Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Magically-Appearing 'Duplicate-Person' Case: The Ethics of Killing and Abortion

Many arguments in defense of at least early abortions (abortions before the fetus is conscious or sentient) and embryo research appeal the fact that fetuses are not conscious and have not been conscious. Arguments in defense of abortion from early fetuses lacking personhood, arguments that early fetuses cannot be literally harmed (since there is no someone who is made worse off), and an important objection to Don Marquis's argument depend on these claims. 

(The "and have not been conscious" part is important but often overlooked. People ask "Whatabout sleeping people? Whatabout people in comas that they will awake from?" These questions overlook that while these individuals are not conscious now, they have been conscious and will be conscious again and those moments of consciousness will be connected as parts of the same individual over time. So sleepers and coma patients are very different from, say, embryos in that way.) 

The arguments depend on a principle like this: 

  • If a being is not conscious and has not been conscious, then it is permissible to kill that being.

Tomas Bogardus has recently proposed a counterexample to a principle like this, to try to show that the princple is false. This discussion has been on Twitter, and so the "texts" are short and it's easy to get lost in the Tweets. But here I will attempt to reconstruct the counterexample and explain why I think it's not a good one, fortunately not via Tweets. 

The case, as far as I can remember and understand it (since reviewing Twitter threads can be very tedious), is told as something like this:

Tom is a normal person, with a normal life. He goes to sleep andby cosmic fluke (electrical storm, radiation, who knows)—an exact physical and mental duplicate of him comes to exist. This duplicate, like Tom, is still asleep.

The claim about this case is that it would be wrong to kill this duplicate. 

The argument is that this case is a counterexample to the "If a being is not conscious and has not been conscious, then it is permissible to kill that being." If the duplicate is not conscious and has not been conscious yet is wrong to kill, then the principle is false.

Is it wrong to kill the duplicate though? And is it true that the duplicate is a being that is not conscious and has not been conscious? Some of this depends on how "exact" of a duplicate he (or it) is, so we'll have to discuss that too. 

1. Letting the Duplicate Die

First, before we consider the ethics of killing the duplicate, let's consider a related case: 

To awaken the duplicate, we have to hit a button. If we don't hit the button, the duplicate won't awaken and eventually will die, never having been conscious in any way. 

Is anyone obligated to hit the button to awaken the duplicate? Would it be wrong to not hit the button?

This is a contrived case all around, and people might not be imagining the case accurately and so I suspect intuitions here are often murky. But my initial sense is that no, we are not obligated to hit the button to awaken the duplicate: it's OK to let the duplicate die. The duplicate is not conscious and, it seems, has not been conscious: there is nothing going on in the mind of the sleeping duplicate: indeed, he has no mind, yet. So if you don't hit the button, it might seem like nothing really happened here, so to speak: there was a potential person right offstage, but that person was never actualized onto the stage of the present and future. (This happens all the time?!). 

2. Killing the Duplicate

If we aren't obligated to hit the button to wake the duplicate up, and so we can let him die, it seems to me, at least initially, that we can also actively kill the duplicate and that wouldn't be wrong. Again, as the story goes, the duplicate is not conscious and has not been: there is nothing going on in the mind of the sleeping duplicate: indeed, he has no mind, yet. If he's killed, no individual is worse off, even the duplicate. 

Some might respond that the duplicate does have a mind: he has a mind just like Tom's, so it Tom's mind while he is sleeping makes killing him wrong, the same is true of the duplicate. I don't see it like that: if the duplicate comes to have a mind, it will (magically!) be just like Tom's mind, but the duplicate doesn't have a mind now: there's the potential for a mind, not a mind with various potentials.  

If the claim is this the duplicate is just like sleeping Tom (who is wrong to kill), so since sleeping Tom is wrong to kill, it is also wrong to kill the duplicate, here's a suggestion: 

It'd be wrong to kill sleeping Tom's body because of the earlier person Tom: if we kill the body, then the earlier person Tom won't get psychologically connected back up to the later person Tom. This is why it's wrong to kill Tom's body, and this past-and-future-based explanation doesn't apply to duplicate. 

On this explanation, sleeping Tom's current mind, or lack thereof, seems to have little to do with why it's wrong to kill sleeping Tom: it's wrong to kill Tom's body because of those, Tom's, past mental states and their relations to various possible futures. 

As our story is told, the duplicate is said to not have a past person associated with him (or it? The duplicate is a male body, but has no actual psychological characteristics yet: is this a "he" yet?). The duplicate is unlike Tom and, again, it initially seems to me like killing the duplicate wouldn't be wrong.

(An aside: is it [logically or metaphysically or conceptually] essential to killing or being dead that it's permanent? Seems like no, given Jesus. What if instead of sleeping, we were temporarily dead? Being temporarily dead could be OK, if we could come back to life and our our living, conscious moments still be connected: indeed, our experience of "sleeping" would be the same if we were dead while sleeping , so to speak, and then awaking was coming tback to life.)

Again, this is a weird and contrived case, so I suspect we'd often have a hard time thinking about it without assuming that the duplicate is more like a normal person, so to speak. We'd have a hard time with the reality that, as the story goes, this individual has no past and have a hard time remembering that this individual is quite different from Tom, or anyone else we encounter. 

3. Does the Duplicate Have a Past?

If we are morally obligated to awaken the duplicate or let the duplicate wake up on his own—and so we are obligated to not kill the duplicate—I think this is so the duplicate can get back "online" with his past plans and goals, which, if he awakes, he will now share with Tom, who he is a duplicate of. 

So it seems to me that Tom and the duplicate are a case of "branching" personal identity, which appears to be possible on psychological theories of personal identity. These branches are often thought about with "teletransporters" where one individual is "beamed" two different locations, resulting in two individuals (made of new physical matter!) off to new futures but with shared memories, personality, knowledge, and so on: their pasts overlap. Here's an illustration of this sort of view:

To return to the duplicate (who, again, is supposed to be a duplicate of Tom), let's try to see things from his point of view. Here's some reasoning:

  1. If the duplicate awakens, he will either remember things or not: it will either seem to him that he remembers things or not
  2. If he neither remembers things nor it seems to him that he remembers things, then he isn't much of a duplicate of Tom, much less an "exact" duplicate: Tom without any of his memories or sense of the past isn't Tom.
  3. If he will either remember things or it seems to him that he remembers things, then—despite being made of new matter (recall that doesn't preclude psychological continuity in teletransporter cases) he either has a past or he is psychologically connected to the past (and so he has a past in a way that matters: again, see things from the duplicate's point of view!) and so this case is not a counterexample to the principle that this discussion is about: he's wrong to kill and he's conscious and with past consciousness. 
These are my initial thoughts about these matters. I am sure genuine experts on the metaphysics of personal identity, especially psychological theories, would have useful insights and perhaps corrections here. 

Nevertheless, I do not think the duplicate case refutes the basic idea, common to many arguments in defense of early abortions, that these abortions are permissible because these fetuses are not conscious and have not been conscious. 

9/8/2021 Update: whether this "duplicate" here is actually a duplicate of anyone is not relevant to the case: Tomas Bogardus agreed. So the case can be simplified so that part isn't part of the case: this body, that a person could spring from, could be just a totally new person and not a duplicate of anyone. The "trick" is that this body is said to have the same mind as a sleeping person: what that mind is, however, is not obvious. So the case is really just something like this:
There's a never-been-conscious body that's going to immediately become a full-on person soon enough (or a person will emerge from the body in zero-to-sixty fasion). You can kill the body and prevent that. This never conscious body has the same mind (or whatever that would be) as a sleeping person though.

Near final thoughts, maybe: 

"Mulling this over, I think your case doesn't make sense. Whatever your mental states are (or whatever) when you sleep, they are caused by past events and about past events. The "duplicate" isn't like that: there's a new body with a potential mind, with potential false memories.

And by "potential false memories" I mean that if the being becomes conscious and has "memories, they will be false memories (right?) and false memories aren't real memories. So this seems like a preconscious body with the potential for many false core beliefs, unlike a sleeper.

So I guess you are just saying "If there were a never conscious body that has the near potential for having a mind 'in it', it'd be wrong to kill that body." But that seems to be the issue and so "why?" and "why not?" are the questions to ask."

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Sunday, September 5, 2021

What if it Really is About "The Babies"? On Anti-Abortion Motivations

"It was never about 'the babies.' It's about controlling women." 

Pro-choice advocates sometimes say things like this to try to explain what motivates anti-abortion activism, including now successful efforts to make even early abortions illegal and criminalized

Their suggestion is that anti-abortion advocates are not really concerned about stopping embryos and fetuses (what they often, mistakenly, call "babies") from being killed via abortion: that's not their real motive or goal. Rather, their real goal is controlling women: men controlling women.

These suggestions, however, are, unfortunately, absurd. The sooner this is all recognized as absurd, the closer anyone fixated on this theory of the motivations of anti-abortion people will be to doing something potentially more productive for defending abortion. 

Why is this absurd?

Consider the suggestion that abortion bans are all about "controlling women." If you wanted to "control women," would you seek an abortion ban? Probably not. You'd probably attempt other things that would affect more women. You'd probably attempt things that are easier too. (I'm not going to make a list of examples lest I give anyone bad ideas!).

Why would you focus on an abortion ban unless you thought there was something especially important about abortion, like that abortion is a great evil and so a top priority in need of being "controlled"?

You wouldn't. So, ultimately, it is about "the babies," abortion itself, and their belief that abortion a great evil that, like many great evils, should be "controlled." Even if it's not all about "the babies," and some is about control, still much of it is about "the babies" themselves. 

Here's what John Seago, the legislative director of Texas Right to Life says:

There is an unethical procedure at the heart of this debate. Elective abortion is the epitome of an injustice. It is a larger, stronger group using violent force to take the life of a smaller, weaker party. You don’t have to have a religious background or be motivated by faith to realize that’s not the kind of society we want to live in. I’ll look forward to the day when our laws reflect that we have moral obligations to the most vulnerable populations around us.
So he says their motivations are all about "the babies," or the ethics of abortion. And there are many women who agree with him: it's not like only men, or mostly men, agree with this ethical judgment about abortion. "Don't erase [anti-abortion] women!" these women say. 

The argument might be that if abortion critics really believed abortion is wrong, they would do all sorts of other thingssupport pregnant women, advocate for readily accessible contraception and universal health care, and moreyet they don't. "Hypocrites!" they say.

While we might wish that anti-abortion advocates were like thismore like the Good Samaritan from the Bibleit might be that they don't really "have to": their position doesn't require it: they aren't somehow inconsistent by not advocating for any of this. Their view is just that it's wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings or people, including fetuses. 

Must they also think that they must help anyone out? I think they can honestly say that that's not their focus, even a "no comment": their focus is on (in their view) these very wrong intentional killings of fetuses. They can say that their focus is on preventing harm to fetuses, not producing benefits for anyone else. (Whether this distinction ultimately makes sense is unclear though).  

Pro-choicers object: "But then they should then also be concerned about IVF, which involves at least the deaths of embryos! They should be concerned about learning how to prevent miscarriages!!" 

Maybe, but maybe not: neither of these involve intentional killing. And they might argue that abortion is worse than these, since it can be, in rare, far-later abortions of fetuses that might feel things. They might also have no clear idea how to respond to these other issues: they might sometimes not even really know about them, and they might even be genuinely hypocritical or irrational or even dumb. 

But that doesn't seem to be a great objection to their claim that it's wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings or people, including fetuses. None of this shows that they don't really believe that and that isn't their motivation. 

Now, what's important is that they are incorrect about their various core claims and moral claims:

  • calling embryos and beginning fetuses "babies" is highly controversial: there are many reasons to think they should not be called "babies" and little defense is provided to think that using that term is literally accurate: if a pregnant woman or her family wish to say or think she has a baby, however, that is harmless; if laws are made on this belief, that's problematic;
  • anti-abortion advocates are fixated on "heartbeats" [update: that some pro-choice advocates falsely claim {?} aren't really even real heartbeats anyway: see here for illustrations suggesting a 2mm heart], but whether something has or doesn't have a heartbeat is morally irrelevant: most vividly, there is nothing inherently wrong with stopping a heart: what's around the heart is what matters, not the heart or heartbeat itself or lack thereof;
  • anti-abortion advocates often suggest that the mere fact that embryos and fetuses are biologically alive is of great moral significance, yet it isn't: plants and microorganisms are alive, yet they aren't wrong to kill or destroy;
  • anti-abortion advocates often suggest that the mere fact that embryos and fetuses are biologically human is of great moral significance, yet it isn't: human skin cells and tissues, say, are alive, yet they aren't wrong to kill.
  • anti-abortion advocates mean to say something like fetuses are biologically human organisms and are the kind of beings that are rational moral agents and that's why they have rights: explaining this argument and really defending it is a complex affair, and they usually don't do that: should they?  

Beyond these simple arguments, there's a whole more sophisticated discussion about what makes human beings have rights (such as the right to life) and whether fetuses have those characteristics, what the right to life really involves (is it a right to assistance, such as a right to the type of benefits a woman or girl provides to a fetus?), what we are, in our essenceare we our minds, or our bodies, or both?and more. Abortion is a complex moral issue, but most enthusiastic anti-abortion advocates are not much interested in this complexity. 

But addressing, first, the common and simple but demonstrably bad arguments against abortion and, next, the more complex arguments about abortion is part of the key to defending abortion: slogans, groupthink, and "virtue signaling" (saying what sounds good to people who agree with you) are not. Pro-choicers denying that anti-abortion advocates are motivated by ethical concerns and not engaging and critiquing those ethical claims and arguments certainly is decidedly not contributing to progress on this issue. Pro-choicers recognizing that, ultimately, the abortion debate is very much about the ethical status of fetuses and responding accordingly might do some good: it's definitely worth trying

So, to return to the quote above, here's what we should say:

There is an unethical procedure at the heart of this debate. [No, it's at least usually not unethical and here's why . . ] Elective abortion is the epitome of an injustice. [No, it's at least usually not unjust and here's why . . ] It is a larger, stronger group using violent force to take the life of a smaller, weaker party. [No, this is misleading: this type of language would fit only if beginning fetuses were much different from what they are actually like, e.g., the were conscious and sentient.] You don’t have to have a religious background or be motivated by faith to realize that’s not the kind of society we want to live in. I’ll look forward to the day when our laws reflect that we have moral obligations to the most vulnerable populations around us [No, this too is misleading: this type of language would fit only if beginning fetuses were much different from what they are actually like, e.g., the were conscious and sentient.

Since what is said here is false and unreasonable, more pro-choice advocates understanding and explaining why that is so, to wide and diverse audiences, might do some good. Responding "You just want to control people!" and other speculations about motives and intentions do not engage, much less refute, what is said above. We might say that motive-questioning responses like these have been proven unsuccessful, so we can and should try something new and better, like giving arguments for our views and critiquing the arguments of those whose views we think are mistaken and harmful. What have we got to lose?

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