Procreative Beneficence

the perfect baby
We all think a pregnant woman should protect her probable future child, A.  Annie should get good prenatal care, stop smoking, absolutely not engage in binge drinking, go on bed rest if needed to avoid premature delivery, etc.  She ought to try to bring A into the world without any abnormalities she can prevent.

Now suppose Betty isn't pregnant yet, and she's taking a drug that could cause fetal abnormalities. Her doctor says to delay conception until she's off the drug. Once again, there's a very strong impulse to say she should avoid those abnormalities. This seems just like the first case, but on closer inspection there's a big difference. This is not a matter of protecting a probably future child, but of having one child or another. Her doctor is really telling her not to have A (with abnormalities) but to have B (without).

It seems, despite the difference here, that essentially the same duty is involved.  We  ought to do our "personal best" where creating offspring is concerned.  Julian Savulescu defends a principle of this sort*, The Principle of Procreative Beneficence (PB):

If you think of Annie as choosing between two versions of the same child (A and A*), then she is covered by PB, and so (more obviously) is Betty.  Furthermore, Cathy is covered as well--

Cathy and her husband are trying to conceive using IVF, and have 5 embryos sitting in a laboratory.  Using pre-implantation diagnosis (PGD) it's possible to tell if any of these embryos are abnormal.  PB says Cathy ought to avail herself of this technology, and select the child (the embryo) with the best potential to have a good life.  Intuitively, PB applies to Annie and Betty, but about Cathy we're not so sure.

I would like to  understand why we're not so sure about Cathy, but let's start with Betty.  I think it would be possible, and not flat out irrational, for someone to be not so sure about Betty.  Or rather, they could be not so sure about Betty if they've squarely faced the fact that Betty is choosing between two different children.  That's a "buried" truth that doesn't immediately meet the eye.

OK, but it's clearly true.  Betty is choosing between two different children, A and B.  Derek Parfit argues that the difference between A and B "makes no difference"--and in fact Betty's case is just like Annie's.  But this is not inevitable.  Suppose I think the creating a child is beneficial to the child--it saves them from the very bad state of non-existence.  On this view, if A is created, A is lucky to be born, and B unlucky.  If B is created, B is lucky to be born, and A unlucky.

If I seriously do think this way, then Betty's situation is very different from Annie's.  Annie has to decide whether it's better for A to come into the world with or without the abnormality.  The obvious answer is "without."  Betty must think about a completely different question: whether the abnormality in question makes B more worth saving from non-existence than A.

This would be a not completely different situation-- a lifeguard sees two swimmers drowning.  They're the same age, and otherwise not remarkably different.  One has an abnormality and the other doesn't.  Of course it's better to lack it than have it, but that's not the issue. The lifeguard has to decide whether the abnormality makes the abnormal swimmer less worth saving from non-existence than the normal swimmer.

I think the lifeguard could, would, and should think the abnormality makes no difference to how much a person is worth saving from non-existence.  Likewise, if I seriously see creating people as benefiting them, I can coherently think Betty has no duty to avoid A and have B.

Maybe, though, we should "modus tollens" the last paragraph.  Obviously (we might think) Betty does have a duty to avoid A and have B.  So creating people doesn't benefit them, and is nothing even remotely like saving people from drowning.  Maybe so.  My point is that there's at least more to think about in the case of Betty, and there's no immediate and quick route from an Annie judgment to a Betty judgment.

OK, so what about Cathy?  The above has been a warm up exercise.  Now that you see there's no immediate step from Annie to Betty, I'm hoping you'll agree there's no immediate route from Betty to Cathy either.

Now, I'd very much like to comment on Cathy without sounding even remotely like Michael Sandel, in his book The Case Against Perfection. Let's not talk about the evils of mastery, or the wonders of beholding instead of molding; I promise not to say life is a gift, and we should be open to the unbidden.

Let's talk instead about reproduction--the basic "what?" of it.  Reproduction is an essentially "agent-centered" act. The couple thinks "let's have our own child."  The first-person pluralness of this is crucial.  The reproductive state of mind is completely different from a third-person managerial state of mind. Your goal is not to fill the earth with the best possible creatures--the ones with the highest possible quality of life, but to have children who are your own (for better or for worse!). 

Now, delaying conception until Betty's off the drug doesn't compromise "our own"-ness in the slightest bit. Betty and her partner can have children that are "our own" in January or in March. 

With Cathy, it's just a bit different.  True, she's still using her own and her husband's gametes.  But opting for PGD shifts her into the more managerial state of mind.  Suddenly, what would have been good enough in an ordinary couple (whatever sperm-egg combination has transpired, in the darkness of the womb)  isn't necessarily good enough.  The ordinary couple is permitted to act on the self-affirming thought that their offspring is overwhelmingly like to be fine, but Cathy is supposed to scrutinize, compare, and optimize.  She's being turned into a "who exists?" manager, when she and her husband only wanted to create "our own."

Now, I think Savulescu does recognize "our ownness" as a consideration, though not in the Cathy type of case.  In a footnote, he clarifies that PB is only meant to apply in cases where a couple are using their own biological material.

He's thus pre-empted a case like this-- Cathy and her husband do opt for PGD, and they're about to implant a terrific embryo, when the clinic tells them they have some leftovers from the world's most fantastic couple. They're gorgeous, brilliant, disease free for generations, etc.  If Cathy has little baby C, the child will have longer, higher quality life.

Perhaps Cathy and her partner do have some reason to have C instead of B, but their urge for "our ownness" has to be considered legitimate and overriding.  So "our ownness" is a factor in competition with PB--the only question being whether it really ought to count for Cathy.  May she have the self-affirming thought (like any ordinary couple would) -- "Our embryos are all (probably) fine"?  Or must exercise managerial control, use PGD, and opt for the best of the lot? 

You can't say the "soft" considerations about "our ownness" don't count at all, if you think Cathy may obviously decline the splendid couple's leftovers.

* Savulescu, "Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children." Bioethics, 2001. Savulescu and Kahane, "The Moral Obligation to Create Children with the Best Chance of the Best Life."  Bioethics, 2009.  The quote and the later footnote are from the second article.


Wayne said...

A couple of thoughts before I try to answer the question:

The Lifeguard analogy, for me at least, brought up the thought that the lifeguard has a GREATER obligation to assist the disabled individual, than the normal individual. It seems like compounding the harm. Not only has the disabled individual lived a disabled life, and probably all the discrimination that comes with it, but that now at his greatest moment of need, he's discriminated in favor of the able-bodied because he's just worth less. So would that mean that Betty has a greater obligation to bring into the world a disabled child by continuing to take the drugs that she's taking? That doesn't seem right. I guess I'm saying that the analogy doesn't work at all for me, since I think Betty should have the healthy child, and the Lifeguard should save the disabled person.

Okay to the question:
I think yes, Cathy needs to use PGD, if its a legitimate possibility to determine which of the embryos gets implanted. So let me try to make my own analogy to this case:

I want to get a cat, because I like cats. I go to the pound, and find lots of cats. Which cat should I adopt? I'm particularly attracted to an adorable little orange cat, but there is another cat that is rather unremarkable too. If I adopt the orange cat, it is likely that the unremarkable cat will not be adopted and euthanized. If I adopt the unremarkable cat, it is likely that the orange cat will be adopted out to someone else, since its really cute. Now either way, I'm walking out of the pound with a cat, like Cathy will walk out of the IVF clinic with an embryo (in Cathy's case the other embryos will be euthanized I'm imagining). So which cat should I pick? I would be happy with EITHER cat, just as Cathy would be happy with ANY embryo. PB says that its better for the best child to come into existence, since it benefits most THAT child. Its a utilitarian calculation. Why NOT benefit that child? In my cat scenario, it seems like the best outcome comes from adopting the unremarkable cat. If I'd be happy with either cat, why not maximize utility to boot?

Jean Kazez said...

About Annie and Betty: I think it's interesting that Parfit has the "no difference view" while at the same time saying it's not incoherent to think being born is a benefit. If you take that very, very, very seriously, then Betty is deciding who to save from non-existence, like the lifeguard. Not 100% similar, but similar enough to say it's not a simple, obvious matter for her to choose B over A. I'll buy it that she might even have to consider saving A--though I'm not so sure the lifeguard has to do save the disabled swimmer, and there are some disanalogies... But anyway, certain ways of thinking of coming into existence make Betty's decision quite different from Annie's. (As I say, that might be a sign they are bad ways of thinking about coming into existence.)

I think choosing a cat to bring home is fundamentally different than procreating, since there isn't the element of "our ownness" to be preserved. By the cat reasoning, Cathy should even accept the spiffy donor egg and sperm and have the best off child possible. But no, they don't have to do that, and even Savulescu doesn't think so.

I admit it's a bit iffy if there's any sacrifice in "our-ownness" if Cathy uses PGD though. The way in which this is true is a bit ... subtle, shall we say.

ʛʤʉɨɮɛɤɿɴʧɘʘɺɰʚʔɳɜɩɥ said...

@Wayne: I think you should go for the unremarkable cat. Both cats are actual existing cats whose life can turn out good or bad, better or worse than in different scenarios.

@Jean: it makes no sense for me to say that non-existance is a bad state for the person who doesn't exist. There is nobody who doesn't exist.

Also, I don't see how the concept of "two versions of the same child" can be cleaned up to mean anything relevant. I must agree with Partif on this. I can know everything there is to know without being able to answer to the question "is it the same person or not?"

And I don't see how bringing the parents' motivation into this adds clarity to the issues. People can have all kind of motivations, which can be inconsistent in all kind of interesting ways. "Our ownness" might be the root of all selfishness. Natural yes, but good?

Jean Kazez said...

it makes no sense for me to say that non-existance is a bad state for the person who doesn't exist. There is nobody who doesn't exist.

My point is just that some people do see being born as a benefit--even Parfit thinks that's a coherent possibility--and IF you do, then Annie's problem has to be simpler than Betty's.

Also, I don't see how the concept of "two versions of the same child" can be cleaned up to mean anything relevant. I must agree with Partif on this. I can know everything there is to know without being able to answer to the question "is it the same person or not?"

I'm just stretching the notion of two children a little so Annie's duty to get prenatal care follows from PB. It at least follows from something very close to PB.

And I don't see how bringing the parents' motivation into this adds clarity to the issues. People can have all kind of motivations, which can be inconsistent in all kind of interesting ways. "Our ownness" might be the root of all selfishness. Natural yes, but good?

How else but by respecting the desire for "our own" are you going to explain why Cathy doesn't have to accept the donor egg and sperm? Surely she doesn't have to.

Russell Blackford said...

The idea that you can receive a benefit by being brought into existence seems incoherent to me. Before you are brought into existence, there is no "you" to receive the benefit, or for someone to allege as being "worse off" if it does not receive the alleged benefit.

This is just the kind of confusion that philosophy (by itself) can clear up. Indeed, it shows how philosophy can provide us with facts: it's a fact (i.e. a true proposition) that no one receives a benefit merely by being brought into existence, and this fact is known purely through philosophical analysis, rather than some sort of empirical inquiry.

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, I agree with you that existence is not a benefit--I'm working on a book about these things and that's what I argue in chapter one. However, lots of people do think existence is a benefit, or that it's at least a coherent possibility that it's a benefit. Parfit says that's at least a coherent possibility; Savulescu in one of the articles I'm talking about here allows it as a possibility; others say existence is a harm, rather than a benefit (Benatar). Also, intriguingly, there's a passage of Dawkins where he assumes existence is a benefit--he talks about those who are born as "the lucky ones" and those not born as unlucky.

My point, then, is that IF you do take benefit (or harm) talk seriously, then Betty's situation becomes much more morally complicated than Annie's, contrary to the way Savulescu (and Parfit) say there's no difference between them.

ɦʬʄʃɥʗʓʎɔɦʙʇɷʔɼʛʠɑʩʠ said...

I'm not sure I understand. You're adding personal identity and links to parents motivations into this. They're really complex issues on their own and I'm sure they help to clean up the argument.

E.g. you say

"Annie has to decide whether it's better for A to come into the world with or without the abnormality. The obvious answer is "without."

That's assuming that "A with" and "A without" (the abnormality) are the same person. I would be so sure about that, and even if I were I don't see how that would help.

"Betty must think about a completely different question: whether the abnormality in question makes B more worth saving from non-existence than A"

That's assuming that non-existance is bad for the individual who doesn't exist. Parfit is (unusually) clear about disagreeing (if I remember correctly). He links to some "non person affecting" moral consideration (which should be somehow objective I think, and that opens up a new set of problems...) to say that existing might be good even if it is not "better".

So, if you remove those dubious assumptions, what do we have? I might have missed some step in your argument ...

Jean Kazez said...

Focusing just on the last issue -- Parfit says it's not crazy (or something like that) to think of existence as benefiting the person born. Savulescu also respects that possibility, and says PB is compatible with it.

So I'm asking what if that were right? Then Betty would be deciding which of two people should have this benefit. I think there would have to be far more tricky ethical issues for her than Annie faces.

ɦʬʄʃɥʗʓʎɔɦʙʇɷʔɼʛʠɑʩʠ said...

"deciding which of two people should have this benefit."

There are no two people. There are two possible futures, and in each there is just one person.

There is nobody who doesn't receive the benefit of existence. There is nobody who doesn't exist.

Simon Rippon said...

I agree with squiggle. There's a gap between "existence [with a life worth living] is good for you" and "non-existence is bad for you", and the former doesn't entail the latter. Furthermore, you might think you can define "benefit" in such a way as to entail the existence of actual goods, but not counterfactual bads. For this reason, while I'm not personally inclined to say that "existence is a benefit", I don't think it's incoherent to say that it is. And I am sure that I could think that existence is a benefit, compatible with thinking there's no moral difference between Annie and Betty's decisions.

There's a further moral difference between Betty and Cathy which might sway our intuitions. Betty has been informed that there's a risk of abnormalities while she is taking the drug, which is presumably significant and greater than normal. Cathy has no reason to believe any of the embryos have a greater than normal risk of abnormalities. But suppose she does know this - for example, suppose that some obvious characteristic such as the shape of two of the five embryos is known to indicate a significant risk of abnormalities. Then I think it would be clearly wrong for her to insist that a random choice was made between the embryos, or even that one of the badly shaped ones is implanted, in full knowledge of the increased risks. (Of course this assumes that there's no already existing person with a claim to equal treatment here, which many Catholics will deny.) Cathy's case is now just like Betty's. And just like Annie's, too.

Jean Kazez said...

The way Parfit puts the idea of existence as a benefit (in appendix G of reasons and persons) is like this: *for a person who exists*, existing is better than nothing. That's not to say non-existers are in a bad condition. Going with that idea: if Betty has A, non-existing B will not be left in a bad condition. And if she has B, A will not be left in a bad condition. But whichever she has, that person will have the benefit of existing, which is better than nothing.

Does the not-bad condition of non-existers make the whole question of who to give the benefit to exactly like the question of whether to get prenatal care and avoid abnormality X? It doesn't seem exactly the same, because it still seems puzzling why such a huge benefit as existence should be conferred on the basis of the abnormality being absent or present. That's what we find confirmed when we imagine the lifeguard deciding who to save based on who has that abnormality. In that case too, the one not-saved won't be left in a bad condition. But so what? The point is that there's a huge benefit to be doled out, and it seems at least troubling to decide who gets it based on the abnormality. It seems perhaps unfair to make the abnormality the deciding thing, whereas Annie is just protecting one person from the abnormality and that doesn't even begin to raises any issue of unfairness.

Reminder--I think it makes better sense if we just don't treat existence as a benefit at all. What I'm asking is "what if we do?" Doesn't that mess up the "Annie's problem = Betty's problem" equation just a bit?

Simon Rippon said...

I have difficulty seeing anything puzzling here, Jean, and I don't think the lifeguard case is properly analogous. At the time of action in the lifeguard case, someone exists who may have a reasonable objection the lifeguard's action - if he proposes to confer this huge benefit on someone else. There is nobody like this in Betty's case or Cathy's (unless you're a Catholic). So there's no question of distributive justice to raise in the procreative cases.

Jean Kazez said...

No doubt if there's something puzzling here, it's very subtly puzzling (maybe too!).

Yes, I'm trying to raise a question of distributive justice. If I really take it seriously that existence is a benefit, it seems like I have to be fair about who I give it to, like I have to be fair about who I take it away from. That's so, even if the various individuals I could benefit or harm may not be in a position to make objections, at the time I'm making my decision. What if I squander my fortune now, even though I plan on having three kids? Thus, they'll all be denied the benefit of wealth. Or I squander my fortune on my first kid, so my next two (who don't exist now) will have much less? This seems obviously to raise issues of distributive justice. I'm simply saying if you are very, very serious about existence as a benefit, you'll have to think in those terms too.

Savulescu actually does seem to be open to thinking in those terms. He says we can treat existence as a benefit, in which case Betty should delay conception because the unimpaired child will get more benefit out of existing. That's an explanation why it's fair to give the benefit to one kid, not another.

In the case of Annie, where one child is protected from the an impairment, there's no need to explain why it's fair to do this. There's just no issue of fairness at all.

One could argue that unimpaired people don't actually get any more benefit out of existing than impaired people, and the Savulescu's answer to the fairness question wouldn't work. By contrast, there just isn't any fairness question about Annie protecting her child from an impairment.

ɦʬʄʃɥʗʓʎɔɦʙʇɷʔɼʛʠɑʩʠ said...

Jean, I think this doesn't have much to do with distributive justice.

The point is not that people affected already exist or not, or that they can make objections or not.

It is very likely that there will be future people affected by today's pollution (unless we all die today). They will be actual people, with actual feelings, and even if we don't know who they will be, it makes sense to consider their rights/desires/preferences.

Your scenarios are very different, since you are considering whether to bring them into existence or not, so you don't know that these "possible people" will be actual people. That's exactly the question you're asking.

In your scenarios there are various possible futures, each containing different alternative people, who will never all be actual people. The problem is not that they don't exist yet, or that they cannot make objections. The problem is that they will never all become actual people, and thus it makes no sense to talk about distributive justice between people who will become actual and people who will become "unrealized possibility" (even if I don't know which one will exist).

It is simply confusing, IMHO, to add identity issues here (is Annie's child #1 the same person as Annie's child #2?).

Russell Blackford said...

Jean, I wasn't having a go at you ... just commenting on an issue that had come up in the thread. And it seems relevant to the Ward/Coyne thing. I.e. what is a fact ... and are there facts that philosophy can discover?

Jean Kazez said...

Squiggle, People who will never become actual do count, in a certain way, for Savulescu (under his principle of procreative beneficence). If Betty decides not to delay conception, A (with the impairment) is the only child who will become actual. Yet under PB, we have to think about B as well. Since B would be better off than A, Betty's done something impermissible. That's certainly intuitively right.

So I'm wondering--if you buy PB, so do consider both actual and non-actual future persons in assessing what's permissible, and you do see existence as a benefit, why isn't there an issue of fairness about the way you dole it out?

Granted, existence is an extremely weird benefit, so it's very hard to contemplate how to be fair about the way you distribute it, but once you acknowledge it as a benefit, I'm not clear why fairness isn't an issue.

Russell, Sure--there are definitely facts that philosophers can discover. I don't think I want to add "existence is not a benefit" to the fact list--as it's too murky and debatable. For the moment, I'm just not sure about it. I think there are lots of "results" in philosophy that are so robust we can call them "results"--they are discoveries, things we now know and didn't know before.

Simon Rippon said...

I'm still with squiggle (Perhaps I should confirm for those confused about ipersonal dentity that squiggle is not me. But who are you, mysterious squiggle?).
I think questions of distributive justice only arise when actual people past, present, or future, are involved. Under Savulescu's principle PB, merely possible people only need to count in the sense that they are considered as a possible locus of value. Another plausible principle is "We have significant moral reason to create the best possible world". Under this principle, non-actual possible worlds would "count" like non-actual people do. But not because we need to be fair to them!
Jean raised the example of squandering her wealth on her first child, leaving nothing for two younger ones. Let's amend the example. Suppose after she squanders her wealth on her first child, she decides not to have the other two. Has she then clearly done anything morally wrong, rather than merely something imprudent? If she has done something wrong, is this because she has been unfair to her two non-existent children? Surely not!

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm...I'm not sure you're right that on Savulescu's view, possible people only count as a possible locus of value. That would make PB inherently consequentialist, and he outright says it isn't, and can be construed in person-affecting terms. He explicitly says PB can be reconciled with seeing existence as a benefit, and says Betty should give that benefit to the less impaired person not *necessarily* because that's the way to maximize total value, but because the less impaired person can get more benefit out of existing. That's like giving your one super-expensive camera to one of you two children because that one will get more benefit--it's a rationale that at least seems to relate to fairness.

I will go away and think about your last paragraph, though... (hmm).

ɦʬʄʃɥʗʓʎɔɦʙʇɷʔɼʛʠɑʩʠ said...

Hello, I seem to agree completely with @Simon here.

If Betty decides to have A, she has not harmed B in any way. She just selected one non-optimal future. PB seems consequentialist to me, unless they key is "in the light of the relevant information available" (which opens an epistemic can of worms ...).

So, potential people do count in some counterfactual way, as Simon said, as when we select the best possible future.

But distributive justice should consider only actual people (present and future).

In your scenarios there is always just one actual person (at some point in the future). You cannot distribute justice neither among barely potential people, nor among one actual person and one "unrealized" individual. At no point in time, in your scenarios, any distribution is possible.

And BTW, if we were to treat the problem pretending they were both actual people, we could argue (with Rawls) that we should give the benefit to the impaired person, to maximise the welfare of the worst-off. That would probably be the argument for fairness. The result you give would work for some kind of utilitarian, and is not the argument for "justice as fairness", at least as Rawls (and probably Amartya Sen) see this.

And I think it is very confusing to think of existence as a benefit for the person that exists. It just makes all this very strange. I remember reading that part in Reasons and Persons various times, and it was never clear ...

"we may admit that, for this reason, causing someone to exist cannot be better for this person. But it may be good for this person".

"But we are not claiming that starting to exist can be either good or bad for people when it does not happen. Our claim is about starting to exist when it happens".

So, what about when it is up to us to decide if it will happen or not? The moral value of some future possible fact changes depending on whether we decide to turn it into and actual fact or not. Really bizarre.

Jean Kazez said...

Squiggle, I should give you a link to the pdf, so you can see that Savulescu definitely rejects the idea that PB is necessarily a consequentialist principle. Will try to find time later today.

As for distributive justice just involving actual people, present and future... Because of the non-identity problem and the "precariousness of existence" (in Kavka's nice phrase), that would mean distributive justice doesn't deal with future people at all. We would never have to ask if it's fair for us to eat drink and be merry today, at the expense of people in 100 years. After all, whatever steps we take on their behalf will alter who the future people will be.

The rest of your comment... Yeah, whatever you say about these issues, you wind up in some bizarre corner or other.

Jean Kazez said...

There's a link to one of the articles at the bottom of the post now.

Simon Rippon said...

To be clear, I wasn't trying to explicate Savulescu's own view - I was just saying that one could accept PB while thinking that non-actual people count only as a possible locus of value.

Actually, I don't think this view makes PB "inherently consequentialist" in any case. My view about non-identity cases is that the reasons are best explained by someone having a legitimate complaint about one's action, and the person who has the legitimate complaint is (must be!) the person who actually comes to exist. But of course, this complaint must depend in part on the fact that you could have created someone else who enjoys advantages that this person does not enjoy. That's why the non-actual person has to count as a possible locus of value.

It simply doesn't follow that because distributive justice only involves actual (past, present, future) people, and because of the precariousness of existence, we never have to worry about fairness toward future people. This is because when our actions will create different future people, we need to be concerned with whether we are being fair to *them*. We might still be be treating them unfairly by using up all the resources now, even if the people created as a result of our action would never have existed otherwise (e.g. if you squander all your wealth on a huge party that also leads to the birth of your child, and you've used up all the resources leaving nothing for the child). It follows that making a person as well off as they possibly could be might not be distributively fair *to them*, when someone else could have been made better off in their place. That's an interesting difference between people who are actual and those who are merely potential at the time of action!

I cannot understand the remarks squiggle made about the claims in Reasons and Persons. What is supposed to be bizarre here?

ɦʬʄʃɥʗʓʎɔɦʙʇɷʔɼʛʠɑʩʠ said...

@Simon: I find hard to assign much meaning to the concept of "good" when it is not better than the alternative. I can see that creating a person can make her hungry without making her hungrier, but if we want our choices to be guided by ethical values these must somehow be comparative judgements.

As a responsible parent I would like to know that "starting to exist" can be good or bad for the child, before I make the decision of creating her. So the "causal" chain would look something like

"is starting to exist good?" ⇒ procreative decision ⇒ child existence

But Parfit tells us that we cannot answer the first question when starting to exist does not happen ("But we are not claiming that starting to exist can be either good or bad for people when it does not happen."). It is existence that gives meaning to the question ("Our claim is about starting to exist when it happens").

So we have

child existence ⇒ "is starting to exist good?"

and we have a nice closed loop, which makes this all very puzzling for me. Maybe I am not reading him correctly ...

Simon Rippon said...

Thanks squiggle, I'm still a bit confused about the nature of your puzzle, but this helps a bit.

I wonder whether you are reading the "when" in Parfit's statement, "Starting to exist can be [neither] good or bad for people when it does not happen," temporally? I think it's not supposed to refer to a time, but just to mean the same as "if". So Parfit is ready to admit that, of a future possible child, we can say "If she exists, it will be good for her," or perhaps of the child whose life will not be worth living, "If she exists, it will be bad for her."

He is, of course, denying that we can say this: "If she doesn't exist, it will be bad for her." This leaves us free to still say, "If she doesn't exist, it will be neither good nor bad for her."

Perhaps your procreative question is this: "Would existing be good for the child?" But in this context this just means, "If she exists, will it be good for her?" You may be able to give a clear answer to this question, even if you end up choosing not to have the child. And the possibility that there might be two answers here opens up the possibility of a comparative judgment doesn't it? You might decide: "I choose to have the child, because it would be good for her, but I would not have chosen to do so if it would have been bad for her."

Jean Kazez said...

Simon, So what you're thinking is that if people choose irresponsible environmental policies, and people are living worse-than-necessary lives in 100 years, THEY will have grounds for complaint, even if their lives are worth living? Likewise, if Betty creates worse-off-A rather than better off-B, then A will have grounds for complaint that Betty could have been more beneficent? Just trying to be sure I get it ... I've had the same thought before (if I'm following you)--that an objection to a policy or choice doesn't necessarily have to be an objection on behalf of the person making the objection.

Squiggle--I have trouble with the idea of existence as a benefit for about the same reason you do. It's nearly irresistible to think "benefit" has a "before and after" element to it. A benefit makes someone better off in some sense than she was before. That doesn't make sense, when the benefit in question is coming into existence. Perhaps Simon's answer helps, though, and benefits don't always have that structure. I recall (dimly, at the moment) examples of harms that don't have that structure. Benatar's view that birth is harmful certainly doesn't mean he thinks people actually go from a better state to a worse state when they are born.

ɦʬʄʃɥʗʓʎɔɦʙʇɷʔɼʛʠɑʩʠ said...

Thanks for the discussion, I appreciate this.

Let's see if I get it right: there are three cases (supposing you know how the child life will turn out to be)

1) it's good to have a child when you know her life would be good for her

2) it's neither good nor bad to not have a child, regardless of how her life would have turned out to be

3) it's bad to have a child when you know her life would be bad for her

So #1 is better than #2 and #2 better than #3. #1 would be supererogatory since #2 is "not bad".

I do think it makes more sense to interpret it this way. But it still begs the question of what it means that the child's life is good.

Usually there should be some counterfactual consideration (my life is good because I'm healthy and rich and I could have been sick and poor instead), so there is a comparison made.

We usually don't worry too much about these counterfactuals, even if they open all kind of problems with identity (if I were born with some severe congenital disease, would that person still be me?).

So, if I consider the "cancer" counterfactual I could say "having a cancer is bad" because my life without a cancer is better of would it would have been with a cancer.

If I apply the same schema "X is good for me because my life with X is better than my life without X" to non-existence I fall into the absurd situation of considering what my non-existent life would have been like.

So, unless we find a way to define "X is good for me because ..." that doesn't involve a comparison between two "life situations", I will still don't really know what it means that child's life is good.

The trick, it seems, is that "her life is good" depends on the kind of counterfactuals considered (this reminds me of the epistemology chapters in Nozick's "Philosophical explanations" ...).

When wondering about creating a new life, the choice considered must be between existence and non-existence, not between a healthy life and a sick life, so I don't see how to escape the problem. We cannot just say it's good to have a kid because the kid's life will be good (meaning for example he will be healthy instead of sick).

Simon Rippon said...

Yes, exactly. (I don't think their complaint is necessarily on behalf of anyone else though.)

Well, I would hesitate to equate the goodness of the act of having a child with the goodness of the result for that child. So I'm not sure about your 1, 2, and 3, but there's something plausible about them, as you say. Maybe we could just put it in terms of moral reasons: if the child will actually exist, then the goodness or badness of the child's life for her provides a reason that counts respectively in favour of or against the act of bringing her into existence.

Thanks for spelling out in detail the rest of your worry about seeing existence as good. I think I finally understand what you're thinking. But I don't see why you think we need to consider two possible life situations of *the very same child* to conclude that that child's existence (with a life worth living) is good.

Compare this situation: suppose you're an extremely talented composer. If you choose to compose a piece of music today, it will be a great piece of music. You're now considering the question: shall I compose a piece of music today? Surely one reason in favour of doing so is that if you do compose it, it will be good. And in order to establish that it will be good, and to establish this reason, we don't need to compare the potential goodness of that piece of music to the goodness of the very same piece of music were you never to compose it. It would be enough to compare it to other (possible) pieces of music.

Similarly then, the existence of someone with a life worth living is good for them in comparison to other (possible) lives.

This doesn't yet answer the question of how to choose between creating and not creating a child with a life worth living. I want to say this: it wouldn't be worse for anyone if you didn't create her, so there's no moral reason for you to to do it. But if you do it, a moral reason that supports your having done it is that the child has a life worth living, so that you've done something good for someone. This sounds odd. But it answers the practical question we started with. And it seems to capture the peculiar feature that a person's coming into existence with a life worth living has, if we compare it to any of the other things that are good for her.

Simon Rippon said...

Oh, and how rude of me to forget - happy thanksgiving!

Squiggle said...

Simon: I like the way you phrased it. But Parfit clearly says that causing someone to exist may be good for this person (when she does exist and she has a good life, I suppose).

"we may admit that, for this reason, causing someone to exist cannot be better for this person. But it may be good for this person"

He doesn't say impersonally that it may counts in favour of bringing her into existence.

That's why I was looking for a definition of "good for this person" that doesn't involve comparing it to the counterfactual of non-existence.

The benefit of being healthy comes from comparing a healthy condition to a non healthy one.

So the benefit of existence must come from comparing existence vs non-existence. Or, as Jean said, via a different form of benefit which doesn't need comparison ...

A musical composition is not a moral subject, so nothing can be good for it, so I think it is a quite different case.

Also, Benatar would probably disagree with your statement too. He says that the badness of the child's life counts as a reason against bringing her into existence, but the goodness doesn't count in favour.

He has a smart example: the ability of healing quickly when sick is a good thing only if you can get sick. And never getting sick is clearly better than getting sick and recovering quickly. So, some things may count as good for those who actually exist, but this no advantage compared to non existence...

Jean Kazez said...

I've probably lost the thread of this discussion due to travel-induced amnesia, but I wanted to add--

Even if there's some subtle sense in which existence is a benefit to the individual born (as opposed to just adding value to the world, in an impersonal sense), it seems to me we want to draw a sharp line between different kinds of benefit. So--if you adopt a child who already exists, it's perfectly clear and robust that she benefits. If she's in a Chinese orphanage (say), the adoptive parents make the child go from a worse condition to a better condition. The child may even be saved from remaining in the worse condition for a long time. Creating a new child doesn't create this sort of transition from worse to better, and this is morally important. You'd be quite confused if you gave adoption and procreation the exact same moral valence, just because you convinced yourself that giving existence to a new child is in some subtle sense beneficial to her.