Thursday, August 17, 2006

Before and After the Person

Now that I am finished with my posts about Peter Singer I feel ready to explain my position on some of the issues which came up in this debate. While I have explained my basic position on abortion in some detail, the issue of pregnant women causing birth defects divided pro-choicers. And even on the side which thought that it was wrong (including me), the further issue of harm caused after a victim's death is controversial. I will examine both questions here.

Birth Defects

The salient points about causing birth defects are these: Whether due to the intake of drugs or other acts, the actions occur and the harm is received well before birth. However, the effects are still felt some time after birth. The question is whether the acts can be said to be wrong, assuming that the harm principle holds, (as I do, although I interpret the principle widely).

Again I will have to distinguish myself from many pro-choicers who focus solely on the difference between persons and non-persons. This line is generally drawn after birth, and I would agree that that makes sense. However, as I have explained before, I think far more important is the nature and extent of the interests of any being, person or not. Late-term foetuses have interests which it is generally wrong to violate. However, the specific circumstances of a pregnancy and the effects on a woman's autonomy and dignity can justify the minimum necessary harm to the foetus while ending the pregnancy (as humane as possible abortion before viability, or induced birth afterwards).

However, when it comes to actions which will have a negative effect on this foetus, the situation is different. A woman's autonomy and dignity is sufficiently protected by allowing abortion. There is no similar argument preserving her moral right to take drugs which harm that foetus. Her autonomy is not affected in anything like the same way, this requirement being a prohibition and not a requirement. Indeed, in choosing to continue the pregnancy we can see her as having taken on even some, reasonable, positive obligations to the foetus, such as to stay reasonably healthy.

Moreover, I would say that this applies equally to actions done to early term foetuses with no interests at all, where the harm is actually felt later once interests have developed. I think even those who disagree that foetuses should have any rights should be in accord on this one. There is no question that taking thalidomide harms the person the foetus will become, in comparison to how their life would have been otherwise. It robs them of opportunities and abilities. However, the actual effects, when the damage is done, precede the development of any interests. Is taking thalidomide wrong?

The question can be taken out of the context of tricky interest / personhood issues. Can actions taken before the existence of a being with interests which later hurt that being be wrong? Ignoring abortion entirely, is it wrong to set a trap which will harm someone not yet conceived? I would say that it most certainly is. If someone does an action likely to harm someone, that is prima facie wrong regardless of when the victim is conceived or born. What matters in when the harm or effects are felt, not when the physical action took place. Just as the trap setter is wrong, so is someone who damages a pre-interest foetus such as to cause harm to the person it will be.

This may look odd considering that I see absolutely no moral problem with killing pre-interest foetuses. However, crucially there will never be any being with interests capable of receiving any harm. This is dramatically different from the situation in question. In my opinion, the conclusion that causing harm to beings not yet existing is wrong should be clear to both pro-choice and pro-life alike.

Harm After Death

Richard proposes that the fulfilment or otherwise of our desires at any time impacts our welfare. He argues that if someone's wishes are violated after they die, their welfare has been damaged. This is predicated on the view (which he expresses in the comments of the linked post) that "all moments exist equally, just like all places do." Thus, once there is a person there is a person, regardless of the time at which we are talking. That person exists even if not born yet. Thus the person's interests can be harmed at any time. It is this which leads him to agree with me on the birth defects question - the person is harmed regardless of temporal issues.

I however would say that timing is important - the time that the harm is received, rather than when the harmful act takes place. With the example of setting a trap as previously put, we do not harm the victim when we put down the trap - if we were to have a change of heart and remove it no harm would be done. The harm occurs when the trap strikes. (Nevertheless, the wrong is done when the trap is set with the requisite mental state. We can only redeem ourselves by removing it, not prevent the wrong from ever happening. Removing it would make it one of the class of wrongs without harm, as it was intended to make harm likely or did in fact make harm likely. This is why I interpret the harm principle widely.) With the burning of a dead man's precious library, there is no person to receive the harm (we are discounting upset relatives and heirs, for simplicity's sake).

The reason for my assertion is not that harms must be felt to be harms at all. I do not believe this. If we steal from someone and they never notice, they have been harmed. If we cause someone brain damage so that they can never realise that their mental abilities have been reduced, we have still harmed them. This is because one important type of harm is deprivation. I've explained before that this is the wrong of painless killing - depriving us of numerous abilities, faculties, interests and memories. Actual mental distress is not always necessary. Loss of something like options is enough, (even, I would argue, if they are options which would never be chosen). Harms which are unrealised may be less serious than those which are, but they are harms nevertheless. This is the only way to make sense of a large number of our intuitions. Imagine we lock someone in a room while they sleep, but they choose to remain there when they wake up without realising they can leave. Are they not harmed by the imprisonment at all, if they are removed again before they realise? Imagine that later they found out that they had been trapped. Would they feel that their interests had been violated, or merely that they had been at risk of violation? I say it must be the former.

So realisation and even ability to realise what has transpired is not necessary for harm. Nevertheless, I say that dead people cannot have interests which can be violated. They have no options to be taken away from them, no ability to experience which can be abused to cause suffering. Everything which marks a person as a moral object has disappeared. Nothing more can be done to violate their interests, as their interests have disappeared. They can receive no more harm. My great ancestor may have wished for a possession to stay in the family, but I need not take his concerns into account before I sell it.

I think the difference of opinion between me and Richard is not about all moments existing equally or not. It is that he thinks that it is generally good for our preferences to be upheld. I think that it is generally good for our preferences to be upheld because that allows us to make choices about our lives and increase our own happiness, options and abilities. Preference fulfilment is facilitative of all kind of other goods. Once someone is dead, however, it is facilitative of nothing as far as that person goes. I think that this accords with common sense and an interests-based view of ethics.


Blath said...

Hi Pete
I like this article very much - good work :)

But I'm not quite sure I understand this point:
"This may look odd considering that I see absolutely no moral problem with killing pre-interest foetuses. However, crucially there will never be any being with interests capable of receiving any harm."
I think the key is that I don't know what you mean by "pre-interest": is this a foetus which would not develop to have interests without intervention?

Apologies if you've already clarified this in a post.

Pejar said...


A pre-interest foetus is one which has not developed to the point of having interests. If it is killed there will never be a being with interests to have them violated.

The big difference between this and the situation in question is that there while the foetus affected has no interests to damage at the point thalidomide is used, once they do develop they *will* be harmed due to this action.

Blath said...

OK thanks. I'm still confused, though: I can clearly see that thalidomide will cause harm to the baby that develops from the foetus, but I can't see why killing the foetus prevents this harm (if this is what you're saying).

Personally, I know I have trouble pinning down exactly what makes killing wrong, but I know that you state that killing someone is morally wrong as it deprives them of various things, which I thought did them harm.

Surely anything that could develop interests is as entitled to them as anything that already has them?

Pejar said...

When I talk about deprivation, I mean taking away something which is already there. It is wrong to kill someone because it robs them of their consciousness, faculties, memories etc. If abortion takes place at an early stage none of these exist to be extinguished.

Compare this to using thalidomide. The faculties then arise and are impaired because of the thalidomide. This is harm caused to a being with faculties.

In no way is something which merely could develop interests entitled to do so. Otherwise the sperm and egg separately would have this entitlement which would actually create a moral obligation to have as much sex as possible...