Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Moral Status of an Embryo

I have received another communication from somebody with questions about the implications of my moral philosophy. This one has two questions.

The second of these two questions draws from the claims that I have been using for the last two days – that for an entity to have interests that are morally relevant, it must have desires. An entity without desires cannot be harmed in any morally relevant way.

So, I have been asked:

Also, using desire utilitarianism, is it correct that an embryo would lack moral standing since it lacks the facility for conscious desire?

I wish to be pedantic for a moment and make this question a bit more precise before answering it.

There is a distinction between having “the facility for conscious desire” and having desires.

A person can have a “facility” for something without having the thing itself. I can, for example, have a facility for storing two hundred tons of cotton, without actually having two hundred tons of cotton. Having the “facility” for desires is not relevant here. Value consists of a relationship between states of affairs and actual desires. If the facility is empty, then no value (and no interests) yet exists.

Also, the claim that value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires does not distinguish between conscious and unconscious desires. Unconscious desires generate value just as conscious desires do. So, there is no moral permission to ignore unconscious desires – to go ahead and thwart them at will because they have no moral weight.

Please note that a sleeping (or unconscious) individual still has desires. He may not be able to act on them, but the desires exist nonetheless. There is no call for saying that the desires disappear – or they lose their moral relevance – in virtue of the fact that the person with the desires has lost consciousness.

So, I would rephrase the question to ask:

Also, using desire utilitarianism, is it correct that an embryo would lack moral standing since it lacks desires?

That is correct.

No morally relevant harm can be done to an entity that does not have any interests. Removing an embryo is much the same as removing an appendix. However, once the fetus has desires (even so much as an aversion to pain), it has morally relevant interests.


Anonymous said...

But can't we assume that a fetus has the unconscious desire to live?

Emu Sam said...

I postulate that prior to the development of the nervous system, we can assume that no desires exist.