Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Symmetry and Thomson's violinist

I’ve been thinking about Thomson’s Violinist case. I should say about that case that it seems utterly obvious to me that in the case where the violinist is your child and you are in no long term danger from the connection, it’s a vicious failure of parental duties to disconnect.

But my current interest is not so much in figuring out the case itself, as trying to figure out why so many people find it compelling. To that end, I’ve been thinking about two symmetric cases.

Lifeboat: You, who are a really bad pianist, and a really bad violinist find yourselves drifting in a lifeboat in space, kidnapped and put there by the Music Lovers’ Society, to keep you both from performing publicly. The lifeboat is designed for one person, and the hyperspace engines don’t work with the mass of two people. Fortunately, your calculations show that in nine months the lifeboat drift will get you back to earth, and there is air, food and water enough for two for nine months. But it’s really uncomfortable. You both have to sit squished together on an uncomfortable chair, you’re away from your friends (though you can talk to them on hyperspace Skype whenever you like), from your job, etc. Waste disposal is handled hygienically but it’s a rather disgusting process under the circumstances. However, when the violinist is asleep, you could just push him out of the airlock, and then use the hyperspace engines to get back home in a day. Of course, the violinist could do the same to you.

Frankenkidney: Both you, who are an excellent pianist, and an excellent violinist are suffering from kidney failure. The Music Lovers’ Society kidnapped both of you and out of two malfunctioning kidneys made a single functioning frankenkidney. When you awake, you are taped to the violinist, with your abdomens touching. You know that where the abdomens are touching you each have a hole, and in that hole is that frankenkidney. You could wait nine months because that’s how long it takes for the lab to culture brand new kidneys for you and the violinist. Or you could pull the frankenkidney from the violinist’s body, put it in yours, and then have some straightforward surgery to close up the hole. Of course, the violinist could do the same to you.

I am thinking—perhaps too optimistically—that in these cases people would say: “You’re in the same boat as the violinist and just need to make the best of it.”

Notice that in terms of the consequences of your decision, as well as desert and contract, these cases are very much like the original violinist story. Your personal space is encroached on by a violinist who is innocent of the encroachment. You can end the encroachment at the expense of the violinist’s life.

But the cases are different from the original. In the original, the situation benefits the violinist and harms you. In the symmetric cases, either you are both harmed (Lifeboat) or both benefited (Frankenkidney). Moreover, in the original case, the violinist continues to derive a benefit from you without giving anything back. (I think that’s something disanalogous to the abortion case, by the way, since the life of one’s child is a benefit to one, even if one does not see it this way.)

However, I do not know that these differences about the flow of benefits and harms matter, given that neither you nor the violinist have any responsibility for being in the situation in any of the three cases. Suppose we take the Lifeboat case and add this to the story:

Lifeboat Supplement: After a few hours in the lifeboat, the violinist’s body’s thermoregulation has shut down and the lifeboat’s heating system is working poorly. Your body heat is enough to maintain a liveable temperature for the two of you in the lifeboat, and medicine can fix his problem once you get back to civilization, but if the violinist threw you out the airlock, he’d soon die of hypothermia. You'd do fine physically without him, though.

In the supplemented lifeboat story, there is a net flow of life-giving benefits from you to the violinist, just as in the original violinist case. But it would be absurd that as soon as the violinist’s body’s thermoregulation shuts down you can throw him out the airlock. Yet the resulting story is now very much like the original violinist story, I think.

My conjecture is that a central reason the violinist case seems compelling to so many has to do with the asymmetry between the two parties, and when one primes the thinking by starting with a more symmetric situation, as in the Lifeboat case, the intuitions change, and perhaps stay changed even if one adds an asymmetric supplement.

By the way, for another symmetric analogy, see Himma.

25 comments:

Apeiros Philosopher said...

Somebody has got to stop this Society of Music Lovers, they're completely out of control.

On the Lifeboat case: can't it be changed so that the violinist is tied up (because he is the worse of the two and the SML would prefer it if he drowned) so that he can't push you out? If the violinist pushes you out, that would be equivalent to the child killing the mother which happens only very, very rarely. This seems like the best way to make them analogous because changing either person's propensity towards violence messes with all sorts of other implications about the moral nature of the mother and child, not to mention that the child can't will something like that!

Same sort of thing with the Frankenkidney, the violinist is out cold from some other illness maybe.
Am I missing something about you both having power over the other?


I really like the conclusion, you're right it seems that getting rid of the asymmetry removes most of Thompson's intuitions. How could this be brought out in actual pregnancy cases I wonder? You indicate that a child objectively improves the life of the mother, but most pro-abortionists would disagree and cite reasons like pain, discomfort, and the feeling of a loss of liberty. How would you object to them?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I actually want the cases to be ones where each can do the same thing to the other. I think that highlights the problematic nature of a principle that would allow each to kill the other. Perhaps you're thinking that in the Lifeboat case, you could kill the violinist in self-defense. But no: the mere fact that he *can* kill you does not justify lethal self-defense. (Whenever I cross a busy road, there are drivers about who *can* kill me.) You may kill the violinist in self defense if he started attacking you, of course, but that's a different story. (And different from the abortion case, since even if the fetus poses a danger, the fetus is not *attacking*.)

I didn't claim that the child *on balance* benefits the mother. I just said that the child's life is *a* benefit.

That said, in the Lifeboat case, I missed the fact that there is a benefit to you from the violinist, in that his presence may decrease loneliness. We may suppose for the sake of the story, though, that you have sufficiently good hyperspace phone connections, and have so little in common interest-wise with the violinist, that this benefit counts for little.

Mr. Green said...

Do so many people find it compelling? I suppose there are lots of people who would say so; but do they mean that they find the philosophical argumentation powerful and sound? (I just read the paper again, and it's really dismal, philosophically speaking.) Or is it that they agree with the conclusion, and therefore they pronounce whatever comes before it as good? Or perhaps it is the case that people raised in our modern, highly materialistic and selfish society reognise the standard pattern (which they then call "compelling")?

It would, of course, be sociologically interesting to see how many people really do find it compelling — both in the sense of "agreeing" or "liking it", but also of actually causing them to believe in the conclusion. What would hoary old ancient Romans think of the argument? Or hoary old Mongol hoardes? First-century Judeans? Mediaeval or Renaissance or populations, or Confucians, or modern Mauritanians?

What happens if the scenario is presented in a leading manner — not leading in favour, as in the paper, but against it? How much role does our reductionist environment play? (That is, does the presentation of these unrealistic, outlandish scenarios unconsciously tempt us "scientific" moderns to stir up a detached frame of mind that we, perhaps subconsciously, associate with crazy scientific situations? (If you're "riding an elevator at the speed of light", then it's only appropriate to abandon common-sense, the "prejudices laid down before age 18", right?) I don't think anyone could doubt that if the scenario with the violinist were portrayed as a story in a film with suitable emotional swelling of violins and pained expressions on the actors' faces, that the audience's consensus would be anything other than whichever emotion, pro or con, that the movie-makers aimed for.)

Eric said...

Here is an alternate scenario that is closer to the abortion situation.

A mysterious power has given you an Arc Reactor, which looks neat, but otherwise is of no use to you except as a night light.
<img src="https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/ironman/images/6/6e/Photo%28148%29.png/revision/latest?cb=20130531081928"
Iron Man requires an Arc Reactor to survive.
After a battle with a super villain, Iron Man is victorious, but his Arc Reactor has been destroyed.
He desperately requests you give him your Arc Reactor in order to stay alive.
Is it moral in this case to refuse Iron Man and keep the Arc Reactor, even though it is essential for his survival and of no use to you?
It would seem refusing Iron Man is the wrong thing to do.

A less fantastic scenario is watching a child starve to death while eating a subway footlong.

In the violinist scenario, the violinist is using another person's kidney, which is properly meant for the other person and not the violinist.
However, in the case of a pregnancy, the primary organ being used is the uterus, and the uterus is meant for the baby. The mother derives no personal benefit from the uterus, and it is often surgically removed without any ill effect.
In my mind, identifying that the organ used is actually meant for the user, and not for the person in whose body the organ resides, strengthens the intuition that withholding support is immoral.

This line of reasoning should appeal to a liberal audience, since they are whole heartedly in favor of forcing rich people to give poor people money.
They seem to recognize a moral imperative that those who have something they do not need, but that is in dire need by someone else, to the extent that person can die or at least have a miserable life, then those who have are morally obligated to the point of force to give to the have nots.

So, if the violinist type scenario is changed so the exchange exemplifies the giving from one with plenty to one in a dire straight, then I think it will favor the pro-life position instead of the pro-choice position.

Helen Watt said...

Isn't the womb a part of the woman's body very much caught up in her own interests though? Even just at the level of reproductive health (functionality) and reproductive success (actual functioning) she has an interest of some kind in a successful pregnancy even if she's too depressed at the moment to see that (similarly with postnatal depression: quite apart from the baby's own rights/status, the woman has achieved and is achieving something valuable via her own healthy functioning even if she needs time and support to see she has).

Of course, the woman's overall health interests are not compatible with her reproductive health interests in all cases. Hence the classic double-effect case of the cancerous uterus where the woman is entitled to have the womb removed despite the side-effect for her baby whom the operation affects but does not target. So the right of the baby/foetus to continued support is not absolute; just its right to be spared deliberate bodily assaults of a kind that do it lethal harm.



















































Alexander R Pruss said...

Helen:

That's a very nice point. I was just thinking that successful reproduction is a telos that all animals have (with some qualifications in the case of eusocial animals), and we are animals, so the fact of having successfully reproduced is good for us. (And success here comes in degrees. If one has an offspring but the offspring dies while immature, the success is lesser than if the offspring survives to maturity.) But you're right that the processes of pregnancy make the flourishing of the fetus directly be a telos of the gestational mother as well, and hence it is in the gestational mother's interests that the fetus do well.

Of course, in principle it could be that there are harms that make it not be the case that *on balance* the pregnancy is good for the mother. That's a part of why there are many cases where it makes sense to avoid pregnancy by morally licit means. (And, of course, those harms don't justify killing the child once the child exists.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr. Green:

I agree that people's finding the case compelling comes from contingent social forces. Individualism is I think one of these.

It is very difficult, I think, to square disconnecting the violinist, or any of the central intuitions in Thomson's piece, with Matthew 25:40-46.

Eric said...

Helen, interesting point. So, an even more analogous violinist type argument would make the well being of the violinist essential for the well being of the donor. For instance, giving Iron Man the Ark Reactor allows him to save the world, which benefits the original owner of the Ark Reactor. This indicates the original violinist argument only succeeds intuitively because it is not analogous to pregnancy in a number of key areas.

Angra Mainyu said...

Alex,

I don't think the violinist case is relevant when it comes to the matter of abortion, since there are too many differences that may well result in morally relevant differences.
But that aside, and regarding your scenarios, if the intuitions are indeed different, I would be inclined to say that the cases are different - precisely that is what the intuitions indicate. Our moral sense picks cues unconsciously to make moral assessments, and it's very difficult in general to figure out what it's actually tracking.
If I were to speculate, I would suggest the following potential differences between the original violinist scenario (OV) and lifeboat (L).

1. In (OV), your intent is to disconnect yourself from the violinist, not to kill the violinist as a means to an end. The death of the violinist is an expected but unintended consequence.
2. In (OV), the expected harm to you is intuitively a lot greater than in (L).
3. In (OV), the wrongful action is precisely to hook you up to the violinist. By disconnecting yourself, you would be ending the continuing success of their wrongdoing. On the other hand, in (L), their wrongful action consists in kidnapping you and the violinist and placing both victims in a small ship to get rid of them. By killing the violinist, you do not stop the success of their wrongdoing (they just want to get rid of the two of you).
4. In the violinist case, the violinist is unconscious. In the lifeboat case, he is not, arguably implicitly creating an understanding not to kill when the other person is not conscious.

Perhaps, one of them makes a morally relevant difference. Or maybe a single one of them doesn't, but a combination of two or more does. Or maybe one of them does (say, 1.), and no single one of the others does, but a combination of two or more of the others does. Then again, maybe there is another relevant factor that I haven't been able to find.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1 isn't a difference: in sending the violinist out the airlock, the intent is to remove the violinist from the small and cramped ship, not to kill him.

I don't know that in OV the harm to you is a lot greater than in L. I guess it depends on how one tells the two stories, just how uncomfortable sharing the seat in the tiny lifeboat is, etc. In any case, I don't think the harm to you in L is less than the harm in a typical pregnancy.

I don't think your point 3 works. For if you throw the violinist out the airlock, then you can get back home in a day, which frustrates the Music Lovers' desire to be rid of you for at least nine months.

I don't see how consciousness makes a difference. Three cases: (a) one of you is conscious and the other is not; (b) both are conscious at the same time; (c) you two are conscious intermittently but never both at the same time. I don't see any significant moral difference between (b) and (c), or between (a) and (c), absent some agreement you come to in case (b).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add that there is always the possibility that our moral sensibilities are mis-tracking, are seeing differences where there aren't any. We have good reason, for instance, to think that many people's intuitions will vary in ways that do not track moral truth when one changes the race and gender of the participants in the stories.

In the case at hand, I think there is something about dependence that makes people's moral sensibilities mis-track the violinist case. (It's not insignificant that humanity has a long and unsavory history of treating the disabled, the dependent and the helpless badly.)

Angra Mainyu said...

1. Fair enough, if you don't intend to kill, that's not a difference.

2. The harm in (L) may or may not be less than the harm of a typical pregnancy; I don't know, but the violinist case seems much worse.

3. You mean that you would still attempt to play piano?
It seems I misunderstood that part of the scenario, but fair enough, then that would partially frustrate the success of their wrongdoing, while ensuring the rest of it is permanently successful, since the violinist will never perform again. It's still different from (L), though to a lesser extent.

4. I don't know for sure if that makes a difference, but I think that in (L), if you already interacted with the violinist and there was no fight while both were conscious, there is an implicit understanding that would not otherwise exist. As a result, throwing him out of the airlock when he's asleep would be morally worse than if there had been no such interaction (that said, I do think in both cases, throwing him out of the airlock would be appalling). So, on further thought, more than being conscious on its own, the difference here might be that they are both conscious and interacting socially in a non-enemy fashion in (L). I don't think this would make a difference if (in a modify (L)), they were both conscious but fighting to kill each other from the beginning.

After further thought, here's another speculative candidate:

5. In (OV), you're being used immorally as a means to an end, and by disconnecting, you defend yourself from that. That is not so in (L).

Regarding our moral intuitions, yes, sometimes they mistrack, and we have good reason to think that in the case of gender and race (in many situations), since we know there are many people with false and irrational beliefs about people of some gender or race, and some of their moral assessment are partially based on those. But in the violinist case, I don't see any good evidence of that.

Granted, you mention that there is a history of mistreatment of the disabled and the dependent and the helpless, but I don't see evidence of a connection between intuitively reckoning that it's okay to disconnect, and being generally biased against the disabled, helpless or dependent. Moreover, here arguably the helpless victim would be the woman being forced not to disconnect, if she is so forced, so that bias can go both ways. I would need empirical data supporting that a general bias against the disabled, etc., is more common among those who reckon it's acceptable to disconnect (or at least, that it's not acceptable to forcibly stop a person from disconnecting).

That aside, here's a modification of (OV). Let's say that the violinist wakes up just when you do, though he did not choose to get hooked up to you. You choose to disconnect, and the violinist chooses to stop you and force you to remain connected for 9 months, so he orders that to his followers, who forcibly stop you. Is he behaving immorally? It seems to me that he is. But I'm pretty sure that the bad violinist behaves permissibly if he wakes up when you're trying to throw him out of the airlock, and fights back.

In short, I would think the violinist has an obligation not to stop you from disconnecting (though violent emotion might excuse him, but assuming he has a clear enough head), and if he forces you, you're his helpless victim.

Mr. Green said...

Alexander R Pruss: It is very difficult, I think, to square disconnecting the violinist, or any of the central intuitions in Thomson's piece, with Matthew 25:40-46.

Indeed, and not just on a particularly Christian level; I think that natural law is sufficient to rule out killing someone in this situation.

In the case at hand, I think there is something about dependence that makes people's moral sensibilities mis-track the violinist case.

That's why it would be genuinely interesting to see a survey of people from different cultures (counting fifty or one hundred years ago as different cultures!) — an ancient Roman might see the violinist as disposable because he is too weak, and therefore not particularly worthy of being saved; then again, an ancient Roman might see him as being in the position of a "guest", and be horrified at such a wicked violation of hospitalitas!

I hadn't thought specifically in terms of our unsavoury history treating the dependent — of course, there is an element of that working both ways, since I expect (or hope?) that people would at least "feel bad" about pulling the plug... I suppose that's a sign of the "Christian-flavoured" individualism that is prevalent these days.

Mr. Green said...

Angra Mainyu: I don't think the violinist case is relevant when it comes to the matter of abortion, since there are too many differences that may well result in morally relevant differences.

Yes, the cases are very different; as an analogy it gets just about everything wrong. But the biggest problem is that the bare conclusion — whether you can kill someone who is dependent on you or not — in fact DOES apply when it comes to abortion.

The scenario is crafted to lead our emotions in all the wrong ways — the bizarre sci-fi setup to confuse our natural instincts, some weird stranger instead of one's own child, the oblivious way she refers to the act of procreation itself as having "taken all reasonable precautions against having a child"!!!, and on and on — and yet, after all this nonsense, the plug-pulling scenario as given is still an act of murder (maybe, depending on the medical details, there is a way to "let" the violinist die rather than killing him, Principle of Double Effect, etc., but anything necessary to make that work would rupture the last slender threads connecting the story to anything like a pregnancy). But it sounds a bit more plausible as a starting point, so she runs with it.

Moreover, here arguably the helpless victim would be the woman being forced not to disconnect, if she is so forced, so that bias can go both ways.

The idea that anything you don't like makes you a "victim" is a very individualistic (and creepy) perspective. It's always been present, because man has always been selfish, but until recently, it just wasn't practical to cut yourself off from family and community to the extent that modern wealth and machinery make possible. And we are seeing the growing acceptance that one has no real obligations to do anything one doesn't feel like, only obligations not to hurt someone else (and, no, that isn't coherent...).

In short, I would think the violinist has an obligation not to stop you from disconnecting

No; although (again depending on the details), he probably can volunteer to be disconnected, and accept his own death. Of course, this too only makes the example all the more incomparable to killing a baby in the womb.

Angra Mainyu said...

Mr. Green,

I have not said anything suggesting that "anything you don't like makes you a "victim"".
Surely, the woman in the violinist scenario is a victim. She was kidnapped, cut open, and a violinist was hooked to her. It's certainly a case in which she is the victim of the situation. The violinist is not the perpetrator because he is unconscious and did not take part in the kidnapping or the even more immoral follow-up, but that does not make her any less of a victim, of a heinous and extremely harmful crime.
It should be pretty obvious that if the violinist were conscious and had ordered the crime, she would be well within her rights to disconnect the perpetrator in self-defense. The matter may be less obvious if he's not the perpetrator of the crime, but later wakes up and orders his followers to stop her from disconnecting (or does it by himself, if he's strong enough), because it might be argued it's self-defense. But I think this is mistaken. It's a significant part of her body, and he would be hijacking that part of her body for nine months in order to stay alive. I don't think it would be acceptable on his part to do that, unless of course the fear of death damages his self-control so much that he's not responsible for his actions.

Of course, none of this applies to an embryo. Before brain development, I don't think there is anything wrong with killing it in order not to have a child. For that matter, I don't think there is anything wrong with experimenting on human embryos and then kill them. Those entities do not seem to me like the proper subjects of moral consideration, except in a derived way (e.g., someone's frozen embryos may well matter to them, and that is an interest generally worthy of moral consideration). As the brain develops, things become more complicated, but I don't think they ever reach a point at which it's comparable to the violinist case (and by the way, I don't think when a mother kills a newborn because she does not want to raise a child, her action is as immoral as, say, the killing a 3, 5 or 6-years old child for the same reason, even though it's also immoral).

Mr. Green said...

Angra Mainyu: I have not said anything suggesting that "anything you don't like makes you a "victim"".

Oh, I didn't mean that you were claiming that — but it's an increasingly common view, and one that Thomson plays upon in the paper.

The violinist is not the perpetrator because he is unconscious and did not take part in the kidnapping or the even more immoral follow-up, but that does not make her any less of a victim, of a heinous and extremely harmful crime.

Well, it is explicitly stated not to be particularly harmful. But yes, the kidnappers are the criminals, and since they are nowhere to be found, we cannot take their crime and dump it on somebody else. If some crook sells you a stolen watch, and the rightful owner is found, you have to return it; that you are an innocent victim of the crook's scam does not mean that you get to steal the watch (by keeping it from its owner). Likewise, it doesn't matter how the woman in this story got into the situation with the violinist; neither of them is at fault, so blame doesn't arise. The blame is part of another scenario, featuring the woman and the criminals.

It should be pretty obvious that if the violinist were conscious and had ordered the crime, she would be well within her rights to disconnect the perpetrator in self-defense.

No, because there is no question of defense. The woman isn't going to die, or be harmed in any serious way (I am speaking of the original scenario here, of course).

Of course, none of this applies to an embryo. Before brain development, I don't think there is anything wrong with killing it in order not to have a child. For that matter, I don't think there is anything wrong with experimenting on human embryos and then kill them.

I guess before the brain develops, the child doesn't "think" there's anything wrong either. But of course morality has to be based on what is, not what we think it should be. Interestingly, in her paper, even Thomson admits the problem of trying to draw a line at some non-arbitrary point of the baby's development. What if something goes wrong with your brain? Does that make it OK to kill you? Even if I decide that you are no longer "the proper subject of moral consideration"?

As the brain develops, things become more complicated, but I don't think they ever reach a point at which it's comparable to the violinist case (and by the way, I don't think when a mother kills a newborn because she does not want to raise a child, her action is as immoral as, say, the killing a 3, 5 or 6-years old child for the same reason, even though it's also immoral).

Well, the brain becomes more complicated. The morality stays pretty simple: killing an innocent person is gravely wrong. Killing a small child doesn't make one "half-guilty" of committing "half-murder" compared to an adult twice the size.

Angra Mainyu said...

Mr. Green,

I don't agree the ordeal in the original story is not particularly harmful. It's horrifying and psychologically probably devastating, but also being connected to someone else for nine months sharing a circulatory system causes all sorts of damage all over her body - just being immobilized for 9 months would do that.


Well, it is explicitly stated not to be particularly harmful. But yes, the kidnappers are the criminals, and since they are nowhere to be found, we cannot take their crime and dump it on somebody else. If some crook sells you a stolen watch, and the rightful owner is found, you have to return it; that you are an innocent victim of the crook's scam does not mean that you get to steal the watch (by keeping it from its owner). Likewise, it doesn't matter how the woman in this story got into the situation with the violinist; neither of them is at fault, so blame doesn't arise. The blame is part of another scenario, featuring the woman and the criminals.

But that's not analogous: a more analogous case - though still not close - would be that the person connected to the violinist is the owner of the watch.


No, because there is no question of defense. The woman isn't going to die, or be harmed in any serious way (I am speaking of the original scenario here, of course).
She's being harmed in a very serious way, but there is of course self-defense in the variant you're replying to, since the violinist ordered the crime. I introduced that variant as a means an extreme example, and then move from there to the OV scenario.

Here's a variant of the violonist scenario, similar but with a few more details and some differences:

VS#4: Alice is walking down the street when a van pulls up, and a bunch of masked men get out of the van, and grab her. She fights as much as she can, kicking and screaming and punching, but they overpower her, drug her, and kidnap her. So, she wakes up in a room where she's tied up and again begins screaming, kicking any of the criminals who gets close enough, etc., but they tie up her legs too, and tell her that they are from the Society of Music Lovers, that Jack, a famous violinist, is dying, and that they will plug his circulatory system into hers, so that her kidneys will filter his blood, and keep him alive for nine months. They will do that - they tell her - because only she has the right blood type as far as they can tell, and if he lives for other nine months, they will be able to make an artificial kidney that will save his life.

Alice is horrified by the ordeal she anticipates, but she can't fight because she's tied up, so she screams for help, insults them, etc. She is desperate. When they untie her to take her to Jack, she fights again as strongly as she can. But they are too strong. She keeps fighting nonstop, and they drag her into the room with Jack, and towards the machine that will connect them. She keeps fighting until the last moment, punching or kicking or even biting any of the criminals she manages to reach. But to no avail: she's vastly outnumbered. They punch her until she's out, and plug her in. Five minutes later, she wakes up. She's more horrified than ever: she sees what has happened - they plugged him in!
A doctor - also member of the Society - tells her that she ought not to fight anymore, because they have succeeded in connecting Jack to her system, and now she has a moral obligation to stay there for 9 months.

Does Alice have a moral obligation not to resume fighting?
I don't think that that is true at all. Alice has no moral obligation not to resume fighting.

I think the answer in the original violinist scenario is similar: she may fight.

Angra Mainyu said...

Mr. Green,

I guess before the brain develops, the child doesn't "think" there's anything wrong either. But of course morality has to be based on what is, not what we think it should be.
I disagree that there is a child before the brain develops. There is an embryo, not a child. But that aside, morality is based on what is. And one of the things that are morally relevant is the sort of mind of the entity we're dealing with - or rather, what sort of mind it has as far as our information goes.

Interestingly, in her paper, even Thomson admits the problem of trying to draw a line at some non-arbitrary point of the baby's development. What if something goes wrong with your brain? Does that make it OK to kill you? Even if I decide that you are no longer "the proper subject of moral consideration"?
You mean, if what's wrong is that I have no brain at all?
In that case, I reckon there is no "I" anymore, but a brainless thing. On the other hand, some brain damage would not yield that result, clearly. There is no line, of course. It's not the case that one second killing the embryo or fetus because one does not want a child is permissible, and one minute later it's like killing an adult human being. As the brain develops (or rather, as a person knows the brain develops), it becomes wrong, and then wronger, etc. There is a gradual change. In one extreme - no brain at all - there is nothing wrong.


Well, the brain becomes more complicated. The morality stays pretty simple: killing an innocent person is gravely wrong. Killing a small child doesn't make one "half-guilty" of committing "half-murder" compared to an adult twice the size.

While an embryo is not a child, assuming it is, that's a quirk of the English language. I take it should be obvious that it's not wrong to kill an embryo because one does not want it, or in order to experiment to advance medicine, etc. I don't think it's a person, but again, I think the discussion is misguided.
Also, size is irrelevant. What matters is mind (and so brain), or more precisely what info the person doing the killing has about the mind of the entity being killed.

Eric said...

Why would level of information make the action right or wrong? With bad information the perpetrator may not be culpable, but that does not mean their action was not wrong.

Why is having a brain the special line? From the point of conception, the embryo is the sort of thing that will have a brain. What makes killing the embryo right before it has the brain alright, and right afterwards suddenly wrong? Of course, we do not consider a body without a brain a human being, but that is not the same situation as an embryo who does not yet have a brain.

Lurking in the back of these lines between ok killing and not ok killing, there is a moral principle to not cause suffering. Killing is ok as long as suffering is not being caused, but becomes bad once suffering is caused. Yet this is not sufficient, since it would mean we could morally kill people in their sleep, or in other painless ways. So the principle is moved back a bit to be: don't kill things that could suffer. This makes it bad to kill a sleeping person, since the sleeping person could suffer if they were awake. But at that point the line is no longer clear. If it is wrong to kill a sleeping person because they could suffer if they were awake, then that becomes closer to saying it is wrong to kill a brainless embryo because it could suffer once it develops the brain and nervous system. It is so close that the differentiating fact that the sleeper has a brain and the embryo does not, no longer seems as relevant as the fact the two beings are the sort of beings that can suffer.

More generally, the goal of minimizing suffering is problematic in itself. For instance, taken to a logical extreme, it would imply that we have a moral imperative to end life, since as long as people and animals live they will suffer. This suggests a more important moral principle is to enable the flourishing of life as much as possible.

Angra Mainyu said...

Eric,

In my assessment, there is no such thing as immoral (or "morally wrong", which means the same) behavior that is not blameworthy. But I know some philosophers (I'm not sure if a majority or not) don't agree. But to make it simple, I meant "morally blameworthy". I don't make a distinction between that and "morally wrong", or "immoral", but if there is a distinction, I'm interested in moral blameworthiness.

As to your question about the brain, I can speculate, and it seems to me that having a brain is important because having a mind is important. In some alternative scenarios in which there are brainless human-like minds, then their lack of a brain would be morally unimportant. Yes, you might ask why minds are important. I don't know. My moral assessments are intuitive, not based on a theory. I can then speculate as to why things matter, but the speculation is derivative and more tentative than the assessments.

That aside, I would say:
1. There is no moment of conception. It's a process.
2. Whether the embryo is the sort of thing that (you meant normally?) will have a brain is a debatable matter. But regardless, one could also ask: why would being the sort of thing that normally will have a brain/mind the special line? In fact, it seems clear to me that assuming that the embryo is the sort of thing, etc., then it's not a special line at all. If you have a theory (maybe a variant of Aristotelian-Thomism? But whatever it is) that entails that embryos are the sort of thing that will (or will normally) have a brain (and mind), and that being that sort of thing is the special line in question, I would test that theory against specific scenarios, and conclude it's false precisely because it makes the wrong predictions, going up against clear intuitions.

As for your assessment about the principle lurking in the back, that's not what I'm doing. In fact, your examples (i.e., "Yet this is not sufficient, since it would mean we could morally kill people in their sleep, or in other painless ways") are instances of testing a general moral claim (namely, that Killing is ok as long as suffering is not being caused, but becomes bad once suffering is caused) against specific scenarios, and falsifying it. I agree with that method. I apply also that method to any theory that entails that it's (non-derivatively) immoral to kill an embryo for, say, research, or because one doesn't want it, etc., and reckon it's a false theory.

Let me try to further clarify: You say: "It is so close that the differentiating fact that the sleeper has a brain and the embryo does not, no longer seems as relevant as the fact the two beings are the sort of beings that can suffer.". But I don't start with a general moral claim (a principle as you call it) and then try to apply it to specific situations. Rather, I make moral assessments about specific situations, and that is how - among other things - I test proposed general claims - like you do when you rule out the principle you thought was lurking in the background of my assessment.

My assessment about not being wrong to kill things with no minds for research, or because one does not want them, etc. (not because of themselves; it might be derivatively wrong, as I explained earlier, just as sometimes it's wrong to, say, destroy a car), is a more general assessment, but inducted from observation of many particular instances, and tested against many particular instances.

Also, you say: "More generally, the goal of minimizing suffering is problematic in itself."
I agree, precisely because it doesn't pass the test against specific cases.

"This suggests a more important moral principle is to enable the flourishing of life as much as possible."
I don't think that one is true, either, but it's vague so it's hard to test. Could you specify it a bit, please, or give examples of its consequences?

Eric said...

If there were no morally wrong behavior regardless of blame, then there would never be a morally wrong behavior. Because a morally blameworthy behavior is blameworthy precisely because the behavior is morally wrong, known to be such, and performed anyways. Otherwise, everything a completely morally ignorant person did would be fine, even if committing mass murder. Yet mass murder is clearly wrong even if the mass murderer believes it is his divine duty, as many terrorists believe today.

Claiming there is no moment of conception makes no sense to me. Perhaps you mean the fertilization of the egg takes a span of time, which is true, but besides the point. The point is that the fertilized egg is the sort of thing that will have a mind. Perhaps you also mean that if fertilizing the egg is an important point in time, then so must the preceding period right before the sperm hits the egg, and thus all forms of contraception become morally problematic. I would not disagree there, either.

Additionally, claiming the embryo is not the sort of thing that will have a mind also makes no sense to me. The best I can infer is you mean that an embryo does not always develop correctly, and sometimes will not develop a brain. Therefore one cannot categorically say the embryo is the sort of thing that will always have a mind. But, the point is the proper functioning of the embryo development does result in a mind, and when it doesn't that means something went wrong. Perhaps you also believe there is no such thing as "proper functioning" and that's just a category we humanly ascribe to a purposeless world.

Denying true teleology is a whole new discussion, but briefly, there would not even be apparent function if there were no true function. Illusive functionality is derivative of actual functionality. Attempts to prove otherwise, such as undirected evolution, end up being so completely incoherent that to stick to such presupposition begs the question whether one is really interested in truth or more interested in rationalizing their pet belief system.

Angra Mainyu said...

Eric,

You say: "If there were no morally wrong behavior regardless of blame, then there would never be a morally wrong behavior."
That is unclear. What do you mean by "regardless of blame"? In any case, what I said is that in my assessment, a behavior B is morally wrong iff it's morally blameworthy. I know there is disagreement on the matter, but this in no way implies there is no morally wrong behavior.

"Because a morally blameworthy behavior is blameworthy precisely because the behavior is morally wrong, known to be such, and performed anyways. "
I disagree. I think some behavior is blameworthy even if it's not know to be morally wrong.

"Otherwise, everything a completely morally ignorant person did would be fine, even if committing mass murder."
That does not follow. An alternative is that the behavior is blameworthy. But the issue of completely morally ignorant here makes the matter more difficult. I don't know whether such agents - far removed from terrorists and other humans - would behave immorally. It's like the question of whether intelligent aliens (say, with complex language, computers, spaceships, etc.) with no sense of right and wrong can behave immorally. I'm uncertain, though I could speculate. But it's a whole other discussion.

"Yet mass murder is clearly wrong even if the mass murderer believes it is his divine duty, as many terrorists believe today."
First, a terrorist is not at all completely morally ignorant. They have correct moral beliefs about many daily issues, though their religion/ideology leads them to false moral beliefs in specific but very important cases.
Second, I agree that mass murder committed by terrorists is morally wrong and that many of them believe it's their divine duty, but I think their behavior is blameworthy. That's also why I think it's just to punish them when they're captured and convicted. They deserve the punishment. Granted, they believe it's their sacred duty, but I hold they (epistemically and morally) should not, and they are blameworthy also for believing it's their divine duty.

Angra Mainyu said...

Eric,

"Claiming there is no moment of conception makes no sense to me. Perhaps you mean the fertilization of the egg takes a span of time, which is true, but besides the point. "
Let me put it this way: I hold that if you divide the event in sufficiently small temporal intervals, there is no fact of the matter as to whether conception has ocurred, as the word "conception" is not precise enough (as it happens with most words used to describe the world around us). It seems relevant due to the divide you intend to make on the basis of that. But let's leave that aside, since even assuming there is a moment, I reckon it's not important morally.

"The point is that the fertilized egg is the sort of thing that will have a mind. Perhaps you also mean that if fertilizing the egg is an important point in time, then so must the preceding period right before the sperm hits the egg, and thus all forms of contraception become morally problematic. I would not disagree there, either."
I don't think contraception is problematic, either. But the issue of the "moment" would remain as long as you make a big distinction between the morality of contraception and that of killing a fertilized egg (even if you consider them to be both immoral).

"Additionally, claiming the embryo is not the sort of thing that will have a mind also makes no sense to me."
I didn't make that claim. I take no stance, as I take no stance on whether an egg is the sort of thing that will have a mind. I reckon it's not relevant morally.

"The best I can infer is you mean that an embryo does not always develop correctly, and sometimes will not develop a brain. Therefore one cannot categorically say the embryo is the sort of thing that will always have a mind. But, the point is the proper functioning of the embryo development does result in a mind, and when it doesn't that means something went wrong."
I did consider that (when I asked whether you meant "normally"), but no, that's not what I meant. The issue is whether the embryo will have a mind if it develops normally, or the embryo will transform into a thing that has a mind. A similar question could be asked for an ova. I take no stance, but in any case, I reckon if it's the sort of thing that will have a mind, then that's not in this case morally relevant.

"Perhaps you also believe there is no such thing as "proper functioning" and that's just a category we humanly ascribe to a purposeless world."
While I do believe there is proper functioning, I do not equate function (which requires in my assessment no agent whose purpose it is) with purpose (which does). So, I believe we're in a world with functions, and with our purposes and the purposes of other agents, but not some cosmic or godly purpose. At any rate, that was not my point.

"Denying true teleology is a whole new discussion, but briefly, there would not even be apparent function if there were no true function. Illusive functionality is derivative of actual functionality. Attempts to prove otherwise, such as undirected evolution, end up being so completely incoherent that to stick to such presupposition begs the question whether one is really interested in truth or more interested in rationalizing their pet belief system."
I do believe there is undirected evolution, but I do not think this results in no function (that's a common theistic claim that I disagree with). But as you said, this is a whole new discussion (and more OT than the other one, which was already kind of tangential), and is not an issue I have raised.

Eric said...

To center the discussion, can you state what makes an abortion after a brain develops wrong, and before the brain develops morally non problematic? Additionally, can you state the evidence that leads you to that conclusion?

It seems we at least have agreement that there is proper functioning of biological organisms.

Angra Mainyu said...

Eric,

We do seem to agree that there is proper functioning of biological organisms, though I suspect (if you're an Aristotelian and/or Thomist, or at least have views similar to that) that we probably don't agree on how if at all that is connected to moral obligations.
That aside, I will briefly try to address your question, but I think this is too far off-topic, and I'm not sure Alex would like the discussion about these matters to go further in this thread. I would rather discuss the violinist scenario (OV) and the scenarios in the OP. On the OV scenario, while I don't think it's a good fit for an argument in support the right to abort - or against it -, it's interesting on its own. On that note, the reason I brought up the variant VS#4 (in a reply to Mr. Green) is to highlight some features of the original scenario that might be overlooked: VS#4 is worse for the victim, but not far worse I think. The main bad-making feature of the scenario remains, and I think it's a scenario worthy of a horror-movie.

As to your question, I didn't say that abortion after a brain develops is wrong. That would depend on the degree of development, the reasons for abortion, available alternatives, etc. I reckon that abortion of brainless embryos because one doesn't want the embryo to develop into a child because one does not want a child is not wrong, and also that the killing of brainless embryos for the purposes of advancing medical research is not wrong, etc.
I make the assessment intuitively, just as I reckon that, say, eating a banana I bought if I'm hungry is not wrong. Usually, the question is why things are wrong, not why they're not, but at any rate, I can speculate as to why it's not wrong: By looking at many other scenarios, I guess it's not wrong because mindless things are not the proper subject of non-derivative moral consideration, and I don't think the consideration about the potential development of a mind from the embryo or something the embryo might turn into, weighs enough to impose an obligation in these contexts.

As for abortion, say, a day before birth because one doesn't want a child, I think that's wrong. Why? I can speculate, but as always, if I try to answer a "why", I'm generalizing from specific cases (in which I have a clear judgment, given by my sense of right and wrong), and that's always tentative. I would say that not killing it and giving birth and then give the newborn for adoption does not require a great sacrifice after about 9 months of pregnancy, and the inconvenience of one further day of pregnancy does not justify the killing of something with a mind like that of a fetus close to birth. But I could be mistaken about the complexity of the mind, or about the wrong-making features. I'm speculating.
Of course, even if the speculative assessment happens to be correct, you could ask "why?", etc., and soon enough, I would have no answer. But then again, barring infinite explanatory regress (which I think is not the case, at least for moral questions in realistic human experience, and probably all moral questions), after perhaps a few iterations the "why" question has no answer.