Secular Pro-Life’s executive director, Monica Snyder, debated pro-choice Christian philosopher Dustin Crummett. The livestreamed conversation lasted two hours! You can watch the video above, or read the transcript below.
[Special thanks to volunteer Samantha Sandstrom for her transcription. If you’d like to volunteer to transcribe or translate, please fill out our volunteer survey.]
Santi: Welcome, everybody, to Finding Truth. Today we’re going to be talking about abortion. Now, I know that abortion is a very interesting topic in terms of like, how people can get very passionate about it. And I have been wanting to do this discussion for a very long time, and I am so glad that Monica Snyder from secular pro-life is going to be joining us for this conversation, as well as Dustin, who has been on our channel for a few times already. And I’m not going to make this introduction too long. I’m just going to go ahead and let Monica introduce herself, tell us a little bit about the things that she has been doing, her background, or anything that she wants to share with us.
Monica: Okay, well thanks for having me. You can hear me fine, right? Okay, so as he said my name is Monica Snyder. I’m an atheist, I’m the executive director of Secular Pro-Life, which is an anti-abortion group led by atheists trying to advance secular arguments against abortion. And I have been volunteering with them since 2009. That’s the picture on the left, with my then boyfriend, now husband. But I didn’t formally join them until 2021, and before that I worked in a forensics lab, that’s the picture on the right. And before that, I got a master’s in forensics, and before that, I got a Bachelor’s in chemical biology. And I’m telling you all this to say that I have no formal background in philosophy, and so I did try to study before this to make it a useful conversation. It’s kind of new to my wheelhouse. Brevity is not one of my talents, so I will try to get everything I want to say in, without taking forever. And with that I’m just gonna start.
So the first premise of my position… and if if we didn’t say already, we were talking about whether abortion is immoral or not. And I’m going to take the position that abortion, generally speaking, is immoral.
The first part of my position is that the human zygote is a human organism in the early developmental stages of our life cycle. And it’s my understanding that Dustin already grants this. I’m not going to belabor the point, except for to say that fertilization is a paradigm shift and a clear demarcation in terms of development. And by that I mean when we look at a human life cycle in terms of biology, you start with fertilization until such a time that the organism dies. And this is widely understood and not considered particularly controversial from the biological standpoint. I’m not looking at our development and trying to pick a point that will justify me opposing abortion. I’m looking at our development as I have understood it through my education, and that’s part of the factor that influences my position on abortion. So with fertilization, you have gametes undergoing meiosis and then it switches to a zygote doing mitosis. It’s self-directed coordinated growth, it’s a completely bright line. And so the images I picked were an embryology textbook from 1977. And I picked that to show this is not new information, although we’ve known about zygotes since like the late 1800s. The image in the center I screen capped yesterday from Encyclopedia Britannica. And the photo on the right is from the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. And they all basically say: biologically, we begin as a single cell. And outside of the abortion debate, science communicators talk about this regularly without caveat or clarification. It’s well, well known. You don’t need to read all of these, I’m just showing a bunch of other citations of other embryology and biology textbooks that say the same thing: that the mammalian life cycle, the human life cycle, begins with the zygote or fertilization or conception. And really, this isn’t the half of it. You won’t find an embryology textbook that says the human life cycle begins at another point.
But that’s of course, not really the interesting part. I think most… many thoughtful pro-choice people will readily accept that the zygote, the embryo, and the fetus are human organisms at different stages of the life cycle. The question isn’t about human organisms—or it’s not the only question. The question is about personhood. And by that I mean, broadly when humans merit enough moral consideration to also merit some protection. Or in the context of this conversation, to merit enough protection to not be killed for any reason.
And before I continue my thoughts on that, I wanted to sound a note of caution that I think is appropriate. Because the personhood debate is very interesting philosophically. It is important. It’s not new. And even debating it in the context of which humans we can kill or not is not new. And historically speaking, we have done very poorly in this regard. I’m not saying there’s… I’m not saying it’s not possible to have a definition of personhood that would be well grounded and objective and clear us of this problem, but I am saying we have already many times as a species, as a global society, talked about which humans are people, which humans have the right to live or not. And it’s been terrible. So if we’re going to have the conversation, I think we need to have it with a certain amount of humility. And from my perspective, that requires a precautionary approach.
Now, there’s lots of different ideas of personhood and some people will say: oh, it’s when you have a heartbeat, or viability. But for this presentation, and it’s my understanding this aligns with Dustin’s views as well, I’m focusing on personhood that is related to brain development. And more specifically related to when we think some kind of mind emerges. And in that regard, the precautionary principle I wanted to point out is that if we can’t say with any reasonable certainty how the mind relates to the brain, when the mind begins to exist, or why moral worth rests in present cognitive ability, then we should be very skeptical about using vague debated criteria when we’re talking about justifying killing humans.
So I talked about how fertilization is a clear demarcation, but the emergence of consciousness is not. It’s not a paradigm shift. It’s not a clear demarcation. It’s a seamless, long process. Depending on how you define it, months long to years long. And I’m going to talk about what I’m calling the X factor, which I’ve just used to mean whatever factor you believe establishes a mind. So some people say sentience, or consciousness, or self-awareness, or different ideas. And I’m not trying to argue which of those ideas makes the most sense. I’m not trying to say this is what a mind is and this isn’t. I’m saying I believe for my argument, it doesn’t actually matter. Whatever the X factor is, the embryo is in the process of attaining it. And I think the attainment process matters, I think that has significance in its own right. Because I believe that there is a part of us that intuitively understands that it’s not just about our neuroanatomical structures or our neurological capabilities in a given moment, but over a lifetime. So, you’ve heard other people say: we are members of a rational kind, or we are members of a species that has these abilities. You know when you talk about species definitions and you say, for example, just making this up: humans are species that are bipedal, they can walk on two legs. You don’t mean they can do that at every moment in their life, or that even every single human can necessarily do it. But you mean on aggregate, this is what we’re talking about. I think there’s a similar effect here. So, to illustrate that I think we understand that it’s not just the present moment, I have two thought experiments to propose.
The first one is the fetus with a reversible brain injury. So suppose a fetus has a brain injury such that the neural connections necessary for the X factor will not form until after birth. They will form eventually, but they are very delayed. The rest of her body is developing the way it’s supposed to, her brain stem is working: she can breathe, she can digest things, but the neural connections necessary for X factor won’t happen until after birth. In that case, would it be permissible to abort her in the third trimester? Six, seven, sorry—seventh, eighth, or ninth month? Suppose further that the neural connections won’t form until after she’s born and she gets some kind of medication that will allow them to form. In that case, would it be permissible to kill the newborn prior to her receiving the medication? Because again, she doesn’t have the X factor. She could have the X factor, she doesn’t yet. So then the question is, what does that mean for her moral status and the permissibility of killing her? And I would submit that if you are uncomfortable with the idea of killing a newborn who needs time or medication to get those neural connections, then there’s an analog here. If the neural connections delayed by injury are still compatible with personhood, then I think the neural connections delayed by normal fetal development should also be compatible with personhood. Because in either case, all her brain needs is time or in one of the hypotheticals, medication. But I think you get my point.
The second thought experiment I had is premature infants in the NICU. And this is a little bit less thought experiment and a little bit more real world, in some ways. Because there are definitely neuroscientists that believe the X factor is not possible before 29 weeks. Because they believe that no sentience or certainly consciousness or any of that is possible before there are thalamocortical connections. Meaning the thalamus is like the router to the brain, and it’s sending signals to the cerebral cortex to give it relevant information, and until those connections have formed, there are some neuroscientists that believe you’re not going to have any kind of mental life, and those connections don’t form until 29 weeks. If they are correct, then suppose a NICU is occupied by premature infants ranging from 23 to 27 weeks gestation. Is it permissible to kill those infants? Or if you don’t want to get into the killing versus letting die, suppose that those infants are thriving with typical NICU intervention. Is it permissible to cease those interventions and let them die? And again, I suggest if you think probably not, then you’re kind of coming around to my view of the entire thing, which is that you’re looking at this child that does not have the X factor yet, but if you allow them to develop the way they’re developing, they will. And that is already valuable, to my view.
Now there’s another thing I want to talk about. And I’ll try not to belabor the point, but we’re asking if abortion is immoral. And I agree that the core of the issue is fetal personhood. I do think that’s where most of our focus goes, understandably, because we’re asking: is it moral or immoral to kill embryos and fetuses? Is it moral or immoral to require women to gestate them? And those are important questions, but I don’t think they’re the only questions. I think that there are secondary considerations, because whatever I say, whatever Dustin says, whatever moral discussions we’re having, those affect public policy discussions. They affect socio-cultural reactions. And even if he and I have very nuanced, specific ideas of how if we were in charge of everything, we would make this work, we’re not in control of how everyone hears us. We’re not in control of other ideas they have. We’re just a cog in the wheel. And so I think we see this very easily with anti-abortion legislation. There’s tons of discussion, rightly so, about what kind of secondary effects it could have. Even if you granted that killing embryos is killing valuable children, you could still have a big problem with laws that prevent women from receiving life-saving medical care, or laws that prevent women from receiving medications unrelated to abortion. Like, they’re not even pregnant, but maybe they need them for something else. But they could be abortifacient, and now it’s an issue, right? There’s lots of examples like that.
However, I think there is an analog on the pro-choice side that doesn’t get talked about as much. And I don’t have time to go through all of them, so I’m just going to try to quickly go through a couple of examples.
First of all, when you destigmatize abortion (and I suggest arguing that embryos and early fetuses are not people and don’t have that kind of moral worth is part of destigmatizing abortion), you increase the cultural pressure for women to abort. If you understand that stigmatizing abortion increases the pressure for them to carry pregnancies—and I think most people recognize that as true—this is the reverse of that coin. Destigmatizing abortion increases the cultural pressure for them to abort. Because if embryos and early fetuses are essentially tissue waiting for like, a mind to come in, and that’s unimportant, then it gets harder to explain why a woman should be able to ask of her family, her community, her society to put resources into helping her when she’s bringing a child into a difficult circumstance, or who will just require a lot of resources to be healthy and safe. If abortion is a morally neutral act, then it’s harder to explain why she shouldn’t get one as opposed to putting this… this requirement on everyone else. So it’s the difference between telling a sexually active teenager you should use contraception versus telling a pregnant teenager in the first trimester you should get an abortion. If you think that pushing her to use contraception versus pushing her to get an abortion are different, I think that’s something that we should explore. So this is especially true for women who conceive in difficult circumstances. That’d be teen mothers, women in poverty, women in abusive relationships, and especially women who receive prenatal diagnosis of disability. There is a lot of discussion in disability rights groups and in these circles about the way the medical community and society at large treats women who want to carry to term and birth and love their children with disabilities. So that’s one of the elements I wanted to point out.
Another one is post viability abortion of healthy fetuses, meaning you’re aborting a healthy fetus carried by a healthy woman for no medical emergency when they are already viable. It does happen. People try to tell me it doesn’t happen all the time. There’s lots of evidence for it. You can go to secularprolife.org/laterabortion and look at the evidence. But you could just read this one article: “Is Third Trimester Abortion Exceptional?” It was published earlier 2022, and Katrina Kimport, who is an abortion rights advocate, talks about how yes, women seek post-viability abortions because of severe fetal anomaly or because of health reasons. But they also seek them for healthy fetuses, because they couldn’t get the resources together to get an abortion earlier, they didn’t have the time or the money or the transportation, or because they did not know they were pregnant until after that point. People think this is strange, but it’s actually not as uncommon as people think. It depends on the contraception you’re using, all these different things. And so she argues more than once in the paper that we should have no gestational limits on abortion, because there will always be some women who don’t know they’re pregnant until after their fetuses are viable. And if you take the neuroscientific view that there’s no X factor before 29 weeks and viability is circa 24 weeks, then it’s hard to say why she would be wrong. And maybe you don’t think she’s wrong. I have a problem with it, but I’m just saying that’s a outcropping of what we’re talking about.
And the last one is—well, it’s not the last one, it’s the last one I’m talking about—is the problem with avoiding stigmatizing abortion to such a degree that it becomes dangerous in other ways. Now to be clear, (I should have said this in the beginning) I don’t think Dustin supports any of these things. That is absolutely not my point, just like there’s lots of effects of anti-abortion laws that I might not support and might want to try to work around or fix. That’s not my point. My point is that these are real world effects of the different things we’re debating, and they have their own moral components as well. So if you haven’t already, I challenge you to read the grand jury report for Kermit Gosnell. It’s not for the faint of heart. They believe that he induced live birth of hundreds of infants and then snipped their spinal cords, and in addition to causing the deaths of several women. And that’s not even my point here, my point is in the grand jury report, they have an entire section about how the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Pennsylvania Department of State, the Philadelphia Department of Health, specific doctors, there was tons of evidence, there were complaints, there was plenty of reason to investigate him, and they specifically did not. And even when law enforcement started to investigate him, the departments tried not to give them information about it. And you could speculate as to why. It’s speculative, but one of the theories is that they did not want to appear to be stigmatizing abortion, going after an abortion provider. They did not do this with other… they talk about how the Department of Health was not this lax with any other health care facilities, just abortion clinics. Anyway, there’s more about that, my point being that we have these other effects we also have to consider. So hopefully I didn’t go too much over time. You can find us here. Thank you for listening, and I look forward to hearing Dustin’s presentation.
Dustin: I also have a slideshow… let me see if I can…
Monica: Maybe I… do I have to stop presenting?
Santi: Yeah, I think so.
Monica: Okay, go ahead.
Santi: Hey guys, just to talk to the audience real quick, we do want to make this discussion about what the data is all about. Like what they’re presenting here, rather than say, talk about religious stuff or bringing up the Bible and things like that. We want to keep this conversation based on the data that they presented, and if you guys have any questions about that data, feel free to ask in the live chat. And if we have time at the end we’re going to go ahead and address those questions to either one of the speakers. Okay.
Dustin: Can you see my slides, Santi?
Dustin: Okay, good. So, I’m not planning to talk about the social questions that Monica has raised. Those are outside of my area of expertise. I mean, we can… we can talk about them if we have to, but I’m planning the focus instead on the philosophical aspects of the question.
So a number of questions which seem to me to be important to the ethics of abortion. First of all, when does one of us begin to exist? Second of all, do we possess our moral status essentially or only accidentally? In other words, is it something that is essential to us, or is it something that we could gain or lose? Three, how bad is the fetus’s death, and what impact does that have on the ethics of abortion? Most pro-life philosophers actually will say that it’s not that bad for reasons that we might get into. And then, what is the impact of Thomson-style considerations, I’ll say. Questions about the rights and rights and interests of the pregnant person, abortion as killing versus letting die, etc. Monica I think maybe interpreted my position as being about two, I’m actually mostly going to focus on one. I’m happy to grant that we have our moral status essentially. So we’ll talk about, philosophically, what that means, maybe. I think that three and four are also very important in these discussions, and so I’m not going to offer like a complete ethics of abortion. But I am going to offer, I think, an important part of the puzzle.
So when we begin to exist, I think makes a difference to the ethics of abortion, and that depends on what we are. So I’m going to argue that we are our minds. If that’s right, then we don’t begin to exist until our minds begin to exist. Presumably, our minds don’t begin to exist until we reach a certain level of neurological development needed for a conscious experience, for a mental life. Infants, later fetuses possess this. I think NICU infants possess it as well, but early fetuses don’t. So, I don’t think this view justifies infanticide, we’ll talk about Monica’s cases, I’m sure. But it implies that whatever the moral status of early abortion, it couldn’t be murder, or it couldn’t violate someone’s right to life, because we don’t, we haven’t begun to exist yet, at that point. I think I began to exist some ways into pregnancy. Pro-life people, by contrast, will often argue that we begin to exist at conception by arguing that human organisms begin to exist at conception, I agree with Monica about that. But it follows that we begin to exist only if we are the human organism, right? This philosophy is known as animalism, because it says that what you fundamentally are is a particular animal. But animalism is not obvious. Most philosophers reject it in favor of something like my view. And most ordinary people implicitly reject it, I think. Because most ordinary people are substance dualists, they think you have or have as an essential part and a material soul, that’s not true of a material organism. So most people actually reject animalism, including most philosophers who have thought about this. If you are your mind… I mean, one view about your mind is that it’s an immaterial soul, another is that it’s a certain kind of physical object. I assume that Monica doesn’t believe that you have an immaterial soul, so I’m going to assume for purposes of argument that your mind is a physical object. I think the best view like that says that our minds are parts of organisms, so they are objects composed of the parts of our brain that are directly responsible for our mental lives. They begin to exist when these parts reach the level of development and integration needed to sustain our mental lives. They cease to exist when we irreversibly lose them. So on this view, you are not the organism, you are a mind embodied within the organism. And I’ll give two arguments for that. The first is that if my mind and my organism were to part ways, it seems like I go with my mind, not my organism. And so it seems like I must be my mind rather than my organism.
So you can consider a famous thought experiment, where the part of my brain responsible for my mental life, suppose that that’s localized within my cerebrum, it’s not ultimately important, but. That’s transplanted into a new body; it leaves my old body in a persistent vegetative state. In that case, it seems like I’m going to go with my mind. I’m going to go with the transplanted cerebrum, but my organism does not. So here’s a quote from Eric Olson, who is the leading philosophical defender of animalism:
“Imagine that your cerebrum is put into another head. The being who gets that organ will have, for the most part, anyway, your memories, beliefs, other mental contents and capacities. He will have your first-person perspective, will take himself to be you. What about your animal body, your organism, wouldn’t go along with its cerebrum? Surely not, a detached cerebrum is no more an organism than an attached arm. Or think of the thing left behind when your cerebrum is removed, that is an organism. It may even still be alive. It seems to be the very animal your cerebrum was a part of before the operation. The empty-headed being into what your cerebrum is implanted is also a living human organism. Putting your cerebrum into its head surely doesn’t destroy that organism and replace it with a new one. So there appear to be two human animals in the transplant story. One of them loses its cerebrum and gets an empty head. That organism is fitted into the empty cranium of the other animal, which is made whole again. The surgeons move an organ from one animal to another, just as they might do with a liver. No animal moves from one head to another. The conviction that you would go along with your transplanted cerebrum is therefore incompatible with your being an animal. Your animal body would stay behind if your cerebrum were transplanted, if you would go along with your transplanted cerebrum, you and your animal could go your separate ways, and a thing in itself can never go their separate ways.”
So, Olson agrees, again, the leading defender of animalism agrees that he and other animalists have to say that I don’t go with my mind in that case. Instead, I remain as the brain dead organism. But that seems to be false. I go with my mind, so I say I must be my mind. A bit of a technical point: he basically, to get out of that judgment, to make it seem not so bad to say that I stay as the brain dead organism, he says things that imply that an early fetus has no interest in continued life. So I include this merely to say philosophers who defend animalism often defend it by endorsing things that will not be very amenable to a pro-life view.
A second argument, if the number of minds in an organism is greater than one, the number of beings like us equals the number of minds, not the number of organisms. So it seems that we are our minds, and not our organisms. There is a type of conjoined twinning called craniopagus parasiticus. In this case, one head without its own body is attached to another organism. It’s at least far from clear that this head is a separate organism. It doesn’t seem like it meets a lot of the criteria for being an organism, but if it has a mind, surely there are two people there. So people, it seems like, are minds and not organisms. If we’re not sure that there’s only one, maybe you think no there really are two organisms, we could imagine a hypothetical case of an alien species that is naturally two-headed. Maybe both heads are needed to regulate vital functions, they grow from a single egg every time. That’s their intended developmental path. There, it seems like you have just one organism. But if there are two minds, there are two people. Eric Olson agrees they are metaphysically possible cases where a human organism could have independently functioning minds, and he agrees the analyst has to say yeah there are two minds there (he likes the term mental system rather than mind, but). There are two mental systems there, but there’s only one person, only one being like us, he wants to say. But I think that has to be false.
There’s another argument, it’s a little too technical to get into here, but you might read the paper. “Embodied Mind Sparsism,” which came out in Philosophical Studies. I’ll also note (and I’ll only go over this briefly), I talked about some of these at greater length in my discussion with Trent Horn, which you can find online. I think that at least many pro-life views have quite counter-intuitive ethical conclusions. So it seems to me that they have a lot of difficulty explaining, for instance, why should I save an unconscious five-year-old from a fire, rather than a large number of frozen zygotes? Or they have difficulty explaining how it is that, in principle, there’s a problem with using violence to stop abortion.
Monica, I guess I’ll say, I mean, Monica talked about potential harms from legalizing abortion. You know, there are also lots of potential harms, I mean to my mind, people supporting the pro-life movement often support politicians who have quite bad platforms, and justify it by saying we need to stop abortion. There are, of course, cases of… I talked in the debate with Trent about a nine-year-old girl who in Brazil who was raped by her stepfather, and she ultimately was allowed to get an abortion, but her mother was excommunicated by the bishop, because he believed that, you know… I mean, and of course if it’s the case that outlawing abortion is wrong, then there’s a serious violation of the bodily autonomy and right to privacy of many women. So I’ll just say I think that we should take seriously unintended consequences. We should take seriously social effects. There are worries in either direction, and I think what we need to do is figure out the right philosophical view, and then see what follows from that, and then try to ameliorate potential bad social consequences, or something like that. So… that’s what I have to say at least initially.
Monica: Yeah. I… to the very end of what you just said, I think we’re basically on the same page about the social consequences. There’s no way you’re going to have a perfect policy. I just wanted to establish that it does go in both directions, because I feel like (again, not specific to you), alot of times it seems like pro-choice people take the stance that anti-abortion laws have all these clear harms, regardless of the essential philosophical questions. But they think that the pro-choice stance is neutral. And it is not, was my main point. But I agree with you, yeah. And you need to figure out… it makes more sense rationally to figure out, philosophically, where do we stand and why? And then, whatever comes from that, how do we do that in the most… the least harm possible, right?
Monica: Right, so I agree. How do you want to do this? I have questions [laughs]
Monica: Okay. First of all, I don’t know if this was clear from my presentation, I definitely agree that our minds… or what did you call it, mental system? I definitely agree that’s important, and I did not agree with (I tried to take notes here)… I did not agree, you said Olsen said in the cerebrum transplant that you didn’t go with your cerebrum? That’s what he said?
Dustin: He thinks… I mean, he holds the view that you’re an organism, he’s an animalist.
Monica: Okay. Alright.
Dustin: It’s clear that we take out the detached cerebrum, it’s clear that that’s not an organism.
Dustin: So that can’t be you, you have to be the brain dead organism.
Monica: Right, right, right.
Dustin: So he thinks, yes, I recognize that it’s intuitive to say that you go with your cerebrum.
Monica: He’s going to hold the line.
Dustin: Yes, but as an animalist, I have to bite the bullet. And what he says (this is the technical thing I glided over), but I’ll say…
Dustin: What he says is, this is not so bad, because the basis of Prudential concern, the thing that gives you reason to care about what happens to you in the future, that’s actually not metaphysical identity, that’s psychological continuity.
Dustin: He wants to say, you stay as the brain dead organism, but what you should care about is what happens to the organism that gets your…
Monica: Yeah, that…
Dustin: Because that’s where psychological continuity is.
Monica: You don’t find that… I don’t find that plausible, either. But I guess I would say… and I’m kind of, I’m kind of thinking this through for the first time as I’m talking to you. I do think our minds are important, I don’t think it’s only our minds, though. I think I’m kind of taking an… and both approach. So first of all, with this cerebrum thing (and maybe this is me not playing nice in philosophy or something), but it is not at all clear to me that if you transfer the cerebrum… the quote you had, he said, what did he say? They will have your memories, your beliefs, your perspective, that is begging the question. You have no idea what would happen if you transplanted a cerebrum, because our brains are connected to our bodies in intimate and mysterious and complicated ways we are only just beginning to scrape the surface of understanding. So just saying, imagine if I move my brain and it worked at everything that was important about me went there. It’s just a long-winded way of saying you know, I think our bodies are not important, it’s just, I just think it’s begging the question. I think that if you moved your cerebrum, maybe… obviously, assuming you live, right? And there’s a living thing at the end or whatever.
Monica: I got that part. But like, you don’t know if you would keep your memories or your first person perspective, or if you keep some of it or none of it, or if you would be like a functioning adult in terms of remembering how you play the piano, but you would have no memory of any of your family, or if you would be a completely different person. Like, to my intuition, just from knowing how much we don’t know about the brain, if you… if in a vacuum, I met you in a coffee shop and you said: what if this happened, what do you think would happen? I’d be like, I don’t know. But, let’s say maybe that’s a cop-out, let’s say that I agree. I do agree that if you move your cerebrum, the body that’s left is not you. I agree with that, right? So at minimum. And let’s say I agree that if you move your cerebrum, that next body is you, for the sake of argument. I don’t know how much that negates my stance.
And so I have a sort of a counter hypothetical to propose, which is: say you have a six week embryo, right? In gestation. And the embryo is developed enough that you can identify the forebrain, okay? And say, similar to the cerebrum thought experiment, say that you have the technology that you could take the forebrain and put it on the body of a different embryo. And so it’s the same thing, right? You leave the rest of the embryo body behind, the different embryo. So you have woman A with the embryo body behind, woman B with the new embryo with the forebrain attached, so which woman are you going to be born out of? Right? Eventually, not at six weeks. And I would suggest that intuitively similar to the cerebral thing, we would think: oh, well you’ll be born out of the woman where your forebrain was moved to. Because that’s what’s going to develop into your brain.
My point being: yeah, I agree that the brain is super important, and if we’re assuming that the rest of your body doesn’t play an integral role in, you know, who you are (which I think is a big assumption) it doesn’t change my point, which is that the attainment process itself… as soon as you have, you know, neural development beginning, which is at the basically very beginning, that matters. That’s gonna be it right there.
So I guess I half agree with you. I don’t think it’s simple, just: oh, you know, the persistent vegetative state body is you. No, I don’t think that’s true. But I don’t think it’s as simple either as oh, well this cerebrum is the only thing, or the brain is the only thing, right? I think that there’s sort of two counters. One, I think the body does matter. But even if it didn’t, I also think that if we’re focused on the brain, I still think you have to explain why it’s only a present ability that matters and not the attainment process of that ability, if that makes sense.
Dustin: Yeah, okay. So yeah, the body matters, I think. I mean, yeah, I certainly if you really did this with just like some random body…
Monica: A lot of people would just die. [laughs]
Dustin: I mean, for purposes of the thought experiment…
Dustin: You could say, you know, it’s an exactly 3D printed identical body.
Monica: Right, right right right.
Dustin: Yeah, maybe I’m someone who has a very odd…
Monica: Your same metabolism, your same, you know, serotonin levels…
Dustin: Yeah, I mean. My inclination actually is to think… I mean, I think that I could, for instance, survive getting dementia. I think I would still exist. Even though I would lose my memories and whatever, so…
Monica: Right, right.
Dustin: Yeah, I think, really, what makes me one in the same individual is not anything very particular about my personality or that, but is, you know, this this basic capacity for like consciousness. So I’m inclined to think as long as that survived, I would survive.
Monica: Right, right. I just think that we have the capacity for consciousness from the beginning, we’re just working on getting everything in order.
Dustin: RIght, right, yeah. and that’s that’s that’s where we’re going to differ, because I say what really has the capacity for consciousness is the mind, and that doesn’t exist until…
Monica: Well, let me hone in on that for a second then, because you said that you don’t think it’d be okay, right, for example, to kill a 23 week NICU infant. Why?
Dustin: So I think that they do have a mind, I think that one is probably developed by that point.
Monica: What do you mean?
Dustin: I think, I mean I think that they have some sort of basic capacity for for conscious experience.
Dustin: That’s my read of the scientific evidence. And… I mean, it is controversial.
Dustin: Yeah, I think it does, it makes sense, if we’re skeptical it makes sense, at least, to say well, we’re very uncertain.
Dustin: So in this case, you know, you should err on the side of not killing them. Because it’s at least realistic.
Monica: I mean, I agree, yeah. We agree we should not kill the NICU infant.
Dustin: Yeah, yes.
Dustin: I think, I mean, it’s true. The bad outcome… like, the really… the thing that would really bite against my position is if it turns out: yeah, even the very basic capacity to have conscious experience, you know, the people pushing fetal pain laws, they’re all wrong. Even the very basic capacity for conscious experience doesn’t develop until later on. I think… what I… again, I don’t think that’s true.
Monica: Sure, sure.
Dustin: If it was, I think I could say two things. The first thing is it may well be that a human organism, even though it’s not someone on my view, that it has some sort of inherent value of some sort.
Dustin: And that’s a position that’s been defended by Ronald Dworkin and Richard Swinburne and some other people. And that provides some reason not to kill it. Also, pretty soon it is going to be a person, and there is… it’s I think it’s good for there to be another person.
Monica: Yeah, I agree with you there, yeah.
Dustin: It’s not an obligation to the organism, but they’re just the general reason you have to create.
Monica: Like a social thing.
Dustin: Yeah. Well, it’s just, I think it’s good for there to be an extra person, right?
Monica: Okay, all right. So very optimistic, I think.
Dustin: It depends.
Monica: I like it, no. I agree, I agree.
Dustin: The difference is going to be that once it’s born… the burden that you put on a particular person to carry it in their body is different. And so I think those reasons, they’re not as strong as the reasons you have not to kill someone.
Monica: Right, so there’s a balance going on here and you’re taking away… right, I got you. But you could definitely have reasons why it might be… so okay, I’m gonna go a little dark, alright? Let’s say that you have… so let’s say that the neuroscientists who are saying nothing before thalamocortical connections, let’s say that they’re right. And I’m with you, I’m not convinced that they are right. Okay, let’s say that they are. Let’s say that before 29 weeks there’s just no actual mental life, it’s just all prep, okay? On that view, and you have, you know, a 22-week NICU infant. And there’s going to be a lot of cases where you still have very strong reasons not to kill them, not the least of which is that their parents are fighting with everything for them, right? But let’s say you have a 22-week NICU infant. Mom died in labor, for whatever reason. There’s nobody else. They don’t have those connections for the next, you know, month and a half. Meanwhile, other room in the hospital, 22-week NICU infant, parents super rooting for them, and they need an organ transplant, right? So you see what I’m saying? Like, it’s obviously like this weird, just like the cerebrum thing. And I agree with you, that once… I agree with you that bodily rights are a significant factor in the abortion debate specifically. But just trying to drill down on personhood itself, you could have very strong reasons to… like even kind of noble reasons, in a sense. I don’t like saying it that way. If it’s going to save the life of a very very wanted not yet sentient, you know, human. Well then, why not?
Dustin: Yeah, yeah yeah. So I think this would… the worst case scenario for my view would be that sort of case where there are these strong extrinsic reasons to kill and it turns out that we’re mistaken about when the mind develops. Okay, yeah. I feel the force… I think that that’s like the one good objection to the view, maybe. I think, or at least the one view… the one objection that, you know, kind of moved me a little bit. I think the thing that I would have to say is this: if we think about, for instance, the embryo rescue case.
Dustin: I can save a kid, or I can save a huge trifle of embryos.
Dustin: I think our reaction to that case shows that intuitively, we don’t attribute full moral status to zygotes. And I think the best thing for the… like, iit does… that little cell or whatever, you know, that doesn’t seem like someone to us.
Dustin: And I think the best thing for the pro-life philosopher to say is probably, we’re being misled by appearances. You know, we mistakenly think that that’s not someone because, you know ,it doesn’t look like a baby or whatever.
Monica: Right. Sure, sure sure. Yeah as as soon as…. the more humanoid they look, the more people react, naturally, yeah.
Dustin: And in the case where it turns out consciousness doesn’t develop until very late, much later than I think. It might be that on my view I would have to say, okay, you agree that we can be misled by whether this looks like a person or not, right?
Dustin: I would… maybe then I would have to say the same thing. It turns out that very counter-intuitively, in the one case you have…
Monica: In the other direction. Right?
Dustin: Right, yes, right. I don’t like saying that, but it might be that our positions…
Monica: No, I understand the caveat. You’re definitely not saying: oh, totally fine no qualms. I got you. Yeah, I think…
Dustin: Yeah, we basically, we would both have to agree that in some cases, we have misleading intuitions based on appearances, and then I think…
Monica: Yeah, and I think…
Dustin: The thing to do would be, say: okay, we’re being misled by appearances, we have to step back and look at this at the theoretical level.
Dustin: And in that case, I think the arguments for the mind view would… though again, what I just said is not my view, because…
Monica: No, I know, but it’s sort of another discussion of equivalence. Because it’s like, there’s a problem with equivalence when pro-lifers will say: oh I’ll save the five-year-old over 10 embryos or whatever, right? But then there’s also a problem with equivalence with the mind view, because you would have to say… I’m not trying to put words in your mouth. You would be like, if it was true that there’s nothing before thalamocortical connections, then failure of implantation and killing the NICU child in some sense are supposed to be equivalent, right? And that’s not intuitive at all.
Dustin: Yeah, yeah.
Monica: So I think there’s some sort of… yeah, I see what you’re saying.
Dustin: Yeah. And I actually… I don’t think that they’re quite equivalent, because I think it could be… again, I think it could be that the organism has some sort of impersonal value.
Monica: Yeah, what do you mean by that? Like, what would… not being full moral status but… so something between irrelevant clump of cells and full newborn baby, right?
Monica: What is… what are you thinking?
Dustin: So I’m thinking… again, this is a view that Ronald Dworkin defends in a book called Life’s Dominion, people can look it up, okay. There’s some sort of distinction between, you know, the sort of moral value that say you or I or I think a conscious animal or baby or whatever have. And where you you can like, have obligations to the individual. Like, you can care about what happens to them for their own sake or whatever.
Dustin: And the sort of obligations you might have towards, say, the Grand Canyon or a piece of art or something.
Monica: The Mona Lisa.
Dustin: Yeah, where they possess some sort of value. It’s not the same, it’s not that they’re like another individual with a claim on you, but there’s still some sort of intrinsic value.
Monica: There might be something immoral about shredding the Mona Lisa.
Dustin: Yes, right. Yeah, if I’m just a little bit chilly and I throw it in the fireplace.
Monica: Right, right.
Dustin: So it may be that an organism has some sort of value like that on the view that I’ve defended, it’s not someone yet, it’s not a person, it’s not one of us yet early on if it… or, if someday I am in an accident and my, you know, my mind gets obliterated, you know, my cortex is destroyed or whatever. Then my organism, I think will survive even though I don’t survive.
Dustin: It may be that my organism still has some sort of impersonal value, just like maybe a redwood tree or something like that.
Monica: Right. And it could have some very personal value to some people.
Dustin: Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah. It could be that other people care about it, but just even on its own I think it has some sort of intrinsic value in the way that maybe some other things do. So that does matter, yeah.
So my view really is much less extreme than the views of some people.
Monica: Well, you’re a philosopher, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?
Dustin: Yeah, yeah. I do…
Monica: Right… No, you go ahead, you go ahead.
Dustin: Yeah, I wanted to go back to the brain transplant case. So you agree that you don’t want to say that you remain as the brain dead organism.
Monica: No, that doesn’t seem very plausible.
Dustin: Yeah, but there is a human organism there, right? I mean, it’s still… the lower brain is intact, vital functions are proceeding.
Monica: Yeah, like the brain stem is still working and everything? Yeah, I guess you could say it’s a very injured human organism.
Dustin: Yeah, and presumably it’s the same organism that has existed the whole time, right?
Monica: Well, most of it. Some of it’s missing.
Dustin: Yeah, oh sure, but it’s not like when we removed it, it’s not like we created a new human organism.
Monica: No, it’s the remaining… the remains of the organism.
Dustin: Yeah, so that’s why it seems like an animal is committed to saying that I remain as the brain dead organism, because if I’m the or I’m the organism and the organism is still there, it’s on the table, it’s the same organism, then that must be me, right?
Monica: Yeah, but I don’t know, man. Because you could just say that now you are neither. You’ve split them up, and they’re the organism… it’s… take it in a different direction, okay?
Let’s say, let me think about this for a second…I think my view is basically that your body and your brain and your mind are all relevant and when you take them apart from each other, it’s not all clear to me that you still exist anywhere, right? If you… I’m trying to think of a good example. Okay, how about this? So I might be pronouncing this wrong, but there is a real life (not thought experiment) procedure called hemispherectomy. It’s when you cut… you know what I’m talking about, yeah? And they have found that they do it in… usually it’s in young children, usually it’s because they’re having really major problems with seizures and their quality of life is so poor that this is actually an improvement, right? But for the purpose of the thought experiment, let’s say that it’s not because someone has seizures, it’s for some other, whatever, it doesn’t matter what the reason is. They cut your brain in half and put half of it in a new body. And the bizarre thing is they have found, in real life when they do this, that not everybody, but a lot of them end up having normal cognitive function, and even the ones where they take the left side, they can regain language, which is not important to my thought experiment, I just thought it was, I just thought it was amazing. But anyway, let’s say you take half of, you take one hemisphere into a new body the 3D printed, same, right? Now which one is you?
Dustin: Right, right. So this is something philosophers talk about, this is, yeah…
Monica: Is this like The Prestige? Did you see The Prestige, with Hugh Jackman? You know what…
Dustin: I did, when I was in high school or something.
Monica: …okay, it doesn’t matter. I’m just saying it’s like… spoiler alerts if you haven’t seen The Prestige! But, Hugh Jackman finds some kind of mystical way to clone himself so which one is really him? Is it the one that falls into the water? Is it the one that’s on the stage? That’s, you know, kind of…
Dustin: Yeah so I guess I’ll say what I actually think.
Monica: Oh, good!
Dustin: And then I’ll say something that’s less weird. What I actually think is that Richard Swinburne might be right, in thinking that this is a kind of argument for substance dualism, because it seems like in this case there has to be some fact about where I go, and yet it doesn’t seem like facts are…
Monica: Are you just cloned, like is it…
Dustin: Yeah, it seems like there are two… it seems like there are two equally good candidates for being me
Dustin: And yeah, and it seems like I can’t be both, it seems like there has to be some fact of the matter. So Swinburne thinks what that shows is actually that you have a soul and it goes with one of them and you just can’t tell, and so you don’t know what will happen.
Monica: And then… not, I don’t want to go too far down the soul path, but like, then does he think that… like,, let’s say there’s: right side, left side. Let’s say your soul goes with right side. Is there like a new separate soul that enters left side?
Dustin: Yeah, yeah.
Dustin: I mean, somehow it seems like this procedure has to create a new person somehow, because we started out with one person and we wind up with two.
Monica: Yeah, two basically functioning… yeah, exactly.
Dustin: I think from a materialist point of view, you might say… maybe in that case, maybe there’s like a closest continuer condition on personal identity. So maybe…
Monica: I’m sorry, say that again?
Dustin: A closest continuer condition, so maybe in order to be one in the same individual, I have to not only meet certain conditions, but I have to meet them the best out of anybody. And in that case, because there are two equally good candidates, maybe neither of us is. Now that’s a weird thing to say, because…
Monica: It’s a weird situation, there might not be a normal thing to say.
Dustin: Yeah, so maybe… maybe that’s the thing to say or, I don’t know. I mean, I’ll have to say, whatever happens to my mind in that situation, that’s what happens to me. And it’s just… it’s hard to say what happens to my mind in that situation.
Monica: Sure. But the point I’m trying to drill down on is when you divide up the organism, it’s not… like, especially if we’re taking the view of the mind as a physical thing, taking the brain out and leaving the body, that’s just only one way you could do it. You could take out like only the, you know, sensory motor cortex. Or you could take out only… you could take out only a section and move it and then be like oh, now where’d you go? And my point is, you don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer, either. Whether you believe in souls or not, we don’t really know what that means. And I think there is a lot in this discussion about minds versus organisms where we just frankly don’t know, and it’s interesting to talk about as sort of like, you know, a philosophical conversation. But when we are talking about which humans we can kill, I think you need more certainty than that, that’s what I’m saying.
Dustin: Yeah, so I think if you’re an animalist, you are committed to thinking that you know. Because you agreed that the organism survived that procedure, so…
Monica: Which procedure are we talking about? The hemispheres?
Dustin: No, no no. The original one, where we just… we take out your cerebrum and transplant it, and the body remains alive.
Dustin: An animalist, I think Eric Olson is right, has to say, yeah that’s the same organism laying there. The organism that laid down on the table, now it’s lacking a cerebrum.
Monica: Yeah… I don’t…
Dustin: If you’re the organism, you have to, it looks like you have to say that you’ve remain as that individual.
Monica: Well, I guess then I’m not an animalist.
Monica: Yeah, that doesn’t make sense.
Dustin: So what is your view, then.
Monica: Of the cerebrum thing?
Dustin: What is your view of what I am?
Monica: Oh. I think that we are bodies and minds. I think we’re clearly bodies and minds combined, and I think that the thing that we value about ourselves as humans, whether… I don’t want to speak for everybody. It seems to me that, whether you are religious or not, at least on a day-to-day level, the things that make our lives rich, the things that we care about is our cognitive ability. So I agree with you there, like, the mind is crucial. I think that’s really obvious to me. But what’s not obvious to me is that a given mind has to have present abilities in the moment to mean that you are you. It seems like, it’s more like over a time frame. That’s kind of what I was trying to get at with the whole forebrain transplant, you know?
I think you can see it when we were kind of talking… and I know you’re kind of saying maybe you’d bite the bullet, but I would encourage you to go with your original intuition that even if neuroscience said you don’t have any mental life until 29 weeks, it doesn’t mean it’s okay to kill you before that. Because you’re working on it, you are working on it the whole time.
And then speaking… and this is just like, we’re just talking about intuitions, now, right? But speaking as how I have experienced my own children. And not just during pregnancy because that’s, to be quite frank, and I am very pro-life, but like, pregnancy sucks, okay? And also, aside from it sucking, I totally get how different women feel differently about it even for wanted pregnancies. It’s very difficult, the interactions you’re having with your child are limited mostly to frustrating physical effects until they start kicking you, right? But even… I’m saying, even after that, like watching a newborn and watching them develop and seeing externally the way… like, I love to imagine (I have a seven month old at home) and the whole time, I love to watch you can see her, like you could just imagine all the neurons connecting, connecting, connecting. You can see that she’s realizing this is her hand, and now she’s starting to figure out that she is a different body than I am, and then she’s starting to figure out: how do you roll to your stomach.
I think the whole thing is fabulous, and I think it’s fabulous from the beginning. From the beginning. You know, your neural tube starts to form right… like, just from a respect for embryogenesis it’s fascinating. Like the abortion debate aside, right? And I’ve taken a couple… like, I’m not pretending to be an expert. I’m not pretending to be an expert. I’m just saying I’ve taken a couple genetics courses, I’ve seen things about it, and I think it merits a lot of respect. I think humans merit a lot of respect even when they aren’t yet there. And that’s also why I think that it’s intuitive to us, for example, if you have a coma patient, and you have good reason to believe it’s irreversible, that’s one thing. But if you have a good reason to believe they will heal in five to nine months, it’s a completely different thing. Because it’s not just about their presentability, it’s about what is likely to happen over time if you take care of them, and I think that applies to fetuses also.
Monica: Sorry I don’t have a, you know, I don’t know what that’s called… it’s not called animalism.
Dustin: Yeah, yeah. So I think I can agree with quite a lot of what you said. I think, I mean, in the case of the coma patient, for instance, I think the coma patient still has a mind. It’s just sort of inhibited in the way that I think I have a mind if I go into a dreamless sleep.
Dustin: You know. And that’s why if they wake up, they’ll have at least some of the same memories, because it’s not like…
Monica: Yeah, but you could just adjust it to: they wake up with total amnesia, and I still think you would not see that the same. That’s still not the same as unplugging them, right?
Dustin: Yeah, I agree with that. I think in that case, if they woke up with total amnesia, it would be maybe like the case where I get dementia. Where it’s the same mind, it just is losing most of its capacities or something.
Monica: Yeah, or in his case, hopefully he’s regaining them, but yeah.
Dustin: Yeah. Yeah, so I think there’s a distinction… I agree, there’s a distinction we have to draw between the person in a reversible coma and the person in an irreversible coma. I think in the reversible coma, I’m still there, I just am not I’m just inhibited in a certain way. Whereas in the irreversible coma, where my mind is actually destroyed, I think I’m not there anymore.
Dustin: And then I want to apply kind of a similar model to the beginning. I think before I had any mind, there was something very impressive happening that might have some intrinsic value in that.
Monica: I agree it’s impressive.
Dustin: Yeah, but there’s this important question about when is there one of us there, right? Because that’s important weighing the different considerations, the you know the pregnant people… there’s this question about when is there one of us there, and there I think just like once my mind is gone I’m gone, even though my organism continues to exist, I think.
Dustin: At the beginning of life, my organism exists for a little bit before I arrive on the scene, because there’s not a mind yet. So there is a basic brain before there’s a mind, because just like the very basics…
Monica: Okay, but then… so how are you defining a mind, then? Like, let me think this through for a second, because you’ve said things like, you know, if you’re in an irreversible coma, you don’t think your mind is gone, it’s just inhibited.
Dustin: If I’m in a reversible coma.
Monica: Right, sorry, yes, right. If you’re in a reversible coma, you don’t think your mind is gone, you just think it’s inhibited… because of the damage to your brain. But from, like, imagining this from a neuroscientific perspective… let’s say, and I’m obviously completely making this up, let’s say that you need neuron 1 million two hundred and seventy thousand because to connect to neuron one million two hundred and seventy thousand and one and then that’s the connection where you can start to have the most minimal… like, maybe you can feel like a pin prick or something, right? Now, in the reversible coma, let’s say that that connection was severed, whereas with the fetus, it just hasn’t happened yet. What’s the difference?
Dustin: Right. So I’m thinking my mind is like an object composed of certain parts of my brain, like whatever the parts of my brain are that are responsible for my mental life. And it could be that those parts continue to exist and maintain a certain kind of organization even though, just like they do when I’m asleep, you know, even though they they are not able to… you know, just like my phone can maintain a certain kind of organization even if it’s turned off. And there’s a difference…
Monica: Sure, sure. You don’t have to start from scratch every time.
Dustin: …difference where my phone is just smashed or something.
Dustin: So yeah, I think if I go into a coma and I wake up, then I’ll have the same mind that has persisted. And that’s why I will survive the coma. In a case where… I mean, you can imagine kind of a sci-fi case where like all of the parts of my brain that produce consciousness are obliterated, and then somehow you regrow them or whatever.
Dustin: And I sure… I wouldn’t want that to happen to me, because I would be really worried about whether I really survived.
Monica: Right. Not at all clear what that’s going to result in, philosophically. Right. But so I guess my point is… and if I’m not understanding you, obviously let me know, but the way you’re defining mind doesn’t seem like any specific definition, it just seems like kind of a, you know, a gut instinct about well it’s not this, but it’s this. And it’s not that, but it’s this. And I don’t understand… how would you know by that, you know, by that approach, how do you know you don’t have a mind as soon as you have a forebrain, how do you know you don’t have like a foremind, right?
Dustin: Oh. Well, I guess it seems like the the parts of your brain that are responsible for your mind haven’t developed yet, then.
Monica: I just… I guess, I don’t… it’s not clear to me when people, and maybe this is the STEM not philosophy background, I recognize that, but it’s just not clear to me when people talk about mind what they mean, except for that they feel sure it starts here and not there. And I’m not trying to… I’m not, from what I’m hearing from you, it kind of goes to what I was saying about the precautionary principle. I don’t really know what you mean by mind as related to brain except for that you feel pretty sure that you need some brain structures for it to happen, but you also think that probably it happens earlier than neuroscientists are saying sentience happens, and that the like, if you have damage to neural connectivity that’s a difference in kind from just not having it have happened yet. It just seems… it’s interesting, I enjoy talking about it but again, it seems very flexible and unclear. When we’re talking about whatever is the core of our worth that merits whether we can kill humans or not. I’m not trying to be dramatic, I’m just saying that’s what abortion is, right? You’re destroying embryos and fetuses in one way or another… and if we’re asking how do we know this is okay, I just think we need something more concrete than what you’re describing.
Dustin: Yeah. So I mean, there are a couple of things I would take… I don’t think, for instance, that I’m saying that it happens earlier than neuroscientists say sentience happens. I think it happens when sentience happens. And there’s a debate about when when sentience happens.
Monica: Sure. But my understanding, and this is from being like super plugged into the abortion debate, so I could be really getting limited information here. There’s a couple of people internationally… There’s a couple of people trying to say that sentience could actually happen much earlier than we think, right? Maybe as early as like 11 weeks. But most of them are still insisting: no, no, no, no, no, no no it is 29 weeks or at the earliest, right? So I guess I’m just not clear what you mean when you’re feeling confident that sentience happens earlier.
Dustin: Yeah, well I think I have philosophical views about sentience that…
Monica: Oh, okay.
Dustin: …that inform, like what exactly needs to happen for it, but… I think, I mean, yeah maybe it would be, maybe in that sort of situation, it makes sense to err on the earlier side of like the serious scientific estimates, right?
Dustin: And that would still mean that most abortions and the earliest abortions are going to be before that.
Monica: Sure. Then that’s like its own precautionary principle. It’s like, well if there’s a debate, let’s just say 11 weeks and then, you know, call it a day. But if it came to be, and this is not, I mean, it’s completely unknowable, there’s so much we don’t know about neuroscience and the brain, it’s ridiculous, but if it came to be that they somehow could prove that sentience actually doesn’t happen until not even 20… It could be as late as… in fact, some of them argue (and I don’t take this view and I’m sure you don’t take this view), some of them argue it’s not even possible in utero at all, because they say that the fetus is in a sort of sleep-like state that keeps it calm, and you know whatever, I don’t think that’s true. But if it came to be the case that they somehow proved that there’s no mental life until you are out of the womb and get all the sensory input, what would your view be then, of like basically any point in pregnancy, right?
Dustin: Yeah, so I think that probably… I mean, if the view is that I’m… I mean, I think that this is what the view is. That like the the neural capacity is there but it’s inhibited by you know hormones or whatever chemicals are in the environment and the…
Monica: Whatever they’re saying.
Dustin: Yeah. So there I’m inclined to think, yeah there would be a mind, it’s just not one that’s…
Monica: So it sounds like you’re saying…
Dustin: It would be like if I took a drug that knocked me unconscious or something.
Monica: Right. So it sounds like from the biological standpoint, then, it’s like as long as the neurons have actually connected, even if they aren’t firing then there’s a mind. But if they haven’t connected yet, then there’s not.
Dustin: That might be… something… yeah, I mean yeah, they need the right sort of functional organization or something like that.
Monica: Sure. Okay. If that’s your view, it’s not inconsistent, you could say that. I just don’t understand…
Dustin: I mean, I guess I’ll say, you’re I mean, you’re unhappy with my view because you feel like you don’t understand it. I don’t understand your view either. I went in thinking you thought that we were organisms.
Monica: Yeah, I was under no delusion that we would leave this in agreement, one of us is going to convert the other at the end of the day.
Dustin: Yeah, I mean everyone has, you know, certain… yeah, everybody has certain views about, certain questions about like, how do I make this view precise, blah blah blah.
Dustin: I think…yeah, I think you’re noting there are questions about how to make this view precise. Jeff McMahon has done work on this that people can read. But like, I don’t know. I thought I knew what your view was going in. I thought it was animalism. Now I don’t know.
Monica: Well, to be fair to you, I don’t really know either, right?
Dustin: I think if I had a clearer sense, I could probably be asking lots of questions of the same sort. it’s just, I don’t even understand…
Monica: I mean, that’s totally fine because the idea, as Santi said, was just to have like a non-combative discussion that people can listen to that’s very different in kind from probably most of the online conversations they have about this. I think that alone is worth the time. Okay, fair. Fair enough, fair enough. I think at this point, I’m just kind of repeating myself and we’re we’re sort of at a standstill, but…
Santi: Can I actually ask a question from the audience? To see what you guys think about it. And it seems to be a rhetorical question, but yet… it would be important. Why does precaution apply only to the alleged fetal person? I guess both of you can answer that question or give a few thoughts about it. And then you guys can, you know, have a discussion between like you two, as far as like you know, Dustin’s answer, your answer, Monica?
Monica: Sure. Do you want to do first?
Dustin: Yeah. I don’t think it should. I mean, yeah, if you really want to, I mean, if you only applied it to the alleged fetal person, I guess maybe you would say yeah, you should draw the line at conception.
Monica: Pretty straightforward at that point.
Dustin: And pro-life people sometimes act like that’s the way that we should do it. I think that that doesn’t make sense, because yeah, there are cases where the mother has an interest in getting an abortion, and you know. And so somehow we have to balance, you know, we have to balance like the possible risks that exist in both directions.
Dustin: I don’t know the exact right balance, I don’t purport to have the exact right balance. And like I said, I also think that there are other aspects of the debate that are important that I really haven’t talked about too much. So yeah, I think… in terms of the question, yeah… I guess I said what I have to say about that.
Monica: I pretty much agree. I don’t think it applies only to the fetal person. But to the best of my understanding… so let’s say you’re right. Or not even you, let’s say a more extreme version of what you’re saying is right. Like, it’s not even the Mona Lisa, it’s just nothing. It’s just, you know, like menstruation or something, right?
If that’s true, it’s like, this is like Pascal’s Wager of abortion, okay? If that’s true, then the risk we take going against that view is requiring millions of people to carry pregnancies they don’t want to carry, and all of the the health risks… and also, not just the pregnancy itself, I think at least as important is bringing children into the world when they might not be prepared, and sometimes that can have very very serious effects, right? And there’s research to show that it affects your financial output. It affects your, you know, if you’re in a not great relationship. Like, there’s all sorts of ways… I think almost everyone would agree that ideally, nobody would even get pregnant unless they wanted to be pregnant, right? And this is not ideal, and if we’re, and if I’m fighting for laws that are, you know, saying: hey, this is a valuable human being and we got to figure out how to deal with this, it’s going to mean a lot of people carrying pregnancies they don’t want to. And I want to underscore that, by the way, we know that’s true. We know that laws against abortion decrease abortion in a couple ways, and one of them is preventing people from getting wanted abortions, and they end up carrying to term. And that is very serious. And I think that… I think that both sides should recognize that as serious.
On the other hand, if my view is correct and the embryo is a valuable child, and we legalize and I think even worse, destigmatize abortion, it’s genocide, right? So I feel like we do need to take the precautionary principle. We need to think about it for both ends, and obviously, I’m biased because I land on my side. But if we’re talking about how we balance that out, I think it’s pretty hard to say that precautionary principle would mean erring on the side of more legal abortion.
Dustin: Well, it’s going to depend on… it’s going to depend on how we evaluate the probabilities too, right?
Dustin: Okay yeah, I mean if I’m right in thinking that we’re our minds and, you know, it looks like…
Monica: And only our minds once they get… yeah.
Dustin: Yeah, we’re not… yeah, we’re not quite sure when our minds begin to exist, but at least it’s not super early. Then, you know, that’s different than if you think it’s like independently actually really plausible that there’s somewhere there.
Monica: Right. It’s the same problem with Pascal’s Wager. [laughs]
Dustin: Oh yeah, it’s also… I will say about the genocide thing, I have a paper coming out and Ergo called “Is Abortion the Only Issue?” where I talk about: if you’re pro-life, how bad should you think this is?
Dustin: Not, should it justify…
Monica: Pro-lifers fight about this all the time.
Dustin: My view is that… I mean, what I argue in this paper, we don’t need to go into this a lot, but what I argue in this paper is that the standard pro-life response to the embryo rescue case also entails that you shouldn’t think it’s nearly as bad as just like the sheer numbers might immediately suggest.
Monica: Yeah that reminds me though, actually. I have a counter hypothetical for you. And I did not come up with this, a friend of mine came up with this, and then later on when I mentioned it she had forgotten it, but I’m not gonna pretend it was my idea. So instead of the burning IVF lab, okay? I’m calling it the Frankenstein lab. So it’s the same scenario everything you’re talking about, but replace the embryos with cerebral cortexes waiting to be put into bodies, right? Say you have… or say, we could go more sci-fi than horror. Say that we have found a way to download our consciousness onto, you know, a USB drive. And so there’s this lab with a five-year-old and a USB drive with like 10 consciousnesses that will successfully, maybe probably transfer to your 3D printed bodies. Do you save the USB drive or the five-year-old?
Dustin: Yeah, so I’m imagining that the… I’m imagining that the… the consciousnesses on the hard drive, like those are real minds that are just…
Monica: That have lived, that have like, you know, maybe we came up with the technology that you don’t have to die, you’re 80 and we’re like, download your consciousness and put it into a… I like your 3D printed thing because it doesn’t require stealing bodies.
Dustin: Yeah, yeah.
Monica: [laugh] I think it was a little less terrible.
Dustin: Yeah, I guess I think that in that case, you should save the hard drive, all else equal.
Monica: What do you mean?
Dustin: And I mean, in the real case, if, you know, if the… so if the five-year-old is going to suffer horribly, then that’s relevant, and blah blah blah.
Monica: Well that’s part of it, right? I mean, we have to deal with the same thing.
Dustin: Yeah, yeah. But you know, you can imagine, I mean, my inclination is to think even in the case where you know the five-year-old is unconscious…
Monica: Like anesthetized and is not going to wake up.
Dustin: Yeah, um yeah you, in that case it still seems to me like you should save the five-year-old over the embryos. It doesn’t seem to me…
Monica: But not over the USB drive.
Dustin: Not over the the 10-5 year olds on the hard drive or whatever.
Monica: But what if they were 80 year olds?
Dustin: Oh, yeah then you’d need to do some kind of…
Monica: Well I was, the only reason I was… because in my mind, you’re using this technology for immortality… it doesn’t, yeah, you know. But.
Monica: Yeah, because I’ve thought about it a little bit, and I think with both (for me), with both the IVF lab and the USB drive, I’m still inclined to save the five-year-old. And that’s just a knee-jerk reaction. I would have to try to think about why I feel that way. I imagine I feel that way partly because… sort of what you were talking about before, where like, we’re more likely to bond as they become more human or whatever. And I’m not saying that like a cavalier thing, I’m not saying that like, oh that’s a stupid reason. I think it’s significant, but to my mind, the USB drive and the embryos… if there was nobody else, I’d grab those. Right? But I have a five-year-old. And so it’s hard for me to imagine not taking the five-year-old. But if your intuition is different, fair enough. Yeah. There was something else I was going to ask you. One second. Maybe not, I think we might have covered a lot of it. So… nah, no. I was going to ask you your reading of the neuroscience and sentience, but I feel like we’ve talked about that at length already.
Santi: Okay, Dustin do you think that the hypothetical that Monica gave you, does that undermine your case in any way?
Dustin: The hypothetical about the people on the hard drive?
Dustin: I don’t think so, I mean. I guess I don’t… I mean, it’s odd to think of maybe, digital people or something.
Monica: It’s a fantasy for some people.
Dustin: Yeah I mean, it’s not absurd to think that there could be digital people if you have the right kind of AI. And yeah, I think, you know, if you imagine…
Monica: It’s the Matrix, right? You download being able to ride the helicopter.
Dustin: Yeah, right. And those are people, or somebody in a spaceship where you can talk to the computer and it acts like a person. Okay yeah, it seems like a person. So yeah, then I guess I do think… yeah, the hard drive with 10 digital people stored on it. Yeah that’s, that’s… there are 10 people in there. And so I don’t find that a very counter… I mean, I don’t myself find that a counter-intuitive conclusion. Though maybe, I don’t know maybe I’m just, you know, my intuitions are too formed by theory here and I’m not thinking about it the way an ordinary person would or something.
Monica: Like if you actually, yeah… well I mean, that’s the nature of thought experiments, right?
Dustin: Yeah. I mean, you know… if you, I mean you imagine… like if you… somebody on a spaceship was like, you know, talking to the AI and there are like 10 different people that live in the computer, and then like you power everything down and now the spaceship’s about to get blown up, it makes sense to me that yeah, you have really strong reasons to prevent that from happening.
Dustin: In a way that I don’t feel the same inclination…
Monica: But that’s not a triage case, that’s just don’t blow it up, right?
Dustin: Oh yeah, yeah so sure. I think the reasons you have there to save the 10 people are as strong as they would be to save…
Monica: Just the embryos.
Dustin: You or me. No I think that they’re stronger than the reasons to save the embryo.
Monica: Oh, my intuition doesn’t follow you there.
Dustin: Oh, yeah.
Monica: I mean, the thing that trips me up about the IVF lab or the Frankenstein lab or the… I got to come up with a name for the Sci-Fi lab… is the triage part, is what trips me up.
Which is also why the thought experiment does irritate me a little bit, because the overwhelming majority of abortions in the United States are performed on healthy fetuses carried by healthy women with no medical emergency at all. So it’s not like: oh, we have to let the embryos die to save the five-year-old. It’s usually more like: I don’t want to be responsible for these embryos, so I’m setting the lab on fire. That’s what it is more like.
And so I understand that’s not the point of the thought experiment, the point of the thought experiment is to get to your, like your intuition about equivalence, right? But it’s also… I think there’s something there. Because sort of like you were saying earlier, I think… we have… we don’t have the same view, but I think there’s more common ground than I thought when you’re talking about the Mona Lisa thing. I feel like that’s kind of getting at where I’m coming from. Let’s say that I agreed that you don’t have a person until you have a mind, which I don’t. But let’s say that I did. But I also agree that…
Oh. Did I just lose you guys?
Dustin: I’m here, you just became full screen.
Monica: Okay sorry, that threw me off.
Let’s say I agreed that… I also agreed that, you know, from zygote to whenever mind happens, not a person but something, something of value, right?
I’m sorry the screen thing completely threw me off. What were we just saying?
Dustin: I don’t know. I’ll say… I mean, so like commander Data has temporarily uploaded his consciousness to the ship computer. And 10 people like commander data have done that. Yeah, I really do think save them over me. It’s 10 of them and it’s one of me. In a way that I don’t think save 10, you know, two cell zygotes over me. So my intuitions are different in that case. And I think…
Monica: Okay, so…
Dustin: …what explains that is a difference in intuitions about moral status.
Monica: So, I don’t even disagree. I don’t blame people when they… pro-choice or pro-life, I don’t hold it against them if they say five-year-old over ten embryos, right? For some of the reasons you said and for some other reasons, too.
But what I was going to say is the triage thing matters. Because let’s say that you have something less than a person but still of moral value, right? And we’re trying to figure out these scales. There’s a big difference between: can we kill this not-quite-yet-a-person-thing to save someone’s life versus can we do it for literally any reason. Right? And that’s relevant to the abortion debate because the vast majority of the time it is not to save someone’s life.
And maybe you… like obviously, you still think early enough, yes, for any reason. I understand that. But I’m just saying these factors play in in ways that I think, it could still make sense. Even for someone who agreed. In fact, not that I think we have to look to the Supreme Court for ethical, you know, intuition. But in Roe v. Wade, they talked about how you could um limit abortion after viability even though they still didn’t think the fetus was a person, because they thought vaguely without really explaining it, that there’s obviously still interest in fetal life even if they’re not persons yet. And I think that there’s a lot of people who, even if they don’t articulate that, kind of take that view.
I think the embryo rescue case shows that there are probably a lot of pro-life people who don’t agree with equivalence, and I think you’re right. But that doesn’t mean that abortion is not immoral, right? You don’t need equivalence to argue that abortion could be very immoral. In some sense I think (and I don’t know if I’m using the vernacular correctly) when you describe equivalence the way you do, I don’t think I… I don’t think I hold equivalence either, and I still think that abortion is usually (not always) but usually deeply immoral for the life view.
So from like, I don’t… I know we don’t want to get into religious debates, and I’m totally cool with that. But from my perspective with not believing in, you know, life before this or life after. In my view, it’s like, we have, you know, eons of evolution and humans living and feeling joy and suffering and then dying, and then from my perspective that is it. There’s… that’s it. That’s what you got, you got what you got, and there’s nothing else. Okay? And to my view, that means that when you have a human organism that’s in the process of developing a mind and all of the things that we treasure and love and care about, right? It is exceedingly valuable. Because it’s not like you can destroy that, frustrate that process, and then they’ll just come back another time. That was it.
And I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it’s kind of like the Polaroid analogy, where you take… say you take a Polaroid photo of some very rare important thing that you need evidence of that there’s never been any… you got Bigfoot or whatever. And it’s developing, it’s not developed yet, and someone tears it up. And you get really mad and they’re like well, it wasn’t a photo of Bigfoot yet. Yeah, okay, it was working on it, though. And I think that there’s some value there, so… I think I agree with you that equivalence probably is not intuitive to most people most of the time. I don’t think that really undermines the pro-life case that much, though.
Dustin: Yeah, so you could reject the view that a zygote has equal moral value…
Monica: To like a newborn.
Dustin: Yeah, and still think that it has some sort of significant moral value and it has to be… yeah. Yeah, I agree with that. I mean, I agree that that’s a possible view. And it may also, again, it may be that there’s some sort of intrinsic value just in the burgeoning human organism.
Monica: I… yeah, I think so.
Dustin: Yeah. Then we get into questions about how to weigh that against other values.
Dustin: I’m probably… I think I’m more permissive than you, and that’s gonna cause me to say we should leave it up to individuals to decide how to weigh those in their own circumstances. At least, you know…
Monica: Right, and then it really comes down to (as far as I can tell) my intuition that you already have a very valuable human right from the beginning, based on how I, you know, see these thought experiments and so forth, far too much to say that it’s a private decision. And that’s where you see people saying like… well, you know, and I think you already recognize this, but where people are saying: well, if you don’t like abortion don’t get one. That’s a useless… that’s a useless argument, because you’re missing how we’re (not you, Dustin), the person is missing how we’re viewing this. We are viewing this as like, you know, you’re destroying a human being. And I’m not saying there’s never a reason to do that, even. I am not even a consistent life ethic person, right? But I do think the hurdle is high. And I don’t think for any time and any reason it is high at all. And there are lots of factors that could vary it… I do think that it’s… I do think it is somewhat circumstance dependent, so we probably have common ground there.
It’s just that where I think most pro-lifers draw the line is going to be so much more restrictive because of how much they view, you know, this amazing process of… I view zygotes and early embryos as one of us. I was an embryo. As far as I’m concerned, I was an embryo at one point while my brain was making all those connections, and so were you.
And that’s not the end of the question, the earlier question was relevant. Like, precautionary principle doesn’t just apply to only my side. I totally get that, but I think the stakes are very very high. And I don’t think that these discussions of mind are very compelling, because I still… I’m sorry to keep revisiting things, I just don’t even know what you mean when you talk about the mind versus the brain, right? Especially at present ability level.
So… oh! I was gonna ask you, sorry, what about the thought experiment about the injured fetus that needs a medication after birth to fix the neural connections. Like, she’s never had the neural connections to allow sentience, but she will if she can just be born and get that medication and now she’s born and she doesn’t have the medication. What do you think about that?
Dustin: Oh. Yeah, I think I’ll say similar things to what I said. I think that… yeah, I think you should give her the medication for the reasons that I gave when I was talking about the NICU case.
Monica: Well, I would just say the same response about if there was, you know, the organ donation thing.
Dustin: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Monica: And then you would probably just say the same thing, which is…
Dustin: Yeah I… that, yeah. That would be… I mean, again, if that was a real case, I would wonder if there isn’t really some capacity for consciousness. Just like, I mean, there’s even debate about anencephalic infants and whether they might be able to develop some sort of basic capacity for consciousness, because of like, you know…
Monica: Which just further speaks to how much we don’t know about the brain, really.
Dustin: Yeah. So yeah. I mean, if that was a real case, I would think: precautionary principle, you shouldn’t kill them you just give them medicine. I would think: there is… even if there’s no mind yet, it will be good to bring a mind into existence, which we can easily do here. And the body has some sort of intrinsic value, maybe more to some, or whatever. And so that’s a reason not to kill them…
Monica: I agree, but it’s supposed to be weighed against the infant that will die without the organ.
Dustin: Yeah, yeah. And yeah, and in the case where you have another infant who’s going to die… yeah, it might be that the view would imply… yeah, it could turn out that the view would imply that it would be okay in that case. And then, you would have to say that’s a very bizarre result, because it’s a very bizarre case. And…
Monica: Sure, sure. The weirdness of thought experiments.
Dustin: Yeah. I mean, you know it could also be, you know… I mean, I’ve thought before about like… we do have… we do have a kind of intuitive repulsion against certain ways of using living human organisms.
Dustin: Yeah, that might be relevant there.
Monica: There was a paper about this recently. While you’re thinking, I’m going to look it up because I’m going to get the name wrong, and I would like to get it correct. But you go ahead.
Monica: Certain moral intuitions about the way you use the bodies of organisms, even if the mind isn’t there. Is that what you’re saying?
Dustin: Yeah. I mean, you know you can imagine like suppose we were in a war, and I can… I can shoot an enemy soldier, or I can like use a radiation gun that will put him into a persistent vegetative state by destroying his brain.
Dustin: And if I do that, I can go out and grab him and harvest his organs and give them to people on my side. A lot of people, I think, would have (including me) would have the the view that there’s something not okay about that, right?
Dustin: Even though I don’t think that the reason is that it would wrong him. I mean, I’m allowed to kill him, we’re in a war…
Monica: Well, and also…
Dustin: And I don’t think it’s any worse for him to have me do this than to kill him. So I think it’s some sort of… we feel like it’s a transgression almost of some kind of sacred value having to do with biological life.
Monica: I think it also gets into what we were talking about before, where our conversations about this, even though we’re focusing on abortion, obviously, they apply elsewhere. And they affect how society thinks about different groups and people and circumstances, even if we mean them to just apply to abortion. So maybe with the war analogy… for me, it would be in part… and maybe I would do it, I don’t know what I would do, but… it would feel like now you’ve crossed this line, you know. What if… my kids have a book called What if Everybody Did That?, right? And you start to think like, are we developing a society where this is like a thing that people do, and what are the implications if it’s on a grander scale, and all of those things. You know? I think that the war analogy and the abortion debate have those problems.
So a similar example… you know, it is what it is, but we talk about our intuitions and the embryo rescue case, and I generally agree with most of what you have said. But on the other hand, um so… the way we talk about abortion and the way we talk about embryos and early fetuses, we usually talk about it while we’re thinking about abortion and the rights of the woman in conflict with the rights of the fetus, and so forth. Which I get. But while we’re talking about the personhood and value of embryos and fetuses… and you and I are doing it in a very, you know, collegiate, friendly way. But I’m sure you’ve seen how it can go. There’s a lot of very disdainful, active, aggressive discussions about the relative worthlessness of embryos and fetuses. And people think they’re just talking to anti-abortion folk, but they’re also talking to people who have miscarried. And I can tell you that there is… miscarriage is misunderstood by society, pro-lifers and pro-choices alike. It’s kind of like its own thing, but the grief over miscarriage (not for everybody, I would never pretend to speak for everyone who has miscarried), but the grief for a lot of people is very deeply felt, and it is not (this is important to underscore) the same kind of grief as just wishing for a potential future that’s not happening. There is that, but there also is the grief of your physically existing genetic offspring now dead. It’s a different kind of grief. And most miscarriage happens the same stage that most abortions happen, right?
And the reason I bring it up is because… two reasons. First of all, I would like people to think about that when they’re talking about this. I don’t think there’s… I’m not saying this about you, I don’t think anything about the way you’ve talked about anything has been disrespectful or anything like that, that’s not what I’m saying. But a lot of people are, and it’s unnecessary. You can make the same points you, Dustin, have made without talking about it so dismissively. But also more my second point is: there are different intuitions, and it’s hard to say it’s hard to say unequivocally… like, I’ve seen a lot in abortion debate of these various gotchas, of which I think the IVF lab is one of them, be like: you don’t really think it’s a valuable human being because of the IVF lab. But I can tell you, people who miscarry a lot of them do. And then there’s this… then there’s this horrible back and forth of like trying to prove that they didn’t really… in the loss community, there are people who have fought with hospitals to get the remains. There are people who did a burial in the backyard, and then had a nervous breakdown 15 years later when they had to move, there’s all kinds of… and I understand it’s different because it’s your embryo. Like obviously there’s… it’s more personal in kind.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I think that the way a lot of people react to miscarriage and also to abortion, in some cases, not speaking for everybody, demonstrates that our intuitions are complicated about this. The IVF rescue case is a triage case, it’s a thought experiment, you’re having a hard time imagining… and also, you know, too, by the way, in most of the times when this case is brought up, if you do say embryos, then everyone’s going to start screaming about what a terrible person you are. That is a part of it, also. So I don’t think it’s that instructive, and if we’re trying to look at people’s intuitions about how they feel about early embryonic life, there are countless examples (pro-life and pro-choice) of people who at least in that context… if you could understand how much someone can grieve an early miscarriage, then you should recognize that there are some deeply held sincerity for some people about this. Including pro-choice people who… who they deeply, this gets the Mona Lisa thing, they can deeply, deeply grieve it and still think that even though they would never get an abortion, there are other considerations, not…
I think for most people it’s not even about bodily rights, a lot of times it’s about what it’s going to do to her life if she has a kid she’s not ready for. I think that’s actually the more salient thing, and bodily rights is just the more philosophically sound one. But all that to say, the IVF lab is one thing, and people’s direct obvious experiences and reactions are another. And they don’t, they don’t line up. A lot of the time.
I’m sorry I’m so rambly. Sometimes I’m not sure what I was saying in the first place also. So.
Santi: What do you guys think about… and just Dustin, I’ll let you uh say something about that here, share your thoughts about that here in a second. What do you guys think about, after Dustin giving us his thoughts, if we address a few questions from the chat. Are you guys okay with that?
Monica: That’s a good idea, because I do kind of have a hard end at 7 P.M. Central so.
Dustin: Yeah, I mean, I think I actually agree with part of what Monica said. Yeah, I think… you know, you do find online people saying things about fetuses and whatever, that I think are not… are not good. Yeah, and that’s not my view.
Monica: No, I know.
Dustin: So yeah, I do still think that the sort of triage case tells us something about exactly what sort of moral value we intuitively attribute to particularly zygotes and very very early fetuses. Yeah, though it’s also yeah, I mean it’s clear that intuitively, we don’t attribute no value whatsoever to them, either.
Monica: Well, we don’t.
Dustin: Well, yeah, yes. Yeah, and I think that’s… I think that’s the right… that is right. So.
Monica: Yeah, fair. Yeah, do you want to do some questions?
Santi: Yeah, we can do a few if you guys are okay with that. Alright, here’s a question from Elijah T: If any entity that has any capacity for conscious experience equals a person, doesn’t this means shooting an adult squirrel or an adult human would be equally murderous?
Dustin: I assume that’s a question for me. No. So one thing you could say is the basic capacity for consciousness is what gives us moral value. Another thing you could say is the basic capacity for consciousness is a necessary condition for us to exist, but there’s some other thing you also need to have for moral value. Just like if you think you’re an organism, if you think that you’re an organism you might think say the ability to maintain homeostasis is a necessary condition for you to exist, but you won’t think, oh therefore… and that’s what gives you full moral status, so anything that can maintain homeostasis has full moral status.
Monica: That’s the thing.
Dustin: Yeah. So one thing… so I actually didn’t give any account of what gives us full moral status.
Monica: I believe I didn’t ask you that.
Dustin: Yes. I could say it is the capacity for consciousness. And then that would entail that yes, a squirrel has the same moral status as us. Though it wouldn’t entail that it’s just as bad to kill me as to kill a squirrel, or sorry, to kill a squirrel as to kill me, because there might be lots of other things that are relevant besides just…
Monica: LIke how a squirrel contributes to society?
Dustin: Well, the fact that I have plans for the future… and relationships, I mean, all sorts of stuff, right? Jeff Sebo has a paper about this that just came out in Philosophical Studies. The other thing would be to say, no it’s something else that gives us full moral status. And I think we would just need to have a longer conversation about that. I think, clearly…
Monica: Is the second view your view?
Dustin: I think, I guess I’ll say this. I think that we underrate the moral status of animals, at least. I think that there are a lot of things about our intuitions about how to treat animals that are like, obviously screwed…
Monica: Pretty bad, yeah.
Dustin: And so I don’t think saying that they actually have the same moral status as us is as absurd as a lot of people think. But if we take that as like a fixed point, I think it’s actually (and this is shared, a view shared by a lot of philosophers), it’s actually quite difficult to come up with a good account of what exactly it is about us that accounts for this difference in moral status. I think though, that if the idea is something like it’s because of… we are members of a certain kind that is not shared with other animals, I think that on my view I can say the same thing. I think that I can say okay, we we are minds and we’re members of the rational kind.
Monica: Right, right.
Dustin: And that’s not true of other animals. So.
Monica: So, the difference between that and what I’m saying is that you don’t think we become members of a rational kind until the mind emerges.
Dustin: Yeah, yeah I don’t think we exist at all until the mind emerges.
Monica: Right. So you can’t be a member if you don’t exist.
Monica: Got it. So you… so that’s your view, you think that the mind is like, necessary, but not sufficient? For like the early stages of the mind.
Dustin I’ve… I mean, I’m quite open to say that the mind is sufficient, too. And that… just, animals have way more moral status than we think. And…
Dustin: The apparently absurd consequences are not really absurd consequences. But I think… if we think that that is just too wild, then we should say something about the kind of things we are. We’re members of a rational kind. And I think…
Monica: Rationality being a step above just having a mind.
Dustin: Yeah. Requiring maybe, the potential to engage in certain sorts of cognition, or that I will come to engage in certain sorts of cognition if I develop normally, or whatever.
Monica: That sounds very very close to my view. [laughs]
Dustin: Yeah it is very close to the view, it just… it differs on what kind of thing we are.
Monica: So our whole… I think, well, not our whole difference, but in terms of fetal personhood, is it that our whole difference pivots on what we think the mind is?
Dustin: Well, I’m saying that we are our minds, and so we don’t exist until the mind begins to exist.
Monica: But that matters on what you think the mind is, because you have to say that the mind is, you know, whatever the cutoff is. You have to say that the mind doesn’t exist until blah blah weeks, when we have this capacity. X weeks, Y capacity, right?
Dustin: Yeah. So the… yeah, the mind requires, you know, the neural capacity for sentience.
Monica: And that meaning, like just any, like any kind of…
Dustin: Yeah, some sort of basic… yeah. So that’s… that’s when… on the view I’ve been defending, that’s when we… that’s when we come into existence. And…
Dustin: That would be when, if what gives us full moral status is not just being a mind, but being a certain kind of mind, then I would say, okay that’s when we come into existence. And there’s also this other interesting thing that happens that isn’t true of the squirrel which is we come into existence and our mind…
Monica: So we could do a future like ours argument, but for you it just only starts when you have the minimum level of sentience.
Dustin: Right, right. And Marquis himself, in that paper where he gives the future like ours argument, he… there’s a very, there’s like one sentence where he says: you know, you could think that there’s a point in… early in pregnancy, where the fetus is not yet definitely an individual. Or he uses some odd phrase or something, and then it wouldn’t apply until later on.
Dustin: And that’s not his view because he’s an animalist, so he thinks you’re the organism.
Dustin: Yeah it’s… I think once we come to exist, a future like ours argument is relevant, yeah.
Monica: So… oh sorry, go ahead.
Dustin: Yeah, I wanted to ask this next question, and this one is for you, Monica. It says: Monica mentions the need for caution with regards to conclusions on identity and abortion. Does she endorse a similar caution with arguments regarding vegetarianism?
Monica: I haven’t personally. But I could, there could be a very good argument for it. Our, so secular pro-life, our vice president is a vegan and she entered into the whole thing from the end… she actually started with animal rights advocacy first, and then she was like, it seems like this would also apply to embryos and early fetuses. And I have to say, she has not converted me, but over the last few years, I’ve started to realize a lot of overlap between… not just between the animal rights movement in my view, and the pro-life movement, but also just in general, realizing how… the biggest similarity that I’ve thought about, is how if you are really involved in one of these causes, if this is where your, like your heart is, and you know a lot about it, you can get to see a lot of really horrible like, like atrocities, basically, that are just like normal in your society, and when you try to make a big deal out of it people just think you’re the crazy one. And I see that, I kind of feel for vegans that way, not just vegetarians, but vegans because they have these horrific films of like… and I, I don’t take the view that the vast majority of species we are aware of are persons. I think there could be some arguments for some cases of like, the types of animals that can pass the mirror test and have meaningful relationships, but overall, mostly I don’t take that view. But kind of getting back to your Mona Lisa thing, I still think you could have a reasonable view that even if they’re not persons, you don’t need to treat them the way that we often do. And vegans, and I feel like vegans, they see these things and they’re like, if you would literally just look at this video, I feel like you would not be making fun of me for being a vegan, right? And I think there’s an analog there with pro-life stuff. Especially, especially as it regards to late term non-medically necessary abortion. I cannot tell you how almost ubiquitous it is that people tell me it literally doesn’t happen, and then that I’m just a lying liar big jerk because I’m trying to talk about that.
And so, anyway. As far as the precautionary principle,
I haven’t. It’s possible that I should. Especially because when you’re talking about what you’re balancing, right? Me not, for example, eating meat is not nearly as, like, I don’t think I don’t think animals have the same moral status as humans, I don’t. But it also doesn’t cost me as much to not eat them as it costs, you know, a woman to go through a pregnancy that she doesn’t want to. In my opinion, right? So I think that there’s a reasonable argument there, I can totally understand why a lot of pro-lifers are vegans or vice versa.
Dustin: Yeah, yeah. I think regardless of exactly how we think about the moral status of animals, every plausible view has it that like, needless cruelty to animals is wrong.
Monica: Yeah, that’s actually a sign of like, sociopathic behavior.
Dustin: Yeah, and that’s really all you need for an anti-factory farming argument, because.
Monica: Yeah, I think it’s helpful (I know this is tangential to the main talk), but I think it’s helpful instead of saying even vegan or vegetarianism, you could just be for and against factory farming. Like, I know people who… they’ll eat meat, but only under very specific circumstances, and that’s really what it comes down to, is the factory farming thing. Anyway.
Santi: I have another one over here. This one… this obviously for Dustin. Brian here is I guess asking for some clarification. He says: I am confused by Dustin’s view. Are the connections that make consciousness possible needed for a mind, or not? If yes, how is a comatose infant a mind? If not, why can’t the early fetus be a mind?
Dustin: Yeah. So I guess… again, I’m thinking… the connections still exist when you’re reversibly comatose. It’s just that you’re inhibited by something else. Whereas the connections don’t exist at all in an early fetus. Or in me if a large part of my brain gets destroyed or something. And so that’s going to be the difference.
Monica: I may be speaking out of turn, but I think it’s totally possible to have someone who’s comatose because some connections have been disrupted, as opposed to existing and not functioning. I don’t know… to my mind, the difference between two neurons who are connected and just don’t have electricity going between them, and two neurons that aren’t connected is not a big difference.
Dustin: Yeah, yeah. So if all of the… like, suppose all of the connection… like the connections were so disrupted, that even like, the ones necessary for basic consciousness didn’t exist, then… and then it’s reversible in the sense that somehow those connections are going to reform afterwards.
Monica: Right, right.
Dustin: Then on the view I’ve defended, what would matter would be whether that is like, in a metaphysical sense, one in the same mind or not.
Monica: Right. Like, if you if you could… if you have the technology to take these specific two neurons and sever their connection and then reattach it, and you just did that a bunch of times, is it like, the same person flashing in and out of existence? Or is it like, I mean I don’t pretend to have the answer, it’s just… that’s what you’re saying, right?
Dustin: Yeah, right. And then… I mean if… so I actually am sympathetic, I mean I accept substance dualism. So I think that it would depend on whether my soul continued to be and you know communicated…
Monica: Which is just unknowable, just straight up unknowable.
Dustin: Right. The other case I mean, if physicalism is true, then, you know, you get into all sorts of questions about the metaphysics of material. If you disassemble them…
Monica: So this is where you’re like: yeah, exactly!
Dustin: Yeah. So, you know, I wouldn’t want to have that happen to me, I guess.
Dustin: But yeah.
Santi: Alright. Are you guys okay with two more questions?
Monica: At least one, I think we could fit at least one.
Dustin: Yeah, I am.
Santi: Okay. In this case, the thing is that I have one for each one of you guys. [laughs]
Monica: Well, Dustin was last, so I can go next. Let’s see how fast I can talk.
Santi: Another question. This one is from Real Atheology. Would be interested in seeing how Monica will respond to Dustin’s argument about how the pro-life view justifies violent action against abortion providers.
Monica: Yeah. I think there’s a number of reasons why that’s a terrible idea. First and foremost, I think that the pro-life view is that… I mean, there’s always going to be exceptions, but (well actually consistent life ethics don’t think there’s exceptions) but I think for most people there’ll be exceptions, but mostly you should avoid, if at all possible, killing people.
I also think that there is an element of… it’s a disaster. It’s also a practical disaster. Like, what I feel like a lot of times pro-choice people aren’t envisioning when they think of our position, is the cultural and historical reality of where we’re sitting. So they act like (not speaking for everybody, a certain kind of people), they act like if they believed that a bunch of valuable human beings were being killed every single day, then they would probably go and shoot an abortion provider obviously, because that would be the morally at least plausible thing to do to save those lives. But they’re not trying to think about what it’s like when all of society, like half of society, has been okay with this and you’re trying to cause a paradigm shift.
It’s kind of like the veganism thing. Like, if you believe, if you believe that if not the animals are people, but that they are morally valuable and the way that we treat them in factory farming is pretty horrific, it seems like it would justify more than just not eating meat. But also there are, you know, some corner case groups that will like, try to commit, you know, I guess you would call them acts of terrorism to stop it from happening.
And there are some people who will take that view, and there are some people who have taken the view that maybe what I need to do is attack an abortion provider. But most people recognize that if you’re trying to change this on a long-term and big picture level, that is a terrible idea. I also think there’s a moral component, too. But I also… I just think that like, you do that, you’re guaranteeing… just from a purely pragmatic level, if you… Tiller, right? George Tiller, who was shot in his church? Maybe whoever did that stopped him from (and he did like really late stage abortions which I think was part of the thing), maybe they stopped him from doing, what? A few of those? And they also enormously convinced society that this is a thing to defend and not a thing to try to stop. So just on a purely pragmatic level it’s a terrible idea.
I also think that it is immoral… it’s hugely morally problematic. It’s the same reason, by the way, and I’ll just dive into this, too. People will talk about if you really believe that abortion was killing valuable human beings, then you would advocate for like, the death penalty for women who get abortions. I actually think that that is… I actually think that’s kind of ridiculous, to be frank. Because it has to ignore the entire reality of how abortion is like, positioned in our society, and how it has affected the way people think about embryos and early fetuses and all these issues of women’s rights. It also has to ignore the reasons women often get abortions and the kind of pressure and oftentimes coercion they’re under. I don’t mean literally like someone holding a gun to them and taking them to the clinic.
But I mean… if you read, if you go to the Instagram account for Shout Your Abortion, which is a pro, you know, abortion rights account, there are stories of women who, they got it, no regrets, glad it was an option. But it is amazing how many of the stories read like a pro-lifer planted them. Like talking about women being horribly mistreated, and they don’t regret it, they just cry every single day, and they don’t regret it, they just still grieve it 10 years later. And it’s just… it doesn’t seem to me… it seems to me pretty obvious that you can view abortion as killing a morally valuable human, and still not the same thing as equivalence. Like, it’s not the same thing as… it’s not the same thing as killing a newborn. And there’s a bunch of reasons for that, and one of them is the things people have to understand, believe, and feel emotionally and psychologically to be able to be willing to kill, like a two-year-old are very different than what you have to believe a feel or have psychologically to have an abortion. I feel like that’s obvious to most people who work with women who have had abortions, whether they’re pro-life or pro-choice, whether they regret it or not. I would even include a lot of pro-life people who work in crisis pregnancy centers and also abortion providers who work with these women, where they see that… some of what the pro-choice point. That it’s very complicated and a lot of times it’s very difficult and it’s not about…
Speaking, too, as someone who has been pregnant with wanted pregnancies in safe situations. You know, not like rich or anything, but like, you know reasonably, reasonably undisruptive, right? It is amazing how much… like, I have all my rational intuitions about what I think is a morally valuable human being, but in the first trimester of your pregnancy, mostly I just feel nauseous, you know? I have this theoretical idea, but the intuition, like you were talking about, it’s very difficult to feel that until you start to have some kind of interaction. I just think there’s no comparison between women who are feeling terrified, pressure, coerced, and who also a lot of times believe that this is either not a valuable human being yet or a lot of other things Shout Your Abortion has. A lot of times, they have a lot of women who talk about how they hope the child comes back to them later at another time. Like, their spiritual belief is such that they’re kind of nixing it for now, and maybe a different time. And I just feel like it’s different in kind completely than what you would… what would have to be wrong with you to shoot a two-year-old in the head.
Dustin: Sorry, can I say? I mean, surely you’re right about the practical effects of violence. Like, in fact, in our conditions it’s going to backfire. The concern is, I mean, you can imagine a situation where a society is overwhelmingly pro-life, it’s no longer a live political issue, uh maybe it’s even, maybe even anti-abortion vigilantism is legal. There were Republican state legislators who tried to legalize it in North America.
Monica: Love having those guys on my team.
Dustin: Yeah, and in a situation like that, if you think that abortion is really murder, like murdering anyone else, you can imagine a situation where, you know, one’s imminently about to happen the only way to stop it is through violence. It seems to me that, clearly, that wouldn’t be okay. It seems like it would be okay if, if the abortion is really, you know, a murder like the murder of anybody else. And even questions about mitigated culpability don’t obviously seem to explain why you shouldn’t use violence in that case. Because… particularly, if you imagine some sort of serious but non-lethal violence.
Monica: Where, like you don’t attack them but you like, burn down their building.
Dustin: Yeah, I mean, somebody who is, say, like maybe mentally ill and is totally not responsible for their actions, it would still be okay to use pretty serious violence against them to stop them from killing…
Monica: Basically a self-defense. I think that’s why… I think that’s why George Tiller and the few providers who do, like, third trimester abortions, are much more the focus for individuals like this than the countless providers who do first trimester. Because somewhere in us, we recognize that… I’m not trying to speak for everybody, but I think even most pro-lifers balk more at third trimester than at first trimester, because we do resonate more, you know, the closer it gets to newborn, and the closer it gets… well, even when you and I were talking about thought experiments where like, maybe you’d have to bite the bullet and say that yeah, I guess it would be fine if the neuroscience says so, but it sure feels terrible. I think that’s where you get into that. But I think that abortion providers are valuable human beings, too. I think, I mean, I think that if you cross that line, it’s gonna open up a whole other kind of problem. I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it’s right, and I don’t think it’s a good idea.
Dustin: Yeah, I guess the worry is just going to be… anybody you might use self-defense against is going to be… or defensive and not violence and defense of another against is also a valuable human being. And so right, the fact that we react so differently to the prospect of anti-abortion violence as opposed to other acts of defensive violence suggests that we think that there’s some important difference. And assuming I’m right, that the violence really wouldn’t be justified, even when you remove the practical considerations, it suggests that somehow abortion…
Monica: I think the culpability does make a difference, because if I’m imagining some kind of you know, multiverse where abortion is widely restricted and people recognize, like the vast majority of society recognizes embryos and early fetuses as valuable human beings, and then there’s some sort of rogue Kermit Gosnell situation, um and somebody decides to stop him. Although, in that case, you would just call the police… but like, if you couldn’t for some reason, I do imagine that very differently than when you’re talking about George Tiller who I don’t… I’ve never met George Tiller, but I believe that he believed that he was helping women. And he was in a society where they said, not only is this okay but, good for you. And I… yeah, I do think that makes a difference.
Dustin: It makes a difference, but I mean, again, using some sort of violence against even someone who’s mentally ill and not legally…
Monica: But he’s not mentally ill, he’s living in a society and this is, It’s kind of the same thing as the women who seek abortions. It’s… try to imagine something you do recognize as a human rights violation that half of the country not only is okay with, but they actively support and advocate for and tell people is a good thing that they should be doing. It’s just… combining that especially with the fact that it totally on the strategic level is a disaster I just feel like it’s not, it’s a no-brainer.
Dustin: What I’m thinking is that someone who is like, legally inculpable for reasons of insanity but is going to shoot someone else, that person is even less culpable than however, you know, whatever level of culpability you’re going to assign to the abortion doctor. If violence would be acceptable against the insane person to prevent them from murdering somebody else, if abortion is an act of murder, it looks like it should be…
Monica: But even then, then you have to talk about how somehow, when you murder the insane person, it means a whole lot more people will die. Like…
Dustin: Yeah, yeah you have to control for the practical effects, but that’s what I was trying to do when I said imagine a society that is consistently pro-life and vigilantism has been legalized.
Monica: If I imagine a society that’s consistently pro-life, and generally everybody kind of recognizes this and this person is stepping out of, you know, decades of cultural norm to do this, I do think that’s more plausible, yeah.
Dustin: That you could kill them.
Monica: Yeah, yeah. I still don’t like the idea of shooting people, but I think that’s more analogous, yeah.
Dustin: Okay, yeah. So there we’re gonna have different intuitions.
Monica: Well, yeah, because you’re…. but even then if you have different intuitions… you’re negating the premise, which is that basically, everybody in that society agrees that this is like killing children or something.
Dustin: No… I don’t, my view is that even in that circumstance, violence would not be okay. That’s my intuition about that.
Monica: What I’m saying is… the thought experiment that we’re living in a society where the, you know, the whatever, the vast majority of people on the par of like, how we both view newborns. If the thought experiment is that the vast majority of people take a similar view of embryos, I don’t know if you lived in that society, if your intuition would be the same.
Dustin: Oh. Well, if maybe… I don’t know what my intuition would be in that society.
Monica: Well that’s what I was saying.
Dustin: My actual intuition is that that’s wrong.
Dustin: And if my intuition was different in that society…
Monica: But a big part of your actual intuition is how you view embryos and fetuses in the first place.
Dustin: Maybe. I think that my intuition there is widely shared among people independently of… but I mean, I don’t know.
Monica: No, yeah. I think it is. Because that’s not the society we’re living in. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you. I thought you were saying, imagine a society where basically everyone or almost everyone recognizes embryos and early fetuses as morally valuable people, and the society is built as such. And in that society if there was, you know, some late term abortion provider that was that was doing like a Gosnell type thing, and somebody vigilante, like killed them.
Dustin: Even an early…
Monica: Or even an early one, but the problem with it is, I feel like you’re saying: imagine this premise. And then you’re saying: but that premise isn’t real, so I don’t share that intuition. Yeah.
Dustin: No, I’m asking us to evaluate a situation where people have a different set of beliefs than they actually have. But there’s no right, I mean, I can say a world where the Nazis won and brainwashed everyone into thinking that Nazism was correct, we can see that that would be a world where people were mistaken, right? If people in the society believed that using violent… that killing the guy who’s about to give abortion pills to somebody so that she can have a medical abortion at seven weeks, I think if people in that society thought that that was okay, then they would be mistaken.
Monica: I see what you’re saying.
Santi: Alright. Well, with that, I think it has been a great conversation. You both were able to articulate your points very well, and I really loved that it was a very friendly conversation even though there’s some disagreement. And I would love to see more of that online, especially whenever we have conversations with individuals that we don’t fully agree. I think that if we are able to kind of like bring about this type of culture where we can have conversations with individuals that we disagree, that will be just amazing. I’m gonna go ahead and let Dustin just give it give his final thoughts, and then Monica you can close us out.
Dustin:I don’t know if I really have final thoughts. I think that… again, I mean, I think I’m sensitive to some of the things that Monica says. I… again, I think that a big part of it, not all of it, there are other aspects of the debate that we didn’t really even get into very much, but I think that a big part of it comes down to questions about what sort of thing we are and when we begin to exist. And I think that there are compelling arguments for thinking that we don’t begin to exist at conception, even though our bodies do. And I think that that’s an important thing to keep in mind in the course of the abortion debate. Even though that doesn’t entail that abortion before that point is just totally whatever. And even though, you know, there are other things to keep in mind at that point too. So that’s what I have to say, and you know, I gave arguments for that view that I think are quite compelling and so.
Santi: Alright. Monica?
Monica: Yeah, I really really enjoyed this conversation. This was great. Very different from a lot of the conversations that I have. I guess to summarize my view, I think that it’s problematic to rest personhood on… or I should say it’s problematic to rest our right to not be killed on the mind, because we don’t really know what the mind is, we don’t know how it interacts with the brain, we don’t really know when it comes into existence, and the way (not necessarily Dustin) but a lot of people define it is quite late, and that goes against a lot of our intuitions.
But at the same time, we I think we had a lot more common ground than I expected. And I don’t know where people would go from there, but I thought that it was very helpful. I think that we do need to keep in mind the implications… the secondary considerations of review, and I apply that to myself as well, not just you. But we do need to remember that whatever public policies we’re trying to develop from these moral philosophical discussions, they will have complicated impacts either way. Even, by that I mean even if everybody agreed that embryos are like newborn babies. There’s still complicated impacts of preventing abortion, and even if everyone agreed that embryos were just whatever, there’s still complicated impacts of restricting it. So that’s something to also just keep in mind when we’re talking about it. But yeah, I really appreciate you giving us the platform, Santi.
Santi: Alright. Well, guys don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. If you guys really enjoyed this conversation, remember if you all want to share the thought of having a healthy conversation with other individuals, I think that we ought to promote those conversations as well. Not because this is my channel or anything like that, but I really am for having these conversations. Dustin has been on my channel before, and all those conversations have been really good, really cordial with each of the people involved. And really appreciate both of you guys for taking the time to be here tonight and the people watching this. Again, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe, and we’ll see you guys next time.
Monica: Thanks very much.