Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

The Penumbras and Emanations of Property M

June 13th, 2006 · No Comments

Ross Douthat has some thoughts in reply to last week’s posts by “Mittens” Yglesias and myself about abortion and the conditions of personhood. (Old-timers may recall a long debate on just this topic I had with Eve Tushnet back in—oy, has it really been that long?—August 2002.) Now, Ross says that “any serious pro-lifer” would agree with my broad point that the special moral status of persons fundamentally derives, not from something intrinsically wonderful about our biochemistry, but certain mental characteristics: abstract thought, a reflective sense of self, a capacity for ends and values, powers of mora choice, and so on. To avoid having to hash out the relative importance and mix of these, I’ve just been using the shorthand “Property M” for whatever cluster of these—or maybe a set of overlapping but distinct clusters that would each be sufficient—we ultimately think makes an entity merit moral rights. I should say, it’s not at all clear to me that Ramesh Ponnuru (whose recent book sparked the initial post) would agree with this, since most of his arguments seem designed to show not just that organisms who bear some special relation to creatures with Property M ought to be considered in the same way, morally (Ross’s position), but that moral status doesn’t at its core have anything to do with any M Property at all. If I’ve misread and Ramesh’s position is the same as Ross’ on this score, that would be good to know: We’d be not so far apart after all. So here’s what Ross has to say about how an M Theory might extend moral status to creatures not exhibiting Property M at a particular time:

Human beings display, and experience, different parts of “Property M” at different moments; we move in and out of different states of consciousness, different levels of reason and self-awareness, and so forth. I know that philosophers can debate endlessly whether Ross-at-age-eighteen is really the same person as Ross-at-age-three, but the whole edifice of Western law rests on the assumption that people don’t just exist in the moment, but over the course of a lifetime. And so just as rights-based liberalism protects me from being killed in a dreamless sleep, or a drunken stupor, or a year-long coma – when I’m not experiencing any of the properties that make human beings special – it should also protect me from being killed when those properties are not yet fully developed.

Now, an interesting thing to note about this position is that species membership, which seems crucial in Ramesh’s view, drops out almost entirely here, except as a proxy for the developmental propensities certain organisms typically have. Now, I think a lot of pro-life thinkers (possibly Ramesh?) want to endorse a position that, if it recognizes the importance of Property M at all, says something like this: Any member of a species whose members typically exhibit Property M should be regarded morally as though it has Property M. (Note that this usually runs only in one direction, as I noted in the previous post: Nobody (I hope) will say that some freak superintelligent horse (a Mr. Ed) should be treated as less-than-human just because members of his species typically don’t have M.) But the position Ross is laying out does not seem to be of this sort: Rather, it appears to hinge on the developmental propensities of particular organisms.

The practical difference in these views comes out if we consider the case of infants born brain dead. Though perhaps they can, with assistance, surivive indefinitely, they have never had and will never have Property M. If Ross holds the view he has outlined above, it seems he should not regard brain-dead infants, though living members of the human species, as endowed with rights—they may be killed (or taken off life support) without any serious moral problems being raised. (Ross may have additional, theological reasons for thinking otherwise, but we’re dealing with the secular arguments for the moment.)

Now, the central idea here seems right: Property M may be what fundamentally matters, but the moral protection that flows from it can’t depend on an entity’s actually exhibiting M at any given moment. In fact, we can probably say something stronger than that: For at least many of the likely components of M, such as representing reasons to oneself, or making moral choices, never actually happen “at any given moment, ” strictly speaking. That is, if I am in the midst of thinking about my reasons to follow a certain course of action, you cannot just take a snapshot of what’s going on in my brain at some particular instant and say: “Ah, that’s what it’s like to be entertaining a reason, is it?” It is the whole process that makes for the relevant M-states, not any bit of it in isolation.

And of course, there’s the intuitive support for a broader view: We can all agree that someone in a dreamless sleep, or a coma (at least if they are expected to recover), or in cryogenic stasis (assuming this does not irreversibly damage the person in a way that makes it equivalent to death) clearly can’t just be killed. Perhaps we shouldn’t let him vote while comatose, but he’s surely got rights of some kind. The question is how to generalize from those cases so we know what to say about, on the one hand, fetuses, and on the other, brain-dead adults.

We might, of course, just say that whatever status is conferred by Property M extends for the biological life of the organism that has (or will have?) it. But I think that seems too broad if we interrogate the reasons for our reaction to the sleeping or comatose or frozen person. If someone proposed killing such a person, we would be likely to think things like: “But he’s not dead; he’s merely resting! If we let him recover, he’ll be displaying Property M all over the place in no time. Moreover, he will be the very same M-endowed person who was around a week ago, and had all sorts of things he wanted to do and experience. Had you asked him then, he’d certianly have wanted his body treated well while he was out, and you yourself would want the same if you thought you were going to be (temporarily) comatose or in cryostasis.” What I’m getting at is that what seems to be crucial here is the comatose body’s acting as a bridge between the previous M-having person and the very same M-having person who might soon be around again. Let’s say it’s me in that coma, with some debilitating illness. It is, the doctors think, too late to save that body. But, thanks to wonderful advances in biotechnology, they can open up my skull and put my brain in a new body—some kind of android or a clone body grown with no brain. (I recognize some people have a gut aversion to these kinds of fantastical thought experiments—even if, one day, they may turn out not to be so fantastical—and will at this point begin rolling their eyes at all the airy-fairy, ivory tower debating society nonsense. And all I can say is: Given that in the actual world, so many different issues are routinely hard to separate because, in fact, minds and bodies go together pretty neatly, the only way to isolate the different things and figure out what’s important and what’s not is to come up with some pretty weird examples where we won’t have strong precommitments biasing our responses.) Now, maybe I want to keep the old body around for sentimental reasons. But maybe insead I say: “Look, er, this is getting a bit expensive, so why don’t we unplug last season’s wardrobe there and see whether any of the organs are in good enoguh shape to donate, eh?” Now, that body certainly has an intimate historical connection with a certain M-bearing person (me!), but it seems like it would be odd to object: “Oh, no, we couldn’t do that! You see, an organisms rights don’t just vest when it’s actually displaying M, but extend over its whole life. So we’d be violating your rights if we unplugged it.” This is, one supposes, a bit muddled insofar as I’m giving my consent in this version of the example. But all I’m trying to bring out is the idea that this isn’t like the coma case at all, because the comatose me was still me. Whereas here, Elvis has left the building: It’s the same organism, but it’s not me at all. I’m off enjoying my new body.

One more variation, which I offered in the original debate with Eve. Say they can’t actually get the brain out and transplant it now. What they do instead is take a series of super high-resolution fMRI image of my brain and store them on some high-capacity disc. In a few weeks (maybe once the clone or robot body is ready) they’ll be able to imprint the body on a fresh brain, good as new. Now, as my friend Peter Suderman observes, we might want to insist that this “resurrected” person will not really be “me,” but just a copy. For, as Derek Parfit has observed in a slightly different example, we could imagine them making the same kind of image and re-imprinting it while I’m still alive. And we wouldn’t say anything quite so silly as that I’m now in two places at once; we’d say that I’m over here, and my copy is over there. But in the case under consideration, I don’t think the difference matters much.

I will die, but in a few weeks, my nice fresh copy will wake up with all of my memories, experiencing the world just as I did, caring about the things I cared about, loving the people I loved, with the same bizarre and tedious penchant for elaborate philosophical thought experiments, and so on. In terms of every reason I have to go on living—every reason I have to hope and wish that after falling asleep tonight, I will wake up again in the morning—the surivival of my copy is as good as my survival. If I am sure that my copy will be successfully made, I have no good reason to regard with dread the possibility that I will die tonight, for in every way that matters, it will be just as though I survived. From that perspective, whether we call this new person “me” (with a fresh new body) or “my copy” seems like a matter of semantics, on which nothing very important turns. If this is not “survival,” it is a perfect substitute.

Now consider what we think about the disk on which my imprint is stored. It is not any sort of organism. It is an inanimate piece of property. But it is, in the most relevant senses, very much like the comatose or cryo-static person. It is a bridge between the “me” who died (with death, at this level of technology, perhaps reduced to an extreme form of sleep) and the “me” who might soon be reborn. I think there’s a clear and intuitive sense in which destroying that disk would not just be a bit of minor property crime, but murder. (An interesting tangent that arose when I was discussing this with Suderman: Imagine it were somehow possible to gather these kinds of brain-images from people who lived long ago. Perhaps some radiation passed through earth hundreds of years ago, picked up some kind of imprint of everything that was going on at the time, and now is reflected back so we can read the image. Would we have an obligation to “resurrect” our ancestors as copies, if we could? I think it’s probably a consequence of my view that we would, at least for the ones we have some reason to think would want that.)

I raise all these strange examples because I think they allow us to home in on what seems wrong about killing the comatose person, which is the same thing that seems wrong about destroying the disk with my brain template: It is a bridge between past and future M-states (or M-processes?), where some of those past M-states included strong (at least implicit) desires about their perpetuation into the future. Now imagine that instead of taking an imprint from a dying patient, someone had just mocked up a novel brain image on a similar disk (or, indeed, if we consider the same disk from before, once we’ve used it to create at least one “copy” of the person), I think we react very differently. In both cases, we have a kind of potential-person, a blueprint for a mind that unambiguously has Property M. The difference between them is that in one case, we have a potential mind so intimately connected to a previous one that we are inclined to want to say they are the same person, and that creating the copy is a way of allowing the person who provided its template to survive. In the other case, we have no such connection. If we think that it would be OK to make the mock-up image, then erase it, but that there would be something very wrong with erasing the template-based image, that suggests that we think it is this bridging of M-states, rather than potentiality per se, that is important.

Suderman suggests that there may be an important acts/omissions distinction here. That is, it may be that what is important is interrupting an ongoing process, such that perhaps creating and destroying embryos in vitro for various medical purposes would be permissible, but that once an embryo is implanted in a uterus, say, it is on the road to personhood. So it might be that it’s the absence of this kind of process that accounts for our thinking the mock-up image could be made up and erased, while we have additional obligations in the case of the template-based image. But we can tweak the example: I have put the disk in the imprinting machine and flipped the “start” switch. It is warming up to burn the appropriate set of neural pathways into a now-lifeless hunk of proto-brain goo awaiting insertion in a clone body. Except—whoops!—I used the wrong disk; it was the mock-up image and not the one based on the deceased patient’s brain. Suppose the process is automatic, so that if I do nothing, the machine will, within a few hours, imprint the pattern and awaken a conscious mind. If the imprinting hasn’t started yet, is there some additional objection (on process-interrupting grounds) to hitting the “cancel” button and swapping in the correct disk?

Or, finally, we can step back from all these intuition pumps and just look at the immediately relevant cases. We ask if there’s some moral reason to protect the comatose (or sleeping) person that won’t apply in the case of the fetus. It seems there is: The reason the person had for wanting, before going to sleep, to wake up again. And this sort of reason has the same sort of familiar interpersonal moral force as does the waking person’s reason for not wanting to be punched in the face. So now we want to know if there’s some other reason that we’d extend the moral status of someone with Property M to the fetus. And there’s an obvious candidate: Can we get the same result from the prospective reason we imagine the future-person having to endorse his own emergence from the fetus stage? Well, this is a hell of a long post already, but I think there are some obvious problems with acting on the reasons we suppose hypothetical persons are going to have, perhaps so much so that it’s not necessary to lay them out in great detail. The obvious one is: If we’re not going to be morally required to devote all our time and energy to maximal breeding, it’s going to have to have to be that the only prospective reasons that count are those (we expect to be) harbored by minds that will emerge from currently extant embryos.

It is hard to know what to say about this, because (if it is the kind of argument a pro-lifer would want to make), I’m having a bit of trouble imagining what the argument for this would look like. I think once we’ve switched to the “hitch-a-ride” version of the argument, where it’s acknowledged that M Properties are fundamental, whatever we say about the status of organisms not currently exhibiting those properties is going to have to involve making a link to those properties at other times.

I can imagine an argument working something like this (and I’m again borrowing heavily from Derek Parfit here): We probably do think we have an obligation to future generations in some general way. If some major public policy would drastically affect the quality of life of people 100 years hence (but, let’s suppose, not until then, or if it would, the effect would be in the other direction), we think that has to be a moral consideration in deciding whether to adopt it. But the identities of those people are not yet determinate—indeed, in many cases will be affected by the fact that history went a different way by virtue of our policy being enacted or not. Now, if we enact the policy that leaves the future generation worse off, it won’t do to say that this is a wrong to them, since under the “better” policy, it would have been different people living with a higher quality of life. And suppose that even the “worse” policy does not leave them so badly off: It’s not as though it would have been wrong to go ahead with reproducing if that had been our best option. So our reason to choose the policy that’s better for the future generation has to involve the pull exerted by the prospective reasons of the persons who exist under that scenario, and those reasons will have to be effective even thoguh those people would not exist if we made the “bad” policy choice.

Building on some intuition like that seems like the most promising path for the pro-lifer to take. But it’s not clear how that kind of reasoning would importantly hook up with the point of conception as the time when such reasons become operative. If we think the reasoning in the brain-imaging cases above is probably right, then it seems that it’s not necessarily biological continuity that matters, as it were, after the mind has left for good. So it seems like the next step is to find a reason for its mattering before the mind arrives.

Tags: Moral Philosophy