Wednesday, December 09, 2015

When does a fetus become human?

When does a fetus become human? 

From conception, obviously. It is a homo sapiens fetus, not a canis familiaris fetus or a felix domesticus fetus. The question is whether species membership is sufficient for an overriding right to life. 

52 comments:

Hugo Pelland said...

Then, we can say that only ~4/5 of humans made it out of the womb...

Angra Mainyu said...

Victor,

If we want precision with the terminology, a human fetus is always human of course, but right after conception, there is no fetus. There is an embryo. Of course a human embryo is also human. A human ovum is human too.

Hugo,

What's your source?
According to the Wikipedia article on "miscarriage", between 30% and 50% of naturally fertilized human eggs are lost accidentally, even if the rate of accidental loses among pregnancies is lower (in medical terms, not all fertilized eggs result in pregnancy.)

Angra Mainyu said...

Hugo,

Even though human embryos and fetuses are clearly human, "human" is an adjective in that context. Whether they're humans in the usual sense of the noun "human", or whether there is a single usual sense, are different issues.
For example, an acorn is not an oak tree, though of course it's the same species as the oak tree. The human fetus, the human embryo, and even the human ovum are all the same species as the human adult, but it does not follow that they're humans, or human beings.
Your conclusion appears to also be based on an assumption that fertilized human eggs are humans.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

What do you think of this argument: I was once an embryo, being a human being is essential to me, and so the embryo that I was is a human being?

Another thought: science tells us that human life begins at fertilization. But it seems 'human life' can only be ascribed to human beings. We don't ascribe human life to ova, and the beginning of an ovum's existence is not the beginning of a human life.

Angra Mainyu said...

Victor,

"The question is whether species membership is sufficient for an overriding right to life."
That's one question, but it opens the door to others.

My answer is that it's not immoral for a woman to kill embryos because she does not want to have a child (all other things equal); regarding fetuses, I'm not sure whether it's immoral later in a pregnancy - maybe it depends on the case -, but even if it's wrong, I don't think it would be okay to stop her by force - I don't think all wrongs justify intervention on the part of others.
So, if you put that in terms of rights, the answer would be "no".

But if you answer "yes", and you further consider the killing of a human embryo or fetus morally similar with the killing of a human adult for similar reasons (e.g., because one does not want to have a child, or because the parents pay one for doing the killing, or some other common reason for killing embryos), another question is whether killing doctors who perform abortions in order to protect embryos and fetuses is morally justified (e.g., see http://digressionsnimpressions.typepad.com/digressionsimpressions/2015/12/presumptive-grounds-for-killing-abortion-doctors-and-bombing-abortion-clinics.html#sthash.M6MxelQl.uxfs&st_refDomain=t.co&st_refQuery=/j9gHi2uPcK ). A further question is whether it's morally justified to kill people who make embryos in laboratories only to destroy all (if they're for research) or most (if they're for implantation), and so on.

Angra Mainyu said...

M. E.,

With regard to your argument about the essentialness of being a human being, and that you were once an embryo, I would say that identity terms have different usages in different contexts, but in the sense in which you were once an embryo, you were once not a person, or a human being. So, I would deny essentialness of both personhood or being a human being, at least in that sense of identity over time.
But why do you think being a human being is essential to you?
Consider the following hypothetical scenario: in some science-fiction movies or TV shows, sometimes individuals change species by biotechnological means. Suppose some aliens use genetically designed viruses to slowly change the DNA of an adult human being, over centuries (they modify him so that he stays alive for much longer), eventually rendering a being that is not human at all, even though the change was gradual and the individual was conscious all the time except when sleeping (but when he was sleeping, he still had brain activity, dreams sometimes, etc.
Isn't there a sense in which the resulting entity could say "I was once a human being"?
It seems to me that there is a sense (of identity terms) in which that holds, and a sense in which that doesn't hold, and the same goes for whether you were once an embryo.
Granted, you might believe that the scenario is metaphysically impossible. But if so, why do you believe so? (I'm agnostic on the possibility of the scenario).

Regarding the second argument, I would ask for evidence of the claim that science tells us that human life begins at conception. That seems to be a conceptual or philosophical matter, but life has been going on for billions of years without, and human life for tens of thousands.

But consider the following three cases:
1. Cloning without conception.
2. Parthenogenesis (no matter how rare).
3. Embryos splitting in the case of twins.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

Regarding the second argument, here are some excerpts from various textbooks:

From Bopp's Human Life and Health Care Ethics: "The first cell of a new and unique human life begins existence at the moment of conception (fertilization) when one living sperm from the father joins with one living ovum from the mother."

From Krieger's The Human Reproductive System: "All organisms, however large and complex they may be when fullgrown, begin life as but a single cell. This is true of the human being, for instance, who begins life as a fertilized ovum."

From O'Rahilly & Müller's Human Embryology & Teratology: "...fertilization is a critical landmark because... a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed."

From Sadler's Langman's Medical Embryology: "The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote."

From Moore and Persaud's Before We Are Born – Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects: "The zygote and early embryo are living human organisms."

A quote from a professor at Harvard: "In biology and medicine, it is an accepted fact that the life of any individual organism reproducing by sexual reproduction begins at conception, or fertilization.... The fact that life begins at conception is not just taught to specialized students of embryology or medicine, but it is also taught to biology students at the high school and college level.... It is widely accepted and widely taught that human beings... start their existence at the time of conception or fertilization, as a single cell, the zygote.... It is incorrect to say that biological data cannot be decisive…It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception." - Dr. Micheline Matthews-Roth

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

The textbooks do not seem to have found that as a scientific result, but rather, picked that point as important for the purposes they were aiming to.
Still, in light of your argument about essential stuff and identity, I could reply as follows:
From Krieger's The Human Reproductive System: "All organisms, however large and complex they may be when fullgrown, begin life as but a single cell. This is true of the human being, for instance, who begins life as a fertilized ovum."
So, Mary Kate Olsen is a human being, and she was so when she was a fertilized ovum. The same applies to Ashley Olsen. Since there was only one ovum, then Ashley Olsen was the same human being as Mary Kate Olsen, and so they are still the same human being because identity is essential. But surely that's not true.

From O'Rahilly & Müller's Human Embryology & Teratology: "...fertilization is a critical landmark because... a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed."
Cloned embryos do not form through fertilization, but that aside, here "human" is used as an adjective, not as a noun. There is still a (partially semantic) question as to whether a genetically distinct human organism is a human being, and/or whether that's a person.

From Sadler's Langman's Medical Embryology: "The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote."
Mary Kate and Ashley?

From Moore and Persaud's Before We Are Born – Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects: "The zygote and early embryo are living human organisms."
But in order to get from "human organism" to "person" or to "human being", you need some further premise, or a semantic claim.

A quote from a professor at Harvard: A quote from a professor at Harvard: "In biology and medicine, it is an accepted fact that the life of any individual organism reproducing by sexual reproduction begins at conception, or fertilization....
Mary Kate and Ashley?

However, I think this is only a tangent (albeit a rhetorically important one, in the context of abortion debates).
More precisely, I don't believe that my analysis of the concept "human being" is mistaken, and I think applying the expression "human being" to embryos is an error that tends to lead people to support banning abortions, but in the end, a discussion about that matter does not address the substantive moral issues at hand.

For example, let's assume that most people the expression "human being" in a way that applies to embryos as well. Then, I would conclude that I was mistaken about the meaning of the expression "human being", but that would in no way affect my take on the morality of abortion. Instead, I would (but I don't) say that when human beings are embryos, it's permissible to kill them because (e.g.) one does not want a child, or make several to implant some and kill the rest, etc.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

"The textbooks do not seem to have found that as a scientific result, but rather, picked that point as important for the purposes they were aiming to."

Why think that?

In the case of twinning, we could say that the pre-split individual ceases to be. This is compatible with the claim that the pre-split individual and the post-split twins are human beings.

I see no significant difference between "human being" and "human organism". When pro-lifers argue that abortion is wrong, it is this sense of "human being/organism" - the sense used by science - that they are using. Given this sense, it is uncontroversial that the unborn are human beings. Whether the unborn are not "human beings" in another sense is tangential to the pro-lifers argument.

Regarding "person", even if the embryo is not a person, I would still say abortion is wrong. Having said that, I have yet to encounter a plausible criteria for personhood. I've always had the sense that such criteria are just plucked from the air, and that considerations of simplicity would favor identifying "person" with "human being/organism".

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

"Why think that?"

Because they're not giving us any new information we didn't already have, relevant to the question of whether or not an embryo is a human being.
In particular, some of them are applying the expression "human being" to embryos. But they're not saying - for example - that embryos are self-aware, which would indeed be new information, relevant to the question. Of course, embryos aren't self-aware.

"In the case of twinning, we could say that the pre-split individual ceases to be. This is compatible with the claim that the pre-split individual and the post-split twins are human beings."
True, but it's incompatible with the claim like "All organisms, however large and complex they may be when fullgrown, begin life as but a single cell. This is true of the human being, for instance, who begins life as a fertilized ovum", because there would be human beings who didn't begin life as a single cell.
My point was that there was inconsistency between the position you defended and the claims made by the textbooks, and that inconsistency persists.

Also, some of the textbooks you cited do not seem to call embryos "human beings", even if they call them "human organisms".

"I see no significant difference between "human being" and "human organism". When pro-lifers argue that abortion is wrong, it is this sense of "human being/organism" - the sense used by science - that they are using. Given this sense, it is uncontroversial that the unborn are human beings. Whether the unborn are not "human beings" in another sense is tangential to the pro-lifers argument."
Words have meaning, and people make moral assessment on the basis of what they understand their words to be.
If you make an argument talking about a "human organism", that's not going to have the same psychological impact as one talking about a "human being", let alone "person", on many people.
If people who make that argument are using "human being" to mean "human organism", then the substance of their argument would be unchanged, but their impact probably wouldn't be.
Still, I suspect that if people who want to ban abortion or keep it banned (depending on the place) called embryos "human organisms" (or similar words in other languages), tangential semantic disputes would to a large extent subside, and the debate would perhaps go into substantive issues more often - not that there would be any significant amount of persuading of defenders of each position, anyway.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

"Regarding "person", even if the embryo is not a person, I would still say abortion is wrong. Having said that, I have yet to encounter a plausible criteria for personhood. I've always had the sense that such criteria are just plucked from the air, and that considerations of simplicity would favor identifying "person" with "human being/organism". "
We learn words by observing how others use them, and we grasp their meaning and become linguistically competent. But that does not give us in general an explicit exceptionless criteria - that is exceedingly difficult.
Indentifying "person" with "human being/organism" does not seem to match the meaning of the terms (and neither does identifying "human organism" with "human being"), at least in the usual senses of the word that are relevant in this context.
For example, let's say that we read in a newspaper that over 10000 people have been killed in a terrorist attack, or by a missile that went stray. Most of us would be very surprised if we later learn that the entities killed were frozen embryos. If Bob tells Alice that George has killed over 10000 defenseless people, in a premeditated manner, and asks what she thinks George deserves as a punishment, again Alice would be very surprised if later Bob tells her that the people that George killed were all frozen embryos.
Ordinarily, when we talk about people, we're not talking about frozen embryos.
Moreover, if George is accused of 10000 counts of murder by a district attorney, in nearly all countries at least (leaving aside, perhaps, the Vatican), judges would immediately and properly dismiss the case, even if there is no specific legislation about frozen embryos, and on the grounds that embryos are not what the law calls "persons", or "personas", or whatever they're called on each language. But laws didn't have to come up with new technical language for that. They seem to be using commonly used words.

All that said, even if you're right, this still doesn't get us to any of the substantive matters at hand.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

"Because they're not giving us any new information we didn't already have, relevant to the question of whether or not an embryo is a human being."

They're telling us the embryo *is* a human being, wouldn't this be new information if someone did know about this yet?

Is linguistically incompetent to use "human being" this way? It's not obviously wrong to use it that way, the way it would be wrong to use "Cat" this way: "Two plus two equals cat".

"My point was that there was inconsistency between the position you defended and the claims made by the textbooks, and that inconsistency persists."

Interpreted charitably, those textbook statements which aren't worded carefully can be read as having implicit "all things being equal" clauses - and obviously, all things are not equal in cases of twinning and cloning. It's not as if these textbook authors are unaware of twinning and cloning.

Some pro-lifers are precise about this: "Questions about the human embryo and its beginnings seem to be questions of biology, and biologists seem to be competent authorities in answering them. And biologists have indeed answered those two questions in a way that approaches universal consensus: human embryos are human beings, and human embryos, when not the product of monozygotic twinning or human cloning, come into existence at conception" (Tollefsen)

The main point though is that the embryo is a human being/organism. How this impacts people in terms of rhetoric is a side issue.

"Ordinarily, when we talk about people, we're not talking about frozen embryos."

Science can often extend terms beyond what some would take to be their "ordinary" uses. It sounds strange if someone eats a tomato and says "I'm having some fruit" but scientifically, tomatoes are fruits. It sounds strange to speak of "warm-blooded fish" but such fish do exist. And so on.

"All that said, even if you're right, this still doesn't get us to any of the substantive matters at hand."

Yes, which is why I don't think it's worth spending much time debating on the uncontroversial fact that the unborn are human beings. The real controversial question is whether the unborn have a right to life.

What do you think grounds a right to life?

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

"They're telling us the embryo *is* a human being, wouldn't this be new information if someone did know about this yet?"
They're using the expression "human being" and apply it to a fetus. But they're not saying that the fetus has any properties we didn't know it had.
If you're saying that they're saying it has the property of being a human being - and that property isn't a property like have such-and-such cells, DNA, etc. -, then that would not be a claim that results from any scientific study that the books in question took into account, and in that regard, aren't evidence that "science" tells us that an embryo is a human being. If they were saying that, they would be implicitly engaging in (in my assessment, mistaken) conceptual analysis.

In other words, there is no scientific discovery those books inform us of that weighs in on the question of whether an embryo is a human being, given that we (i.e., the people involved in the discussion, at least those reasonably familiar with it) already factored in any such discoveries.

"Is linguistically incompetent to use "human being" this way? It's not obviously wrong to use it that way, the way it would be wrong to use "Cat" this way: "Two plus two equals cat"."
I think it is linguistically mistaken to use "person" that way, and as for human being, I think very probably it is, but if it isn't, then the expression has more than one meaning, and the most common one by far wouldn't apply to embryos.

"Interpreted charitably, those textbook statements which aren't worded carefully can be read as having implicit "all things being equal" clauses - and obviously, all things are not equal in cases of twinning and cloning. It's not as if these textbook authors are unaware of twinning and cloning. "
Interpreted in context, those statements aren't about cloning but about sexual reproduction not involving cloning (but you're using them to support a broader claim, so it's okay if I mention cloning), and also, twins are included. They're talking about the development of a human organism beginning as a single cell; that organism then split in two. But that's not a problem, as long as one is not talking about essences and such things - which they weren't, but I may bring that up in the context of your arguments.
Still, before that, there was an ovum, which is also an organism, but that's not what they're focusing on. Those books have a purpose, and it's not to settle matters of conceptual analysis.

"Some pro-lifers are precise about this: "Questions about the human embryo and its beginnings seem to be questions of biology, and biologists seem to be competent authorities in answering them. And biologists have indeed answered those two questions in a way that approaches universal consensus: human embryos are human beings, and human embryos, when not the product of monozygotic twinning or human cloning, come into existence at conception" (Tollefsen)"
That may be precise, but false.
Biologists have studied human reproduction and learned a lot about that. They have learned a lot about the process of embryo formation. They are still learning a lot. There is near universal consensus about how the processes actually work.
On the other hand, biologists - at least, as part of their scientific work - have not engaged in a conceptual analysis, and in particular, they have not tried to answer the questions of whether the common English expression "human being" is properly applicable to embryos, or - if it is - whether that is the same sense in which the expression "human being" is used (or used more frequently) in colloquial speech, in legal documents, and so on.
Most biologists aren't interested in such matters, and those who are and engage in such deliberations, discussions, etc., are doing conceptual analysis, not biology.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.:,

"The main point though is that the embryo is a human being/organism. How this impacts people in terms of rhetoric is a side issue."
You say it's a human being. I say it's not, at least in the most common sense of the expression. But at any rate, this isn't a matter you can settle by citing biology textbooks. It's a matter of conceptual analysis. The textbooks - or papers, etc. - can tell us about how the process works, but not (properly) about whether the usual term "human being" applies to such processes/organisms, etc.

"Science can often extend terms beyond what some would take to be their "ordinary" uses. It sounds strange if someone eats a tomato and says "I'm having some fruit" but scientifically, tomatoes are fruits. It sounds strange to speak of "warm-blooded fish" but such fish do exist. And so on."
Yes, but sometimes scientific usage is just different from common usage. In any case, I'm talking about the ordinary meaning of "human being", and if there is more than one, about the most common one.
"Yes, which is why I don't think it's worth spending much time debating on the uncontroversial fact that the unborn are human beings."
Actually, whether embryos are human beings is a controversial matter of conceptual analysis - not of biology -, and it's controversial in the sense that there is a controversy and plenty of people (most of them poorly) defending either side.

"The real controversial question is whether the unborn have a right to life."
Actually, I think that's just one of several questions (e.g., see my reply to Victor), though I think the language of rights is usually not a good way of trying to discuss moral issues; I think terms like "immoral", "morally praiseworthy", etc., are better. But the language of rights seems to be the most popular these days (at least in the West), and seem to prefer it, so I'll adapt.

"What do you think grounds a right to life?"
I don't know. I don't even know there is a ground in the sense in which you're using the word.
I assess whether it's immoral or not to kill an entity on a case by case basis, given the non-moral data at hand.
In the case of embryos, I reckon it's not immoral to kill them because - say - a woman does not want to have them implanted and have more children, or because she wants not to continue with an already existing pregnancy, etc. (all other things equal).
I would like to ask you as well: what do you think grounds a right to life, and why?
Also, how to you think "A has a right to life" is connected to "It's immoral for B to kill A"

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

Regarding the question of whether embryos are humans, why think that "whether embryos are human beings is a controversial matter of conceptual analysis - not of biology"? It seems our disagreement largely comes down to this point. I think "human being" is a biological category and that biology is clear that embryos are human beings. To say "human being" isn't a biological category is like saying "fish" or "tree" or "cat" isn't a biological category.

I also think the language of rights isn't helpful, but it is the common way of putting things. We can put the question this way: given that we agree (I hope!) that it is immoral to kill human beings in at least some cases, why is it immoral to do so?

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

There is a common expression "human being", which might pick is (somewhat fuzzy) biological category.
However, what that category includes does not depend on whether on how some biologists decide to use the term.
Consider the English term "ape". That is a biological category (or more than one, by the same name).
But the common term "ape" usually does not include humans, whereas different biologists seem to use the expression differently, some including apes, and some not.
I don't know whether most biologists use "ape" in a way that includes humans, but even if they do, that is not decisive when it comes to common usage.
Maybe in the future, common usage will change, but my point is that even when colloquial terms pick biological categories, they don't need to match categories those terms pick in the technical jargon of biologists.
That said, I'm not at all convinced that most biologists include embryos under the term "human being". Some of your quotes indicate so, but others don't. And it's easy to find articles in which scientists deny that embryos are human beings (you can try a quick search).

With regard to your question, whether it's immoral depends on the case, but at some point, the ball stops so to speak, on pain of infinite regress.
I think the matter depends on the case - i.e., why it's immoral, though I'm not sure we're always or usually in a good position to figure that out (I'm inclined towards the views of intuitionists when it comes to moral epistemology - though I reject usual intuitionist moral ontology).
In the end, I think while one can come up with more general theories - e.g., what grounds a right to life -, the plausibility of that theory is properly assessed on an intuitive basis, and tested in the same fashion (else, what other means would you propose?). None of this rules out reasoning, of course (e.g., to show contradictions), or the use of different hypothetical scenarios to undermine prima facie intuitions by showing that they are in conflict with more firm ones.
But I don't think one generally needs to - or actually does - know the features that make a behavior immoral, in order to properly assess it's immoral - or that it isn't.

Even so, I don't think the biological category "human being" is so relevant when it comes to the moral issues involved - at least, not per se; it might have instrumental value in some cases.
For example, if - as you think - it includes embryos, because killing embryos isn't generally immoral.
Of course, we disagree on that one; our prima facie intuitions are vastly different, or else you're basing your assessment on a general theory of sorts. I can try some examples (see next post), but first, I'd like to ask you what you asked me:
Given that we agree that it is immoral to kill human beings in at least some cases, why is it immoral to do so?

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

Do you think that killing embryos because (say) one wants to stop a pregnancy, or making many embryos just to implant one or two and kill the rest if the pregnancy goes as planned, is immoral to a degree similar to the degree to which is immoral to kill an adult human being for the same purpose?
For example, imagine a future factory that - by means of artificial wombs, etc. - makes embryos, then grows them into babies, etc., just because there are people who want to adopt a child with some specific traits, without the trouble of having to go through a pregnancy. Let's say many customers ask for a number of different variants (i.e., that several children be actually made), so that they can pick and choose the one or ones they like the best. The children that are made but are not adopted by the age of five, are all swiftly killed.
Surely, that would be horrific. Even it were legal, it would generally be justified to use force just to stop them. Don't you agree?
But if embryos are human beings and the morally relevant factor is membership to that biological category, wouldn't the same apply to clinics that make many embryos and discard them?

Another scenario: Suppose the universe is sufficiently big (infinite or not), so that there are two planets, Earth2 and Earth3, more or less close to each other.
It turns out that there are humans on E2, and beings who are psychologically like them on E3 as far as they can tell (i.e., they can find no psychological difference after testing, save for preferences for different food and things like that), but genetically different (e.g., DNA with opposite chilarity and other stuff).
It seems that as long as the humans know that the other entities are psychologically like them, killing an adult stranger of the other species just for fun (for example) would be as evil as killing a human adult.
We may consider alternative scenarios involving simulations, with simulated people living in machines but also with human psychology, something like the Planet of the Apes, etc.
Granted, you might think all of those scenarios are metaphysically impossible. But that has two problems:
1. It seems to be false (there are plenty of such scenarios; why would they all be impossible).
2. Our intuitions do not seem to depend on the metaphysical possibility of the scenarios in this case. There are plenty of cases in which one has to make assessments in counterpossible scenarios (well, if one is into discussing philosophy), and usually that does not seem problematic.

Granted, you could say that what would be relevant would be membership to the other species, but they don't need to be a species: they can be single individuals made by genetic engineering, or agents in a simulation, etc.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

"However, what that category includes does not depend on whether on how some biologists decide to use the term."

I agree, but biologists (embryologists, to be exact) are best placed to find out what a biological category includes, and it seems that they've found that embryos are included in that category. Just because some find this use of "human being" strange, it doesn't follow that embryos are not human beings. Moreover, I have yet to encounter an embryology textbook that denies that embryos are human beings or organisms.

Perhaps we can put it another way: consider all the beings which we uncontroversially call "human beings". When did each of these beings begin to exist? This isn't a matter of conceptual analysis - one cannot answer it by mere armchair reflection, as it were.

"Given that we agree that it is immoral to kill human beings in at least some cases, why is it immoral to do so?"

One reason is that it is wrong to deprive people of their lives for the purposes cited in most abortion cases. For example, if the embryo that grew into me had been aborted, then I would have been deprived of my life.

I think it's also helpful to reflect on cases of abortion survivors. Generally, cases of survival are a great good - consider the joy we have when we hear a loved one has survived a car crash or a surgery, etc. But failed abortions are cases of survival, and so it is good if abortions fail and trying to perform them successfully is immoral. This is a very rough argument, and right now I'm not sure how to tidy it up, but hopefully the intuition behind it can be seen. :)

"if embryos are human beings and the morally relevant factor is membership to that biological category, wouldn't the same apply to clinics that make many embryos and discard them?"

Yes, I would say so.

"It seems that as long as the humans know that the other entities are psychologically like them, killing an adult stranger of the other species just for fun (for example) would be as evil as killing a human adult."

I agree, but I'm not saying that it is necessary for X to be a human being in order for it to be immoral to kill X.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.:

"I agree, but biologists (embryologists, to be exact) are best placed to find out what a biological category includes, and it seems that they've found that embryos are included in that category."
But it doesn't seem like that, for two reasons:
1. There is no agreement among embryologists in calling embryos "human being".
2. Even if there were, the information that they're apparently using is available to many others, who do not call them "human beings". In other words, if you ask those embryologists why an embryo is a human being, they will give you an answer that does not convince many others - I would say most; I guess we could try to tell that - that an embryo is a human being, even when those others accept the claims those embryologists make about the properties on the embryo on which they allegedly base their assessment that it's a human being.

"Just because some find this use of "human being" strange, it doesn't follow that embryos are not human beings. Moreover, I have yet to encounter an embryology textbook that denies that embryos are human beings or organisms."
But that's not what one would expect from an embryology textbook.
If an embryologist does not apply the term "human being" to embryos, she will simply not call them that in the textbook she rights. It's extremely unlikely that she will deny that they are human beings, as that's not the sort of discussion the text is intended for. In fact, even in some of the books you cite, embryos are not called "human beings".

"Perhaps we can put it another way: consider all the beings which we uncontroversially call "human beings". When did each of these beings begin to exist? This isn't a matter of conceptual analysis - one cannot answer it by mere armchair reflection, as it were."
I think that's an ambiguous question as identity is ambiguous in contexts like this one (see the twins case), but in any case, there is a difference between asking when something began to exist, and when something acquired a certain property.
For example, consider all the beings which we uncontroversially call "oak trees". When did each of these beings begin to exist?

In some sense, each of these beings (i.e., each oak tree) began to exist at some time t (not a precise time, but an interval), and began their existence as an accorn, not as an oak tree (i.e., they weren't oak trees yet). In a similar sense, all of the things we uncontroversially call "human beings" (or "persons") began to exist as human embryos (even twins; identity essentialism does not hold in this linguistic context), but they were not persons then, and in my assessment, they weren't human beings in the most common sense of the expression.

"One reason is that it is wrong to deprive people of their lives for the purposes cited in most abortion cases. For example, if the embryo that grew into me had been aborted, then I would have been deprived of my life."
But if that's the case, then I would say embryos aren't persons, so that wouldn't apply even if true.
Of course, you could argue that embryos are people. I would disagree, but I would also say: assuming that "person" is a word that properly applies to embryos as well, why do you think that the reason why that's wrong is because it deprives people of their lives for the purposes cited in most abortion cases?

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.:

"I think it's also helpful to reflect on cases of abortion survivors. Generally, cases of survival are a great good - consider the joy we have when we hear a loved one has survived a car crash or a surgery, etc. But failed abortions are cases of survival, and so it is good if abortions fail and trying to perform them successfully is immoral. This is a very rough argument, and right now I'm not sure how to tidy it up, but hopefully the intuition behind it can be seen. :)"
The survival of people is generally good thing - or maybe more precisely the not-happening of a bad thing, but let's say a good thing.
On the other hand, the survival of organisms living off a person's body and which he or she intends to remove is generally a bad thing.
But failed abortions are cases of survival of organisms living off a person's body and which she intends to remove, and so it is bad if abortions fail, and trying to forcibly prevent them (even by means of banning them) is generally immoral (not if there is a gun to your head; I mean "generally").

The prima facie intuition that you seem to have and that is behind your argument seems to put embryos in the same category as people, as far as I can tell.
But that seems extremely counterintuitive to me (if someone argues that embryos are people, then I would say if the word "person" (and "people") is like that (which doesn't seem to be the case), then it's extremely counterintuitive to place them in the same position as, say, adults, or even born people).
So, my intuition goes entirely in the other direction.

But let me ask you: do you intuitively find the making and killing of embryos in fertility clinics morally similar to cases to the hypothetical factory I described earlier?

"Yes, I would say so."
Do you think it would be morally justified to kill the people who run or willingly work on the clinic, either as a punishment or in order to stop them from making more embryos and killing them?
If not, do you think it would be justified in the case of the factory in my scenario?

"I agree, but I'm not saying that it is necessary for X to be a human being in order for it to be immoral to kill X."
Sure, but you are - or were - saying that belonging to the biological category "human being" is or was the relevant factor in those cases, and yet it seems as long as the mind has certain properties, then the killings are equally immoral, regardless of the biological category.
In light of that, why do you think the biological category is what morally matters?
Incidentally, your most recent reply "it is wrong to deprive people of their lives for the purposes cited in most abortion cases." actually avoids those objections since the entities killed in my hypothetical scenarios are all persons, even though they're not human beings.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

There is agreement among embryologists that human life starts at fertilization. Human life belongs to human beings/organisms. The fact that some would disagree about calling an embryo a human being doesn't show that the embryo isn't a human being. I would say that those who aren't convinced are probably conflating "person" with "human being" (as you seem to do when you write "'human beings' (or 'persons')" - but not all human beings are persons, and arguably, not all persons are human beings.

If we're talking about oak trees (as opposed to plants that belong to the oak kind in general), then it's false that they began their existence as an acorn, since at this earlier stage of the plant's life, they weren't oak trees at all. But if we're talking about plants that belong to the oak kind in general, then even before the oak tree came to be, the plant existed. Analogously, if we're talking about organisms that belong to the human kind, then from fertilization we already have human beings.

I will reply to your other points later when I find the time. Thank you for your thoughtful responses.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E:

Thanks for your thoughtful replies as well.

As to your points, there is agreement among embryologists that ova are alive, and they're human too. When they say that the life of an organism begins at fertilization, they're picking a certain part of the development process they consider of importance to the study of biology, and in particular to their field of study. That's fine of course, but it doesn't provide any good evidence in the context of a discussion about the meaning of the expression "human being".
I would agree that not all possible persons are human beings (I'm agnostic about whether all actual persons are human beings), and I'm not conflating the two.
On that note, when I wrote ' "human beings" (or "persons") ' I didn't mean that "person" and "human being" meant the same. Sorry if that was unclear. I thought my distinction when analyzing them would prevent misunderstanding.
What I meant is that the same argument applied to both. In other words, the arguments as I meant them were:

For example, consider all the beings which we uncontroversially call "oak trees". When did each of these beings begin to exist?
In some sense, each of these beings (i.e., each oak tree) began to exist at some time t (not a precise time, but an interval), and began their existence as an accorn, not as an oak tree (i.e., they weren't oak trees yet).
In a similar sense:

1. All of the things we uncontroversially call "human beings" began to exist as human embryos (even twins; identity essentialism does not hold in this linguistic context), but in my assessment, they weren't human beings in the most common sense of the expression.
2. All of the things we uncontroversially call "persons" began to exist as human embryos (even twins; identity essentialism does not hold in this linguistic context), but they were not persons then.

Now, there are possible persons who aren't human beings, and there are possible human beings who didn't begin to exist as human embryos. In 1. and 2. I'm talking about the actual things we know about.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E:

"If we're talking about oak trees (as opposed to plants that belong to the oak kind in general), then it's false that they began their existence as an acorn, since at this earlier stage of the plant's life, they weren't oak trees at all"
But the fact that they weren't oak trees yet does not entail that their existence had not begun yet. In fact, there is a sense in which what we call "oak tree" began its existence as accorn, and in that very sense, human beings began their existence as embryos.
If we go by your reasoning here, then I would say that in the sense in which it's false that oak trees began their existence as acorns, it's also false that human beings (in the usual sense of the expression) began their existence as embryos, and that is not denied by books claiming that human beings begin their existence as embryos (unless they specifically claim that human beings are embryos, or otherwise imply it in context), since expressions like that usually do not carry those connotations.

"But if we're talking about plants that belong to the oak kind in general, then even before the oak tree came to be, the plant existed. Analogously, if we're talking about organisms that belong to the human kind, then from fertilization we already have human beings. "
I don't know how you define "kind", I don't agree the usual meaning of "human being" is like that.

However, this is a disagreement about the meaning of words, not about biology. A clear indication of that is that we're not disputing the biological facts, which we can state in words not using the expression "human being".
Rather, we disagree about whether any entity fitting a biological description we can give without using the expression "human beings" (namely, a description of human embryos) also meets the description "human being", in the usual sense of the words.
This is a disagreement about the meaning of the words, not about biology.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

"there is a sense in which what we call 'oak tree' began its existence as accorn..."

And what sense is that? I would say that it is the sense in which an oak tree is a plant that is of the same kind as the oak tree. Similarly, in the sense in which an embryo is an organism that is of the same kind as a mature human being, embryos are human beings. You seem to agree when you continue: "and in that very sense, human beings began their existence as embryos."

I'm not sure why this sense of "human being" is not usual. For what it's worth, dictionaries support this sense of "human being." Moreover, I'd bet that most people would find that definition of "human being" natural and not unusual.


To turn to the other points you made earlier, regarding the deprivation of life, you write:

"But if that's the case, then I would say embryos aren't persons, so that wouldn't apply even if true."

But even if embryos aren't persons, it's still the case that if the embryo that grew into me had been aborted, I would have been deprived of my life.

"why do you think that the reason why that's wrong is because it deprives people of their lives for the purposes cited in most abortion cases?"

What does your "that's" refer to?

Good point about the abortion survivor line of thought. It seems to reduce to the deprivation of life argument - if the failed abortions had not failed, these abortion survivors would have been deprived of their lives. This is the case even if embryos are not persons.

" do you intuitively find the making and killing of embryos in fertility clinics morally similar to cases to the hypothetical factory I described earlier?"

On the level intuition, no. I would base that claim not on intuition but on the claim that embryos are human beings, and the claim that it is wrong to intentionally kill human beings in these kinds of scenarios.

"Do you think it would be morally justified to kill the people who run or willingly work on the clinic, either as a punishment or in order to stop them from making more embryos and killing them?"

No, but I do think they should be punished. If capital punishment is permissible, then maybe they should be given the death penalty, I don't know. I haven't pursued this idea much.

"In light of that, why do you think the biological category is what morally matters?"

Besides having a strong intuition about the value of human life (don't you think human life has great value?) I also find alternatives - for example, personhood theory - arbitrary.

Let me ask you too: since you have appealed to the notion of personhood often in this discussion, roughly, what are your criteria of personhood, and why think personhood in your sense is morally relevant here?

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E:

"And what sense is that? I would say that it is the sense in which an oak tree is a plant that is of the same kind as the oak tree. Similarly, in the sense in which an embryo is an organism that is of the same kind as a mature human being, embryos are human beings. You seem to agree when you continue: "and in that very sense, human beings began their existence as embryos."
I don't agree with that.
In that sense, a human beings begins her existence as an embryo, like an oak tree begins its existence as an acorn. But the acorn is not an oak tree, and the embryo is not a human being. The embryo is an early stage of an organism of the same species as a human being, mature or infant (not sure what you mean by "kind"), and the acorn is an early stage of an organism of the same species as the oak tree.

Regarding how people use the words, it's an empirical matter. I'm saying that the usage in question is not the most common, or close to that. But I get you disagree.

"But even if embryos aren't persons, it's still the case that if the embryo that grew into me had been aborted, I would have been deprived of my life."
I can think of two alternative interpretations:
1. If the embryo in question had been aborted, you would not be alive. Sure. For that matter, if your parents hadn't met, you would not be alive. And if the ovum that got some DNA from a sperm cell and then grew into you had been destroyed, you would not be alive. But that's an unusual usage of "I would have been deprived of my life", and in any case, doesn't seem morally relevant.
2. That by killing that embryo, you would have been killed.
I think identity expressions have different meanings in different contexts. In this context, I wouldn't use it, as it gives the wrong impression. What would have been killed - deprived of its life - was an embryo, which ended up growing to become you. That describes the situation more precisely, reducing the chance of confusion about what's actually going on by means of describing it in much less precise terms.

"What does your "that's" refer to?"
Let me replace the "that" by what it refers to:

"One reason is that it is wrong to deprive people of their lives for the purposes cited in most abortion cases. For example, if the embryo that grew into me had been aborted, then I would have been deprived of my life."

But if that's the case, then I would say embryos aren't persons, so that wouldn't apply even if true.
Of course, you could argue that embryos are people. I would disagree, but I would also say: assuming that "person" is a word that properly applies to embryos as well, why do you think that the reason why killing non-embryonic people for the purposes cited in most abortion cases is because it deprives people of their lives for the purposes in question?

If - weirdly - "person" applies to embryos, then I would think that's surely not the reason, because it's not wrong to kill embryos for those reasons - which seems intuitively clear to me. But given that you reject that, still I would ask why you think that the reason is that's wrong is that it deprives people of their lives for the purposes in question. It might be it's because (for example) it deprives beings with certain minds (who might or might not be a subclass of the class "person") of their lives for the purposes in question.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.:

I'm addressing your questions and points, but it's getting difficult, due to time constraints. I'll do what I can, but explaining my view would seem to require a much longer discussion than what is doable in this context.

"Good point about the abortion survivor line of thought. It seems to reduce to the deprivation of life argument - if the failed abortions had not failed, these abortion survivors would have been deprived of their lives. This is the case even if embryos are not persons."
If that's in the sense of "if Bob's parent's hadn't met, he'd have been deprived of his life" sort of argument, it has no force.
Else, that is at best misleading. A much more precise description is that if the abortions had been successful, the embryos would not have become the persons who later they became. But that description doesn't use the loaded language of talking about survivors being deprived of their lives.

"On the level intuition, no. I would base that claim not on intuition but on the claim that embryos are human beings, and the claim that it is wrong to intentionally kill human beings in these kinds of scenarios."
But I'd say that's the wrong way to assess a moral matter. It ignores precisely our moral intuitions, that tells us that it's not wrong to kill embryos, regardless of the semantics of the term "human being".
So, why is it wrong to kill adult human beings for the reasons for which embryos are usually killed?
I don't know. I can speculate and propose more plausible alternatives, but I will first state some caveats, in line with my previous point that I lean towards intuitionistic moral epistemology (that doesn't extend to intuitionistic moral ontology), and on the basis of my observations and reasoning (which you might disagree, so maybe here's there is some meat for discussion).

a. Generally, one can tell intuitively whether a behavior is or isn't wrong. Prima facie intuitions aren't infallible, but are generally reliable.
b. It's not the case that generally, one can identify what is triggering one's moral intuitions. Sometimes one can to some extent narrow it down, and sometimes that's more difficult.
c. Not having the correct theory about why some behavior is or isn't wrong does not preclude knowing it's wrong, and in fact, there are plenty of people with wrong moral theories - probably, most people who have explicit moral theories, since no moral theory seems to have a majority -, but that does not preclude ordinary moral knowledge.
d. Addressing your replies in any detail is taking me a lot of time, and it would take far more if I were to check every detail. That increases the probability that I will make some errors. But that's a consequence of there being just one of me and having limited time.

Now, with that said, the theory that you propose here is that it's immoral to kill human beings (you said "people" earlier) for the reasons embryos are usually killed.
How would I go about testing the theory you propose?

I'll continue below...

Angra Mainyu said...

As long as "human being" is used in a way that doesn't include embryos or fetuses, it's intuitively plausible that it's wrong to kill a normal adult or young human being in those cases, but not because of its DNA or origin, but rather, because of the sort of mind the entity has (as far as the killer knows or should know). Hipothetical scenarios involving simulations, genetic engineering (e.g., Planet of the Apes), aliens from different planets, etc. (I gave examples like these earlier, in some more detail) support this conclusion.
But the reason why it's wrong to kill a human being in some circumstances may not be the same as the reason it's wrong in others, even if the reasons for killing are the same, given how variable human beings are. Maybe in some unusual scenario, there isn't the right sort of mind (or the killer doesn't know and it's not the case he or she should know), but it's immoral for other factors, which have to be assessed on a case by case basis.
If "human being" includes human fetuses, it depends on the stage and other factors; it's not easy for me to tell whether it's immoral. - I have no clear intuition. Based on other examples, it seems to me it's hard to tell probably because the scenarios don't involve enough info about the minds of those entities.
If "human being" includes human embryos, that isn't true. My intuitions on the matter seem clear enough.

Assuming I'm wrong about the meaning of "human being", the moral point remains the same. In that case, what's probably wrong (in the ordinary examples) is to kill an entity with some sort of mind.
To be clear, this is not about IQ or about being able to exercise their mental capacities at every moment, and doesn't seem to be about any mental trait easily identifiable (other than by saying things like "whatever sort of mind makes it wrong in the ordinary cases of killings of people for those reasons"). In fact, I think it would be extremely hard work (perhaps, a job for centuries of work in science and philosophy, if not more) to come up with a description of the right sort of mind in much greater detail than things like "whatever sort of mind...", etc.).

Now, I have no doubt you might want to challenge the hypothesis. What if you succeed?
In that case, of course I will withdraw the hypothesis if you convince me, but then point c. above would apply - i.e., my assessment that it's not immoral to kill embryos for those reasons would stay in place.

Now, given that you have a different theory which doesn't seem to match even your own prima facie intuitions (and it's very strongly in conflict with mine), I would like to ask why you came to think that the theory in question is true.
If it's because in other situations (e.g., the case of ordinary adults, 9 year old kids, etc.) it's immoral to kill human beings for those reasons, that seems to be an overgeneralization: why focus on the "human being" referent to pick a theory, even against intuitions?

Angra Mainyu said...

"No, but I do think they should be punished. If capital punishment is permissible, then maybe they should be given the death penalty, I don't know. I haven't pursued this idea much."
1. I'd like to ask, why haven't you, or most activists?
Those clinics make and kill thousands of embryos. You seem to propose banning abortion in the US, and - given your answer - probably imposing either long prison sentences or the death penalty for doctors, nurses, etc., who practice abortions. And - given the debate here -, you seem quite committed to that view.
But you don't seem to be arguing (at least, without prompting) for the imprisonment or execution of those involved in fertility clinics.
This does not seem to be a personal preference: in fact, anti-abortion activists in general seem almost entirely unconcerned about all of those clinics that make embryos and then kill them, except perhaps to remove federal funding, but there is no push for prison or death.
However, given the usual rationales, it's puzzling that anti-abortion activists are not more generally anti-killing-embryos/fetuses activists, or why they don't try to ban fertilization clinics - which, after all, probably can't use Roe v. Wade or similar rulings in their favor if they face a state law banning them.


2.Your answer is "no". Would you give the same answer if we were talking not about fertility clinics, but a factory like the one I described earlier, assuming it's legalized?
In other words, do you think it wouldn't be justified to kill the people who run the factory or those who willingly work there (because they'd deserve it and also in order to stop them from doing it again), if it were legal to have such factory?
Personally, I think it would be justified to kill them in that context - not the people running or working in fertility clinics, of course, but the nightmarish scenario I outlined earlier; from the perspective you seem to be proposing, the two would appear morally similar at least.

"Besides having a strong intuition about the value of human life (don't you think human life has great value?) I also find alternatives - for example, personhood theory - arbitrary."
That depends.
I don't think the lives of human ova, muscle cells, or embryos are morally important, other than instrumentally (e.g., if a woman has some of her ova frozen for later use, destroying them would be immoral without a good reason, because she values them).
I do think the lives of adult humans, 10 year old kids, etc., are important morally - that's an intuitive assessment.
My speculative hypothesis is that that's because of the sort of mind they have, so it would be immoral to take those lives for the sketched reasons, as long as the killer is a moral agent who knows or should know what sort of mind they have, or at least should realize that he or she does not know that they don't have the right sort of mind.

I would go with c. here. If I find all theories other than X implausible for one reason or another, and X is against moral intuitions, then I also find X implausible, I recognize I don't know why it's immoral, as is the case for most people and with respect to most immoral behaviors.

Angra Mainyu said...

"Let me ask you too: since you have appealed to the notion of personhood often in this discussion, roughly, what are your criteria of personhood, and why think personhood in your sense is morally relevant here?"

I don't have an explicit criteria; as with other words, I think I'm linguistically competent to use them, but giving a definition that matches usage is extremely difficult (dictionaries give approximations that are usually good enough for the purposes of the people looking them up).
As for this thread, you used it too (e.g., you said "One reason is that it is wrong to deprive people of their lives for the purposes cited in most abortion cases"), and perhaps the main reason I often discuss it is that many anti-abortion activists claim that embryos are persons.
But still, if you ask me to speculate, I think personhood probably has something to do with the sort of mind an entity has, and - given different scenarios - that seems to be at least a close match to the hypothetical scenarios usually considered in these contexts and in which it turns out it's very immoral to kill entities (which I assess intuitively). In other words, it might be that the ordinary concept of personhood roughly tracks a sort of mind such that it's very immoral to kill entities who have it (i.e., killing them for the already sketched reasons, and others).
Even so, there are other minds such that killing entities with that sort of mind is immoral (albeit perhaps to a lesser extent), so at a more basic level, it seems to me it's about the sort of mind an entity has (including cases of instrumental value, etc.).

All that said, even though my point about minds is speculative, the one about personhood is considerably more so. In particular, if it turned out that I'm mistaken about the meaning of "person" and embryos properly qualify despite lacking minds, I would say that personhood was not an important factor, but minds probably are.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E:

Just one more point, with respect to fetuses: while it's not always intuitively clear to me whether it would be immoral for a woman to kill a fetus because she does not want to later have a child, it's intuitively clear that killing it would not be nearly as immoral as killing, say, a 10 years old for the same reason. Also, I support (all other things equal) allowing abortion at any stage in the pregnancy even if it's immoral in the final stages, considering the burden that otherwise would be imposed on the woman, and the degree of immorality of the killing (i.e., not high enough to justify such a burden).

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

I understand, there are a lot of points to cover here, and not enough time and space. So I appreciate the long and detailed replies. :)

"But the acorn is not an oak tree, and the embryo is not a human being."

Thinking over this analogy, I wonder if "acorn" and "embryo" are really analogous. Acorns are nuts that contain one or two oak seeds, so perhaps the more precise analogy is between "oak seed" and "embryo". But is being an oak seed the earliest, or an early, stage of a plant's life? If not, then "oak seed" and "embryo" are not analogous.

Not being a botanist, let's assume for the sake of argument that oak seeds are oak plants at an early stage of their existence. (If this turns out to be false, then we can replace "oak seed" with whatever turns out to be an early stage of an oak plant's existence.)

But another disanalogy is between "oak tree" and "human being", since the former refers to a particular stage in an oak plant's development, while the latter doesn't refer to any particular stage in a human's development (which is why it isn't redundant, but informative, to say "adult/mature/fully grown human being"). For the analogy to work, we would need to compare "oak tree" with "adult human being" - in which case the uncontroversial conclusion is "embryos are not adult human beings" - or "oak plant" with "human being" - in which case the oak seed *is* an oak plant, and by parity of reasoning, the embryo *is* a human being.

All in all, I'm not sure the acorn analogy helps falsify the claim that embryos are human beings. Moreover, it should be emphasized that there's a natural sense in which embryos are human beings, though admittedly we disagree about how common this sense is. If this sense isn't the most usual one, what would you say is?


" If the embryo in question had been aborted, you would not be alive. Sure. For that matter, if your parents hadn't met, you would not be alive"

To deprive me of life assumes that I am alive prior to that deprivation, so if my parents hadn't met, it isn't the case that I was deprived of my life. Of course, this assumes that the embryo in my mother's womb several months before my birth was identical to me, which you reject.

But why do you reject this identity claim? You say "I think identity expressions have different meanings in different contexts. In this context, I wouldn't use it, as it gives the wrong impression." But to say it gives the wrong impression seems assume that the identity claim is false, which is question-begging.

Moreover, consider the embryo in my mother's womb several months before my birth - call it E. At no point during the pregnancy can we say that E died - rather, throughout the pregnancy we see E's continuous development and growth, nothing like E's death. But if E hasn't died, then E is still alive. If so, then where is E, but where I am now. E grew into an animal, and I myself am an animal, and since there is only one animal where I am now, E are I are identical.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

"But I'd say that's the wrong way to assess a moral matter. It ignores precisely our moral intuitions, that tells us that it's not wrong to kill embryos"

Moral intuitions are fallible, as you mention. One way moral intuitions can fail is if they are based on inadequate evidence. So if my evidence tells me (mistakenly) that Jack is guilty of rape, then my intuition would say "Jack should be punished." But upon acquiring better evidence, my moral assessment of the scenario may (and should) change contrary to my initial intuitions. This adjustment given new evidence isn't incompatible with reliance on intuitions, given that intuitions aren't infallible.

In the case of abortion, without the evidence that tells me that embryos are human, my intuition would say "It is permissible to kill embryos." I need that evidence to support my assessment that it's immoral to kill embryos.

It is also worth noting that intuitions can still *seem* to be true even if we have defeaters for those intuitions. For example, even after grasping Russell's paradox, one may still have the intuition that any definable collection is a set, or even after knowing a pencil is not crooked, one may still have the visual seeming that that pencil submerged in a glass is crooked, and so on.


On minds, suppose a scientist clones human beings in such a way that they never develop minds in whatever sense you consider relevant. Suppose he takes the adults he's developed and kills them - would you say this killing is immoral?


On anti-abortion activists, I can't speak for them. I live in a country where abortion is illegal. Over here, the focus of pro-lifers is the prevention of the legalization of abortion, so I haven't thought much about this issue. But it definitely is food for thought, thank you for pressing me on it.


One last point: hopefully we can agree that killing a 10 year old is as immoral as killing 9 year old. Is killing a 9 year old as immoral as killing an 8 year old? How about killing an 8 year old vs. killing a 7 year old? And so on. At what point does it cease being immoral to kill the child, and why? Maybe we have a continuum here and it is vague where this point is located. Even so, we would still need to show why the vague area is, say, from 3 years old and below, as opposed to 2 years old and below.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,


"Thinking over this analogy, I wonder if "acorn" and "embryo" are really analogous. Acorns are nuts that contain one or two oak seeds, so perhaps the more precise analogy is between "oak seed" and "embryo". But is being an oak seed the earliest, or an early, stage of a plant's life? If not, then "oak seed" and "embryo" are not analogous. "
Well, the seed is an embryo covered in a protective coat, as far as I know, and it's not the earliest stage. That's the zygote, and the same applies to humans, so we've been somewhat imprecise here. But even so, the relevant part of the analogy does hold: namely, a seed (or the seed minus the protective coat) is an early stage of the development of an oak tree, but not an oak tree, and similarly, an early (the earliest or not) stage human organism is not a person, or in the most common sense, a human being.

"But another disanalogy is between "oak tree" and "human being", since the former refers to a particular stage in an oak plant's development, while the latter doesn't refer to any particular stage in a human's development (which is why it isn't redundant, but informative, to say "adult/mature/fully grown human being")."
It's also informative to say "young oak tree" or "adult oak tree" (e.g., http://www.prekinders.com/pdf/TreeLife.pdf ); an expression may refer to more than one stage in the development of an organism. On that note, in the case of human organisms, the word "child" covers many stages, and so does the word "adult", etc.

"If this sense isn't the most usual one, what would you say is?"
I don't have a definition, but I'm talking about the sense people usually talk about when they say "human being".

"To deprive me of life assumes that I am alive prior to that deprivation, so if my parents hadn't met, it isn't the case that I was deprived of my life."
I considered that option, since your statement had more than one potential interpretation.

"Of course, this assumes that the embryo in my mother's womb several months before my birth was identical to me, which you reject. But why do you reject this identity claim? You say "I think identity expressions have different meanings in different contexts. In this context, I wouldn't use it, as it gives the wrong impression." But to say it gives the wrong impression seems assume that the identity claim is false, which is question-begging."
I might was well say that claiming identity is question-begging. Both you and I are making our own assessments, given our linguistic intuitions, and sometimes backing them up, though I'm not saying it's false, but rather, ambiguous: there is a sense in which it's true, and one in which it's not.
I reject it in the sense in which identity is generally used in the context of expressions like "depriving X of life", given that those terms give the wrong impression - those expressions are, at best, too ambiguous for the context.
On the other hand, my description is much more accurate: as I said, what would have been killed was an embryo, which ended up growing to become you. That describes the situation more precisely, reducing the chance of confusion about what's actually going on by means of describing it in much less precise terms.

Given that a more precise description is available and easy, a less precise one seems to be useful only for rhetorical purposes. But those rhetoric is precisely what might convince people by confusion - what a person gets in their head is the killing of you, and by "you" they think about, well, you, not an embryo.

In a sense, you were alive even before fertilization, when you were an ovum.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

"Moreover, consider the embryo in my mother's womb several months before my birth - call it E. At no point during the pregnancy can we say that E died - rather, throughout the pregnancy we see E's continuous development and growth, nothing like E's death. But if E hasn't died, then E is still alive. If so, then where is E, but where I am now. E grew into an animal, and I myself am an animal, and since there is only one animal where I am now, E are I are identical."
1. There was an embryo once, call it E1. It never died. Now, there is Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. Are they identical?
If not, how do you make it work, within your rationale?
The fact that there are two animals now does not change the fact that there was only one embryo, and that embryo didn't die. Yes, you said earlier that "In the case of twinning, we could say that the pre-split individual ceases to be.". But that's just not true: there was nothing like E1's death.

2. There was an ovum once. It eventually grew into you. If you're going to say it transformed when it was fertlized, I will point out that:
a. The ovum didn't die, either. It developed, even undergoing DNA modifications. The sperm cell apparently died.
b. The embryo also underwent radical transformations in its development before there was you.
If you don't consider those transformations radical enough, but consider getting DNA from another source radical enough for the purposes of identity language, I would disagree, at least in a context that is relevant here.

But again, given a more accurate description that is also easy, what is the purpose of the imprecise language?

"Moral intuitions are fallible, as you mention. One way moral intuitions can fail is if they are based on inadequate evidence. So if my evidence tells me (mistakenly) that Jack is guilty of rape, then my intuition would say "Jack should be punished." But upon acquiring better evidence, my moral assessment of the scenario may (and should) change contrary to my initial intuitions. This adjustment given new evidence isn't incompatible with reliance on intuitions, given that intuitions aren't infallible.

In the case of abortion, without the evidence that tells me that embryos are human, my intuition would say "It is permissible to kill embryos." I need that evidence to support my assessment that it's immoral to kill embryos."
That's not more evidence.
You already have the description of human embryos, and that wouldn't trigger the intuition that it's impermissible to kill them. Adding to that a less precise description - namely, saying that they're human beings (which they aren't in the most usual sense, but even assuming otherwise) adds only rhetoric.

But let me try another way: even when I (and many, probably most of us) are told that the embryos are human embryos, and even when we know in considerable detail how they developed, we still reckon, intuitively, that it's not immoral to kill them. Further calling them "human beings" does not add any piece of data to the biological description of the entity: it adds either a false description, or at best a less precise one.

"It is also worth noting that intuitions can still *seem* to be true even if we have defeaters for those intuitions. For example, even after grasping Russell's paradox, one may still have the intuition that any definable collection is a set, or even after knowing a pencil is not crooked, one may still have the visual seeming that that pencil submerged in a glass is crooked, and so on."
I don't have that intuition in the Russell case, but in any case, those prima-facie intuitions are in conflict with other, stronger intuitions (e.g., after getting further info, we assign very low probability to the hypothesis that the pencil is crooked). On the other hand, we don't have any defeaters for our moral intuition in this case.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

"On minds, suppose a scientist clones human beings in such a way that they never develop minds in whatever sense you consider relevant. Suppose he takes the adults he's developed and kills them - would you say this killing is immoral?"
You mean, like a human organism without a brain, but with a computer that is not intelligent just keeping the rest of the body working?
Generally, the killing would not be immoral, though I guess it depends on the circumstances.
Examples like that are those in which the brain is dead for the most part - at least, if we have conclusive evidence of that, killing would not be per se immoral (it might be for other reasons, e.g., others would be psychologically hurt and there is no good reason for that).

I did specify they don't need to be able to exercise their mental capacities at all time: an unconscious person with a brain still has a human mind, even if dormant.

I will add some points about newborns and abortion - just to be thorough:

a. I think it would be very immoral for a woman to kill her newborn baby - though how much depends on the circumstances, including her state of mind-, but not as much as killing, say, a 10 or 12 years old.
That's enough to justify a ban, and even prison time, though not as much as for murder.
b. Late-term abortions are usually still much earlier than that. But in the limit case (i.e., right before birth), the difference is what is at stake for the woman: keeping an unwanted fetus inside her, or having to take the risk of delivery, may impose a much heavier burden than just not killing a newborn. That could make her behavior less immoral - while still immoral -, and a ban too burdensome.
So, that's why I don't support a ban before birth - but I do think that's immoral behavior -, but I do after birth.

"On anti-abortion activists, I can't speak for them. I live in a country where abortion is illegal. Over here, the focus of pro-lifers is the prevention of the legalization of abortion, so I haven't thought much about this issue. But it definitely is food for thought, thank you for pressing me on it."
I thought we were debating the US case, but I too live in a country like that.
In that case, the matter is actually much more puzzling, since abortion is already criminalized where you live (and where we live), but on the other hand, making embryos in large numbers and then killing them is legal - well, at least it is where I live, and in most countries where abortion is illegal (including nearly all if not all of Latin America, as far as I can tell).

So, nearly all (save for some infrequent rulings with no lasting effects) of those so-called pro-lifers are focusing activism on preventing the legalization of abortions, mostly ignoring the embryos already being legally produced and killed.

"Maybe we have a continuum here and it is vague where this point is located. Even so, we would still need to show why the vague area is, say, from 3 years old and below, as opposed to 2 years old and below. "
I think there is a continuum. But I don't think I need to show that. I don't know the answer (though I would say that how immoral it is to kill a being depends on what the killer knows or should know about that being).
But if I am to speculate, in the case of a newborn, it's not self-aware, and also lacks many of the capacities for emotions that people have. Even so, it seems what it has is enough to make it very immoral to kill it, even if less so than a 3 years old child (assessing that intuitively). Even after a few months, that seems to have changed (i.e., there is self-awareness, and a lot more of a range of emotions). So, I would suspect the slope is rather steep after birth.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

" a seed (or the seed minus the protective coat) is an early stage of the development of an oak tree, but not an oak tree, and similarly, an early (the earliest or not) stage human organism is not a person, or in the most common sense, a human being. "

But the analogy doesn't work since "oak tree" and "human being" are not analogous. In reply to this, you say:

"It's also informative to say "young oak tree" or "adult oak tree" (e.g., http://www.prekinders.com/pdf/TreeLife.pdf ); an expression may refer to more than one stage in the development of an organism. On that note, in the case of human organisms, the word "child" covers many stages, and so does the word "adult", etc."

which is true, but is compatible with my point which is that "oak tree" refers to the late stage of an oak plant's development, while "human being" doesn't refer to such a late stage, and so for the analogy to work, we would need both terms to refer to a late developmental stage. We should be comparing, not "oak tree" and "human being," but "oak tree" and "adult human being", in which case, the argument shows us that embryos are not adult human beings, which isn't the conclusion you wanted.


To return to the question which led to this oak tree analogy: when did each human being begin to exist? In response to this, you asked: when did each oak tree begin to exist?

But the two questions aren't parallel, at least if we take "oak tree" to mean "an oak plant at a late developmental stage", since I'm not asking when a human being enters a late developmental stage. For the questions to be parallel, you need to ask: when did each oak plant begin to exist? Whatever the answer is, obviously it will be earlier than the point/interval it became an oak tree.

So again: when did each human being begin to exist? This isn't to be answered by linguistic intuition - whether something is a human being or not doesn't depend on how we use words.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,


"I don't have a definition, but I'm talking about the sense people usually talk about when they say "human being"."

Even if you don't have a definition, can you give some rough idea of what you have in mind? And why think that sense is the *most* common sense? In fact, I wonder if there are really two senses here, as opposed to one sense which biology tells us also applies to embryos. Just because a term applies to more than one object, it doesn't follow that the terms has more than one sense. This is why I'm asking what you mean by "human being".


" my description is much more accurate: as I said, what would have been killed was an embryo, which ended up growing to become you. "

But the description misses out something morally relevant: I was that embryo. You deny my argument for this, so I'll turn to that argument.

"1. There was an embryo once, call it E1. It never died. Now, there is Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. Are they identical?
If not, how do you make it work, within your rationale?
The fact that there are two animals now does not change the fact that there was only one embryo, and that embryo didn't die. Yes, you said earlier that "In the case of twinning, we could say that the pre-split individual ceases to be.". But that's just not true: there was nothing like E1's death."

The splitting of E1 into two distinct organisms E2 and E3 was E1's ceasing to exist, and so E1's death. Not only does this sound plausible, but we can also argue that E1 can't be E2 and E3 since the latter two will live distinct lives. Neither can E1 be E2 (or E3), for what non-arbitrary ground could there be for E1 to be E2 as opposed to E3? So the only option is that E1 ceases to exist upon splitting.


"2. There was an ovum once. It eventually grew into you. If you're going to say it transformed when it was fertlized, I will point out that:
a. The ovum didn't die, either. It developed, even undergoing DNA modifications. The sperm cell apparently died.
b. The embryo also underwent radical transformations in its development before there was you.
If you don't consider those transformations radical enough, but consider getting DNA from another source radical enough for the purposes of identity language, I would disagree, at least in a context that is relevant here."

But the ovum isn't an organism. Sorry, I didn't make this point clear earlier - the argument is talking about the organism that was in my mother's womb several months before I was born.


"You already have the description of human embryos, and that wouldn't trigger the intuition that it's impermissible to kill them. Adding to that a less precise description - namely, saying that they're human beings (which they aren't in the most usual sense, but even assuming otherwise) adds only rhetoric."

Your initial description didn't say "human embryos", but merely "embryos". If you were to ask me about human embryos, my intuition is that it would be wrong to kill them.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

"You mean, like a human organism without a brain, but with a computer that is not intelligent just keeping the rest of the body working?"

More or less - say the scientist interferes with the embryo's development so that it doesn't develop a brain. You would say there's nothing immoral with his actions?


"in the limit case (i.e., right before birth), the difference is what is at stake for the woman: keeping an unwanted fetus inside her, or having to take the risk of delivery, may impose a much heavier burden than just not killing a newborn. "

But why make a difference here, given you think it's very immoral to kill a newborn baby? Is it less immoral if the baby is only partly outside the mother, as in partial-birth abortions? The location of the baby seems irrelevant.


"I think there is a continuum. But I don't think I need to show that. I don't know the answer (though I would say that how immoral it is to kill a being depends on what the killer knows or should know about that being).
But if I am to speculate, in the case of a newborn, it's not self-aware, and also lacks many of the capacities for emotions that people have. Even so, it seems what it has is enough to make it very immoral to kill it, even if less so than a 3 years old child (assessing that intuitively). Even after a few months, that seems to have changed (i.e., there is self-awareness, and a lot more of a range of emotions). So, I would suspect the slope is rather steep after birth."

This implied steep drop before birth is puzzling. For around the time birth we have the very same object - a baby - why should there this steep drop when there is no dramatic change in the baby? It's like saying it's very immoral to kill Ben today but much less immoral to have killed him yesterday.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

In re: oak tree, accorn, etc., my point about "young oak tree" and "adult oak tree" is precisely that "oak tree" does not refer to something like "adult oak tree". We may compare - for instance - "adult oak tree" to "adult human being", and "oak tree" to "human being".

However, that's a side issue (even within the semantic issue): the analogy does not need anything like that.
Rather, the point of the analogy - which I originally made in an earlier post in this thread - is that even though the terms "oak tree" and "acorn" refer to members of the same species, their respective referents have no members in common.

The point of that was to show that from the premise that "human being" and "human embryo" refer to members of the same species, it does not follow that their respective referents have any members in common.
Instead of "acorn", perhaps it would have been more clear to say that "oak tree", and "oak embryo" refer to the same species, but their respective referents have no members in common.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

"Even if you don't have a definition, can you give some rough idea of what you have in mind? And why think that sense is the *most* common sense? In fact, I wonder if there are really two senses here, as opposed to one sense which biology tells us also applies to embryos. Just because a term applies to more than one object, it doesn't follow that the terms has more than one sense. This is why I'm asking what you mean by "human being"."
Biology doesn't tell us that even if there is one sense, but I already argued that before.
Now, I do have a rough idea. The rough idea is the meaning of the word in the way native English speakers learn the meaning of the word, or native speakers or other languages learn the meaning of terms translated as "human being" into English, at least assuming translation is correct.
The reason I think that's the most common sense is precisely because that's how people regularly learn how to use the words.

So, how do people learn the meaning of a term, in this case "human being"?
Usually, they will hear others say "human being" in different contexts in which the matter appears not contentious - or read what others say, etc. -, and then also perhaps hear others say that such-and-such thing is not a human being, etc.
From that, they'll grasp intuitively the meaning of the term. Now, it may be that some of the cases were not actually human beings; a person can hear a term being misused and still eventually grasp the meaning as long as she also sees other people using the term properly and more often.

It might happen, however, that there are different subgroups of a linguistic community that use the term differently. If that were to happen, it might be that not only there is more than one meaning, but one is prevalent among some people, and others more prevalent among others, resulting in miscommunication in case people from the different groups do not realize that.

A way to avoid miscommunication when one suspects that's what's happening, or alternatively in cases in which for one reason or another, the meaning of a term is disputed, is to "taboo" the term in question and describe the matter in other, non-contentious terms.

"But the description misses out something morally relevant: I was that embryo. You deny my argument for this, so I'll turn to that argument."
The description does not mean anything.
Let me describe it in greater detail, changing also the name (i.e., not you specifically) in order to reduce the chance of personal bias (most of us, if not all, have a tendency like that).

I offer the following description D1:

D1: At some time t0 (not necessarily an instant; it can be an interval), there was a pregnant woman - say, María, to give her a name -, and human embryo E4, in her uterus. María's pregnancy continued, and the human embryo E4 developed, eventually turning into a human fetus (say, F4), at some time t1. The fetus F4 continued to grow, and eventually, at t2, María gave birth to a baby - say, Marcos.
Marcos grew up and became a toddler, then an older child, and eventually an adult, at t3.
Presently, Marcos is an adult.
If María had decided that she did not want a child, and for that reason she had had an abortion at t0, or at some other time earlier than t1, then E4 would have died, and would not have become F4. There would be no adult Marcos.

After reading the description, I intuitively reckon it would not have been immoral on María's part to have an abortion at t0, or at some other time earlier than t1.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

What morally relevant info does D1 left aside?

Going by your objection here, you would say that the morally relevant part would be that Marco was the embryo E4. But what does that mean? More to the point, what sort of information is added by saying that Marco was the embryo E4?
Is it information about the meaning of identity terms?
I don't think so. I don't see how the question of whether the matter of the meaning of identity terms would be relevant. It's a matter of the meaning of a word, but it does not add anything to the description of what actually happened. In other words, even if you're right that Marco was E1 in some sense of identity terms, or even in the only common sense (assuming there is a unique one) of identity terms, that does not add any new info about what actually happened: it adds info about the meaning of a word not required for a precise description of the situation.

However, you might think some other piece of info is added, so I would ask what that is.

"The splitting of E1 into two distinct organisms E2 and E3 was E1's ceasing to exist, and so E1's death. Not only does this sound plausible, but we can also argue that E1 can't be E2 and E3 since the latter two will live distinct lives. Neither can E1 be E2 (or E3), for what non-arbitrary ground could there be for E1 to be E2 as opposed to E3? So the only option is that E1 ceases to exist upon splitting."
But that seems false. E1's did not die, in the usual sense of the terms, as far as I can tell.
What you're assuming is that identity terms in this context are transitive. I don't think they are.

Still, there isn't much I can add in this regard, so I'll leave it at that, at least for now.

"But the ovum isn't an organism. Sorry, I didn't make this point clear earlier - the argument is talking about the organism that was in my mother's womb several months before I was born."
The ovum is an organism, in a sense of "organism". But then, you can say it's not an organism in some other sense. But even if that's true, this is a matter of terminology, which does not seem to have a moral impact, given the more accurate description (see above).

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.,

With regard to the intuitions, you say "Your initial description didn't say "human embryos", but merely "embryos". If you were to ask me about human embryos, my intuition is that it would be wrong to kill them."

I thought it was clear in context, but fair enough. But let me try again:

S1:

Imagine a future factory that - by means of artificial wombs, etc. - makes embryos, then grows them into babies, etc., just because there are people who want to adopt a child with some specific traits, without the trouble of having to
go through a pregnancy. Let's say many customers ask for a number of different variants (i.e., that several children be actually made), so that they can pick and choose the one or ones they like the best. The children that are made but are not adopted by the age of five, are all swiftly killed.

S2:

A fertility clinics offers human female/male couples to make human embryos from their eggs and sperm cells, implant two or three in the human female's uterus, freeze the rest, and later ask them whether to implant more embryos, or destroy the rest - i.e., kill them and dispose of the dead embryos. In most cases, where implantation is successful and the female carries the pregnancy to term, they ask that the rest of the embryos be destroyed.
The clinic complies, as previously agreed.

Do you reckon, intuitively, that the behavior of the people running the factory in S1, or willingly working in it, is morally similar to the behavior of the people running the factory in S2, or willingly working in it?
If not, what's the morally relevant difference?

But let me ask another question: after I stipulate that the embryos are human, etc., or make a description like D1, I reckon that the behaviors involved are not immoral. I make that assessment on the basis of my own sense of right and wrong - i.e., my moral intuitions. I further reckon that banning the killing of embryos in those cases, in order to protect their lives, would be immoral, but much more so in the case of an ongoing pregnancy than in the case in which the embryos are not in the uterus of a human female.

What sort of evidence do I have, on the basis of which I should discard my moral intuitions?
Granted, moral intuitions aren't infallible. But they are the only way I have to ascertain moral truth, so in absence of conflicting moral intuitions, why should I reject mine?

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.

"More or less - say the scientist interferes with the embryo's development so that it doesn't develop a brain. You would say there's nothing immoral with his actions?"
That depends on his motivations, whether he's negligent, etc. Developing an adult without a brain (i.e., adult in everything but the brain) may be (usually) immoral. But the problem here does not appear to be the preventing of the development of the brain, but rather, why it's done. In fact, the original question was whether it was immoral to kill the adult in question, not whether it was immoral to make the brainless adult. I don't think there is anything immoral about it per se - though, again, motivation may play a role.

But suppose the scientist makes brainless adults of different ages with the purpose of testing drugs on them, and it turns out that this is the most efficient means of testing drugs. Let's further stipulate that the practice is legal, publicly known and accepted. In that case, I don't think it's immoral. So, I don't think it's immoral per se.

"But why make a difference here, given you think it's very immoral to kill a newborn baby? Is it less immoral if the baby is only partly outside the mother, as in partial-birth abortions? The location of the baby seems irrelevant."
If by "partial-birth abortions" you mean cases in which the head of the fetus is already out, that seems to me like a newborn, except in case there is risk to the woman. But there is also psychological risks, so I would have to consider the specific case you have in mind in greater detail.

But generally, if we're talking about cases not involving partial delivery, the location per se would not be the relevant if one of the locations were not "in the uterus of a person", or some other location that imposes heavy burdens on someone. The problem in that case (i.e., one of the locations is the uterus) is that while the fetus is similar to the newborn, the difference is the burden, and more precisely, the suffering the pregnant person may have to endure due to the restriction to her freedom, as well as the restriction to a person's autonomy.

However, if her goal is only not to have a child and there is no increased risk or suffering involved, then I would say it's about as immoral as doing it 5 minutes after or 5 minutes before birth (leaving aside externalities, like the immorality of breaking the law). But on the other hand, a ban would impose a burden even on pregnant women who would suffer a lot if they're not allowed to end the pregnancy, and that's the burden I'm against imposing, even if that means people get away with very immoral behavior (though in practice, abortions like that would be extremely rare).

All that said, if it were possible in those cases to deliver the fetus alive instead of killing it, without increasing the risks to the pregnant woman or her suffering (and the woman can actually access the procedure), I would be in favor of banning killing the fetus (not so with embryos).

"This implied steep drop before birth is puzzling. For around the time birth we have the very same object - a baby - why should there this steep drop when there is no dramatic change in the baby? It's like saying it's very immoral to kill Ben today but much less immoral to have killed him yesterday."
After birth, not before.
Actually, my speculation is based on evidence for a quick cognitive development after birth, resulting - for example - in capacity for self-awareness after only three months, and capacity for complex emotions also grows more or less quickly. However, it's probably not as steep as one day.
But that's highly speculative; if development is slower, then the slope is smaller.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

"The point of that was to show that from the premise that "human being" and "human embryo" refer to members of the same species, it does not follow that their respective referents have any members in common."

But since "human being" means "a member of the species Homo sapiens" the inference is valid. As far as I can remember, you don't deny that this is one sense of "human being", or that this sense is natural and valid - you seem to only dispute how common it is. So let's go to the issue of what you mean by "human being", and the issue of how common your sense of the term is.

"The rough idea is the meaning of the word in the way native English speakers learn the meaning of the word, or native speakers or other languages learn the meaning of terms translated as "human being" into English, at least assuming translation is correct."

Can you give a rough idea of what that meaning is?

"The reason I think that's the most common sense is precisely because that's how people regularly learn how to use the words."

But your argument in the following paragraph works only if it's assumed that the meaning people intuitively grasp is what you have in mind when you use "human being". But why make that assumption? I also can't tell if that assumption is intuitively plausible given that it isn't clear to me what you mean by "human being."

"What morally relevant info does D1 left aside?"

E4 *is* Marcos, i.e. numerically identical to Marcos. So to kill E4 is to deprive Marcos of his life. I have argued for this identity claim, and you have disputed it by saying:

"E1's did not die, in the usual sense of the terms, as far as I can tell."

That can be disputed too, but at the very least we can say E1 no longer exists.

"The ovum is an organism, in a sense of "organism". But then, you can say it's not an organism in some other sense."

The relevant sense of organism is the one being used in the argument - we're talking about the organism in my mother's womb several months before I was born. I'd say the ovum isn't an organism, but at the very least, we can say that it isn't an organism in the sense being used by the argument. The argument's use of "organism" isn't morally relevant, it's just used to pick out whatever that thing was in my mother's womb before I was born.

"Do you reckon, intuitively, that the behavior of the people running the factory in S1, or willingly working in it, is morally similar to the behavior of the people running the factory in S2, or willingly working in it?"

Yes.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

"That depends on his motivations, whether he's negligent, etc."

I agree motivations matter, but do they always matter? If John kills Marcos out of good motives, that would still be wrong.

"But suppose the scientist makes brainless adults of different ages with the purpose of testing drugs on them, and it turns out that this is the most efficient means of testing drugs. Let's further stipulate that the practice is legal, publicly known and accepted. In that case, I don't think it's immoral. So, I don't think it's immoral per se."

Our intuitions differ here. Let me try another case:

Suppose a pregnant mother takes a pill (which has no negative side-effects on her) which she knows will cause the embryo in her to develop with a left hand. Would that be wrong?

The follow-up question: intuitively, what's worse: being painlessly deprived of a hand, or being painlessly deprived of life?

"The problem in that case (i.e., one of the locations is the uterus) is that while the fetus is similar to the newborn, the difference is the burden, and more precisely, the suffering the pregnant person may have to endure due to the restriction to her freedom, as well as the restriction to a person's autonomy."

Depends on the suffering. What kind of suffering do you have in mind, such that it would be permissible to kill the fetus?

"Actually, my speculation is based on evidence for a quick cognitive development after birth, resulting - for example - in capacity for self-awareness after only three months, and capacity for complex emotions also grows more or less quickly. However, it's probably not as steep as one day.
But that's highly speculative; if development is slower, then the slope is smaller."

Suppose Jack has to have his brain removed due to cancer, and technology allows him to develop a new brain. Would it be immoral to kill him at a point when his brain is as underdeveloped as a fetus's?

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.:

"But since "human being" means "a member of the species Homo sapiens" the inference is valid. As far as I can remember, you don't deny that this is one sense of "human being", or that this sense is natural and valid - you seem to only dispute how common it is. So let's go to the issue of what you mean by "human being", and the issue of how common your sense of the term is."
I don't think that's what you mean, if by "member" you include embryos.

"Can you give a rough idea of what that meaning is?"
Yes. As I said, the rough idea is the meaning of the word in the way native English speakers learn the meaning of the word, or native speakers or other languages learn the meaning of terms translated as "human being" into English, at least assuming translation is correct.
So, I would say that Obama is a human being, Merkel is a human being, Tina Fey is a human being, Putin is a human being, Napoleon was a human being, etc. (I don't need to post links, since you know whom I'm talking about).
Then, I tell you some of the things that aren't human beings, like any of the beings that played "Lassie" on TV, and then point to other things, like chairs, dogs, cats, stars (astronomy), etc.
Usually, one does not learn the meaning of a term by means of reading a definition in terms of other, known terms. Nor are common-language terms defined in that manner.
Rather, meaning is determined by usage.

"But your argument in the following paragraph works only if it's assumed that the meaning people intuitively grasp is what you have in mind when you use "human being". But why make that assumption? I also can't tell if that assumption is intuitively plausible given that it isn't clear to me what you mean by "human being.""
As with the case of other terms, I learn the meaning of an expression by means of watching other people use the term. That's also the way I would use to convey the meaning. I reckon it's the usual meaning first because I see no good reason to suspect that, unusually, I failed to grasp the meaning.
Now, people who assert otherwise gave me some reason to doubt that, but after looking more carefully as how others tend to use the expression "human being" (something I wouldn't do for most terms), I conclude that's the most common usage, though some people who want to ban abortion (or keep it banned, etc.) use the expression "human being" differently, and sometimes, others also use it differently.

"E4 *is* Marcos, ie numerically identical to Marcos. So to kill E4 is to deprive Marcos of his life. I have argued for this identity claim, and you have disputed it by saying:"
That's not my point.
Even if it were correct, to say it's "numerically identical" may provide some info about the meaning of the terms. It does not provide any new info about what actually happened: it adds info about the meaning of a word not required for a precise description of the situation.
What happened was what I described in D1.
Again, what does that tell me to say it's "numerically identical" to Marcos, that is morally relevant?
If you say that depriving Marcos of his life is morally relevant, you are again replacing the more precise description for the loaded "depriving Marcos of his life", which does not provide nearly an accurate a description, and would give the impression (to many) of an adult being deprived of his life.

Angra Mainyu said...


M.E.:

"That can be disputed too, but at the very least we can say E1 no longer exists."
If so, then we can at least say that E4 no longer exists. Of course, I expect you to dispute that. But it wouldn't matter substantially - the description is less precise.

"The relevant sense of organism is the one being used in the argument - we're talking about the organism in my mother's womb several months before I was born. I'd say the ovum isn't an organism, but at the very least, we can say that it isn't an organism in the sense being used by the argument. The argument's use of "organism" isn't morally relevant, it's just used to pick out whatever that thing was in my mother's womb before I was born."
If it's not morally relevant, in which sense is it relevant?
For that matter, I could say that the relevant sense in my reply includes ova as well, so you were something in your mother's womb before fertilization (of course, none of this is morally relevant).

"Yes."
People who claim so do not actually behave as if they actually made that assessment. In particular, it's obvious that if there were such factories, there would be war over that, whereas most activists who support abortion bans do not get nearly as angry over fertility clinics.
But if your prima facie intuition is actually so different from mine, that's that (i.e., no way around this).

"I agree motivations matter, but do they always matter? If John kills Marcos out of good motives, that would still be wrong. "

I said "motivations, whether he is negligent, etc.", not only "motivations".
But that aside, if the scientist kills a mosquito in order to make Bob suffer, and just for fun (because Bob irrationally believes that the mosquito is actually his daughter Sarah who was transformed by a witch, and will turn back at midnight), then the scientist in question behaved immorally, even if it's not generally wrong to kill mosquitoes.
My point is that in my assessment, it's not generally wrong to kill a brainless human organism. That is my answer to your question. I get that you disagree, but you wanted to know what I reckoned (i.e., what my position was), so I was answering your question.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.:

"Suppose a pregnant mother takes a pill (which has no negative side-effects on her) which she knows will cause the embryo in her to develop with a left hand. Would that be wrong?"
You mean, without a left hand? (else, what's the problem?)
Or did you mean with only a left hand? (i.e., no right hand)
Anyway, I'll assume it will have only one hand, right?

Then the answer is very probably "yes, that would be immoral", at least if she intends for the embryo to develop into a child and/or an adult. I say "very probably" because the scenario is unusual and you fail to specify motivations, information available to her, etc., and if we're talking unusual scenarios, maybe she does it because she knows if she does not, then (say), the entire population of the planet will be eaten alive by aliens.
But if the motivation is just for fun, or because she wants a one-handed child, that's intuitively immoral.
If I were to speculate, I would say that's because of the highly increased probability that the resulting child will have a worse life than she would with both hands (again, leaving aside other potential features of the scenario).

"Depends on the suffering. What kind of suffering do you have in mind, such that it would be permissible to kill the fetus?"
I wasn't talking about making the killing permissible. Rather, I was talking about making the ban impermissible, or more immoral than what other reasons (like the restriction of autonomy alone, leaving suffering aside, might yield) - and the killing less immoral, even if still so.
But for example, being forced to sustain a fetus she wants out of her body can be terrifying, and her lack of bodily autonomy can inflict serious suffering. Without really figuring how much the suffering might be, it's hard to tell whether that is enough to make the killing permissible, but it's not hard to tell that it can make it less immoral.

"Suppose Jack has to have his brain removed due to cancer, and technology allows him to develop a new brain. Would it be immoral to kill him at a point when his brain is as underdeveloped as a fetus's?"
Jack no longer exists. The new developing organism - unlike the fetus - is not in a woman's body, so the killing is akin to a fetus in an incubator, and it would be equally immoral, leaving other factors (like the expected suffering of third parties) aside. It may be just a bit immoral, or none at all if (say) the "brain" is only a few cells.

M.E. Lastrilla said...

Angra,

"I don't think that's what you mean, if by "member" you include embryos."

That's what I mean, and that's a typical definition of "human being".

"some people who want to ban abortion (or keep it banned, etc.) use the expression "human being" differently"

How are they using it differently? I still don't understand what you mean by "human being" such that pro-lifers are using the term differently from how you're using it. Given your examples of human beings, I'd say pro-lifers are using the term the same way you are.

"If you say that depriving Marcos of his life is morally relevant, you are again replacing the more precise description for the loaded "depriving Marcos of his life""

If X=Marcos, and X is killed, then Marcos is killed. Where is the inaccuracy or imprecision here? I also don't see how pointing this out is loaded.

"If so, then we can at least say that E4 no longer exists."

But this is ad hoc. In the case of twinning, we have reason to say E1 no longer exists, but in the case of E4, we aren't talking about twinning.

"If it's not morally relevant, in which sense is it relevant?"

"Organism" refers to the thing in my mother's womb before I was born. The argument then proceeds to show that I am identical to that thing. It is only when we introduce the claim that depriving me of life is immoral that moral evaluation comes into the picture.

"You mean, without a left hand?"

Yes, that's what I meant, sorry.

"Then the answer is very probably "yes, that would be immoral", at least if she intends for the embryo to develop into a child and/or an adult."

I'm not sure the mother's intention is relevant here - suppose she has no intention either way, she neither intends it to develop into a child, nor intends the contrary. It would still be immoral for her to take the pill.

So the follow-up question is: what's worse: being painlessly deprived of a hand, or being painlessly deprived of life?

"Jack no longer exists."

Suppose the technology allows him to develop a brain just like the one he used to have, with all his memories, skills, etc. intact. If I filled out the case this way, would you have the same intuition?

" The new developing organism - unlike the fetus - is not in a woman's body"

True, but the point is to undermine the idea that the steep drop mentioned above can be based on brain development.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.:


"That's what I mean, and that's a typical definition of "human being"."
Sorry, I misspoke. What I meant to say is "I don't think that's what it means", and no, I don't think that's the most common usage, not that you didn't mean that.
Yes, I know you disagree about what the most common usage is. That's not going to change.

"How are they using it differently? I still don't understand what you mean by "human being" such that pro-lifers are using the term differently from how you're using it. Given your examples of human beings, I'd say pro-lifers are using the term the same way you are."

They're using it differently from the most common usage. And I already explained what I meant. Given the examples I have given - and the examples of non-human beings -, people will likely grasp the term intuitively, and that would not include embryos. Now, granted, there are differences in the way people grasp the terms. But in this case, the vast majority of people who claim that embryos are human beings already have a religion that supports banning killing embryos, and furthermore are strongly committed to at least part of their religious agenda, indicating a different source for their usage (i.e., not just usual variation in the way people grasp a meaning given similar examples).

"If X=Marcos, and X is killed, then Marcos is killed. Where is the inaccuracy or imprecision here? I also don't see how pointing this out is loaded."

The description "Marcos is killed" is compatible with Marcos being a child, an adult, etc.; moreover, given that there already is a person named "Marcos" (we assume), it gives the impression that the person in question (the person
others may already be familiar with, a being capable of complex emotions, etc., like the rest of the members of a community) is getting killed, not that a bunch of cells with no brain that eventually grew into that person, would be killed.
Even in cases in which it does not cause confusion (but it would often do), it gives very little info about what's happening, so it's imprecise.

On the other hand, the description "D1: At some time t0 (not necessarily an instant; it can be an interval), there was a pregnant woman - say, María, to give her a name -, and human embryo E4, in her uterus. María's pregnancy continued, and the human embryo E4 developed, eventually turning into a human fetus (say, F4), at some time t1. The fetus F4 continued to grow, and eventually, at t2, María gave birth to a baby - say, Marcos.
Marcos grew up and became a toddler, then an older child, and eventually an adult, at t3.
Presently, Marcos is an adult.
If María had decided that she did not want a child, and for that reason she had had an abortion at t0, or at some other time earlier than t1, then E4 would have died, and would not have become F4. There would be no adult Marcos.

", provides a lot more info about what is really going on, and also doesn't cause confusion.

"But this is ad hoc. In the case of twinning, we have reason to say E1 no longer exists, but in the case of E4, we aren't talking about twinning. "
So you say. I say on the contrary, your reply is ad-hoc. There is no good reason to make that distinction.

""Organism" refers to the thing in my mother's womb before I was born. The argument then proceeds to show that I am identical to that thing. It is only when we introduce the claim that depriving me of life is immoral that moral evaluation comes into the picture. "
No, it doesn't show anything of the sort. It's a semantic argument, and not a good one. One might as well say "organism" refers to the thing in your mother's body before fertilization (i.e., the ovum), and that a similar argument then proceeds to show that you're identical to that thing.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E.:

"I'm not sure the mother's intention is relevant here - suppose she has no intention either way, she neither intends it to develop into a child, nor intends the contrary. It would still be immoral for her to take the pill."

Probably. If she doesn't intend either way, then what is her intention?
If she intends to have a baby without a hand, I'd say that's still probably immoral (again, it depends on other factors; why is she actually doing that? does or at least should she expect the baby to develop further? etc.).

"So the follow-up question is: what's worse: being painlessly deprived of a hand, or being painlessly deprived of life?"
That's loaded language, suggesting the entity in both cases is relevantly similar. Even if it's "numerically identical" in some kind of obscure sense not relevant here, that's only a game on words.

A much more precise description: What's more immoral, to kill a human embryo that cannot feel pain or feel any sort of emotions or perform any cognitive task - a brainless embryo -, in order not to have a child, or to modify it so that it develops in a far more complex being that is likely to suffer due to the modification?"

That description is still not good enough (e.g., it doesn't explain motive: was it to save the world from an alien attack? Was it for fun? etc.), but the former is not immoral, and the latter very probably is - which I reckon intuitively.

"Suppose the technology allows him to develop a brain just like the one he used to have, with all his memories, skills, etc. intact. If I filled out the case this way, would you have the same intuition?"

The info had to be stored elsewhere, otherwise the tech is not possible, so it seems the memories are somewhere else. Maybe there is another copy?
But regardless, then I would say that it may be immoral to destroy that information, depending on the case. Again, I would need more info about motivations, how the situation developed, etc. The situation is too unusual for me to fill in the blanks as I normally would.
However, at any rate, it's about destroying the info.
For example, let's say that not one, but 100 copies of his brain are being grown in 100 different bodies. Then, killing one or 50 to - say - save energy required for other copies of other brains, would not be immoral, unless there is a previous promise or something (i.e., it still depends on a lot of other factors, but the killing of a brainless human organism per se is not one of them).

"True, but the point is to undermine the idea that the steep drop mentioned above can be based on brain development."

But that's not undermined. On the contrary, my point is that there is a relevant difference if the brain is sufficiently developed.
At any rate, your example was meant to test my intuitions, and my intuitions remain consistent with the idea that cognitive development is probably a key factor - though, again, that's speculation: intuitions come first. If I were to (weirdly) find that that's not relevant, then I would still hold that it's not immoral to abort an embryo for the usual reasons.

Angra Mainyu said...

M.E:

Just to be clear, when I say I don't think that's what it (i.e., "human being") means, I mean in the most common usage, and in particular, in the sense in which it's immoral to kill a human being for the usual reasons for abortion.
But as I said, this is not a morally relevant issue, though it probably has an impact on the effect of the arguments on many people.