Abortion and Time-Relative Interests

Introduction

The pro-life worldview, fundamentally, consists of the follow two claims: (i). The human fetus has a right to life; and (ii). Abortion violates the right to life of the human fetus

This post will focus on rebutting claim (i). Specifically, I will argue that (i) is false because human fetuses lack a strong time-relative interest in continued life. The concept of a time-relative interest was introduced by philosopher Jeff McMahan in his book “The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life”.

According to the time-relative interest account, the badness of death, being a function of an individual’s interest in continued life, is hashed out in terms of both the amount of conscious goods that an individual’s life would have contain were they not killed and the degree to which an individual would be psychologically connected to themselves in the future. The stronger one is psychologically connected to one’s future self(in terms of beliefs, memories, desires, intentions, etc), the stronger their time-relative interest.

During the time-frame when most abortions take place, the human fetus is utterly devoid of psychological states and conscious experience. The fetus has no thoughts, feelings, awareness, desires, knowledge, happiness, sadness, intentions, memories, goals, hopes, or dreams. Even after the point when the fetus gains the neural circuitry required for minimal consciousness, the uterine environment makes the formation of strong psychological connections next to impossible. In short, if the time relative interest account is true, then (i) is false.

The question, then, is whether there is good reason to accept the time-relative interest account. I will argue for an affirmative answer.

Data in Need of Explanation

The time-relative interest account can be supported abductively. That is, we can identify a set of moral facts argue that the time-relative interest account provides the best explanation of their truth.

First, consider the fact that , even among pro-life advocates, hardly anyone believes that that death is worse for a 20-week fetus than for a 20 year-old adult. This is despite the fact that the 20-week fetus has far more conscious goods in their future than the 20 year-old, suggesting that the badness of death is not merely a function of the total amount(in terms of conscious goods) of the future that is lost.

Yet, most people believe that, other things being equal, it is worse for a 5 year-old girl to die than for an 90 year-old to die precisely because death would deprive the 5 year-old girl of more valuable future than it would the 90 year-old. This strongly suggests that the badness of death is a function of the total amount(in terms of conscious goods) of the future that is lost.

The time-relative interest account can make sense of these conflicting intuitions. To reiterate, the time-relative interest account places moral importance on both the amount of conscious goods that an individual’s life would have contain were they not killed and the degree to which an individual would be psychologically connected to themselves in the future.

We can understand psychological connectivity in terms of non-occurent 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 between one’s past-self and future-self.

It is also important to note that psychological connectivity comes in degrees. The more links between non-occurrent mental states that an individual and their future-self have, the stronger the degree of psychological connectivity.

With of all this in mind, we can reconcile our moral intuitions involving the 20-week fetus and the 90 year-old elder. While the 20-week fetus certainly has more conscious future ahead of them compared to the 20 year-old, the fact that the 20-week fetus is almost entirely psychologically disconnected from their future self discounts their interest in continued life. In contrast, the 20 year-old is strongly psychologically connected to his future self. Death is worse for the 20- year-old than for the human fetus because the 20- year-old is psychologically invested in his future self in continuing to realize various life plans.

Similarity, death is worse for the 5 year-old girl than the 90 year-old elder, not merely because the 5 year-old has more conscious goods in her future, but because of the psychological relationship between the conscious goods that are lost. Relative to the 5 year-old, the psychological connections between the 90 year-old and their future self are weak. This is what provides the complete explanation for why death is worse for the 5 year-old.

Hence, the time-relative interest account has high explanatory power when it comes to our moral intuitions surrounding the fact that the badness of death exists on a continuum. The high explanatory power of the time-relative interest account gives good prima facie reason to accept the theory.

Psychological Continuity is Valuable

At this point, I hope to have rendered the time-relative interest account at least somewhat plausible. However, more can be done. The crucial claim made by the time-relative interest account is that psychological continuity is constitutive of having a strong interest in continued life. This claim can be strengthened by reflecting on thought experiments offered by philosopher Rob Lovering in his paper Futures of Value and the Destruction of Human Embryos.

Let’s start with the weaker assertion that psychological continuity is a value-making property of a conscious future(i.e. a conscious future is made more morally valuable if it is experienced in a psychologically continuous way).

In support of this modest premise, Lovering asks us to consider the following scenario: Suppose that between t1 and t3 (t2) Joe will be sedated and undergo lung surgery. Before surgery begins, however, the surgeon informs Joe that, at no extra cost, he (Joe) has the option of recovering from sedation as a psychologically discontinuous individual. The surgeon assures Joe that he (Joe) will still value goods of consciousness when he will experience them. The difference is that he will not do so as a psychologically continuous individual. Rather, he will do so as a psychologically discontinuous individual, an individual with beliefs, values, attitudes, intentions, personality traits, and even ‘memories’ that have no direct connections with those he possessed prior to being sedated”(472).

It’s truly hard to believe that Joe should opt to recover in a psychological discontinuous state. As McMahan notes, the future available to Joe at t1 is too much like someone else’s future, for Joe at t3 is a complete stranger to Joe at t1. In other words, the psychological distance between Joe at t1 and Joe at t3 is too great to think of the goods in that future as fully those of Joe at t1. This thought experiments strongly suggests that Joe’s future is more valuable if it contains psychological continuity than if it does not, implying that psychological continuity is a valuable-making property of Joe’s future.

Psychological Continuity is Constitutive of Having a Future of Value

In defense of the more controversial claim that psychological continuity is constitutive of a future of value(and so a strong interest in continuing to life), Lovering provides us with a series of three related thought experiments. Taken together, these thought experiments offer robust support for the time-relative interest account.

Hypothetical #1: “Suppose that at t2 Joe will be sedated and a neurosurgeon will do one of two things to Joe’s brain. Either he will manipulate Joe’s brain in such a way that psychological continuity will obtain for the next ten years, after which the brain will completely cease to function, killing Joe. Or he will manipulate Joe’s brain in such a way that psychological continuity will never obtain for the rest of Joe’s natural life span. Thus, there will be no direct psychological connections between Joe at t1 and Joe at t3, between Joe at t3 and Joe at t4, between Joe at t4 and Joe at t5, and so on. In every other respect, however, Joe’s brain will function properly for the rest of his natural life span”(473).

If the neurosurgeon does the former, then Joe will value goods of consciousness when he will experience them as a psychologically continuous individual for the next ten years, after which he will die. Whereas if the neurosurgeon does the latter, then Joe will value goods of consciousness when he will experience them as an iteratively psychologically discontinuous individual, that is, with beliefs, values, attitudes, intentions, personality traits, and memories that have no direct connections with those he possessed the moment before.

Again, It’s difficult to believe that Joe should choose the brain manipulation involving iterated psychological discontinuity since it’s hard to see how such a future could be of any value to Joe at t1. Even if Joe at t1 were guaranteed that his future would be constituted by goods of consciousness, given its iterated psychological discontinuity, it’s hard to see how such a future could be of any moral value to him. In that future, Joe at t3 is a complete stranger to Joe at t1, as is Joe at t4, Joe at t5, etc.

The key takeaway is that psychological connections make it rational for an individual to be concerned their future well-being for that individual’s own sake now. Joe at t1 has no egoistic reason to value the existence of Joe at t3 over his own death. This is due to the enormous psychological distance between Joe’s present self and future self. Lovering reinforces this point by giving a slightly modified hypothetical that focuses on non-iterated psychological discontinuity, proving that this takeaway still holds true.

Hypothetical #2: “Let us consider the case[Hypothetical #1], then, with the following alteration: the psychological discontinuity that occurs at t2 will not be iterated, so Joe at t3 will be psychologically discontinuous with Joe at t1 but psychologically continuous with Joe at t4, t5, etc. Accordingly, if Joe chooses the brain manipulation involving non iterated psychological discontinuity, then he will value goods of consciousness when he will experience them with beliefs, values, attitudes, intentions, personality traits, and memories that have no direct connections with those he possessed at t1 but have direct connections with those he possesses at t3.”(474).

In the former case, psychological continuity obtains numerous times; in the latter case, it obtains only once. Yet, it’s hard to believe that this difference alone should affect our judgment regarding what Joe should do. For in the case of iterated psychological discontinuity, Joe at t3, Joe at t4, Joe at t5, etc., are all complete strangers to Joe at t1. Lovering hits the nail on the head when he states, “That is, each is a stranger to Joe at t1 to the same degree; none is a greater stranger to Joe at t1 than any other. And it is on account of this difference — the difference pertaining to the nature of psychological discontinuity and not on account of the number of times that this difference obtains — that it seems that Joe at t1 should reject the brain manipulation involving psychological discontinuity”(474).

Therefore, the fact that the psychological discontinuity is non-iterated rather than iterated makes no difference to Joe at t1’s egoistic interest regarding his future(i.e. the rational reason Joe has to care about his conscious future for its own sake). Thus, if we hold that Joe should not choose the brain manipulation in hypothetical #1(involving iterated psychological discontinuity), we should also hold that Joe should not choose the brain manipulation in hypothetical #2(involving non-iterated psychological discontinuity). Finally, let’s analysis the 3rd hypothetical given by Lovering.

Hypothetical #3: “After sedating Joe at t2, the neurosurgeon will either manipulate Joe’s brain such that Joe will recover as a noniterated psychologically discontinuous individual, or he will destroy Joe’s brain, killing him”(475).

Which option should Joe choose? Or perhaps we should ask the more fundamental question: Does Joe’s brain (and, in turn, biological) death pose a non-negligible greater misfortune than his continued existence as a noniteratedly psychologically discontinuous individual? It seems not. As Lovering explains, “As in the preceding cases, for all practical purposes, for Joe of t1 to be non-iteratedly psychologically discontinuous with Joe of t3 is for Joe of t1 to be dead at t3. Granted, Joe remains biologically alive and conscious at t3, but he does so as a complete stranger to who he was at t1. Accordingly, even if he values goods of consciousness at t3, he does so as a complete stranger to who he was at t1. Given this, the valuing of goods of consciousness at t3 might as well be done by someone else”(475). Yet again, Joe at t1 has no egoistic reason to take an interest in the future of Joe at t3.

This has massive implications for the time-relative interest account, for it means that psychological connections are essential in order for an individual to have a future of value. The psychological connections contribute to making a given conscious future valuable. As Lovering puts it, “There is reason to believe, then, that Joe at t1 wouldn’t find a future constituted by goods of consciousness to be valued when he will (or would) experience them alone to be valuable. Rather, he would find a future constituted by goods of consciousness to be valued when he will (or would) experience them as a psychologically continuous individual to be valuable”(475).

If that’s correct, then the time-relative interest account is affirmed. The badness of death(and by extension, the wrongness of killing) is a function of both the amount of conscious goods that an individual’s life would have contain were they not killed and the degree to which an individual would be psychologically connected to themselves in the future.

Application to Abortion Ethics

Now that we have established the time-relative interest account of the wrongness of killing, we can can construct a simple argument against the pro-life claim that the human fetus has a right to life:

  • (1). If the human fetus has a right to life, then it is prima facie seriously wrong to kill the human fetus (from the definition of ‘right to life’)
  • (2). If it is prima facie seriously wrong to kill the human fetus, then the human fetus has strong time-relative interests in continuing to live (from the time-relative interest account of the wrongness of killing)
  • (3). The human fetus does not have strong time-relative interests in continuing to live (due to the fact that their psychological connections are either extremely weak or non-existent)
  • (4). So, the human fetus does not have a right to life (from 1-3)
  • (5). If the human fetus does not have a right to life, then abortion is morally permissible
  • (6). Therefore, abortion is morally permissible (from 4 and 5)

The majority of this post has been dedicated to defending (2), and the rest of the premises should be fairly uncontroversial. There are excellent reasons for accepting the pro-choice view when it comes to abortion ethics.

3 thoughts on “Abortion and Time-Relative Interests

  1. This is a fantastic piece. Well done as usual. I’d also recommend checking out David DeGrazia’s 2007 paper “The Harm of Death, Time-Relative Interests, and Abortion” which deals with this subject in-depth. Would be curious of what you think of the potentiality of TRIA in terms of serving as a rejoinder to claims that Abortion entails infanticide?

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    1. Thank you for the kind words! Yeah, I think the idea that infants lack time-relative interests is just an empirical mistake. Infants can imitate the facial expressions of others shortly after birth(Bermúdez 1996) and experiments similar to the rubber-hand illusion suggest infants have a basic sense of bodily ownership(Filippetti et al 2013). Birth also induces heightened conscious awareness in infants and introduces them to the objects of mental experience for the first time. In contrast, later fetuses are usually in sleep-like states. On any fair weighing of the evidence, infants have much stronger time-relative interests than even developed fetuses.

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      1. Appreciate the response. I think the references to the scientific literature to diffuse the infanticide objection are pretty popular. On a related note, any plans to come back on Twitter? Your account was honestly one of the best on the app for us, as you did a fantastic job posting relevant excerpts from the literature on topics related to Abortion, Ethics, and the analytic philosophy of religion. Would honestly love to potentially collaborate with you as well. Are you Discord/do you have an email/other contact information that would be a good place to reach you?

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