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I hold two positions that I find to be conflicting with each other, and I wanted to see where I am going wrong.

The first position is that moral weight is predicated on sentience, something lacking sentience cannot be harmed in any morally relevant way. And the conflicting positions/intuitions are:

  1. It is morally wrong to drink alcohol while pregnant.
  2. A man is in a coma, and lacks all sentience, however he might fully recover, it is morally wrong to kill him (Ignore any medical inaccuracies).

If something without sentience has no moral weight, where is the harm in a mother drinking alcohol in early pregnancy (pre-sentience)? Who is being harmed?

The answer I would expect is: The future sentient being is harmed, but the implications of this are hard to stomach. If a future sentient being has moral weight, then would that oblige us to have as many children as possible? (Assuming the anti-natalists are incorrect, and existence is not a harm). Would we have to prioritise the future sentient beings above ourselves/others currently suffering to extreme measures? After all, they hypothetically outnumber us by infinity.

As for the man in the coma, it seems clear that he has moral weight not because he was sentient (or else stopping life support on a coma patient with no hope of recovery would be morally wrong), but because he might be sentient in the future, further reinforcing the above problem.

Assumptions:

-Materialist view of consciousness/sentience is true, I want to avoid dualism/souls which might avoid the conflict

Definitions:

Materialism:

a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions of material things.

Sentience

Sentience is the capacity to experience feelings and sensations, to have affective consciousness, subjective states that have a positive or negative valence.

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    "If a future sentient being has moral weight, then would that oblige us to have as many children as possible?" here you are not talking about the unborn, but the unconceived, which is not the same. A developping foetus is bound to become a human being, and will actually suffer from the damages due to alcohol intake in the womb. The drinking mother is the direct cause of this life long harm, and therefore if you think harm is wrong what she did was wrong. Unconceived children are not a material thing . They're an idea in your head, ideas can't be harmed by not being turned into actual babies.
    – armand
    Commented Apr 10 at 6:23
  • @armand Allow me to push back a bit, It may become a human being, it may not. Regardless, you are worried about harm against something which does not yet exist. The sentient being that the foetus/blastocyst might become seems to be just as much an idea in your head, in reality it is just a bundle of cells. So the distinction doesn't seem all that clear.
    – Aph002
    Commented Apr 10 at 7:14
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    Yet the foetus is a real, material living thing with full potential to become a children. And it will suffer from the action of it's mother. If a terrorist sets a time bomb in a crowded place and leaves, can they claim they did nothing wrong because they only harm "future people"? But that is not the point. The point is: you do yourself mention materialism in your question, so I assume this is the framework you are thinking from. If you consider your idea of a not yet concceived child to be as real as an actual foetus you are not being materialist. This is a huge self contradiction.
    – armand
    Commented Apr 10 at 7:22
  • @armand I take your point with the terrorist. I'm not claiming a not-yet-conceived child is as real as a foetus, I'm claiming they are equally non-sentient. 1. Is it morally wrong, prior to conception, to take a drug that will cause harm to a future foetus, while knowing you will be forced to have a child in the future? 2. If future harms are important, then what about future goods? By not having as many children as you can, isn't this a privation of good? My answer to 1. is yes, but this seems to put the not-yet-conceived and the foetus on equal moral ground.
    – Aph002
    Commented Apr 10 at 8:00
  • You are not getting my point. Who exactly are you depriving of good by not conceiving them? They don't exist. But I can point exactly to who a mother is harming by forcing them to intake alcohol in the womb. It's not being materialist to claim the harm (or good deprivation) done to imaginary beings is real harm. Unicorn hunting is not bad for ecology. Considering 1, what is morally wrong is to conceive a child while knowing you took the drug, not take the drug in itself, which harms no one.
    – armand
    Commented Apr 11 at 0:28

2 Answers 2

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You could say drinking alcohol while pregnant is wrong because it would cause harm to a sentient being in future.

Avoiding "future harm" may on the surface not seem worthy of consideration, but that's pretty fundamental to every aspect of ethics. If you plant a bomb, you're not immediately causing harm, but you are putting something into motion that would cause future harm. Heck, if you want to be really pedantic, you could even say that swinging your fist isn't causing immediate harm, but it is putting something (your fist) into motion that would cause future harm (it's just that "future" here is just like a fraction of a second from now). Of course, if there's a weaker causal relationship between the action you took and the harm caused, that implies less moral responsibility. But certainly it would seem absurd to reject the idea of "future harm" altogether. And you certainly can't disregard the future harm to sentient beings that aren't yet sentient or don't yet exist, or you'd need to accept that it's moral to plant a bomb in a nursery that would only blow up a few years from now.

Would you be obliged to have as many children as possible? No, because you wouldn't be obliged to create joy, just to not inflict suffering. Non-existence is not suffering, and you aren't the one inflicting it. You could potentially also say you're obliged to not remove joy that someone would've experienced without your intervention (e.g. it's wrong to steal a gift, even if you know the would-be receiver will never know that it was sent) - this still wouldn't oblige someone to have children nor carry a fetus to term.


As for painlessly ending someone's life, you could say it's wrong because it removes joy. Or you could say it's wrong because it creates suffering in the friends and family of that person, or the broader community, whether from that person's death, or from the fear that their life might be ended similarly.

The ethics of ending the life of a coma patient is more nuanced, as many people have expressed that they wouldn't want to continue living for years in a coma (while others might want to), and a coma patient needs to be cared for to remain alive, and one certainly doesn't have an ethical obligation to care for someone indefinitely by default (although there may be some degree of obligation when it comes to hospital staff or family members).

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  • Thanks, that's very helpful. Do you think that this implies longtermism and ideologies that ""promise “astronomical future value” to rationalize morally dubious near-term actions”?
    – Aph002
    Commented Apr 10 at 19:26
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    @Aph002 Yes, this would absolutely imply that we have some moral responsibility for the long-term consequences of our actions. Although long-term consequences tend to be harder to predict and tend to be influenced by many factors, which would reduce the utility of those in present decisions (but that doesn't eliminate the utility entirely). Also, harming people "for the greater good" (especially for others) tends to have a negative utility in and of itself, because people may fear that they'd fall victim to that, and there'd be a significant downside associated with the risk of miscalculating.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Apr 10 at 20:28
  • I have one more issue. In what way has the future child been harmed? The insentient foetus has no interests being thwarted, won't necessarily feel any excess of suffering, and may live a pleasant life. Perhaps harm is in thwarted potential, but would bring up questions about having children when not wealthy, or when in a Third World country or any other situation in which the child's potential (whatever that would even mean) is not fully reached.
    – Aph002
    Commented Apr 11 at 0:25
  • @Aph002 A poor person can't choose to not be poor, but someone who's pregnant can choose to not drink. So the latter is an active choice one is making to make a life worse, whereas the former is just a choice of bringing a life into the world (which you can only really disapprove of if you take at least a partial anti-natalist stance of that existence being harm in general). There may be blurry lines between those things (as there are for most things), but that's the basic idea.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Apr 11 at 14:56
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Clearly your assumption that 'something lacking in sentience cannot be harmed in any morally relevant way' is nonsense, otherwise doctors would be allowed to do what they liked to us whenever we are under a general anaesthetic. If you replace 'something lacking in sentience' with 'something that can never experience sentience' you will solve part of your problem, since it will deal with the two examples you enumerate in your question as well as my point about anaesthesia.

As for your point about unfertilised sperm and eggs, you can approach that in at least three ways, namely:

You can consider sperm and eggs individually as things that can never experience sentience by themselves.

You can accept you are doing moral harm to them, but decide it is outweighed by other moral considerations- eg the harm to a mother who is perpetually having children, the impossibility of feeding huge populations etc etc.

You can take the view that morals are no more than inclinations developed by humans in response to circumstances, and the fact that we care about babies but not unfertilised sperm and eggs requires no rational justification.

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  • Right, we care more about our house that's being built than about an empty lot. Is it ok if the electrician is drunk while working on the house because nobody lives there?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 10 at 11:14

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