Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

The Coma Argument

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 13, 2009

One argument that I have frequently heard in the abortion debate, in response to the argument that fetuses are not sentient, is this:

A person in a coma is not sentient, and yet it is wrong to kill a comatose person.

This raises an important question: Why is it wrong to kill a comatose person? Is it even wrong?

It is wrong to kill a comatose person because it is robbing that person of future experiences. But does the same not apply for a fetus? Actually, the same applies for every single sperm, but trillions of sperm die every day. So the logic must break down at some point. Where, though?

Perhaps this rationale is wrong. Perhaps we do not kill comatose people because we know that if we were in a coma, we would not want to be killed. So it is, in a sense, a selfish altruism. The same logic cannot be applied to fetuses, since we are only a fetus once.

But I think not. If we look at an absolute moral standard, this idea no longer applies. The most intuitive explanation to me is this:

A single sperm has not developed a sense of self. A sperm has no life, no experiences. Someone who has already spent years developing a sense of identity has more to hold on to. So while it would be wrong to rob a comatose person of his or her identity, there is no such problem with sperm.

Given this foundation, it follows that fetuses do not deserve the same rights as adults, even comatose adults.

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4 Responses to “The Coma Argument”

  1. phynnboi said

    It is wrong to kill a comatose person because it is robbing that person of future experiences. But does the same not apply for a fetus? Actually, the same applies for every single sperm, but trillions of sperm die every day. So the logic must break down at some point. Where, though?

    As far as being consistent in our actions, it breaks down in that we rob people of future experiences every day, yet do not consider it wrong to do so. Take, for instance, putting people in jail, the very point of which is to rob them of future experiences!

    Perhaps we do not kill comatose people because we know that if we were in a coma, we would not want to be killed. So it is, in a sense, a selfish altruism. The same logic cannot be applied to fetuses, since we are only a fetus once.

    I’m pretty sure that most people are glad they weren’t aborted. (At least, I’d expect a much higher suicide rate were that not the case.)

    A single sperm has not developed a sense of self. A sperm has no life, no experiences. Someone who has already spent years developing a sense of identity has more to hold on to. So while it would be wrong to rob a comatose person of his or her identity, there is no such problem with sperm.

    Why is it okay to kill something we believe has no identity?

    • Take, for instance, putting people in jail, the very point of which is to rob them of future experiences!

      That’s because those people are not innocent.

      I’m pretty sure that most people are glad they weren’t aborted.

      I agree. But that wasn’t my original point. I was saying that not killing comatose people might come from a selfish desire; but the same doesn’t apply with fetuses, since I will never be a fetus so no one will be able to kill me as a fetus.

      Why is it okay to kill something we believe has no identity?

      A being with no identity isn’t really a complete being, in a sense. Another important point is that a being with no identity cannot fear death.

  2. Identity. It seems that this assertion hinges on identity. How do you define identity? Fear of death? Experience? Uniqueness in the world? More and more violent crimes have their guilt or innocence predicated on 1) the affirmation of participation of a culprit with a verifiable form of identity (say, DNA, and at one time, fingerprints,) and 2) the probability of uniqueness of that identity inside a domain (say, all of humanity.) When a child is conceived, under this standard, the embryo has new identity, different from both the mother and the father, sufficiently unique in the same domain, but with characteristics shared by both, which we believe helps trace ancestry. But this discussion suggests that we are holding identity (and its presence or absence to a double standard when we say that an unborn child has no identity.

    My son, earlier in life, had little fear, because he had no experience. He had no fear of death because he had no experience with it, much less any cognitive notion of what death is. But he was nevertheless a boy protected from extermination by those same rights we give all other people. As a newborn infant, there is no doubt in my mind that he had no idea what death was, much less any reason to fear it. He was preoccupied with letting everyone know out loud when he was hungry or uncomfortable. There was no cognition of survival, only those instincts he was conceived with, developed over his gestation. By your definition, anyone without sufficient cognitive skills or a fear of death is incomplete and, by extension, okay to terminate.

    Predicating experience as an identity factor solely on the self-perceived experiences is a rather self-centered argument. A comatose person isn’t aware of what is going on around them just as an unborn or newborn baby isn’t fully aware of their experiences (other than being cold or hungry, say.) We know that a fetus can suck its thumb in the womb, kick, and sometimes respond to stimulus; expectant mothers experience this first hand, backed up by photographic evidence. While a baby may have no recollection of these events, they are experiences nonetheless, some experienced by people other than the baby.

  3. Jim Nave said

    Your argument is slightly flawed when it refers to individual sperm cells.. scientists and doctors understand that “life” or “potential” does not start until that sperm gets inside an egg. IOW, the life process (the multiplication of cells) doesn’t begin until conception.

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