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The Other, Other White Meat [Mentality, Identity & Abortion Part IV]

August 20th, 2002 · No Comments

Apologies to Eve for taking close to a week to respond to her last post in our running exchange. I hope someone is archiving all this away so that I’m never tempted, even for a moment, to run for political office. I feel compelled to restate that I’m not actually in favor of infanticide as a matter of public policy. For legal purposes, birth is as good a place as any to draw a line that can’t easily be drawn later because the process that gives rise to the features I think ground rights aren’t observable, though I believe (for reasons mentioned earlier) that it’s some time after birth. I doubt the distinction matters much to those who think my position here is just obviously evil, but there it is. And yes, Eve’s right that I wouldn’t want to help carry out an infanticide: I have the same stomach-churning visceral reaction to the prospect that the rest of you do. But that’s a reaction embedded by millenia of biology and years of social conditioning; I don’t assume it’s justifed just because it’s there. Anyway, to substance:

Why Mentality? I’ve been arguing, contra Eve, that moral worth is a function, not of mere species membership, but rather of a cluster of mental traits (including an inner life, self-consciousness, volitional pursuit of goals, et. al.) that ground moral worth. Eve suggested calling these “mentality,” which convention I’ll continue. Eve first makes a sort of slippery-slope argument designed to appeal to my libertarian sensibilities: surely we don’t want states to treat people as cattle until they’ve proven the “right” degree of mental capacity. First of all, that seems like going about things in the wrong order. If your basic ethical principles conflict with your politics, you revise the latter, not the former. This is not a “libertarian case for abortion” — the self-ownership argument, usually associated with Judith Jarvis Thompson, might qualify for that label. (On that argument, if one grants that fetuses are persons, abortion would be permissible only prior to viability; induced birth after viability.) I don’t think the slope point holds, though. We can deny that fetuses or the just-born have mentality, but have a general presumption that older humans do, in the same way that we presume gerbils and dandelions don’t have rights, but humans do. To assume that we’re stuck on this slope unless we cut along a species-based line begs the question: I’d no more require a demonstration of positive mentality from grown humans before supposing rights than Eve would demand a genetic test to guarantee that apparent humans really were biological humans. To put it another way, let’s say we accepted Eve’s criterion of biological humanity. We’d probably adopt a general presumption that human-looking things walking around had rights. But if some of them, on closer inspection, turned out to be extremely realistic mannequins, we wouldn’t violate the rights of real humans by enforcing mannequin rights — we’d just make the presumption defeasible.

That aside: why mentality at all? Since that’s rather deeper than even my rambling and lengthy blog is apt to accomodate, I hope I’ll be forgiven for sketching something in the direction of an argument rather than boring readers (all three of you) with a dissertation. I’ll start with the admittedly vague observation that mental features just seem like viable candiates for an ethical grounding, while species membership seems bizarre. When a person dies, we feel a sense of loss — but what do we feel is lost? We don’t cry out: “Ah! An organism bearing human DNA has been snuffed out!” Rather, we think sadly of all the things the person had hoped to accomplish, which are now left undone. The striking thing that’s gone (even if we didn’t much care for the person in question) is a particular, unique perspective, a way of being in the world that was theirs. An account of value that centers on biology is just false to what makes us care about our own lives and those of others. Imagine, after all, that you learned you were not a biological human. Despite being distressed in all sorts of ways, would you come to think that your life had no value after all?

I’d actually still like Eve to answer a question I posed earlier: if we encountered some alien species which, whatever physical stuff it were made of, showed every sign of having the mental traits (mutatis mutandis) typical of humans, would she be inclined to grant them equal moral status, or deny it? I’m going to guess it would be the former. But if that’s sufficient for moral worth, then what extra work is biology supposed to be doing? Biology seems to just be a way for beings without mentality to “piggyback” on the admitted moral worth of adult humans. That is, she takes for granted that adult-Eve and adult-Julian are, for whatever reason, worthy of moral respect, and tries to extend that status to the fetus by arguing — or claiming, anyway — that fetus-Eve and fetus-Julian “were the same people” and so, by extension, fetuses in general have the same moral status as their adult counterparts were. But why go such a roundabout way if the (mental) features distinguishing us from the fetus aren’t morally significant? Why not jump straight to the morally significant features of the fetus? More on that below…

What I’ve said above is pretty inuitionistic, but I feel pretty safe in supposing that Eve and others share that intuition. Still, let me at least hint in the direction of what a full-blown answer would look like if I could develop it. Since getting that right all the way through would doubtless make me the greatest moral philosopher in history, I don’t feel too much shame at confessing that I’m not there yet — but I think something roughly like this would be at the core. You can skip to the next bold-faced section heading if you don’t want to endure the spectacle of my moral thrashing-about.

Every moral problem is a way of grappling, in a particular context, with the question: What do I have most reason to do? To say “you ought not to kill or harm people” is a way of saying “there exists a compelling reason for you not to behave in that way.” But what sort of reason is it? And what sorts of things are “reasons” anyway? One sort are instrumental reasons, the ones we have because we desire something else: I want a beer, and believe I can get one from my fridge, therefore I have a (prima facie) reason flowing from that belief-and-desire to go to the fridge. Hume thought reasons for action were all of this sort, which is why he claimed that reason was always “the handmaiden of the passions.” I doubt there’s any knock-down refutation of that position, but if it’s true, then there are no genuine moral principles, only some combination of prudence and habit. So I’ll just assume there are other kinds of reasons for action: at minimum, the moral sort. We know about another kind of reason too, the kind embedded in (for example) mathematical proofs: reasons not for action, but for belief. That a proposition is derived from true premises by valid rules of inference is a reason for thinking it true, totally independently of one’s desires about the matter. It’s not an overriding reason — if someone held a gun to my head and threatened to shoot me if I believed Godel’s Theorem, I might have good reason not to do so. Now, to rip some of John Searle’s language, we can characterize the difference as one between mind-to-world fit (epistemic reasons) and world-to-mind fit (instrumental reasons-for-action). Moral reasons, like epistemic ones, are not supposed to depend on our desires — we expect them to be properly “impersonal” in some sense. But they’re also supposed to have a potent normative bite, in a way that no mathematical proposition alone could. That’s the fact-value gap that Hume made such a big deal of.

In light of the above, we notice an interesting difference between the two: The very independence of facts — the feature in virtue of which we can say that the reason to believe the conclusion of a sound argument is not contingent on my desires — is part of what renders them normatively inert. But what about those instrumental reasons for action? Why — if this isn’t too outrageous a question on face — do we have any reason to do what we want, even all-things-considered, and after perfectly informed deliberation? There may be a deeper and more satisfying answer to that question than “we just do” … I rather hope there is… but I’m not sure what it could be. If we really do have the reasons in question, though, then each mind is (at least for itself) a source of this weird thing — value — in a world of facts. When we exercise judgment, when we choose ends, we are in some sense summoning reasons into being.

Now, I’m not entirely sure how the rest of this argument would go, but it would start with a question like: why do the ends you will have reason-giving force for you, while those willed by others have none at all? It’s clear why the ones based in your desires have more motivating force, but that’s not the same as normative force, as evidenced by all sorts of impulses we may have, for which there are no corresponding reasons. (I may have a certain nerve condition that makes me feel as though I have an itch, which wouldn’t be helped by scratching. I may have an impulse or motivation to scratch, but no reason.) Since this is where I’m least sure how to proceed, I’m just going to baldly assert that chosen ends have a reason-giving force that at least partly transcends persons. Or anyway, how about this: if anything is going to bridge that fact-value gap, the best candidate is the fact-of-valuation that exists in every mind capable of representing and weighing goals to itself as values. But between minds, those values are often going to be incommensurable. I can exercise judgment to determine which of two goals is more important to me. I can’t decide whether the ascetic’s ends or the bon vivant’s are more important simpliciter, however. The best I could do is play some game wherein I project them into my own value framework and form some sort of aesthetic response — as when Eve brings up the example of an intention to watch Animal Planet. But that, to use Animal Planet jargon, is a way of domesticating shadow-reasons, rather than a way of responding to the force of reasons “in the wild.” That’s why I end up rejecting various kinds of utilitarianism and throwing in with those bad deontologist kids. Formal rights and duties show respect for the ends of others without presuming to weight or balance them by a common metric. Anyway. I hope someone’s entertained by all that muddle.

Identities I’m not sure whether there are two problems with Eve’s argument, or just one which can be put two different ways. But I have to back up a bit first. If you’ve any logical training, you’re familiar with the logical relation of identity. As Colin McGinn has argued, identity is a sort of logical fundamental; it cannot be defined in a way that doesn’t already assume a grasp of the concept. But it’s canonically been taken as definitive of that identity relation (represented by the “=” sign) that for all {x, y} and for all properties P, if (x=y), then (Px iff Py). This is patently not the sort of identity involved in claims of “personal identity” as we use the term, because (on that ordinary usage) I will have all sorts of properties now that I didn’t have five minutes or a year ago. But if that’s the case, the piggybacking argument won’t go through without some explanation of why moral status is invariant across all stages of a life standing in the personal identity relation to each other . That’s the surface-level articulation of the objection.

The more fundamental one is where I’m afraid I’ll have to respond rather briefly to Eve’s various interesting hypotheticals: is the replica created from a slightly modified brainscan of “me” still really “me”? Yes. Or, if you prefer, no. That is to say, I think that is not a question about whether some real and predefined relation called “personal identity” exists between me and my replica. It is a question about how we want to decide to use words in novel circumstances. The question “is it me” has no answer, except as we choose to answer it by opting to make our terms more precise in this way rather than that. One grain of sand is not a heap. One hundred thousand is. So how many does it take? That is the sort of thing we might stipulate, by defining the word “heap” more precisely, but not the sort of thing we could “find out.”

I’m afraid I may have misled Eve when I said that of course, the person who did such-and-such things ten years ago was her. What I should have said was that the relations between that Eve and the present one — the memories and dispositions and the rest — were such that it makes sense to make the moral connections between them that are usually associated with referring to two stages of a life as “the same person.” Eve speculates about how I might define “identity” — and in the end, I’m willing to use whatever defintion she likes. If identity is not an independent further fact, it does no real work in moral arguments. If we were physicists with super-fine grained equipment, we could dispense with the convenient language of macro-scale objects and speak only of fundamental particles in discussing physical events. Similarly, if there is no “further fact” of identity, we actually don’t need to settle these questions. We can talk directly about the underlying mental events and relations. Eve suggests that something like a soul is “the only coherent notion of identity” that I can “hang on to.” But I’ve no interest in hanging on to any such thing — especially since it now seems to be an obstacle to the discussion, rather than a help. Her argument seems in many places to be an attempt to show that mentality has various problems as a criterion of identity. My own unclear language makes this a fair enough objection, but what I’m really claiming is not that various kinds of continuity of mentality “establish” identity. Rather, I’m saying that it’s those relations of mentality which are morally important, and we can dispense with “identity” altogether.

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