Moral uncertainty and human embryo experimentation

In K. W. M. Fulford, Grant Gillett & Janet Martin Soskice (eds.), Medicine and Moral Reasoning. Cambridge University Press. pp. 3--144 (1994)
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Moral dilemmas can arise from uncertainty, including uncertainty of the real values involved. One interesting example of this is that of experimentation on human embryos and foetuses, If these have a moral stauts similar to that of human persons then there will be server constraitns on what may be done to them. If embryous have a moral status similar to that of other small clusters of cells, then constraints will be motivated largely by consideration for the persons into whom the embryos may develop. If the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes, the embryo having neither the full moral weight of persons, nor a completely negligible moral weight, then different kinds of constraints will be appropriate. On the face of it, in order to know what kinds of experiements, if any, we are morally justified in performing on embryos we have to know what the moral weight of the embryo is. But then an impasse threatens, for it seems implausible that we can settle with certainty the exact moral status of the human embryo. It is the purpose of this paper to show that moral uncertainty need not make rational moral justification impossible. I develop a framework which distinguishes between what is morally right/wrong, and what is morally justified/unjustified, and applies standard decision theoretic tools to the case of moral uncertainties. (This was the first published account of what has subsequently become known as Expected Moral Value Theory. An earlier version of the paper, "A decision theoretic argument against human embryo experimentation", was published in M. Fricke (ed.), Essays in honor of Bob Durrant. (University of Otago Press, 1986) 111-27.)

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Graham Oddie
University of Colorado, Boulder


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