is a variant of an argument by Don Marquis.
It starts by trying to figure out one of the things that is wrong with
killing an adult human being.
- Seven years ago, I was a graduate student, and I started this ten years earlier.
Twenty years ago, I was a teenager.
Twenty-five years ago I was a kid. Thirty-three years ago I was a
baby. About a year before that I was a fetus, and before that I was an
a bit of ethics. It would be wrong to kill me now. Why?
Surely because of the harm to me. The harm to me doesn’t consist in
the pain, though, because it’d also be wrong to kill me painlessly when I
am asleep. Surely the harm consists in what I am being deprived
of—namely, my future. Assuming an average lifespan, I have some
forty to fifty years ahead of me. You would be depriving me of these
years if you killed me now. And I am fairly innocent: I haven’t done
anything to legally deserve such a terrible thing to have happen to me.
(Opponents of capital punishment think that even if I wasn’t innocent,
killing me would be wrong.) Suppose instead you killed me a year ago.
Then you would have deprived me of more: you would have deprived me
of my last year of life, in addition to the
40-50 years of the future that you would deprive me of by killing me now.
What if you killed me seventeen years ago? I would then have lost even more
years of my life—I would never have had the fun of being a philosophy grad
student, in addition to not having the pleasure of teaching philosophy,
and in addition to the 40-50 years of the future. If you killed me
when I was twelve, you would have deprived me of even
more: you would have additionally deprived me of my teenage years. If
you killed me when I was a four-year-old, you would have deprived me of even
more—most of my childhood, my teenage years, my college years, my graduate
school years, my philosophy teaching, and my next 40-50 years. If you
killed me when I was a newborn, you would have deprived me of all that and
of being a toddler. And if you killed me when I was a fetus, you would
have deprived me of my next 40-50 years, and teaching philosophy, and
of my childhood, and of my babyhood.
other words, the earlier you kill me, the more harm you do to me: the more
you deprive me of. Moreover, the victim is the same. That fetus
in my past—that was me. Killing that fetus would have been
killing me, albeit at a very early point in my life. Nor did I deserve
it more then. I wasn’t a murderer back then either. So, the
earlier I am killed, the more I am deprived of. The victim is the
same, the harm to the victim is greater. Since what makes killing me
now wrong is the harm caused to me by such a killing, it would be if
anything more wrong to have killed me earlier, since the harm would have
been greater—I would have lost more by it.
in summary, is the argument of my paper. Observe that it doesn’t
matter for this argument that I was a person when I was a fetus. All
that matters is that it was me there.
crucial part of the argument is the claim that that fetus is me.
One might dispute this.
For instance, one might think
that I am my soul and argue that the fetus does not have a soul.
But there is really no
scientific evidence either way on whether the fetus has a soul, since souls
aren’t observable. One can argue that in the absence of evidence, one
should opt for the safer route of not killing.
Or one might argue that I am my
If so, then I only came into
existence 4-5 weeks after conception, in which case at least most
abortions would be wrong, since most abortions are done after that.
Or one might argue that there
are two different things here: me and my body. My body is an animal.
I am a person. I am not my body. The fetus became this
animal. I did not come into existence until a fair bit of time after
conception—maybe a fair bit of time after birth.
This has the implausible
consequence that I am not a mammal or a biological human—only my body is.
A relevant question is whether I am an animal.
second crucial part of the argument is the claim that one of the things that
are sufficient to make murder wrong is the harm to the victim, and that this
harm consists in the deprivation of future life.
After all, it is wrong to kidnap someone and to imprison her for no
reason, since that would deprive her of many things she could do.
But killing deprives one of even more things.
For instance, one might think
that what makes killing me wrong is that I want
would suggest that killing me wouldn’t be wrong if I were suicidal or just did
not want to live. But that is
better alternate is that what makes killing me wrong is that it interrupts
my life. My life has a certain
value based on the my past experiences and actions, and this
is cut off by killing me.
objection to this alternative is to consider the case of a newborn baby.
Such a baby has some past
experiences and actions—she has seen the world for a couple of hours or days,
she has sucked her thumb before birth, etc.
But these past experiences and
actions do not significantly more valuable than those of a pretty
unsophisticated animal, say a chicken. If
it is the value of the past
experiences and actions that renders killing innocent people wrong, then killing
a newborn would not be wrong on that count: it would be more like killing a
chicken. But this is surely false.
In fact, we don’t need to limit ourselves to newborns.
It’s probably only at around one year of age, or quite a bit later,
that the actions and experiences start to outstrip those of smart animals.
objection. Suppose that Fred, an
adult man, is now unconscious following an accident.
Brain scans determine that he has had total and irrecoverable amnesia.
The brain scan, however, also reveals that he is about to wake up, and
that he will be able to lead a fairly normal life, once he learns the things he
has forgotten. In the case of Fred,
the chain of experiences and actions has already been interrupted.
If interruption is what makes it wrong, then what is wrong with killing
final objection: Consider how we judge end-of-life cases.
Suppose Fred can only be expected to live another couple of days.
We are trying to determine whether it is worth trying to do some
difficult medical procedure on him that might prolong his life by a couple of
hours. It seems that it doesn’t
really matter here how rich a life Fred lived in the past.
What matters is what we can expect to have happen to Fred in the future,
in the next couple of days. Will
the procedure decrease his quality of life in such a way that the extension of
life will not be worth while? Our
inclination, I think, would also be that we would be more likely to extend
Fred’s life a little bit if Fred were in his 20s than if Fred were in his 90s.
Yet if Fred were in his 90s, he would have had a richer past.
Response: Killing someone does
deprive her of her future. This much is clear even if this deprivation
isn't the main thing that makes killing wrong. Moreover, it is a greater
harm to deprive someone of her future than it is to deprive her of, say, an arm
or a leg. Thus, killing me now imposes a harm greater than cutting off my
arm or leg. Killing me as a fetus would have imposed a harm that was no
less, perhaps even greater. It is wrong to impose a harm so great
upon an innocent person without a compensating advantage to that innocent
person--it is wrong for you to cut off my arm or leg without my having a medical
need for it. For the same reason, to have killed me as a fetus would have
been wrong, since it would have imposed on me an even greater harm than cutting
off my arm or leg now would.
Ann Warren thinks she can show that abortion is acceptable.
Warren sees it, the main argument people give for the wrongness of abortion
The fetus is an innocent human being.
It is wrong to kill innocent human beings.
Therefore, it is wrong to kill the fetus.
if by “human being” we mean a biological member of the species homo
sapiens, an animal that is genetically human, then modern science
makes it impossible to deny (1).
sometimes say about the abortion issue: “It is a mystery when human
life begins.” (It’s not clear that this supports the
pro-choice conclusion, actually, as some people think. If it’s
not clear whether something is a living human being, then isn’t it
better to be safe and not kill it? If something is moving in the
woods and it could be a deer or a man, we should not shoot.)
in a biological sense there is no mystery. Modern biology tells us
that human life begins at fertilization or conception. After
fertilization, there is a new, living, independent organism, which is
genetically human, which gradually develops into a new human being, and
which is not a part of the mother or of the father. In fact, for
the first couple of days, it floats around unattached in the mother
looking for nutrition. There is no controversy about the
biological facts. There is a human being in the biological sense
someone said: “It is a mystery when elephant life begins.”
Here is a sequence of some pictures. The first is of an elephant
fetus. The next two show baby elephants. And the last is an
adult elephant. If we ask: What do all these pictures have in
common? the answer is: The are all elephants.
in the next picture. If we ask: What do all of these have in
common, we have to say: They are all human beings. What
at the top is a 6.5-week-old embryo, an 11-week-old fetus, and an
18-week-old fetus. (Scientists use the word “embryo” when the
bones have not yet developed and “fetus” when they have.) And
then we have older human beings.
we mean by “human”, a “biological human”, there is no denying that
there is a biological human there from conception, Warren agrees.
However, Warren thinks you can make a further distinction. You can
make a distinction between a biological human and a person.
To soften up the reader for this distinction, she notes that something that
isn’t human could be a person. If there existed intelligent
aliens, they wouldn’t be human, but they would be persons. A
term Warren uses for “person” as “a human being in the moral sense.”
Warren says that (2) is false. Instead, it needs to be replaced with
It is wrong to kill innocent persons.
Warren thinks that in fact even (2a) isn’t quite right: more qualification
is needed still. But she isn’t going to press this point.
Rather, Warren thinks that once we make a distinction between human
beings (understood biologically) and persons, it becomes obvious
that a fetus is not a person. For what is a person?
Suppose we saw a bunch of aliens and wanted to tell if they are persons.
Why would we want to know? Well, we might want to know what rights
they have. We might want to know if it’s OK to kill them, for
instance, if they’re inconvenient to us. Now, it’s really tough to
give a definition of a person. But we can give, Warren thinks,
five traits of persons:
Persons are conscious and can feel things, such as pain.
Persons can reason: they have a “developed capacity to solve
new and relatively complex problems”.
Persons are self-moved: their activity is relatively free of direct
external or genetic control.
Persons can communicate “messages of an indefinite variety of types”
(not just, say, “There is danger here” and “There is food
They have a self-concept and self-awareness, either individually or as a
species. (For the last option, Warren is imagining a bunch of
aliens that live in a giant colony and have no ideas of themselves as
individuals—there are science fiction stories like that.)
says that perhaps you don’t need to have all of the traits to be a
person. But she seems to think that it’s clear that if you have all
of them, then you are a person, and if you have none or only,
say, one of them, then you are not a person.
fetus’s brain is probably not sophisticated enough for it to have (2)-(5).
In fact, the fetus is less sophisticated than an adult mammal. It’s
true that a brain starts to develop pretty early—around the 6th week after
conception—and so the fetus and embryo might well have (1): in fact, there
is some scientific evidence of consciousness of pain fairly early on.
However if we said that the amount of abilities that the fetus has is
sufficient to say it has (2)-(5), we would have to say the same thing about
Warren concludes, fetuses are not persons. Since only persons have a
right to life, fetuses have no right to life. Taking up Thomson’s
example, Warren says that there would be nothing immoral in a woman in the
7th month of pregnancy having an abortion even because the pregnancy
interfered with her vacation dates. If the fetus is not a person, then
killing it is just not morally significant. (Warren is a little too
quick. Many people would say it’s wrong to kill your cat just
because it interferes with your vacation plans, even though they do not
think cats are persons.)
then looks at one major objection to her argument: The fetus is potentially
a person, and hence has a right to life. By “potentially a
person”, she means that it will probably develop into a person if
nurtured and allowed to develop naturally. But Warren thinks that
probably potential persons have no moral rights at all. And even if
they have them, these rights are trumped by the rights of actual
persons, like the mother’s. She gives a science-fiction example.
The aliens can make each of your cells develop into a full human being.
She thinks you have a right to run away and deprive these cells of their
potential future human life, and this shows that potential persons have no
is running away like abortion? You are not killing your
cells, but only not letting the aliens develop them further.
the case does not satisfy Warren’s own definition of potential
persons. A potential person is something that would likely develop
into a person if nurtured and allowed to develop naturally. If we
nurture our body’s cells and let them develop naturally, they are not
going to develop into persons. They will stay as our cells.
The aliens’ manipulation is not natural.
fact, it seems plausible that if we took one of our cells and
transformed to such an extent that it would be able to develop into a
human being, then this cell would then be a different cell from
the one we started with. So the cells in my skin cannot develop
into human beings: but with the help of cloning technology they can
perhaps be changed into cells that can. But these
wouldn’t be the same cells or organisms any more afterwards.
Rather, my skin cells would have to be destroyed first—as the
cells they are—before they could be made into human beings. So
respect for my own cells does not require me to let the aliens
fetus is not just a potential person in the way the cells are—that
they can be made into a person—but the fetus already has
certain genetic capacities for growth and development in virtue of which
it will on its own develop into a full blown person if properly
let’s go back to Warren’s main argument. She thinks the fetus is not a
person because it lacks most of the five traits of personhood. Is she
is surely true that the fetus lacks the traits Warren lists. Thus, the
main question is whether these are indeed the traits of personhood, the
traits that determine whether it is OK or not for one to be killed if one is
issues to consider.
someone asleep in a deep and dreamless sleep or under total
anesthesia. Such a person lacks most of the characteristics
listed, but we think it’s just as wrong to kill someone asleep.
a person asleep can easily be woken up! So she has all these
Shouldn’t we say she is only a potential person?
now imagine aliens who hibernate for nine months and cannot be woken
up before nine months is up.
persons who are in a coma but who are expected to recover fully.
severely mentally retarded adults.
perhaps the most worrying case is this. Babies! A newborn
baby is less sophisticated intellectually than a dog. Since we
wouldn’t say that a dog meets Warren’s criteria of a person, we
shouldn’t say that a small baby does. But it doesn’t seem
right to say that we can kill babies whenever they are inconvenient.
are two ways out for Warren:
might logically say: Babies that can’t talk and think
sophisticated thoughts yet—say, six-month-old babies—are not
persons. They are only potential persons. Thus, we
can kill them. Very few people who defend abortion are
willing to come out and say this. Peter Singer does
say it. He argues that if we accept abortion like he does,
then we should accept infanticide in some cases. (Why only
in some? If the baby is not a person, and non-persons have
no rights, then a woman should be able to kill her baby even if
the baby interferes with her vacation plans.)
Warren’s official response is that in the case of the baby,
there is no interference between the mother’s rights and the
baby’s rights, and so there is no reason for the mother to
kill the baby, even though the baby is not a person. After
all, she can always give up the baby for adoption.
what about a poorer country, where no one is willing to
adopt? Is it OK for women to kill, or at least stop
feeding, the baby, for any reason whatsoever? (Warren
used to think you can kill a non-person for any reason
whatsoever. Now she backtracks a little.) Warren
what if I end up with my baby on a desert island? Do I
have a right to kill the baby?
it seems quite rational for an adult to make large
sacrifices for his or her six-month-old baby. But if
the baby is not a person, is this rational?
thinks pictures of fetuses are emotionally powerful because
fetuses look like persons but are not. But actually
on her account they don’t look like persons. What
a fetus looks most like is a baby, rather than a person,
and babies are not persons on Warren’s view. So she
cannot explain the reaction people have to the pictures in this