Some thoughts that I don't remember anyone expressing on LW.

First let's get this out of the way: life does not "begin at birth". As far as life can be said to "begin" anywhen, it begins at conception. Moreover, the child's intellectual abilities, self-awareness or similar qualities don't undergo any abrupt change at birth. It's just an arbitrary moment in the child's development. So it would seem that allowing killing kids only before they're born is illogical. What are the odds that your threshold for "personhood" coincides so well with the moment of birth? Could it be okay to kill kids up to 2 years old, say? CronoDAS voices this opinion here.

But there's another argument in favor of considering the moment of birth "special". Eliezer linked to a study showing that the degree of parental grief over a child's death, when plotted against the child's age, follows the same curve as the child's reproductive potential plotted against age. Now, the reproductive potential of an unborn kid depends on its chance of survival, and the moment of birth is special in this respect. In the ancestral environment many kids used to die at birth. And mothers died often too, which made their kids less likely to survive. An unborn kid is a creature that hasn't yet passed this big and sharply defined hurdle, so we instinctively discount our sympathy for its reproductive potential by a large factor without knowing why.

How much this should influence our modern attitudes toward abortion, if at all, is another question entirely. As medicine becomes better, kids and mothers become more likely to survive. So if our attitudes were allowed to drift toward a new evolutionary equilibrium which took account of technology, we'd come to hate abortions again (thx Morendil). But then again, the new evolutionary equilibrium is probably a very nasty system of values that no one in their right mind would embrace now (won't spell it out, use your imagination).

Ultimately your morality is up to you and the little voices in your head. You think womens' rights trump kids' rights or the other way round, okay. But if you use factual arguments, try to make sure they are correct.

ETA: see DanArmak's and Sniffnoy's comments for simpler explanations. Taken together, they sound more convincing to me than my own idea.

New Comment
66 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I propose a simpler hypothesis: we do not see unborn babies (of any age). Therefore we do not empathize with them nearly as strongly as we do with humans we see and interact with, such as babies. Therefore we don't care as much about them being killed.

Yes, that hypothesis came to my mind about 10 minutes after I submitted the post and it is indeed very economical. Now we need a test to distinguish between them. Any ideas? This is like HP:MoR in real life, I'll be Draco and you be Harry.

So, if I'm following this right, we're trying to explain why people empathize more with newborns than fetuses. Hypothesis H1 is that it's because we have a cognitive bias in favor of empathizing with things we can see. H2 is that it's because we have a cognitive bias in favor of empathizing with individuals with some unspecified attribute... perhaps simple chronological age... that, in the ancestral environment, was correlated with reproductive potential.

Did I get that right? I'm actually pretty fuzzy on what H2 actually is claiming.

Assuming I got that right, then H1 predicts that showing someone videos of a fetus will increase how much they empathize with the fetus; H2 doesn't.

That seems like it should be easy enough to test. I would be astonished if it didn't have that effect, personally.

In the study Eliezer linked to, they somehow managed to plot the "parental grief" variable against age and it closely matched the curve of "reproductive potential in the ancestral environment". H2 makes the prediction that the curves will continue to match if we extend them into the pregnancy period. Not so easy to test. And I'd say it's compatible with what you say H1 claims, because in the ancestral environment they didn't have ultrasound scans and videos of fetuses, so seeing the baby might well be one of the cues used by H2. Keep on thinking...

Sure, if visible/invisible is the key attribute for H2, then H2 makes the same predictions as H1. In the absence of any clear claim about what attributes matter to H2, I'm not sure H2 is coherent enough to test.

Anyway, IIRC the experimental protocol EY referred to involved asking people how much they would grieve over the death of an N-day-old human for various Ns.

"Extending the curve" for that protocol into the pregnancy period is easy: ask people how much they would grieve over the death of an N-day-old fetus for various Ns. Beats me whether this tells us anything that matters, but I have the same problem with the original experiment.

I also admit to not really understanding what the curve of "reproductive potential in the ancestral environment" actually is... what are we measuring, here, and how are we measuring it? Perhaps if I understood that more clearly, it would be clearer how one could extend it into the gestation period.

The line typically does not get drawn at birth. The legal cutoff in most countries that allow abortion is around 20 weeks after conception (it varies by a few weeks depending on the country). Before then women are free to get elective abortions and many do, after that abortions are only permitted in special circumstances and are very rare. Wikipedia has a graph of abortion timing in the United States and other relevant information, including a poll showing that most Americans think that first trimester abortions should be legal and third trimester abortions should be illegal.

An early stage embryo/fetus does not have a functioning brain and is not viable outside the womb. It seems like it could be reasonable to draw the line during pregnancy, before either of those two things have happened. Since brain development and viability are gradual processes, people could argue for drawing the line at a later part of the process, so a cutoff during the first half of a pregnancy could be seen as a relatively safe, conservative choice.

Seconded. Not only does the law support this, but every argument I've ever come across has been about whether the cell-group(? I can't think of a neutral term that does sound dumb) should be considered a person once it has a full set of human DNA or if it isn't considered a person until it has a central nervous system. The last time I even heard of a serious abortion-rights argument hinging on Birth rather than Neural Development was decades before I was born. While the original post is interesting, I don't understand it's fixation on birth.

You know, I'd gotten so used to the idea of "We use birth as the cutoff line because we need some sort of law and it's the obvious Schelling point" that I'd forgotten that many people actually care about birth and consider it to make a moral difference...

Ooh, another good idea. Thanks! Your and DanArmak's hypotheses are so much simpler and more convincing than mine that I'm now almost certain my idea was wrong. Amended the post.

Of course, like I said, it seems a lot of people really do care about birth as making a moral difference! But I would expect the causality probably runs the other way here - they're comitted to defending a law which places the cutoff point at birth, so they start arguing for birth making a moral difference, so...

I think that's almost certainly the explanation for everyone who thinks birth makes a difference in the moral value of the fetus/baby. Of course, various distinctions make it easier to pretend it's a moral difference, but I'd bet the primary cause it because people support that cutoff for other reasons.

I'd like to suggest another reason besides the Schelling point, however, which is that birth is the point where it gets dramatically easier to keep the fetus/baby alive without harming the mother. First of all, health risks to the mother drop dramatically (I think to zero?); even more obviously, it's now possible to give the baby up for adoption and remove any danger, burden, or even inconvenience on the mother. I'm certain that if we had the technology to remove fetuses from the womb while keeping them alive somehow, abortion would be illegal, or at least it would still be if we'd had it prior to the abortion-rights movement.

What's particularly weird about this is that the entire basis of the pro-choice movement is about women's rights, so in that sense the reason for birth being the cutoff is incredibly obvious. It feels very strange to me that even many people who support abortion don't seem to be aware of this.

On a separate note, it's worth noting that many jurisdictions make a distinction between early- and late-term abortions. I can't see any reason for this except the idea that human life increases in value steadily as it grows rather than at a specific time. (Well, that combined with the fact that it's usually possible to get an abortion before late-term, and also easier to perform, so there's relatively little reason to have late-term abortions... which raises the interesting question of why people ban them; I wonder what sorts of situations result in people wanting abortions late-term. Finding out about health issues with the mother or fetus?)

Anyway, my main point with saying the above was to note that the use of birth as a set point isn't nearly as common as these sorts of discussions make it out to be.

Technically not a Schelling point since there is communication, but the same basic idea still applies.

It's just an arbitrary moment in the child's development.

That kind of talk is crazy talk, irrespective of your position on abortion. There are a number of hugely significant and factually obvious differences that divide the period prior to birth and the period after. Feeding is just one example that comes to mind within 10 seconds of thinking about it.

To say "the moment of birth is not special with respect to personhood" is to reveal a tacit conclusion about personhood: that your personhood predicate is not relational but solely based on intrinsic properties of the organism.

Empirically, it turns out that many of the nodes associated with the node "personhood" hinge on relational factors: a baby who has no one to talk to will not develop language, for instance (the "critical period hypothesis").

Similarly to say that the moment of birth is not special, with respect to how one should view the act of killing a baby, is to reveal a tacit assumption about what makes killing a baby "right" or "wrong": that only the difference it makes to the baby's future prospects should be taken into account.

Empirically, a death before or after the moment of birth makes a huge amount of difference as far as the mother's interests are concerned, for the same type of reasons that make the moment of birth special: feeding and other caretaking behaviours kick in at that moment. (Granted, some forms of bonding start well before birth. The psychological aspects of pregnancy are complex, as the phenomenon of pregnancy denial illustrates strikingly.)

My intuition is that (as social animals) there is much more to our attitudes toward babies' deaths than our unconscious evaluations of their reproductive potential, and the conclusion that "if our attitudes were allowed to drift toward a new evolutionary equilibrium which took account of technology, we'd come to hate abortions again" strikes me as seriously unfounded.

I don't understand your third paragraph. The moment of birth doesn't affect the unborn baby's chances of having someone to talk to, conditioned on survival.

And I don't understand your last paragraph. Try this thought experiment: how would you design a human whose only goal were to have more kids in the modern world? What would be its attitude toward abortion? Or you could look at groups of humans who reproduce faster than average today, like the Amish or Orthodox Jews, and their attitudes toward abortion. They are probably a good indicator of the evolutionary equilibrium we would converge on.

I don't understand your third paragraph. The moment of birth doesn't affect the unborn baby's chances of having someone to talk to, conditioned on survival.

A baby prior to birth hasn't yet started the process of learning how to relate with others. A baby after birth has, and this takes many forms in even the first few hours; including being held, being talked to, being cared for.

Try this thought experiment: how would you design a human whose only goal were to have more kids in the modern world?

What I mean is that our attitudes toward a given act are not necessarily determined by any evolutionary equilibrium. I'm not sure anyway in what sense you think our attitudes toward abortion at some previous times were dictated by an "old" evolutionary equilibrium, and in what sense we'd hate abortion "again".

Try another thought experiment - imagine there existed a plant in our environment, which when ingested reliably caused the termination of pregnancies (or, perhaps, only early pregnancies). On what basis would we predict that, upon involving language and tool use, we wouldn't have learned to take advantage of this plant when doing so served a purpose?

It seems the word "again" in the post was a stupid mistake. No idea why I wrote it. Struck it out.

When humans first learned language and tool use, they couldn't breed very fast because they didn't have enough food. So using the plant would be okay for them. But if I were told today that some unknown group of humans is breeding much faster than average, I'd bet (at moderately strong odds) that they frown upon use of the plant.

Of course, life doesn't really begin at conception, either. Sperm and unfertilized egg cells are just as alive as fertilized egg cells are, after all. Life carries forward from one self-replicating cell to its replicant; it doesn't emerge spontaneously from inert materials.

So does nothing interesting happen at conception? Well, that's not true either.

What is created at conception is not life, but a unique individual, one we consider importantly different from other organisms (well, we sometimes consider the difference important).

Seen from this perspective, something interesting happens at birth, also: independent viability seems like an important part of what we mean when we call something an individual.

And seen from this perspective, something interesting also happens at some less-clearly-defined point after birth... a newborn infant isn't viable in the same way a mature adult is.

Of course, "independent viability" for a human is pretty much always a matter of degree. Our social groups are part of our identities, and much of our viability depends on them.

What is created at conception is not life, but a unique individual

Individual in the sense of a separate physical object, yes. But not in the sense of an individual person.

I think it's probably safest to taboo "person" in this context.

Hn, there's a bit of a strawman here, although maybe I'm wrong. I know very few people who've actually thought about it and still allow abortion and who think that "life begins at birth," for instance.

Most people I've talked to want to start requiring reasons for abortion fairly early, so there goes the problem with making an argument from person-ness. And I think there is a pretty obvious reason why birth is special when considering only the subset of abortions done for the health of the mother.

I suspect that it is not a straw man, but difference between countries.

Which countries do you mean?

If you want to talk about "ancestral environment," then note that infanticide is quite common in many cultures, as far as I can tell including hunter-gatherers.

I'm working in a neonatal unit at the moment, and one of the doctors mentioned that both doctors' and parents' willingness to "pull the plug" on a baby whose chances don't seem too good is vastly higher than their willingness to pull the plug on a twelve-year-old with the same chances would be.


That's a good point -- so it's not all about survival rate.

Maybe it's about how easy it is to imagine that the child (or fetus) never existed? It's pretty damn obvious that a twelve-year-old existed. A baby, less so, and a fetus, hardly at all.

That last doesn't seem to be reliably true. There are people who grieve for a long time over miscarriages (children who didn't get born?).

People's imaginations vary a lot.

That's a good point -- so it's not all about survival rate.

Yvain's point doesn't prove that conclusion*. A baby who has a low chance of surviving the year is going to have some parents going "If zhe does survive, what then? I mean, will zhe ever recover, what if it recurs? I can't keep going through this, especially if it's just gonna end up with me grieving in 5 years time!"

*(I still tend to agree with the conclusion, because of things like your second paragraph, but Yvain's point is actually somewhat irrelevant to the conclusion)

They've experienced 4) such events. Too many.

A 12-year-olds parents have had 12 years, and ONE nigh-fatal incident. The child is >50% of the way to reproductive age. That's a very different situation.

Maybe it's about how easy it is to imagine that the child (or fetus) never existed? It's pretty damn obvious that a twelve-year-old existed. A baby, less so, and a fetus, hardly at all.

I suspect this plays a large part, combined with the sunk cost fallacy.

I don't think that the sunk cost consideration is a fallacy in this case.

variation in SIDS across socio-economic spectrum suggest infanticide is quite common in our culture.

As far as life can be said to "begin" anywhen, it begins at conception.

You think womens' rights trump kids' rights or the other way round, okay.

You're arguing definitions, claiming that your definition of "life" is universal, and using an ambigious definition of "kid" to pull emotional strings. I think we all agree on the anticipated outcomes of a pregnancy. Given how emotional "life" and "kid" are, taboo them.

Can we agree that morality is a set of rules that maximizes global "fun" when executed locally by each person? That's what it is to me. I don't think that it's obvious that the moral definition of "life" is constant, and that we should therefore expect a constant mapping to a biological definition. If you have a morality where allowing all life to end naturally has a constant value that would be quite critical, but I can't think of a society that values all unnatural termination of life equally.

Is it moral to assign more value to one life than to another? Is the life of the head of a household with 7 dependents worth more than the life of a hermit, since his family will take a big "fun" hit?

Do we actually mean ending remaining life, seeing as all lives will end at some point, and you can't take away the ones that already happened? Are some years more fun than others? Are some years in fact negative fun? Do individuals get to decide what is fun for them? Is there some point before which individuals aren't responsible enough to know what will give them the most fun?

Is it less moral to kill someone when they are awake and die in terror than to kill them in their sleep so that their life simply ends and they don't experience any more fun?

Answer a bunch of questions like this and I can determine how immoral it is to terminate a life at fertilization (genetic code is unique except for your identical siblings), gastrulation (no more twins can form), various levels of brain activity (beginnings of a mind), birth (eats, breathes, poops, and communicates), infancy, or cancer-ridden old-age. Arguing over whether something is a "life" or not with no moral context is about as useful as arguing over what a "sound" is.


Likelihood to survive seems like a good explanation.

25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Miscarriage is common and (at least in the culture I'm familiar with) causes grief, but nowhere near the same kind of grief as losing a born child. The hospital procedure is routine and not attended with the same kind of reverence as death usually is. I think it's because miscarriage is so common that it's not generally considered to have the same gravity as death. I don't even know if there's research being done to reduce miscarriage. (If 25% of humans died of a given disease, you can bet we'd be researching it.)

I think that in point of social fact fetuses aren't granted the same status as babies, even among pro-life people.

This is a very important point, and I'd like to add to it. (I will use the term "ex vivo" to denote separation from the mother's womb, in order to avoid any issues regarding the term "born.")

It's worth considering if those who oppose abortion as murder actually believe what they say they believe. If the killing of a fetus by another being is murder as we tend to think of murder (when it comes to an ex vivo human), any fetal death that occurs otherwise (from disease, injury, etc.) ought to be just as objectionable as the death of an ex vivo human.

It is often seen that, when a miscarriage happens and is realized by the parent(s), a mourning process does occur. However, we do not simply mourn the deaths of born humans. We take active measures to prevent those deaths, through medicine, safety precautions, etc. Why don't those who oppose abortion as murder put as much, if not more, energy into preventing fetal deaths? There's prenatal care, vitamins, recommendations of things pregnant women should and shouldn't eat, drink and do... but compared to how much modern medicine we have to prevent the deaths of born humans, it doesn't seem like that much. Maybe it's just that abortions constitute a much larger proportion of fetal deaths, so they are the appropriate area of focus.

Nope. The majority of fetal deaths occur through miscarriage. One study found: "61.9% of conceptuses will be lost prior to 12 weeks. Most of these losses (91.7%) occur subclinically, without the knowledge of the mother." It's been estimated (source) that 50% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage; the 25% number is actually just for known pregnancies.

If those who oppose abortion as murder actually did so due to a deeply held belief, other forms of fetal death would get much more attention than abortion, because they occur much more often (a fact which is not hard to find). Even those measures we do take to improve fetal health generally aren't done for the well-being of the fetus in its own right; we take these measures to improve the potential ex vivo human's future. Likelihood to survive does seem to be the implicit criterion, with the understanding that becoming an ex vivo human, i.e. an independent being without a direct, physical connection to another being, is the criterion for personhood.

By the same sort of reasoning, we can conclude that people who devote more attention to stopping murderers (in the conventional legal sense: people who stab other people with knives, for example) than they do to stopping deaths by natural causes (such as old age, for example, which results in many many more deaths than murder) don't really do so "due to a deeply held belief" either.

Of course, another possibility in both cases is that we treat events as more worthy of attention when we think they are deliberate and intentional acts than when we don't.

I don't mean to talk about individuals' actions. There is an entire movement that opposes abortion as murder, and nothing corresponding for other fetal deaths. For ex vivo humans, we have those who stop murderers (police, FBI, district attorneys, etc.) and those who stop other deaths (doctors, paramedics, medical researchers, etc.). One might focus on the former while being confident that someone else is handling the latter; the same is not true for fetuses. Also, organizations seeking to cure cancer or other diseases are legion, and receive more attention when it comes to charitable donations and volunteering than legal organizations. For fetuses, there's the March of Dimes and several organizations dedicated to specific birth defects, but that's about it. Given the statistics on fetal death, the amount of attention paid to abortion by those who oppose it as murder demonstrates their position is not consistent with their professed belief.

I think I understand what you're saying, but I don't understand how it's a response to what I said, so perhaps I've missed something.

To summarize:

  • I understand your point that the ratio of attention devoted to preventing abortion compared to attention paid to preventing other sources of fetal death, compared to the ratio of the actual deaths caused by each, suggests that the attention paid to abortion isn't primarily caused by a desire to prevent fetal deaths.

  • It seems to me one could similarly argue that the ratio of attention devoted to preventing murder compared to attention paid to preventing death from old age, compared to the ratio of the actual deaths caused by each, suggests that the attention paid to murder isn't primarily caused by a desire to prevent adult deaths.

  • That there exist people (doctors, etc.) who work on maintaining adult death [EDIT: er, I meant, of course, "health"], and who work on maintaining fetal health, doesn't change either fact.

I was attempting to describe why I don't think the ratios of attention are comparable between fetal deaths and ex vivo human deaths. We devote much more attention to preventing other deaths for ex vivo humans than we do for fetuses, relative to how much attention we devote to murder or abortion.

I see your point about aging specifically as a cause of death, but I think that's a different issue than preventing death overall. We do investigate various methods of mitigating the "rigors" of old age, even if research to eliminate it entirely is sparse. There are many causes of death unrelated to aging we vigorously try to prevent, and similarly miscarriages can have many causes, but efforts to prevent them are not nearly as vigorous.

Ah, I get it. OK, sure, if you're making a quantitative argument, then I guess I understand where you're coming from.

The parents I know devoted a lot of medical resources to prenatal care, but I'm perfectly willing to believe they are atypical. What is your estimate of the two ratios involved for a wider community?

I'm sure prenatal care has become more common; over 80% of pregnant women entered into some form of prenatal care in 2005 (source). However, even considering that, anywhere from 25% to over 50% of pregnancies (depending on the source) end in miscarriage without the mother even knowing about the pregnancy. To someone who opposes abortion as murder, that should seem like a huge number of lives being lost. I just don't think there's anything comparable when we consider deaths of ex vivo humans.

Some statistics: approximately 4 million live births vs. 2 million pregnancy losses per year. (source) 60% of those losses are estimated to be from abortion, with 30% from miscarriage and a 10% from other causes, but the 30% from miscarriage is only the known pregnancies. If we take the estimations of unknown pregnancies into account, deaths from other causes equal if not exceed deaths from abortion. So, abortion does occur more often in the fetal population than murder in the ex vivo population, but it's still a smaller percentage of fetal deaths than the attention paid to it.

The number of deaths in the ex vivo population was about 2,400,000 in 2007 (source). That's comparable to the number of fetal deaths. We do focus on catching murderers as a function of government, but those who oppose abortion as murder focus almost all of their efforts on political and governmental issues. There exists a large community of medical research (and safety research, for that matter) dedicated to preventing ex vivo deaths, but relatively little in comparison for fetal deaths. Even if you'd assert that the ratio for ex vivo murder vs. death is 1:1 (and personally, it seems to me like it's less than 1:1), the ratio for abortion vs. death is clearly much greater than 1:1, and the number of deaths per year is similar.

over 80% of women

Pregnant women, surely.

D'oh. Fixed, thanks...

25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Miscarriage is common...The hospital procedure is routine and not attended with the same kind of reverence as death usually is.

Infant death rate was around 20% (in Paris!) when they invented incubators. I wonder if their attitude to infant death was similar to our re: miscarriage.

Before birth, destruction is the only way to get rid of your babies. After birth, you can give them away. What's the word? Donate your babies? Or sell them if you're lucky. That way you don't produce a little bundle of biohazards and, for those who don't like killing people, you have the added advantage of never even coming close to killing it after it gets personhood.

"On the way to victory, if you get to choose between destroying and not destroying without negative repercussions from not destroying, don't destroy" seems like a reasonable moral precept. If victory is having fewer babies, and it is, birth is an objectively special moment.


If we developed a procedure to remove a fetus from the uterus without killing it, I would see no reason for anyone to choose abortion instead of safe removal. In that sense, abortion is really an artifact of limited technology.

I think we might be better served to put research efforts into developing contraception to the point where both men and women have to decide consciously to conceive. The fact that the process of becoming pregnant is involuntary seems like an artifact of evolution; why keep it that way?

Going down this same road: why we should keep gestating humans inside other humans in the first place?

Certainly, that's also a good point. Separating incubation from humans does seem like it would make people's lives better (although there is the concern of reducing the mother's bond with her child). However, as far as the goal of stopping abortions goes, I think it makes more sense to prevent pregnancy in the first place. That goal can be held even by those who don't oppose abortion as murder (like myself), as we can still recognize that the process of unwanted pregnancy and abortion can take a physical and mental toll on those involved.

If we developed a procedure to remove a fetus from the uterus without killing it, I would see no reason for anyone to choose abortion instead of safe removal.

You would see no reason, or you would see no reason that is more important than the fetus's safety?

I can think of reasons, and it would be surprising to me if you honestly can't.

There would still be reason to abort rather than remove, I think, in that unwanted fetuses would be greatly surplus to the demand created by adopters. If you gave up your fetus to gestate elsewhere, it would face a high probability of never reaching a loving home. If you don't believe that embryos are something morally wrong to destroy, but you do think it's morally wrong to consign a child to that sort of life, abortion would still be the preferable choice.

Most things are artifacts of limited technology in the sense that they wouldn't exist if strictly preferred technology that made them obsolete existed. Word.

Removal and growing externally would have to be as cheap and safe for the host as abortion, not just possible. And there would have to be no overpopulation concerns from the policy of turning abortions into extra people. Or other net negative effects from it. But there could also be a positive side, like keeping the not-aborted one in its life-support chamber as it matures for experimentation or organ harvesting. Live fetusectomy could replace the usual sort outright.

I would see reason: Overpopulation, reproduction control laws*, an incompetent foster care environment compared with a lack of people looking to adopt etc.

*(not extant yet in that many countries, but depending on the route of cultural development it may be)

The NHS goes to the effort of saving unborn babies from miscarriage from 22 weeks because, IIRC (I can't find the reference quickly), there are no cases of babies surviving below that gestation time. Also, there's no knitted nervous system before then. This provides IMO a plausible "big and sharply defined hurdle", now that premature babies do remarkably better than even a few decades ago.


I don't understand why getting a knitted nervous system is a "hurdle" in the sense that I used the word. Does it kill many babies?

In the future we may have artificial womb technology, letting fertilized eggs develop without a mother at all. By your argument, that would make devices that prevent e.g. implantation in the (biological) womb wrong, because fertilization would be a big and sharply defined hurdle.

This reductio ad absurdum is intended to demonstrate that technological considerations such as viability should have no impact on morals. The reason we allow abortion at, say, 1 week after conception isn't because the fetus isn't viable or because we're weighing its interests against those of the morther. It's because at that point it has no moral weight and no interests to be protected due to its level of development or sapience.


Regarding your statement that "technological considerations such as viability should have no impact on morals".

Why not? Think of a case where a terminally ill person can be kept alive if another healthy human being was somehow connected to them for nine months and used to provided nutrients, oxygen and other life support material to them from their bodies. This is roughly analogous to the case of an unborn child.

I'm guessing that if the technology were available to provide support to the dying/ill patient without hooking another person to them, we would consider it immoral to deny them this treatment. However, would it be immoral to not force a healthy/independent human being to provide life support to another person for nine months? If you were capable of providing this care, would it be immoral for you to refuse on account of it interfering with your other interests?

Technological considerations of course determine what we can do and through that, what we actually end up doing. In that sense they're a necessary component of moral 'what to do' calculations.

What I meant was that you should be able to order all physically-possible actions by your preference function - in this case by morality - and then cross out the ones you can't actually achieve because you don't have the necessary technology, and take the highest remaining action on the list.

If the availability of some technology (artificial wombs) would make you select a choice you don't really want to select (declaring pre-implantation abortions immoral and illegal), then the thought experiment has helped us found a mistake in your proposed morality evaluation function ("a fetus can be aborted only if it couldn't survive outside the mother's body at that age").

As for your example: calling the terminally ill human 'a person' presupposes they have full personhood and moral value, and so should be kept from death. Whereas for early fetuses I and others hold that they are not persons and therefore we don't have a moral imperative to keep them alive no matter how easy it may be to do so.


I'll be interested to hear what you mean by 'a person'.

By 'a person' I meant 'anyone or anything with moral weight'.

This model of human psychology implies that, in order to get people to care about mortality, we should work on maintaining the ability to reproduce into old age. Dying at eighty will start looking a lot more tragic if people are having kids at ninety.


Mental development? Intellectual abilities?

Correct me if I'm wrong. But it seems to me that your logic works like this: because two-years-old kids, dogs, and unborn children share the same level of intellectual abilities, we should apply the same rules (regarding killing them) to all of them. There is a missing link in your logic. And that is, intellectual abilities are a sufficient condition for whether or not their lives are at our mercy. It's like saying that because they share ONE trait, they are equivalent in terms of policy target. I hope down syndrome people are not reading this.

The correlation?

If the mathematical relationship between X and Y is very similar to the mathematical relationship between Z and Y, then what can we say about the causal relationship between X and Z? Please tell me. I have a background in social science and my brain seems to be unable to solve this puzzle.

"An unborn kid is a creature that hasn't yet passed this big and sharply defined hurdle, so we instinctively discount our sympathy for its reproductive potential by a large factor without knowing why."

Good point. But in society where young kids (let's say aged 2-10) are more likely to die due to illness, malnutrition and war, is the discount rate higher? I doubt it.

I think the reason is simple. Really. My theory - borrowed from group psychology - is that people don't harm anything that looks like themselves. Babies look much more like adults than unborn children do. In the old days, white ppl thought blacks didn't look like them, so it was okay to enslave the blacks. Suppose that one day, there is a species that is obviously not human (say, internal organs are completely different)... but their external appearance looks exactly like humans, are we able to kill them? I guess not.

Minor complaint: The first half of your comment seems to be a response to this comment by ChronoDas rather than cousin_it's discussion posting. It took me quite a while to figure this out.

But now that I can see who you were talking to, I agree with much of what you said.

If the mathematical relationship between X and Y is very similar to the mathematical relationship between Z and Y, then what can we say about the causal relationship between X and Z? Please tell me. I have a background in social science and my brain seems to be unable to solve this puzzle.

Correlation does not imply causation, but it's suggestive in this particular case. Seeing as X and Y are objective variables (reproductive potential and age), and Z is something happening within minds (degree of grief), it's natural to hypothesize that Z arises from the mind observing X and Y or some correlates of them. Moreover, we can't help observing Y, and observing (correlates of) X has obvious evolutionary benefit so we're probably doing that anyway. In light of this, what alternative causal hypotheses do you have for explaining the relationship between X, Y and Z?