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This chapter on moral status is very short, and also mercifully short on intricate imaginary examples. Kamm quickly takes us through a number of relatively familiar normative distinctions and I will try to be brief in recounting them here.

In the broadest sense, moral status simply refers to, roughly, an entity’s moral properties:

Moral status in the broad sense X’s moral status = what is morally permissible/impermissible to do to X

Now in this broad sense, rocks also have moral status: we’re permitted to do to them whatever we like. In common use, moral status refers to something narrower. Kamm thus turns to:

Moral status in a narrow sense X has moral status = because X counts morally in its own right, it is permissible/impermissible to do certain things to it

What does it mean to say an entity morally counts in its own right? This turns out to simply mark the contrast between intrinsic/final value and merely instrumental value. So it seems that because an entity is valuable as an end it morally counts in its own right, and this explains why it’s impermissible to do things to it.

Among the things Kamm takes to count morally in their own right are works of art and trees. These, she believes, matter not only as means to our enjoyment or enlightenment. We have quite independent reasons to try to preserve them. (It’s not surprising that something’s counting morally in its own right implies that it has final value. It’s not clear though whether Kamm wants to make the stronger claim that whatever has final value also counts morally in its own right.)

Still, preserving trees and works of art is not something we do for their own sake. They don’t get anything out of their continued existence. Their continued existence might be good, but it’s not good for them. But we can help or save a bird for its own sake. It gets something out of continuing to exist. This gives us an even narrower notion of moral status, one that Kamm thinks is closest to the everyday use of the term:

Counting morally for one’s own sake X has moral status = because X counts morally in its own right, it is permissible/impermissible to do things to it for its own sake

This property is supposed to distinguish birds and trees, and with many others, Kamm locates the difference in the capacity for sentience or consciousness,

If X is conscious or sentient (or has the capacity for one of these) things can be done for X’s own sake

Kamm thinks that sentience and consciousness are distinct properties that can come apart, neither of which is necessary and each of which is sufficient for this type of moral status. To be honest I don’t know what distinction she has in mind here. Perhaps by consciousness she means sapience (having intentional states), or perhaps self-consciousness (but wouldn’t this imply consciousness?). I’ll ignore this distinction in what follows and simply speak about consciousness.

Why should consciousness matter in this way? Kamm doesn’t say, but let me suggest two options. One possibility is that this has to do with being a subject, with having a perspective or point of view on things. Another would have to do with having a good or well-being. These two properties, however, can come apart. It’s easier to see how this would go in one direction. Suppose hedonism was the true account of well-being and conscious subjects existed that were by nature anhedonic. In one sense, these subjects wouldn’t have well-being. Could we still do things for their own sake? (Kamm suggests that in doing things for an entity’s sake we might also wish to help an entity exercise its capacities or do its duty. To me this sounds a bit forced.) As for well-being without consciousness, Richard Kraut, for example, believes that there is a perfectly good sense in which plants can be said to have a good or to be benefited and harmed.

Kamm now turns to apply this conception of moral status to questions about the moral standing of embryos. Embryos are not conscious nor do they have the capacity for consciousness. They only have the potential for consciousness, and she believes this means we cannot do things for their own sake. So an embryo lacks moral status (in this sense) but could still count morally in its own right because of its intrinsic and extrinsic properties, especially its potential to become a person, a value it could possess quite independently of the instrumental value it has in virtue of later giving rise to a person who has moral status. Thus even an embryo who won’t become a person because deprived of an appropriate environment would still have greater value than an embryo lacking the potential to become a person.

These claims about embryos are not particularly surprising, but let me note something that applies to much of Kamm’s discussion. There is a difference between (a) elucidating the notion of moral status and distinguishing different levels of such status, and, (b) making substantive claims about what entities enjoy such status. Kamm doesn’t distinguish (a) and (b) but her claims about embryos and many other claims she makes in this chapter arguably fall into the latter category. For example, if someone like Kraut, who holds that plants (and presumably embryos) have a good, also claimed that we can consequently do things for their sake, would he be denying Kamm’s conception of moral status or only its application to certain cases?

Whereas we have duties relating to valuable entities such as trees, and duties towards entities such as birds towards which we can act for their own sake, in none of these cases do we have ‘directed duties’, duties to these entities (directed duties typically have correlative rights or claims.). Entities to which we have directed duties are entities to which we owe certain forms of treatment. Another way of drawing the distinction is through the difference between doing wrong and wronging. Killing a bird for no good reason is wrong but does not wrong the bird. Kamm believes that this distinction singles out, not a yet narrower notion of moral status, but a form of higher moral status:

Being owed to Because X counts morally in its own right, and because it’s owed this, it is permissible/impermissible to do things to it for its own sake

This is closest to the Kantian notion of moral status, and Kamm writes that “the ideas of respect for persons and the dignity of the person are connected to the idea that one owes it to a person to behave in certain ways, and also that what the person wills and that to which she has claims, rather than what is good for her, can give us a duty to her.” (Might there be yet higher forms of moral status? It would be very odd, or pretty lucky, if members of the species Homo Sapiens enjoy the highest possible moral status.)

Kamm notes that the entity to whom a duty is owed needn’t be that which is directly benefited/affected by the act, as in the example of promising someone to take care of her mother. More interestingly, she thinks that permissibility and wronging can come apart, and that entities that can be wronged even when an act is permissible, viz. morally right, are thus shown to have higher moral status. She thinks that this is shown by the fact that in the Trolley Case it’s permissible for the one to resist being killed by the diverted trolley, even at the price of the death of the five.

What entities can we wrong? Here Kamm follows Thomas Scanlon in taking them to be those entities capable of ‘judgement-sensitive attitudes’—entities that form attitudes and choose actions on basis of evaluating factors as reasons, normative considerations for or against. Such entities might be further described as ‘self-governing’, though Kamm worries that it might be possible to have judgement-sensitive attitudes without enjoying self-governance (shouldn’t this imply a corresponding difference in moral status?)

Setting aside Scanlon’s terminology, the idea is a familiar one: there is a distinctive moral status possesses by beings who have reason or rationality. There is another familiar idea that Kamm doesn’t mention, the idea that such moral status has its source not in rationality per se but in the capacity for moral agency. (Of course reason, rationality and moral agency might be interrelated in various ways; I’ll not get into this.) Indeed, it is after all only entities capable of ‘judgement-sensitive attitudes’ that can respond to the differences in moral status that Kamm has been laying out. Thus it might be denied we owe anything to conscious rational agents who are incapable of moral agency—who do not and cannot in turn recognise our moral status and what they owe us. Also, there might be beings with very limited capacity to respond to reason but who are capable of moral agency. (Eva Kittay has tried to argue that this is the case with some cognitively handicapped humans.)

Any account of moral status faces the problem of accounting for the distinction commonsense morality draws between the moral status human infants and severely cognitively impaired human beings, on the one hand, and animals, including the primates, on the other. Kamm does not say much on this, merely citing Scanlon’s view that such humans are early or ‘failed’ members of a type whose norm it is to be rational, so they also have rights.

Kamm has rather more to say, again, about human embryos. She ends the chapter with a series of rather unobvious claims about what is permissible to do to embryos even when we know that they will actually turn into persons. She wants to argue that even in this case, our duties with respect to embryos are different from those we have towards existing persons. Kamm believes that a mother may causally influence her embryo in a way that would reduce the expected IQ of her future child, if this has benefits to her and others (she’s assuming here that such reduction of IQ makes the future child worse off). But it wouldn’t be permissible to do this to an existing child. Kamm thinks that the difference is that the embryo is not yet a being that could have an entitlement to keep a characteristic it has, so taking from it is not different from not giving it, and she further believes that the mother would not be required to increase the child’s IQ from 140 to 160 even if she could. All this, though, is claimed only on the condition that what is taken from the embryo doesn’t drag the future person below a certain minimal acceptable level.

These claims seem to me better described, not as claims about the moral status of embryos but about that of future persons. Similar claims could be made even if, for example, people were created instantly without passing through an embryo ‘stage’. Another point is that even if we agree that our reasons with respect to future people are weaker than towards existing ones, it would not follow that there are no such reasons. It seems to me highly implausible that a mother who can easily boost her future child’s IQ from 140 to 160 wouldn’t have any reason to do so, or that she wouldn’t be seriously wrong to reduce it from 160 to 140 on a whim.

Let me end with some general remarks. In this chapter Kamm emphasises the negative: what is impermissible to do to an entity. But throughout the chapter we find her also talking about what we are required to do (i.e. what is impermissible not to do) and about reasons to aid or help. And Kamm takes these deontic claims to have their root in claims about worth or significance: moral status is a form of value. She tells us that to have higher moral status is to be a more significant entity. And this significance is one that she thinks directly reflects on the value of worlds that contain this entity. A world that contains only rocks would be worse than a world that contained sentient beings and persons, even if in the latter world many more morally bad things could and would be done. (This claim echoes a familiar reply to the argument from evil.) She writes that “the more important an entity is, the more it matters how one treats it, and it is better to have a world populated by more important entities.” Deontic constraints, then, are reflective of an entity’s value, and the more valuable something is, the better the worlds that contain it.

This last step is less than obvious. We can hold that certain entities have special worth, and deserve our respect, without thinking that their existence makes a world better. Noah Lemos somewhere gives the example of a world that contains only unconscious persons. He thinks that although these entities has (high) moral status, such a world is not in itself better than a world that contains no persons. Furthermore, it might be that the value such entities contribute to a world isn’t due to their moral status. For example, it might be that it’s a painting’s aesthetic value or a person’s good that make a world better, and that these entities enjoy a certain moral status because of these prior values.

Even if we accepted that moral status can reflect on the value of worlds, a world with entities of higher status might still be worse than one without them. A world with rocks may possess no value, but it might still be better than a bad world, and arguably worlds that contain great wickedness—gross and extensive violations of moral status—are bad worlds.

What’s the connection between what’s impermissible to do to you and your worth? Some of Kamm’s claims might suggest the following principle:

(A) The less things it’s permissible to do to X -> the higher X’s moral status

This principle is implausible. Hindus are forbidden from eating cows, and this reflects the value of cows in the Hindu religion. But Hindu Brahmins are also forbidden from doing certain things to untouchables, and this hardly shows that they take untouchables to have a high moral worth. A more plausible claims might be

(B) The higher X’s moral status -> the less things it’s permissible to do to X

This claim might be true, but it is not a conceptual truth. It can be intelligibly denied. In any case, having higher moral status in this sense might not be a very desirable thing. Suppose that you could choose to be born as one of two people. One would be a normal human being whereas the other would be considered divine and treated with the outmost respect. There would be a vast number of things others would be forbidden to do to you, e.g. it would be forbidden to look at you or talk to you. A great number of people could be sacrificed to prevent you from suffering a scratch. And so forth. Would it really be better to be the second? I’m not claiming that Kamm is committed to this. If it’s forbidden to do to us certain things, then it’s forbidden to do to us these things. But perhaps nothing is added to this by the further remark: ‘… and it’s better that things are like this, because this means we’re more valuable.’


  1. 1. Posted by Mike Otsuka | August 18, 2007 11:56 am

    Guy writes:

    Might there be yet higher forms of moral status? It would be very odd, or pretty lucky, if members of the species Homo Sapiens enjoy the highest possible moral status.

    I expressed a similar puzzlement in a review I wrote of Kamm’s Morality, Mortality, v. II:

    I would also like to report the following puzzle to which Kamm’s justification of constraints gives rise. According to her, our status as inviolable beings stems from “certain properties (here not enumerated) that we possess as individuals.” She speculates that these properties have to do with our rational capacities — “that we are rational beings,” “creatures who act for reasons,” or beings that have “a rational will, whose consent we must seek when interfering with what [such] a person has independently of imposition on us.” She also notes that human beings are not as inviolable as they could possibly be. We would, for example, be more inviolable if our right not to be foreseeably killed (as in the trolley case), or our right not to be killed in self-defense, were as stringent as our right not to be sacrificed for the greater good (as in the transplant case). We would be as inviolable as we could conceivably be just in case it were never for any reason and under any circumstances permissible to kill or harm any one of us. My puzzlement arises from the fact that it does not appear that beings whose rational capacities (or capacities for fellow-feeling or artistic creativity, for that matter) were far greater than ours (but who were otherwise as vulnerable to death and harm as we) would be more inviolable than we in the respect that is relevant to Kamm’s justification of constraints. Beings far more rational, sympathetic, or creative than we might be more inviolable in the following irrelevant respect: if some impartial outsider were forced to kill either one of us or one of them, it might be justifiable to kill one of us (just as it would be justifiable for an impartial outsider to kill a deer rather than one of us if forced to kill either one or the other). But I doubt that they would be more inviolable than we in the following relevant respect. I doubt that it would be impermissible to turn a trolley onto one of them if necessary to save five (or even two) of them from being killed, or that the moral barrier against involuntarily transplanting vital organs from one of them to save the lives of many of them would be greater than in the case of human beings. As far as I can tell, the moral principles and rules that apply to human beings would also apply to these superhuman beings. We, on the other hand, are arguably more inviolable in the relevant respect than beings with capacities inferior to ours. It is, for example, probably permissible, in some circumstances, to kill a minority of the deer in a given overpopulated herd in order to spare the majority from death by starvation, even though it would not be permissible, in analogous circumstances, to kill a minority of human beings in a given overpopulated society in order to spare the majority from death by starvation. If these observations are correct, then increases in inviolability track increases in rational (and other) capacities only up to a point — roughly that point in the evolution of capacities that human beings have reached. (As noted above, this point is not, however, the point at which inviolability is as great as it could possibly be.) But this would be an odd result. Why doesn’t inviolability continue to track these capacities? And why are we so fortunate to have reached the actual limit point of inviolability? (from ‘Kamm on the Morality of Killing’, Ethics, 108 (1997): 197-207.)

  2. 2. Posted by Guy Kahane | August 18, 2007 3:13 pm

    Milke, thanks for drawing my attention to this. Your remarks in that review go far beyond my tentative worry, but let me see if I can develop this point a bit further.

    The puzzle seems to take this form:

    (1) The properties that seems to ground our high moral status (relative to other entities and animals) are such that we can conceive of beings that would either possess them them to a radically greater degree or, perhaps, possess them in a form that is qualitatively superior to ours (setting aside, of course, the possibility that some property we are unaware of or can’t conceive might also ground further levels of moral status).

    (2) It’s easy to conceive, in the non-consequentialist (NC) framework, higher levels of moral status (i.e. greater inviolability) than we ourselves enjoy

    (3) According to commonsense morality, having such higher properties wouldn’t ground a form of moral status higher than ours

    (4) It seems unlikely that we happen to enjoy the highest moral status

    I think it’s very hard to deny (1). It’s also possible that at some point in the future, radically enhanced humans beings might actually possess rational or moral powers that are dramatically superior to existing humans.

    As for (2), perhaps a NC could try to argue that there are some formal constraints on the notions of ‘respect’ or ‘inviolability’ that rule out the possibility of higher forms of moral status. But it seems to me that this is very doubtful, and that the only thing that rules this out are commonsense intuitions. But NC needn’t be closely aligned to commonsense, and in any case appealing to such intuitions would simply be to appeal to (3).

    Now (3) is a bit tricky. It’s not surprising we think thar we’re at the top of the scale, and such a belief might simply be biased. And it’s not as if we’ve had to deal with such higher beings, or have spent much time reflecting on their possibility. Well, in one sense perhaps we have reflected on this possibility, or at least theists have (and Kant speculates about ‘Holy Beings’). I suppose that certain theistic views about God (or even angels) are possible counter-examples to (3). Perhaps the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac is an example. You might think though that to possess higher moral status than us would require some superior form of MORAL agency. In that case (and perhaps this is illustrated by the Old Testament story) perhaps these morally superior beings would be such that they would never permit us to be sacrificed for their sake.

    Finally, although I myself stated (4) in my post, it’s not entirely clear what kind of claim it is. In what sense is it unlikely? In might be unlikely in the sense of self-serving (see above). Or this worry might just be a demand for a causal explanation. I suppose that some naturalistic meta-ethical story might provide such an explanation, though it would be a mistake to assume that naturalism simply implies (3).

  3. 3. Posted by Mike Otsuka | August 18, 2007 9:09 pm

    It’s not surprising we think that we’re at the top of the scale, and such a belief might simply be biased.

    There are at least two different ways in which a more highly rational species than homo sapiens might be more inviolable than we:

    (1) Greater interspecies inviolability: e.g., “if some impartial outsider were forced to kill either one of us or one of them, it [would] be justifiable to kill one of us (just as it would be justifiable for an impartial outsider to kill a deer rather than one of us if forced to kill either one or the other).”

    (2) Greater intraspecies inviolability: e.g., “it would be impermissible to turn a trolley onto one of them [the more rational species] if necessary to save five (or even two) of them from being killed…”

    If we were just being biased, we’d think we’re at the top of the scale in both respects and deny both (1) and (2). I think, however, that many of us would be willing to grant (1) — even though we’d be more self-serving to deny (1) than to deny (2).

  4. 4. Posted by Toby Ord | August 19, 2007 6:46 pm

    Guy, thanks for the very illuminating discussion of this chapter. It is indeed a short chapter, but it is characteristically dense. Kamm’s claims come thick and fast, and as far as this reader is concerned they could do with more justification. I was willing to grant much of the conceptual analysis but as you said, it blurred in with the substantive ethical claims, making the lines of argument quite confusing.

    I think that it can be useful to have a short sequence of undefended moral claims if it quickly leads to an interesting defensible moral position which works well as a whole. In such cases, the reader can tentatively grant the claims, see where it leads, and then possibly retract support for them. Sometimes Kamm’s claims work like this (such as for the Doctrine of Triple Effect), but here I found myself either fighting against her by denying almost all of her intuitions (as I do not share them), or granting them to see where they lead and having to remember the great many disputed claims for a span of several chapters until I see where they lead and then invariably forgetting quite what I was taking on faith and what I wasn’t.

    It would be much easier for someone whose intuition matched Kamm’s more closely, but I find that at almost every point that could be considered contentious, I take the opposite turning. I imagine that Kamm believes most of her readers to share most of her intuitions, but I have no idea if this is true. Hopefully Matthew’s survey will shed a little light on this (we are not average people, but might be close to her average *readers*).

    Now, a couple of concrete points. I think that your distinction between cases of consciousness without wellbeing and wellbeing without consciousness is a good one, and would be interested to hear Kamm’s answer as to which (if any) of these cases one could do something for the subject’s sake.

    I also agree that it is interesting that we happen to have the highest level of moral status on Kamm’s account. This is especially interesting given how many levels of moral status she specifies. For contrast a utilitarian could say that what matters is the capacity to have either positive or negative experiences. It would then be unsurprising (and not ad hoc) for us to be at the very top level of moral status, for the ability to experience is absolutely central to the moral theory in question. Of particular note is that in such a case there are very few levels and the top level is quite broad, including creatures common thought of as below us and providing room for entities above us who, though their moral status might be the same, could still conceivably outweigh us in virtue of achieving a greater amount of positive experience.

  5. 5. Posted by Guy Kahane | August 19, 2007 10:43 pm

    Mike, I have limited confidence about my intuitions in this area or my ability to predict the intuitions of others. There are so few constraints at work. In the existing literature on moral status, and in Kamm’s chapter, the possibility of forms of moral status higher than us is usually ignored, and plausibly implicitly denied. The impression one usually gets is everyone is equal once we cross a certain threshold.

    I am inclined to agree though that if people do entertain the possibility of such higher status, they are more likely to endorse your (1) than your (2). I think many would also add the claim that, cases like (1) aside, it wouldn’t be permitted for these higher beings to do to us what many of us think is permitted to do to deer (i.e. eat them or use them for vital scientific experiments). But (1) is very weak. How many would agree that it is permissible to kill 10 of us rather than one of them? As for (2), if such saintly super-rational beings treated themselves in such a way, I am far from confident that they would be mistaken. (To the extent that we can explain why something like (2) would be false, I think we’ll need to appeal to some formal or substantive constraints on the concepts of respect or inviolability. But in Kamm’s work, at least, I do not yet see what would do this work.)

    Even if we agree only to something like your (1), an interesting question is where to draw the line. We can rephrase the initial question. If higher levels are possible, isn’t it odd that all human beings fall in one category? Consistency drives some people to place humans with severe cognitive handicap in the same category as the highest animals, but why is that existing human variance at the higher end, whether it’s in rationality or moral virtue, happens to fall within a single category?

    Toby, just a point of clarification. By ‘capacity for well-being’ I think you mean simply well-being or expected well-being. If we expect a human to have far greater WB than a deer, this could justify saving the human on straightforward utilitarian grounds. But such a view leaves it open that particular deers have, or can be expected to have, greater actual WB than particular humans, and here there would be no direct grounds to prefer the human. There is however another possible view that attempts to have a single category of moral status but which rules out such a possibility. This view WOULD give the capacity for WB an intrinsic significance. So we could prefer the particular human to the particular deer simply because humans have the capacity for greater WB, whether or not this greater capacity would be actualized in this particular case. But I doubt that this view is really defensible.

    Even if we stick to the first view, I think that some utilitarians (not you of course!) smuggle something like moral status through the back door by adding far from obvious empirical or evaluative claims about the WB of animals and humans, so that humans somehow still turn out to morally matter way more than all other animals (and at the same time obvious individual differences among humans in capacity for WB are ignored — I haven’t seen anyone advocate giving moral priority to the cheerful!). As far as ‘meta-ethical economy’ goes, I don’t see a great advantage to having a simple view of moral status if all the complexity is simply shifted to the theory of well-being.

  6. 6. Posted by Mike Otsuka | August 20, 2007 10:47 am

    As for (2), if such saintly super-rational beings treated themselves in such a way, I am far from confident that they would be mistaken.

    I think it muddies the waters to qualify “beings” with “saintly” as well as “super-rational”. This introduces a second dimension in which these beings differ from us: not only are they more rational than we, but they’re also saintly, whereas we’re not so morally upstanding. Moreover, I suspect that it’s their saintliness rather than their super-rationality that explains your lack of confidence that they would be mistaken.

    As grounds for this suspicion, note that you could credibly have said the following: if saintly beings who were just as rational as human beings treated themselves in such a way, it is far from obvious that they would be mistaken. If, for example, these beings treated innocent threats as inviolable rather than permissible to kill in self-defense, we might think of them as virtuous beyond the call of duty rather than mistaken.

  7. 7. Posted by Toby Ord | August 20, 2007 6:40 pm


    Yes, I was trying to say something like your first option: that we should choose who to save based on the actual wellbeing that they would have. However, this needn’t mean that someone’s moral status is equal to the wellbeing that they would have and thus, that there are very many levels of moral status. Perhaps this is the natural way to map the concept of moral status onto utilitarianism, I’m not sure. However, the view I wanted to put forward is that there are only two categories of moral status: those who have a capacity for positive or negative wellbeing (such as people or deer) and those that don’t (such as rocks). The latter don’t count and the former count equally, which is to say that we take into account the wellbeing of one just as we would take into account the wellbeing of the others. I think Peter Singer presents utilitarianism like this (highlighting its formal equality of humans and non-human animals) and others use it to highlight the sense in which utilitarianism treats people equally.

    One could, of course take this a step further and say that there is only one class of moral status in utilitarianism and everything shares it. Rocks aren’t excluded on the grounds of being in the wrong class of entities, but on the mere fact that they don’t acrue wellbeing. I think this is the simpler theory and they have the same conclusions, but it has less rhetorical power (arguing for the formal equality of rocks and humans will win few hearts).

  8. 8. Posted by Fiona Woollard | August 23, 2007 8:32 am

    To change the thread of discussion a little, I’d like to say something about Kamm’s argument that the duties that exist while there is only an embryo differ from the duties we would have once the person has developed.

    In Kamm’s example, it is permissible for a woman who “has given a fetus genes that will result in a future person with an IQ of 160” to decide to take a drug to lower this IQ for the good of the family. I think that if we do think it is permissible for the woman to take the drug, this is because (1) she herself gave the genes and (2) the genes do not yet seem to have transferred into the ownership of the other. Thus her taking away of the IQ is simply her preventing herself from benefiting the other.

    In contrast, once the festus has developed into a child, we see the transfer of ownership as complete, thus reducing the IQ would involve taking back a benefit already bestowed. Note that Kamm describes the pill as “reduc[ing] his IQ from 160 to 140.” – which emphasises the idea that the benefit is now operative.

    So in the case of the embryo (as described by Kamm), reducing the future IQ involves failing to benefit, while in the case of the child,it involves taking away a benefit (and possibly doing harm). I suggest that this difference, rather than the difference in status of the fetus, explains the difference in permissibility.

    This might be backed up by considering the permissibility of a third party feeding a fetus drugs to reduce its future IQ. (So there is no interference with the mother assume that a science fiction scenario with an artificial womb.).

  9. 9. Posted by Toby Ord | August 23, 2007 12:28 pm

    Fiona, I find Kamm’s idea of the mother ‘taking back the IQ’ to be unconvincing for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is not really a case of taking back for much the same reason as computer piracy is not stealing: the child getting IQ does not deprive the mother of any. A closer giving/taking analogy might be that of taking back a gift and destroying it (which if anything we will see as less permissible than merely taking it back if that benefits the giver), or erasing the copy of your own work that you allowed someone else to make. For those who believe the ‘taking back’ story, consider the possibility that it was only the father’s genes that could have led to such a high IQ (ignoring for a moment the question of whether this is scientifically realistic). Can the mother still deny it to the child? If so, then it mustn’t be to do with ‘taking back’.

    I think that if there is a real difference here, it stems from the non-identity problem: ex-hypothesi the lower IQ leads to greater overall good (family harmony etc in Kamm’s example) and either involves no person-affecting harm (embryo case) or some harm (child case). If we don’t suppose that lowering the IQ leads to more overall benefit (just more for the rest of the family), then I don’t think it is permissible at all. This seems to be a more fundamental argument than Kamm’s and doesn’t involve moral status.

  10. 10. Posted by Guy Kahane | August 23, 2007 2:38 pm

    Fiona, in my post I’ve suggested that Kamm’s claims here are best understood as claims about duties to future persons. She does write as if they are about the moral status of the embryo but I don’t think that her claims are ultimately different from the view you sketch.

    I found these claims unconvincing for reasons similar to Toby’s, though I wouldn’t say that such choices involve the non-identity problem (Kamm is assuming the embryo will develop into a particular actual person). Kamm muddies the water a bit by involving the good of others. Strictly speaking, similar acts can be permissible with respect to existing people. Parents can register a child to a top school and then cancel it when it emerges they need this money to support their other children. We can imagine that in this and similar acts they are modifying the child’s eventualy IQ, but even if not, it’s far from obvious that having higher IQ is more valuable than a good education — presumably it’s not IQ in itself but its effect on the goodness of a life that matters. It might still be true that the existing persons’s WB should be given greater weight than a merely future person, but this isn’t established by Kamm’s examples.

    Toby, since we are assuming that the embryo will in fact develop into a particular person then this is a question about moral status: the moral status of future as opposed to existing people. (In a sense it’s about the moral status of the same type of entity in different contexts.)

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