a philosophy blog

none of his business

Notes on:
Michael Tooley, “Abortion and Infanticide.”

I do not share the general pessimism about the possibility of resolving the issue of abortion and infanticide because I believe it is possible to point to a very plausible moral principle dealing with the question of necessary conditions for something’s having a right to life, where the conditions in question will provide an answer to the question of the permissibility of abortion and infanticide.

[Tooley seems inclined to set down the rule that draws the line somewhere: there ought to be a way, open to analysis, that would direct us to the correct answer, free of moral strain. But few women would be compelled to approach the problem in this way. Tooley here illustrates the inadequacy of a male approach to an essentially feminine moral quandary. (If we are so far into the game—for it is that to him: necessarily, a spectator sport—that abortion is an issue at all, the specifically male opportunity for contribution toward a solution has come and gone.)]

The claim I wish to defend is this: An organism possesses a serious right to life only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.

[Here are two highly questionable assumptions: that “rights” to life exist for anyone and that, existing, they can be assigned atomistically or independent of other assignees, that is, they can be founded on a concept of a severable self. Underlying these is the presumption of sex-blind moral universals—male ones in this case. Though it is our claim that the presumption is illegitimate in almost any moral setting, it is especially glaring in the area of sexual morality where abortion squarely belongs. Thus, it is correct to think of abortion as a kind of murder, but not correct to believe murder has the same moral import when the agent is female as when male.]

“A has a right to continue to exist as a subject of experiences and other mental states” is roughly synonymous with the statement “A is a subject of experiences and other mental states, A is capable of desiring to continue to exist as a subject of experiences and other mental states, and if A does desire to continue to exist as such an entity, then others are under a prima facie obligation not to prevent him from doing so.”

And addressing the case of coma:

Situations such as these strongly suggest that even if an individual doesn’t want something, it is still possible to violate his right to it. Some modification of the earlier account of the concept of a right thus seems in order. The analysis given covers, I believe, the paradigmatic cases of violation of an individual’s rights, but there are other, secondary cases where one also wants to say that someone’s right has been violated which are not included.

…The critical point now is that, even given this extension of the con-[49]ditions under which an individual’s right to something can be violated, it is still true that one’s right to something can be violated only when one has the conceptual capability of desiring the thing in question.

To sum up, my argument has been that having a right to life presupposes that one is capable of desiring to continue existing as a subject of experiences and other mental states. This in turn presupposes both that one has the concept of such a continuing entity and that one believes that one is oneself such an entity. So an entity that lacks such a consciousness of itself as a continuing subject of mental states does not have a right to life.

It would be natural to ask at this point whether satisfaction of this requirement is not only necessary but also sufficient to ensure that a thing has a right to life. I am inclined to an affirmative answer.

After spelling out the “potentiality principle”—that any being potentially having a property central to why we ascribe a right to life to an adult human being should also have a right to life, Tooley writes:

It is therefore tempting to conclude that the conservative view of abortion is acceptable if and only if the potentiality principle is acceptable. But to say that the conservative position can be defended if the potentiality principle is acceptable is to assume that the argument is over once it is granted that the fetus has a right to life, and, as was noted above, Thomson has shown that there are serious grounds for questioning this assumption. In any case, the important point here is that the conservative position on abortion is acceptable only if the potentiality principle is sound.

But an individual’s right to life is not based on the value of his life. To say that the world would be better off if it contained fewer people is not to say that it would be right to achieve such a better world by killing some of the present inhabitants. If having a right to life were a matter of a thing’s value, then a thing’s potentialities, being connected with its expected value, would clearly be relevant to the question of what rights it had. Conversely, once one realizes that a thing’s rights are not a matter of its value, I think it becomes clear that an organism’s potentialities are irrelevant to the question of whether it has a right to life.

[Contrast Don Marquis’ utilitarian view which places the greatest value (and hence “right to life”) on the younger over the older person, because the younger has more potential for a greater quantity of a “future like ours.” The principle applies with the greatest force to a fetus. If a conservative right-to-lifer were to adopt this defense of a fetus’ life, he would be committed to the idea that the older a person got the less value their life would have. (Why this is troublesome to our intuitions is that we must be thinking that quality matters at least as much, and that relative quality is determined by the past, by the fact of having been a repository of experience and, presumably, a subsequent amassed wisdom. In some human cultures age, not youth, is revered. This still utilitarian approach, though more Millian than Benthamite, we find of limited value to settling the question of the wrongness, to the extent it is such, of abortion.)]

Then to the task of refuting the potentiality principle… Tooley asks us to check our intuitions in the case where it is possible to inject some chemical into the brain of a kitten that would result in its development of a property defining of the right to life that we ascribe to adult humans: a sense of a continuing self.

But if it is not seriously wrong to destroy an injected kitten which will naturally develop the properties that bestow a right to life, neither can it be seriously wrong to destroy a member of Homo sapiens which lacks such properties, but will naturally come to have them. [But supposing one is as wrong as the other?] The potentialities are the same in both cases. The only difference is that in the case of a human fetus the potentialities have been present from the beginning of the organism’s development, while in the case of the kitten they have been present only from the time it was injected with the special chemical. This difference in the time at which the potentialities were acquired is a morally irrelevant difference. [Assuming a natural development as opposed to an artificially induced one does not confer moral weight. Is this correct? Will we have to examine this assumption when artificially intelligent agents begin to tug at our moral sympathies?]

The point is merely that if it is seriously wrong to kill something, the reason cannot be that the thing will later acquire properties that in themselves provide something with a right to life. …

In short, anyone who wants to defend the potentiality principle must either argue against the moral symmetry principle or hold that in a world in which kittens could be transformed into “rational animals” it would be seriously wrong to kill newborn kittens. It is hard to believe there is much to be said for the latter moral claim.

[If it were possible to so transform kittens through a positive act into what human fetuses would become through a negative one, I would not see a moral difference. Whatever would be wrong to do to one would be wrong to do to the other. Tooley argues too well here and offers a defense of why it would be wrong to destroy such a kitten (even if there were no good reasons independent of this for not killing the kitten).]

Consequently one expects the conservative’s rejoinder to be directed against the symmetry principle [which denies that act and omission are morally distinct]. While I have not attempted to provide a thorough defense of that principle, I have tried to show that what seems to be the most important objection to it—the one that appeals to a distinction between positive and negative duties—is based on a superficial analysis of our moral intuitions. [James Rachels makes a similar point in discussing active and passive euthanasia.] I believe that a more thorough examination of the symmetry principle would show it to be sound. If so, we should reject the potentiality principle, and the conservative position on abortion as well.

[Tooley’s symmetry principle is reasonable enough. So, we fear, however, is the potentiality principle. The active/passive distinction is largely a pragmatic accretion and not of fundamental moral significance. The potentiality principle is founded on the realization that, as physical entities, we take up time as well as space, that to injure my finger and to injure me tomorrow (without needing to know more) can easily be of immediate and equal concern to me.]

Let us return now to my basic claim, the self-consciousness requirement: An organism possesses a serious right to life only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity. My defense of this claim has been twofold. I have offered a direct argument in support of it, and I have tried to show that traditional conservative and liberal views on abortion and infanticide, which involve a rejection of it, are unsound. I now want to mention one final reason why my claim should be accepted. Consider the example mentioned in section II—that of killing, as opposed to torturing, newborn [63] kittens. I suggested there that while in the case of adult humans most people would consider it worse to kill an individual than to torture him for an hour, we do not usually view the killing of a newborn kitten as morally outrageous, although we would regard someone who tortured a newborn kitten for an hour as heinously evil.

[This is a curious intuition. Tooley perhaps was not sensitive to considerations later brought to light by animal rights or interests philosophers (e.g., Singer and Regan), though he appears to be backing himself into their territory (see his final words below).]

I pointed out that a possible conclusion that might be drawn from this is that newborn kittens have a right not to be tortured, but do not have a serious right to life. If this is the correct conclusion, how is one to explain it?

[But it seems the latter is a doubtful concession. Tooley is busy applying rights that are even dubious in a human context to another context that makes their absurdity all the more evident. This smacks of a reductio of the whole notion of rights-ascription as foundation for a sex-blind morality. When it is wrong to kill fetuses, and it usually is, it is not so because they have any right to life. It’s wrongness does not stand in need of support by the distinctly male notion of rights. Rights-ascription, like utilitarianism, is out of its depth here. Its wrongness, to the extent it is wrong, is determined by who the agent of death would be and what her motivation would be. It is, strictly speaking, none of his business. His say in the matter of permitting or preventing this life from coming into being was exhausted some time earlier and will never be regained. (The child’s live birth is attended by new moral obligations for him, but that is another matter…)]

One merit of the self-consciousness requirement is that it provides an explanation of this situation. The reason a newborn kitten does not have a right to life is explained by the fact that it does not possess the concept of a self. But how is one to explain the kitten’s having a right not to be tortured? The answer is that a desire not to suffer pain can be ascribed to something without assuming that it has any concept of a continuing self. [We can do better than this at fooling ourselves.] For while something that lacks the concept of a self cannot desire that a self not suffer, it can desire that a given sensation not exist.

[It seems awfully species-centric to make any judgment on the concept of self that animals may or may not have. The human concept of self, the only one we have experience with, may be our standard by default, not by any semblance of objective right. Suppose there were values, independent of species, in the universe, in disinterested nature, why do we think any concept of self, as we know it, would rank higher than, say, longevity or adaptability in harsh environments? Why, in this larger scheme, would not certain trees or lichens or turtles not place higher on the scale of significance than we? We may be excused for being partial to our own and familiar but only through lack of imagination. Perhaps in nature’s scheme, the exact opposite of what we might think to find valuable may be prized: perhaps the highest animal forms are insects, mayflies, for example, whose entire adulthood lasts only five minutes. The exercise of making such short-lived creatures may have been her true pièce de résistance… The point, obviously, is that there are not likely to be any free-floating “values” unattached to a species in nature, though we may have no way to talk of nature without ascribing them. Even “natural laws” are anthropomorphic: “nature abhors a vacuum,” “nature does not multiply entities unnecessarily,”… nature this and nature that as though she could give a damn—or we could recognize it if she did. Thus we speak of “being kind to Mother Earth” as though she knew the meaning of kindness and this were not a roundabout way of looking out for the survival of our own—nature being, for her part, rather too inattentive to it to suit us. (Physical laws—the laws of classical mechanics, of thermodynamics, of the equivalence of matter and energy, etc.—all just drop the reified reference in their sophistication but carefully preserve the idea of the “force of law” that comes from…where else but the poetry of human attribution. Even if we should strip down our attributions to mere “observed regularities,” we are not indifferent to them. It would matter to us if Nature decided to ditch them all tomorrow. No doubt, if she did, we would attribute boredom or some law of tedium to her.) (Editor’s note: Cf. Ernst Mach’s critique scientific language and modeling as projection of human “delimitations of experience”. Luno asserts something akin to this in suggesting that all experience and normative judgment in aesthetics and ethics (and their cultural dependencies) is structured by the fact of the sexual bifurcation of the species: “the two and only two natural kinds of human beings”.)

But whatever may be the case with regard to different species, we needn’t strain our imaginations that much to find evidence of presumption. Forget kittens, suppose women do not have a concept a self, as Otto Weininger asserted. While never justified in mistreating women (as, indeed, Weininger also insisted), may we not abort female fetuses without qualm? After all, where there is no concept of self, there is no right to life, right? But that was not Weininger’s conclusion. We have less a right to life than a duty not to take it—but no duty whatsoever to bring it into being in the first place. For men, that is. For women, precisely because they do not have a self or, as Weininger understood it, a perduring repository of moral character—a criminal record of sorts, if you will—what it is they have a duty to do or not do is always less clear. And this is because, once again, the whole background panoply of Kantian ethics—rights, duty, autonomy, rational self, respect for abstraction, character, identity, etc.—is misapplied to their case. If these notions apply to women at all, it is only metaphorically, possibly a concession to the fact that while most moral language was wrought by and for males, and necessarily so, women naturally do not want to downplay any relationship that may implicate them. They would rather stretch a few truths than risk it. Native feminine morality is of a very different order and not expressible without serious distortion in terms designed to describe the male moral condition.

It is categorically wrong both to kill and torture the kitten for the same reason it would be to do the same to a girl. The wrongness of the latter is not diminished by this comparison—it is enhanced. If the agent of death is male, that is… All bets are off when it is a woman. (Editor’s note: see also this aside on a remark of Aristotle.)

Of course, Tooley’s conception of self here is perhaps not that of a moral repository as much as a mental one. It is the locus of awareness of self and necessarily others. But either his concept is accruing moral weight in his use of it, in which case what I’ve said above still applies, or it does not and it remains curious why a self should deserve sufficient respect to demand a fold in the inert fabric of the cosmos and be accorded “rights”.]

The state desired—the absence of a particular sensation, or of sensations of a certain sort—can be described in a purely phenomenalistic language, and hence without the concept of a continuing self. So long as the newborn kitten possesses the relevant phenomenal concepts, it can truly be said to desire that a certain sensation not exist. So we can ascribe to it a right not to be tortured even though, since it lacks the concept of a continuing self, we cannot ascribe to it a right to life.

Tooley concludes with a warning of a “troubling” implication of his view:

The troubling worry is whether adult animals belonging to species other than Homo sapiens may not also possess a serious right to life. For once one says that an organism can possess the concept of a con-[65]tinuing self, together with the belief that it is itself such an entity, without having any way of expressing that concept and that belief linguistically, one has to face up to the question of whether animals may not possess properties that bestow a serious right to life upon them. The suggestion itself is a familiar one, and one that most of us are accustomed to dismiss very casually. The line of thought advanced here suggests that this attitude may turn out to be tragically mistaken. Once one reflects upon the question of the basic moral principles involved in the ascription of a right to life to organisms, one may find himself driven to conclude that our everyday treatment of animals is morally indefensible, and that we are in fact murdering innocent persons.

[Tooley is gingerly edging toward truth here. Pushed to its extreme nearly every distinguishable other that lives has a right to life—and the more developed our self has become the more easily the other (and a consequent moral task) comes into focus. Tragically and, perhaps, paradoxically, as the enormity of this realization sinks in, the claim on life of one who seriously contemplates the consequences is diminished accordingly.

Weininger killed himself.]

Posted by luno in motherhood, animals, female criminality, abortion, Deontology, sex differences, male criminality (Friday September 1, 2006 at 1:47 pm)

No comments for none of his business»

No comments yet.

Leave a comment


(required but not published)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Creative Commons License