It is difficult to know exactly how to continue on from my Preamble. I guess the first thing to do might be to state the question. One way would be to ask the question in the way it has often been asked, ‘when does life begin?’ This is not a very helpful way to ask the question, since life began somewhere billions of years ago, in the primordial ooze, and ever since then the lives of individuals have been tangled together in complicated ways. What we are really arguing about is, when does a particular life become individuated enough from other life that it is worthy of moral consideration. But I don’t think that is really the question either: the question is, how much moral consideration should we pay to an individual life during the process of individuation, relative to the amount of consideration we pay to a fully individuated life? I think that is what this debate is about.
I will not attempt to justify the assertion that individuated lives are worthy of moral consideration; this is a fairly constant feature of the morality given to us by the great sages and prophets of the past.
A logical place to set ‘individuation’ would seem to be ‘when the new individual is capable of independent existence’.
This is the position argued by the philsopher A.C.Grayling in a recent essay in the New Scientist on reproductive technologies. In it he asserts that people like me are ‘moral sentimentalists’, who are more interested in the quantity of life than its quality. In my case he is correct, though in a different sense than he intends: I am not interested in life as a ‘quality’, but in life as a ‘quantity’. Saying that life is a quality that is either there or not, and that at one stage in the life cycle an entity does not have this quality, and is therefore not worthy of any moral consideration, while at another stage it does have this quality, and therefore is- that does not make sense within a scientific worldview. It only makes sense in the context of a philsophy where the value of life is associated with a ‘soul’ which is explicitly united with the body at some particular time, before which the body is only a ‘tissue of water’, as the Talmudic scholars say. It is valid for St. Thomas Aquinas to talk about life as a quality, within his set of assumptions; it is valid for Talmudic scholars to talk about life as a quality; but for a secular philosopher like A.C.Grayling, life ought to be a quantity. How much of this thing called ‘life’ is present at each particular point of the life cycle? How much moral consideration should we give an entity with this particular quantity of life? I recognise that these two things are different questions, but I will collapse them into one question. I will assert that there is a quantity, Q, which is a measure of the moral consideration we should grant an entity on the basis of the Noachian commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, and consider the different ways in which Q might vary as a function of age. The Q(t) curve accepted by St. Thomas Aquinas and accepted (in theory) by our legal system is something like this:
Boolean/Thomistic/UK Common Law/Pre-persons Q(t) Curve
A logical place to set ‘individuation’ would seem to be ‘when the new individual is capable of independent existence’. From this assumption, it would make sense to extend it moral consideration to the extent that it is capable of independent existence.
This principle has never been followed strictly by any society that I know of, but something like it has been the practice of many societies with a high infant mortality. I think A. C. Grayling has made the implicit assumption- quite a common one- that ‘independent existence’ means ‘being able to breathe’, but this is very far from being independent existence; we would not call being able to breathe ‘independent existence’ at the other end of the life cycle; we would not call being able to eat food that is put in your mouth ‘independent existence’. Acquiring the capacity for independent existence is a continuum, and there is no rational reason for picking ‘being able to breathe’ as where it should be defined. Fully independent existence could possibly begin at an age of about four, if our system of education was radically different from what it is now. Before then- and long afterwards- we are all capable only of dependent existence.
A rational Q(t) curve based on the ‘capable of independent existence’ criterion would look something like this:
Independent Existence Q(t) Curve
Many people may never become capable of independent existence, or anything remotely like it, and yet would certainly be able to say, ‘don’t kill me’. Being able to say ‘don’t kill me’ would seem to be a more effective touchstone of whether an entity has a high Q value than whether the entity is capable of independent existence. When we were younger, we could not enunciate this sentiment; but we could express it in inarticulate noises and in actions. A rational Q(t) curve based on the ‘capable of asserting a preference for existing’ criterion would look something like this, mapping very closely onto the second Q(t) curve:
‘Don’t kill me, please!’ Q(t) curve
While I think it is more likely to be shifted toward a younger age, as shown, I will not cavil, and for practical purposes the two curves could be considered to be the same. This is a perfectly logical curve for the valuation of human life- it could be accepted without rancour in many societies. This is the stable solution to which you will inexorably be led, I believe, if you follow either the “capable of independent’ existence or “asks not to be killed” paradigms. Both of these are both continua; they are both slippery things. Collapsing them to a Boolean curve of the type shown in the first figure whether the discontinuity is at the age of three months to be consistent with Aquinas, or twelve years as in Philip K. Dick’s “The Pre-Persons”, is an arbitrary exercise. No selection that we make on a ‘practical’ basis to make the curves more consistent with our instinctive moral sentimentality will be a stable solution.
Now, the fact that I find these curves morally unacceptable- and more importantly, the fact that the great sages and prophets found these curves unacceptable- is the primary reason that I have for rejecting them. But is there anything logically wrong with the assumptions behind them?
This is what I think the logical error is:
Things that exist in space-time cannot be assessed on their properties at one particular instant alone; their probable future properties must also be taken into account.
This is something that we do all the time. The medical powers-that-be frown on smoking because of the probable future properties of lungs that may be perfectly healthy now. We do not look any more favourably on the slugs that destroy the cucumber plants just because there are no cucumbers on the vines yet. The full force of the law falls upon the smuggler who brings in ingredients for making amphetamines, chemicals which may have no physiological effect. The insurance company will charge us higher premiums for living on a flood plain even if there has not been a flood in our lifetimes.
‘Probable’ is a quantitative, not a qualitative concept; it is something that can have a number attached to it. If there is a high probability that- if we do nothing- an entity existing at this point in time will acquire the capacity for ‘independent existence’ or the ability to say ‘don’t kill me’ at a future time, we cannot treat it in the same way as an entity that does not have that potential; we must treat it with a consideration proportional to that probability. Let us pick any end point we like- rudimentary ‘independence’ at seven months gestation; full independence after the fashion of Mowgli at five or six years; ability to speak; ability to do higher algebra- in all cases, the relative Q(t) curves will be identical, and will look like this:
Probabilistic Q(t) Curve
This curve has one very sharp, very prominent discontinuity, and only one: over a few hours or days at conception, the probability of a particular person X reaching any endpoint we select, if simply left alone from that point onward, increases by a factor of about nine orders of magnitude.