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Today’s guest blog post is by Dr. Alex Hyun. Dr. Hyun received his B.A. in philosophy at the University of California-Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hyun is published in the Journal of Philosophy and Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy.
Some pro-choice personhood arguments imply, very implausibly, that human newborns have no moral rights. Pro-choice philosophers are aware of this problem, and some of them have attempted to develop views on which human newborns have moral rights even though all pre-conscious human fetuses lack moral rights. David Boonin is one such philosopher. I’ll argue that he does not succeed.
In his book A Defense of Abortion, Boonin defends the following view:
Ideal Desire for a FLO View: A human being has basic moral rights if and only if, and because, that human being has an ideal desire that her future-like-ours is preserved.
A few terms need to be clarified. First, when Boonin says that something has an ‘ideal desire’ for X, he means that it has actual desires and is such that, were it fully informed, those actual desires would include a desire for X. To illustrate, suppose that there’s a cup in front of you that’s full of poison, but you incorrectly believe that it contains only water. Since you’re thirsty, your actual desire is to drink from the cup. You have no actual desire to refrain from drinking from the cup. But you don’t have a death wish: were you fully informed about the situation, you’d have an actual desire to refrain from drinking from the cup. That means that you have an ideal desire to refrain from drinking from the cup.
Second, by a ‘future-like-ours’ or ‘FLO,’ Boonin means what Don Marquis means by this term. To have a future-like-ours is to have a future that contains the rich diversity of valuable experiences that tend to characterize the life of a human being. Most human beings have a future-like-ours, but it’s possible for them to lose it. For example, if someone kills you, they rob you of your future-like-ours. The Ideal Desire for a FLO view appeals to the ideal desire that one is not robbed of one’s future-like-ours in this way.
Boonin’s Ideal Desire for a FLO View is ingenious. Since pre-conscious human fetuses have no actual desires, this view implies that they lack basic moral rights. In contrast, typical human newborns do have actual desires, such as the desire not to be cold. Presumably, they don’t have an actual desire for the preservation of their future-like-ours, for presumably they don’t even have the concept of a future-like-ours. But it seems right to say that they would desire the preservation of their future-like-ours were they fully informed (and thus were more cognitively sophisticated than they in fact are). So typical human newborns do have an ideal desire for the preservation of their future-like-ours. And so, the Ideal Desire for a FLO view seems to allow pro-choicers both to affirm that human newborns have moral rights and to deny that pre-conscious human fetuses have moral rights.
Boonin’s Infant Problem
I’ll offer three objections to Boonin’s view. The first one appeals to the following thought experiment:
Temporarily Comatose Baby Case
Baby Alice is born in a temporary coma. Because of a serious brain injury that she suffered during gestation, she has not yet had a conscious experience. But doctors are certain that over the next several weeks, Alice will come out of the coma and make a full recovery.
My argument will draw on the premise that Alice has moral rights. Consider two reasons to think that she does.
First, suppose that, soon after Alice is born, she’s moved to the nursery. A fire breaks out in the nursery, and Alice’s mother must choose between saving Alice and saving another newborn, Bert. Bert was not born in a coma, but he is currently heavily sedated, so he wouldn’t feel any pain if he dies in the fire. Also, he suffers from a certain medical condition that makes it likely that he will die within a few weeks even if Alice’s mother chooses to save him.
Bert presumably has moral rights. So, if Alice doesn’t have moral rights, the choice facing her mother is a choice between saving something that is not a rightsholder (Alice) and saving someone who is a rightsholder (Bert). And if this is the nature of the mother’s choice, then she’s morally obligated to save Bert. After all, it’s normally wrong to prioritize rescuing something that’s not a rightsholder over rescuing a rightsholder. But it seems obvious that Alice’s mother is not morally obligated to save Bert. Intuitively, it’s morally permissible for her to save her daughter instead. It logically follows from the preceding reasoning that Alice does have moral rights.
Second, suppose that, soon after Alice is born, someone barges into the room and starts trying to kill her. A nearby doctor can see that the only way to save Alice is to use lethal force against the attacker. Surely it would be morally permissible to use lethal, defensive force in this case. The doctor is not morally obligated to stand by and let the attacker kill Alice. But if Alice is not a rightsholder, it’s hard to see how this could be permissible. It’s not normally permissible to kill someone in order to stop them from destroying a thing that has no moral rights. So we have further reason to think that Alice has moral rights.
Alice’s case shows that Boonin does not fully escape the problem concerning infants’ moral status. Because of her temporary brain injury, Alice does not have any actual desires. That means that Alice does not have an ideal desire that her future-like-ours is preserved. So Boonin’s view implies that Alice does not have basic moral rights. As I argued above, this doesn’t seem plausible. So we have reason to reject Boonin’s view.
My second objection appeals to the following thought experiment:
Futuristic Artificial Womb Case
Baby Claude is born prematurely at 19 weeks gestation. Fortunately, artificial womb technology has been perfected. Doctors place Claude in an artificial womb, where he can continue to develop for 21 more weeks.
It seems clear that Claude is like Alice in having moral rights. The two considerations that brought out the intuitiveness of Alice’s having moral rights apply in Claude’s case, too: (i) it would be morally permissible for Claude’s mother to choose to save Claude instead of saving Bert; and (ii) it would be morally permissible for Claude’s doctor to use lethal force to defend Claude from an attacker who intends to kill Claude. Were Claude not a rightsholder, it would be hard to see how (i) and (ii) could be true. So, we have good reason to think that Claude, like Alice, has moral rights.
Claude’s case undermines Boonin’s view. According to Boonin, Claude is not developed enough to have conscious desires. For Claude was born at 19 weeks gestation, and Boonin’s position is that human beings don’t begin having conscious desires until about 25 weeks gestation. So Boonin’s view implies that Claude lacks moral rights. But again, we’ve seen reason to think this is implausible. So we have further reason to reject Boonin’s view.
My third and final objection draws on the following observation:
Actual Premature Infants
There are some actual human beings that were born prior to 25 weeks gestation and who survived, such as James Elgin Gill, Amillia Taylor, Kenna Moore, Melinda Star Guido, and Kwek Yu Xuan.
Proponents of Boonin’s position are committed to thinking that these human beings did not have moral rights when they were born. But that’s implausible. The reasons offered above for thinking that Alice and Claude have moral rights can also be offered as reasons for thinking that these actual human beings had moral rights upon being born. So Boonin’s view is also undermined by some actual cases of extremely premature babies.
The Temporarily Comatose Baby Case Does Not Beg the Question
Boonin discusses an objection that’s quite similar to the objection that appeals to the temporarily comatose baby, so I think I know how he would respond to it. He would accuse me of begging the question. Here’s how his argument would go. The ultimate issue being debated in this context is whether pre-conscious human fetuses have moral rights. The temporarily comatose newborn is really similar to the pre-conscious fetus – so similar, in fact, that the assumption that this newborn has a right to life simply amounts to the assumption that pre-conscious human fetuses have a right to life. In this context, it’s question-begging to assume that pre-conscious human fetuses have a right to life. So, it’s question-begging in this context to assume that temporarily comatose newborns have a right to life.
Perhaps Boonin would also want to say that my futuristic artificial womb objection and my objection from extremely premature babies beg the question in this context.
Boonin’s likely argument for thinking that I’m begging the question is not convincing for two reasons. First, it accuses me of just assuming that temporarily-comatose newborns like Alice have moral rights. But unlike the critic that Boonin anticipates in his response above, I haven’t simply assumed this. Rather, I’ve given two reasons to think that Alice has moral rights.
Second, the following step of Boonin’s reasoning is false: the assumption that the temporarily comatose newborn has a right to life simply amounts to the assumption that pre-conscious human fetuses have a right to life. So far as I can see, the only reason that Boonin gives in support of this premise is that there is a lot of similarity between pre-conscious human fetuses and temporarily comatose newborns. But this is not enough to show that the italicized step of Boonin’s argument is correct. After all, there is a lot of similarity between a typical human newborn and a cognitively comparable chimp, but this doesn’t show that the assumption that the former has a right to life simply amounts to the assumption that the latter has a right to life. These are obviously different assumptions, as evidenced by the fact that many who find it intuitively clear that typical human newborns have a right to life do not find it intuitively clear that the same can be said of a cognitively comparable chimp. And similarly, the assumption that the temporarily comatose newborn has a right to life is not the same assumption as the assumption that pre-conscious human fetuses have a right to life, as evidenced by the fact that some who find it intuitively clear that temporarily comatose newborns like Alice have a right to life don’t find it similarly intuitive that the same can be said about pre-conscious human fetuses.
Boonin’s Ideal Desire for a FLO View allows him to consistently deny that pre-conscious human fetuses have moral rights while maintaining that typical human newborns have moral rights. But as I’ve observed, typical human newborns aren’t the only newborns that intuitively have moral rights. Alice, Claude, and a handful of real-life human beings who were born extremely prematurely also seem to be rightsholder upon being born. Since Boonin’s view can’t account for this, it does not adequately address pro-choicers’ problem concerning the moral status of newborns.
 Boonin presents this type of argument on pages 77-78 of A Defense of Abortion. He’s actually responding to a case where the comatose human being is an adult rather than a newborn, but that difference doesn’t matter for our purposes.