Moral Status and the 4D View of Persons

Here’s a philosophical problem I’ve been thinking about lately.  The problem is that an ethical position I like conflicts with a metaphysical position I like.  On the one hand, human infants and adults enjoy full moral status whereas animals have lower moral status.  On the other hand, David Lewis’s view about the nature of persons is true (which is, in a nutshell, Four-Dimensionalism plus a Psychological Criterion of Personal Identity).  I don’t know if I can hold both of these positions.

First the ethics.  I think that, in typical cases, it is more objectionable to kill a human infant than it is to kill an animal, but that it is not more objectionable to kill a human adult than it is to kill an infant.  That is, human adults and human infants are on a par; animals are lower.  This is probably the “common sense” view, and I would justify it in the following (non-speciesist) way.  The main reason it is wrong to kill any sort of creature (when it is wrong), is that it deprives the creature of something very valuable.  So it is wrong (at least prima facie) to kill a dog because it deprives the dog of the life he would have enjoyed as a dog.  It is wrong to kill a human infant because it deprives the infant of the life he would have enjoyed as a person.  It is wrong to kill an adult human because it deprives him of the (rest of the) life he would have enjoyed as a person.  Notice the last two – the infant case and the adult case – appeal to the same reason, whereas the reason in the dog case is different.

So even though, we can suppose, human infants are not persons in the psychological sense, infants enjoy the same status as human adults, who are persons in the psychological sense.  This is because each has this feature: each would get to live life as a person if it were allowed to live.  (The adult, of course, already is living life as a person.)

So even though, we can suppose, human infants have a psychological profile less impressive than that of a dog, infants enjoy a status greater than that of a dog due to their potential.  Dogs will never be persons in the psychological sense.  Infants will.  So infants enjoy a higher status.  Perhaps we can look at it like this: if you would become a person in the psychological sense, then you presently are a person in the normative sense.  Your future psychological status boosts your present moral status.

Now the metaphysics.  On the Lewisian view, persons a maximal aggregates of psychologically interconnected person stages.  You are that four-dimensional spacetime worm that began when your psychology got rich enough and will end when you die.  (And maybe you’re even temporally gappy: maybe you go out of existence if you go into a coma, or even each time you sleep!  But don’t worry: you come back into existence when you wake up.)

Here’s the conflict.  On the Lewisian view, it is not the case that you ever were an infant.  Therefore, it is not the case that infants will be persons.  This is because you are not psychologically interconnected enough with the infant you think you were.  When you use the word ‘I’, you refer to a 4D being who began only when there was a kid who had an impressive enough psychology.  For analogous reasons, you will never be a corpse (even though there may be a corpse there right after you die), and you will never be a severe Alzheimer’s patient (even if one day there is a severe Alzheimer’s patient carrying around your driver’s license). 

Given the Lewisian view, I can no longer say, “killing an infant is worse than killing a dog because killing an infant deprives the infant of the future it would have enjoyed as a person, whereas killing a dog does not.”  On the Lewisian view, the infant, like the dog, never will be a person.  (Now, on the Lewisian metaphysics, there are objects that are now infants that will be persons – just take the fusion of you and the infant you think you were.  But this doesn’t seem to confer the earlier infant stage with any moral status (as I need it to).  For there is also the fusion of you and the first wheel ever invented.  Certainly the first wheel doesn’t get a boost in moral status for this reason.  (This example is due to Hud Hudson.))

So I no longer have a justification for my view that killing an infant is worse than killing a dog.  What should be revised – my ethics or my metaphysics?

28 Replies to “Moral Status and the 4D View of Persons

  1. Firstly, if your ethics is right then it is FAR WORSE to kill an infant who, it might be expected, will live a long and happy life than it is to kill a healthy and happy 80-year-old, since the latter has far less potential life ahead than the former. If you want to sidestep this problem by claiming that the length of potential futures are not relevant considerations you will have to concede that given the choice between living five more minutes or fifty more years I should be indifferent right now, since both equally involve me having a future. But that is absurd. So it looks like there is something wrong with your ethics.
    Secondly, I don’t see why one cannot keep the basic Lewis story for the metaphysics of identity and just add a strong transitivity claim. Surely, whatever an infant is (whether you want to call it a “person” or not) it is the same sentient being as the infant it will be five minutes later, who in turn will be the same sentient being as the one IT will be five more minutes later, and so on. By accepting transitivity of identity of sentient creatures, the infant and the adult ARE identical. So even if the infant is not the same PERSON as the adult (because on wants to say it is not a person at all), it is the same sentient being as the adult, thus it is a being that has as its future being a creature that qualifies as a person. Just as the infant is not a lawyer but the adult it will become might be one, the infant is not a person but the adult it will become might be one. Now all one has to say is that to be a person in the normative sense is to be a sentient creature who will be a person in the psychological sense in the future.
    So I guess I would suggest that you change both your ethics and your metaphysics, although only the change in your metaphysics that I suggest is needed to resolve the tension you have identified.

  2. Thanks for the comments, David. It is true that, if my ethics is right, then killing an infant is far worse than killing an 80-year-old. (Or, at least: the contribution to the badness of killing made by the deprivation factor is far greater in the infant case than in the 80-year-old case. I have tried to leave it open that there may be other factors that bear on how objectionable it is to kill a thing. I said only that the deprivation factor is the “main reason.”)
    Anyway, this is something about my ethics that I can accept. In fact, I think it is not too hard to swallow. It is pretty natural to think that the death of a young person is more tragic than the death of an old person.
    The transitivity suggestion is an interesting one. It implies that we begin earlier than I had suggested: we begin when mere sentience begins. I suppose this may occur sometime during in utero??? If so, then although each of us was once a fetus, none of us was ever an embryo. This does not seem unreasonable.
    Two comments about David’s proposal:
    (1) I’m wondering about a problem analogous to the infant problem (which David’s suggestion may indeed solve). What about coma patients? As I understand the Lewis view, if there is a human being in a temporary coma, this human being will never become a person. Building in transitivity in the way David suggests seems not to help here, since the coma patient is, we can suppose, not at all sentient. There are no psychological properties at all, so there is no way to connect psychologically to the coma patient. But I still want to say it is wrong to kill such a coma patient for the same reasons it is wrong to kill a normal adult. That he happens now not to be sentient does not matter. He still enjoys full moral status.
    (2) A “metaphilosophical” question: Is it legitimate to revise one’s metaphysics in light of the problem it makes for one’s ethics? Or is metaphysics somehow “prior” to ethics? I tend to think it *is* legitimate (our method should be to put our beliefs into relfective equilibrium, and there are many ways to achieve equilibrium). I realize this is a big question and somewhat of a tangent.

  3. Now all one has to say is that to be a person in the normative sense is to be a sentient creature who will be a person in the psychological sense in the future.
    I think I’m more hesitant to accept this solution than Chris is. If we could give one-year-old dogs (or to make it more stark, pick some less animated sentient creature) a pill that would spontaneously transform them from dogs to adult humans at the age of 10, then this solution would mean that it would be as objectionable to kill the dog at the age of 3 as it would be to kill an adult human. But, if we’re granting Chris’s original intuition that it’s less objectionable to kill a normal dog than an adult human, I’m likely to keep that intuition even in the case of the drugged dog. Or, put differently, I’d want to say that the drugged dog still has the same (lesser) moral status as the normal dog.
    I think, more generally, that I’m not inclined to grant potential persons (in this case sentient creatures who are the same sentient creatures as later actual persons) the same moral status as actual persons.
    BTW, good to have you on board, Chris!

  4. Yeah, you raise a tough case, Josh. (It is like Tooley’s kitten case from “Abortion and Infanticide.”) I concede that even if a dog were drugged in this way, I am hesitant to say that killing it is just as bad as killing a human infant. I see that your view is that, in fact, these acts *are* equally bad, but that neither is as bad as killing a person. In other words, infants have the same moral standing as (normal, non-drugged) dogs. Potential personhood generates no boost in moral status.
    I find this hard to swallow. What do you say about the coma case then? A coma patient is not a person in the psychological sense (they’re not even sentient). Coma patients are potential persons at best. But surely it is wrong to kill a coma patient.
    (I realize all this may be familiar territory for those who know more about the abortion literature than I do.)

  5. A “metaphilosophical” question: Is it legitimate to revise one’s metaphysics in light of the problem it makes for one’s ethics? Or is metaphysics somehow “prior” to ethics? I tend to think it *is* legitimate (our method should be to put our beliefs into relfective equilibrium, and there are many ways to achieve equilibrium).
    This strikes me as an odd question. If one thinks that questions of metaphysics and ethics are both questions of objective fact, then I see no reason to consider either one “prior” to the other (unless one can construct an argument for why we are more likely to be right, in general, about questions in one of these areas rather than the other). And if one thinks that either of these areas is not one of objective fact, surely it would have to be ethics, not metaphysics. In ethics, a contractarian or reflective equilibrium approach or even one that appeals to human nature at some stage is one that builds ethics on top of metaphysics. So if I have strongly justified beliefs about metaphysics, then my ethics better fit it or so much the worse for ethics.
    It is much like this issue: For us to have real moral obligations we must in some sense have free will. So before we can determine whether or not we have moral obligations we must be able to explain how we meaningfully have free wills. It is not sufficient to say (as, it seems to me, Kant does) that since having a free will is necessary for morality and I really want to keep my moral commitments, therefore I should accept that I have free will. Metaphysics is not so accommodating as that.
    If we could give one-year-old dogs a pill that would spontaneously transform them from dogs to adult humans at the age of 10, then this solution would mean that it would be as objectionable to kill the dog at the age of 3 as it would be to kill an adult human. But, if we’re granting Chris’s original intuition that it’s less objectionable to kill a normal dog than an adult human, I’m likely to keep that intuition even in the case of the drugged dog. Or, put differently, I’d want to say that the drugged dog still has the same (lesser) moral status as the normal dog.
    I think this is a case where the science-fictionality of the example shows limitations in our intuitions’ ability to get things right. I think that your keeping your intuition that even the drugged dog is worth less than the person and only as much as the undrugged dog is entirely based in the artificiality of the example outstripping our intuitions ability to adapt to logical, but unrealistic possibilities. In other words, it is natural for us to develop a bias against animal lives that is hard to overcome even in the face of an example like this. (There may also be some factor at play here in the difference between naturally developing intelligence and artificially doing so, but I will leave that to one side.)
    It might help to try to imagine this: Suppose we gave drugs to all dogs so that it altered their genes so that not only the drugged dogs, but all future born puppies would also all develop like humans into full psychological persons. Then it would be hard to see it as anything other than speciesism to not grant dogs moral equivalence with humans.
    In short, if one really takes seriously the idea that the drugged dog (in the original version of the example, without gene-altering) will develop full human-style intelligence in the same way that a human infant would, then I can see no reason to not count it as a moral equal.

  6. David –
    I do think questions of ethics and of metaphysics are questions of objective fact. But I still entertain the possibility that it might be illegitimate to revise one in light of trouble it makes for the other. In fact, the Kantian example you gave illustrates exactly this kind illigitimacy. There does seem to be something illegitimate about insisting there is free will only because I really want to keep my moral commitments. (I don’t have a firm view on the illegitimacy question, however. If I arrive at the view that there is no free will, surely I did this via some philosophical reasoning — by considering cases and bringing intuitions to bear. Why should we allow ourselves to make use of these anti-free will intuitions if we are not going to allow ourselves to make use of our pro-moral obligation intuitions.)
    I think this is a case where the science-fictionality of the example shows limitations in our intuitions’ ability to get things right.
    It may be that our intuitions are not perfectly reliable about such cases. But I see no alternative to employing them. I said potential personhood matters morally. Josh may suspect I am being a speciesist; he may suspect that I don’t really think potential personhood matters, but that I just think being human matters (my appeals to potential personhood being a mere rationalization). How else is Josh supposed to try to establish that it is being human rather than being potentially a person that is influencing my beliefs? He must construct a case where these come apart. And the only choice is to resort to science fiction. In the actual world, everything that is potentially a person is human. Real world cases won’t do the trick.
    If one insists that our intuitions about these cases are totally worthless, then I think one must accept that we can’t really do ethics. Or at least there is a lot of it that we can’t do.

  7. Chris, thanks for defending intuitions about science fiction–I don’t know where I’d be without them! Also, I think I might have misled a bit, for you say
    I find this hard to swallow. What do you say about the coma case then? A coma patient is not a person in the psychological sense (they’re not even sentient). Coma patients are potential persons at best. But surely it is wrong to kill a coma patient. …And… In other words, infants have the same moral standing as (normal, non-drugged) dogs.
    I agree with the intution that killing the comatose and infants is worse than killing normal dogs. I just meant to also agree with you that this means we have a philosophical problem, and that I don’t think it’s solvable by giving potential persons full moral status, because I don’t think that the drugged dogs have full moral status.
    Similarly, David writes
    Suppose we gave drugs to all dogs so that it altered their genes so that not only the drugged dogs, but all future born puppies would also all develop like humans into full psychological persons. Then it would be hard to see it as anything other than speciesism to not grant dogs moral equivalence with humans.
    Well, maybe we are being speciesist. But I took the original question to be another, identity-directed way of asking “Assume speciesism is warranted; then how can we consistently not be ‘adultist’?” If that’s the question, then it’s not objectionable to suppose that we shouldn’t grant dogs the same moral status as humans.

  8. I took the original question to be another, identity-directed way of asking “Assume speciesism is warranted; then how can we consistently not be ‘adultist’?”
    Just for the record, I definitely think speciesism is NOT warranted. Species-membership is in no way morally relevant, in my view. I want explain the status of human infants by appeal to their potential personhood, not their species membership.

  9. Josh,
    Sorry, until now, I had missed the first part of your last comment. I understand your view now. Yes, we have a philosophical problem.
    One tempting way out is to appeal not to potential personhood but to “natural potential personhood.” This is suggested by David’s remark about “the difference between naturally developing intelligence and artificially doing so” (I am not at all suggesting, David, that you meant to endorse this move). This would distinguish human infants, who naturally develop into persons, from the dogs who do so only artificially.
    But I think this is hopeless. Imagine an infant who gets pneumonia. Unless she is given drugs to cure her pneumonia, she will die, and will therefore not develop into a person. She lacks natural potential personhood — if the natural course of events takes place, she will not become a person. She is a potential person only artifically.
    But surely pneumonia doesn’t reduce an infant’s moral standing.
    For my part, I am generally hostile to any ethical system in which “the natural course of events” is given any kind of prominence. Naturalness, in my mind, is totally morally irrelevant.

  10. Chris,
    It may be that our intuitions are not perfectly reliable about such cases. But I see no alternative to employing them.
    I agree that employing our intuitions is essential. In fact, in most cases where theoretical claims come into conflict with intuitions I am strongly inclined to say “so much the worse for the theory.” But it would seem that we still have two options here: (1) Stick by all of our intuitions, come what may or (2) Stick by our intuitions generally, only abandoning them when we can tell a good enough story about why they might be unreliable in this case.
    What should count as a “good enough story”? I can think of two that generally would count. Firstly, our “intuitions” when in extreme emotional distress can be more unreliable. So, for example, our seeming intuitions about appropriate punishment for murderers might become distorted in a case where a close loved one is a murder victim. Secondly, our “intuitions” can become less reliable when we are asked to consider situations that are so far removed from any experiences we think we could have that it is hard to really know what the situation would be like. Williams’ “Jim and the Indians” example does not seem to be too much of a stretch to imagine, but hypothetical drugs that make dogs as intelligent as humans might. But if one thinks of lots of sci-fi stories where bizarre alien races (sometimes in appearance just like earth animals) with equal psychologies to our own, it is easy to see why the verdict that drugged dogs should count as moral persons makes sense once we massage the intuition a bit.
    Building in transitivity in the way David suggests seems not to help here, since the coma patient is, we can suppose, not at all sentient. There are no psychological properties at all, so there is no way to connect psychologically to the coma patient. But I still want to say it is wrong to kill such a coma patient for the same reasons it is wrong to kill a normal adult. That he happens now not to be sentient does not matter. He still enjoys full moral status.
    This is a good point, and I am not sure I have a good answer here. But consider this: When a person goes into a coma and then later recovers, we are not surprised in terms of psychological identity that they are much the same as they were before. In fact, if two people go into comas at the same time and then, say, a year later both come out of them, we do not think it an open question which psychological entity will be housed in which body. In other words, even when a person is in a coma there is something about their bodily state which, if not manifesting a person is still carrying a very specific person which can realised at a later time. This is what makes a coma patient a potential person even without sentience and different from the bed on which the person lies – an object that in no meaningful sense is either sentient or potentially sentient. So perhaps by broadening who counts as a moral person from “sentient creatures with the future potential to be psychological persons” to “living creatures with the future potential to be psychological persons” then we get to count infants, (reversible) coma patients, but exclude (real world) dogs. The biggest cost here, it seems, is that when sentience was the line we could exclude zygotes as moral persons, but now we would be committed to including them. But this is not a cost that concerns me much at all. I think that Thomson-style arguments still allow for the permissibility of abortion even if we do concede moral personhood to the zygote. But that is a discussion for another day.

  11. David –
    On Intuition. I think you make nice points about the defeasibility of intuition. I’m in general agreement with you, although I suspect my disposition is to be bothered by exotic cases less than you might be. Incidentally, I definitely agree that plenty of nonhuman characters in science fiction movies and books are persons (in both the psychological and normative sense).
    On the Coma Patient Case. It seems to me that you’ve described two possible views. One involves a weakening of the relation that must obtain between stages for them to count as stages of the same person. What’s required is either the psychological states or the physical states that “carry” or somehow “store” the psychological dispositions. This view allows us to say, truly, “I was once in a coma.” But I think it probably does not allow us to say, “I was once an embryo” (since embryos probably don’t even have the physical “carriers” of the psychological dispositions).
    The second view seems to involve a sort of a hybrid between a Psychological Theory and Animalism. Is it disjunctive, as in “person x = y iff either x and y are psychologically connected or x and y are the same animal”?
    It seems to me that only the latter view can underwrite bestowing embryos with full moral status. (Not that I think it is a datum either that embryos do or do not have moral status. I think we should let theory decide this one.)

  12. Chris rejects the view that “Potential personhood generates no boost in moral status” and writes: “I find this hard to swallow. What do you say about the coma case then? A coma patient is not a person in the psychological sense (they’re not even sentient). Coma patients are potential persons at best. But surely it is wrong to kill a coma patient.” I agree that it is wrong. But notice that in addition to being a potential person (“at best,” as you say), a coma patient is something else: a former person. And the property of being a former person is something that neither the infant nor the drugged dog has. I think it can be plausibly maintained that the highest moral status is possessed by those individuals that have the following two properties: (1) they are potential future persons, and (2) they are actual past persons. So I guess the upshot for Chris is: it’s your ethical view that needs to be changed — or at least, augmented.
    This would also allow us to avoid the implication of David White’s view, that zygotes would have to be counted as having full moral status. The zygote may be a “living creature with the future potential to be a psychological person,” but it is not a past person. To me, this seems an important point, because I’m not completely convinced by Thomson’s arguments that abortions are permissible even if fetuses have the moral status of full personhood. Moreover, the implications of David’s view might go beyond fetuses: isn’t the case for saying that a sperm, or an egg, is a potential person, almost as strong as that for saying that the fetus is? One might, of course, deny that the sperm or egg is a “creature.” But that tactic risks getting us involved once more in talk about what is “natural” — the kind of talk which Chris, in my mind rightly, wants to avoid if at all possible.

  13. Thanks, Troy. Interesting suggestion. It is true that, if coma patients are past persons, then this distinguishes them from infants, fetuses, embryos, and drugged dogs.
    Some comments about Troy’s proposal:
    The Metaphysics. This strategy is available to a 4D Psychological Theorist only if she can find a way make it true that coma patients are, in fact, past persons. I believe that on the standard 4D Psychological Theory, persons go out of existence when in a coma and come back into existence when the coma is over. Therefore, coma patients are not past persons, on this view.
    David had what I thought was a very interesting way to try to make it true that coma patients were and will be persons (involving the physical “carriers” of one’s psychological dispositions). Perhaps Troy’s strategy is available only if something along these lines can be worked out.
    The Ethics. I think I would want some kind of explanation as to why past personhood matters. There are all sorts of properties we can find to distinguish coma patients from infants. Why should past personhood matter?
    (One possible answer (don’t know if I buy it): past personhood matters because only persons engage in projects they value. Killing a coma patient thwarts those projects. Infants, by contrast, have no such projects. Incidentally, the having of projects, if it is relevant, seems, to my mind, to be relevant not by boostingmoral standing, but in some different way. Perhaps it’s just prima facie wrong to thwart the projects of a person.)
    Second, Troy’s proposal does indeed require that I revise my ethics. But I think I find it very difficult to accept that killing an infant is less objectionable than killing an adult. If anything, infanticide seems worse since it deprives its victim of more. (I think this topic came up on PEA Soup some time ago, in connection with Ben Bradley’s post on the worst time to die.) But I do admit that Troy’s proposal is one consistent way out of our philosophical problem.

  14. Hi Chris,
    Welcome aboard!
    A quick question. I see the attraction of holding that
    “if you would become a person in the psychological sense, then you presently are a person in the normative sense. Your future psychological status boosts your present moral status.”
    But then I wonder if you could say something about why we should reject the following (assuming that we should):
    if you would become a non-person in the psychological sense, then you presently are not a person in the normative sense. Your future psychological status diminishes your present moral status.
    What I have in mind is the following – at some point we will all die and lose our personhood (putting aside, for the moment, the possibility of an afterlife). So what should we say about this potential non-personhood and its impact on our current moral status?
    Perhaps some sort of appeal to persons and projects would work here, but I’d be interested to see what specific proposals you (or others) might endorse.

  15. Hey Jason,
    Thanks!
    I’m not sure what I have to say to your question is terribly satisfying. What I say is this. We all agree that the principle you mention is absurd. It is absurd because it implies the absurdity that none of us is a person in the normative sense. My original principle does not imply this absurdity. So that’s why we should accept the original one over your new one. (Or tentatively accept the original one. If there are good arguments against the oringial one (maybe the drugged dog argument is a good one against it, maybe not) perhaps we should accept neither principle. My point is just the comparitive claim that the original one is more plausible than the new one.)
    But maybe this answer is unsatisfying. Maybe you want some justification for thinking that each of us is a person in the normative sense?
    Chris

  16. Thanks Chris,
    I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for. And I do agree that one straightforward difference between the two principles is that your original one strikes many as quite plausible while the second does seem absurd (or at least has absurd implications).
    But I still worry a bit. In both principles, future psychological status affects current normative status. I’d like to have a more principled explanation of why the original principle is acceptable while the second is not (granting that the original does not have the absurd implication of the second principle). That is, is there a principle that can tell us which appeals to future psychological status (in determing current normative status) are acceptable?
    Perhaps it just boils down to “those which do not have absurd implications”. And perhaps this is enough. But could there be something more to say?

  17. Chris:
    Consider (a) – (c) below (Kill Bill provides the context). All are literally false given your metaphysics, right? But presumably you don’t have a problem with giving true paraphrases.
    (a) “When my mother was pregnant with *me*, my father shot her in the head.”
    (b) “There’s poor *O-Ren Ishii*, scalped to an early death by The Bride.”
    (c) “When The Bride came out of *her* coma, she went on a roaring rampage of revenge.”
    I’m not sure of the mechanics of your paraphrases (invitation to elaborate here), but here’s the reason why I think it’s wrong to kill a reversible coma patient: killing a coma patient results in the early death of the person who went into the coma. Apparently, on your view no persons can ever become comatose, but the point is, you merely need to translate that phrase the way you would (c). So it is as bad to kill a reversible coma patient as to kill a person because each killing results in the early death of a person. This is different from the infant case because when an infant is killed no person suffers early death. (Similarly, it’s not bad to kill an irreversible coma patient because no person thereby suffers early death.)
    -Eric

  18. Good to “see” you here, Eric,

    I’m not sure of the mechanics of your paraphrases (invitation to elaborate here)

    If I were to stick with a metaphysics according to which these sentences are literally false, I would assimilate them to sentences like the following:

    I am parked in the corner lot.

    This (assuming we fill in the details of the case in an ordinary way) is literally false. I am not parked in the corner lot; my car is parked in the corner lot. This shows that many uses of ‘I’ (and other “personal” expressions) mean something like: the relevant or salient thing closely related to me. So in the case of your sentence (a), ‘I’ refers to your fetus because, given the context, your fetus is the relevant thing closely related to you. (Great sentences, BTW!)

    here’s the reason why I think it’s wrong to kill a reversible coma patient: killing a coma patient results in the early death of the person who went into the coma. Apparently, on your view no persons can ever become comatose, but the point is, you merely need to translate that phrase the way you would (c).

    Interesting suggestion. Now, I’m inclined to put the reason in terms of deprivation of a worthwhile future as a person rather than in terms of causing the early death of a person (since I think many causings of early deaths of persons [e.g., of patients for whom euthanasia would be appropriate] aren’t wrong).
    And I don’t see how your suggestion distinguishes between the infant case and the coma case (not that I want to). Why wouldn’t I just supply the paraphrase to the claim about infants as well? If we do it in terms of deprivation, the claim “killing this infant would deprive it of a worthwhile future as a person” can come out true. This is because, given the paraphrase, it comes out true that this infant will become a person. Later, an adult will be able to say, “I was once that infant you almost killed,” and what he says is true after paraphrase.
    Do you think we get a difference between the infant case and the coma case only if we use your causing the early death of a person reason rather than my deprivation of a worthwhile future as a person reason?

  19. Revise your ethics, I say. In particular, abandon the view that, other things being equal, killing a human infant is worse than killing a non-human animal.
    There are independent reasons to hold that, other things being equal, there is nothing morally wrong in failing to bring a being, human or otherwise, into existence. Hence, given your Lewisian metaphysics, the wrongness of killing a human infant consists entirely in depriving the infant of the short number of years it would otherwise have lived before going out of existence and being replaced by a fully fledged person. (I assume here, of course, that the killing has no impact on the wellbeing of others.) To be sure, the killing would in addition prevent the fully fledged person from coming into existence; but that is morally insignificant.
    I should stress, however, that I take the above proposal to be quite consistent with your claim that “in typical cases, it is more objectionable to kill a human infant than it is to kill an animal” (emphasis added). In typical cases other things are not equal. Typically, the death of a human infant will have greater negative impact on the wellbeing of others than will the death of a non-human animal.

  20. Hi Campbell,
    Thanks for your view on this. That’s a nice point about how the Lewis metaphysics seems to assimilate killing an infant to failing to bring a being into existence.
    Let me make two comments. First, I’m starting to have doubts about whether this metaphysical picture really implies this. Given 4Dism (and Unrestricted Composition and the Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts), there seem to be not one but two eligible candidates for being the referent of a typical use of ‘this infant’ — one a shorter spacetime worm and the other a longer one. When we mean to be referring to an infant, it could be that we are referring to a 4D being that extends only a year or two, a being that goes out of existence when it is no longer an infant. Or it could be that we are referring to a much longer being, the human organism that has as a temporal part the shorter being. The difference is important. The shorter being lacks and the longer being has the following feature: our killing it on its first birthday would have deprived it of a future as a person. For if ‘this infant’ refers to the longer being, the human organism, then it’s true that this infant will become a person.
    So it seems to me that the morality of infanticide may hinge in part upon whether we are referring to the full human organism or to the short infant stage when we talk about infants.
    That was the first comment. The second is this. What if sometimes we refer to the shorter being and other times to the longer being? So the expression ‘this infant’ is ambiguous, and the context of utterance would determine what it refers to. (I believe that Lewis himself believes in this kind of ambiguity.) Then it could be that some moral claims are context sensitive in what seems to me to be an unacceptable way.
    Let me illustrate. Suppose a baby is born and is named ‘Bobby’. A few months later Bobby is killed. Someone says, “How sad: Bobby had his whole long life ahead of him; his killing deprived him of that.” Suppose that, given the facts of the case, whether the killing of Bobby was wrong depends upon whether Bobby really was deprived of a long life as a person.
    If that’s right, and it’s also right that there is the ambiguity just mentioned, then some utterances of ‘killing Bobby was wrong’ will be true and others false. And its truth or falsity will depend upon whether the name ‘Bobby’ refers to a human organism (of which it is true that it would have become a person if it were not killed) or to the infant-stage of a human organism (of which it is not true that it would have become a person).
    Can moral statements really be context-sensitive in this way? I hope not.

  21. Chris,
    I’m inclined to say that it’s not wrong to prevent something from becoming a person (or, in your terms, to deprive something of a future as a person). Let “PizzaBoy” be the name of the fusion of the pizza I ate for lunch today and my first-born son. As it happens, I have no children. Suppose that I never have any. Then I’ve prevented PizzaBoy from becoming a person. But it doesn’t seem that I’ve done anything wrong. (I think you made a similar point in your original post.)

  22. Hi again Chris:
    3 more comments:
    1 – You may be interested in Earl Conee’s paper, “Metaphysics and the Morality of Abortion,” (Mind 1999). He presents 4 alleged cases where a particular metaphysics has implications about the morality of abortion, and argues that in no case does the metphysics actually do the work. “The real work in the arguments is done by nonmetaphysical facts that can mesh with any tenable metaphysics. These are empirical facts about fetal psychology or potential.” If he’s right I think this would also dissolve your metaphysical worry.
    2 – But even if Conee is right, I agree that you should change your ethics. Your ethical principle seems to have absurd results in any case. You say, “It is wrong to kill a human infant because it deprives the infant of the life he would have enjoyed as a person.” This sounds like Don Marquis’s “future like ours” argument against abortion. A major problem with this view is that it makes contraception (and even abstinence) morally equivalent to killing an adult.
    3 – A difference between you and Marquis is that you say killing an *infant* deprives the *infant* of the future life it would’ve enjoyed, whereas Marquis has a more general principle: killing is wrong when it deprives the *victim* of the future life it would’ve enjoyed. The victim may not be an infant, or even a person, it may be merely a fetus (and of course Marquis’ problem is that for all he says it may also be a gamete or a conceptus).
    Is this difference significant? I thought you meant it to be. That’s why I made the comment about the difference between killing an infant and killing a reversible coma patient. Killing an infant does not, on your view, deprive a person of a future. But killing a reversible coma patient does deprive a person of a future – the person who went into the coma. I meant to emphasize the difference between the depriving a *person* of a future as a person reason and the depriving an *infant* of a future as a person reason.
    I’m not sure if this does make a difference, but I had in mind the reason that many give to think that though it harms a plant to kill it, that harm doesn’t matter too much: because the plant isn’t sentient to begin with. Harming nonsentient objects isn’t as bad (other things equal) for them as harming sentient beings is for them because they can’t experience pleasures/pains anyway. Killing sentient nonpersons isn’t as bad for them as harming persons is for persons because the persons lose a lot more: their projects are cut off, etc.

  23. Hi Eric,
    Thanks for the Conee reference. I’ll check it out.
    I agree that the line I am taking about why it is wrong to kill an infant is similar to Marquis’s. But I disagree that it implies that failing to conceive is morally equivalent to killing an adult. If I fail to conceive at some time, there is no entity such that my act deprives it of the life it would have enjoyed as a person. I don’t deprive the ovum of anything because (it seems to me) it’s not true that, had the ovum been fertilized, the ovum would have become a person. It is true that, had the ovum been fertilized, there eventually would have been a person on the scene. But this can be true without it being true, of the eventual person, that it was once an ovum.
    If I were a straightforward consequentialist, this distinction would not be morally relevant. But the principle I’ve been appealing isn’t a straightforward consequentialist one; it is more a “person-affecting” (or, better, “subject-affecting”) consequentialist principle. I appeal not to the way killing makes the world worse than it would have been but rather to the way killing makes the life of the victim worse than it would have been. (And, again, my claim is that failing to conceive does not make the life of the ovum worse than it would have been — that life is going to be short-lived and non-sentient no matter what I do.)
    I now get your point about the coma patient case. Right — even though the thing in the coma might not be a person, killing it may still deprive a person of its future as a person. That’s a subtle point and a good one.

  24. Campbell,
    My head is spinning thinking about your case. Let me run through it to see if I get it.
    In the actual world, you never in fact have a boy. So ‘PizzaBoy’ names just a pizza. Our question is, Does your decision not to have a boy deprive PizzaBoy of becoming a person? This is a difficult question. It depends on whether a certain counterfactual is true. Consider this counterfactual:

    CF1: If you had decided to have a boy, the pizza you ate for lunch today would have become a person.

    CF1 is clearly false. Your decision to have a boy changes nothing about the pizza you ate for lunch today. In the nearest world in which you have a boy, the expression ‘the pizza you ate for lunch’ still refers just to a pizza.
    Now consider:

    CF2: If you had decided to have a boy, PizzaBoy would have become a person.

    Is CF2 true? Is the idea this: that in the nearest world in which you have a boy, the expression ‘PizzaBoy’ refers to the fusion of the pizza you ate for lunch and your boy? And this even though, in the actual world, where the term was coined, it refers just to a pizza? And so CF2 comes out true?
    If the answer is Yes then we have the following oddity. The answer to the question Does your decision not to have a boy deprive PizzaBoy of becoming a person? is Yes. But the answer to the question Does your decision not to have a boy deprive the pizza you ate for lunch today of becoming a person? is No. And this despite the fact that PizzaBoy just is the pizza you ate for lunch.
    If all this is correct, then we’ve got a case of contingent identity (which I don’t mind so much, but some might).
    Anyway, am I getting it?

  25. Chris,
    I intended the example to be analogous to your case in which “Bobby” refers to a human organism. Suppose that in the actual world Bobby is killed as an infant, and that at the nearest possible world where he’s not killed he lives to be 60. In this latter world the human organism that is Bobby has two (temporal) parts: one is an infant and the other a person. But In the actual it has only the former part. The case of PizzaBoy is supposed to be analogous. At the nearest possible world where I have a son, PizzaBoy has two parts: one is a pizza and the other a boy. But in the actual world PizzaBoy has only the former part.
    Now consider the following counterfactuals:
    (CF1*) If the killing had not occurred, the infant would have become a person.
    (CF2*) If the killing had not occurred, Bobby would have become a person.
    Would you say that the first is false and the second true? And if so, would this be another puzzling case of contingent identity?
    Hope that helps.

  26. Hi Campbell,
    Ok, yes, I get it now — thanks. Yeah, so the Bobby case is another case of contingent identity (for some reason it was more vivid to me in the PizzaBoy case). Anyway, as I said earlier, I don’t mind that. In fact, I think it’s gotta be the correct view.
    So you’ve convinced me that the view that ‘infant’ refers to the whole organism (rather than a mere stage thereof) won’t save my ethics. (It may be that only 3Dism + Restricted Composition will do that.)

  27. Hey, Chris. This may interest you. Daniel Nolan, in his recent book David Lewis, attributes to Lewis the following view.

    Everyday objects continue to exist through time, and continue to exist through many changes. I was once a tiny infant but am one no longer, the earth was once a seething hot sphere but now has a surface covered with oceans, solid ground and even ice. (p. 42, emphasis mine)

  28. Hey Campbell,
    Thanks for that. I wonder how seriously to take that (like is that just an example that came to Nolan’s mind, or did Lewis actually somewhere commit himself to the idea that we were all once infants?). In any event, I suppose what’s important isn’t whatever conclusion Lewis himself came to about this but instead what’s the most plausible view given the 4D/Psychological View of persons.
    Anyway, thanks.

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