Academic journal article Ethics & Medicine

Boonin's Defense of the Sentience Criterion: A Critique

Academic journal article Ethics & Medicine

Boonin's Defense of the Sentience Criterion: A Critique

Article excerpt

Abstract

Defenders of the permissibility of feticide commonly argue that killing an organism is not homicide unless the organism's brain has developed enough for it to acquire sentience: the capacity for consciousness and the ability to perceive pleasure and pain. In this paper I critique one of the more sophisticated versions of this argument, proposed by David Boonin in A Defense of Abortion. First, I sketch some prima facie problems faced by any appeal to sentience. Second, I examine Boonin's attempt to defend an appeal to sentience against these problems by contructing a modified future like ours (FLO) account of the wrongness of killing. I argue that Boonin's modified FLO defence of sentience fails. Both his argument for the modified FLO account and his application of this account to feticide rest on ad hoc arbitrary manoeuvres, manoeuvres which mean that the modified FLO account is a plausible criteria for the right to life only if one already grants that feticide is not homicide.

Common in literature defending the permissibility of feticide is the contention that killing an organism is not homicide unless the organism's brain has developed enough for it to acquire sentience: the capacity for consciousness and the ability to perceive pleasure and pain. In this paper I criticise perhaps the most sophisticated version of this claim - that proposed by David Boonin. I first sketch some prima facie problems faced by any appeal to sentience, followed by an examination of Boonin's attempt to defend an appeal to sentience against these problems. I argue that his defense fails.

Some terminological issues need to be noted. I use the term fetus in a technical sense to refer to the product of human conception from eight weeks gestation until separation from the mother at birth. From birth, I refer to this organism as an infant. Prior to becoming a fetus at eight weeks gestation, I use the term embryo. Feticide means the killing of a fetus, infanticide the killing of an infant. Finally, when I talk of a fetus as a human being, by 'human being' I mean a being, the killing of which constitutes homicide. The term 'human' is ambiguous and has different definitions in different contexts, whether biological, legal, sociological or moral. When I discuss the moral question of whether feticide is unjustified homicide, I am not interested in whether a fetus falls into any given biological or sociological definition of human. I want to know whether it is one of the beings that the rules against homicide, or the rules allowing homicide in various circumstances, covers.

The Appeal to Sentience: Some Initial Problems

Common in the literature on feticide is the argument that killing an organism is not homicide unless the organism's brain has developed enough for it to acquire sentience, the capacity for consciousness and the ability to perceive pleasure and pain. Despite its pervasive appeal, there are some prima facie problems with such an account. In chapter 3 of A Defense of Abortion, Boonin reviews various accounts and notes that they all fail for similar reasons. Boonin notes that those who attempt to ground humanity in the amount of brain development an organism has undergone face a dilemma: "Any appeal to what a brain can do at various stages of development would seem to have to appeal to what the brain can already do. Or to what the brain has the potential to do in the future."1

Either option leads to problems for a defender of the permissibility of feticide who does not also want to endorse infanticide. This is because "by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and ducks are more intellectually developed than a new born infant."2 Suppose, then, one takes the first horn and appeals to what the brain can already do. However, unless one wishes to affirm that cats, dogs and chickens are human beings, "appeals to what the brain can already do" will "be unable to account for the presumed wrongness of killing toddlers or infants. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.