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Boonin’s Defense of the Sentience Criterion: A Critique Part II

July 16th, 2009 by Matt

In Boonin’s Defense of the Sentience Criterion: A Critique Part I, I noted that a defender of the permissibility of feticide, who does not also want to endorse infanticide and who defends the sentience criterion, must “identify a reason for holding that the potential of a human brain is morally relevant after” the fetus acquires sentience “but is not morally relevant before that point.” I also noted that this reason must be “not itself merely an ad hoc device for reaching the conclusion the defender of [sentience criterion] wishes to reach.” I sketched David Boonin’s position; Boonin has offered an justification of the sentience criterion which he claims achieves this. Boonin claims that he can account for the wrongness of killing in various cases in a manner that is (a) more parsimonious than Marquis’s account; and, (b) more salient. In addition to explaining why it is wrong to kill in these cases in a superior manner, he argues, (c) Marquis account is subject to counter examples that his account is not subject to. I will now address these arguments.

Parsimonious
Boonin argues that his account can explain the wrongness of killing in various cases in a manner that is more parsimonious than that suggested by Marquis. He argues as follows,

[i] His own account appeals to only to one property of an individual to explain the wrongness of killing;
[ii] Marquis account however appeals to two properties; and,
[iii] Appealing to one property is more parsimonious than appealing to two.

Premises [i] and [iii] are correct, Boonin appeals to only one property—that of having an ideal desire to live. Moreover, it is correct that appealing to one property to explain something is more parsimonious than appealing to two. The crucial premise here is [ii], Boonin states that Marquis’s account appeals to two properties to explain the wrongness of killing. Boonin characterises Marquis as holding to the following proposition.

If an individual P has a future-like-ours F and if either (a) P now desires that F be preserved, or (b) P will later desire to continue having the experiences contained in F (if P is not killed), then P is an individual with the same right to life as you or I.23

Unfortunately, Boonin provides little justification for this interpretation of Marquis. His claim relies on two citations from Marquis’s work. The first comes from Marquis’s paper, “Why Abortion is Immoral,” where Marquis states,

When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my personal future, but also of what I would have come to value, Therefore when I die I am deprived of all the value of my future.24

On the face of it, this citation suggests Marquis does understand a future of value in the way Boonin suggests. He understands a future of value to consist of both what one presently values and what one will come to value. The problem with this interpretation is that, as Boonin himself notes, later in the same essay Marquis explicitly repudiates this understanding. He states, “we desire life because we value the goods of this life, The goodness of life is not secondary to our desire for it.”25 Marquis concludes, “It is strictly speaking, the value of a human’s future [rather than the human’s future valuing of it] which makes killing wrong on this theory.”26 At best then, the evidence from Marquis is ambiguous, and at worst, he explicitly rejects the position Boonin attributes to him.

Boonin’s second citation of Marquis is from a more recent paper, “Reply to Shirley.”27 In this paper Marquis had previously been challenged to “produce an account of what it would mean to say that an individual’s future is of value to him.”28 Here Marquis’s answer is:

Consider some class of individuals at t1. Consider the hypotheses that those human individuals have a future of value of them at t2. Verify this by asking those individuals at t2 whether they believe their lives are worth living at t2 . Those who answer in the affirmative have a future of value at t1.29

Boonin takes this citation as offering support for his interpretation of Marquis. He seems to think that Marquis suggests here that what constitutes a future of value is either that one now desires it or will come to desire it. This is dubious. Nowhere in this quote does Marquis say anything about a present desire and a future desire; it states merely that a person has a valuable future if they would at a future time consider their life worth living. Moreover, it is unclear whether Marquis considers this to constitute what a future of value is or whether it confirms that someone has one. In a later article, Marquis suggests that the former is correct as follows,

How does killing victimize them? It harms them. Killing harms its victims by depriving them of all of the goods of life that they otherwise would have experienced. In other words, killing them deprives them of their futures of value. Their futures of value consist of whatever they will or would regard as making their lives worth living.30

Here Marquis construes a future of value in terms of what a person will, in the future, regard as worth living. Boonin then rests [i] on insufficient evidence.

Interestingly in his most recent article, Marquis makes it clear that he does not hold to the conjunctive account Boonin attributes to him. He states that his account,

[M]akes reference only to the value of one’s future, not to the value of one’s present or past. Accordingly, the lack of parsimony that Boonin find in the future of value account is really a function only of Boonin’s statement of that account of the wrongness of killing, not the account itself. Because there is no good reason to include present desires in the statement of the future of value account, other than for the purpose of rejecting the account on grounds of parsimony, I shall discard the unwieldy locution of present or future desires and refer the to the account Boonin rejects as a future of value account.31

Boonin’s argument here appears to attack a straw man. Premise [ii] is false and without [ii] Boonin’s parsimonious argument is unsound. Both Boonin and Marquis appeal to a single property.

Salience
Boonin’s second argument is that his account is more “salient.”32 By this he means that “it enables us to account for the prima facie wrongness of killing by understanding killing as one instance of a more general category of acts that are prima facie wrong: acts that frustrate the desires of others.”33 In support of this, Boonin cites a case of Hans who “has been dumped by his girlfriend and has plunged into a deep depression. He can think about nothing else and has no desire to go on living.”34 Boonin suggests that his account makes sense of this case in a straightforward manner. Hans would desire to live if he thought about his future rationally with full information in the absence of distorting influences like depression. On the other hand, he suggests that Marquis’s future of value account does not account for the case of Hans in a straightforward manner: “on [Marquis’s] account, the wrongness of killing is not explained by appealing to a feature that accounts for the wrongness of a more general class of wrongful actions. The wrongness of killing however becomes an anomaly.”35

This objection, like the previous one, appears to be based on a misinterpretation of Marquis’s position, as Marquis points out:

The future of value account makes killing Hans wrong for the same reason it is wrong to kill almost all other human beings. To kill Hans is to make him worse off than he otherwise would have been. To make him worse off than he otherwise would have been is to harm him.

On the future of value account the wrongness of killing is based on the harm of killing. A present action cannot affect one’s past. Strictly speaking, a present act of harming does not make another worse off in the present either, for the present is instantaneous and harm, involving, as it does, causation, requires at least a small temporal interval for its effect to occur. A present act of harm affects the victim’s future. It makes someone worse off in the future. To make someone worse off is to reduce that person’s welfare, to reduce the quantity or quality of the goods in his future that she would otherwise have possessed. On the future of value account killing is wrong because it harms a victim.36

Marquis’s account, then, “enables us to account for the prima facie wrongness of killing by understanding killing as one instance of a more general category of acts that are prima facie wrong,”37 that is, the category of acts that harm others. Moreover, I am inclined to think Marquis’s account provides a more plausible category of acts than that of Boonin’s. It seems to me far more obvious that killing is wrong because it harms another than that it is wrong because it prevents someone from doing something in the future that they presently desire to do.

However, there is a way of reading Boonin that leads to the conclusion that both he and Marquis understand killing as a subclass of the duty not to harm others. It is common in the literature to define an individual’s welfare in terms of what they would ‘ideally desire’. Philosophers such as Richard M. Hare and Richard Brandt for example have defined welfare in this way. Consider Marquis’s claim, “To make someone worse off is to reduce that person’s welfare, to reduce the quantity or quality of the goods in his future that she would otherwise have possessed.” If Boonin is understood as adopting an ideal account of welfare, then to reduce a person’s desires is to frustrate their ideal desires. On this reading, both accounts are equally salient. Both understand killing as harming a person and reducing his or her welfare, they simply disagree as to how welfare is defined.

Counter-examples
Boonin’s third argument is that his account “is able to account for a counter example that Marquis’s version is unable to account for.”38

[C]onsider, the case of Hans’ even more depressed brother, Franz. Like Hans, Franz does not currently value his personal future even though, as also in the case of Hans, his personal future contains many of the sorts of experiences that we take to be distinctively valuable. Due to a permanent and irreversible chemical imbalance in his brain, however, Franz is, and will always remain, completely unable to value the experiences that he has. Although he has a future-like-ours, he has no actual occurent desire to preserve it and he never will have such a desire.39

Regarding this case Boonin suggests three things:

[i] That it would be wrong to kill such an individual;
[ii] That Marquis’s account entails that it is not wrong to kill such a person; and,
[iii] That his own account, the ideal desire account, entails it is wrong to kill such a person.

Curiously, in his most recent article Marquis concedes [ii]; he grants that his account does have this implication but he suggests that [i] is false.40 I think this move is unnecessary on Marquis’s part. By citing this as a counter example, Boonin assumes that Marquis holds that possession of a future of value is a necessary condition for possessing a right to life. This assumption is false. In Why Abortion is Immoral, Marquis made it clear that he was contending that a possession of a future of value was only a sufficient condition for possessing a right to life. Given this, it is simply false to claim that it is permissible to kill a person who lacks a future of value. All it affirms is that it is wrong to kill those who have such a future.

Elsewhere, Marquis has argued there can be good reasons for extending the rule against homicide to cover those who do not have futures of value.41 While it may be true that an individual act of killing a person does not harm them, deprive them of a future of value, social endorsement and acceptance of a rule allowing such killing will harm people and, hence, for this reason, a rule against killing in situations like this is justified.

Boonin does have a possible reply to this response, while Marquis’s account does not entail it is permissible to kill Franz, it fails to account for the wrongness of killing Franz and needs to be supplemented in order to succeed. Hence, if Boonin’s account can explain killing in this context, his account is better. The crucial question then is whether [iii] is correct. Is it the case that Boonin’s account does entail that it is wrong to kill Franz? Boonin argues that it does.

[O]n the “present ideal dispositional desire” version of the future like ours principle, things look very different. For surely Franz’s desires about his personal future would include the desire that it be preserved if his desires were formed in the absence of the chemical imbalance that prevents him from having this desire. Although he has no actual desire to go on living, that is, it does make sense to attribute this desire to him as an ideal desire. And given this, my version of the principle implies that Franz does have the same right to life as you or I. . . . [M]y version of the future-like-ours principle is superior to Marquis’s.42

Here I think Boonin conflates two separate questions. The first is the question of what Franz’s ideally rational self would choose for itself (i.e., the ideally rational Franz), and what Franz’s ideally rational self would choose for Franz’s actual self (i.e., his non-ideally rational self).43 If one asks the former question, then Boonin is correct; Franz would not choose to die. Franz’s ideally rational self would not suffer from depression and so would not desire to die.
The answer to the second question is not so clear. Here we ask what an ideally rational self would choose if it knew that it would in fact have a future filled with miserable suffering and depression and be unable to enjoy any of the experiences that lie ahead. It is certainly not obvious that an ideally rational person would value a future made up of such circumstances.44

The question then arises as to which of these two questions is the appropriate one to ask. Carson argues that is the latter and not the former that is pertinent.

Suppose I have an irrational fear of dogs. A friend asks me to take care of his dogs while he is away on vacation. My ideally rational self would not fear the dogs and would not hesitate to look after them. Given my intense fear of dogs, however, things are likely to turn out badly if I look after the dogs. Why should I care that my ideal self wouldn’t be afraid of dogs? Wouldn’t it still be foolish for my actual self (with all of its phobias) to take care of the dogs? I might be incapable of adequately caring for them.45

Carson’s point is that something in a person’s future is not valuable to them if it is something their ideal self would choose for their ideal self; many such choices would be harmful to them. Only if ideal desires are understood in the latter sense can it be plausibly maintained that what a person ideally desires is valuable to them. On the face of it, then, it appears that Marquis’s account does not entail this counter example whereas Boonin’s account does, that is, at least if he intends his account to lay down both necessary and sufficient conditions needed for a right to life.46

At this point the defender of Boonin could make the following reply. Suppose one grants Marquis’s claim that there are good reasons for extending the rule against homicide to cover those who do not have futures of value. Presumably, a fully informed person would be aware of these reasons and, hence, Franz would, if fully informed, refuse to endorse a rule that allowed him to be killed. Franz would accept that his own future lacked value and was going to be miserable but he would also note that other people would be harmed if a rule allowing him to be killed were accepted and, hence, Franz would have an ideal desire not to be killed. If this response is cogent, then, one again, Boonin and Marquis’s accounts appear to be on par. Neither by themselves provide a reason for why it would be wrong to kill Franz and both can account for the wrongness of killing Franz when supplemented with Marquis’s other arguments on the topic. Boonin’s contention that his account provides a better explanation of the wrongness of killing appears mistaken. Both Boonin and Marquis’s accounts explain various paradigms of unlawful killing. Both appeal to a single property in doing so, “possession of a future of value.” Both explain killing in terms of reducing a person’s welfare and hence harming them. Both, by themselves, do not provide an explanation of why it is wrong to kill Franz and both can explain this when supplemented with the same further argument. The main difference between Boonin and Marquis is how they construe a ‘future of value’. Boonin understands this in terms of a future one has, a present ideal desire to preserve one’s future. Marquis understands this in terms of a future one will come to actually value in the future. The only other differences between them, at least on the factors Boonin cites, is that one entails that a fetus is human and the other does not. If one is to prefer one to another on the grounds Boonin provides, one can do so only by appealing to one’s beliefs about feticide. It seems, then, that Boonin has failed to provide a reason that is not itself “merely an ad hoc device for reaching the conclusion the defender of [sentience criterion] wishes to reach.”

Boonin’s Conclusion
A precisely analogous problem occurs when Boonin applies the modified FLO to the issue of feticide. Suppose, for the sake of argument, I grant that the modified FLO account provides necessary and sufficient conditions an organism must meet to posses a right to life. Why does it follow that a fetus does not posses a right to life? While it is true that fetuses lack actual desires to preserve their FLO’s, it is not at all clear that fetuses lack an ideal desire to do so. Marquis plausibly suggests that “If a fetus were rational and fully informed, it would desire to live” and concludes, “It follows that fetuses have an ideal desire to live.”47 Boonin takes exactly this line with infants. While infants lack the cognitive capacity to have any actual desire to exist, they have a right to life because they would have such desires if they were fully rational and able to engage in higher cognitive activities. Why can the same not be said of pre-sentient fetuses?

Boonin’s response is to define ideal desires a particular way. He states that “ideal desires . . . are simply the content of actual desires corrected to account for the distorting influences of imperfect circumstances.” 48 Once this definition is granted, it follows that only beings with actual desires can have ideal desires. And hence only a sentient fetus can have a right to life. This is however precisely where the problem arises. There are rival definitions of ideal desires proposed in the literature and, as Marquis points out,49 Boonin gives little or no argument for adopting this particular definition. Moreover, nothing in his arguments for the modified FLO account requires this particular definition of ideal desires to be adopted. This last point is important. Boonin makes use of ‘ideal desires’ to avoid various counter-examples to the desire account of the wrongness of killing, and he argues for the modified FLO account on the basis of its ability to plausibly explain certain paradigms of wrongful killing. However, nothing in this line of argument requires Boonin to adopt one definition of ideal desire over another. Almost any definition of ideal desires on offer will get around the counter examples aforementioned and most such accounts will explain the paradigms Boonin appeals to. Consequently, Boonin’s argument appears arbitrary. He recommends his account on the grounds that it explains various cases better than a rival account which he assumes is the best available.

However, there are other versions of the modified FLO account available which utilize other definitions of ideal desires, these accounts explain the cases equally as well as Boonin’s does. Some of these other versions entail that a fetus does have ideal desires. In the absence of some reason for preferring Boonin’s account over the others, the only factor that seems pertinent in deciding which version is correct is the accounts’ implications for feticide. It seems then that person’s beliefs about feticide will do most if not all the work in deciding which version to adopt. Once again, it appears that Boonin has failed to provide a reason that is not itself “merely an ad hoc device for reaching the conclusion the defender of [sentience criterion] wishes to reach.”

Conclusion
In Boonin’s Defense of the Sentience Criterion: A Critique Part I, I noted that a defender of the permissibility of feticide who does not also want to endorse infanticide and who defends the sentience criterion must “identify a reason for holding that the potential of a human brain is morally relevant after” the fetus acquires sentience “but is not morally relevant before that point.” I also noted that this reason must be “not itself merely an ad hoc device for reaching the conclusion the defender of [sentience criterion] wishes to reach.”50 It appears this challenge has not been met. Boonin’s argument for the modified FLO and his application of it to the issue of feticide appears arbitrary. His account is plausible only if one grants that feticide is not homicide from the outset.51

24 Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral,” 345.
25 Ibid., 350.
26 Ibid.
27 Don Marquis, “Fetuses, Futures, and Values: A Reply to Shirley,” in Southwest Philosophy Review 6.2 (1995): 263-265.
28 Boonin, Defense of Abortion, 60.
29 Marquis, “Fetuses, Futures, and Values,” 263-265.
30 Don Marquis, “Abortion and the Beginning and End of Human Life,” The Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 34.1 (2006): 23.
31 Don Marquis, “Abortion Revisited,” 410
32 Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, 67.
33 Ibid.
34 Ibid., 70.
35 Ibid., 76.
36 Marquis, “Abortion Revisited,” 411
37 Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, 74.
38 Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, 76.
39 Ibid., 76.
40 Marquis, “Abortion Revisited,” 413.
41 Don Marquis, “The Weakness of the Case for Legalizing Physician Assisted Suicide,” in Physician Assisted Suicide: Expanding the Debate, ed. Margaret P. Battin, Rosamond Rhodes and Anita Silvers (New York: Routledge, 1998), 267-278.
42 Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, 76-77.
43 This distinction comes from Carson, Value and the Good Life, 226.
44 This is particularly the case when one considers that as Boonin defines ideal desires they are “simply the content of actual desires corrected to account for the distorting influences of imperfect circumstances.” It seems that there are plenty of actual people who when informed they will live for the rest of their lives in misery decide they do not want to continue living. Note the question here is not whether it is morally right to kill people with such desires, it is whether people with such desires exist.
45 Carson, Value and the Good Life, 226.
46 There is some ambiguity as to whether Boonin is proposing the modified future of value account as a sufficient or a necessary condition for possession of a right to life. In the earlier sections of A Defense of Abortion, Boonin appears to be proposing only the former. Boonin introduces his account on p. 64 where he states, “If an individual P has a future-like-ours and if P now desires that F be preserved, then P is an individual with the same right to life as you or I.” However, this states that the present possession of ideal dispositional desires is a sufficient condition of a right to life, not that they are a necessary condition.
Moreover, Boonin appears to confirm this interpretation later on p. 84 where he states, “On the account I have been defending, then, all that is required for the newborn infant to satisfy the conditions sufficient for having the same right to life as you or I is that he has a future like ours and that he have actual conscious desires”. This only states that the account is intended to lay down a sufficient and not a necessary condition.
Similarly, the argument Boonin provides for his account supports only a sufficient and necessary condition. His argument consists of providing an explanation of why it is wrong to kill in certain paradigm cases. He does not attempt to show that it explains why it is permissible to kill in paradigmatic cases of licit killing. No such cases are even mentioned.
He spells his method out on p. 57: “Identify the property that most plausibly accounts for the wrongness of killing in cases B-E, and then determine whether that property is possessed by the individual in case A. If it is, then the best account of the wrongness of killing in general provides a sufficient reason to conclude that the fetus has the same right to life as you or I. If it is not, then the best account of the wrongness of killing provides no such reason (though this will still leave open the possibility that killing the fetus is wrong for reasons other than the reasons that best explain why killing you or me is wrong).”
Boonin accepts if the “property” that “most plausibly accounts for the wrongness of killing” is not possessed by a fetus this “will still leave open the possibility that killing the fetus is wrong” for other reasons. However, when Boonin returns to this account 37 pages later he states that a fetus does not have a right to life because it lacks such desires. This is a fallacious inference. Such a conclusion follows only if Boonin is offering a necessary condition. Boonin has, it appears, committed the fallacy of denying the antecedent. The only charitable way to escape this conclusion is to understand Boonin as offering both a necessary and sufficient condition.
47 Marquis “Singer on Abortion and Infanticide,” Singer under Fire, ed., Jeffrey A. Schaler (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, forthcoming 2009).
48 Boonin, “A Defense of Abortion.”
49 In “Abortion Revisited,” 413-414
50 Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, 122.
51 I thank Don Marquis for his assistance in writing this paper.

This two-part series was originally published as: Matthew Flannagan “Boonin’s Defense of the Sentience Criterion: A Critique” Ethics and Medicine – An International Journal of Bioethics Vol 25:2 (Summer 2009) 95-106. It is reproduced on this blog with permission.

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Is Abortion Liberal? Part 2
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Sentience Part 2
Viability
Abortion and Child Abuse
Abortion and Brain Death: A Response to Farrar
Abortion and Capital Punishment: No Contradiction
During, Sherwin & Hutchison on Backstreet Abortion
Imposing Your Beliefs onto Others: A Defence
Boonin’s Defense of the Sentience Criterion: A Critique Part I

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