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In a recent response by Eddy Nahmias, he ended up talking about "the capacities

In a recent response by Eddy Nahmias, he ended up talking about "the capacities [which] are the grounds for personhood". That made me think about arguments on abortion. Some pro-life people argue that the important thing is not the capacities some being HAS, but those that it can COME TO HAVE in some specified way (e.g., a "natural" way, or a way that is grounded on that being's "essence"). And that, they say, is what makes every fetus a person, and what makes a temporarily unconscious human a person. Both have to undergo some CHANGE before they can display specifically human traits that are important for personhood. Now, I don't find this argument very persuasive, but I really do not have a good answer to it. Could you tell me what is the difference (if any) between a one week human fetus and an unconscious adult that makes the latter a person, but not the former?

These are really tough and fascinating questions, both about what capacities are and what persons are. I hope other panelists might add to what little I have to say. What I will say (briefly, and without checking to see what the relevant literature has to say) is that one way to understand capacities is this:

An object X has a capacity C to perform C-relevant functions or behaviors (C-stuff) if and only if X has a structural organization O such that, when X is in the appropriate circumstances, O allows X to do C-stuff.

For example, I have the capacity to multiply any two numbers 1-13 because some structure in my brain allows me to get the right answer when the circumstances arise (e.g., when I'm asked to multiply 8 x 9 and I am awake and paying attention, etc.).

Having a capacity to do C-stuff can be distinguished from having the potential to develop the capacity to do C-stuff. The potential might involve being in a position (both structurally and environmentally) to develop the relevant structural organization to have the capacity. I have the potential to learn Russian, but I do not yet have the capacity to speak Russian.

So, assuming that some complex organization in our brains is what gives us the capacities for self-awareness that I associated with personhood (in my earlier response you cite), we can see that most adult humans have these capacities and are hence persons, while no fetuses have these capacities and hence none are persons. Most fetuses have the potential to become persons (though about a quarter of fetuses end in miscarriages). Unconscious adults actually have the capacities for personhood because they have the structural organization in place; they just aren't in the appropriate circumstances for them to be exercised. Even while I'm asleep or under anesthesia I still possess the capacity (organization O) to do my multiplication tables. I just can't exercise those capacities. A fetus does not have the capacity to do multiplication tables, nor to does it have the capacity to reflect on mental states and consider its past and future, etc.

So, by my definition of persons, fetuses (though they are human beings) are not persons, while unconscious adults are (and dolphins and apes probably are). One can draw various ethical conclusions from this, and I won't do so here. But IF one thinks that being a person means that one deserves more moral consideration than having the potential to become a person, THEN (if one accepts my view) fetuses deserve less moral consideration than adults (and perhaps some animals).

For more on this issue, see here.

These are really tough and fascinating questions, both about what capacities are and what persons are. I hope other panelists might add to what little I have to say. What I will say (briefly, and without checking to see what the relevant literature has to say) is that one way to understand capacities is this: An object X has a capacity C to perform C-relevant functions or behaviors (C-stuff) if and only if X has a structural organization O such that, when X is in the appropriate circumstances, O allows X to do C-stuff. For example, I have the capacity to multiply any two numbers 1-13 because some structure in my brain allows me to get the right answer when the circumstances arise (e.g., when I'm asked to multiply 8 x 9 and I am awake and paying attention, etc.). Having a capacity to do C-stuff can be distinguished from having the potential to develop the capacity to do C-stuff. The potential might involve being in a position (both structurally and environmentally) to develop the...

Hello, what do you think of this argument? If a woman has an abortion, then

Hello, what do you think of this argument? If a woman has an abortion, then maybe a fetus is immorally killed. If this woman doesn't have an abortion, then a fetus is definitely not immorally killed. It is better to choose an option where a fetus is definitely not immorally killed, rather than an option where a fetus maybe is immorally killed. Therefore the woman should chose the option where the fetus is definitely not immorally killed. Therefore the woman should not have the abortion.

That's a clever argument. It looks like the form is valid. The problem is with premise 3 (it's better to choose option where fetus is definitely not immorally killed ...). Whether that premise is true seems to depend on whether there may be other reasons why the abortion may be justified that outweigh the possibility that the fetus is immorally killed, and of course, it's hard to assess the premise without more information about the likelihood that killing the fetus is actually immoral.

This structurally parallel argument should help illustrate the problem:

1. If a woman does not have an abortion, then maybe the fetus will grow up to do horribly immoral things.

2. If this woman does have an abortion, then the fetus will definitely not grow up to do horribly immoral things.

3. It is better to choose an option where the fetus is definitely not going to grow up to do horribly immoral things, rather than an option where the fetus may grow up to do horribly immoral things.

4. Therefore, the woman should choose the option where the fetus is definitely not going to grow up to do horribly immoral things (i.e., have an abortion).

Yikes, that sounds like an argument for universal abortion. So, it better be unsound! It seems that everything rests on the probabilities in premise 3 and the other moral considerations that need to be balanced against those probabilities. In your argument, we can't say much about that premise without knowing how probable it is that killing a fetus is immoral as well as the probabilities that there may be competing moral factors in play, such as the rights of the woman to make decisions about her own life.

Hope this leads to further thinking on this issue!

That's a clever argument. It looks like the form is valid. The problem is with premise 3 (it's better to choose option where fetus is definitely not immorally killed ...). Whether that premise is true seems to depend on whether there may be other reasons why the abortion may be justified that outweigh the possibility that the fetus is immorally killed, and of course, it's hard to assess the premise without more information about the likelihood that killing the fetus is actually immoral. This structurally parallel argument should help illustrate the problem: 1. If a woman does not have an abortion, then maybe the fetus will grow up to do horribly immoral things. 2. If this woman does have an abortion, then the fetus will definitely not grow up to do horribly immoral things. 3. It is better to choose an option where the fetus is definitely not going to grow up to do horribly immoral things, rather than an option where the fetus may grow up to do horribly immoral things. 4....

Let's accept that women have the right to abortion. Now consider the case of

Let's accept that women have the right to abortion. Now consider the case of several states before 1973. Persons who provided abortions could be prosecuted under the law, but women who received abortions were not. (Abortion was legal to "buy", but not to "sell".) Did such laws violate women's right to abortion, even though were legally allowed to get abortions?

Let's try some analogies. Suppose U.S. citizens have a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote for President, congressional representatives, etc. Now suppose that anyone who sets up or runs a voting booth is prosecuted for violating a law that says providing outlets for voting is illegal. It seems that this law would violate our constitutional rights. Or try it with the Second Amendment. In general, it is unconstitutional to bar selling guns as well as buying them, presumably since it would violate our right to bear arms if there were no way to get them. Accused defendents' right to legal counsel would be violated if it were illegal to practice law. And so on.

I think that the way you set up the question, by supposing women have a right to abortion, suggests the answer: it would violate that right to make laws entirely restricting doctors from providing abortions.

However, if you did not make that initial assumption about women's right to abortion, then it seems there is nothing inconsistent about outlawing the "selling" of abortions even if the "buying" were not outlawed, though it's unclear why such a double-standard would be in place.

Sometimes this is put as a challenge to those who argue that abortion is morally equivalent to first-degree murder: if you really believe that, then you should advocate punishing women who get abortions as murderers (i.e., not only punishing abortion providers). Of course, some might be willing to bite this bullet. Others might offer arguments for why abortion is wrong but not as wrong as murder. And others would say that the challenge illustrates the moral and legal difference between murdering a (fully-formed) person and aborting a fetus.

Let's try some analogies. Suppose U.S. citizens have a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote for President, congressional representatives, etc. Now suppose that anyone who sets up or runs a voting booth is prosecuted for violating a law that says providing outlets for voting is illegal. It seems that this law would violate our constitutional rights. Or try it with the Second Amendment. In general, it is unconstitutional to bar selling guns as well as buying them, presumably since it would violate our right to bear arms if there were no way to get them. Accused defendents' right to legal counsel would be violated if it were illegal to practice law. And so on. I think that the way you set up the question, by supposing women have a right to abortion, suggests the answer: it would violate that right to make laws entirely restricting doctors from providing abortions. However, if you did not make that initial assumption about women's right to abortion, then it seems there is...