The Ethics of Procreation

I've been reading a lot of books and articles lately about the ethics of procreation.  This is the sort of stuff that makes your head hurt and your family have to suffer through really weird thought experiments at the dinner table. 

Here's a thought experiment due to Gregory Kavka.  A couple wants to buy a new yacht for $50,000, so they agree to create a slave-child for an evil man.  Once they sign the contract, the deal is irrevocable, and they know that.  The child is born and the evil man takes possession.  It turns out the master is reasonably enlightened.   Life is not totally horrendous for the child, as he grows up.  He has a life worth living, as he would insist, if asked.  He doesn't wish he'd never been born. It would just be much better for him if he weren't a slave.  If the slave hadn't been born a slave, he wouldn't have been born at all.  (The couple may still have procreated, but at a different time, under different conditions, and the sperm-egg combination would have been different.) So why was it wrong for the couple to create this child?

The couple did lots of wrong things--they sold a child, etc.  But the only thing at issue here is the creating of the child.  What is wanted is a principle P that the couple violated in creating a child with such a dismal (but not rock bottom) future.  This game has lots of other rules, and that's what makes it extremely tricky--
(1)  P should not entail that couples must always create the best off child possible.  The would imply that couples using IVF should improve embryos before implanting them, as soon as technology makes that possible.  Surely that's not required; and maybe it's not even permissible.
(2)  P should not entail that anyone has an obligation to have children, whether "for the sake of the child" or for the sake of others who already exist.
    Are (1) and (2) non-negotiable?  Personally, I can imagine giving up (2) sooner than (1). More on that in a later post.

    A curious thing about Kavka's article is that he never discusses real life slaves who (of course) had children.  Were they wrong to do so?  At least on first inspection, no; so we would accept a third constraint--
    (3) P should entail that the couple was wrong to create a slave child, but should not condemn American slaves who had children before abolition.  
      (1), (2), and (3) are all central  to our sense of what reproduction is all about, and what procreative rights there are.   Reproduction is not manufacturing, complete with quality controls (1).  It's fine to be childless (2).  Even if some procreative acts are impermissible, it's repugnant to think that whole classes of people should refrain from reproducing (3).

      So--how to explain what the couple did wrong, and also respect (1), (2), and (3)?  Can it be done? I'll let you suffer with this question and look at some possible answers (including Kavka's) later in the week.


      Wayne said...

      I'm not sure that I would agree with 1. If in the future, a child that I fathered was discovered to have a genetic defect, that could be corrected by genetic engineering, and I don't correct the defect, I think that would be the wrong thing for me to do.

      So why is it not wrong for me to have access to genetic engineering that could improve a normal child, and not take the opportunity? (Assuming that improvement here isn't purely subjective qualities like appearance, but practical qualities like intelligence, strength, constitution, etc.)

      I think it would be wrong for a person not to immunize their children (assuming the immunizations are safe), and that amounts to engineering their immune system, to become better, even though before the immunization, there was nothing wrong with their immune system.

      There is a certain amount of quality control that we think is morally required. Don't drink or do drugs when pregnant. Doing so would constitute a kind of child abuse.

      Similarly, if I knew that I had a genetic disorder that would give my offspring a 3 out of four chance of developing a serious disease, and a method of sorting my sperm existed to ensure that the child would not be conceived with the disorder, I think I have an obligation to do it.

      In fact, the fact that genetically inheritable disorders that are dominant (as opposed to recessive, so no matter what the offspring will suffer the disorder) makes the idea that whole classes of people should refrain from reproducing not entirely repugnant.

      But the easy way we can say that what they've done is wrong without rejecting 1, 2, or 3, is that they've used a person as a means to an end.

      Unknown said...

      I have more to say about principle 1 and how we should think about that.

      But for now here are two standard ways of capturing the wrong in the slave couple's actions without conflicting with 1, 2 or 3.

      The first way is to point to the couple's motivations in creating the child. Conceiving a child in order to sell them into slavery is not consistent with what would generally be thought to be appropriate attitudes towards bringing a child into the world. Even if the child isn't harmed by their choice (because they have a life worth living, and wouldn't otherwise exist), the parents have still acted wrongly. THe focus of the wrong lies in the parents rather than in the child. This argument might be grounded or defended on the basis of an account of the virtues of parenting, or something similar.

      Second, the parents may have *wronged* the child, even if they haven't harmed him.
      To understand this we need to just clarify what it means to be harmed. The standard way of understanding harm is counterfactually - so you are harmed if an action or an event leads you to be worse off than you would otherwise have been.
      (Some authors writing about this topic introduce the idea of non-counterfactual harm, but lets set that aside). The standard example (and I can't remember whether Kavka uses this or not) is of someone who is about to set foot on a plane but at the last minute a flight attendant, for reasons of pure prejudice (the passenger is muslim say) bars the passenger from the flight. In fact the plane ends up crashing, and the passenger has his life saved (unintentionally) by the racist flight attendant. In such a case we cannot say that the passenger is harmed by actions of the flight attendant (they are better off overall). But we can say that they were *wronged* by their treatment. In a similar way, we might think that the slave child is wronged by being deliberately conceived into slavery, though they have not been harmed.
      (In the case of the slave parents, for whom any child that they conceive will be a slave we might say one of a couple of things. We may want to say that the child is wronged (not harmed) by being brought into existence in slavery - however, the wrong is not of their parents' making - it belongs to the slaveholding society etc. Alternatively, or additionally we may think that the wrong of bring a child into the world who will be a slave is outweighed by the benefit to the parents or having a child, or by their right to have a child)

      that'll do for a start...

      Jean Kazez said...

      Re: Wayne's suggestion.

      I think we can alter the story a bit so that there's no "using as a means." Suppose there are two states. All kids born in one are slaves at age 18. All kids born in the other are free. The parents are visiting the slave state and want a child. They have no contraception on hand and do want a child. They figure the child will have a life worth living even if he's doomed to slavery at age 18. If they wait and have the slave in the other state, they will have a different child altogether.

      So--no using as a means, but an error nonetheless. Also--no bad intentions, like there are in the original story.

      "Wronging without harming"... hmm. Seems promising, but I want to understand what the "wrong" is. If it's a really serious wrong, I wonder how it could be outweighed by the benefit to the parents or their right to reproduce, in the case where the parents are slaves themselves.

      By the way--it's always kind of unclear what the "rules of the game" are in this literature. May we drag in deontological concepts whenever necessary to solve problems? Must we just try to "make sense," using whatever concepts are helpful? Maybe that's it...

      Faust said...

      Mmmm I love this stuff. Will take some pondering though.

      Wayne said...

      Parents should not have children that they have good reason to believe will live a life that is not as good as their own.

      Or perhaps, Parents should not have children that they have good reason to believe will live a life significantly worse than their own, in the near future.

      I think they say the same thing, but the second one takes into the possibility that some couple X would be obligated not to have a child because the economy is in a rut or something, but allows for the farther future to be a disaster (say global warming concerns and overpopulation concerns)

      Unknown said...

      Having started off setting out the standard deontological ways of responding to Kavka's challenge, just to liven things up a bit I'll now take the opposite position.

      "Parents should not have children that they have good reason to believe will live a life significantly worse than their own, in the near future."

      But why?
      An obvious counter-example are the parents who have had a fantastic life (so far at least). This principle would seem to suggest that such parents, if they knew (somehow) that their own children would be likely to have only average levels of wellbeing, should not conceive. But that seems wrong.
      You might want to revise the principle to specify that it is wrong for parents to bring children into existence who will have wellbeing worse than average.

      But now, here is the challenge for anyone with consequentialist leanings. If the child would have a life worth living, even if their life would be considerably worse than average - say if they were a slave, or were severe disabled - it would still be better overall for that child to be brought into existence. In the slave case, the child is better off since they exist (OK there is a problem with 'better' here, but uncontroversially they are not worse off), the slave owner is better off, and the parents are $50,000 worse off. So how can the consequentialist object?

      (I have some potential answers, but that is enough for now)

      Jean Kazez said...

      How about this approach to the couple--

      They are deliberately bringing about some bad things. The slave child will suffer, have limited autonomy, etc (this list can be made longer). We have a prima facie obligation not to bring about bad things. We should only do so if we have justification.

      So, what justification can they cite? If the bad things are suffered by X, the justification should cite benefits to X. It's no good saying the costs to X are offset by benefits to Y. What are the benefits?

      Here's where there's a sleight of hand. The couple might say "the boy will have a life worth living." But what does that mean? Just that he won't be better off dead. That's very small plus to put in the balance. It doesn't outweigh the bad things they will be bringing about.

      So--the parents are deliberately causing bad, and have no way to justify that. "Not better off dead" doesn't suffice.

      Positives--this explanation doesn't entail a duty to create the best possible kids or a duty to create any kids at all.

      Negatives--it makes it look as if real life slaves might not have been able to justify having children. (Maybe there are things we can say to soften the blow.)

      Anybody want to tell me what's wrong with this?

      Wayne said...

      dominic- Well assuming that the parents have an extravagently well off life, their children that are brought into their lives will also share (at least for a significant part of their lives) that extravagently good life, and likely get a head start in attaining an equally extravagently good life... No?

      Consequentialists don't have to look at JUST the net gain (although many do). If we could have arrived to a slightly less happy world, but not incur the costs of the better world, then that might be the more preferrable world.

      Jean- I thought their justification was also that they would be incredibly happy with a $50k yacht. ;)

      I think the problem with your answer is that it doesn't play by the rules. "The couple did lots of wrong things--they sold a child, etc. But the only thing at issue here is the creating of the child." You're bringing up the other issues.

      Jean Kazez said...

      Wayne, I think you may have misread my comment. I'm focusing exclusively on the ethics of creating the child. No other considerations have been brought into play.

      Wayne said...

      But the bad things are the circumstances of slavery of the child right? I mean we all have the capacity to suffer, and indeed will suffer in our lives. We all have a limited autonomy for major aspects of our lives (as much as we'd like to believe that we are in control of our own lives.... we just really arn't. Or is this some kind of threshold badness.... We've violated his autonomy in an extreme way?

      I thought about including that on my principle, that there was some basic minimal amount of happiness that the child would experience, and the child doesn't cross that bare minimum. But how I would draw that threshold I wouldn't know.

      So the only thing that I can see that would be bad about the existence of the slave child, (besides that it breaks your own third principle) is that the child is a slave from birth.

      You said the list could be made longer.... could it be made more exhaustive so that most people wouldn't fall under these categories (or flesh out the categories themselves).

      Do you have any way of getting around principle 3? My principle allows the slaves to have children since the children of the slaves will live a life that is probably on par with the parents life. If the slaves happened to live on a plantation that treated their slaves particularly well, but knew that if they had a child, the child would be sold off, and likely land in the hands of a much more cruel slave owner, then perhaps they shouldn't have the child.

      Unknown said...


      the problem with your answer is that you are double counting.
      You cite the bad things in the child's life - restricted autonomy, suffering etc, and then say that this isn't counterbalanced by the fact that the child will have a life that is just worth living.

      But the standard way of understanding a 'life worth living' - at least when we are talking about the child's perspective, is that it is one in which the positives outweigh the negatives. The fact that he has a life worth living means that the benefits in his life, however small, outweigh his suffering, lack of autonomy, etc etc.
      If you want to say that the negatives in his life do outweigh the positives, then you are suggesting that he has a life that is not worth living. In that case it is clear that the parents harm the child even if he wouldn't otherwise exist.

      you suggest
      "I thought about including that on my principle, that there was some basic minimal amount of happiness that the child would experience, and the child doesn't cross that bare minimum. But how I would draw that threshold I wouldn't know."

      that is exactly the sort of idea that Gregory Kavka uses to explain the wrongness of the parents' action. Bonnie Steinbock in here paper "When is birth unfair to the child" has a similar thought,
      see http://www.albany.edu/~ron/papers/badbirth.html

      David Archard in his paper 'Wrongful Life' takes a similar tack (I can't find an online copy, but the abstract is here
      http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=231195 )

      The 'threshold view' is appealing - but one of the problems with it is exactly the one that you allude to... where do you draw the line?


      Jean Kazez said...

      No, the bad things are "within" the child's life. There will be lots of miserable moments, times when the child feels degraded, etc. Plus, there will be other bad things of other sorts--no need to go into all the details. They depend on your theories of wellbeing and illbeing.

      Foreseeing all that awful stuff, the parents are violating the prima facie obligation not to cause ill being if they create the slave child. They need to justify that. Just saying the kid's life will be worth living (barely!) isn't that sort of compensating great good. Plus, they have no good reason for bringing about all that bad stuff, rather than having a different child with much less bad and more good in his life.

      By focusing on the duty not to cause bad things, I'm respecting (1) and (2), but yes--things don't look good for (3).

      Unknown said...

      OK - yes you can say that the parents are wrong for causing all the bad things in the child's life. But from the child's point of view those bad things are worth it! He has a life that is overall worth living. If they hadn't caused those bad things he wouldn't otherwise exist.

      You might be suggesting that we have greater responsibility for the bad things in the child's future than the goods. Or perhaps we should be more worried about harms than benefits. There is an asymmetry here since the child will be harmed by all of these bad things happening, but if he doesn't ever exist he won't suffer or be harmed from not having the good things. On that basis, the parents shouldn't conceive the child.

      The asymmetry is an interesting problem (and I suspect a topic for another day), but this way of thinking leads you down the Benatar track, and I suspect that you don't want to go there. Benatar argues in his book 'Better never to have been' that the asymmetry between harms and benefits in bringing someone into existence means that we should never have any children - even those with apparently average levels of wellbeing.

      Your other suggestion is that the parents do wrong because they could have had a different child with much less bad, and more good in his life. That is exactly the way that many consequentialists think about this sort of problem. There will be more happiness in the world if the children bring a regular child into existence rather than a slave child.
      But, but... that way leads to trouble for principle 1


      Jean Kazez said...

      Dom, I think I can avoid the double counting and make the same argument.

      So--the parents know that the kid will have a billion horrible moments. They have a prima facie obligation not to bring about those horrible moments. "A life worth living" as we are defining it (and I don't care for this definition at all), is one with a positive balance. So maybe they anticipate the kid will have a billion and one great moments. (Just as great as the horrible moments are horrible.)

      Does bringing about the great moments really compensate for bringing about the horrible moments? We do not normally think this way!

      Suppose I am wildly fun and wildly nasty to my kids when I don't take my medicine. I skip my medicine, and they wind up with a just barely positive balance. Maybe one more minute of fun than misery. Has my duty of non-maleficence really been overridden by my duty of beneficence? Was it permissible to skip the medicine, or even obligatory?

      That's the sort of thing I have in mind..

      Gotta run, cat must go to the vet!

      Jean Kazez said...

      Dom, I posted my last comment before reading your last, just to be clear! I'll come back to it when I can.

      Jean Kazez said...

      Dom, Cat's fine now. $110 down the drain. I read your last remark.

      Let's not go the way of Benatar...so the asymmetry in question had better not be the extreme one where bad is bad but good doesn't count. Good counts. But it takes more than "a little more good than bad" to justify causing bad. That's the basic idea.

      Since the main thing I'm charging the couple with is not being able to justify violating the duty of non-maleficence, that doesn't lead to problems with (1) and (2). I do think it leads to a problem with (3). The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder if it was defensible for slaves to have children. Maybe not--even if it was certain understandable.

      I'm just thinking aloud by the way. There are so many puzzles, so many desiderata (like 1-3). It's hard to make up your mind which are just desiderata, and which truly non-negotiable.

      Pray tell--what's your best account (at the present moment) of what the couple does wrong in creating the slave?

      Unknown said...

      There are different ways of conceptualising a 'life worth living', but the most straightforward, and the most plausible is that it is a life that the individual concerned would choose to continue to live rather than to die. From their point of view the bad things in their life are outweighed by the goods.

      Does bringing about the great moments really compensate for bringing about the horrible moments?

      you might think that the bad moments are twice as bad as the good things are good. But if, from the point of view of the individual, their life is worth living, yes, bringing about the bad things is compensated for by the good.

      Non-maleficence tracks our intuition that we should try hard to avoid causing harm. As you point out it gives us a prima facie reason to avoid a situation where harm is anticipated or likely.
      But non-maleficence doesn't mean that we should always avoid causing harm. Sometimes we need to cause harm in order to achieve a greater benefit. An obvious example is when we take a child to a dentist to have a filling. We know that it may cause the child fear and distress, but the benefit for the child outweighs the negatives. Non-maleficence shouldn't stop us form taking the child, nor should it stop the dentist from performing his or her job.

      [I started writing some of this then got distracted, so have now seen your further comment.]

      One way of cashing out the partial asymmetry view is this. We might think that although the bads outweigh the goods of life *for the child*, nevertheless from the point of view of the parents the bads should be given extra weight. The scales are tipped if you like to start off with. If you take this view then you may end up with something that Bonnie Steinbock suggested, something that relates to the appropriate attitude of a parent in bringing a child into the world. Here she is:

      But where there is no child at all, the question facing the prospective parents is not "what does my child want?" nor "what is best for my child?". It's rather a question of whether to create a child who is likely to have a life marked by pain and severe limitations. It seems to us that the answer to this question must be no. What reason could be offered in justification of an affirmative answer? That the child's life, while miserable, is not so awful that he or she will long for death? That is not the kind of answer that a loving parent could give.

      There is more to say about Steinbock and Archard's views. I find them intuitively highly plausible, though they are somewhat intangible and difficult to coherently defend (certainly from a consequentialist perspective anyway).

      Unknown said...

      As for my own current view. I don't have a simple answer, and I am not sure I have a totally coherent answer, but here are a couple of thoughts. I contend that parents should not bring a child into existence who is likely to have a very low level of wellbeing - close to the level of a life not-worth living. One reason for this is based on uncertainty. We don't know exactly what the future holds for the child. But if we know that they are going to be severely disabled, (or exist in a state of slavery), even if it is likely that their life will be worth living - there is some non-negligible risk of the child having a life below the zero line, a life not worth living for that child. Parents should not impose that risk on a future child. While I don't think that we should avoid all future harms because of the Asymmetry, we should try very hard to avoid bringing individuals into existence who are harmed by life.

      The second part of my answer relates to impersonal and person-affecting reasons and is complicated. But put it this way. We should try to ensure that our children have as good a life as possible. If we have a choice between bringing two different children into the world, one of whom will be happy and healthy, and the other who will be unhappy and unhealthy - we should bring the healthy child into the world. There are two very different justifications for this. The first is that happiness is good to bring about, and more happiness is better to bring about. It is not better *for the child* if the happy one rather than the sad one exists. But it is nevertheless better (from the point of view of the universe perhaps - this is what Parfit refers to as an impersonal reason).
      But the second reason is that we can anticipate that the happy healthy child's life will also be better *for other people*. It is likely to be better for the parents for one thing, but potentially also for other siblings, friends contacts, and for others in society who are less likely to have to financially support the child. So there are also person-affecting reasons (Parfit's term again) to choose the healthier child.

      The first of these reasons does cause problems for principle number 1. It seems to suggest that we should enhance our children if we can, that we should use IVF to select better embryos etc. This is what Julian Savulescu refers to as the Principle of Procreative Beneficence.
      But how strong is this principle - what does it require of us, and does it imply that there is a strong moral reason to conceive (conflicting with principle 2) (and, for example, does it imply that contraception is morally wrong)? Those are questions for another day I think...

      Jean Kazez said...

      A few quick thoughts--

      The Steinbock passage says things along the lines I was thinking. What kind of parent excuses the pain they cause by saying the child's at least not better off dead? As you can see, I haven't come to reading her yet.

      Re: a life worth living. I don't find it obvious that people can't be wrong about whether they have a life worth living (odd as that sounds). We can make mistakes about other people's lives' worth, why not about our own? (Which is not to say we shouldn't respect preferences--even the ones that make no sense.)

      Your risk point is 100% convincing. As to the problem with (2)--I haven't made up my mind whether throwing out (2) is really, really crazy.

      Unknown said...

      One more comment to note - about principle 3 and slaves having children. On the first reason that I have given - the avoiding the risk of a life not-worth living, this may have force for the slave parents. If their slave life is very bad (imagine that they are forced to act as prostitutes and are regularly abused. It is worth living but it wouldn't take much for it to be so bad that they would contemplate suicide). In that case I am prepared to bite the bullet - I don't think that they should have children.

      But if they are slaves to more enlightened slave owners, and have lives that are not good, yet also not terrible I don't think that it would be bad for them to have a child. The risk of the child having a life not-worth living is small. As for my other arguments - these parents don't have a choice to conceive a different, happier child. They should be free to have a child. (In fact, since I hold that it is a good thing impersonally to bring a child into the world, there is a positive moral reason for them to do so, though I don't think that the force of this moral reason is terribly strong).

      Unknown said...

      PS I tend to agree with you about the fallibility of our judgements about whether life is worth living. We could call the account that I have given a subjective LWL (life worth living). There might be a different level - the level of a life in which objectively the intrinsically good features outweigh the intrinsically negative features - call this an objective LWL.
      I think that plausibly the level of an objective LWL might be above the subjective level. But there are some formidable epistemic and conceptual obstacles to determining the objective level of a LWL, and very serious difficulties in identifying conditions that are subjectively worth living, but objectively not-worth-living. (Which level should we favour, should we act to end the life of someone who thinks that their life is worth living, but is mistaken...???)

      Jean Kazez said...

      Hmm...I think a slave's life was full of tragedy and misery...really terrible stuff. Slaves probably had lives "worth living," (most of them, anyway) but still had pretty bad lives. So if we just have to have kids with the best lives we can, as long as they have lives worth living, that's a very permissive standard. It will allow for knowingly having kids with pretty serious disabilities... unless there's a difference between having kids with built-in dysfunction, and having kids with environmentally-caused problems (when they yield equal wellbeing). The plot thickens.

      Faust said...

      I'm going to be super brief, but here is my first pass:

      1. Accepting everything above, I'm inclined to dispense with 2.

      2. I don't accept the basis of the arugment however. I reject this notion completely:

      "Let us assume that sameness of genetic structure is, for practical purposes, a necessary condition of personal identity."

      As is acknowledged in the footnote, twins are not the same person. Genetic strucutre is not sufficient to establish identity. Two individuals with different causal histories can become potentially radically different people even if they are essentially the same.

      Yet this princple of identity forms the metaphysical basis for the remainder of the argument.

      To be quite frank I do not even think it is plausible to say that I am the "same person" as I was 20 years ago. I am causally connected to that person. But that person IS not me.

      The entire argument rests on a wierd slight of hand that requires a whole range of assumptions that I think could be teased out and tinkered with.

      3. I do think one has to go to deontological princples to resolve the difficulties in question. I have no faith the utilitariansim can resolve these difficulties. I don't think utilitariansims provides any defense whatsoever against positive genetic manipulation of human beings. At least, I've not seen anything so far that convinces me otherwise.

      Jean Kazez said...

      He only says sameness of genes is a "necessary" condition of X being the same person as Y--not sufficient. So if the parents balked at the last moment, but 24 later hours conceived a child to keep and raise as their own, the genes would be different and the kid would be different. Just saying that much gets the ball rolling.

      I'm not so sure about (2) either--more on that in a post soon (I think).

      Faust said...

      I get that. I'm saying I don't find it a convincing way to get the ball rolling.

      The whole idea is that the very specific genetic identity of the "who" that is created short circuits the application of the obligation principle. You can't say:

      "You can't sell A into slavery because it would be better for A not to have been a slave,"

      because A would only exist under the circumstances of being sold into slavery. If they (the yacht lovers) later decide to have children they would have child B or C or D, A was only going to come into being via the slave route.

      What I'm saying is that I don't buy this use of identity. I don’t think that “who” we are should be tied to a genetic code. I do agree that your genetic makeup likely has substantial influence over who you turn out to be. But I think that who you turn out to be is much more heavily influenced by who your parents are (not in the genetic sense, how they raise you), what your culture is, and the sheer randomness of life.

      To my mind it is not acceptable to call "Genetic code A" (hereafter GCA) a person who is different as a person than B, C or D, except precisely to the degree that B,C, and D are not sold, not slaves, raised with good intentions. The person you get out of GCA (how they understand themselves, who they think they are, what it is like to be them) is a complex manifestation that takes into account not only GCA, but everything that GCA is exposed to over the course of its life. It seems entirely plausible that a given GCA could become wildly different people with different values and behaviors simply by exposing GCA to wildly different cultural environments. It seems absurd to me to suggest that all these variants on the theme share a common identity “GCA” that is the “real” person for whom all these variations could be compared and decided. The genetic code becomes merely one small piece of the question of identity. It simply doesn’t have enough impact on the question of who a person becomes.

      It is fair to say that GCA sets up some initial conditions, some parameters that will limit or amplify the capacities of the person that is built “on” it. Let us say that GCA produces facial structure X. We could say that facial structure X is a necessary condition of “who” GCA produces. But facial structure X is only going to be interesting relative to how facial structure X is received within a particular cultural milieu. So I do not think these constraints on the huge range of possible persons that a single GCA could produce should make us think that any given GCA should qualify as a fixed identity that we should consider when making moral decision, for persons are produced in almost all the ways that matter out of their Total Environment Over Time. Call this TEOT.

      Let me make this more concrete with an example. Currently my daughter exists. She has a genetic code. But she also has the social code, the cultural code that comes from being raised in a very specific milieu (the vernacular culture of my house, as well as the culture of America). If through some random turn of fate she had gotten switched around at the hospital and someone else had raised her over the last 5 years would she be the same person she is now? What if she had been raised in a radically different culture? Call this social code her “memetic” code. Memetic code X, or MCX.

      Now I have to decide what school to send her to. I suspect her life could turn out quite a bit differently if I send her to one school rather than another. (I sometimes try to imagine how different I would be if I had gone to a different college. Honestly, I can't even imagine how different things might be). So in a sense I am making a decision for her that will alter her future self. I stand at a juncture between two different selves, two selves with different teachers, different friends, different daily commutes, and different school cultures. Who can say how different she would be if she went to one rather than another?

      Faust said...

      To me these decisions can be made analogous to the “taking a pill that gives sexual pleasure while producing mild retardation” scenario. Let us say that one school is free and the other school is expensive. If I send her to the cheap school this will give me “pleasure” in the sense that I will have money to spend on other things. If I send her to the expensive school then I will have less “pleasure” but she will be “smarter” (better trained). Here it will be argued that the obligation principle applies because she is a determinate individual with GCA, so we can validly ask which will produce a better outcome for A. But I am suggesting that GCA only forms a set of parameters that limit the possible inscriptions of MCX by the TOET, in a manner analogous to the way the specific events surrounding procreation arbitrarily fix the structure of GCA. If you take the pill you get GCA, if you don’t take the pill you get GCB. If you go to school “cheap” you get MCX, if you go to school “expensive” you get MCY.

      But, and here is the crucial point: MCX and MCY do not exist at the time the decision is made and so the same not-yet logic applies. MCX and MCY are necessary conditions of the further future possible selves that GCA could become, but do not exist at the time the decision is made. Therefore you are not comparing what is best for GCA, because the GCA is only the metaphorical “egg” that must be altered by the “sperm” of the TOET. The “complete” person is the GCA+TOET, just as a complete genetic code if formed by the combination of the egg and the sperm.

      So I do not see the difference between the decision made for a concrete individual who will in the future be two different potential individuals with different memetic codes, and a decision made for a not-yet individual that involves a random set of initial conditions known as GCA, GCB, GCC, and GCD. Our TEOT has every bit as much impact on “who” we become as our genetic code, if not more so. Morality consists therefore in forming good environments for people (and their genetic codes).

      What does this mean for the slave question? It means that one should not ask “is it better to bring people into an existence by means of which they will have minimally satisfying experiences than to never bring them into existence at all,” but instead to ask: “What Total Environments Over Time are acceptable for people (any people, with any genetic code) to be in? If you think it is OK for some people to be slaves, to buy them, and to sell them, there is no paradox. If you don’t, you won’t think it is acceptable to sell people into slavery, even if those persons would only exist by virtue being slaves.

      In a sense I think this is where the argument winds up with the introduction of the means/end discussion. Kavka writes:

      The modified imperative would forbid treating rational beings or their creation (that is, their being brought into existence) as a means only, rather than as ends in themselves.

      When I privilege the TEOT over and above GCA, I do so precisely because I view every moment of a person’s life as an ongoing creation. We are created first as a body, but our personhood grows out of the very specific “memetic” code that gets inscribed into it. That is why humans fight and die over beliefs: because our belief codes are generally more important than our genetic codes. There is an important sense in which we ARE our beliefs.

      Faust said...

      OK I think I can make my point in an entirely different and simpler way:

      Let us say there is a couple that conceives a genome.

      @ 8 weeks they decide they are going to abort the fetus that expresses the genome.

      At the medical facility they are approached by Slavery Inc. and offered $50,000 to bring the fetus to term and give it to Slavery Inc.

      Slavery Inc makes sure all its slaves find “good” masters, who make sure the slaves are always minimally well off as specified in the original thought experiment.

      Clearly because the fetus has a determinate genome, the Obligation Principle can be applied when considering the slavery option. In other words, there is entity (G) to consider when asking whether one has an obligation to choose act or policy A rather than alternative B only if it is the case that if one chose B, some particular person would exist and be worse off than if one had chosen A.

      On the other hand, because the pregnancy was about to be terminated, it is clear that the same “paradox” applies: The person that comes from the specifc genome in question is only going to be “given” existence if the parents are paid $50,000. So the only circumstance under which the genome is going to be “given” existence is the one where its future involves being contracted into slavery.

      One can then extend this logic of an already existing genome along the continuum of fetal development up to the point of birth. But of course at birth we give babies the full rights of adult human beings, even though they have no adult capacities.

      It seems to me then, that there are issues in play that have to do not with the necessary condition that the genome supplies, but the further sufficient condition of personhood that is granted by…

      Well that’s the rub. How is this status granted? What is the “essence” of "particular personhood" that allows it to be plugged into the obligation principle? It would seem on the above account that having a determinate genome is not enough.

      Jean Kazez said...

      I'm going to attempt to put your point in a nutshell. Tell me if I've got it right!

      So -- imagine the slave boy at 10 years old. He's glad to be alive, despite being a slave. His life seems worth living. You're saying that we can't wash away the problem of creating him by saying the parents did him no harm, because the person originally created isn't necessarily the same as the 10 year old boy. Excusing them is like saying someone has done no harm to Tom because some other guy Harry is glad to be alive.

      So instead of worrying about harm or no harm to specific victims, we should talk in general terms about whether it's good to create slaves.

      That seems like a pretty persuasive point to me. It reminds me of stuff in Jeff McMahan's book The Ethics of Killing, which I'm overdue to read some more of.

      Faust said...

      Hmmm I think I managed to lose a post :)

      Yes you have the essence of it.

      My argument hinges on the plasticity of the notion "person" and argues that we need a sufficient condition of personhood to make the paradox go through. It may be true that genetic codes provide a necessary condition for there being a particular person, but the cultural mileu provides an equally necessary condition.