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.

  • 2
    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.
    – nwr
    Jul 13, 2015 at 22:52
  • @NickR After a suggestion from ChrisW, I narrowed down my question's wording, stating it more clearly.
    – J.Todd
    Jul 13, 2015 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. Jul 14, 2015 at 17:40
  • Peter Singer makes excellent points on these issues, about our unease around brain death - by your own reasoning abortion would be legitimate there. And about animals, who in many cases we give far fewer rights to even when exceptionally intelligent (eg Alex the parrot, the only animal known to be able to divide large numbers), than impaired humans. Singer concludes from a utilitarian capacities argument, that consistency would require many kinds of abortion & euthanasia, & stop us eating animals, once we stop having a 'sacred circle' with only humans in & 'expand the circle of moral concern'
    – CriglCragl
    Oct 21, 2020 at 0:17

5 Answers 5


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.
    – J.Todd
    Jul 14, 2015 at 13:29
  • 1
    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. Jul 14, 2015 at 13:31
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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, 2015 at 14:47
  • 1
    @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. Jul 14, 2015 at 17:26
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    @MediaWebDev If there was a clear answer to this argument, it wouldn't be a debate. Independent of the rightness or wrongness of your conclusions, your argument has some structural weaknesses and hidden assumptions. We can help you identify those --that's the limit of what we are "allowed" to do here. FWIW, what you dismissed as "fence sitting" is actually substantive, reasonably objective information about the structure and relative strength of your argument from a technical point of view. Jul 14, 2015 at 17:29

Your question seems to be about the status of potentiality. If we value X does the potential X have an equal value?

Obviously, there is a distinction between X and a high probability of X. If we take "intelligent life" to be an absolute value and the "potential," to be a near-1 probability, then sure, it's a bit like Pascal's wager, no downside to the other alternative, so the value of the potential is equal to or nearly equal to the absolute value.

If you have something of "absolute" value you can't partition it into percentages and "discount" the potential, like a reverse mortgage. And since life is a continuum, you can't just "carve it at the joints," as Kant put it. But as @btrballin's deleted answer suggests "value" is generally relative, and for human societies historically human life per se is never an absolute value.

Even in most philosophies that barter in absolutes the absolute Good is never just life itself. So the comment about the relativity of values, even in the case of human life, is not trivial. But I'd agree that your case about valuing potentials makes sense and can be coherently argued.


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, 2015 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
    – J.Todd
    Jul 14, 2015 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?
    – J.Todd
    Jul 14, 2015 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, 2015 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, 2015 at 1:28

An early approach to this question was Mary Anne Warren's 1973 article "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion." She imagines a man kidnapped by space aliens with advanced technology; they want to put a bunch of humans in a zoo on their planet, but only took the one. (We can presume that the cloned humans will be cared for lavishly and would lead happy lives.) So he's strapped down on an assembly line which will take him into their disassembly/cloning lab and make many of his cells into new humans; in one version this procedure kills him, in another it merely takes some replaceable skin cells. The process is already in motion and will work if not stopped. Does the man have the right to try to escape? She thinks most people will answer: Yes, and obviously so. If so, the right to life of a potential x is much less than the right to life, or even the right to free movement, of an actual x.

Nor does it seem to matter if there is merely a potential for there to be more humans at the end of the process, but for specific, identifiable cells to become fully-developed humans (this one, and that one, etc.) The potentiality of such cells, which are very literally on a path (say, a conveyor belt) towards this full development, is very much like that of a fertilized egg, so if the man has the right to stop the process, likewise a pregnant woman has a right to stop this process, because doing so does not interfere with any other being's very important rights, Warren concludes.

One might object that there are at four least significant differences between this scenario and (most) ordinary pregnancies: 1) the process is artificial, rather than natural, 2) the potential is due to external manipulations rather than internal cellular machinery, 3) the process has not yet begun for the man's cells, but has for the woman's, 4) the man gave no consent for the cloning. First, note that if any of these matter, then it's not potentiality as such that confers a right to life, but a certain kind thereof, and we would need an argument for why that kind of potentiality matters and not others. There are problems for developing any such distinctions. The following responses to these objections are mine, and are not taken directly from Warren's work.

  1. We often keep ill people alive, temporarily or permanently, via artificial means; the fact that their potential to be living persons tomorrow requires artificial means would hardly take away their right to life.

  2. It is possible that the cloning technology works merely by removing a barrier to a cell's natural propensity to create a cloned human being, one which all cells have. This may not reflect biological reality, even though most cells carry a complete genetic code for producing a full human being. But we can imagine a possible world where cells did work this way, and it would be odd to say that in such a world, which otherwise looked much like ours, the man had no right to escape the cloning lab.

  3. Suppose that this cloning process has already been triggered, and the man knows it, but the cells will begin their cloning process while still attached to his body; after a while they will grow into buds and fall off, then further develop into full human beings. The man still wants to escape, and doesn't want to be a parent of clones; he either seeks to escape and scrape these proto-buds off so they die before they develop further, or a side-effect of his escaping will be that he has to squeeze through a narrow passage which will scrape them off. Again, most people will presumably agree that he has this right, but it is possible that some would disagree.

  4. If non-consent alone justifies an escape, then abortion in cases of rape would also be justifiable; some do make this distinction, but it concedes that the right to life (or whether such a right may be overridden) has nothing to do with potentiality. In any case, we can imagine cases where the man first consented to the cloning, then changed his mind after thinking about its implications, or consented with only a limited understanding of what it involved--possibilities with obvious parallels to various cases of pregnancy. Maintaining the distinction would require defending the judgment that the man's right to escape depends upon the validity of his prior consent.

Perhaps some combination of these distinctions, or other ones, can be made, between the man in the cloning lab and a pregnant woman and her fertilized eggs. But it is far from obvious how it can be made successfully.

Warren appeals only to intuitions about various cases, and does not explore why only actual personhood (presumably close to what you mean by "intelligent life") matters as opposed to merely potential personhood. An answer commonly given, with great variations in detail, by many philosophers (Kant, Scanlon, Tooley, Boonin, McMahan, Singer, etc.) is that persons have a very strong desire to live, and hence strongly disapprove of others killing us, or even failing to help prevent our deaths. But desires are only morally justifiable if you could approve of anyone else with a similar desire, in a similar situation, satisfying that same desire, i.e., we must "universalize" this desire (conceptions of moral universalizability differ among philosophers, e.g., between Kantians and consequentialists; we can bracket that for now). So we must not only not kill other people with such desires, but must help prevent their being killed (all of this is ceteris paribus; in wartime, medical emergencies, criminal justice, etc., where lives are somehow mutually threatening, the relevant situation may not be the same between persons). Even sleeping people, or depressed people, had prior times in their lives when they wanted to live after they went to sleep or became depressed, and killing them would frustrate these desires. But fertilized eggs and fetuses do not have, and never had, such desires (nor do most animals, who cannot conceptualize and hence desire their future existence, though they can desire to eat food, avoid pain, etc.) Hence killing them does not frustrate a morally-permissible desire, because they have no desire for continued life. Versions of this argument have been critiqued, of course, but it seems to support the basic distinction between actual and merely potential persons.


So that video appeals to emotion by presenting the person who almost got aborted being a nice, ordinary, reasonable, relatable human. But what if you had someone much less likable up on that stage? Even someone legendarily evil, along the lines of Adolf Hitler?

Because if we're going to treat potentials as equivalent to actualities, then an argument along the same lines could be made in favor of mandatory abortion of all unborn fetuses:

  • Any fetus has the potential to grow into a Hitler-esque, genocidal dictator

  • If you have the opportunity to save millions of lives by preventing a Hitler-esque, genocidal dictator from actually carrying out their genocide, you have a moral obligation to do so

  • This holds true even if the only way you can prevent the genocide is by killing the dictator

  • Since any fetus has the potential to be such a dictator, and since potentials hold equal moral weight as actualities, you have a moral obligation to kill every unborn fetus without discrimination

Few, I hope, would take this argument seriously as a policy recommendation. For the same reason, suggesting that a fertilized egg deserves the same legal status and protections as a fully gestated and developed human being, because it has the potential to become one, is lacking in philosophical rigor and moral merit.

The assertion that abortion could be forbidden because the fetus "could grow up to be a nice person", or cure cancer, is no less sophomoric and invalid of an argument than the assertion that abortion should be compulsory because it could prevent a future Hitler. Both are fallacious emotional appeals, longer on rhetorical flair than solid grounding in ethical principle.

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