I shudder to think of the moral implications that would result from the position which had it that all of these bits of matter did have this sort of future . . .)

I do not understand. How can he make the claim that a fetus and a baby are two different things? In the sense of definition that may be true, but in the same way a child is different than an adult (by definition). Does that mean that we can kill a child? Is the moment of birth really that much of a change that we can say that they are different things? Am I a completely different thing on the day of my 13th birthday because I can finally fit the definition of a teenager? The words "fetus" and "baby" are just that: words. They are random groupings of syllables that we made up to represent ideas. In the same we can take a glob of clay and mold it into a sculpture. Surely the words "glob" and "sculpture" have different meanings, but can we really say that they aren't the same thing? Aren't they both still made of the same clay? I guess I just don't see how we can draw a line at the moment of birth and say this fetus is an entirely different thing than this baby, and the future of the baby is different than the future of the fetus.

Marquis' argument should not be taken as an application of any metaphysical theory concerning personhood or identity. It should instead, I think, be understood as resting on moral theoretical grounds; specifically, ideas rooted firmly in the consequentialist tradition.

Marquis is utterly impervious to the question of whether or not the foetus is a person. All he cares about is whether the foetus possesses the property that he takes as establishing the wrongness of killing an adult human being. So his argument rests on the fact that when an abortion is performed, a future of a specific human being- whether or not the foetus is a human now- is prevented from being actualised.

This is why his argument does not entail the wrongness of contraception- before contraception there is no future specific human to speak of at all. Also, that is why in later articles Marquis argues that very, very early abortions, eg before implantation, are unaffected by his argument.

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