When I taught a course on procreative ethics last year, my students were exposed to all sorts of odd thought experiments.  For example, we talked about a thought experiment devised by Gregory Kavka.  Imagine a couple that uses a sex pill to increase sexual pleasure, with the result that their offspring are born with some minor abnormality.  The intuition is that there's something wrong with this, yet it's hard to explain why. After all, if they didn't use the pill, different children would be born (Kavka attributes this to "the precariousness of existence," which is a simple function of the biology of reproduction). The children born will most likely have lives worth living, and be glad they were born.  The couple doesn't seem to harm the children they create, so what's the problem?  Great puzzle. Only my students titter about the example -- AS IF! Who would do such a crazy thing?

I'm awfully pleased that I've discovered a real-life example that will serve roughly the same purpose.  Meet Jeff (from the ABC news website, always a treasure trove of tabloid trash, mixed in with an occasional news story)--

.... for Jeff, breast-feeding seems to be the act that fulfills his sexual desire.
"I really don't care what people think," Jeff told ABCNews.com. "I grew up to try to be a people pleaser and came to the conclusion that you can't please everyone. It works for us and we are consenting adults. And it helps me be able to perform."
"I can't explain it, but when I breast-feed, it helps strengthen my erection," he says. "When Michelle was pregnant with our son and stopped producing milk and I had to drink regular milk, during that time I was unable to maintain a healthy erection. The first time I breast-fed again, it was awesome."
And that's not his only fetish. Jeff is turned on by getting his wife pregnant and has forbid her to use any kind of birth control, even though both their children were born prematurely and doctors have warned Michelle about potential dangers to her health if she risks another pregnancy.
But his wife is just as into it. "It was very erotic," said Michelle. "Breasts are a central sexual object and milk flowing does not just have to be just for the baby. If there is excess, we might as well make use of it."
Jeff puts the sweet breast milk in his coffee and in his breakfast cereal. He's also into vampires, naming their infant son Khayman from a character in Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles." Sometimes he bears his teeth into Michelle's areola and sucks the blood.
I admit, I quoted more of that than strictly necessary. The crucial part is in blue. 

Jeff prioritizes his sexual pleasure, so keeps getting his wife pregnant, even though the resulting children are born premature (and her health is threatened--not the key point, but certainly a strike against him). The question is why he and his wife are guilty of anything, as far as their offspring are concerned.  I do think they are, but it isn't easy to explain why. In fact there's a huge ethics literature with relevance to this question.

Kavka's article is here, and the debate about these issues is presented in a powerpoint here ("Kavka"). Next time I teach this course, we may have to talk about Jeff!


greg byshenk said...

It strikes me that the thought experiment case depends a great deal on the sort of "abnormality" in question. Suppose that the children of parents who took the pill ended up being slightly abnormally smart; would you still object? If the "abnormality" was something that would or could harm the offspring, then the matter would be quite different, and our intuitions might suggest something wrong, but if you assume that there is no harm (one would have to include psychological harm here, as well), then on what would one base an objection?

I also find that the "Jeff" case doesn't actually parallel the thought experiment very closely. Even if the couple's children were born prematurely, there is nothing in the report to suggest that this has anything to do with the couple's sex life, and thus seems an extraneous issue.

I submit that the real issue is consent. The problem with doing something that might harm the children is that they cannot consent to such harm. But in the "Jeff" case, it seems that the one in danger of harm is his wife Michelle, who consents (or at least claims to do so) to the risk of future harm. There may be reasons to question this, but I think that we should at least be extremely careful when judging people's actions that pose a risk only to themselves.

Jean Kazez said...

In the original thought experiment I describe the abnormality as one like having a missing eyebrow or an extra finger--so, minor, but negative. The couple gets extra sexual pleasure from taking the pill. If they didn't take the pill, that child wouldn't have existed at all (because the conditions of conception would have been slightly different), but another would have.

In the Jeff case, there is prematurity, which creates the risk of a host of abnormalities. Again, the couple gets extra sexual pleasure from not using contraception. If they had used contraception, the child wouldn't have existed at all. No other child would have existed either.

I think the two cases raise both raise the following question: is it wrong to do something that increases sexual pleasure at the cost of creating a child who will suffer from an abnormality, but still have a life worth living, assuming that otherwise that child would not have existed at all?

Granted, there are some differences in the two cases. The abnormality is likely to be more serious in the Jeff case, and the alternative in the Jeff case is no child at all. So yes, it's not just another version of exactly the same case. But it's a case in the same neighborhood, raising some of the same ethical questions.

Paul Sunstone said...

Jeff's (and Michelle's) behavior seems to violate the principle that we are free to do as we please so long as it harms no one but ourselves -- or those who are informed, consenting partners of ours. The premature babies are harmed by Jeff's and Michelle's actions, but they are neither informed nor consenting to the harm. At least, that would be my guess.

greg byshenk said...

The problem with the supposed parallel of the "Jeff" case is that, as I noted, the births being premature do not seem to be at all related to their fetish. Certainly they are the result of the parents' sexual activity, but their being premature seems to be unrelated. Additionally, the risks of additional pregnancies are to Michelle, who is a consenting (seemingly) participant: "doctors have warned Michelle about potential dangers to her health if she risks another pregnancy."

The "Jeff" case seems to me to be different, and perhaps more complex than the thought experiment. It seems to be one in which there is no harm done to the children by serving the fetish (at least not in any normal way), but there is the matter of having children solely (?) for the purpose of satisfying the fetish. This could have a lot of negative consequences for the children, and further, seems unnecessary, given that lactation (the actual desideratum) can be hormonally induced, without the need of pregnancy.

Jean Kazez said...

Greg, I quoted more of the article than necessary, just because it was amusing. The pregnancy is not related to the fetish--if by that you mean enjoying breast milk. It's related to Jeff's enjoying sex without contraception more, so not letting his wife use contraceptives.

I grant, there are a bunch of differences here. The sex pill is the direct cause of the abnormality in the original case. The absence of contraception just let's a pregnancy take place, and Michelle's body then causes prematurity, which causes abnormalities (or at least can).

The similarity I'm focusing is the primary question raised in both cases, namely-- How can it be bad at all to cause a child to exist, just because the child will have an abnormality, assuming--

(1) the child will have a life worth living
(2) the alternative is for that particular child not to exist at all.

Most people's intuition is that it IS bad, and the challenge is to explain why. The same question arises in both cases, though it's true there are some differences. The commonality is the basic question raised, plus the fact that the agent is motivated by sexual pleasure in both cases.

Paul--You assume that Jeff and Michelle are harming their premature babies, but it's not clear that's so, if the alternative is for them not to exist at all. That's what makes this case puzzling (as I explained above).

Paul Sunstone said...

"You assume that Jeff and Michelle are harming their premature babies, but it's not clear that's so, if the alternative is for them not to exist at all. That's what makes this case puzzling (as I explained above)

You're right, of course. I apologize, Jean. I read your post too hastily. Thanks for the correction!

Anonymous said...

Intuitively the root issue seems to be a problem of fairness (à la Rawls) where we increase someone's pleasure by harming someone else (even if as side effect, but I can't buy into the distinction made by the "double effect doctrine").

The choice among "different people" scenarios is already puzzling enough, and I don't see how adding a "fairness" problem on top helps to clarify any of the underlying issues ...

greg byshenk said...

Jean, I now see the point you were making, and I agree that the cases are appropriately parallel regarding the question of "How can it be bad at all to cause a child to exist?"

March Hare said...

We cannot ever take into account the wishes or harm to non-existent creatures when compared to even the slightest actual well being of actual people.

It really is that simple.

Sex pill people, have at it. Come back and make a case (probably for abortion) when you are pregnant.

Jeff, you are lucky that your wife is so understanding, she is a fully informed (if stupid) person and so is aware and accepting of the dangers. Their potential offspring are just that, potential. Any dangers to them are irrelevant until they exist.

Jean Kazez said...

You can bite the bullet if you like, but the notion that we needn't think about not-yet-existent people leads to all sorts of extremely strange conclusions. For example, it would mean we had no duties to people 100 years from now, so can heat up the planet as our hearts desire. Another example: if you're taking a teratogenic drug, you can go ahead and conceive rather than waiting a few months until you're not taking it, even if the result will be a child with severe problems. All that's just too much for me--I think we need to make sense of not-yet-existent people mattering, but be careful in the way we enunciate how and why they matter.

March Hare said...

I think it is you who has misjudged what leads to extremely strange conclusions - it is those who believe in the importance of the opinions of non-existent beings who fly planes into buildings, who decide that other people's sex lives and genitals are any of their business, who think that drawings of historical figures are important enough to warrant death.

"it would mean we had no duties to people 100 years from now"
Correct, we don't. We're not custodians of a sacred trust, we're dumb mammals eking out a living in an exceedingly hostile universe.

"so can heat up the planet as our hearts desire"
We can, but most of us (not me!) have a concern over our kids and so don't want to leave a lifeless, radioactive dust-ball for future generations. Personally, I don't like the odds of judging exactly how much we can f**k up the planet to make it profitable until the moment I die, that seems to be a little too risky. I also have an irrational attachment to humanity and would like to see it continue and thrive even after I've gone. I suspect most people do (even if it's to their country/race/sports team/political allegiance/family rather than humanity at large).

"if you're taking a teratogenic drug, you can go ahead and conceive rather than waiting a few months until you're not taking it, even if the result will be a child with severe problems"
The result would likely be an abortion. But no matter, the harm can only be done after the child exists, not before, so a pregnant woman drinking and taking drugs may be at fault, but a non-pregnant woman cannot be. Although... it would be irrational for society to have any sort of prohibition on a woman's actions when pregnant while it is still legal for her to have an abortion i.e. the first trimester.

Is there any reason to take into account the well being of not-yet-existing people but not the formerly-existing people? If so what is the logic behind the difference? Who gets to speak for the people yet-to-be and how much sway should they have over current policy and actual well-being of actual people? And should we prepare the earth for other non-existent creatures like dragons, leprechauns and unicorns? If not, why not?

David Duffy said...

"if you're taking a teratogenic drug, you can go ahead and conceive rather than waiting a few months until you're not taking it, even if the result will be a child with severe problems"
"The result would likely be an abortion".

Consider the more common situation of falling pregnant over the age of 35, with its concomitant increase in Downs.

Gareth Chan said...

Perhaps people tend to think that the parents' choices are wrong because they read the parents' attitude as "I'm going to keep on having my fun, even if it results in a child coming into the world with a disadvantage." It's true that simply avoiding the "dangerous fun" wouldn't result in exactly the same child, minus the harm. In the thought experiment, though, the fun does seem to result in a harmed child, which seems pretty close to saying that the fun harms the child. The parents know that the harm will happen and decide that it's acceptable because they'll be enjoying themselves.

In Jeff's case, if there's disapproval there, it might be because he's happy to have other people (Michelle most immediately, but possibly also their premature children) accept so much danger for the sake of his pleasure. Even if one agrees that Michelle is free to make those choices, and the children end up fine, one might still disapprove of Jeff feeling comfortable about putting someone in that position.

Disapproval of attitudes does seem quite common, even if the people immediately affected by the attitudes accept them; the underlying thinking seems to be something like "it's important to have a basic level of concern for other people and to act accordingly, and these actions and attitudes fall below that standard."