restricted access Chapter Four: Physical Possibility and Potentiality in Ethics

From: Potentiality

The Johns Hopkins University Press colophon
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Chapter four Physical Possibility and Potentiality in Ethics Edward Covey I. Problems of Possibility In recent years, especially since Michael Tooley introduced us to his potential superkittens ,1 there has been much discussion about the role of potentiality in ethics. This discussion has unfortunately tended to revolve around the issue of abortion, where it is easy to argue that potential personhood is not a sufficient ground for a right to life. However, there are strong reasons to be found in other contexts for at least a prima facie thesis that an individual’s possibility of development can put us under obligations to that individual. For example, such a thesis might underlie the common judgment that human babies have a right to be educated and brought up into full-fledged moral personhood, at least if they are allowed to remain alive. That infants do have such a right might be deniable, but only at a fairly high cost to our well-considered ways of thinking about human rights and duties.2 I shall not try here to prove that we must acknowledge potentiality as a moral ground in such contexts. Rather, I shall simply take as a motivation for this study the working hypothesis that some sort of potentiality thesis ought to be able to generate judgments in favor of a human right to develop. At the same time, it seems almost obvious that no principle of potentiality in ethics should lead us to conclude that every human reproductive cell has a right to develop into a person, or any of the similar absurdities that critics often claim such principles would entail. Anyone who wants to defend potentiality as a ground for ethical rights and duties should be able to show that there can be a coherent and well-founded account of the metaphysics of possible becoming which would support that ethical position. My aim here is to explore the concept of possibility as it might be relevant to the ethical contexts of becoming and development, focusing especially on the question of whether a full acknowledgment of the metaphysics of possibility would tend to support or undermine ethical principles of potentiality. Physical Possibility and Potentiality in Ethics 73 “X is potentially a person,” it will be generally agreed, is to be understood as, “it is possible that X become a person,” where “possible” is taken in the sense of “physically possible” rather than “logically possible.” Physical, or nomic, possibility is normally analyzed in terms of nomic regularities, or the laws of nature; an event or state of affairs is nomically possible just in case its coming about is in accordance with the laws of nature, given the initial state of affairs that actually obtains in the world. For example, it seems to be nomically possible that a human baby (with a normal brain) should think but nomically impossible that a cactus should think, because the laws of nature are such that cacti cannot develop brains, and only things with brains (or analogous structures) think. A typical characterization of the concept of physical possibility comes from Nicholas Rescher: A consideration of the “laws of nature” is indispensable to any theory of possibility , because laws and dispositions establish a dividing line between the genuinely possible (that which is really possible) and the merely possible (the sphere of purely speculative possibility), serving to separate proximate from remote possibility as it were. This acorn might possibly develop into an oak tree (it might not, too, for it might be eaten by a squirrel). Here we have a real possibility. One might also contemplate the “possibility” that the acorn develop into a pear tree; but this is clearly no real possibility—it is a purely hypothetical possibility, and a very farfetched one at that. In the former case, things run in their lawful channel, while the latter case clearly requires us to abrogate or modify the laws of nature. This important amplification of the distinction between real, physical or natural possibility , and strictly hypothetical (or “merely logical”) possibility—the former of which calls for preserving not only logical and conceptual principles, but the laws of nature as well—is one of the fundamental ideas of our subject.3 There is, however, an additional distinction to be drawn, not just between nomic and merely logical possibility but this time between what can be called remote and proximate possibility within the nomic category. David Annis appeals to such a distinction in “Abortion and the Potentiality Principle,”4 where...


pdf