Developmentalists
September 1, 2009 — 15:33

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Uncategorized  Comments: 23

The marginal cases argument (MCA) is designed to undermine our confidence that the possession of a particular property R is necessary for direct moral standing. The argument asks us to answer this question:
(1) Are you more certain that having property R is necessary for direct moral
standing or that human being H (where H is a non-R) has direct moral
standing?
The property involved is typically rationality or language-use or self-consciousness or awareness of the future, etc. For any such property R that we select as necessary for direct moral standing, there is some non-human, sentient being that possesses R to a greater degree than some human does. We are embarrassed into admitting that favoring humans over non-humans on the basis of R displays our bias for human beings. But MCA does not go far enough in eliminating bias.


Suppose you had to decide whether R is necessary for direct moral standing under the following conditions:
(2) You do not know where on the developmental scale you stand with respect to any
property R proposed as necessary to direct moral standing.
For all you know, you are an early term fetus–that is, for all you know, this is the current stage in your development. But you might be at the stage of a newborn or a normal adult human being or an aged adult. You simply have no idea. Now take any property R–any property that you might not possess at all or might possess to some greater degree. Here’s the question we want to ask:
(3) Are you certain enough that R is necessary to direct moral standing that you are
prepared to bet your entire adult life on it?
For my part, there is no property R that I’m so sure is necessary for direct moral standing that I’d be willing to bet my entire adult life on it. But that’s true for everyone. So when we insist that we know that some property R is necessary for direct moral standing, we are really expressing a bias arising from our knowledge that we are normal adults already. It’s not a bias for humans over other species, it is a bias for humans at a certain stage of development over those at lesser stages. You’re not a specieist, but you are a developmentalist.

Comments:
  • Mike, what about a property (say rationality or sentience) which an adult human being can loose, either permanently or temporarily. It’s unclear that when a person states he “knows” this is property necessary for moral standing he is reflecting a bias for humans at a certain stage of development over those at earlier stages.
    Such a person seems to be not basing their opinion on the claim that they already are a normal human being, but seems to be beating their adult life on the fact that they will continue to be one.

    September 1, 2009 — 21:07
  • Mike Almeida

    Matt,
    My conjecture is that no one would be willing to bet his adult life on the philosophical position that, for any x, if x lacks sentience, then x has no direct moral standing. I think that’s right. I wouldn’t make that bet, since I’m just not that certain of any philosophical position about what matters morally (and neither is anyone else). The reason I can invoke this test for moral conviction is that our moral beliefs do cost adult lives, and so we ought to be that certain before we invoke them in making such decisions. What brings home the need for certainty about these convictions is when you make your own life part of the wager. Anyway, that’s the idea.

    September 2, 2009 — 7:02
  • That’s a really cool argument. I think I’ll end up citing it in a piece I am going to be finishing up.

    September 2, 2009 — 8:51
  • Mike Almeida

    Alex,
    There is a more detailed version of this argument in ‘Marginal cases and the moral status of embryos’. Stem Cell Research, J. M. Humber (Ed.). Humana Press: Totowa (2004). If I can find a copy, I’ll forward it.

    September 2, 2009 — 10:21
  • Gordon Knight

    I wonder if I understand this correctly. Suppose “R” in this case is being human. And suppose we rephrase the question as not whether you are in a particular stage of development, but whether you are a human being or not.
    Does not a similiar question arise. I for one am not certain at all that any example of mere species membership matters morally (in fact, I can’t think of any reason why it should matter, it self, whether I am a human or dolphin or spider or martian)

    September 2, 2009 — 12:47
  • Mike Almeida

    I’m not sure I follow you, Gordan. I agree that species membership is not a property that is necessary for direct moral standing. That is, I’m not prepared to say that you may permissibly take my life if I am not human. The idea in the argument is that, for any property R such that, for all I know, I do not instantiate R, I am not so certain that having R is necessary to having moral standing that I would agree that if I in fact fail to instantiate R, you may permissibly take my life. Given my epistemic assumptions, I could discover that I’m no more than 2 weeks old. That is, I could discover that I lack rationality, self-awareness, etc. If I were certain that these were necessary to direct moral standing, I would be rationally committed to conceding that you may permissibly terminate my life. That is, I’d be willing to concede my entire adult life. But not only would I not be willing to concede my entire adult life, I am not even willing to gamble with my entire adult life on the outside chance that I am no more than 2 weeks old and lack R.

    September 2, 2009 — 14:37
  • Gordon Knight

    Maybe I understand a little better. On your view, there is no property that is necessary for your existence (except maybe being human?) , not even the capacity for consciousness.
    But if it is epistemically possible that I am a two week fetus, then isn’t it also epistemically possible that I am a dog or an amoeba? What is the principled difference between these two sorts of possibilities?

    September 2, 2009 — 19:38
  • Mike Almeida

    I think I’d rather focus on possibilities that I know are genuine. My metaphysical intuitions are less good when it comes to whether I might have been a dog. Plantinga seems to think I might have been (an aligator), but I’m less sure. More to the point, I guess, I’m not entirely sure why it matters to my argument.

    September 2, 2009 — 20:10
  • Gordon Knight

    Mike,
    I am sorry I am being unclear, and maybe I don’t understand your argument.
    Do you assume that it is possible for you to be at any developmental state? It seems that if I don’t know what level of development I am at, I need to believe (or at least not have good reasons not to believe) that I COULD be at that level.
    But this seems to be a controversial claim. When one says “I could be a two week fetus” one is assuming there is an “I” there. But I am not sure there is such an I.
    Maybe you want to say that at least it is possible that there is an “I” in the fertlized egg–we don’t have good grounds for denying it. But it seems we do. If my (earthly) existence requires a functioning brain, for instance, then prior to brain functioning, there is no “I”. So its just not possible for me to be at any level of the developmental scale. (For like reasons I can not be a brain dead patient).
    If there is no “I” then the situation of the early embryo is analogous to the situation of a merely possible person prior to conception.
    Its not a property, but the thing that is supposed to have the property that I am concerned about.
    So maybe I reject the assumption that all levels of development are really possible places for me to exist at. There are some parts of the biological development of the human organism that do not map onto the development of you or me.
    But suppose you are right that you could be a two week old embryo. What follows?
    I *thought* you meant to argue from the possiblity of you being a two week old embryo to the embryo having moral standing akin to what you have right now.
    But you don’t really argue that. Instead you ask:
    Are you certain enough that R is necessary to direct moral standing that you are prepared to bet your entire adult life on it?
    If I existed and did not have R, then I am not certain at all. But if R is a characteristic that is necessary for my existence then it seems the situation is different.
    The animal stuff was a (very) oblique way of asking about this whole “I could possibly be x” thing. I actually have no problem thinking I could be a dog, but I have tremendous difficulty even understanding what I would be if I were never conscious.

    September 3, 2009 — 11:23
  • Mike Almeida

    Maybe you want to say that at least it is possible that there is an “I” in the fertlized egg–we don’t have good grounds for denying it. But it seems we do. If my (earthly) existence requires a functioning brain, for instance, then prior to brain functioning, there is no “I”. So its just not possible for me to be at any level of the developmental scale. (For like reasons I can not be a brain dead patient).
    Every position on personal identity is controversial, no doubt. The only account I find reasonable is four-dimensionalist. I’m assuming that there is a stage/part of me at tn that is a two-week old fetus.
    I *thought* you meant to argue from the possiblity of you being a two week old embryo to the embryo having moral standing akin to what you have right now.
    I want to argue from the possiblity of you being a two week old embryo to you NOT KNOWING that embryos do not having direct moral standing. And indeed that is what I do argue.
    The animal stuff was a (very) oblique way of asking about this whole “I could possibly be x” thing. I actually have no problem thinking I could be a dog, but I have tremendous difficulty even understanding what I would be if I were never conscious.
    On the contrary, just as it has been argued that you cannot exclude sentient non-humans from the group having direct moral standing on the basis of any of the standard important moral properties, I argue that you cannot exclude one week old humans from that group on the basis of any such properties. The difference is that my argument is based on a version of the marginal cases argument that guarantees greater impartiality than traditional versions do.

    September 3, 2009 — 12:02
  • Gordon:
    To press the question that Mike asked about criteria of moral standing, would you stake your life on the claim that the existence of a brain is necessary for your earthly existence?
    Suppose an omniscient and perfectly honest, though maybe not virtuous in other ways, being tells you: “I know whether your earthly existence needs a brain. Do you want to bet on it? If you win, you get $2,000. If you lose, you die.” (Focuses one’s mind, doesn’t it?)
    The arguments that a brain is necessary for earthly existence just don’t seem that strong. The arguments that a brain is necessary for earthly consciousness are moderately strong, but we know that consciousness is not necessary for our existence.

    September 4, 2009 — 11:17
  • Gordon Knight

    Alex,
    Do you think consciousness is not necessary for your existence? I know that one can say one ‘exists” while asleep or under anaethesia. As a near Berkeleyan, I doubt that I really “exist” unconscious, but, I agree, I would not bet my life on that. But when it comes to the question of whether I could exist without ever being conscious, I may very well bet my life on that case. I know I am fallible, but absent consciousness I don’t have a clear idea of what “I” would be.
    Of course I could be wrong. I also could be wrong that there are other people. but it really is a rather abstract possiblility, even less possible that solipsism, which I at least understand, though I don’t believe its true.

    September 4, 2009 — 14:37
  • Gordon Knight

    pardon the double. but it is of course true that I could exist without a brain (I think I do, sometimes, exist witout one!) but if we accept anything about the way empirical reality presents itself, brain and self are correlated. So as a practical manner its a useful guide, its the only guide we have. If we don’t rely on behavioral/biological clues, we have no idea what we should treat as having morals standing. Is a worm equivalent to a human baby? I think not. but absent biological and behavioral criteria my belief is totally ungrounded.

    September 4, 2009 — 14:43
  • Justin

    Mike,
    There are propositions about which I am very certain – and that I take myself to know – but I wouldn’t accept certain bets regarding the truth of those propositions. When the stakes get large enough, even the smallest possibility of error may lead me to reasonably refuse some bet.
    So, what is this argument supposed to show? Not, I take it, that the following proposition is false:
    (R) R is necessary for direct moral standing.
    My betting behavior doesn’t give you any evidence regarding the truth or falsity of (R).
    It does show, I guess, that my credence in (R) is something less than 1. But, I would be a bit surprised if anyone party to these disputes about propositions like (R) have credence 1 in any of the relevant propositions.

    September 5, 2009 — 7:44
  • Mike Almeida

    Justin,
    The arguments we find for the permissibility of abortion are that fetuses lack some property R, and since they lack R is it permissible to terminate them. So, we are in a moral situation in which the stakes are life or death. If you lack R, we can terminate you. What the argument shows is that, if for all you know your life were on the line, you’d rethink the relevance of R. You would not be so sure that lacking R makes it permissible to terminate someone’s life if, for all you knew, you were the one whose life was about the be terminated on the basis of lacking R. So, what are you ore certain of? Are you so sure that R is relevant that you’re prepared to take the chance that you are in fact lacking R and may be terminated? Or, are you not sure enough that R is relevant that you are willing to take the chance that you lack R and may be terminated?

    September 5, 2009 — 9:24
  • Gordon:
    I worry that you are equivocating on “self”. In one sense, your self is just you, the entity that you are, whatever that may be. In that sense, “your self” just is “yourself”. In another sense, your self is something like the self-conscious-you. Now in one sense, it is trivial that being your self requires conscious, but in the other, it is not at all obvious.
    Suppose you grant me the possibility of existing without being conscious. So, over interval I1 of times you consciously exist. Then over interval I2 you unconsciously exist. Then over interval I3 you consciously exist again. But of course it is surely possible for you to cease to exist right after t1.
    So, it’s possible to have the following sequence: First, over one interval I1 of times, you consciously exist. Then, over I2, you unconsciously exist. Then, over I3, you don’t exist at all.
    But I see no reason to suppose that this sequence couldn’t happen in reverse order. First, you don’t exist at all. Then you exist unconsciously. Then you exist consciously.
    Here is an argument for this. Take the original case where over I1 you consciously exist, then over I2 you unconsciously exist, and then over I3 you consciously exist. Let t2 be the midpoint of I2. Imagine that a perfect duplicate of you is made at t2, which then is treated and behaves just like you (maybe by chance). So, for the rest of I2, this duplicate unconsciously exists, then over I3 it consciously exists. And surely it’s the same duplicate who unconsciously exists over I2 as consciously exists over I3, since the connection between the two is the same as your connection between I2 and I3.
    So, it’s possible to first exist unconsciously and then to exist consciously.
    Suppose Fred is such a being, who first exists unconsciously and then exists consciously, and as a person. Since whether one exists doesn’t depend on future events, Fred would still have existed even had he died mid-way through the unconscious existence period. But in that case, Fred would have existed without having ever been conscious.
    And what reason do you have to think that what could happen to Fred couldn’t happen to you?
    Here’s another, much weaker argument. Plausibly, there was a time when you became conscious–it seems extremely natural to say that! But to become conscious implies having earlier been unconscious.

    September 5, 2009 — 10:57
  • Justin

    Mike,
    Thanks. That helped.

    September 5, 2009 — 11:46
  • Gordon Knight

    Alex,
    Thanks for that interesting reply
    In order to see what is going on in the duplicate case, we need to ask first what it is that makes it the case that I can exist unconsciously (assuming this is possible). Arguably, one necessary condition for this is that there is a specific kind of causal relationship between t1 and t2. Of course you are not claiming the duplicate is me. But you are saying that the duplicate shares a nature with me. So it has to be of the same general type, it has to be an “I” (awkward but I am trying to avoid the baggage attached to the word “person”)
    You write:
    “And surely it’s the same duplicate who unconsciously exists over I2 as consciously exists over I3, since the connection between the two is the same as your connection between I2 and I3.”
    But the connection between I2 and I3 is not all that matters here. There is also the connection between I2 and I1. The duplicate does not have this connection.
    Doesn’t it follow on your view that if I were to suffer an accident in which the brain in my body is entirely scrambled, I still exist? Is this living organism still me? and if so, why am I not also a corpse? Dying is not instantaneous–but presumably whether I exist or not is not a matter of degrees.

    September 5, 2009 — 12:29
  • Luke Gelinas

    Hi Mike,
    What do you mean by ‘direct moral standing’? I guess I think the bar’s pretty low for bare moral considerability. I probably have reason not to destroy any living thing, and some non-living things too no doubt, other things equal. Last-man thought experiments are pretty persuausive.
    To me it seems much more difficult to sort out a value ranking system–to find principled grounds for saying that the normal adult human demands more consideration than the normal adult chimp. I don’t see right away how to rework the argument to get at this. Do you think it can?

    September 6, 2009 — 21:04
  • Mike Almeida

    That does make it difficult. I do know that there are interesting Rawlsian arguments for animal rights that I find persuasive. To avoid metaphysical worries, these argument typically assume that sentient non-humans have a representative in the original position.
    That said, I think it is going to be difficult to get rankings of value this way. It is difficult enough to get beings into the category of direct moral standing. Things that have direct moral standing are such that they themselves have rights against others not to be destroyed. So, I contrast direct moral standing with the kind of moral standing a painting might have. The destruction of a painting might violate the rights of it’s owner, but not the rights of the painting.

    September 7, 2009 — 13:00
  • Luke Gelinas

    Are the rights direct moral standing confers inviolable?
    I’m not much for rights-talk when discussing the moral status of the non-human world, since I think that, well, giant sequoias and jellyfish probably aren’t the right kind of things to have rights. But nonetheless it would be bad in itself to destroy one for little or no reason.
    We could stretch rights-talk to cover trees and jellyfish, so long as these rights are overridable. Then the difficulty is to specify the correct conflict rules, rather than a value scale. These projects seem equally challenging to me.
    Supposing fetuses do have direct moral standing; are there situations in which their rights can be overriden? I don’t feel able to assess the bet without having a better sense of what’s involved in direct standing.

    September 7, 2009 — 15:45
  • Mike Almeida

    Supposing fetuses do have direct moral standing; are there situations in which their rights can be overriden? I don’t feel able to assess the bet without having a better sense of what’s involved in direct standing.
    Luke, what I have offered is a constraint on any answer to these sorts of questions. I haven’t offered, and do not know, the answer to them. I’ve said, whatever answer you give, you need to be sure enough of your answer that, if you happen to be in the situation described, it is permissible to take your life. This is why I want information about developmental stages excluded from the basis on which anyone can answer questions about biengs at various stages. If you don’t know what stage you are, you’re going to be pretty careful about what you claim to know about the permissiblity of taking a life at stage x or y. You’re going to be pretty careful about what you claim to know about the defeasibility conditions as well.

    September 7, 2009 — 15:58
  • Luke Gelinas

    Thanks, that helps.

    September 7, 2009 — 16:23