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Sentience Part 2

November 2nd, 2008 by Matt

Following on from Sentience Part 1, I will now address the conclusion of Bonnie Steinbock’s argument.

Steinbock’s Conclusion
Similar ambiguities affect Steinbock’s conclusion. Steinbock asserts that for killing an individual to be unlawful homicide, the individual must be sentient. However, this is ambiguous; as Don Marquis points out, this could mean that the individual will be sentient at some point in its life or it could mean that it is sentient now or it could mean that it was sentient at some time in the past.[i]

Steinbock must embrace the last of these options. If she adopts the first option, then the fetus does not lack sentience, as it will become sentient at some point in its life, hence feticide is homicide. The second option is also problematic, if the requirement is that the being is sentient now then it entails that a surgeon who actively kills a patient while he is under general anaesthetic has not committed homicide. Consequently, it is the last sense that Steinbock needs to embrace, it was sentient at some point in the past. However, this raises immediate questions. Why is sentience in the past necessary for possessing interests? On the face of it this appears simply an ad hoc manoeuvre.

At one point, Steinbock attempts to answer this question.

[N]ote an important difference between a temporarily unconscious person and a fetus. The difference is that the person who is now unconscious has had experiences, plans, beliefs, desires, etc. in the past. These past experiences are relevant because they form the basis for saying that the comatose person wants not to be killed while unconscious. “He valued his life” we might say or “of course he would want to not be killed” … We have all sorts of desires of which we are not at any particular time consciously aware, and it would be absurd to limit our desires to what we are actually thinking about. Nor do our desires, plans, goals, or the interests composing them, vanish when we fall into a dreamless sleep.[ii]

Steinbock asserts that past sentience is important because without it an individual cannot be said to have a present desire to go on living. However, this argument returns us to the problems stated above. As Tooley and Singer have pointed out, an infant cannot have a present desire to go on living either, because infants lack the mental capacity necessary to conceive of continued existence. Consequently, the very property that Steinbock claims makes killing fetuses not a form of homicide is a property possessed by infants. The distinction she draws between feticide and infanticide then is ad hoc.

Towards the end of her paper, Steinbock appears to see some of these problems and offers a third reason in addition to the Golden-Rule and interests arguments already mentioned as to why sentience marks a critical difference. Steinbock appeals to, what she suggests, is a plausible account of personal identity, the psychological continuity account.

According to the psychological continuity account of personal identity, having a certain set of past experiences is what makes me the person I am, and the experiences I have, my experiences. What makes experiences at two different times experiences of the same person is that they are appropriately related by a chain of memories, desires, intentions and the like. So people’s past experiences are precisely what makes their futures theirs.

Steinbock is arguing that a fetus and the infant it becomes are not the same individual; they are, rather, different individuals. In order for an individual in the past to be the same individual as me there must be a psychological link between this earlier individual and myself. I must have desires, intentions etc that it once had or, most importantly, I must remember conscious episodes that it had. In order for an earlier individual to have these psychological links with me, it must have been sentient. Consequently, there is an important difference between a fetus and an infant because an infant is sentient. It is possible for me to have been that infant. It was the same individual that I am but at an immature stage. However, this is not true of a pre-sentient fetus. On the psychological continuity account of individual identity, it is impossible for a pre-sentient fetus to have been me. I never was a fetus, some other individual was.

Again, this argument seems to entail that infanticide is not homicide. By applying the standard psychological continuity account, it is very difficult to find the requisite psychological link between the infant that developed into me and me today. Defenders of infanticide, such as Tooley and Singer, appeal precisely to this account to argue that we are not the same individual as the infant that developed into us. Tooley, in his monograph Abortion and Infanticide, cites numerous empirical data to show that according to the Psychological identity account, a person is not identical to the infant that developed into him or her.

Steinbock’s response to this problem is surprisingly weak; she simply states that “it may be that a more sophisticated account [of identity]” can be worked out. Merely claiming there “may be” a solution is not an adequate response. If the opponent of feticide were to respond to Steinbock’s objections by saying, “maybe my position can be modified to avoid those objections”, I doubt she would consider herself answered. Until such possibilities become defensible actualities, sentience does not give us any reason for discriminating between infanticide and feticide.

This discussion has repeatedly led to the conclusion that accounts based on sentience do not provide a basis for concluding that feticide and infanticide are any different. Not only are the arguments mustered in favour of feticide problematic, the very features of feticide that are alleged to render killing fetuses permissible are features also present in infanticide.

[i] Don Marquis, “Why Most Abortions are Immoral,” in Advances in Bioethics: Bioethics for Medical Education, Vol. 5, ed. Rem B. Edwards & E. Edwards Bittar (Stamford, CT: JAI Press, 1999), 239-240.
[ii] Bonnie Steinbock, “Why Most Abortions are Not Wrong,” in Advances in Bioethics: Bioethics for Medical Education, Vol. 5, ed. Rem B. Edwards & E. Edwards Bittar (Stanford, CT: JAI Press, 1999), 252.
Ibid., 252-54.
Ibid., 253.
Ibid., 254.

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