Arguing About Interests



As we have seen in Part Three, philosophers can be extraordinarily divided when it comes to deciding what sort of creature (entity, thing, stage of a thing) has a good of its own. And in particular, when the distinctly peculiar question arises whether anything can be in, or against, the interests of a foetus even those who speak for ‘choice’ have differing views. We shall now leave aside our survey of opinion, and consider directly what the truth might be. We shall be largely concerned, in the next few chapters, with the sceptical arguments about foetal interests presented by Ronald Dworkin and with the similar arguments by Bonnie Steinbock. It would seem fair to take these writers as representative.


Human Individual Unborn Child Moral Significance Human Good Consciousness Condition 
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    See the article ‘Interests’ in Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker, Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2nd edn, New York: Routledge, 2001. Since I have earlier been critical of L. W. Sumner I should in fairness report that he writes well here: The notion of interest is dangerously ambiguous: on the one hand my interests are the same as my concerns (what I am interested in), while on the other my interest (or self-interest) is the same as my welfare.’ The word is ‘a slippery item in our lexicon’. Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, p. 36.Google Scholar
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    Dale Jamieson, ed., Singer and His Critics, Oxford: Blackwell, 1999, p. 310. Here Peter Singer is reporting the view of his critic Frances Kamm. He adds ‘But that is also a claim that I accept.’ What Professor Singer finds difficult to explain he says (Animal Liberation, p. 229) is ‘why the loss to the animal killed is not, from an impartial point of view, made good by the creation of a new animal which will lead an equally pleasant life’. He adds ‘The proposition that the creation of one being would somehow compensate for the death of another does have an air of peculiarity.’ He is right to see a peculiarity in it. After all, who would be compensated? No doubt it would be called cosmic compensation.Google Scholar
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    Kathleen V. Wilkes writes: ‘If a baby or foetus is normal then, at minimum, it is potentially a person’ (Real People: Personal Identity Without Thought Experiments, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988, p. 49, italics in text. Leaving aside the well known troubles surrounding the word ‘person’ as introduced by philosophers, would we here need the cautionary ‘if’ and the reference to normality? It would depend upon how the ‘can’ buried in the word potentially is taken. (We should note that Kathleen Wilkes later argues that the problem whether an infant or foetus ‘is now a person’ is ‘not a genuine one’. ‘We can say more or less what we like.’ p. 56)Google Scholar
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    See for example, Theodore Sider, ‘All the World’s a Stage’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 1996, and Katherine Hawley, How Things Persist, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. For a somewhat similar, though contrasting view, see Galen Strawson, who thinks or conjectures that we are made up of a succession of short-lasting, though not instantaneous, ‘selves’, ‘like pearls on a string’ (‘The Self’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1997, <>, p. 16.) Someone who simply thinks that we are ‘made up of’ stages, and is also prepared to say that what has a good is the whole, will presumably be quite happy with the thought that what has a good is an organism, not a stage of an organism. The truth about ‘temporal parts’ might be just as it is with anatomical parts: a leg or an eye has a good, if we are to talk this way at all about such things, via the good of the whole organism. It is hard to know what it would make sense to say about a momentary being. Could it be angry, for example? More significant for us, could it have a good? Even if we persist into the future, as our folk-belief has it, could our interests be momentary? Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer are instructively inclined to talk about ‘momentary’ interests.Google Scholar
  59. (Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, ‘Should All Seriously Disabled Infants Live?’ in Peter Singer, Unsanctifying Human Life, Helga Kuhse ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, p. 241 and p. 242. See also Michael Tooley’s Abortion and Infanticide with its remarks about ‘non-momentary interests’.) Kuhse and Singer are thinking of newborn babies and their interest in not being hurt. How could we understand this use of ‘momentary’? Are we to say that it is only in the interest of this baby to avoid pain at the moment at which it is being hurt? Or that on being hurt it suddenly becomes in the interest of this baby not to be hurt? Hardly. Suppose, in order to give this language the best chance of sense, we imagine that the baby has some physiological condition which renders it sensitive to pain only at moment t. Can we say here at least that its interest in not being hurt is something momentary? Even this would seem unnatural. We all have an interest in not being hurt even when fortunately we cannot be hurt, just as we continue to have an interest in not being shot when we are out of gunshot range.Google Scholar
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    A man is sold a house with defective foundations, and wants a remedy. ‘At what point does the plaintiff suffer loss? Is it when he pays more for the house than it is truly worth? Or when the foundations begin to cause cracks in the structure of the house? Is it, alternatively, when he has the house valued by a surveyor, perhaps many years later when he wishes to sell it, only to find that it is worth a fraction of what he assumed? These questions, which are of the utmost importance to all the parties concerned and their insurers, continue to receive an uncertain answer from the courts’. (Simon Deakin, Angus Johnstone, and Basil Markesinis, Markesinis and Deakin’s Tort Law, Fifth edn, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003, p. 83.)Google Scholar
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    Such remarks in Williams Obstetrics have frequently been noted in the abortion debate. The version above is as quoted by the pro-choice Barbara Katz Rothman (The Tentative Pregnancy, London 1988, p. 29). A different version is quoted, from the preface to the 1980 edition, by the lapsed pro-choicer Bernard Nathan-son in the propaganda film The Silent Scream: ‘Happily we have entered an era in which the foetus can be rightfully considered and treated as our second patient. Who would have dreamt — even a few years ago — that we could serve the foetus as a physician.’ The current (21st) edition of Williams Obstetrics, 2001, says: ‘An important direct result of this [obstetrical] research is that the status of the foetus has been elevated to that of a patient who, in large measure, can be given the same meticulous care that obstetricians provide for the pregnant woman’ (p. 130).Google Scholar

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