Full Moral Standing and Genetic

Full Moral Standing and Genetic Humanity — Here are some notes I wrote in preparation for the AFF debate concerning the logical relationship between having human DNA and having personhood, or “full moral standing” as I'm calling it. I'm riffing off a quote from Ramesh Ponnuru. In a nutshell, there is no relationship, human DNA being neither necessary nor sufficient for full moral standing.

Here are some notes that illustrate why Ramesh is full of shit.


This being is valuable simply because it is a human being and not because of any traits — sentience, hair, the ability to protect itself — that it happens to possess. (Technically, of course, the “it” is wrong here.) It is a person from the first moment, rather than a mere body that becomes inhabited by a person as it develops (which would imply an untenable person-body dualism). You were once an embryonic human person.”

Human DNA is not necessary for full moral standing (FMS):

Imagine that a mist-covered island is discovered in the crater of an unexplored volcanic lake. The excited press calls it Atlantis. Then, the world is stunned to discover that Atlantis is inhabited by creatures that look exactly like humans, and are capable of speaking ,laughing, reasoning, inventing, cooperating, exchanging, loving and so on. However, the world is stunned once more to discover that Atlanteans are not homo sapiens. Atlanteans and humans cannot interbreed. Genetic testing reveals that Atlanteans are descended from the now extinct species that also developed into both humans and chimpanzees. Atlantanteans, it turns out, can not only do everything humans can do, but live to 110, and are especially good at some things, like singing, mathematics, and Yahtzee.

Question: Do Alanteans have FMS? If Atlanteans were mixed into the population at random, no one could tell them apart from humans. It would be absurdly arbitrary to argue that while Atlanteans have all the attributes we humans hold in the highest regard, they nevertheless do not have full moral standing.

Conclusion: Human DNA not necessary for FMS

Human DNA is not sufficient for FMS:

You have human DNA. A piano falls on your head and you sustain massive brain damage. You are taken to the hospital. Although all of your organs are functioning very well (you're in good shape!), there is no activity in the parts of your brain that accounts for consciousness, and there is no prospect of starting it up again. You're declared brain dead, taken off life support, and allowed to die. This sort of thing actually happens a lot.

Now, while it would have been possible to keep you alive indefinitely in a vegetative state, it was clear to all involved that when your ability to maintain an inner life was definitely gone, YOU were gone, and with you, your FMS. But you were still a coherent biological being with human DNA.

Or, you're born with only a brain stem that governs autonomic functions. You are rightfully allowed to die.

Conclusion: human DNA is not sufficient for FMS.

Another argument: You drive around in a van and murder 10 people with a rifle. You are captured and sentenced to death by a court of law. You have human DNA. If having FMS requires nothing more than being human, and requires no other traits, then adding traits, such as being a cold-blooded murderer, cannot negate FMS (If FMS supervenes on nothing more than the simple fact of being human, then [If human, then FMS] is monotonic!). So, either the death penalty is murder, or simply being human is not sufficient for FMS.

More, for fun:

If simply having human DNA is good enough for having FMS, regardless of any other distinctively human attributes, then what exactly is it about human DNA that confers FMS? DNA is a sequence of molecules. What is it about the human sequence that is special. Exactly how does value supervene on sequences, such that it supervenes on the human sequence, and not other sequences? If it's just a matter of the molecular sequence, and not macro properties, that matter for FMS, how do we know that other animals don't also have DNA configured in a way that confers FMS? Maybe snails have FMS conferring DNA. Sure, snails don't have complex mental states, but if it's the molecular pattern that matters, it's the molecular pattern. So, what is the theory of intrinsically valuable molecular patterns? Why should we believe there is such a theory.

On biological classification:

Homo sapiens is a biological species. In virtue of what do members of this species have FMS while members of others species do not? Why is the species level the right place to draw the FMS line. Why not at the Family level. Suppose I say that primates have FMS. What's the argument against that? If the argument against drawing the FMS line well into gestation is that it is arbitrary, and gets us on a slope, so we'd better just draw the line at the beginning, then why not be really sure and just draw the line at primate membership instead. If some primates don't have FMS, how can we ensure that we do. So we better draw an inclusive circle, lest we get on a bad slope (bonobos don't have FMS, we're almost identical genetically to bonobos, so presumably we don't have FMS!)

Suppose I am, in fact, a mutant, the first member of a new species. If that's the case, then the FMS circle clearly goes around homo sapiens plus me, because I'm evidently a person, even if I'm not technically a human. So if you argue for an exclusive circle rather than an inclusive circle, it's going to have to be on the basis of some phenotypic properties, because monkeys and men and mutants are pretty well the same thing looking at it from the genotype. And if I'm a mutant, the thing that makes me a person with FMS bviously ain't my membership in the species. So what does confer FMS? Certain psychological capabilities, clearly.