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The Problem It may seem that existing and future people have a moral status that the merely possible lack. Why else would we say that (I) ending the life.

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Presentation on theme: "The Problem It may seem that existing and future people have a moral status that the merely possible lack. Why else would we say that (I) ending the life."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Problem It may seem that existing and future people have a moral status that the merely possible lack. Why else would we say that (I) ending the life of an existing person (or, at some future time, a future person) is ordinarily wrong but (II) preventing a possible person from ever living at all ordinarily isn’t? The cases, however, undermine this idea. They show that we are compelled to accept instead the Moral Significance of Merely Possible Persons (MSMPP). According to MSMPP, the merely possible are morally significant in the same way you and I are; to the extent our losses matter morally—count against acts that impose them and in favor of acts that avoid them—so do theirs. MSMPP seems to undermine the distinction between (I) and (II). And it also seems to ground a powerful argument against early abortion. According to that argument, the early abortion is often wrong in virtue of what it does, not to the human embryo or early human fetus (or the pregnant woman or her partner or other existing or future persons), but rather to the merely possible person it prevents from ever existing. The power of the argument lies in the fact that, if correct, it stands even if the human embryo and early human fetus (perhaps because they are not thinking things) are not “persons” and have no moral status in their own right. The problem is to show how we can retain both MSMPP and the distinction between (I) and (II). Variabilism, I argue, solves that problem—and, in doing so, provides a foundation for a defense against the Argument Against Early Abortion. Three Cases Preliminaries. * plus italics means indicated person never exists at indicated world. Bold means indicated person does or will exist. Never existing implies a zero wellbeing level. Leaving a person out of existence often imposes a loss on that person (where loss here is shorthand for claim that a particular existence is better for a person than never existing is). Green dotted arrows and red solid arrows indicate losses in wellbeing from one world to another. Case 1. Mere Addition a1 at w1a2 at w2 a3 at w3 (w1=actual) +10 Kate Kate Kate, Jaime +1 Jaime 0 Jaime* A good theory will imply: Jaime’s loss at w2 counts against a2; Jaime’s loss makes the otherwise permissible a2 wrong not just at w2 but at the actual w1 as well— even though Jaime is merely possible relative to w1. (Otherwise analysis has no action-guiding force.) Solution: Variabilism We may want to say that Ann has a priority that Bob lacks (perhaps on the ground that Ann alone is actual, or that we seek to evaluate the actual a1, or that Ann alone exists in both w1 and w2). But Cases 1-3 show that we can’t. MSMPP —Premise (1)—is true. Premise (2) isn’t problematic. Loss here is just shorthand for talk about the betterness-for relation; and just as it is hard to deny that it is often better for us that we exist than that we not, so is it hard to deny that that claim holds for the merely possible as well. The culprit is Premise (3). Cases 1-3 show only that some of the losses incurred by the merely possible matter morally. We can’t infer that all their—or all our—losses matter morally. At least: the option of saying that some of their losses matter morally and some don’t has not been foreclosed. Moreover, that’s just the option Cases 1-4 together suggest. We should be deciding, not who matters morally and who doesn’t, but which losses matter morally and which don’t. From that perspective, the rule for deciding which do and which don’t seems obvious: mattering morally is a function of where a loss is incurred in relation to the person who incurs it. That is: Variabilism. A loss incurred at a world where the person who incurs it does or will exist has full moral significance for purposes of evaluating the act that imposes that loss and the alternative acts that avoid it. But a loss incurred by a person at a world where that person never exists has no moral significance for purposes of evaluating the act that imposes that loss or the alternative acts that avoid it. Implications: Red solid arrows signify morally significant losses; green dotted arrows signify losses that aren’t morally significant; and the loss incurred by the merely possible person as a result of the early abortion has no moral significance at all. Queries: Does Variabilism make the mistake of ignoring gains? What are the implications for the choices that led to your coming into existence? For the Asymmetry? Does the nonidentity problem challenge Variabilism? Melinda A. Roberts Department of Philosophy and Religion, College of New Jersey RoME III—August 2010 Does the Moral Status of Merely Possible People Imply that Early Abortion Is Wrong? Case 2. Double Wrongful Life a1 at w1 a2 at w2 (w1=actual) 0 Cal* Dee* -10 Dee Cal A good theory will imply: Cal’s loss at w2 counts against a2 and in favor of a1; it makes the otherwise wrong actual a1 permissible. Case 3. Addition Plus a1 at w1a2 at w2a3 at w3 (w1=actual) +10 Etta +9 Etta +5 Etta, Fen 0Fen* Fen A good theory will imply: Fen’s loss at w2 counts against a2; it makes the otherwise wrong actual a1 permissible. Results From Case 1: Some losses incurred by merely possible persons count against the acts that imposes those losses; they can make an otherwise permissible merely possible act wrong. From Cases 2 and 3: Some losses incurred by merely possible persons count, not just against the merely possible acts that impose those losses, but also in favor of any actual act that avoids those losses; they can make an otherwise wrong actual act permissible. Since to say that some of a person’s losses bear on the moral evaluation is surely to say that that person has some moral significance, MSMPP is inescapable! Argument Against Early Abortion Premise 1. MSMPP is true; merely possible people are morally significant; just as our losses count against the acts that impose those losses and in favor of any alternative acts, so do theirs. Premise 2. Any early abortion that prevents a merely possible person from coming into an existence worth having (and not into a wrongful life) imposes a loss on that person. Premise 3. If MSMPP is true, then that loss—the loss imposed by any such early abortion—counts against that early abortion. Conclusion. Any early abortion that prevents a merely possible person from coming into an existence worth having imposes a loss on that person that counts against that early abortion. Further conclusions. In determining the permissibility of the early abortion, any otherwise plausible permissibility theory will take that morally significant loss—just as it will take any other morally significant loss—into account. We can anticipate that the early abortion will be deemed wrong whenever the (ordinarily very deep) loss incurred by the merely possible person isn’t counterbalanced by the (ordinarily relatively minor) losses the pregnant woman or others will incur if the pregnancy continues. An Objection: If the above argument is sound, then, in the Base Case, Bob’s loss in w1 counts against a1, just as Ann’s counts against a2. But that seems false. Case 4. Base Case a1 at w1 a2 at w2 (w1=actual) +100 Ann Bob 0 Bob* Ann A good theory will say that Bob’s loss doesn’t have anything like the moral weight that Ann’s does. A person? A four-and-a-half week-old (est.) orphan kitten. A non-person? “A 10 mm [0.39 inch] embryo from an ectopic pregnancy, still in the oviduct. This embryo is about five weeks old (or from the 7 th week of pregnancy).” Wikipedia, retrieved March 15, Sources: Gustaf Arrhenius (on person-affecting restrictions), John Broome (on Neutrality Intuition), Caspar Hare, Rivka Weinberg, Josh Parsons and Jan Narveson (on Moral Actualism), R.M. Hare (“golden rule” argument against abortion), George Sher (on R.M. Hare), Elizabeth Harman (on Actual Future account of why agents has reasons against early abortion in world where pregnancy continues), Jeff McMahan (on the Asymmetry and on Order of Presentation account of why abortion can be wrong because worse for some and better for none than fetal injury), Peter Singer (on Prior Existence View and Asymmetry), David Benatar (on disvalue of existing), Ingmar Persson (on Asymmetry), Alan McMichael (on problem for actualism about possible worlds), Derek Parfit. References and poster pdf: Contact:


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