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.
Sounds like we agree having no prior or present consciousness is not sufficient to license killing. So, that can't be why abortion is OK. So, we'll have to look elsewhere. 🤝— Tomas Bogardus (@TomasBogardus) September 5, 2021
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 and—by 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:
- If the duplicate awakens, he will either remember things or not: it will either seem to him that he remembers things or not.
- 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.
- 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.
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.