This is a guest post by Joshua Stein; I am guest blogging through the month of June, though I've been a bit inactive during the first half of the month. Hopefully the second half will see more on this site. Thanks to Adam for inviting me.
Perhaps the best place to start is the piece of writing that got me this gig guest blogging at Neuroethics and Law this month. The article, recently published in Neuroethics, is motivated by a response to one of the most controversial sets of articles in recent ethics literature: the (in) famous after-birth abortion papers. Most importantly is Tooley's 1972 paper "Abortion and Infanticide" and the more recent rehash provocatively titled "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" (2013) by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva.
Like many such seminal and provocative papers, they're worth a read even if the conclusion is so wild that the argument is almost certain to be unconvincing. The purpose of the papers is to argue that there is no substantive difference in moral status between the fetus and the infant; as a result we should not regard the infant as having a prima facie right to life, since the standard philosophical view is that the fetus has no such right. I suppose that this is an interesting argument, with the caveat that individual moral status is not the only thing that determines the permissibility of killing. (Perhaps this is not obvious to everyone; I take it that there's good independent reason to accept that claim.)
The problem with these articles is that they rest on a sort of simple formulation of how moral status works: "x has moral status just in case x has some capacity c."
Different accounts of moral status have different accounts of the relevant capacities, and some allow for the possibility that there are several different capacities. For those who want my response to the particular capacity that is used by Tooley, and why it doesn't work, the article will hopefully prove a worthwhile read. However, the general concern is worth noting: For any account that requires a simple status (i.e. can be formulated in the way expressed above), especially a cognitively oriented status, there may be some actual neuroatypical adults who don't have that capacity, or at least seem to be unclear cases.
My note on the Tooley/G&M account of moral status focuses on people with certain severe varieties of depression, as their account focuses on desires directed at living; but there are other accounts that cognitive capacities ranging from psychological continuity to social capacities to linguistic capacities and on and on. It is important to regard these accounts with a critical and skeptical eye, because there is a lot of neurodiversity and, in the vast majority of cases, we recognize the moral status of neuroatypical persons. (I do note in the paper that some folks may want to deny the moral status in certain cases, and that's certainly a live option, but it also isn't the default position.) Many of the early discussions of moral status, put forward by Dennett, Warren, inter alia, are multi-conditional and avoid this issue, despite making the conversation much more complicated.
Neurodiversity is, in many cases, a thought experiment made immediate and important, and the way that we handle cognitive difference (and similarity) within members of our own species and beyond has been one of the most important ongoing discussions in both theoretical and applied ethics. There are many hard cases that I think require paper-length discussion, and perhaps even book-length discussion, and probably aren't going to see any real progress in a blog entry. (Severe cases of major depressive disorder get that treatment in my article; there are further books to be written on Alzheimers', understanding the status of children, of animals, of individuals with dissociated identities, etc.)
The depression case is one such instance; when we consider the moral status of a set of individuals based on the presence or absence of a certain cognitive feature, updates to our account of those individuals bear on the larger set of individuals, and this is the challenge with the available discussion of the relationship between infanticide and depression. One of the challenges that I want to put forward as a serious methodological consideration for those doing ethics and metaethics is to consider neurodiversity when looking at proposals for developing conceptual and normative frameworks. While there are disputes about how well the method of cases works at fleshing out logical space, getting cases in the actual world right seems like a rather important priority.