An Abortion Dialogue

by gwern1 min read12th Feb 201192 comments


Personal Blog

A few years ago, I wrote a little dialogue I imagined between 2 materialists, one of whom was for and one against abortion, centering on the personal identity question. I recently cleaned it up and added a number of references for the biological claims.

You can read it at An Abortion Dialogue.

Early feedback from #lesswrong is that it's a 'nicely enjoyable read' and 'quite good'. I hope everyone likes it, even if it doesn't exactly break new philosophical ground.

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I think the basic stumbling block in the typical abortion dialog isn't the criteria of personhood, it's that people don't like to deal with the real, practical reasons why you shouldn't kill people.

The basic reasons why murder is illegal are:

A. In general, people are much more valuable to society alive than dead. This does not apply to unwanted babies.


B. Attempts to legally identify the people who would be better off dead are prone to dangerous corruption and irreversible error, the costs of which far exceed the benefits. Again, this does not apply to u... (read more)

The basic reasons why murder is illegal are:

You left out what I would have said is the most basic reason murder is illegal. Simple self interested cooperation. A wants to be free to kill his enemies but really doesn't want his enemies to be free to kill him. B wants to be free to kill her enemies but doesn't want her enemies to be free to kill her. C, D and E have similar preferences. By mutual agreement and alliance they each sacrifice their right to kill other people so that they are less vulnerable to be killed themselves.

Naturally they attempt to wrangle it such that they are an in group who does get to kill people anyway but in Australia at least we have managed to stamp even that sort of behaviour out entirely - at least within our own borders.

0PlaidX10yYeah, this is more or less what I meant by B, with the caveat that alice and bob may fundamentally disagree on who's better off dead.
8Jayson_Virissimo10yWhy does the fact that the parent does not want the baby imply that it has little value to society? I have a friend that was adopted (which seems to be the main alternative to abortion) that I value very much. If he was aborted as a fetus, then I would (probably) be much worse off than I am. Are him and I (and everyone he engages in mutually beneficial exchange with) not a part of society that is thereby gaining value by his non-death.

Well, sure he's valuable NOW, but that's after years and years of investment. It's not that being unwanted takes a baby from super valuable to negative, babies are just not very valuable regardless.

5Jayson_Virissimo10yYes, but the same could be said of children and the elderly (that they are currently not very valuable to society), but it is still illegal to murder them.
8gwern10yThe elderly arguably have grand bargains protecting them. Young people pay into Social Security to meet the promised payments to current old people, in the expectation that future young people will do the same for them, and so on. Like wills. Why should we execute wills that leave millions to pet dogs or something? The dead person is dead, beyond any caring. Just take their bequest and do something useful with it! But of course, if we did that then people writing wills no longer trust will executors and will disperse their assets in life or just waste them. A grand Newcomb-like bargain. No such bargains protect children. They haven't provided anything and won't be in a position to for a long time after a huge investment. (What's the estimate of the net society-wide cost to produce a finished high-schooler? A few million? Highly non-trivial, let's say.)
3PlaidX10yPeople on average increase in societal value from conception to childhood, and then it gets more complicated from there depending on how they turn out. And yes, typically their value declines as they become elderly. But, as in your example with your adopted friend, even a baby that starts out unwanted, if society invests a bit in its welfare, will soon become part of the social fabric and so on and thereby become valued. Certainly there are some people who literally nobody likes, but even then, there's still reason B. As it happens, my best friend was adopted as well. But I hardly think the limiting factor in the number or quality of my friends is society's production of babies.
6tenshiko10yOddly enough, my boyfriend, who is the only person I've ever heard seriously attack abortion, uses this as one of his main arguments. According to some research (this was a verbal argument, and we allow each other not to provide citations in such a context) the neural architecture that allows humans to tolerate pain is not as sophisticated in developing fetuses, and so they are capable of feeling pain much more acutely.

On the other side of that argument, a fetus does not have the higher brain function or consciousness that would allow it to experience pain. When an adult is put under general anesthesia for surgery we do not generally consider them to be "experiencing pain" even though the body is still reacting the damage as though they were conscious. They still have brain function, they temporarily lack the higher brain function required for the meaningful experience of pain. A very similar argument could be applied to a fetus.

5janos10yI agree with your main point (that this is a stumbling block for some people), but there are others who will contend that A and part of B (namely the irreversible error) do apply to unwanted babies (usually, or on average), and that the reason why abortion is more evil than contraception is because it's an error of commission rather than omission.
9PlaidX10yKilling adults is less reversible in the sense that if you kill comedian carlos mencia, you can't get a new carlos mencia if you change your mind. In contrast, babies are basically fungible.
9Alicorn10yBabies aren't really fungible; if you have the baby that would have grown up to be Carlos Mencia (to carry on with your example) you can't grow another would-be Carlos Mencia if you change your mind. You just don't know what you're discarding when you discard a baby.
2JoshuaZ10yThis doesn't follow. Just because you don't have data about what counterfactually the baby would have turned into doesn't mean that the babies are fungible. We don't in general keep the genetic code of aborted babies or calculate how that would interact with their environment. Just because we can't easily predict what the distinctions would be doesn't mean that the babies are all identical.

When you're considering a decision of exchanging two babies, you're making it based on what you know to anticipate. If you know nothing relevant, you're ambivalent between exchanging and not exchanging, which is what "fungible" means.

(The dollar bills are also not identical, and where one bill can buy you a snack, another won't work by being suspected counterfeit in a manner you didn't expect. Such considerations don't make cash non-fungible.)

1DSimon10yI see where you're coming from, but I'm not sure that's a useful use of the concept of "fungible". The reason why it's useful to think of dollar bills as fungible is because we can use them to think about more complicated exchanges (i.e. dollars -> cow -> cow + milk -> cow + dollars -> ...) and figure out a net result by comparing before and after quantities of the highly fungible little notes. Sure, it's possible that a given dollar might turn out to be counterfeit, but it only takes a little knowledge and a few moments of examination to become very confident about whether or not that's the case for a given note. On the other hand, I'd be very reluctant to use babies as a unit of exchange even if I ignored the obvious moral problems: babies are much much harder to compare for equality than dollars.
0[anonymous]10yThe nonfungibility of adults is more visible than the nonfungibility of babies, but babies are not identical either.
9Alicorn10yI think taking birth control precautions is pretty comission-y. Abstinence would be the omission version of not having babies.
4JohnWittle8yAfter reading the entire debate this comment spawned... if the goal is to determine whether we should support abortion legalization and fewer restrictions (possibly up to infanticide? (!)), or perhaps support more heavy regulation, it seems like arguing over whether an action is reactive, proactive, etc can't possibly have any relevance, and seems like a particularly virtuist way of looking at things. Are we not solely interested in consequences? What are our values and how do we maximize them? Clearly saying we value "human life" isn't enough, and we need to be more narrow. What do we actually value? If we say we value all potential humans, should we be spending all of our time impregnating women, being pregnant, or researching how to shorten pregnancy and/or grow humans in a test tube? If we draw the line in what we value somewhere else, do we end up with post-pregnancy abortions? Is that okay? I feel like there are real questions, and the reason those questions are interesting is because we can't just take the copout answer of "proactive actions bad, acts of omission okay" because consequentialism won't let us.
0Alicorn8yWhat you mean we, consequentialist?
0JohnWittle8yHmm. I guess I had not considered people on this forum might not be consequentialists. And yet you are somewhat of a known community figure, and not as a contrarian. Is consequentialism not evident? I ask as an honest inquiry to someone whose username I recognize (being a sort of lesswrong == sequences person myself) and therefore is at least aware of the Standard position for certain, and yet is not known for the reason of contradicting the Standard position (like Caledonian might be). To me, the knowledge of human psychology which makes clear why humans find acts of omission acceptable, while humans find proscriptive acts with the same consequences unacceptable, is enough to make me a consequentialist. Is its not the same for you?
1Alicorn8yHere's some background reading [] with more details about my personal views in the comments. I consider consequentialistic shut-up-and-multiply kind of thinking appropriate for questions of prudence and simply don't think it constitutes morality. I'm definitely an oddity within LW.
0JohnWittle8yWhat could an ethical framework be if not the way you decide what actions to take in order to maximize your values? Obviously consequentialism has nothing to say about what those values are, but it rules out the idea that an act of omission with consequence 'foo', and a proscriptive act also with consequence 'foo', can be morally distinguished.
0Alicorn8yYou are asking extremely basic questions. Try again after you've read the post I linked.
-2JohnWittle8yAlright. I can see the usefulness of deontology in determining if an abortion doctor acted in a way worthy of praise or blame, but I feel as though the issue isn't whether or not we put abortion doctors in prison, or whether we allow mothers to have abortions. The issue comes down to whether we want to live in a world where every possible potential human is realized, and has the opportunity to exist. Since humans are just a pattern of neurons, this goal isn't realizable today, since the possible human "JohnWittle who, while writing a comment on a blog, got randomly teleported to the 1800s" doesn't exist and doesn't get to live out his experiences, while we might wish that he did. Every aborted human would have lived a whole life full of experiences, and maybe we would prefer to live in the world where that human had gotten to have those experiences. Would a superintelligence later be able to simulate all of the possible humans we aborted, and all of the possible (good) experiences those humans might have had, along with every human which could have been made by you and I mating, you and King Loius XIV mating, King Loius XIV and some random peasant in feudal Japan mating, and all the potential offspring of all those potential people, algorithmically generating every possible brainstate which we would call 'good'? Maybe. In that case, perhaps we are not losing those experiences in an irrecoverable manner. How likely is it to happen this way? Who knows? Is the possibly temporary, possibly permanent loss of those people worth the increase in standard of living for whoever would be affected negatively by being forced to invest in that human? Is having an abortion morally equivalent to simply not conceiving the human in the first place? According to "simplified humanism", we know that Life is Good, regardless of whether the life in question is 20 or 120 or 1020. Does that also apply to life that doesn't exist but could? If we want to believe life is good, period, does t
0TheOtherDave8yAlicorn is reasonably well-known as a local non-consequentialist, I think. At least, I know her that way, and I'm not deeply plugged into the LW social milieu.
4NihilCredo10yAbstinence, when used as birth control, still looks like commission to me (although the concept of 'commission' isn't the most well-defined of terms). Suppose that you would have sex in the hypothetical case that you were sterile. Then, in the real world where you aren't sterile, renouncing sex in favour of sleeping doesn't seem any less of a 'commission' than putting a latex barrier between your genitals while you have sex.
3janos10yAh, yes indeedy true. I guess I was thinking of abstinence. So wrong distinction. More likely, then: abortion is done to a specific embryo who is thereby prevented from being, and it's done reactively; there's no question that when you have an abortion it's about deciding to kill this particular embryo. Contraceptive use on the other hand is nonspecific and proactive; it doesn't feel like "I discard these reproductive cells which would have become a person!", it feels like exerting prudent control over your life.
8Dreaded_Anomaly10yEvery time contraception is used, it prevents a specific multitude of "potential humans" from existing. Sure, most of them would have been prevented from existing by other factors, but contraception still actively contributes to that. It's also done reactively, in that it's a reaction to someone's desire to have sex with a lower risk of pregnancy. It may not feel the same way as abortion, but that's just because it's easier for humans to value fetuses than sperm and egg cells. Both abortion and contraception have specific and reactive components, in principle.
-2janos10yIt seems to me that we mean different things by the words "reactive" (as opposed to proactive) and "specific". A weak attempt at a reductio: I proactively do X to avoid facing Y; I am thus reacting to my desire to avoid facing Y. And is Y general or specific? Y is the specific Y that I do X to avoid facing.
5Dreaded_Anomaly10y1. A person doesn't want to have a baby, so she has an abortion to stop the fetus from developing into one. 2. A person doesn't want to have a fetus, so she uses contraception to stop the ovum and sperm from developing into one. If 1 is reactive, then so is 2. For a given fetus, there is a finite possibility space of all the persons into which it could develop, taking into account different values of unknown future parameters. The same can be said of any combination of sperm and ova; it's just that the possibility space is larger. How would one derive a concept of "specific" that discriminates between the fetus space and the sperm/ova space without drawing an arbitrary line based on the size of the space?
0janos10yDo you have an instance of "I proactively do X" where you do not class it as reactive? Do you have an instance of "I wish to avoid Y" where you do not class it as specific? I don't like conversations about definitions. I was using these words to describe a hypothetical inner experience; I don't claim that they aren't fuzzy. You seem to be pointing at the fuzziness and saying that they're meaningless; I don't see why you'd want to do that.
4Dreaded_Anomaly10yMy point is that 1 and 2 above don't seem to differ fundamentally in either of the two descriptors you used. Conversations about definitions of words are not useful, but definitions of concepts are necessary. I'm pointing at the fuzziness because it indicates to me that the supposed distinction is not being made based on any principle, but simply to rationalize a preexisting bias.
0janos10yI wasn't trying to present a principled distinction, or trying to avoid bias. What I was saying isn't something I'm going to defend. The only reason I responded to your criticism of it was that I was annoyed by the nature of your objection. However, since now I know you thought I was trying to say more than I actually was, I will freely ignore your objection.
2wedrifid10yI must concur. We've been judging the wasting of sperm as an act of commission at least as far back as when Genesis [] was written. Apparently that sperm really was sacred [].
2gwern10yThere's a little debate [] on what Onan was being punished for, whether it was the not-impregnating-and-disobeying-the-Lord or the spilling-seed part. I incline to the disobedience explanation; as the Wikipedia entry mentions, Leviciticus's punishment for spilling seeds is very far from 'execution'.
4Eugine_Nier10ySo do you believe that people only have no terminal value and instrumental value only in so far as they benefit society? If this is really what you really believe, as opposed to merely a fake utility function [], the as far as I'm concerned you may as well be a pebble sorter [] or a baby eater [].

Let me turn your question around. If your utility function puts value in the mere existence of people, regardless of how they interact with the larger world, doesn't that mean having babies is as wonderful as killing people is terrible? Is somebody with 12 kids a hero?

Is somebody with 12 kids a hero?

Or a serial killer with a large family? "Sure he might have killed 3 people -- but he's a father of 5!"

0[anonymous]10yI'm actually pretty sure some people who have had 12 kids are heroes or at least very altruistic when objectively analysed. Many many people that made great contributions have come from large families of overachievers. Genetics and upbringing matter a lot. And productivity gains made by lets say 6 of the kids can easily overshadow anything that one individual could have done (even when adjusted for the fact that the kids start contributing later). However overall if we look at the world today, the vast majority of people having 12 kids aren't heroes.
6Perplexed10yIt can't be an accident that the rhetorical form your disagreement took is a dehumanization of your opponent. Just saying ... Also, I want to point out that the moral issues are nowhere near as clear-cut as you (and Kant) seem to think. Even if you axiomatically assert that people have terminal value, you still need to explain why people have that value, whereas trees (for example) do not. And also clarify the boundaries of that protected class "people". (Does it include fetuses, conceptuses, persons cryonically frozen, HeLa cultures, etc.?) Is it possible to answer these questions without once veering into the realm of instrumental values?
0Eugine_Nier10yWhat if I were to ask the same question about why society should be valued? If you keep trying to justify values instrumentally, you'll wind up in an infinite regress.
5TheOtherDave10yNot necessarily. Maybe what I would discover instead, if I actually charted out my value structure, that all of the things I value exist in an interlocking network that doesn't ground out in any special real, true, honest-to-goodness, fundamental, basic, not-dependent-on-anything, terminal values. While I'm not committed to the absence of terminal values, I consider the possibility plausible, and I don't find the "well, there's got to be something at the bottom of the stack!" argument for their presence convincing.
3Eugine_Nier10yThat still doesn't answer the question of why that value structure as opposed to some other.
1TheOtherDave10yAbsolutely true. Was responding to the last bit of your comment and ended up completely disregarding your greater context... sorry. This is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine at the moment, especially since so much of the discussion about ethics here seems predicated on the existence of terminal values that can't be interpreted in terms of anything else.
0wedrifid10yIt sounds like your value structure represents (hazily specified) terminal values.
3TheOtherDave10yIt doesn't sound that way to me, so if you unpack it I'd be interested.
4Perplexed10yThen you would probably be asking a good question. As a Humean, who bases his moral philosophy on rational self-interest, I would answer that 'society' is simply a shorthand for all of the other rational agents who might react positively or negatively to my actions. As such, society is not something that should be 'valued' as such, but it is something that a prudent self-interested person will want to take into account. But I'm sure that people (I'm sure there are some) who actually value society without valuing individual persons - those people would find your question difficult to answer.
4Eugine_Nier10yTwo points. 1: Why is this any less arbitrary? 2: So if I handed you a baby and offered you $10 to kill it, assuming no one else would ever find out, would you do it? If the answer is some variation on "no, because I would feel bad about it", I can throw in a pill that keeps you from feeling bad about it.
0ShardPhoenix10yThe scenario in 2 is too implausable to be useful, in my opinion.
-1wedrifid10yw! Definitely a w.
2Normal_Anomaly10yI don't understand the reference to w. What does that letter have to do with the context?
0wedrifid10yThe homophone is broken.
2Normal_Anomaly10yOh! Throw in a pill, not through in. I got it.
2Eugine_Nier10yThanks, Fixed.
2torekp10yHume wouldn't be a Humean if rational self-interest were the standard. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [] writes: Regarding Eugene's point about terminal value, I agree with the following clarification: the primary reason murder is wrong is because it deprives somebody of the rest of their life. This still allows us to distinguish between murder and failure to create new lives, provided that we see a difference between someone who already exists and someone who merely might exist.
-2[anonymous]10yAre you saying that this then would no longer be a question of figuring out how to best satisfy our moral principles, but a difference in moral principles themselves? Information can be used to change a moral position because you can discover that something does or doesn't satisfy your moral principles. But in theory, information shouldn't change your moral principles -- they are independent of facts and logical justification. If a fetus has innate intrinsic value, then wouldn't that be a moral principle? People might argue in pro-life debates that the fetus has value because it is human, or because it has potential, or reason X, or reason Y, but perhaps none of these reasons are the real reason, because the value of a fetus isn't derivative. In which case, this would explain something to me about the apparent lack of logic when people discuss pro-life arguments. People could be making the mistake that morality has 'reasons' and that moral principles can be justified via argument. When all they really need to say is that the life of a baby is sacred. (By the way the lack of logic I was referring to is that some subset of pro-life proponents, that many of my family members happen to represent, argue sincerely that fetuses should be protected because human life is sacred, but then they support fighting in wars. They will argue that soldiers make a choice, and another people or culture are threatening our way of life, etc, but these seem like after-the-fact excuses []. Logically, the bottom line is not that human life must be protected, no matter what. So it doesn't matter that fetuses are 'human'. It would make sense that it only matters that they're human babies.)

This was good intro level stuff. Thank you for writing it.

[-][anonymous]10y 4

I think the last part of the dialogue is unconvincing: the Apologist weasels away from addressing the slippery slope argument. He seems to be saying that children aren't "human" until sometime after puberty--when they can "act all the acts, think all the thoughts, and feel all the feelings people can." The obvious response for the Contrarian is to ask whether the Apologist is opposed to infanticide, and if so, exactly where he draws the bright line between infanticide and abortion.

2gwern10yFair enough. I already alluded to it and wanted to present my own novel slippery slope argument using parthenogenesis, but I guess it was a loose end. I've added a little ordinary enough description of infanticide and acceptance. (Only really interesting thing is the Malthusian material.) The new material is at the bottom roughly where you'd expect it.
3[anonymous]10yYep. The new material is internally consistent, but of course you're going to lose the people--and I'm pretty sure this would be a majority of all people--who have a strong moral intuition against infanticide.
3gwern10yOne of my unstated goals is to show that both speakers are wrong about personal identity; the pro-lifer is incoherent or absurd, and the other is consistent but as you point out infanticide clashes with naive intuitions. The second is 'less wrong', but that's still not 'all right'.
6TheOtherDave9yOr perhaps you've illustrated that naive intuitions about infanticide are wrong.
0Pentashagon8yPerhaps our naive intuitions about the babyeaters are also wrong.
2TheOtherDave8yWell, at least some of my naive intuitions about babyeaters I'm fairly certain are wrong. Eating babies seems much much much worse than simply killing them, for example.

I just ran across this and clicked through to the discussion; sorry for being a year out of date, but I hope you don't mind the comment anyway!

I enjoyed reading the piece but I felt like it was missing any reference to what (to me) is the most germane point in the abortion debate: any reference to the person who wants the abortion. To my mind, the personhood or lack thereof of the foetus really doesn't matter very much, because it's growing in a person whose personhood is indisputable and who doesn't want it to be doing that. I think the piece would be muc... (read more)

2gwern8yIn many situations, we are happy to make one person suffer or die - even if they don't want to - for the good of others. Child support, taxes, any form of imprisonment or execution or corporal punishment, the draft... And as well, those are all cases where the probability of saving a life are all vastly lower than in abortion where you know for certain that the fetus will die.
0Emily8yI don't agree that any of your examples quite work. Imprisonment, execution and corporal punishment follow some behaviour that we agree is wrong, unlike pregnancy. (Personally I disagree with capital punishment and most forms of corporal punishment anyway.) And as for child support and taxes, I think there's a relevant distinction between bodily autonomy and financial autonomy.
0gwern8yThe retributive aspect is not important to the many people who hold the deterrence view of punishment, and no one holds that, say, the draft or taxation is punishment of people for wrong behavior. Why would you think that? Financial wealth for most people is just their labor in another form, and labor is just their bodily autonomy. A job is a way of trading time for money. The connection between money and bodily autonomy is ancient - consider the countless forms of slavery, debt slavery, and debtor prison or work houses throughout history.
1Emily8yI'm also in the camp that's not focused on the retributive aspect of punishment; I'm not disputing that its main purpose is for the good of others. My argument is that the people being punished in this way have in some sense forfeited part of their right not to have their autonomy violated, by demonstrating inability to stick to a social contract that has been agreed on as reasonable. Views can differ on whether that's reasonable or not, but it's firmly distinguishable from someone forfeiting their autonomy because they got pregnant. I don't agree that financial wealth is "just" labour in another form. Of course that's true in a sense, but the difference in form is an important one. I guess I can appreciate that others might not agree with that --- but I still don't see that that puts them in opposition to abortion. Society tries to minimise the extent to which one's bodily autonomy is limited to by the need to earn financial wealth --- for instance, I think we can agree that slavery, debt slavery, debtor prisons and workhouses are Bad Things. So under this view of autonomy, abortion belongs in the same category.
1gwern8yI don't see why you would elevate the social contract in any extreme way like that; you mean abortion is OK, and execution not OK, solely because the latter is imposed (hopefully) on those who have violated the social contract in some way? This seems rather relativistic. So what if we have a social contract, like in Catholic countries, which says abortion is not OK? Also doesn't deal with the draft or taxation examples, or additional examples like duty to rescue []. Or goes quite the other way: what loss of a woman's autonomy for 9 months could possibly compare to losing an entire life of autonomy, which is what the fetus's loss will be? Bioethics calls this the violinist thought experiment [].
0Emily8yI agree that the merits of any given social contract can be debated and shouldn't be taken as intrinsically ok, so I don't think I want to be relativistic in that sense. But if there is to exist a social contract at all (which I do think is a good thing), there has to be a way of removing people from it who can't uphold it, and perhaps helping them to get to a position where they can, if possible. (Ideally I think incarceration etc would be more about rehabilitation than anything else; in practice I don't think this is true at all, at least not where I live. That's somewhat beside the point, though.) And if the social contract includes capital punishment (which I don't support), then maybe that's not a good social contract, but it provides you with some rationale at least for executing people. Not for banning abortion, though, unless you see getting pregnant as a violation of the social contract --- which we don't. So I don't think you can regard them as equivalent. I intended to cover taxation in my second paragraph, but the draft and duty to rescue are certainly more interesting examples in this context. I'm not that fond of the draft, either, but that may be an unsustainably idealistic position. As for duty to rescue, doesn't that have a clause about not having to endanger oneself? If so, it's not a particularly heavy imposition on autonomy. I'm familiar with the violinist scenario but I definitely perceive it as supporting abortion; I'd find it morally abhorrent to argue that the kidnapped person should be forced to continue providing lifesupport. Do you think they should? (Thanks for the discussion, incidentally!)
1gwern8yBut where is this claim 'it is not a violation of the social contract' coming from? You say the social contract does not define what is moral, so presumably the social contract here matters as reflecting a consensus that something is moral or immoral - so now we need to justify the consensus. Buck-passing has to stop somewhere, and in abortion debates that's usually going to come back to personhood. Particular legal versions may or may not, I don't know. The listing of examples makes it sound like not-endangering oneself may be irrelevant (do many firefighters run into situations where they can rescue someone at no risk to themselves?). Yes, but recall that my own position is closer to Apologist in the dialogue. So my reaction to the violinist scenario is to say that yes you should save the violinist in much the same way you should donate a lot of money to the charities which save the most lives; but that I reject any subsequent claim that the violinist scenario is identical to pregnancy, because the fetus has far less personhood and hence far less value than the violinist, and the disparity is great enough to flip my belief.
0fubarobfusco8ySomething I find interesting about these analogies is the introduction of exciting new emotionally significant detail — a famous violinist, a firefighter — while the emotional detail of the situation being supposedly discussed (a woman seeking an abortion) is not discussed. As Emily put it above, "the most germane point in the abortion debate: any reference to the person who wants the abortion" seems to get wiped out in the analogy.
0gwern8yYou know that framing it like that is already presupposing a great deal about what conclusions one wants. In a taxation or draft frame, no one talks about whether the draftee or the combatant nation or tax-payers wants to be coerced; in a discussion of crime like mugging or murdering, no one talks about whether the murderer wants to murder. The response to a frame like 'think of the woman's preferences' is to frame it another way, 'think of the famous violinist'. If the frames differ and the introduction of an 'exciting new emotionally significant detail' could possibly change your appraisal, well, you've learned something very important about your appraisal...
0fubarobfusco8ySure, as I said, it's interesting that's how these analogies work — by inviting the reader to (for the sake of argument, of course!) zero out almost all of the salient real-world information about the act. They move us further from the real-world scenario and toward increasingly abstract contemplations of possible combinations of rights and obligations. That's a wide-open invitation for bias — an invitation for each reader to pick and focus on whichever analogy fits their prejudices, instead of more closely examining the facts ... and in particular any facts that may be available about who chooses abortion, why they do that, and what the consequences of that choice are. To me this suggests that using these analogies is likely to lead to worse decisions — policy decisions and personal decisions.
1JohnWittle8yWe want to figure out a head of time what we should do in morally ambiguous situations. An easy way to find discrepancies in our ethical framework is to invent thought experiments where some particular aspect of a scenario is made arbitrarily large or small. Would you kill a person to save two people? why? would you kill a person to save 200 people? why? what about killing a billion people to save two billion? If we actually have values which we'd actually like to maximize in the world around us, slight differences in the specific details of these values might prefer greatly different actions in various circumstances, and the easiest way to pin down those slight differences is to invent situations where the distinctions become obvious. Why do we want to know in advance what we'd do if asked whether we'd kill a billion people who are only being simulated on a computer in order to save a million people who run on real neurons? because in determining a course of action, we can begin to investigate what our values actually are.. Narrowly defined values are easier to maximize; less computation is required before you have decided on a course of action. If your values are not narrowly defined, or for some other reason computing your actions is costly or timely, that incurs a huge bias towards inaction, whatever choice is realized by "waiting too late". And so proscripted acts are weighted differently than they should be in our moral framework, as you can see by the other long comment thread on this article. It seems to me like grandparent criticized the idea of thought experiments as a way to investigate complicated ethical dilemmas, and parent kind of agreed. What is the argument? By invesgigating problems unlike the problem we're actually faced with, we forget to look at relevant data about the problem because it isn't relevant in the thought experiment. That, in our ability to focus on a particular abstraction, we allow for arbitrarily large biases. I'll concede that

So, you resolved my slippery slope by biting its bullet and saying there is a sharp discontinuity even if you didn’t know where.

Could't the Contrarian just as easily have accepted that different entities have different "levels" of personhood? The odds of a skin cell becoming sentient is quite low, after all. Of course, this would render abortion more palatable based on miscarriage rates, but at least they could have avoided claiming that GAIs aren't people :\

On the other hand, the Apologist seems a little too quick to bite the infanticide bull... (read more)

0gwern8yI based the C character on the thoughts that 'a materialistic sophisticated Christian' evoked in my head; he didn't go with a multi-category scheme, just the ordinary binary. I don't think I've seen any such scheme seriously offered by a Christian philosopher, and I don't think it really deals with the slippery slope because you still have sharp discontinuities between each "level". As opposed to what?
1Fronken8yI liked the dialog you wrote but it seems strange that he still judges based on the soul when he's sophisticated and materialist ,:-. though MS seems to have his own idea in mind that I didn't think of at least. Also didn't the sophisticated Christians in the Vatican say aliens could have souls so "human" as criteria seems more restrictive than them. Just my thoughts it's your character just might be worth updating small details of your Christian model if I'm right :)
-1MugaSofer8yFair enough. It's your character, you know better than me what he'd say. My strawman sense is tingling, but then you've stated that you didn't intend either of them to be right so I guess it's unfair to demand an ironman of either side. More discussion of where, exactly, such a line should be drawn. I'm not saying he shouldn't have bitten it eventually, mind.
4gwern8yIf you draw the line anywhere, you've bitten the bullet. The rest is just applied economics - as the joke about the woman goes, we've already established what Apologist is and now that'd just be setting his price.
-2MugaSofer8yTrue. You didn't make that point in the dialog, however, which is a shame because it's a good one. (I am not a fan of infanticide.)
1gwern8yI'll add some version of that, then, since you like it.

What I personally find of value is human-like mind. It doesn't matter what it's implemented in: silicon, cells, whatever. A human child has a mind that's too primitive to be of any value, and that's only when the brain is developed. So its death seems to me to be an insignificant loss (aside from personal loss for the parents, etc..., of course).

If I have a choice to save a fully grown human (let's say 30 years old, the issue becomes more moot the older the person gets) or a child (yes, even a born child), I would sooner save the adult. A dead child is a w... (read more)

5Normal_Anomaly10yWhile I agree with your first paragraph--the human mind is what matters--it might still make sense to save the child. In today's world where people die at 80, the child will probably live more years between now and death than the adult. If you factor in the fact that people who are younger today have a slightly greater chance of becoming immortal, this consideration becomes much more important. Of course, if the child is young enough that it doesn't have a human-like mind, the adult then has a greater "right to life" (quotation marks because not everyone thinks rights are a useful heuristic).
0Alexei10yI've thought about this some more and the point isn't who will live more years, but rather how much utility can each one produce. If it's a choice between a 4 month old child and a 30 year old adult, and we choose to save the adult, then in a year we can have another 4 month old (and not that much different), while the adult is continuing to provide utility. If we save the child, then it will be about 18 years before the child's rate of utility output can come close to the adult's, and meanwhile we lost all the utility from the adult. If I thought about this more, I could probably write a function, which will determine who you would save.
1Normal_Anomaly10yThe 4 month old will produce 80 years of utility if saved, for 18 years of investment: if this is a bad bargain, reproduction always is. The adult, if saved, will produce 50 years of utility for 0 further investment. This means a higher rate of return on the adult, but a higher total future "utility revenue" from the child. Depending on who's making the investment and whether that matters to you, the answer could be either way. But now that I've written it out like this, I can see your point: the adult does have a higher rate of return.
2gwern10yCreating things, be they X Y or Z, usually has diminishing marginal returns. You can only make so many Xs before it becomes a worse idea than Ys, and only so many Ys and Xs before Zs become better ideas. Unfortunately, if your factory workers have aesthetic fondness for Xs, or Ys are accidentally produced by the coffeemakers in the break room, or if Bob of the Church of the SubGenius commands Zs be made rather than As, you may wind up with a suboptimal productions. In such a situation, someone may come to you and suggest that you make Zs, but you say no. But if this is a bad bargain, Zs always are! Of course, the right answer is, 'conditions right now mean that Zs are not the greatest marginal return for investment, but Zs are still pretty nifty, and if Zs fell down to some level N such as 0, then maybe Zs would return to being the best investment'. In this analogy, Zs are babies. Arguably they are not a very good investment in the First World or anywhere. Populations don't need to grow. It'd be fine if populations gradually shrunk. But if birth rates were zero then that's different, and would cause in not terribly long a catastrophic decline, and if it continued for more than a few decades, it would literally cause the extinction of the human race. It's hard to argue that babies didn't become the best possible investment at some point along the way to extinction. But that doesn't mean they are the best investment now.
0Normal_Anomaly10yMy wording in the grandparent was misleading. This: Was meant to refer only to having a baby in current conditions regardless of whether or not it would be sacrificed to save an adult. I meant that if 80 years of production minus 18 years of investment was a net negative or a net positive, that wouldn't change whether you saved the adult or the baby.