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Friday, August 11, 2017


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I think it is morally right in some cases. It especially seems right when you have reason to believe that your debating partner has morally dubious intentions. Those should be pointed out to the person and corrected.

Now, with respect to Harman's position, I think your objection may miss its target! You say, "She is maintaining in effect that the moral status of a biological individual depends on how long it lasts." I don't think that's what she is saying--that it depends on how long it lasts. She is maintaining that the moral status depends on conscious experience--in the case of a fetus, the status depends on future facts about it.

My primary objection is that this makes the fetus's moral status dependent on facts extrinsic to it (future facts), and that doesn't seem right to me. Moral status would come from something intrinsic to the being in question, I think.

I stole that car, because that car had a future of being stolen. Therefore I have no guilt in stealing the car, as it was morally right to do so. However, had that car no future of her being a stolen car, it would have been wrong for me to steal the car.


Actually, we agree about Harman. What I wrote yesterday was too comporessed. I added a few sentences.

>>My primary objection is that this makes the fetus's moral status dependent on facts extrinsic to it (future facts), and that doesn't seem right to me. Moral status would come from something intrinsic to the being in question, I think.<<

That's right and I agree.

Philosophy at Princeton must be in a highly degenerate state these days. How did this woman get hired? Yes, I know she is the daughter of Gilbert . . .

“Some will say that this argument is so bad that it is 'beneath refutation.' When a philosopher uses this phrase what he means is that an argument so tagged is so obviously defective as not to be worth refuting. There is also the concomitant suggestion that one who refutes that which is 'beneath refutation' is a foolish fellow, and perhaps even a (slightly) morally dubious character when the subject matter is moral inasmuch as he undermines the healthy conviction that certain ideas are so morally abhorrent that they shouldn't be discussed publicly at all lest the naive and uncritical be led astray.”

It seems to me that this may be a reasonable position to take in a non-philosophical situation and in healthy culture that is serious about maintaining its health. But ours is not a healthy culture, nor is it one that is trying to maintain health.

Ours is a culture in which people in positions of intellectual prestige, people considered moral experts, can get away with disseminating ideas that in wiser times would be regarded as morally insane. What’s worse, these ideas are celebrated as 'intelligent,' ‘progressive,’ and ‘tolerant.’ In such circumstances, it is plausible to argue that the ones who see clearly are permitted to haul bad ideas before the bench of reason, to shine the light of reason on them so that their meaning become clear.

>>Ours is a culture in which people in positions of intellectual prestige, people considered moral experts, can get away with disseminating ideas that in wiser times would be regarded as morally insane.<<

Yes indeed. Just recently certain ethics experts have justified, or rather tried to justify, infanticide on the grounds that (a) there are no morally relevant differences between late-term abortion and infanticide, and (b) late-term abortion is morally justified; ergo, etc.

>>the ones who see clearly<<

Here is the rub. Who are these people? I have said many times that if you oppose capital punishment in principle then you are morally obtuse. I could have just as well said morally blind. You cannot see what justice demands. You have defective moral insight. etc. What if my interlocutor sincerely does not see it?

Argument doesn't do any ultimate good since not all premises can be argued for in noncircular fashion. Of course argument does some good. I may be able to show, e.g., that a person's moral position is log. inconsistent.

There seems to be several problems with the argument. First, in the video with Michaelson and Franco, Harman says “among early fetuses there are two very different kinds of beings.” Based on her next comments, she seems to assume not only that moral status is determined by external (future) factors, but that the nature or being of the fetus is determined by external (future) factors -- including factors that involve human subjectivity, such as the desires and choices of adults. That is a highly questionable assumption. It needs to be defended rather than merely assumed.


I strongly agree that some moral truths can be seen as a matter of moral insight.

On your point about trying justify infanticide, as I was listening to Harman's argument, it occurred to me that her reasoning could be used to try to justify infanticide, depending on what is meant by "person." (I am not saying that Harman supports infanticide, nor that she is arguing for it. I'm not trying to construct a straw man. I am only saying that, w/o further clarification, it seems her reasoning might be used to that end.)

She isn’t clear about what she means by personhood, but she associates it with the having of experiences. What experiences? She needs to clarify.

I hope she doesn’t mean experiences that are not available to a newborn. For in that case, a newborn wouldn’t have moral status either. If the moral status of beings who lack the right "experiences" is dependent upon future external factors, including the desires and decisions of adult humans, then what about the moral status of a newborn? Is it dependent on such desires and decisions? What about a one-year old?

It seems Harman needs to define "person" and "experience" in a way that rules out an attempt to justify infanticide.

Yes, it looks like we are agreed, Bill.

"Philosophy at Princeton must be in a highly degenerate state these days. How did this woman get hired? Yes, I know she is the daughter of Gilbert . . ."

I only hope that I am half as fortunate. My expectations are low, but there is hope.

But to quote my sparring partner London Ed, in a moment when the muse had him in her grip: "In philosophy there is a ‘quodlibet’ principle that you are absolutely free to discuss anything you like." That's right. The Quodlibet Principle is one of the defining rules of the philosophical 'game.' There is nothing, nothing at all, that may not be hauled before the bench of reason, there to be rudely interrogated. (And that, paradoxically, includes the Quodlibet Principle!)


And so your point is . . .

>>Is it ever morally right and reasonable to question or impugn motives or character in a debate?

I say, it is never philosophical to question or impugn motives or character in a debate.

Ok I am avoiding your question again. But I don't really know the answer.

Fair enough. Actually, I agree that it is not philosophical to question motive or character. My agreement is 'fallout' from the way I define philosophy.

But then the question becomes: In real debates about life-and-death issues (abortion, capital punishment, immigration, etc.) can one afford to be solely philosophical?

Your culture is under existential threat from Islam. These folks have a doctrine, taqqiya, that justifies their lying to 'infidels.' Is it not pollyannish and absurd to suppose that you are going to have serious philosophical discussions with them?

I think the objection to Harman in the OP doesn't succeed because it begs the question. That's not to say I find Harman's view plausible; in fact, I find her view very implausible.

On the main question:

- Questioning your interlocutor's motives might of course be epistemically justified. Most people have non-truth-seeking motives that sometimes influence their beliefs. The only epistemic error that most of us make when we question each other's motives is assuming that our *own* motives are much better.

- Questioning your interlocutor's motives, out loud, *could* be morally justified. But it is rarely a good idea. It is more likely to lead to strings of angry recriminations than to an impartial, rational discussion ending in happy convergence on the truth.

Also: there is a big difference between (a) discussing in general how people tend to be biased, or how our intuitions on some subject could be biased, and (b) accusing the specific person you are talking to of having some motive, or doing some thing, that would make them a bad person.

(b) is almost always bad. Not because the person you're talking to is almost never actually a bad person, but simply because saying so almost never produces a desirable outcome. We should adopt rules of discourse suited to the purpose of discussion. "Don't insult the other person" comes out as a good rule.

Actually, Harman address your above objection in this 1999 paper on page 320:

"Third objection: "According to the Actual Future Principle, you just can't lose! If you abort, then it turns out that the fetus you aborted was that kind of thing it's okay to abort. If you don't abort, then it turns out that the fetus was the kind of thing it's not okay to abort."

However, she goes pretty far in just admitting that she cherry-picks whatever principle that would allow her to argue for the conclusion that abortion is permissible without any justification. That seems dishonest, to say the least.


Please pardon the long post. But since the argument contains some questionable assumptions, I wondered if Harman had attempted to support them elsewhere. I found her “Creation Ethics: The Moral Status of Early Fetuses and the Ethics of Abortion.” It seems fair to discuss the article. It’s available here: http://www.princeton.edu/~eharman/#procreation

She defines an early fetus as “a fetus before it has any intrinsic properties that themselves confer moral status on the fetus.” She assumes “The Actual Future Principle” that “An early fetus that will become a person has some moral status. An early fetus that will die while it is still an early fetus has no moral status…an early fetus’ actual future determines whether it has moral status.” She also assumes: “If early abortion requires any moral justification whatsoever, then this is so because the early fetus that dies in the abortion has some moral status.”

So, the gist of her argument seems to be that since an early fetus has no moral status based on the possession of intrinsic properties, it possesses moral status only if it “will become a person.” But the aborted early fetus will not become a person. Thus, the aborted early fetus has no moral status. Thus, the abortion of an early fetus is morally permissible.

The “Early Fetus” (EF) assumption and the “The Actual Future Principle” (AFP) are questionable. She addresses three objections to AFP. Consider the first: “Facts about a fetus’ actual future cannot determine its moral status, because something’s moral status is determined by its ‘nature.’” She apparently recognizes the relevance of the nature of the fetus to her argument. She continues: “a thing’s present nature is solely determined by the intrinsic properties it ever has,” which suggests that the present nature of the aborted EF has no moral worth because, although it has a nature, it will never have the intrinsic properties sufficient to confer moral status.

Harman doesn’t address the difference between lower-order and higher-order capacities. This is a weak point in her paper, I think. Arguably, although the EF doesn’t have the higher-order capacities of human personhood, the EF by nature has lower-order capacities that when developed in the natural course will enable the realization of the higher-order capacities. Perhaps Harman affirms the difference between lower-order and higher-order capacities but doesn’t believe the lower-order capacities confer moral status to the EF. Or maybe she rejects the Aristotelian metaphysic of substance, properties, and capacities that underpins the distinction between lower-order and higher-order capacities. These points need to be fleshed out and discussed. Perhaps she does so elsewhere.

Another problem with the AFP: Harman is not clear about her view of time. She sometimes uses language that suggests a view that the future is now actual. The EF now has moral status conferred by the existing future fact of the EF as a person. But she also uses the language of “becoming a person,” which indicates that the future is not yet real; the becoming is not yet. Clarification is needed here. In any case, it seems more reasonable to base the moral status of the EF in a human nature that includes lower and higher-order capacities and a process of natural development over time. The human nature of the EF includes the higher-order capacities, even if they are not yet actualized.

The argument rests on other doubtful assumptions. First, despite her recognition of the nature of the EF, Harman seems to assume that personhood and its corresponding moral status is a matter of function rather than being. She seems to hold that an entity is a person with moral status if and only if it has specific functional capacities. She doesn’t say much about what those capacities are, other than calling them “experiences” and “moments of consciousness.” In the video, she clearly thought that she, Michaelson, and Franco had these experiences. Does she think infants have them? The elderly? Someone with amnesia or Alzheimer’s? How about a 35 year-old who is under anesthesia? Does she view personhood as a degreed property, such that the healthy human adult is a full person but the very young, the very old, and the mentally disabled are less so and thus have a lower moral status? These are controversial points that should be fleshed out and evaluated.

Second, she seems to assume that a temporal part of a whole is not an actual part of that whole unless the whole is complete. Some of her comments in the article and the video suggest she believes that the early stages of development for the human fetus are stages in the development of a person only if the fetus reaches personhood. If the fetus does not reach personhood, then the early stages were not stages in the development of a person after all. They were something else. It seems to me that this is a complicated mereological point that is open for discussion.

There are other points to address, I’m sure. But these are some of the big ones that stand out to me.


You could be right about cherry-picking, since Harman doesn’t substantively address good arguments against abortion; e.g., the argument that the fetus is a potential person and that potential persons have moral status. Maybe she does elsewhere. Regarding the moral intuition that the life of the fetus is intrinsically valuable, she wrote in a footnote: "I take the following attitude toward this view: I don't think we should make a claim like "life has intrinsic value" unless we are forced to, unless we have good positive reasons to make such a claim or we find such a claim necessary to explain everything we want to explain."

The article also seems to contain an ad hoc set-up. She wrote that by merely stating the AFP, she “takes herself to have prima facie established” its tenability. And she defines “early fetus” in such a way that it has no intrinsic moral status. After the set-up, she argues in what appears to be the following manner:

If the early fetus is aborted, then it dies. If it dies, then it is prevented from realizing a future that would give it moral status (this is her AFP). If it is prevented from this future, then aborting it is morally justified. Thus, if the early fetus is aborted, then aborting it is justified.

Given the set-up, her argument boil downs to the following: early abortion is justified because it occurs.

The argument seems contrived to the point that I wonder if I’m misreading it. But after reading the article, this seems to be her position.

Bill, concerning your bolded question, you answer that upon refuting a bad argument, one is justified in questioning the motives of its producer.

Suppose that while making the argument, the producer asserts comments and uses language that reasonably suggest motives. For example, someone produces a bad argument against free will. He calls the argument "progressive", “relieving”, and “empowering” because it enables him to do things he wants to do without worrying about moral responsibility.

In such a case, it seems fair to wonder about motives even if such wondering is a matter of psychology and not philosophy. (Interestingly, to wonder about motives may be to do psychology, but to ask if it is justifiable to wonder is to do philosophy!)

Mr Kleiven,

Thank you very much for the link. I'll write another post addressing (some of) what she says there.


Thank you for your response. I follow David Oderberg in not being overly impressed by the "personhood" line of thinking of the moral status of a human being. As Oderberg attempts to show, introducing "person" as a moral category on top of simply "human being", seems both arbitrary and superfluous. So what gives right to life should be grounded in one's essence, namely that of being an individual of the human species. Of course, human beings are persons as well, but that seems to explain nothing of one's moral status.


Looking forward to it!

So what matters is not whether a fetus is a potential person, but an actual human being.


Thanks for your response. The argument that the fetus is a human being and thus has moral status is an important one.

My reference to the “potential person” argument was not an effort to support it, but to cite it as a position that the article didn’t clearly address.

I’d disagree, though, that being a person does nothing to explain moral status – if that is what you meant.

It seems to me that this argument also would imply that while a successful abortion is morally permissible, a botched abortion would be morally wrong. If you try to have an abortion but the baby survives, and is not later aborted, then according to this argument that baby has moral status, since it has a future, so it was morally wrong of you to attack something with moral status. That it is morally wrong to attempt an abortion, but not morally wrong to successfully have one seems to me an absurd conclusion. The argument might even imply that if you fail to kill the child in an abortion, you are morally obligated to do it again, because if you do not kill it before it is no longer an "early fetus", then your previous attempt was morally wrong, but if you do succeed in killing it, then it was morally acceptable.

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