Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Abortion and 'in virtue of'

This is on the ‘values’ side of ‘metaphysical values, rather than the ‘metaphysical’; but I will talk about 'in virtue of', so I don't feel totally ashamed :-)


We are doing a reading group on abortion, and today we were reading Liz Harman’s ‘The potentiality problem’. Harman is interested in how to defend the position that says both that early term abortions are morally permissible and that harms to human babies are worse than harms to, say, cats.


If early term abortions are morally permissible (and not just because not aborting would result in some greater evil, such as the death of the mother) then it seems they are so because the embryo has no moral status. But the baby appears to have moral status, if harming it is worse than harming the cat, so we need an account of what it takes to have moral status that lets the baby in but not the embryo (and it may or may not let the cat it). Harman proposes the following principle:


Conscious: A being has moral status at t just in case it is ever conscious and it is not dead at t.


(She should add ‘and it exists at t’ I think, but let’s not quibble.)


Since I am conscious, the embryo that I was (assuming that I was a embryo) had moral status. But since an embryo which is aborted is not conscious at any time, it does not have moral status at any time, and so it is permissible to abort it.


So I’m permitted to abort this embryo because it lacks moral status, but the reason that it lacks moral status is precisely because I aborted it: had I not aborted it, it would (at least, so we can suppose) have been conscious at some time, and so would have had moral status as an embryo. So I’m permitted to do this action because of something that is only true because I do this action – I don’t like it!


Consider another case. Suppose the moral oracle (completely trustworthy on all moral issues) tells us that it’s really, really bad to utter falsehoods. So bad, in fact, that if someone utters a falsehood, it’s permissible to kill them. Now I ask you what you’re going to do tomorrow and you say ‘I’m going to the cinema’. And then I shoot you. I was perfectly justified, because you spoke falsely: you’re not going to the cinema tomorrow, because tomorrow you will be dead! But intuitively, even in the world in which uttering falsehoods is a bad punishable by death, I shouldn’t be justified in punishing you for something that was only the case because I punished you.


The worry is this. In the ‘falsity is bad’ world, the proposition [it is permissible to kill a] is true in virtue of [a told a falsehood]. But [a told a falsehood] is true in virtue of [I killed a]. So it looks like the ultimate basis for the truth of [it is permissible to kill a] is in [I killed a]. And that looks absurd: my carrying out an action shouldn’t be what makes it the case that I was permitted to carry out that action.


Likewise, for Harman, [it is permitted to abort embryo e] is true in virtue of [e is never conscious] which is in turn true in virtue of [I abort e]. So it looks like the ultimate basis for the truth of [it is permitted to abort embryo e] is in the truth of [I abort e]. And that looks totally wrong to me: my carrying out the abortion shouldn’t make it the case that I was justified in carrying out the abortion.

8 comments:

Dan López de Sa said...

Hi Ross!

I think I share your intuitions, both in the case of killing the liar and that of aborting embryos (on Harman’s assumption): these seem actions that shouldn’t be justified just in virtue of their being performed.

I wasn’t sure, though, about whether you aimed this to generalize—when you say: “And that looks absurd: my carrying out an action shouldn’t be what makes it the case that I was permitted to carry out that action.”
Consider a “response-dependent” view of coolness having it that something is cool in virtue of its being judged cool. If this were the right view, then the action of judging something cool would be justified in virtue of the thing being cool, which in turn would hold in virtue of the action being performed. This seems to go against a generalized version of your reasoning. Which, as I said, looks to me just fine against your actual target. What do you think?

A Corner Moss said...

Unless I've confused you, it seems that Harman may attempt a way out by altering 'Conscious' with a ceteris paribus clause:

Conscious':(i) A being has moral status at t just in case it is ever conscious and it is not dead at t. AND
(ii) its not ever having conscious is not because of death caused on account of applying (i).

But then, this is trivial and very silly; it doesn't do what it was first supposed to do and so you're gonna need some more criteria to justify killing 'non-moral' stuff. I agree with you.

Andrew said...

Ross, you say:

"Likewise, for Harman, [it is permitted to abort embryo e] is true in virtue of [e is never conscious] which is in turn true in virtue of [I abort e]. So it looks like the ultimate basis for the truth of [it is permitted to abort embryo e] is in the truth of [I abort e]."

This seems wrong to me. I think that (assuming Harman's view) what [it is permissible for me to abort e] holds in virtue of is [e does not have moral status]. What that holds in virtue of is [e is not conscious]. That's metaphysical 'in virtue of' and we could trace that a bit further down to e.g. e's subvening properties. But the sense in which e has those properties in virtue of me is causal in-virtue-of. There's no other good sense in which my action is the 'ultimate basis for the truth of [it is permissible to kill e]". I'm obviously not the ontological ground for that lack of consciousness, although I may bring that ontological ground into existence.

What are your intuitions about the following case? Imagine the future is genuinely open. I could have as many children as possible, or have less than that many. Let us grant that I owe it to my (actual) children that I ensure that they have good lives, insofar as that is in my power. Consider some child that I could have but won't. What makes it permissible for me not to ensure that that child *actually* has a good life? Isn't it precisely that the child won't actually exist, which is only true because I will bring it about that that child doesn't actually exist, which I only do because I take it to be permissible for me not to ensure that the child actually has a good life? How is that relevantly disanalogous from the case of the embryo?

Warden said...

Perhaps I have misunderstood you - please correct me, Andrew. Is the point not about our moral justification over bringing about ontological changes, which contain epistemological assumptions? Granted, 'I'm not the ontological ground for that lack of consciousness' but as you state 'I may bring that ground into existence': I know that I may bring that ground into existence, I know that if that ground is brought into existence, then there will be a lack of consciousness in e, - by knowing this, I will be morally responsible for the lack of consciousness if I was to bring that ground into existence. Although, I admit that this formulation has the uncomfortable consequence that the reason for bringing the ground into existence is so that e has no consciousness, but then doing something morally because of the metaphysical effects it causes seems to be a non controvertible way of looking at motivation for behaviour.

Andrew said...

Hi Warden,

You're right that the general topic is moral justification, but I think that the more local point that Ross was making was a metaphysical one (namely, that the correct diagnosis of a felt discomfort with Harman's position was that the relevant permissibility facts were being metaphysically 'grounded' in the very actions that they concerned). I was denying that this was the correct diagnosis, but remaining neutral about whether (i) there is indeed something uncomfortable about Harman's position and (ii) whether this ultimately traces back to some genuinely metaphysical issue and (iii) whether in particular there is something metaphysically suspect in grounding permissibility facts in the actions they concern. I just thought that Ross was equivocating between two senses of 'in virtue of' in the last two paragraphs of his original post. Perhaps there's a way of putting his point which avoids this: it would be interesting to see whether this was true.

Warden said...

Ah! Now I see - thank you.

Anonymous said...

Every incident past, present, and future, had or has the pontental of another outcome.

Bill

Jerry Lame said...

Having just read this old blog discussion, I came across this on-line comment on U.S. politics in the New York Times:

"Government doesn't work!" the Republicans keep telling us. And then we elect them and they prove it.