Reproduction and Self-Defense

We live in a crowded world, so someone might think they're obligated to have no children.  Then again, we live in a world that's becoming disproportionately elderly, so someone might think they'd better have children, so there will be enough young people around to support the aged. Then again again,  it would be odd if someone did their family planning entirely in such terms.  But why's it so odd?

Some writers say having children is simply a very intimate and personal affair, so not the sort of thing constrained by morality. But I don't see the logic there--is there really a DMZ (demoralized zone), untouched by ethics? On other accounts, to say someone ought to have a child, or ought not, improperly limits their freedom, even if these are moral and not legal "oughts".  But if moral "oughts" limit freedom (do they?), they all do.  What's so special about "oughts" pertaining to reproduction?

Perhaps we can shed some light here by noting how we think about the ethics of self-preservation, and then connecting the dots between reproduction and self-preservation.  So--first self-preservation, then the dots.

Jane is loafing around in the plaza drinking coffee, as she does most days, but today she has the misfortune of sitting near Dr. Wonderful when he goes berserk.   Dr. Wonderful has his gun aimed at Jane, but she's armed too, and a good shot, so could take him out.  Also in her pocket is a time-suspender.  After pressing the button, Jane begins to gather information and reflect.  Dr. Wonderful has 10 wonderful children and is on the verge of discovering the cure for a terrible illness. He's just off his meds, so if he shoots Jane, he'll be acquitted on grounds of insanity, and he'll go back to his wonderful research and his wonderful kids.  Jane, by contrast, will go on wasting time drinking coffee in plazas.  The world needs Dr. Wonderful much more than it needs Jane.  Jane pushes the button again, returning to the fast pace of real life, and lets herself be shot.

She may not be wrong to make the sacrifice, but it doesn't seem like she has to. In fact, she's failed to appreciate her own right of self-preservation.  She thought about the situation in a neutral, third-person way, but could have thought about it in a biased, first-person way.  When our existence is threatened, we're entitled to that ... aren't we?

Let's not say we're entitled in an absolute sense, though.  Put the whole scene on an airplane.  Dr. Wonderful and Jane have both made it past airport security with their weapons.  I don't think Jane can fire back if it means shooting a hole through the plane and bringing down everyone on board.  But she can kill Dr. Wonderful in the plaza, even if she realizes that letting herself be killed will be better for all, from a third person perspective.

from:  Tomkow.com
More self-preservation.  Take one of the infamous trolley cases.   A fat man's on a bridge over a railroad track.  You (you're Flanders) can hear a train in the distance, and can see that if it continues under the bridge, it will hit five people (and a dog, in the picture above!) on the track up ahead.  If you push the man onto the track, he'll be killed, but the five (or six) will be spared.  Suppose, for the sake of argument, you can, morally, push him over.

Okay ... but now suppose you're the fat man. Do you really have to jump down onto the track and let yourself be hit, to save the five children?  That's going too far!  If you're the fat man, there's a right of self-preservation that allows you to think about this in first person terms, even if (perhaps, perhaps), a bystander ought to look at it third-personally.

Time to connect the dots.  At a genetic level, and on a psychological level, having a child has much in common with self-preservation, even if it's not identical to self-preservation.  Yesterday I heard a Libyan woman interviewed on the radio. Her husband was Libyan broadcaster Mohammed Nabous, who who was killed by a sniper while speaking to his wife on a cell phone last spring -- she was 7 months pregnant at the time.  She had wanted to be out there reporting with him, she tells the interviewer, but knowing their child was on the way made him able to face death.  He wanted her to stay safe.  On some level, having a child is surviving--at least that's how many people feel, and on a genetic level, there's a least a kernel of truth to their feeling.

So?  So when we think about our reproductive choices, we don't have to have strictly third-personal thoughts about over-population or the problems of the elderly, just like Jane doesn't have to focus on total good, and let herself be shot by Dr. Wonderful; and the fat man doesn't have to have strictly third-personal thoughts and jump.  If reproduction is erstatz survival, the right to self-preservation applies (more or less) to reproductive decisions as well.

But like in Jane's case, not absolutely--she shouldn't fire back on the plane. I can imagine situations in which the prima facie right to reproduce must give way to something overwhelmingly important.  It also seems far more coherent to defend having a first or second child, as self-preservation, than to defend having a 10th or a 20th child that way.  After a few kids, you've done your ersatz surviving, and that rationale for having a child must surely lose its force.

Now you might say:  ignotum per ignotius (the unknown through the more unknown).  Why is there a right to self-defense?  Who knows, but any approach to ethics that says otherwise won't have much connection to the way people really live and think about their lives.


Wayne said...

No.... I don't think think saving your child is an act of self-preservation, anymore than donating sperm or ova is an act of self-preservation. Its saving someone you care about so deeply, that you're willing to sacrifice yourself for them. I'm assuming children aren't the only people that we would self-sacrifice for. I might self-sacrifice for other people's children, or my parents.

If its only an ersatz self-preservation... it is of serious inferior quality.

Whats worse is that if nobody takes the third person perspective, and everyone only take the first person perspective, overpopulation will eventually nip us. So at some point, people will have to take a third person perspective.... but why would this third person requirement only hinge upon impending struggles and hardships, and not distant struggles and hardships? (I'm assuming as the world gets more overcrowded, individuals will have a stronger obligation).

Speaking of odd justifications for having children... Isn't it weird to say that I'm having children for my self-preservation or ersatz self-preservation?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, I'm childless by choice ... so obviously no justification has appealed to me. But I wouldn't think this one is especially weird. I'd have thought it was quite familiar, socially accepted, and a common trope in literature (for example). Again, that doesn't make it compelling or whatever, but I'm not seeing the weirdness.

Joshua A. Miller said...

You're using intuitions about the protection of extant beings to justify bringing non-existent beings into existence. It's true that people seem to believe that they can achieve a kind of survival through reproduction, but they're in error. You've simply taken this popular error and used it to beg the question.

Russell Blackford said...

What question do you think she's begged, Joshua? I'm not saying you're wrong, but I'd like to hear more. On the face of it, isn't she suggesting that there may be some sort of moral right to have children. I don't see how she is relying on that very claim to draw the conclusion (though she may be relying on a premise that is false, such as that being allowed to have children really is akin to being allowed to go on living).

Jean, I'm not sure why there couldn't be a moral DMZ. If we see morality as based (or mainly based) on something like a social contract, there might be certain decisions that people are just not prepared to give up making for themselves, even to avoid a Hobbesian state of nature, or whatever. So those decisions would end up not being controlled by moral norms. It's similar to the idea that there are some things that are just too important to people for them to give up to regulation by the state, creating a legal DMZ.

I'm not big on analysing morality in terms of rights, but if we do so couldn't there be a meta-right that certain negative rights are not encroached upon by morality?

I suppose morality would still apply in the minimal sense that the acts in question would be categorised by the moral system as permissible. They'd still fall into a pigeonhole in a moral system. But they get categorised that way because of an idea that morality just doesn't have the authority to categorise them otherwise.

Chris Berry said...

Survival is continuity of the consciousness, not of my genes. If somebody severed my finger upon my death and left it in a jar of nutrients where the finger nail would keep growing for 100 years my death certificate wouldn't say I died when my fingernail stopped growing. It would say I died when my body ceased to function and all hope of consciousness with it.

anotherpanacea said...

Russell, the argument sets out to prove that "If reproduction is erstatz survival, the right to self-preservation applies (more or less) to reproductive decisions as well." So we're looking for evidence that reproduction is ersatz survival to complete the Modus Ponens.

In its favor, it gives the following evidence: we have a right to self-preservation (from first-person integrity and trolley cases) and this : "having a child is surviving--at least that's how many people feel."

Jean Kazez said...

"You're using intuitions about the protection of extant beings to justify bringing non-existent beings into existence."

I don't see any inherent problem with that. There's no rule that says our reasoning about existing people must never carry over to possible future people.

"It's true that people seem to believe that they can achieve a kind of survival through reproduction, but they're in error. You've simply taken this popular error and used it to beg the question."

Right--they believe they can achieve a KIND of survival. Just a kind--not the same kind as personal survival (going on living oneself). It's obviously an "error" to think you will personally survive in the body of you child--in fact, it's crazy. It's not obviously an "error" to think there's a sort of survival (something closely related to survival) involved in having offspring. There could be lots of grounds for thinking about offspring that way, not all of them stupid or spooky.

Alan Cooper said...

First a quibble then a point.

My quibble is that, in the trolley problem, although you do not deny the huge gap between the right to push and the obligation to jump, by mentioning just these two extremes you make it easier to take a dichotomous position on other issues. And I think that in moral discourse much confusion arises from not clearly distinguishing between the admirable, the morally obligatory, and the permittedly demandable.

My point is about the idea of reproduction as "ersatz survival".

Since (except where I am a mutant) my genes are all widely distributed among the human population, there are likely many others not related to me who share the characteristics that I identify with my sense of self. And in fact, since my children's genomes have been "polluted" by admixture from my beloved partner, there is probably someone somewhere who is more like me than they are. Would not the goal of ersatz survival be better served by sacrificing my own children in favour of that unrelated clone?

(I actually suspect that we do have a gene complex which causes us to recognize its presence or absence in others and to favour those who share it at the expense of others who don't - including possibly our own offspring. And that particularly selfish gene is of course the one for altruism. But that's another story.)

Russell Blackford said...

@ anotherpanacea - no, the conclusion of the argument is "We have a moral right [this is presumably something like a liberty right in Hohfeld's scheme of the varieties of rights] to reproduce."

Begging the question means appealing to ("begging") the very point that you are attempting to argue for ("the question"). But Jean never does that. She does not introduce as a premise: "We have a moral right to reproduce."

The argument is actually something like (to formalise it a little):

P1. We have a moral right to defend ourselves.
P2. Reproducing is sufficiently analogous to defending ourselves to generate analogous moral rights.
C. We have a moral right to reproduce.

P2. may well be false, but that does not mean any questions are being begged. It's a fairly straightforward, and I think valid, analogical argument. It may not be a sound argument (i.e. it will be unsound if it has a false premise), but we need to distinguish between an argument being unsound because a premise is false and an argument being unpersuasive because it appeals to the very point that it purports to prove.

Eli said...

"Why is there a right to self-defense? Who knows, but any approach to ethics that says otherwise won't have much connection to the way people really live and think about their lives."

Oh c'mon. Argumentum ad populum, and not even a clever one. Maybe "the way people really live and think about their lives" is biased and wrong - why, in that case, should philosophers follow that wrongness?