A Future of Value 

Don Marquis’ essay and later follow-up letter in Free Inquiry seem a bit unsatisfying (Marquis, Stem Cell; and Marquis, Reply).  Professor Marquis has already produced a better criterion in an earlier essay that appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in April of 1989 (Marquis, Abortion).  There, Professor Marquis makes a case against abortion on the basis of the fetus’s losing a future of value.  That seems a very useful distinction for the ethical argument in relation to many of the problems that Professor Marquis cites in the essay in Free Inquiry.  I want to refine the term “future of value” and want to show in what respects, Professor Marquis’ original distinction is very useful for ethical analysis.  In fact, the “future of value” criterion—correctly applied—may allow virtually untrammeled freedom of research while protecting all entities worthy of moral protection.  Nor is that principle an absolute principle at all, but it is asserted hypothetically to be modified and tested and reformulated as knowledge increases.

 In the 1989 essay, Marquis’ “future of value” criterion is ambiguous.  It is useful to disambiguate the term as meaning either “future that someone can value at one time or another” or “future that the person him- or herself can value.”  I am not interested in the first version because as long as someone at all can value someone else’s continuing to live, every person, even the brain-dead one, has a future of value.  A peculiar side-effect is also that some embryo whose parents do not desire it and who has none else to wish its future, does, at the point where he or she is an embryo, have no future of value and so the criterion does not preclude abortion in the manner in which Marquis had suggested it would.  Even a sleeping person under some bridge who has been abandoned by all relatives and friends, then, does not have a future of value: s/he doesn’t hold a future of value for him- or herself because s/he sleeps—conscious reflective activity being essential to valuing a future of anything—and others don’t hold a future of value for him or her because they have severed all relationship and have abandoned him or her.  Nonetheless, I would ordinarily intuit that the death of the sleeping person under the bridge weighs in some way more profoundly on a moral scale than the death of the undeveloped embryo. 

 The other definition is of greater interest, I’d think.  “Having a future that a person her/himself can value” does indeed distinguish very clearly between beings that are deserving of moral consideration and beings that are not necessarily deserving of that same level of moral consideration.  Marquis writes, “If human life is not superior to any other life, then killing six million Jews in the Holocaust was no worse than killing six million mosquitoes” (Marquis, Reply, 8).  The six million mosquitoes of Marquis’ example would appear not to have a future that they could value; certainly, we have no evidence at all that the mosquitoes have a future that they could value, since we have no evidence of conscious reflective thought-activity on the part of the mosquitoes.  Of the six million victims of the holocaust—homosexuals, communists, and Jews—we can know and believe that they had a future of value that was horrifically interrupted.  Of the Tuskegee subjects in the syphilis research, we can know without a doubt that they had a future that they could value, which was thus seriously affected and interrupted.  Even of the orphan victims of the stuttering experiment in the twenties, we have evidence of the very victims reporting that their futures of value were seriously interrupted, even if they did not die from the effects of the experiment.

 In this reflection, we do not need to use species-ist arguments to set the death of holocaust victims at a higher level than we do the death of the mosquitoes.  Instead, I would think that the “future of value” demarcation works nicely to distinguish the morality of causing the death of the holocaust victims from causing the death of mosquitoes.  But let me proceed to define more clearly what I see as the proper application of the “future of value” criterion.

 As I reflect in my personal store of experiences, I realize that at about age two, I had my first awareness of an incident that I still remember vaguely.  I recall looking out the street-side window of my home.  On the street, several columns of people were marching with something slung around their shoulders and with an interesting similarity of clothing.  I also recall feelings of sadness among family members. The recollection is extremely vague and seriously polluted by later additions of narrative from others and speculation on my part.  Nonetheless, I had the awareness of an event in time and thus of the passing of time, part of which time I felt myself to be—in some very primitive and simple way.  Having the experience of passing time, of moving from event A to event B and anticipating other events beyond event B, is an example of having a future of value or—more clearly—a future that I can value.  If I had been killed at the moment of experiencing this event, I would have lost a future of value.  Had I been killed before that event, I would not have had any idea of a future, and so nothing significant would have been taken from me.  I wonder whether and in what manner this kind of experiential reflection is repeated for other human beings.  In other words, are there moments of awakening to a sense of past, present, and future as well as a sense of “traversing” these patches of awareness?   Introspection and reflection are the proper approaches to finding out if such a moment of awareness creation really does exist.

 Being aware of an incidence and storing it in one’s memory shows clearly that one has a future of value.  One remembers and plans.  One remembers and evaluates.  One remembers and anticipates the storage of new memories.  I would think that if a bomb had hit the train on which I traveled from Bavaria to Hesse at age one, no harm would have been done to me: while I might have experienced pain, the experience would not have been part of a chained set of remembrances.  Hospitals offer circumcisions at that young an age, not because it is expected that the baby is without pain, but because it is expected that the pain will not be part of a string of remembrances leading from a past to a future that the baby values.  A little thought experiment will probably help everyone decide that certain experiential states are clearly such that a sense of “future of value” is either absent or significantly present. 

 Suppose that I should be executed. I can do nothing about the dying; it’s been decided and will happen.  Now, suppose I do get to choose a time for my dying.  Will I be more likely to wish for a death while I’m sleeping or drugged, or am I more likely to wish for death when I am awake and in the process of having a wonderful experience that I would like to have come to some sense of fruition?  I would be greatly surprised if someone were to wish an interrupted experience as the moment of death.  I would expect that most of us will wish for death at a moment when we are not experiencing anything.  In other words, death at the moment of diminished awareness is a death that one feels is less likely to hurt as much as a death experienced in the midst of one’s stream of living.  In terms of experienced harm, I would think that death at the moment of conscious awareness is a relatively greater harm than death at a moment of relatively little conscious awareness.  I suppose I must grant that dreams provide some semblance of a sense of future, although they are clearly outside of a chain of events.  So, I must grant that death during some sleep-states will entail relatively greater harm than death during the absence even of dream states.  So, death is least likely to occur as harm to a being who is unaware, slightly more likely to occur as harm to a being who is vaguely aware, and most likely to occur as harm to a being who is fully aware.  Of course, between one pole and the other, there may be all kinds of gradations of awareness as well, but we can say most clearly that a fully aware being does clearly have a sense of a future of value, and a person with impaired awareness will have a lesser sense of a future of value.  But clearly, a being without any chained string of awareness moments or with only a punctiliar consciousness, one which is firmly anchored in a present moment, is a being that cannot have a future of value, the future concept being absent from whatever reflecting the being does.

 To establish whether a being does have a sense of a future of value, we have no other access than to ask or to conjecture by way of analogies.  I recall that my awareness of a future of value happened at about age two.  However, I cannot be sure that age two was the precise moment, nor can I be sure that this experience sets the standard for all young life. So, with the indefinable moment of awareness of past moving toward future as part of our reflection, we cannot really say that we will not rob a human child of that future that the child might value if the child is younger than two.  In benefit to the growing human being, we allow that his or her moment of reflective awareness may be at any time somewhere between birth and, say, three years old, when the reflective awareness is undeniably present.

 I would think that we can accept as a moral principle, then, that a human child that is biologically separated from his or her mother may be experiencing reflective awareness and thus a future of value.  But we can say also as confidently that the fetus, the embryo, the zygote, the happily thrashing sperm, and the anticipative egg are all not reflectively aware and thus are not in need of or deserving of special moral protection.  All stem-cell research deals with entities or things that have no reflective awareness.  And so stem-cell research is without moral complication or entities that might deserve special moral status or protection, while all research with post-birth human entities is.  In fact, we may even want to allow some special status for in utero entities with a significant evidence of brain-wave activity, whereby the problem becomes one of clashing purposes between mother and offspring, not necessarily an automatic granting of rights to the unborn that should supersede the rights of the mother as birth-giving being.

 But reflective awareness goes farther than the human species, even though Marquis appears not to be all that sensitive to non-human entities in the example of victims of the Holocaust and victims of insect-spray.  Washoe the Chimp—I believe—had signaled in American sign-language, “The moon is beautiful tonight” and, on another occasion, “My mother is dead; I am sad.”[1]  Such communication permits us to conclude without a doubt that here also reflective awareness is at work, that chimps also can have futures of value.  Another more difficult example of a borderline case comes from Robert Sapolsky’s Taming Stress.  Sapolsky gives the example of a rat’s experiencing depression.  He writes:  “Anxiety becomes depression if stress is chronic and levels of dopamine (D), glucocorticoids (G) and epinephrine (E) change accordingly . . .  If a rat knows how to press a lever to avoid a shock, it can feel pleasure in that mastery . . . If the lever no longer works, (sic) however, anxiety sets in and the animal desperately tries different strategies to avoid the shock . . . As coping proves elusive, hypervigilance is replaced by passivity and depression” (Sapolsky).  By virtue of its actions, the rat does seem to indicate that it does have a notion of a bad future (being shocked) or a good future (managing to avert the shock). 

 Of course, we are skewered on the same dilemma as John Stuart Mill when he attempted to distinguish between enjoyment of value and enjoyment of lesser value.  Does the rat have a future of value that it is attempting to relate to?  John Stuart Mill tried to suggest that those who have experienced both pleasure X and pleasure Y are in a position to decide whether X or Y are superior pleasures.  And so to make cross-species evaluations of the “value” of futures, one should, by Mill’s principle, have experienced both one’s own future and the future of the rat.  The criterion, of course, is not well applicable.  It seems that the rat’s falling into a depression is sufficient evidence that it has an anticipation of a future that it does not value, that, in fact, seems to frighten it signi­ficantly.  If the lever had worked, presumably its future would have been much more of value to the rat.  We can infer that the death of this rat would interfere with its sense of a future of value.  And so, the “future of value” criterion would seem to include the rat into the moral community. 

 The problem appears to be how to set a criterion that distinguishes between futures of value and not having a sense of future at all since we must admit immediately that a distinction between futures of value and futures of non-value is impossible since valuing one’s future is an intensely private activity, for the existence of which valuing we must accept behavioral evidence as long as we have no introspective evidence.  We simply cannot experience the private internal states of other beings.

 On this surface then, animal experimentation with beings that have a future of value and reflective awareness is as morally wrong as experiments with human beings.  While it is never right to impose pain and suffering on any entity needlessly, it is certainly wrong to impose that on any being that can have a future of value, a reflective awareness.  The stem cell, the zygote, the fetus, and the pre-birth entity in utero command less of our moral consideration than purposively behaving animals.  We can also see from this development how moral errors were made with slavery, chosen-people myths, and other minority prejudices of a variety of sorts—including Kissinger’s anti-Semitic statement that oil is too important to leave to the Arabs.  In all such cases, the concept of less-than-human is applied to some entities, thus excluding them from the moral community.  Rather than being an absolute, the “reflective awareness/future of value” criterion demarcates properly between what we now know to be reflectively aware entities, although this line of demarcation is subject to change with future learning and observation of behavioral activities.  As long as any animal undergoes purposive activity and shows dejection when foiled in his or her attempt, we must concede that the animal may have a future of value.  On the other hand, where a human being is brain-dead, we know that a future of value is not to be had, and so such an entity is not in need of or deserving of moral consideration.  Also, where a person has a terminal disease and wishes to die, it is clear that he or she is not anticipating any future of value and so his or her request may be honored to die without further moral complications.  Euthanasia, then, as Professor Marquis suggested also in his 1989 essay, is not morally problematic.

 I think that this reflective awareness/future of value criterion is useful in the debate about stem-cell research, abortion, euthanasia, and the ethical treatment of animals.  Stem cells and zygotes do not show any kind of brain-wave activity or any kind of purposive behavior.  Clearly then, when stem cells have been destroyed as part of an experiment, no harm has come to any being with an awareness of a future of value.  Any in utero killing would not indicate any moral error since we have never had evidence of purposive behavior on the part of the embryo.  Since some brain-wave activity may be recorded at a pre-birth state, the point of that kind of recorded activity may indicate the point where the unborn is entitled to some level of protection; nonetheless, the unborn’s complete dependency on the body of another person, may still permit abortions since the will of the being with full communication may overrule the will of the unborn, very much analogous to decisions in triage settings.  Even euthanasia is clearly permissible under the condition of reflective awareness/future of value, as Marquis allowed already in his ’89 essay.  One of the most difficult and ongoing problems with this criterion is the treatment of animals and the evidence we should allow in a suggestion that animals may have a future of value.  Even Yoghurt cultures and amoebas may display some purposive behavior, which we may have great difficulties when we attempt to distinguish between purposive behavior born from reflective thinking and purposive behavior born from purely automatic reflexes.  As we learn more about our world, the demarcation between members and non-members of the moral community may be increasingly difficult to draw.

Works Cited

Marquis, Don.  “Why Abortion is Immoral.”  The Journal of Philosophy (April 1989) as reprinted in Stephen Satris, editor; Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Moral Issues.  Guilford: McGraw-Hill, 2002, pages 98 to 105.

 Marquis, Don.  “Stem Cell Research: The Failure of Bioethics.”  Free Inquiry, vol. 23, no. 1, Winter 2002/3, pages 40 to 44.

 Marquis, Don.  “Reply to Letters to the Editor.”  Free Inquiry, vol. 23, no. 2, Spring 2003, page 8.

 Sapolsky, Robert. “Taming Stress.”  Scientific American, September 2003, pages 86 to 95. 


[1] Additional information is available from http://www.cwu.edu/~cwuchci/index.html, the home page of The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute.