Save a 5-year-old or 1,000 viable embryos?

At Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta posted a moral dilemma to pro-life activists based on a series of tweets by Patrick Tomlinson. Here’s the link.

Basically Patrick Tomlinson tweets out an elaborate story that is unnecessary to repeat to get the heart of the dilemma. The heart of the dilemma is the title of the post. If you had to choose between saving a 5-year-old or 1,000 viable human embryos, what would you pick? Patrick Tomlinson tweeted proudly that this dilemma has never been answered satisfactorily and Mehta certainly repeats the sentiment that this is a knockdown thought experiment. But is it? At first glance, the dilemma might seem to force us intuitively to pick the 5-year-old, which may undercut the idea that human embryos are also human lives.

Most importantly, the problem is that this sort of dilemma presupposes a broadly utilitarian or consequentialist framework of ethics. In other words, it assumes you can trade lives or weigh moral priorities against each other. You can create similarly uncomfortable moral dilemmas for any moral principle. For example, you might say that rape and pedophilia are always wrong and horrific. But then, would you rape a 5-year-old-girl  repeatedly to save the lives of 5,000 people? Or, would you torture a 7-year-old girl slowly to death to prevent 10,000 people from undergoing even more painful torture (and then death)? In other words, you can create moral dilemmas like this for any moral rule imaginable, so it seems to me the value of such dilemmas at revealing deeper moral truths become very doubtful indeed. In fact, they seem trivial and meaningless for precisely this reason. Consequentialist reasoning can plausibly question any moral rule you might want to hold to. In other words, such dilemmas should have no impact on what we think is right under the vast majority of circumstances, and simply because some possible circumstance might call those rules into question, does not imply that they are not correct as moral principles, or not as  close to absolute as moral principles can be.

But in addition, it is possible to think that an embryo should not be preferred over a five-year-old without thereby admitting that human embryos are simply biological mush that can be terminated for our convenience. Further, the pro-life position can be framed in many different ways while maintaining that pregnancies of whatever trimester should not simply be terminated for the convenience of the mother, while at the same time maintaining that a recently fertilized egg is not absolutely equal in value to a five-year-old child. One example is the following. Whereas a human embryo is a potential human life, and should be valued for that reason, it is not necessarily equal in value to the actualized life of a human child. But what about the fact that it is 1,000 embryos? A thousand potential lives are not necessarily equal to 1 actualized life. Plus, asking someone to quantify a moral principle, so that I must have a specific number in mind for how many potential lives make up an actual life, is absurd. Applying this sort of principle to any other moral rule would result in never actually reaching a conclusive moral principle of any kind. I’m not saying I believe in this way of conceiving an anti-abortion position. It is just one example of framing the pro-life position, of valuing a recently fertilized egg as something that has some human rights and some personhood, without admitting that it equal in value to a 5-year-old.

However, I think it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the embryo has equal value to the five-year-old, because, as we saw, this sort of consequentialist dilemma can be forced on any moral principle, which means that such dilemmas are not good guides to what should be considered correct moral principles. Such dilemmas at most show, if they show anything at all, that our moral principles should not be regarded as absolutely binding under any circumstances whatsoever. This on its own is sufficient to respond to the dilemma. The second part of my response is simply to point out that one can conceive of the pro-life position in different ways, some of which don’t require you to believe that a fertilized egg has the same value as the life of the child. The personhood of the foetus doesn’t need to be an “all or nothing” proposition in order for the pro-life position to be correct.

3 thoughts

  1. These dilemmas often sully the true spirit of the moral conundrum at hand by introducing a myriad of variables as well as the fallibility of one person’s emotions. When it comes to saving a five-year-old or a thousand embryos, most people would choose the former simply because they don’t want tangible blood on their hands. However, we also need to hear more about the context. Patrick Tomlinson is a sci-fi author, so what if this scenario involves saving one life or the future of the human race?

    The pro-life position is that the foetus is a life and one worth protecting, not necessarily that it is a life more important than that of a grown child’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re especially right about the fallibility of emotions. The Trolley problem shows us that pretty much everyone would allow someone to be killed in order to save five, but they would never push someone to their death to achieve the same result.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great point! It’s a dissociation from death that allows some humans to commit killings. The biggest mass murderers in history didn’t get their own hands dirty, and I doubt they would have been able to achieve the same level of infamy had they personally conducted every murder.

        Liked by 1 person

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