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May 21, 2013


Eleanor Cooney

"Are fetuses morally relevant? Yes, they are. So are chunks of lava. Does that mean you mustn't destroy them? Not necessarily, but you shouldn't suppose that the way to gain license to destroy them, whether this is conceived cosmically, socially, or individually, is to produce arguments that cut them off from the sphere of moral relevance."

This is precisely why I never participate in discussions about whether or not a fetus is "human." People on both sides carry on these endless discussions, in great earnest, as if "winning" the argument will somehow settle everything and influence the woman determined to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy. Abortion is sui generis, and must be considered only on its own terms. It's tempting to make comparisons, but any comparison to any thing else will be spurious. There is no other circumstance under the sun where one entity grows inside another, unless we want to get into a discussion of parasitism.

That said, we know that the components of what we call life break down into what we call inert matter with breathtaking ease, implying a connection of the sort that might stop one from breaking rocks.

Abbas Raza

One is compelled to paraphrase super-slick Willy: You blocks, you stones, you better than senseless things!

Kai Matthews

It does seem that an ethics based in a recognizably modern scientific (that is, materialist, non-dualist) ontology must admit of degrees of moral relevance of and responsibility for the various categories of entities that populate our world, categories informed by empirical knowledge. (I *don't* mean to contradict Hume's caution, just to suggest that the epistemic background matters.) But the very idea of categories implies the retention of some clear boundaries, especially between entities with nervous systems and those without (relatively easy to distinguish), and those that are alive and those that are not (a bit more difficult), and rejection of the totally indiscriminate notions of panpsychism and hylozoism.

When I was at Berklee, one of the non-music courses I chose for the academic degree requirements was an eclectic elective taught by a brilliant but nutty hippie who included alongside Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" a book by one Alice Bailey called "The Consciousness of the Atom", which most often can be found in New Age bookstores. It struck me at the time as a typical case of moving the definitional goalposts, to the point of rendering the term "conscious" meaningless.

We can aspire to cohesion in our ethical systems, a coherent ordering of ethical priorities, without regressing to this sort of conceptual morass. We can hope to create a system in which, for instance, there are appropriate places both for my unease at animal testing of cosmetics *and* also the sense of violation I would feel if someone blew up the ridge of metamorphic rock that is the familiar landmark sitting behind my family's land in Rhode Island (as has already been done further up the ridge at a local quarry.)


Jainism, not Buddhism, which holds to momentariness, is the relevant Ethical program here. You may know of the extreme care taken by Jain monks and nuns not to destroy atom sized living beings. They are forbidden to travel during the rainy season when such atomic sized organisms might be thought to most burgeon.
The ultimate act of sallekhana- self-starvation (as opposed to a Japanese Buddhist practice of self-mummification which is pretty gristly)- can also be rationalized as abstaining from movement likely to cause the destruction or dislodgement of even minute particles.
Umasvati laid stress on a sort of Universal matching problem such that stable 'karmic obstructors' arise and persist over time, so that actual ethical dilemmas can be formalized as a repeated rather than a one-shot game with symmetry, balance, memory, correlated eqblia etc. Of course, the Naishadya/Vishada episodes in Mahabharata are the only explicit linking of game theory to Ethics I know of, but Umasvati was a mathematician and probably drew on the same tradition in this respect.
Interestingly, Jainism also has a sort of thermodynamic conception of a sort of heat death of the Universe such that ultimately every soul/atom enjoys eternal omniscient/bliss- so this is an optimistic ethical system.
However, in this post, I think what is being referred to is the numinous quality of things as they are. But this relates, it seems to me, to the same nuerological complex as is responsible for things like our intuitions re. property rights and precedence entitlements.
Clearly, an Ethical system is only Ethical if it consistently counsels the most foolish and morally repugnant outcome possible, so Umasvati and Jainism cashes out as Economics or Narratology which are useful and everything else is Numinous special pleading for atrocity.
Incidentally, in British Law some rocks and even things like stalagmites or stalactites which are reconstituted over time, can have rights, legal personality, and own and dispose of property.

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