I don’t think Ross’ post below gets at what’s of primary interest about “nature’s waste” when it comes to zygotes. The point is not that personhood is somehow a function of survival rates (as he points out, the death rate is always 100 percent eventually), nor that hey, nature kills ’em so why can’t we—indeed, I’d love to see conservatives in general resist the urge to conflate the natural and the normative. What’s key is, as he suggests, the question of personhood, and I think our reaction to learning about “nature’s waste” is at least a handy intuition pump in this case.

Our reaction to a genocide is, obviously, different from our reaction to an earthquake that kills millions. Still, anyone with a moderately well developed moral sense reacts to the earthquake with horror and sadness. And if someone is unmoved, we can articulate at least somewhat clearly what’s gone awry: If it’s a failure of empathy because the victims are far away, we can focus attention on how the victims suffered just as you and your neighbors would, had plans and hopes in many ways like yours that have been destroyed, and so on.

Now, my response to learning this fact about nature’s “waste” of zygotes is not anything like my reaction would be to learning that some plague had wiped out millions of people I’d never met. (For the reactions to be similar, among other things I would have to feel as though it were extremely important to change our public and private medical research priorities, ranking spontaneous miscarriage of zygotes higher than just about every other illness.) Maybe that’s a theory-laden intuition, and people’s response to this fact just tracks pretty well their position in the abortion debate. But if, as I suspect, most of us do not now feel as though we are daily surrounded by little killing machines, I think that shines a spotlight on the morally salient features that are missing to account for that relative lack of concern. And I think it comes down to the things I suggested we’d appeal to earlier to show someone who failed to react to the earthquake properly—facts about mental states and related features absent by stipulation.

Now, Ross might say that even if I’m right about people’s common reaction to this, that’s a merely intuitive as opposed to logical argument. But when we get to questions like “what is it about people that matters, morally?” we’re down at the ethical equivalent of accounting for the rules and operators of logic themselves. The foundational question, in each case, can’t be answered within the system except in a kind of rule-circular or coherentist way. That’s not to say a raw, pre-reflective intuition ought to carry a whole lot of weight in itself, but they’re also ultimately the brute facts we’ve got to work with. Maybe we just need our intuition reconditioned by a bit of reflection and abstraction, as in the case of the bigot or the man unmoved by far-off disaster, but it may also draw our attention to the lack of the raw material with which we’d ordinarily do that work.

—posted by Julian


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