Johansson and Ekendahl: Does Abortion Harm the Fetus?

Abstract: A central claim in abortion ethics is what might be called the Harm Claim – the claim that abortion harms the fetus. In this article, we put forward a simple and straightforward reason to reject the Harm Claim. Rather than invoking controversial assumptions about personal identity, or some nonstandard account of harm, as many other critics of the Harm Claim have done, we suggest that the aborted fetus cannot be harmed for the simple reason that it does not occupy any well-being level.

Johansson and Ekendahl, Does Abortion Harm the Fetus? Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 December 2021. 


David H March 9, 2022 at 6:00 PM

Too Narrow A View of Well-Being

1. Narrow View of Well-Being: “It seems clear that the aborted fetus never occupies a positive or negative well-being level. Not only is this the intuitive thing to say, it is also entailed by al the standards substantive views of well-being …(such as hedonism and desire fulfillment.” P. 5 There is a long tradition of teleological flourishing and things doing well when they are how they ought to be given their nature i.e., realizing their capacities, functioning as they should (Aristotle, Oderberg, Kraus, Hershenov). A tradition of environmental ethics of vegetative well-being (Regan’s distinction between something being in X’s interest and X being interested in it)

2. Too Narrow a Pluralism: The authors write “And pluralists about well-being too, usually include in their lists only items that require features: knowledge, rational activity, friendship etc.” Really? What about health, achievement, developing one’s abilities?

3. Positive Well-Being of Mindless Fetus: The authors write on p. 10. “It should be noted, though, that on such a view a typical early fetus already has a positive temporal well-being – a surprising, if not indefensible claim.” I think it is surprising if not indefensible to say that a healthy fetus is NOT thriving more and doing better than a sick fetus that is failing, the dying fetus doing worse than it was, isn’t flourishing. Thriving and flourishing and doing better and improving and declining suggest well-being. And we speak that way of the mindless

Stephen Kershnar March 9, 2022 at 10:39 PM


David's position that a mindless organism has an interest in healthy development is incorrect because health is merely an instrumental prudential good (and, also, an extrinsic good simpliciter).

Intuitively, there is no reason for a person to trade off even the smallest amount of health for a well-being maker (for example, pleasure, desire fulfillment, or plausible objective-list goods such as knowledge, love, or virtue). If this is true for persons, then it is also true for non-persons.


Stephen Kershnar March 9, 2022 at 11:11 PM



Great points.

I wonder how you would fill out the well-being maker. Here is an equation to which I am sympathetic.

(1) How well a person’s life goes depends on, and only on, total utils (that is, H).

Jim Delaney has done interesting work on whether (1) should be a function of, and only of, H x O or H + O, rather than H alone.

H = utils (total or average)

O = objective-list goods (total or average)

D = desire-fulfillment (total, average, or percentage)

In addition, I wonder how you would fill out O if O merits being filled out.

I do not think there are any objective-list goods, but if there were, here is the list.

(2) Objective goods include and only include these things: agency, knowledge, love, and virtue.

I am curious as to how you would fill out (1) and (2) and, also, whether you are a totalist or averagist about these things?

I wonder if this would make it easier to see where you and other Romanell people disagree with Ekendahl and Johansson.


David H March 10, 2022 at 11:45 AM


Perhaps you are thinking of health in terms of physical processes that keep someone alive and thus seems instrumental to the pursuit of goods. I am thinking of heathy development in terms of the unrivaled cognitive abilities and emotional range of mentally healthy human beings. A MENTALLY healthy human being can reason, use abstract concepts, make inferences, act prudently, engage in moral reasoning and moral actions, love, laugh, empathize etc. That sort of healthy human activity is constitutive of unrivaled levels of well-being.

Cognitively and emotionally impaired people miss out on great well-being. A look at the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) will reveal cognitive and emotional disorders that virtually guarantee lower well-being than found in the mentally healthy. Wakefield writes:

Very roughly, psychotic disorders involve failures of thought processes to work as designed, anxiety disorders involved failures of anxiety- and fear-generating mechanisms to work as designed, depressive disorders involve failures of sadness and loss-response regulating mechanisms, disruptive behavior disorders of children involve failures of socialization processes and processes underlying conscience and social cooperation, sleep disorders involve failure of sleep processes to function properly, sexual dysfunctions involve failures of various mechanisms involved in sexual motivation and response, eating disorders involve failures of appetitive mechanisms, and so on (2005: 894).

Of course, health is not all there is to well-being - though it is all that there is to well-being in the mindless. Being capable of love, empathy, kindness etc. won't enable you to flourish to the extent of the person with the good fortune of finding someone to love, their lover not being wrongly imprisoned etc.

Health is also only a prima facie interest of the minded. They may be better off with some pathology -gets them out of the suicidal war - though they probably still need some mental health to flourish to the extent they can when bedridden.

Nonetheless, I believe every human being at every moment of their life has an prima facie interest in healthy development and functioning. Even a mindless embryo is making preparations for growing a brain that will enable it to engage in unrivaled cognitive and affective states. So if the embryo has an interest in healthy development, it has an interest in becoming a minded creature with unrivaled mental complexity of great value. Death frustrates that interest, leading to a loss of great well-being. The capabilities of human being to obtain great levels of well-being when they exercise their cognitive and emotional capabilities is why they have such great value and deserve such respect. Any creature whose healthy development brings such high levels of well-being is very valuable - a value that is not just present when they are actualizing those mental capacities. It is a value they have even when unhappy. It is a value they retain even if they would be better off dead because they are suffering from some terrible incurable, mentally debilitating disease

I think I have given you enough material for a number of posts :)

Stephen Kershnar March 12, 2022 at 1:15 PM



Excellent points, as always.

Here are our claims.

(1) David. By itself, health makes someone’s life go better.

(2) Steve. By itself, health does not make someone’s life go better.

What we need are cases that will isolate the value of health. Here are two.

Case #1: Health is Overrated

Jones can choose one of two lives.

(a) Life 1. The first life has more pleasure, desire-fulfillment, and (health-independent) objective-list goods. The advantage is in terms of total and average.

(b) Life 2. The second life has less pleasure and desire-fulfillment and fewer objective-list goods.

Neither life affects another individual.

Here is what I claim: Intuitively, there is no reason to choose life (b) over (a). This is true regardless of the first life’s advantage in pleasure, desire-fulfillment, or objective-list goods over the second. I take it that this intuition is strong and supports the notion that by itself, health does not make someone’s life go better.

Test Case #2: God Rolls It Back

Smith lives an ecstatic life in which he has a great amount of pleasure, desire-fulfillment, and objective-list goods. He has a heart murmur – which is a disorder – but it has no effect on his life or anyone else’s life whatsoever. He then dies. God rolls back the life to its beginning and has to decide whether to change the heart murmur. Because of the non-murmur-related events will be the same, God will change it only if it makes Smith’s life go better or the world have more intrinsic value.

Intuitively God has no reason to eliminate the heart murmur.

Here then is the argument.

(P1) Life 1 is better than life 2 no matter how small the difference in the three factors – hedonist, desire-

fulfillment, and (non-health-related) objective-list goods – are.

(P2) God would not eliminate the heart murmur.

(P3) If (P1) and (P2), then health is not an intrinsic prudential good-maker.

(C1) Hence, health is not an intrinsic prudential good-maker. [(P1), (P2)]


Steve K

Stephen Kershnar March 12, 2022 at 1:27 PM



Great points.

It is important that our objective-list prudential good-makers not include mere enabling conditions.

Let us assume that the following enable a life to go well. The might even be necessary conditions for it to go well.

(1) Health

(2) Marriage

(3) Children

(4) Regular Sexual Intercourse During Adulthood

(5) Doing more right acts – understood in terms of moral right-respecting acts - than wrong acts

(6) Not having a DSM psychopath as a parent, spouse, or child

Intuitively, it seems (4) through (6) are not intrinsic prudential good-makers. Rather, they merely enable a life to go well. Here then is my argument.

(P1) Conditions (4)-(6) are not intrinsic prudential good-makers.

(P2) Conditions (1)-(3) are similar to conditions (4)-(6).

(P3) If (P1) and (P2), then (4)-(6) are not intrinsic prudential good-makers.

(C1) Hence, (4)-(6) are not intrinsic prudential good-makers. [(P1) – (P3)]

(C2) Hence, health is not an intrinsic prudential good-maker. [(C1)]


Steve K

David H March 14, 2022 at 1:30 PM


It is health that enables the human person to have a mind with desires and pleasures and objective goods like achievement, friends, knowledge, experience of reality etc. If people lacked desires and capacity for pleasure and objective goods then that would be instances of pathology. So mental health (proper cognitive and affective functioning) makes someone's life, prima facie, go better. If they were going to be tortured for decades, it would be better for them to suffer mental disorder and lapse into unconsciousness

A heart murmur that has no effect is not a disease anymore than having one's heart on the right instead of the left.

Remember, my view - in its strongest presentation - is that ALL organisms NECESSARILY have a PRIME FACIE interest in healthy. when they are mindless, health is all there is to their well-being. when they become conscious, their interest in health can be overridden. Being healthy and thus conscious and able to have sex and children and reason and love will be constitutive of well-being that is not obtained by the unconscious, sick, impotent, infertile etc. But one can imagine scenarios where it is better to be infertile (lousy 12 kids and worthless spouse) and better to be unconscious (Nazi torture). Moreover, my view is that the great value of human beings (at any age) is based upon their being the kind of entity that can reach great heights of well-being when healthy in fortunate scenarios. With bad luck, they don't have great well-being, but retain their great value and have to be treated with respect.

Stephen Kershnar March 16, 2022 at 4:29 PM



As always, great points. Here is what you say.

“It is health that enables the human person to have a mind with desires and pleasures and objective goods like achievement, friends, knowledge, experience of reality etc. If people lacked desires and capacity for pleasure and objective goods then that would be instances of pathology. So mental health (proper cognitive and affective functioning) makes someone's life, prima facie, go better. If they were going to be tortured for decades, it would be better for them to suffer mental disorder and lapse into unconsciousness.”

Leaving aside the word ‘prima facie’, you are right that health enables well-being. That is to say it is an extrinsic prudential good.

In general, there are many extrinsically good things – for example, sex, having one’s own children, loving spouse – that are not intrinsically good in virtue of these features. Rather they are objective-list values, if at all, because they involve agency, knowledge, love, or virtue.

One way to see this is that, intuitively, one’s life does not go better if he were to have a genetic child rather than adopted child once we hold these other factors fixed.

Another way to see this is that intuitively a person who has sex but hates sex does not make his life go better, even other things being equal, by his having sex. Hence, it is not an intrinsic prudential good-maker.

Yet it would be on your account because you view sex as an intrinsic prudential good-maker. This is a glorification of sex with which even Hugh Hefner would disagree.


Steve K

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:01 PM

Can J & E account for the Harmful Onset of Painful Consciousness?

1. If mindless lack well-being then how to explain harm of onset of painful conscious? I suppose they could if they favored a non-comparative account of harm but neither a temporal causal or counterfactual account can if the mindless has no well-being. There is no reason to say that the mindless have well-being if they ever will become conscious and don’t have well-being if they will always be mindless. Perhaps they will just say that this is akin to the problem of creation and so the created can’t be compared to earlier nonexistence. I think it is a bit worse because they exist and are then caused to suffer pains rather than brought into existence and later suffer pains

2 Can Johansson and Ekendahl provide an account for the timing of the badness of coma? If someone is conscious and happy, then becomes permanently unconscious, they have been harmed. This satisfies the authors’ Well-Being Requirement so such unfortunate creatures can be harmed. But intuitively they are harmed by the coma when they are in it. But on a counterfactual comparative account, the harm consists of the coma bringing lower well-being than a life without the coma. This involves comparing the harm of being in a coma with the harm of being conscious. But if the mindless have no well-being, the comparison can’t be made. The authors – if they accept CCA - would have to say it is a timeless harm like those who think death is a timeless harm as it brings about one shorter life with less good and thus a worse life rather than an alternative one that would have presumably had more goods for a longer time and thus have been better.

Stephen Kershnar March 9, 2022 at 10:49 PM



If by itself a person health made someone’s life go better, then a person in a permanent coma without a cerebrum (for example, some people alleged this was true for Terri Schiavo) should prefer (a) to (b).

(a) Following cardiac arrest, a woman goes into a permanent coma – without a cerebrum – and then dies.

(b) Following cardiac arrest, a woman dies.

Intuitively, there is no reason to prefer (a) to (b). This intuition supports the notion that the capacity for consciousness is necessary for positive well-being.

Here then is the argument.

(1) Consciousness is necessary for positive well-being.

(2) Negative and neutral well-being-makers are similar to positive well-being makers.

(3) If (1) and (2), then consciousness is necessary for negative and neutral well-being.


David H March 14, 2022 at 1:10 PM


I don't think your example is a good one for showing that consciousness is necessary for well-being. At best, it shows the consciousness is necessary for great well-being. I don't think it does show that though I believe it is true that consciousness is required for great levels of well-being

1. You are comparing the existing and the non-existing. An Epicurean and Terminator like myself, will claim the dead don't exist and so have no well-being. Thus, one can't compare the well-being of the comatose and the dead. Nevertheless, one can have rational preferences that don't track well-being. Some people will be indifferent to your two scenarios but others will prefer the earlier death without the intervening coma as they think being comatose is undignified. One must exist to suffer indignities, the dead aren't undignified. So differences in preferences (like indifferences) may not track well-being. Moreover, the unconscious are terribly unhealthy, so that is not a good example for revealing the well-being of health.

2. My claim is that we - as all organisms - necessarily have a prima facie interest in health which can be overridden. since it is a prima facie interest, someone facing slavery or other indignities may prefer death to a healthy life. Likewise, someone who was once conscious may think the loss of consciousness is an indignity that outweighs the benefits of non-conscious health just as slavery may make a conscious life less attractive than lapsing into a coma or death and non-existence

If you want to see the importance of health to interests and well-being then compare an unconscious woman and a unconscious horse. Imagine there is only one dose of a scarce drug that can transform either into a conscious (in fact, self-conscious) person. Surely, the woman gets it as she is unhealthy when she is not a person but the horse is not. Make the woman a newborn so it isn't the case that she earlier reached mental heights the horse did not and may be said to have a one time conscious but now merely dispositional interest to be a person in the future. It is not coin toss despite both being unconscious and the medicine the only way to make either conscious

3. Your example is not a nuanced one because the benefits of health can be swamped by other losses. That is why I think it is better to compare a healthy tree and a dying tree or a healthy mindless fetus and a sick mindless fetus. The differences in well-being that health brings can be more salient.

4. Your case also involved overdetermination - loss of consciousness and death. The harm is a plural harm and so the case might not be a good one for distinguishing harms for other reasons than the beforementioned fact that the loss of consciousness swamps and blinds us to lesser harms. And keep in mind that a health based account includes the loss of consciousness as an instance of pathology. My claim is that the healthy mindless fetus has an interest in becoming conscious and suffers is greatly harmed when it loses consciousness as it loses out on a great deal of conscious well-being. It had that interest when it was unconscious. I am not denying that it is our minds that enable us to reach great levels of well-being and have such great value. Consciousness is a necessary condition for great levels of well-being. But it is good for a mindless being to become conscious. But only those who are unhealthy when they are not conscious have an interest then in becoming conscious. I don't think you harm an amoeba or plant or totipotent early embryonic cell when you don't enable it to become conscious, assuming that would be identity preserving.

David H March 14, 2022 at 1:34 PM

My view is that we are the kind of being that can have great well-being - with some good fortune. Even with bad fortune we have objective goods associate with the exercise of our minds though they can be overridden by torture and indignities. That capacity for great well-being is where our great value lies. That is why you can't do certain things to permanently comatose humans that you can to dead humans, the latter are the remains of the former, not identical to the former.

Stephen Kershnar March 16, 2022 at 4:22 PM



Great point.

Still, I want to go briefly to a side issue here, Epicureanism. Here is what you say.

“You are comparing the existing and the non-existing. An Epicurean and Terminator like myself, will claim the dead don't exist and so have no well-being. Thus, one can't compare the well-being of the comatose and the dead. Nevertheless, one can have rational preferences that don't track well-being. Some people will be indifferent to your two scenarios but others will prefer the earlier death without the intervening coma as they think being comatose is undignified. One must exist to suffer indignities, the dead aren't undignified. So differences in preferences (like indifferences) may not track well-being. Moreover, the unconscious are terribly unhealthy, so that is not a good example for revealing the well-being of health.”

If one prefers the comatose scenario over the dead scenario for a prudential reason – rather than a moral, aesthetic, or epistemic reason – then the comatose scenario must be better for the person.

But you can’t say when it is better for the comatose person. Hence, you must say that it is an atemporal bad for someone. I find this implausible. Here are two metaphysical principles.

(1) Metaphysical Principle #1: Exemplifier. If an object exemplifies a property, then it exemplifies it at a time.

This is even more plausible.

(2) Metaphysical Principle #2: Intrinsic Exemplifier. If an object exemplifies an intrinsic property, then it exemplifies it at a time.

If hedonism is true, then well-being is an intrinsic property.

To get to your preference you have to reject (1) and, depending on your view of hedonism, (2). I think this is a big price to pay.


Steve K

Stephen Kershnar March 16, 2022 at 4:26 PM


Good point.

Here is a basic issue on which we disagree: Can an object that cannot be conscious have a well-being level?

I suspect we just disagree here.

If the answer is yes, then I do not know why it should matter that it is alive. After all, why not think a tractor has an interest in functioning properly just as a dandelion has an interest in not being short (for a dandelion).

Neil Feit March 18, 2022 at 12:17 PM

This goes to David H's opening comment on the onset of painful consciousness. I'm not sure what E & J will say here. If the pain actually occurs, then there is a lifetime well-being level, and so the well-being requirement is satisfied. It's at least open to them to claim that the onset-event harms the individual, though not by comparing with any well-being-lacking individual.

Another case would involve preventing the onset of painful consciousness. If a malevolent doctor is about to bring a lifetime of pain to a currently mindless fetus, and I prevent this, this seems to be a benefit even if the fetus remains mindless (and so, on their view, has no lifetime well-being level).

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:02 PM

Asymmetry of Consciousness vs. Lifetime Well-Being Principle

Asymmetry of permanently, but not irreversibly unconscious: Haven’t you harmed someone by not making (restoring) them conscious? Then why not the fetus? The authors think it matters hat the unconscious was once conscious. But imagine the earlier consciousness was for a brief fetal moment without a desire for future consciousness or its physical basis was destroyed.

Sure, there is a difference between having been conscious and then reduced to a fetal like unconscious state and never having been conscious but that fact will play no explanatory role. _“Similarly , although some coma patients may be no more of receiving well-being components than are fetuses, our proposal does not imply that such patients cannot be harmed by death… p. 8 Some writers in the debate on the ethics of abortion have wondered how the moral status of, say, killing a comatose individual could be affected by whether the individual had certain capacities in the past. Our strategy might provide an answer to this question. “p. 8 note 11 No it doesn’t explain anything. It would if there was an interest retained dispositional from the conscious state. But there isn’t. We are stipulating the comatose has a mind post injury like that of a fetus. It can develop into a heathy person but it retains nothing from its earlier conscious life. My wife and I in the article the authors mentioned, believe the reason to restore consciousness is that the living but mindless entity, like all living entities, has a prima facie interest in health. So the unconscious has an interest in becoming conscious and developing a healthy adult brain capable of unrivaled well-being, just as the mindless fetus does. The authors have provided no reason for treating them differently, merely pointed out that one was conscious once.

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:03 PM

The Moral Significance of Consciousness?

1. Author’s Response to Hershenov and Hershenov The authors write “Thus our strategy is not vulnerable to the criticism recently raised by DH and RH among others, that the presence or absence of consciousness is not in itself relevant to whether an individual can be harmed.” We made a number of criticism, one was that there are infants that have always been mindless but will soon become healthy and normal and it is wrong to kill them. We also claimed that consciousness didn’t add much value. A fetus that just became minimally conscious and one a day younger that will become minimally conscious a day later don’t differ in morally significant ways. The consciousness is so minimal and rabbit like. Most importantly our point was that consciousness is doing no work if there are neonatal interests that the newborn doesn’t desire or is conscious of as a fetus, why isn’t that interest there in the mindless fetus. Consciousness is doing no work, it is morally irrelevant If interests, then well-being. I take it his point is that if conscious then well-being so unthought interests are relevant to well-being but they are not relevant to well-being of the never conscious

2. Permanently Mindless Human Lab Rat Challenges Claim Mindless Can’t be Harmed: Embryos may not look human, they may not be seen, they may be parts of the mother, they soon depart the scene if aborted, they may be thought to exist indeterminately, and they may be viewed as trespassing, violating the woman’s bodily integrity, and autonomy etc. All of these make it difficult to appreciate that they have interests and can be harmed. The authors are committed to therie being no harm if a mindless fetus is tampered with so it remains a mindless human fetus and then becomes a mindless human adult. Now imagine this is done to grow the mindless adult so it can be used to test drugs and perfumes for toxicity, and have a supply of transplantable organs and (thanks to Steve Kershnar for the idea – used as sex toys) and food. I think it is far more likely that such a mindless adult will be seen to be harmed as it is not the way it ought to be. It is good for entities to be the way they ought to be given their nature. And living beings who are not the way they ought to be are harmed.

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:05 PM

Harming Computers and Robots

1. Tu Quoque? Johansson and Ekendahl find it very counterintuitive for someone to claim a computer is harmed if that computer has no well-being (not even zero) but could obtain some well-being, but is prevented from acquiring that well-being. “This does not sound like an appealing implication. Those who defend the approach should try to find a way to block it.” p.11

2. And the authors say of Bradley’s later account that the extent of of harm depends upon the degree to which something is a subject of non-zero harms “…adherent of the Bradley strategy are committed to denying the natural idea that any event that makes an individual much worse than she would have otherwise been and does not make her well off is harmful to the individual. On Bradley’s view, such an event harms the individual only if is also a welfare subject to a non-zero degree. P. 9 So if someone stopped a computer with zero harm from becoming conscious that would not be the harm it would be if something with non-zero harm was prevented from reaching the same conscious state

3. But then don’t J and E have the same problem? Recall my example of a computer that will become self-conscious conscious person (in an identity preserving way) and someone makes it (rabbit like or neutral) rather than person-like. That turns out on the author’s account to be a great harm in that it makes the person worse off than they would have otherwise have been. The entity meets The Well-Being Requirement because it was going to made self-consciousness at one time in its existence. I suspect it is not a harm at all to make a mindless computer into a minimally entity even though it would have been made into a person and thus it is not counterintuitive as authors claim to declare it is not a harm to make someone worse than they would have been as it had no interest in becoming a person. This is because the only mindless entities with interests are living ones.

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:06 PM

Capacity isn’t key to zero well-being vs. no well-being:

Authors appeal to capacity to explain when something has zero well being rather than no well-being. I disagree. For then computer with capacity to become conscious before it is ever turned on would have well-being and can be harmed. Likewise, if Pinocchio was elaborately carved like Frankenstein before the life-giving shock – functionally akin to what it would have to be to be alive or conscious. Consciousness or self-maintaining goal directedness of organism is required for well-being

Stephen Kershnar March 9, 2022 at 10:52 PM



Great point, but the example is misleading.

If we imagine the monster and wood carving have the capacity for well-being, then intuitively they have zero well-being.

If we imagine - and this is what we do imagine - that they need animation of some sort to have the correct sort of capacity, then they do not have zero well-being. Rather they are merely some of the raw ingredients that can be used to form the relevant individual post animation.


David H March 14, 2022 at 11:37 AM


I don't think people would say the computer that can become conscious for the first time with the flick of a switch has zero well-being before becoming conscious for then they would have to say that they are benefiting the computer by making it become conscious. The conscious computer has well being and so is greatly harmed if it is not turned on. Intuitively, one has done nothing wrong to the computer by not turning it on or perhaps destroying it (assume it was one's own property) so no one else can turn it on. If those are your intuitions, then that shows you don't think the computer has zero well-being but none at all. Likewise for the Frankenstein monster before the lightening - though that case is under-described as the lightening may do far more than "throw a switch." The Pinocchio case is also under-described that is why I mentioned that it is elaborately carved so I wanted to convey that it mimics the body in suspended animation (like a cryptobiotic organism) or asleep/comatose or just needing a switch turned on to become conscious for the first time

Tooley in his 1983 book argues that the living but mindless don't have well-being. He imagines making someone initially mindless but with the dispositions of Reverend Billy Graham (he is always taking shots at the religious) and claims that one is doing no wrong keeping that being with the never conscious but mental capacities of the televangelist from becoming conscious. I disagree as I think the mindless that are alive have well-being as they can be doing better or worse at maintaining themselves in goal directed activity. Tooley does claim if you rewire the conscious and take someone with Bertrand Russell's or Hume's mental dispositions and rewire them to be like Pope John Paul II then you have harmed them. I am sympathetic but my response is if the baby with Russell or Hume like dispositions just became conscious for the first time and didn't think any of the Russell or Hume-like thoughts before rewired and transformed to have the now Saint John Paul II dispositions, that shows consciousness is doing no work. If you can wrong the briefly conscious Russellian baby by removing dispositions that the neonate never exercised, then why isn't it wrong to do the same to the living but mindless fetus with Russellian dispositions?

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:07 PM

From no Harm to No Special Justification:

Authors write: “After all, a natural view is that if abortion is harmless, then it does not require any special justification.” p. 1 This may be nitpicky of me but the authors are overlooking Dworkin’s account of fetal value. He is explicit that the fetus doesn’t have interests (and thus well-being) because it is mindless (a view shared by the authors, Feinberg and Tooley), but that abortion will still seem wrong to pro-lifers because it is a waste of something with great value. Also, many religious people speak of the intrinsic value of life and will judge abortion wrong not because well being is lost. Some of the Thomists may also be assuming it is the radical or root capacity for rationality and free action that makes fetuses belong to a valuable kind. Kind membership, not well-being is making the fetus or permanently comatose valuable. This isn’t my view as I link the value to capacity and interest in great well-being. If something has great well being when it undergoes healthy development and has a mind like ours, then it is of great value and always of such value.

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:08 PM

Degradation and well-being.

The authors consider being comatose could be undignified and a source of lower well-being. It is undignified to be unconscious or lack personal relations. The authors point out that doesn’t hold for the fetus as it is not undignified for being mindless as that it is the normal heathy stage. But if the fetus has great value because of the kind of thing it is, killing it is degrading and thus an indignity. If indignities lower well-being, so does being the target of an abortion. I am not endorsing this view but just saying it is perhaps compatible with the referee’s comment and not answered by the authors

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:09 PM

I can’t make sense of Bradley’s degrees of subject:

I haven't read the recent paper by Bradley that the author's are referring to but I can't make sense of it from their account on p. 9 you are either a subject of conscious experiences or not. It could be intermittent. It could be more or less conscious emotions and cognitive capacities, more or less psychological ties (TRIA) but those aren’t degrees of subjects

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:11 PM

Small point that doesn't impact author's thesis

In a recent article by Maureen Condic, she claimed that the onset of consciousness is much earlier than 20 weeks. Condic and Stuart Derbyshire – the latter is pro-choice neurologist on Royal college of obstetricians and gynecologist that rejected pain before 22 weeks - are both now claiming that fetal pain is likely present as early as 12 weeks.

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:14 PM

Reductio of Views without Time-Relative-Interest Account of Harm

1. I think everyone needs some version of the TRIA (though I reject McMahan’s restriction of time relative interests to conscious interests). The authors think the view is nonstandard, implausible, and controversial (p. 4) and believe if worth seeing if abortion can be defended without it just on the basis of “The Well-Being Requirement.” They write “In particular, it is hard to swallow that an event can be entirely harmless even if it makes the individual much worse off than she would have otherwise been and it fails to make her well off. ” I think the lesson of TRIA is identity is insufficient for harm and the Counterfactual Comparative Account (CCA) if false in that it compares actual and possible lifetimes.

2. This is the lesson of unrestricted composition that there is something consisting of you and a 23rd century human being, scattered objects like gametes that are identical to the later fused zygote and baby, or imagining parthenogenesis, cloning, altered nuclear transfer, removing and transplanting totipotent cells of the early four cell embryo into new wombs etc. to be identity preserving. Likewise, if we assume that a computer can become a conscious robot or Pinocchio can become a Italian boy in an identity preserving manner. All of these entities would be harmed if you didn’t assist them and certainly if you prevented them from in becoming, 23rd century thinks, babies, Italians, sentient robots etc.

3. But surely it is not wrong to do so which suggests being identical to an entity with a valuable future is not enough. The entity must earlier have interests in becoming that conscious 23rd century, babies, persons, conscious etc. I would argue only conscious entities or mindless living entities have interests and the interests of the latter are only in healthy development. They are goal directed, self maintaining entities whose lives go better or worse when they are healthy or not. No cell other than the zygote is unhealthy if it doesn’t become a baby and then a person. Computers have no interests in becoming conscious.

Stephen Kershnar March 12, 2022 at 1:48 PM



Very interesting points.

Let us consider two versions of TRIA.

(a) Psychological Connection. An earlier person has an interest in his later self to the degree that the two are psychologically connected (their psychologies have the same mental states).

(b) Psychological Continuity. An earlier person has an interest in his later self to the degree that the two are psychological continuous (the first’s psychology led to the second in a stepwise manner each step of which has significant psychological connection).

Here are some problems.

Concern #1: Get Me to Church on Time

Consider a person who begins to discover that theism not atheism is true. Assuming that prudence is a reason to thinking and acting, then in deciding whether to believe in theism, do you think that he should balance two different factors?

(1) More true beliefs

(2) Less psychological connectedness

If not, then I do not see why we should think TRIA is true. Intuitively, though, we should not balance these out.

If we should balance these out then in some cases - when (1) is small enough - by itself, (2) outweighs (1). If find this implausible.

If the change in the person’s religion-related beliefs is quick enough, it will also reduce psychological continuity. Hence, we would need to balance out the following.

(1) More true beliefs

(3) Less psychological Continuity

Again, I find this implausible.

Concern #2: Discount Future Value

If (a) or (b) are true, then we should basically care more about our selves a decade from now than two decades from now. Again, I am lacking this intuition. I am guessing that you lack it as well.

Concern #3: Parfit’s Taxonomy Triumphant

(P1) If something does not basically affect someone’s amount of pleasure, desire-fulfillment, or objective-list

goods, then it is not an intrinsic prudential good-maker.

(P2) Factors (a) and (b) do not basically affect someone’s amount of pleasure, desire-fulfillment, or objective-

list goods.

(C1) Hence, factors (a) and (b) are not intrinsic prudential good-makers.


Steve K

David H March 14, 2022 at 1:52 PM

Most of us would not want more truths if it came with a completely new psychology. Transplant Einstein's cerebrum into my skull and the result is more truths. but I don't want the transplant as it comes without the memories and interests of my children etc. and that has nothing to do with identity claims. Switch the example to rewiring the brain if you erroneously have an embodied mind view of personal identity. Or use McMahan's The Cure thought experiment. That example can be modified so it isn't objective goods like autonomy and narrative continuity (Bradley's critique) rather than Time relative interest if one imagines the changes coming slowly or a divine roll back and there is no interruption but one begins life with a psychology that one otherwise got in the thought experiment with the autonomy and narrative interrupting Cure.

TRIA says the harm and benefits depends upon the value of the future and the ties to the future. So more truths and goods can outweigh some loss of connections. that is why a child growing up is not bad for her despite the loss of some connections from toddler to adult

Regarding concern #2 the difference will be negligible in typical adults who keep their major values and projects and relationships. Better to use dramatic psychological changes to show the appeal of TRIA. Imagine I have terminal brain cancer and contrast that with terminal liver cancer. If my insurance doesn't pay for a transplant of cerebrum it isn't an obvious harm as it would be if they didn't pay for the transplant of a viable liver. The best explanation is that I am not psychologically connected to my post cerebrum transplant as I am to the post liver transplant person. Now there is a good argument for abortion here. If getting a new brain is not a benefit and being denied it is not a harm, then why is it a benefit to the fetus to grow a brain in the first place and why is it a harm to abort it and keep it from growing such a brain? Here I would appeal to the interests in health to suggest that a brain transplant and initially growing a prenatal brain are good for you but it would take me a long time to make that point. I may have sketched it in an earlier article published in the Snowdon/Blatti anthology New Essays in Animalism and done so in a recent Romanell Center workshop with my paper on why abortions can be harmful even if McMahan is right that we were never animals.

Just accept unrestricted composition for the sake of argument and you can generate countless examples where identity to a being with a future like ours is insufficient for harm. Instead of a life comparative account of harm, one will be forecd to some version of Time Relative Interests. Hopefully, not McMahan's version which allows abortion and infanticide.

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:15 PM

Critique of Ekendahl and Johansson’s Sentience-Only Harm Principle:

1. The authors would agree that it is not a harm to make a mindless entity into a person as they don’t meet The Well-Being Requirement. However, the entity that is composed of you and 23rd century conscious human being (you could be a 3D phase of that entity or a temporal part) suggests time relative interests are required. Surely the entity composed of you and the 23rd conscious being has now only your interests. It doesn’t have the interests of the 23rd century stage or temporal part. If you are destroyed and thus the 22nd/23rd century entity is as well, its harm is just the lost of your well-being, not the 23rd being

2. Abortion could (oddly) be a great harm on Johansson Account. Imagine abortion works in such a way that it accelerates or stimulates the fetal brain so it experiences for the first time one second of bland consciousness (neither pain nor pleasure) before dying. So the fetus meets The Well-Being Requirement for harm. Is that really now a great harm? It loses out on all of its future. But it is completely unconnected to that future.

3. Johansson and Ekendahl are held hostage to Panpsychism’ s truth: Imagine that Strawson and Chalmers are correct and consciousness if found in every simple and composite. (At least, animalism’s sparse ontology prevents rocks and legs from being conscious). Surely it won’t be as great a harm or greater to kill the zygote than you or me. The best explanation of this McMahan style bell curve rather than a Marquis like diagonal line in which the earliest deaths are the worse, all else being equal, is that the zygote is not as tied to its future as are you.

David H March 9, 2022 at 6:15 PM

An Alternative to McMahan’s TRIA:

1. Of course, McMahan thinks abortion of the minimally sentient and infanticide of the also minimally sentient are not very bad because the ties are so few. Nor can he say it is bad to keep a human being permanently mindless from conception to adulthood and use if for spare organs, testing drugs, sex, food etc. and food. But if we accept interests in healthy development, the ties are more substantial than McMahan recognizes and they capture our intuitions of the considerable harm in early deaths. The harm of death is still a bell curve, but it begins much higher than McMahan realizes.

2. A healthy human being will be capable of love and other emotion laden relationships. If all living entities have an interest in healthy development at every moment of their life and thus even as fetuses, then the interest in love will typically be increasing filled out as the human develops and its frustration will become increasingly worse. For instance, it is worse to have unrequited love for Hillary than to be looking for love but not to be in love and that is still worse than not looking for love.

3. The healthy interest in relationship becomes more determinate when it has a particular person and particular romantic endeavors and specific intimacies stymied. Such filling out of a healthy interest ties one more to the future that is then lost by death. Since an infant and fetus will have many such determinable interests not yet made determinate, their death will be quite harmful, just not as harmful as ours whose determinable interests are more determinate.

Stephen Kershnar March 9, 2022 at 10:33 PM


Here is the authors’ key principle.

The Well-Being Requirement. In order for an event to harm an individual, the individual has to occupy a lifetime well-being level.

This principle is true or, at least, does not fall prey the criticisms aimed at it during our dinner.

One might reject this because of one of the following.

(1) Negative Well-Being. Mindless individuals can have negative well-being. One might hold that an early mindless fetus has lifetime well-being level even if it is killed (See David Hershenov on health).

(2) Zero Well-Being. One might hold that a mindless individual has a well-being level of zero (See Neil Feit on Epicureanism).

(3) Harm Without a Lifetime Well-Being Level. One might hold that the principle is false.

Reject (1).

The rejection of (1) might depend on a rejection of the Parfit's three-part test for well-being: hedonism, desire-fulfilment, and (reasonable) objective-list theory. David Hershenov might reject the Parfit test. Neil Feit and I don't. I don't know Phil’s position.

David's position that a mindless organism has an interest in healthy development is incorrect because health is merely an instrumental prudential good (and, also, an extrinsic good simpliciter).

Reject (2).

The idea behind (2) rests on the Feit-Bradley arguments against Epicureanism. Neil mentioned two of them in conversation last night. If one were to think that the relevant capacity is necessary in some cases (for example, a cloud does not have a 0-virtue-level), then much rests on what is distinctive about mindless cells (for example, conceptuses) that have a 0-level of well-being that does not apply to clouds that lack a 0-level of virtue. I do not see what distinguishes these two cases.

In the context of Epicureanism, The Feit-Bradley zero well-being argument must respond to the following notions: (a) well-being is an intrinsic feature of an individual and (b) an individual has an intrinsic feature when, and only when, it exists.

In this context, the Feit-Bradley position must be that an entity without a capacity for well-being has a well-being level. This position avoids the no-subject problem of their anti-Epicureanism.

Reject (3).

Here are two related intuitions.

(a) If someone is harmed, then he is harmed to some degree.

(b) If the aborted fetus is harmed to some degree, then has a lifetime well-being level.

Plus, the author cited the Hershenovs and Feit. You got to like that.

Great seeing you guys last night, as always,

Steve K

Stephen Kershnar March 9, 2022 at 10:33 PM


Perhaps a pro-lifer could argue for (4).

Abortion wrongs a fetus even though it does not harm the fetus.

Perhaps he could argue for this based on a right-infringement. Still, if this is the argument, perhaps the pro-lifer could make it explicitly. Perhaps he could defend one or both of these all-things-considered claims.

(a) Wrong Without Harm. It is possible for a person to be wronged via a right-infringement even if he is not harmed.

(b) Harm Without Wrong. It is possible for a person to be harmed even though he is not wronged via a right-infringement.

In general, both are plausible in general.

However, in the context of abortion, a problem with this approach is that the pro-lifer would have to explain why the fetus’ life is not forfeited in virtue of its being present in the woman without her consent or with her withdrawn consent.


Stephen Kershnar March 9, 2022 at 10:34 PM


Here are my intuitions.

(1) Virtue has no color rather than zero color.

(2) A cloud has no virtue-level rather than 0-virtue.

(3) A rock has no well-being level rather than a 0-level well-being.

If one accepts (1) to (3), then it is hard why he would accept (4) or (5).

(4) A conceptus has a 0-level of pleasure rather than no level.

(5) A conceptus has a 0-level of well-being rather than no level.

Here are two solutions a pro-lifer might give.

Solution #1: Potentiality

The defender of the distinction might claim the following: A thing’s well-being level is affected by whether its potential is realized, even if it does not yet have a relevant capacity.

The problem is that potentiality refers to a future capacity and it is hard to see how a thing’s future property affects its current well-being. This is true even if – which I reject – well-being depends in part on extrinsic features.

Solution #2: Root Capacity

The defender of this distinction might argue for the following: A fetus has a relevant capacity, specifically, the capacity to develop into a being that will later have a well-being-grounding property.

The reference to a future well-being-grounding property does not mean the conceptus has such a property. Calling potentiality a ‘root capacity’ merely disguises this issue.