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This question made an argument about abortion "based on the philosophical concept of intelligent life being valuable".

This answer to that question claimed that an early-stage fetus isn't yet "intelligent life".

My question to you here is as follows: Doesn't the potential to be an intelligent life qualify an organism as equally valuable as if it were already intelligent?

What inspired my question is this video: This Is What Abortion Looks Like … When It Doesn’t Work.

The subject of the video is an adult, living human who survived an abortion. The abortion would have disrupted this person's development, ending her life before she developed intelligence: but that abortion failed, and so she was able to live.

Was she really any less valuable because her intelligence hadn't fully formed yet?

It was on a path to forming, and that seems to be of importance in the argument.

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    I'm guessing that the down-votes may be because your question is not clearly worded. In this context, words like potential, intelligent, organism, and valuable are vague. Are you asking if it is morally correct to apply the right to life to all human life, including a fertilized ovum? If so, then then many sides of this argument have been well documented and it is one of those hot button issues that is generally avoided now because all of the various sides to the arguments are too well entrenched. – Nick R Jul 13 '15 at 22:52
  • @NickR After a suggestion from ChrisW, I narrowed down my question's wording, stating it more clearly. – Viziionary Jul 13 '15 at 22:57
  • After reading your comments to my question it seems like you might really want to ask something along the lines of: Is there a way of making the idea of "potentiality" philosophically rigorous, and if so, what thinkers have done work in that area? That would be a good, on-topic, answerable (potentially!) question for this site. However that's different enough from this current question that I would ask it separately instead. – Chris Sunami Jul 14 '15 at 17:40
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There are two claims here:
1 - Intelligence is what makes human life valuable.
2 - The potential for intelligence is as decisive as the actuality of intelligence.

Neither claim is universally endorsed or uncontroversial. What can be shown is that IF both claims are accepted, it could (together with several other claims, similar to those in the referenced question) make up part of a solid anti-abortion argument, but that neither claim alone could serve that purpose.

It's also worth noting that you would need to tighten the definition of "potential" if you didn't want to open yourself to counterarguments along the lines that anything could "potentially" be intelligent. You seem to be developing a concept of "on the pathway" to intelligence, but that would need to be brought to maturity before you could use it effectively.

  • It's easy for philosophers to sit on the fence, but nothing will be decided that way, one way or the other. I had hoped to see the brilliant minds here do something thoughtful with this question. make comparisons between this situation and others, speak of the core logic behind this, and arrive at a conclusion. Your answer is essentially "Yes, this is indeed something that has been argued about. But disagreement has occurred so no conclusion is possible" This reminds me of the strategy used by a politician to avoid a troublesome / difficult question. – Viziionary Jul 14 '15 at 13:29
  • I have a very strong personal opinion on this matter, but this site is not the place for it -- please see this post: meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/474/… This is not a place for opinions, debate, or original philosophy. I'm addressing the structural elements of your question because that is what is answerable here. If that kind of analysis is not of interest to you, then your OP should be closed as "off-topic" --it is a philosophy question but not a Philosophy SE question. – Chris Sunami Jul 14 '15 at 13:31
  • You said "The potential for intelligence is as decisive as the actuality of intelligence": can you (or, does anyone ever) try to justify that statement? – ChrisW Jul 14 '15 at 14:14
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    @MediaWebDev According to this an answer on this site isn't really on-topic unless it can "connect the question to a text or thinker". Therefore an answer which is "reasoned with logic" is more-or-less off-topic! Because I'm not aware of any "text or thinker" who supports (nor who refutes) the proposition that "The potential for intelligence is as decisive as the actuality of intelligence" therefore I don't see how an on-topic answer is possible. Maybe someone who is aware of such a text or thinker will be able to answer. – ChrisW Jul 14 '15 at 14:47
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    @ChrisW - I think you're making that guideline sound more absolute than it actually is in context. Question of logic are in fact on topic here, we answer them all the time. The key is that the rules of logic are uncontroversial and well-established. With regard to this current question, the structural elements of the argument are on-topic. The validity of the premises are not. – Chris Sunami Jul 14 '15 at 17:26
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I'm going to cast my answer in terms of the badness of death, rather than the value of life. I believe that this does not affect the logic, one being the mirror of the other. Sections 16 through 21 of the Yale online course on Death are probably relevant in this sense.

There's a reductio ad abusurdum to indicate that we can't consider all potential intelligent life as equally valuable: there are an incomprehendably large number of "potential people" if you consider all possible egg+sperm combinations between all differently sexed pairs of people (even more if you go out a generation or two). Nobody worries about the lost value in that these potential intelligences never came to fruition (or at least the "value" of any one of these needs to be incomprehensibly small). We need to draw some sort of line, or have some sort of weighting to balance the "value" of these potentials; and that threshold/weighting defines where in the progress from a gleam in your fathers eye to being a fully matured person that we're going to allocate value.

Thomas Nagel's paper Death provides arguments that assessments of the badness of death as a form of deprivation need to take into account the past history of the individual in question (he's primarily concerned with people who have become fully intelligent). He argues that (part of?)the badness of death comes from the elimination of possibilities that the person would have had available but no longer does, and these possibilities depend on the entire history of that individual. In my view, this is just another argument that some threshold/weighting needs to be considered but doesn't provide much concrete guidance on where/how to make the distinctions.

I'd be remiss if I didn't include the standard, uncontroversial, observation that one person's death can be bad for his/her survivors, through their grief at the loss. For me, this would include even the very earliest stages of the development process: the anguish felt by some people who wish to bear children but cannot, is clearly a bad outcome, even though barely any steps have been made in the progression.

I thought that there was somewhere in the Yale course lectures (link above) where Dr. Kagan referred to a theory where the deprivation due to death was due to the fact that humans think about the future. (I haven't been able to locate it.) For animals that don't have this ability, it would be moral to kill (and eat) them, since they are not actually deprived by death (I'm bringing this up since the context of the theory might have been in justifying eating meat, rather than discussions of death). Anyway, if this idea, that death is only a deprivation to individuals that can, or to the extent that they can, form ideas about the future, (a) exists in the philosophical literature, and (b) is coherent, this would provide one possible specific feature on which to base the value judgments. Even if I'm mis-remembering the idea that an individual must possess one or more mental faculties in order to realize a deprivation from death may be an approach to pursue.

Another relevant mental faculty is the ability to feel pain; at the very least it's pretty generally accepted that we should avoid inflicting gratuitous pain on entities that can experience it. So it is almost certain that answering this would need to account for multiple features and their potential interactions in terms of "overall value".

To summarize: The idea that all potential intelligences are equally valuable seems hard to swallow, so some additional details need to be filled in there. Looking at the problem of "why is death bad" may be a useful approach since this question has been looked at in the philosophical literature (see the Nagel paper and references to/from it).

  • In case it's not obvious: I'm interested if anyone has read/heard the idea that creature's ability to have a concept of the future is a salient consideration of whether it is moral to kill thim, and can point me to appropriate references. – Dave Jul 14 '15 at 22:18
  • I like the idea introduced here, it appears to be a solid reasoning for by death is "bad" to sentient beings... I'm not sure yet what it means for my question though, all things considered. Ill have to put some thought into this. +1 – Viziionary Jul 14 '15 at 22:41
  • Let me ask you then - this thought seems to me to pose the idea that the value is decided by the individual's own thinking. if a person had short term memory, I think his mind would grow very short sighted, unable to focus on a vision for his future at length, and while he might have great happiness in store for his future, he might lose the ability to fully understand that concept. Would he then be a less "bad" death if killed? – Viziionary Jul 14 '15 at 22:44
  • In terms of your second paragraph, at least from Aristotle we can distinguish between potential potential and actual potential with the distinction being built in part on the existence of a particular being who has the potential vs. the raw possibility. That's one possible line. / But I'm not seeing quite how this addresses the question. – virmaior Jul 14 '15 at 23:35
  • @virmaior it addresses "equally valuable" aspect of the question: blunt application of the criterion of "potential intelligence" for assigning value leads to apparently absurd conclusions, and thus we need to add something more nuanced to address when/where/how to assign value to potential intelligence. Maybe Aristotle's distinction is relevant, maybe not. – Dave Jul 15 '15 at 1:28

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