The More the Merrier

What exactly are we doing when we create new people?  Are we "doing good," adding something positive to the world, fulfilling the utilitarian injunction to maximize utility?  Well, it seems like it.  Babies are good things, surely, so making them ought to be praiseworthy.  Obviously, we want to have kids for lots of reasons, and we're not looking for ethical "credit," but at least at first glance, it seems like baby-making is beneficent.

OK, so suppose it is beneficent.  That's going to lead quickly to some very puzzling conclusions.  Take the orthodox Jewish community of Kiryas Joel, near New York (see this fascinating NYT article).  If baby-making is beneficent, they get a lot of credit.  The median number of children per household is four. There are so many kids that 70% of people live below the poverty level.  Median family income is just $17,929. Their poverty shouldn't top us from assuming they have pretty happy kids--positive psychology doesn't show that income makes a huge difference.  But as more kids come along, each has a smaller share of the resources--money, parental attention, etc.  So it's reasonable to think that, at some point,  quality of life starts to drop.

Nevertheless, a big pile o' kids means a larger quantity of the various life goods (like happiness) is added to the world.  So the parents in Kiryas Joel are more beneficent, baby-wise, than they'd be if they had smaller families.  In fact, this could keep going, generation after generation, until the community was bursting at the seams.  Mathematically, a huge number of Joelians who were not so very happy might still add more total good to the world than half that number of happier people.  So even considering where they are heading, they get a lot of credit.  And that's the puzzle.  While it does seem as if making new people is doing good, making gradually worse off people doesn't seem good--even if the result, aggregated together, is a whole lot of good.


Derek Parfit came up with this puzzle 25 years ago.  We are embracing his "repugnant conclusion" if we say the Joelians should keep going (up to a point), making more and more babies even if their offspring are less and less happy.  With 25 years' time to work on it, philosophers have come up with lots and lots of ways to avoid this assessment (see here).  One way to avoid it is to scrap the whole idea that baby-making is beneficent.  The idea is:  you haven't actually done any good at all by creating a new person, except perhaps indirectly--to people who already exist.  Once a new baby exists, you can do good by taking care of it, but there's no credit for adding the baby to the world in the first place.

This view appeals to our liberal sensibilities--it seems odd to give credit to baby-makers.  Surely it's no worse to choose not to have a family. The "no credit" view also has appeal because (surely) a person isn't better off existing than he or she was in a pre-conceived, merely potential condition.  Making a baby isn't helping somebody get from a worse situation to a better situation.  So (the argument goes) it's not beneficent at all.

I "get" all of that, but can't wrap my mind around how it could be neutral to make a baby, considering that human life is a good thing. Call me simple minded, but making a good thing has got to be good.


Maybe we could make some headway on Kiryas Joel and other puzzles by thinking about the "metaphysics" of baby making.  What is the good thing you make, when you make a baby?  Duh--it's the baby, all 8 pounds, 20 inches of him or her.  But what's so good about that?  To cut to the chase--I'm thinking the good thing we create, in creating a baby, is a life.  The baby is an object, so to speak, the life is an event--a very long-lasting event.  It's an event that will last for 80 or 90 years, if the baby is lucky.

This picture of things has a curious upshot: it demotes parents.  They're the primary baby-makers, but not nearly as primary where life-making is concerned.   Teachers are also in the business of making good lives, even if they don't "manufacture" the body that lives the life.  The whole village is involved, whether at a distance or at the center of the process.  (Yet, my child is my child--I have special rights where his or her upbringing is concerned.  We need to make room for that.)

This picture of things also changes the basic goal--it's not maximizing the number of bodies; it's not maximizing the total number of happy moments;  it's maximizing the number of good lives (the long lasting, 80-90 year events).

Suppose the Joelians see it as beneficent to make good livesThey also see that everyone's in the good-life making business, not just couples about to have new babies.  Will that shift their attention from procreation to parenting and other life-enhancing activities?  That's the idea.

Problem: I think this will stop them from rampant reproduction at some point.  It's pretty clear that tons of people living minimally happy lives are not living good lives.  But what about today's Joelians, who are deciding to increase their family size from six to seven or eight?  They are functional and prosperous enough that they seem to be able to say they are increasing the number of good lives.  Yet it doesn't seem genuinely beneficent of them to add to their families.  So we don't get everything we would like by thinking in terms of life-making rather than baby-making or happy-moment-making. We don't get to slow down the Joelians now.

Creating new people is the must fundamental and elementary of things, yet it's wonderfully puzzling.  Reading suggestion:  I'm enjoying David Heyd's book Genethics, which is online here.


Faust said...

I'm inclined to go with "making babies is value neutral" (at best). I think the focus on "lives" is the right one. Part of the problem is that a "baby" is a bad place to stop when thinking about "human life." Babies are protohumans. At birth they have virtually no capcities. They can barely even see, can't talk, can't control their own movements etc.

To see this more clearly imagine if "making babies" meant: making newborns that never change, i.e. that stay the same forever would that be a "good thing?" Surely there would be better uses of our time than creating a bunch of 8 pound vegetables. It's angels and slugs all over again.

So it's not really plausible that making babies is a good thing in and of itself. What is good is creating new beings with the capacity to become "fully realized" human beings over time...to create more beings that are capbable of maximizing the best aspects of the human project.

Now of course the nature of that project is open to some debate, but it's clear (to me)that once we determine what that project is that baby making becomes subsidiary to it, just one aspect of it as it were.

Part of the issue here is that it is built into our common conception of "baby" to think of babies as being "children." But children occupy a span of years--from birth to some 10+ years. But we really ought not to think that way. The difference between a baby and a 5 year old is unimaginably vast, and though we need to make a baby to make a 5 year old, making one is not the same as "making" the other.

Faust said...

From Genethics:

"However, as I am going to argue, human creative power should not be understood as merely the biological cpacity to create more of the same kind, bu tin a wider, more abstract sense, as the only source of value in the world. By their very will, human beings invest a valueless world with value..."

My thoughts exactly.

Wayne said...

I think there's some bridge thats needed for the abstract principle that making babies is good to more babies are good, or this family making a baby is good.

It's the circumstances that make having a baby good or bad. Al things being equal, having a baby adds to the utility of the world, but when a particular family has 4 or 8 kids (maybe at once) we reduce the amount of utility in the concrete, even though we may be increasing utility in the abstract.

s. wallerstein said...

I don't understand who is handing out the credits, but what fascinated me in the article is how
their devotion to an evil religious ideology permits them, in spite of their poverty, to avoid the evils generally associated with a culture of poverty: drugs, crime, alcoholism, violence and to create an organized, well-run community.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, Yes, that's very puzzling. How can it be that making good lives is good, yet there's no imperative to make more and more? That's our intuition, but it's hard to see what ethical principle accounts for it.

Amos, Giving medical care to existing children is clearly a good thing to do. The question is whether creating new lives is also a good thing to do. "Credits" talk is just metaphorical.

s. wallerstein said...

That "human life is a good thing" can be taken in several senses.

1. That given a human life, it is good to preserve, protect and respect it. Most everyone agrees about that.

2. We should produce as many human lives as possible, since they are good and more of a good thing is better. That is much more debatable and seems to have no relation to 1.

Jean Kazez said...

In that last comment, I was just responding to your worry about who doles out credit.

ʅʏʨʫ said...

I see lots of problems there. Even for utilitarians (e.g. preference utilitiarians à la Singer) it's not easy to see that creating a new life is good because they try to maximise the preferences that already exist. Otherwise it would be good to become drug addicts in order to satisfy those extra preferences. And utilitarians have problems accounting for super-erogatory actions, and that's where Benatar comes in with his asymmetry.

I usually see three main actors: the parents, the baby, the rest of the world.

I cannot say that existing is better than non existing for the baby (and Parfit agrees, at least he did on R&P).

It might be better for the parents, but that supports only a self-interested/selfish defense of procreation.

I cannot say it's good for the rest of the world. It might be good for some specific communities, but in general I would say that increasing the population is not a good idea considering the many environmental challenges we face. In general we protect our border with police and army in order to avoid poorer populations to come in, so it doesn't make much sense to say that in some countries (e.g. Italy) people have to reproduce otherwise "there will be no italians in X years" or other weak arguments.

Even if we agree that in some cases an extra life is good for all the actors we have to see this in terms of probabilities. Some lives are not worth being lived, and parents cannot control many of the variables that could cause their kids to fall in such a category (e.g. birth defects, war in 40 years, ...). So, they're not making a favour to the new person they create by bringing her into existance (even if her life might be worth living), and they're taking a risk that she'll regret being alive.

I cannot see this as much better than playing russian roulette with someone's else existance in order to satisfy our own desires and self interests (even if well intentioned and paternalistic).

Even if you win at russian roulette, playing the game pointing the gun at someone's else head seems to be very hard to justify.

Jean Kazez said...

If "the good" is a satisfied preference, then making babies can increase the good. In a world with no humans (or other "higher" animals) there would be no satisfied preferences. The last pair of humans would have an obligation to make more humans. (Drug addicts have lots of unsatisfied preferences, so that example isn't a problem.)

ʅʏʨʫ said...

The drug addict example is a standard one, but I agree it is a bit misleading. Singer uses the one of "making yourself thirsty" in order to satisfy your thirst.

"the good" is not "satisfied preference", but "satistifed existing preference".

I see that in the new version of "Practical Ethics" Singer attacks the problem more directly:


and also talks about Benatar.

ʈɻʬɑʝ said...

On page 303 (you can get it from the Amazon's preview http://amzn.to/fEqiSU )

he goes into more details and gives a good bibliography of problem of "total" vs "prior existance" versions of utilitarianism.

Jean Kazez said...

What puzzles me is that you write as if it's a settled matter which preferences count. But surely that's not so. Preference utilitarians can think that only satisfied existing preferences count, but also that all satisfied preferences count.

In fact, in Practical Ethics 2E (pages 103-105), Singer acknowledges both possibilities. The "total view" sees all satisfied preferences as good, even the ones that come about by creating new people. The "prior existence view" sees only satisfied existing preferences as good. On those pages, he notes counterintuitive implications of both views, and doesn't commit himself. But elsewhere in Practical Ethics, he assumes the total view is correct. For example, his replacement arguments (regarding both infants and animals) presuppose the total view.

Is the position in Practical Ethics 3E different? I will have to have a look. But clearly, the total view is one coherent option for preference utilitarians.

ʫɜʖʈɔɡɭʟɡɶəɡɦʟʓɬʢɡɰɬ said...

I do not think it's settled. It looks like Singer changed his mind too.

From wikipedia "Singer's ideas require the concept of an impartial standpoint from which to compare interests. He has wavered about whether the precise aim is the total amount of satisfied interests or the most satisfied interests among those beings who already exist prior to the decision one is making. The second edition of Practical Ethics disavows the first edition's suggestion that the total and prior-existence views should be combined. The second edition asserts that preference-satisfaction utilitarianism, incorporating the 'journey' model, applies without invoking the first edition's suggestion about the total view. But the details are fuzzy and Singer admits that he is "not entirely satisfied" with his treatment"

He says that Parfit's "On doing the best for our children" made him change his mind.

In any case the burden of proof is on the parents. They cannot say "maybe it's good maybe it's not" since their decision will cause the suffering of another person.

Hopefully the suffering will be compensanted by whatever they think is valuable in life, but parents have to give a solid account of what that is and how they evaluate the different scenarios (ideally I think we should "compute" the expected value of the possible scenarios, that is the sum of the single values multiplied by their respective probabilities).

So IMHO your point "it's not settled" is not neutral to the issue.

Here's Singer's text of the 3rd edition + some good discussions (I haven't had time to read it all yet):


thanks for the discussion.

Alan Cooper said...

Even accepting the dubious proposition that a higher peak of individual happiness (which might perhaps be achieved in a low population world) can be outweighed by having more people in a state of relative misery does not settle the question. If one wants to play this silly game, then surely it is the total of all lives ever lived that comes into play and so, if by overbreeding now we diminish the long term viability of our species then it may be that in order to achieve the goal of having more human lives get lived in the long run we must restrict the number we bring into existence right now.