On the Eve of Personhood

On the Eve of Personhood — Eve Tushnet comments on some points of mine (and Julian), thusly:

I think Julian is ignoring the difference between valuing individuals in a rational species, and valuing currently-existing rational mentalities. Will Wilkinson does this too, actually, when he accuses anti-cloners of assigning metaphysical status to a tangle of DNA. (Later, here, Wilkinson conflates not-gonna-be-rational-again individuals with pre-rational individuals. OTOH, he posted more complete notes than Julian did, so he wins in that regard.) The important thing about DNA is not that it happens to be a clump of human DNA–so is a toenail, or a foot, or a cancer, or a corpse. The important thing about the human DNA in, specifically, an embryo, is that it marks the presence of a living human individual. It is that individual whom I value. Individual rational beings go through more and less rational stages; our rationality develops; thus there is a period before we are rational. If I came across aliens who had rational and pre-rational stages, I would value these individual alien lives as I value individual, developing human lives.

First, I didn’t conflate “not-gonna-be-rational-again individuals with pre-rational individuals.” Regarding the brain-damage case, I was merely offering a counterexample to the position that being an organism with human DNA is sufficient for full moral standing. Nor did I say anything whatsoever about rationality. It may be the case that some live, yet non-sentient, members of our species have full moral standing, even if terminally brain-damaged folks don’t. But if so, then it has to be some feature other than having human DNA that accounts for that standing.

Now, notice that “not-gonna-be-x-again” and “pre-x” are fancy ways of saying “not x”. Perhaps there are some ways of not having full moral standing that are more important than other ways of not having full moral standing. Eve seems to suggest that”not” in the “not yet” sense is more morally special than “not” in the “not ever again” sense. Eve’s talking about rationality, so let’s talk about rationality. So, it’s true that rationality develops. Well, OK… Getting bored…. So…. It just might be time for an Outrageous Thought Experiment!

Suppose a mad scientist develops an implant that, when installed in a chimp brain, makes the chimp fully rational. (Cyborg chimps! YES!) The implants are mass produced, so that there is one per living chimp. Now, since all chimps that have a plug-in have become rational, all those without a plug-in are pre-rational — they are potentially rational. Would we therefore be morally obliged to not kill pre-rational chimps? (Or, if you’re sentimental about chimps, try wolves, or whatever).

It might be objected that little humans will become rational as a matter of course. We don’t have to do anything, like implanting a chip, to make that happen. But that’s untrue!

If we were to put an infant in a room deprived of sensory stimulation for a year, it would develop very little cognitively. We have to do plenty for our little humans. We have to allow them an extended stay in the womb, we have to feed them, we have to talk to them, we have to expose them to novel stimuli, we have to carry them around because they can’t just follow us around or just hang on like a proper primate, etc. Of course, we do all that for our little humans as a matter of course, because we wouldn’t exist ourselves if the disposition to do that sort of thing wasn’t pretty well wired in. But can the relevant moral difference really be that we don’t install implants in chimp brains as a matter of course, and so that’s why pre-rational chimps don’t have full moral standing? Suppose that certain human babies have a funny disorder: the won’t develop rationality unless they are shown reruns of The Gong Show everyday for their first year. Now, we don’t show the Gong Show as a matter of course, but if that would help our babies develop Reason, wouldn’t we think that we’d be obligated to do it?

So, either pre-rational chimps have full moral standing, or little humans don’t. (I said it was outrageous.)

Alright, sorry… but I do mean the thought experiment with about 65% seriousness.

Let me lay out some relevant opinions about more foundational matters in a slapdash but hopefully comprehensible fashion. I differ from Julian in that I don’t think anything is intrinsically valuable. NOTHING! Not being a member of our grand species. Not being sentient, sapient, rational, or what have you. NOTHING! All value is relative… [GASP!] And that doesn’t mean bashing baby heads against bricks “might be wrong for you, but might be right for me.” That means that values are indexed to valuers.

Value is a n-adic relation, not a monadic property. So, if there’s some object, process, event or whatever (let’s get creative and call it ‘X’) and it turns out to be valuable, then that’s because there’s some person, call her “P”, for whom it is valuable. So, for every X, if it’s valuable, there is some P that stands in the value relation to X. But wait!There’s more… argument places! If X is valuable to P, then P has some purpose for which X is constitutive or instrumental. So, I want to have a happy life. I’ve got a purpose. Suppose friendship is partially constitutive of a happy life. Well, then friendship is valuable for me. Suppose friendship requires the existence of some friends. Then the existence of some friends will be valuable to me. Friends are other people. So the existence of some other people will be valuable to me. Suppose one of my friends also want to have a happy life. Then I’m valuable to my friend, too.

Look! We’ve got people valuing each others’ existence, and no funny intrinsic values! Qua friend, my friend is not valuable because he’s rational, or a member of the human species. Those are surely necessary conditions, as is being carbon based, I suppose, but those things aren’t what make my friend valuable qua friend. It’s a bunch of other stuff I wouldn’t know anything about, because I don’t have friends. Rationality’s generally like that. It’s good for other stuff we want. Lots of our ends have to do with other folks, and other folks figure into our ends quite prominently because of their Very Special Human Cognitive Abilities. But the thing that matters for each of us is how all that figures into our ends. The human world is shot through with value not because some things instantiate the hard gemlike flame of intrinsic value, but because we have purposes, and we figure in to each others’ purposes in profoundly complicated ways. I’ve rather more to say… how tiny tiny humans do and don’t fit into the network of human purposes… But I’m becoming loopy with sleepiness… I value sleep. Do cyborg chimps dream of electric genital displays?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center