Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Is this Irrational?

Radio 4’s Beyond Belief last Monday was a discussion about embryos (and as far as I can recall it was) between a Scientist (a gradualist, defending the current 14 day rule), a Muslim (who thought that using embryos up to at 40 days, at least, was OK) and an Anglican, say A, who argued that human embryos acquire human rights at the moment of their conception, on the grounds that their humanity (in the relevant sense) is an all or nothing affair (which they certainly have after they’re born, and lack before they exist), whereas embryonic development is indeed gradual (or so I recall—there’s a listen-again feature at the above link, but I’m using my local library’s computers, and being quiet:)
......Towards the end of that 30-minute-programme, A was asked how he would respond to this scenario (more or less:) There’s a fire in a hospital, and A can choose to save either a baby, or else 5,000 embryos (which may have been created for implantation, rather than experimentation), but not both. Naturally A said that he would save the baby, and although my recollection is fuzzy, he began by saying that we don’t always do the right thing, which sounded fudgey. But after posting yesterday’s post, it occurred to me that such a scenario might have yielded a better example of a proposition that was (rationally) regarded as implausible and yet (rationally) believed.
......Incidentally Christopher’s original question explicitly concerned propositions of an ethical nature, as well as the attribution of more physical properties to objects (as in yesterday’s post); and incidentally my first suggestion (in a deleted comment on Christopher’s post) was that we might find it implausible that a certain picture was not beautiful (e.g. because of believing art experts, who say that it is beautiful) whilst simultaneously (and not irrationally) believing that it was not beautiful (as we look at it—cf. the checkerboard illusion:)
......Anyway, whereas A might know how to save a baby, he might be less sure of what he would be doing with a collection of frozen embryos—e.g. moving them might damage them more than a fire could, for all A knows. And although the scenario might be tweaked to eliminate such uncertainties, note that A had deduced that embryos probably have rights, from what was essentially a lack of information about their (apparently continuous) development as human beings; so there would naturally be more uncertainty in A’s belief that embryos have human rights than in his belief that babies have them. And since the effect of such uncertainty upon a decision naturally increases with the value of what rides upon that decision, hence it would not necessarily be immoral (or irrational) for A to save the baby’s life.
......A could believe quite rationally that saving the baby would be best, because it is only implausible (not obviously false) that saving the baby would (ethically) be better than saving the embryos, hence saving the baby would (ethically) be better than saving the embryos—that is so even if 5,000 people should, all else being equal (tweaking the scenario if necessary), take precedence over one person (this is quite standard, e.g. see the opening paragraph of Hawthone and Stanley's forthcoming Knowledge and Action), but as A pointed out, such Utilitarian assumptions might not be valid (e.g. if each life had infinite worth) and were certainly inappropriate to that radio programme, whose issue was medical scientists using (or killing) embryos, not failing to save them (cf. a doctor choosing to save six people rather than one, which might be reasonable, compared with a doctor killing one person in order to get organs to save the lives of the six, which would be insane:)

1 comment:

S. Matthew Liao said...

Hi there, I discuss the embryo rescue problem here. Or, if you don't have Springer access, you can find a preprint here.