vendredi, juin 24, 2005

THE FIRE IN THE FERTILITY CLINIC EXAMPLE

In the discussion I mentioned earlier, someone has asked me to comment on one of his examples. I could not respond, because the discussion was closed before I could read the example again and write back. Now I give my comment hereinafter, if the author, whose name I shall omit (for I do not know if he wants to be quoted), is still interested.

The example is given in this passage, where the key assumption is that embryos are not persons:

I think one should admit that embryos are valuable. Still, the way to respond to the value of an embryo seems quite different from the way we should respond to persons given their value. (…) Further examples illustrate the radical difference between the value of persons and embryos. Suppose you were walking by a fertility clinic and saw that it was on fire. You face a choice. A worker will be burned (or killed) if you don't help. If you help the worker, you won't be able to pull the cooler filled with thousands of frozen embryos to safety. What should you do?

I've never met a single person who says we should save the embryos. Modify the example if you want. Make the woman's potential injuries non-life threatening (she'll suffer a broken limb). Still seems like you help the person. If these are your intuitions, you are deceiving yourself when you think you believe that embryos are persons or morally equivalent to them.


The question then came as follows:
Suppose we grant the assumption that embryos are human and that anything human is human in the morally relevant sense. Do you think that all humans deserve equal treatment or do you think all humans deserve equal consideration?

(…) Suppose you are right and being human in the biological sense establishes that something is a person in the morally relevant sense. What then? We are still faced with the question as to how we should treat embryos? We still need some way of determining whether embryos have interests and if so how those interests should be respected when they conflict with the interests of adult persons. If you found the example involving the fire at all convincing, you have to grant that some persons matter more than others. (…)


The author of the passages above wanted me to counter-argue the example above in a way he expects, which is by using a kind of semi-formalism. The expected answer would be something like this:
Counter-argument
C****,
The idea is that people in the hypothetical situation would save the grown individual, rather than the embryos, because deep down they do not acknowledge the personhood of the embryos. And because they do not consider embryos persons they think embryos are less valuable than adults. What if someone chooses to save the embryos in the cooler? This would, accordingly to your reasoning, mean that he denies the personhood of the grown worker. But that is absurd to assume. Another possible conclusion, according to your reasoning, is that he attaches less value to the grown worker, which is more likely to be the case. Then, there is an asymmetry in your interpretation of the outcomes: if one chooses to save the adult it is because he denies the personhood of the embryos, but if he saves the embryos it does not mean he denies the personhood of the adult.

This is the kind of counter-argument C*** probably expected from me: an appeal to some semi-formalism. I have some reasons not to deliver this kind of counter-argument. The first crucial problem with the example given above is not that it is formally ill constructed, i.e., ascribes asymmetric readings to the possible outcomes of a hypothetical situation. The first problem is the assumption that human beings act impelled by ethical considerations. This is simply not the case.

We already know by the study of society that humans behave in certain fashions and not in others. At least four sciences, Anthropology, Sociology, History and Political Science, have exhaustively discarded the idea that what moves or motivates humans to take a certain course of action is some sort of moral ideal. Humans act in concrete contexts and their actions respond to and depend on objective conditions. Moral considerations, together with prejudices, beliefs and other cultural factors may in part help them to eliminate equally undecideable alternatives, to shape the contours of the action or (most frequently) even to justify the action taken a posteriori, but are never what triggers and primarily determines the action.

When the hypothetical case is presented to someone and the question is asked, the average interlocutor will provide an answer that reflects not only his moral code with its contradictions, but also his prejudices, his contradictions and, above all, the cultural conventions that constrain or shape his opinions. But the effective action taken in such circumstance will reflect his interests and needs, as well as the risks involved.

As I said before, the whole discussion becomes nonsensical if one forgets that one is talking about humans, living beings that exist in the real world, and not purely abstract notions or imaginary characters in another possible world. It is good to try to approach the questions and to give the answers from a formal point of view, but no formal clothing or lack of it may revoke reality. It is necessary to formalise facts, and not false premises.

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