A Puzzle about Procreation

Here's a little puzzle about procreation that's bothering me. Maybe you'd like to let it bother you too.

Suppose it's the case that in Someland, people should have children, but not too many.  Let's keep this simple--they should have children because otherwise the aging population won't have sufficient support, socially and financially.  But not too many, because population growth will result in resource depletion.  In fact, let's suppose, it would be ideal if the average couple had 2 children.  But in reality, the average couple has 3 children.

OK--here's the puzzle.  Though the Somelanders should have children (we are assuming), the only people who seem to be blameless are those without children.  The over-two couples are having too many kids.  The two-child couples are erring by not compensating for the over-two couples.  Only the no-child couples are blameless, and yet hold on ... How can that be, if people in Someland should have children?

Somehow we are going wrong in our distribution of credit and blame here.  What's the right thing to say about the three groups of Somelanders?


Wayne said...

The problem is between universal and situational ethics. We have intuitions on both sides.... That some ethical mandates are universal (all somelanders should have only 2 children, and that they all should have no less than 2 as well.). So in that universalization, the somelanders that don't have 2 children come out being morally bad (they're not following universal morality.)

But surely, the somelanders who arn't having children at all are doing good, since they accomplish the good goal of having the proper amount of children. This is because we take their circumstances into consideration, and say, yes.... they're being good, even if they're violating a universal principle, since they're achieving what the universal principle set out to achieve in the first place. Since others are failing in their duties, the somelanders who are inversely failing their duty cancels out those who are having too many children.

So the only way to solve the problem is to make either all the somelanders stick to the universal principle of 2 kids per household, or let circumstantial moral evaluation rule, and say that the somelanders who are not having children, do no wrong, and hopefully equilibrium will work out through the average of large numbers.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, You've sort of addressed a different question: are the childless Somelanders bad, since they disobey the rule that everyone should have two children?

My puzzle is: ONLY the childless Somelanders can defend themselves fully, yet it seems very odd to think they're the only good guys, since we're assuming it's true that Somelanders should keep reproducing.

Wayne said...

The unfair distribution of blame I think is the result of the universal/particular (U/P) ethic we're using. I.E. we're not being consistent.

If we think that the three child Somelanders (3S) are blameworthy, its because of either U or P. If we think that the zero household somelander (0S) are blameworthy, its only because of U and not P. If we think they are 0S are good, then it is because of P.
If we think that the two family somelander (2S) is blameworthy its because of P. If we think that they are not blameworthy its because of U.

So I'm assuming that there is a desire for 2S to be morally good (or neutral) and 0S to be morally good as well... put all the blame on 3S. But in order to do that, we'd have to apply a P theory to 0S and a U theory to 2S.

(Draw out the chart.... it makes more sense that way.... Universal/Particular is the vertical axis, 3s 2s 0s for the horizontal. You get Bad good bad on the first row, bad bad good in the second).

Since I'm more favorable to particular theories like Utilitarianism, I see nothing wrong with saying 2S are bad people for doing the status quo. But if you apply a universal theory (like Kantianism or any other rule based theory) then it seems like 2S are good people since they're following the rules, but 3s and 0s aren't following the rules, so they must be bad.

The only way to get what I would assume is the intuitive distribution (3s-bad 2s-good 03-good) would be to be inconsistent, and use two theories.

I suppose it doesn't have to be inconsistent if you subscribe to a pluralistic ethic, but you're still switching moral standards for the evaluation of 2s vs 0s.

Jean Kazez said...

That sounds like a helpful way to think about it, Wayne. I'm pretty sure .... will give it another think tomorrow!

Alan Cooper said...

I think that the allegation of blamelessness of the childless is a result of confusing this hypothetical situation with the real one that it sounds like. If there is an absolute requirement for all to have at least one child (eg under the unrealistic assumption that childlessness of anyone would lead to degradation of the gene pool - or perhaps because the experience of parenting is considered necessary for the development of the individual as a contributing member of society in other respects as well),then the childless are blameworthy.

But so long as the average number of children is over 2, anyone who has more than 2 is also blameworthy (with extent of blame in some sense proportional to the number of excess children). And anyone who has less than 2 may be deserving of some credit. That credit may extend to those who are childless but whether or not it "balances" the blame for childlessness depends on the commensurability and relative importance of the two rules (which you did not state for the model). It is quite possible to have credit/blame from distinct sources in some situations be commensurable and balanced against one another but in others to be essentially independent (like orthogonal axes in coordinate geometry) in which case a negative of one and positive of the other just stand as they are and don't "cancel out".

Surely(?), although it might be admirable, there is no actual obligation to make up for the failings of others, so those who have 2 children are both blameless and praiseworthy. But while it is not required, compensating is also surely admirable, and so if the obligation to reproduce is limited to having at least one, then those who limit themselves to one deserve extra credit.

And so long as the average breeding rate is above the optimum, absent an actual obligation to breed (based on something like the need to preserve genes as I suggested above), those who are childless are of course the most admirable (especially if they would otherwise have found breeding attractive).

əɣʋʀɦʑʖʦʩʎʈɼʑʧʕʦʭɲɦɤ said...

I would say that in your example the "should have two children" is not intrisically good, but only instrumental to the "sustain the global population" good.

If the population could be sustained by other means (e.g. immigration from extraterrestrial colonies, cloning, ... ) the "have two children" would loose its validity.

I think population ethics must consider game theory implications, free-riders, etc, etc.

There are lots of possible strategies that could maximise the global good. The goal that *on average* every couple should have two children doesn't imply that every couple should have two children.

Isn't this the usual debate between act and rule utilitarianism?

Simon Rippon said...

Along the lines of what squiggle said: the confusion arises here because when you say "people in Someland should have children" what you really mean to attribute is an obligation on the *group* of n people of Someland to have n x 2 children. That does not translate into an obligation on individuals to have 2 children each - it rather translates into an obligation on individuals to do whatever will assist the group in having n x 2 children. This is why, when the group is having more than n x 2 children, those with no children are the only blameless ones - because they are the only ones not contributing further to the problem that the group has of having excessive numbers of children.

Jean Kazez said...

Simon, I think I buy all that, but think we need to add one important thing--we ought to abe assuming the group really needs to create 2n children, but needs to avoid >2n children. Children aren't a bad thing, like pollution, that we only want to set limits on. They're a good thing--we need "enough," but not too many. That means all the parents get credit for producing 2n, even if they actually produce 2n+1. So: group credit for the 2n, and group blame for the 1. The childless are excluded from both the blame and the credit. Right?

Simon Rippon said...

Are you still suggesting there's some king of obligation on each parent to create 2 children. I don't think that's the case. We have a *group* obligation and a failure of *the group* to do what it ought. The group is failing by creating too many children. The only parents who can't be said to contribute to that group failure in any sense are those with no children. Everyone else - even those parents with one child - are _in this context_ making the problem worse. So that's why only the childless parents are blameless.
(I don't think any parents here get credit for producing 2n children, since it's not the case that 2n children are produced. But if 2n children were produced and there were some childless couples, then assuming they were cooperative, I think they'd share in the credit like everyone else. Imagine you asked a group of 3 people to arrange themselves 100 feet apart, and they did it. Then all 3 would get credit if all three were cooperating, even if one of the three just stood still the whole time and the other two did all the "work".)

Jean Kazez said...

Another analogy ...

Suppose a group is trying to raise a million dollars for charity. They'll save more and more lives, until they get to a million. If they get to a million and 1, some madman will shoot someone. They do raise a million and 1. Surely they deserve credit for getting to a million, and blame for getting to a million and 1. It's the same with a group having 2n+1 children. There's both credit and blame. As for whether people are individually obligated to pitch in--well, we can think about "credit" in many ways, so I don't think we necessarily have to go that far.

Your last paragraph seems really odd. Are we really going to give credit to someone for helping to raise exactly a million dollars even though they contribute nothing? Yes, in your standing in a line analogy, standing still could be helpful, but I think that's different. Pitching in nothing doesn't help get to exactly a million, unless you're standing there watching the millionth dollar fall into the bucket, and for that reason don't contribute. Childless people don't normally operate that way.

My son's bugging me for the computer, so if that was incoherent, it's his fault.

Alan Cooper said...

If Simon's interpretation of your ambiguous statement is what you intended, then my previous comment can be ignored.(I was assuming that you might have intended to assign an obligation or moral value to individual child-rearing other than for its contribution to maintaining constant total population)

In either problem, if all we are talking about is an obligation to help the group achieve its target,(and assuming all members are equally endowed with fertility or excess cash)then some blame attaches to anyone who does not endeavour to help the population to achieve its target,and for those that do there is credit directly related to the efforts they make in that direction.

If past experience suggests that the target is reached naturally, then all that is necessary for each individual to commit to achieve(or if necessary reach agreement with one or more partners to achieve between them) the average fertility (or contribution rate) that best matches the target.

Credit attaches to anyone who does so, even if that involves making no contribution in order to facilitate a larger contribution from one who wants to make it.

Also, if it is known that the average behaviour of the population is to overcontribute then higher credit accrues to under-contributors with maxim credit for actually not contributing at all.

And if it is known that the average behaviour of the population is to undercontribute then increasingly higher credit applies to successively greater overcontributors.

(In both of the previous cases the excess credit only applies up to the point at which the amount of such credit turns out to be sufficient to change the average behaviour of the population as a whole)

There is also credit due for promoting credit-worthy behaviours, and blame (in fact extreme blame!) for promoting destructive alternatives.

Simon Rippon said...

Jean, I side with the later Alan. Isn't your million dollar example is different in at least two important ways from your procreation problem? One thing is that it's unlikely that anyone would be able to predict that a million and one dollars will be raised, whereas in the procreation case, it's most natural to assume that everyone knows (or could easily find out) that the group is overproducing. For another, people have all sorts of motivations for having children - not usually directly connected to the group's need to maintain an ideal population size. So people can get credit for sidelining their other motivations for the goal of the group, and doing so precisely by not "contributing" children. In contrast, raising excess money for charity is not something that would just happen anyway, irrespective of the group's aiming to do it. So all contributions deserve credit for sharing the group aim and acting on it, whereas non-contributions deserve no such credit (again, unless it's *predictable* that the group will overshoot its aim, and that an individual can best assist by refraining from contributing).

Also, I just realised I accidentally doubled the numbers earlier - in your example, the group of n people ought to have n (not 2n) children. Otherwise, I stand by what I wrote!

And as for blaming your young son for any incoherence in your writing - well, I might have to take back my niceness comment!

Jean Kazez said...

OK--so it's reasonable to think there's such a thing as a conscientious non-contributor. She has no children precisely so others can have more.

But I find Alan's evaluation odd--

"if it is known that the average behaviour of the population is to overcontribute then higher credit accrues to under-contributors with maxim[um] credit for actually not contributing at all."

Before saying this you would have to compare the harm of there being too many children to the harm of there being too few. That's what my "green and grey" post is about.

Another analogy--a church is building houses for Habitat for Humanity. If there aren't enough volunteers, the house gets finished very slowly or not at all, which is harmful. If there are too many, they get in each others' way, and that slows things down. Some people are conscientious non-contributors, because they know many congregants love doing this work. But are we really going to give the non-contributors the most credit? There's something just ... fishy about that.