Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fetal value and potential personhood

This is one of those head scratching moves that makes me think I must be missing something obvious, but I've seen in a few places lately people defending the claim that the fetus has intrinsic value (or is intrinsically valuable) because it is a potential person. It seems that the thought is that something is intrinsically valuable because it can become something else, but I would have thought that this would be a clear case of instrumental value. It's valuable as an instrument in the production of some other thing.

Yes, I realize that something can be both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable, but we're looking for a reason to say that the fetus has the first sort of value and while I'm not denying that it has that sort of value, it looks like we're looking for the explanation in the wrong sort of place.

Perhaps the thought is that the fetus is not an instrument to something that is intrinsically valuable because the fetus doesn't undergo substantial change in the production of a person? Still seems dubious.

Perhaps the thought is that the fetus is intrinsically valuable because there's something intrinsic to the fetus that is what drives the changes by which something of intrinsic value comes to be? Perhaps, but then it just seems like the fetus has instrumental value in large part because of its intrinsic makeup. Still not seeing the move to intrinsic value.

I think Jeff McMahan's view is that all you get out of potential F-hood is instrumental value and I sort of thought that was obvious, but I'm left scratching my head because a number of quite clever and intelligent people have been saying otherwise. Thoughts? [Not an invitation to tell me about how wonderful and valuable the fetus is apart from its status as a potential person. This is a question about the concept of potential F-hood, not a question about fetuses, really.]


Brandon said...

I wouldn't make the argument about fetuses myself, but the idea that it is obvious that nothing potential is intrinsically valuable strikes me as extraordinarily dubious. In order for it to be obvious that a potential F never, precisely as potential F, has intrinsic value, one would have to argue that one of the following is obviously true:

(1) that potential F's, considered as potential, never have an intrinsic nature;
(2) that the intrinsic nature of a potential F is never itself, deliberately setting aside its relation to other things (even to actual F's), a good.

But there are potential F's where it is at least plausible to say that both of these are false: virtues, as traditionally understood, are dispositions, and therefore paradigmatic potential-F's; and while there are positions that would require saying that it is in fact false, saying that virtue is intrinsically good is certainly not obviously false. Also, if (as some people think) persons themselves are intrinsically valuable because they intrinsically have uniquely high capacities (to reason, to love, to experience intrinsic goods as such, etc.), then it doesn't seem that far-fetched to argue that fetuses are intrinsically valuable because they intrinsically have a uniquely high capacity that we recognize when we call them potential persons (namely, the uniquely high capacity to become a person).

I'm afraid I'm a bit out of date on the literature here. Do you know of any argument made by anyone against (say) the claim that if F is intrinsically valuable, what is potentially F is also intrinsically valuable precisely as potentially F? Of course, it's true that it's also instrumentally valuable for actual F's; but is there any particular reason that we should always value potential F-hood only because we can get actual F's from it?

Justin Klocksiem said...

Hi Clayton,

Good question. I'm not 100% up on the literature here, either, but here goes anyway. I think you're right to question the thesis that something can have intrinsic value in virtue of its potential F-ness. I'm thinking about this as a Moorean, and so maybe it's just that I don't share or have failed to understand the relevant background assumptions. But it's not at all obvious that it makes sense--to me, at least.

So, for example, I think Brandon's thesis (2) is too strong. A Moorean need not claim that the intrinsic nature of the potential F lack (intrinsic) value altogether; the Moorean can hold that, whatever intrinsic value the potential F may have, it is not the case that it has this value in virtue of its potential F-ness.

The Moorean will also want to distinguish between a capacity and a potential. I think these really are different: I currently have the potential to run a marathon, but not the capacity. So, even if Brandon (sorry to talk about you in the third person, Brandon; hi there) is right and the potential to F is to be identified with a certain kind of capacity with respect to F, (the capacity to develop the capacity to F) relevant kind of "capacity" here is a second-order capacity. Strictly speaking, the fetus does not have the capacity to love, think rationally, experience intrinsic goods as such, etc; it has the potential to develop this capacity.

And so you can hold that things with the capacity to F thereby have intrinsic value without holding that things with the capacity to develop a capacity to F have intrinsic value. And although none of this shows that it is false that potential persons have intrinsic value, it shows the need for some heavy-duty auxiliary premises that describe the link between potential personhood and the intrinsic value natively possessed by persons. (Not that the Moorean is likely to accept that there is any such intrinsic value natively possessed by persons as such, but I'm willing to play along.)

Of course, I could be way, way off.

Brandon said...


Very interesting!

On my (2), perhaps there should be a qua in there, i.e., "that the intrinsic nature of a potential F is never qua potential F", etc.; what you are describing is in fact an affirmation of (2) as I intended it, but apparently there's some tweaking needed for the formulation.

I think almost no one, other than those being explicitly Moorean, makes the capacity/potential distinction in the Moorean way you describe, and certainly not as sharply, so I doubt it's in view when people are making the argument. I agree that laying out the Moorean distinction here is very interesting, though, in that it shows that the need for heavy-duty auxiliary premises goes both ways, and that disagreement about what is obvious here is likely indicative of more fundamental and abstract disagreements in accounts of potentiality and of intrinsic value.

(On the high capacity argument, the point was not that fetuses have the second-order capacity to develop uniquely high capacities like thinking etc., but that if one accepts a high capacities account of the intrinsic value of persons it's not really far-fetched to hold that the 'capacity for becoming a person' is itself a uniquely high capacity, if it exists. Whether one did would depend, of course, on whether one conceives of the potential personhood of a fetus in this way, and on one's account of what makes something a uniquely high capacity. More heavy-duty auxiliary premises.)