Psychological Connections and the Future-Like-Ours Argument

Introduction

In my last post, I offered an detailed case for the pro-choice view. One important pro-life argument I covered was Don Marquis’ future-like-ours argument. The basic idea is that since the typical fetus has a conscious future full of rich memories and experiences, killing the fetus through abortion robs them of this future. This future of memories and experiences is called a ‘future-like-ours’.

Helpful criticism from Tomas Bogardus, an associate professor of philosophy at Pepperdine University, has inspired me to write a more detailed examination of the future-like-ours argument. This post will perform that examination.

The Nature of Marquis’ Argument

It’s crucial to emphasize that Marquis’ argument is adductive in character. Marquis asks us to consider 5 cases where killing is prima facie seriously wrong. Those cases are:

  • The typical human adult(A)
  • The typical human infant(B)
  • The suicidal teenager(C)
  • The temporarily comatose human(D)

From these cases, Marquis derives a general account of the wrongness of killing that explains why it is prima facie seriously wrong to kill individuals (A)-(D). Individuals (A)-(D) have the property of having a future-like-ours and this explains why it is prima facie seriously wrong to kill them.

By ‘future-like-ours’, Marquis means, roughly, that the individual in question has the ability to value goods of consciousness(happiness, social relationships, learning, etc) when she will (or would) experience them. From here, Marquis argues that the typical human fetus also has a future-like-ours, so it is prima facie seriously to kill the typical human fetus. It follows that abortion is prima facie seriously wrong(since abortion involves killing the typical human fetus).

Notice that an individual need not presently have mental states or consciousness to have a future-like-ours. It is sufficient for an individual to be numerically identical to a future entity that will be conscious or would have developed consciousness.

I will argue that Marquis’ explanation for why it is wrong to kill individuals (A)-(D) is false. Specifically, the possession of a future-like-ours, as Marquis defines it, is insufficient to give an individual a future-of-value—a conscious future such that being deprived of this future would represent a moral harm to her. Since Marquis’ analysis of the wrongness of killing is incorrect, we cannot extrapolate the immorality of abortion.

My Initial Response

My general response to this line of argument was to hold that fetuses that have never experienced consciousness do not have a future that is relevantly like ours. Such fetuses have no psychological connections to any future conscious experience. That is, there is no chain of experiences connecting the fetus at one point in time to that future person’s conscious experience at a later point in time. Psychological connections include things like intentions, desires, and memories that obtain at different times in the life of a mental subject.

I appealed to the well-known religious doctrine of reincarnation(as a thought experiment) to provide support for my claim that psychological connections are essential for the possession of a future of value. The doctrine of reincarnation holds that some essential part of a living being survives death to be reborn in a new body. For human beings, this translates to saying that whatever makes us us survives death to be reborn in a new body, whether it be the body of a fly, a cat, a chimpanzee, or even another human.

Philosopher Rob Lovering gets to the heart of the matter when he states, “So, in some cases of reincarnation, numerical identity is preserved but psychological continuity is not. And it is with such cases in mind that a common criticism of the doctrine of reincarnation is raised: ‘Okay, so in my next life I may be, say, a fly with no beliefs, values, attitudes, intentions, personality traits, or memories that are connected to the beliefs, values, attitudes, intentions, personality traits, and memories I currently have. If this will indeed be the case, the question I have is: why should I care about my future self? That is, what egoistic reason do I have for taking an interest in my future self? As far as I can tell, I have none whatsoever. Even if I’m numerically identical with that future fly, for all practical purposes, I’m dead’ “(Futures of Value and the Destruction of Human Embryos, 476)

I then argued that, if you resonate with the prior sentiment, then you should accept the claim that having psychological connections to a conscious future is necessary in order to have a conscious future. There is no meaningful sense in which my conscious future could include the mental life of ‘my’ reincarnation due to the enormous psychological distance between the pre-reincarnation state and the post-reincarnation state. The distance is simply far too great for the conscious goods of ‘my’ post-reincarnation state to belong to my pre-reincarnation state.

The key takeaway here is that mere numerical identity with a being that has consciousness(such as the relationship between a fetus and the future conscious person it will become) is not enough for the possession of a future-of-value. There must be psychological connections present that connect that being to future conscious experiences. Since this condition is clearly not met in the cases of fetuses(at least for most of pregnancy), it follows that fetuses lack a future-of-value.

Painless Killing and Psychological Connections

We can strengthen the current response to the future-like-ours argument by offering related thought experiments to illustrate that dying a painless death is not significantly worse, morally speaking, than continuing to life in a psychologically discontinuous way. If this can be shown, then we will have proven that psychological connections are constitutive of having a future of value. The view that mere numerical identity is enough to ground a future-of-value will have been unambiguously ruled out. In Abortion: Three Perspectives, Michael Tooley develops a thought experiment that, by my lights at least, successfully accomplishes this task.

First, there is empirical evidence that there is a neurophysiological basis for the psychological capacities of human beings, including their non-occurrent mental states. Non-occurrent mental states are mental states that can exist at times when one is not conscious—such as one’s beliefs, memories, general desires, attitudes, and personality. It is through mental states such as these that psychological connections can form.

With this in mind, suppose that it becomes possible to completely “reprogram” an adult human’s brain while that person is asleep —that is, to act on a person’s brain in such a way as, first, to destroy all of that person’s memories, beliefs, attitudes, and personality traits, and the, second, to program in whatever new beliefs, attitudes, personality traits, and apparent memories one chooses. Suppose that this happened to you. Tooley asks us to consider how such an occurrence compares with a painless death(Abortion: Three Perspectives, 30).

Suppose that this happened to you. How would such an occurrence compare with your being painlessly killed? Consider two options: In option 1, there is a 100% chance that your brain will be completely reprogrammed, modeled on a person who is radically different from you. In option 2, there is an N% change that you will be painlessly killed, and a (100-M)% chance that you will be released unharmed.

This thought experiment can tell us important things about the relative moral status of option 1 and option 2. As Tooley notes, “If being painlessly killed would be a worse outcome than being reprogrammed, then there should be some value of N—say, 95—such that you would be indifferent between a 95% chance of being killed, together with a 5% chance of going free, and a 100% chance of being reprogrammed. But if that is so, then you should prefer being completely reprogrammed to a 96% chance of being killed, along with a 4% chance of going free”(Abortion: Three Perspectives, 31).

However this isn’t how most people would go about deciding between the options. Almost everyone would prefer option 2 over option 1, regardless of the percentage assignments. This strongly suggests that being painlessly killed is not any worse than being completely reprogrammed. The two options are, it seems, morally on par with one one another.

The reason for this is simple: the future available to the reprogramed person is too much like someone else’s future, for the reprogramed person is a complete stranger to the default person. Put in more precise terms, the psychological distance between a person, call him John, at t1(before reprogramming) and John at t3(after reprogramming) is too great to think of the conscious goods in that future as fully those of John at t1.

But if being painlessly killed and being reprogrammed are morally on par, then the claim that mere numerical identity is enough to ground a future-of-value is false. For reprogramming will only have one wrong-making property—destroying the mental states of a person—whereas the painless killing will have two—destroying the mental life of a person and depriving a human organism of a future-of-value. Marquis’ analysis, then, entails that the painless killing is significantly worse than complete reprogramming. Since this entailment is false, it follows that Marquis’ analysis is flawed.

Reincarnation Again

We can drive home the prior argument by, once again, reflecting on the doctrine of reincarnation. Reincarnation provides another reason to think that Marquis’ theory of the wrongness of killing is false.

Suppose you are kidnapped by a supernaturally gifted serial killer. The serial killer tells you that he will flip a coin to decide between route A and route B. On route A, the serial killer shoots you in the head, killing you instantly. On route B, the serial killer still shots you in the head, but this time, you will be reincarnated as a human that is entirely psychologically discontinuous with your past self. So, your reincarnation will have no beliefs, values, attitudes, intentions, personality traits, or memories that are connected to the beliefs, values, attitudes, intentions, personality traits, and memories that you had prior to being shot in the head. All of the mental states you had prior to being shot in the head are permanently lost.

Let’s say the coin lands on heads, and route B is chosen. Has the serial killer acted any better, from a moral perspective, than he would have if route A had been chosen instead? Surely not. Both options seem morally on par with one another. That is, both seem like murder in the morally relevant sense of the word.

However, according to Marquis’ analysis, you are deprived of a future-of-value in route A, but you are not deprived of a future-of-value in route B. This entails that option A is not morally on par with option B, for A has a wrong-making property that is not present in B. But, clearly, route A is morally on par with option B. So, it follows that Marquis’ analysis of the wrongness of killing is false. Mere numerical identity is not enough to ground a future-of-value. Psychological connections with future states of consciousness are needed.

Conclusion

The future-like-ours argument against abortion relies on the premise that numerical identity with a being that will be conscious(or would have been conscious) is sufficient for an individual to have a future of value.

This central premise is challenged by thought experiments revolving around psychological continuity such as the reprogramming case and the reincarnation case. What these thought experiments show is that psychological connections are necessary for a being to have a future-of-value. Therefore, we have good reason to reject the central premise of the future-like-ours argument. The moral permissibility of abortion is left unchallenged.

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