This is the second of three posts in which What’s Wrong? catches up with the honorees from the American Philosophical Association‘s 2013 Book Prize competition to see what they’ve been working on since then. Last week’s post featured Cara Nine writing about resource rights. This week’s post features Nicole Hassoun, who was honored for her book Globalization and Global Justice: Shrinking Distance, Expanding Obligations (Cambridge University Press). Professor Hassoun has been thinking about population ethics recently and What’s Wrong? is grateful to her for providing the brief post below on that subject.
The Value of Existence: Is Reproduction Permissible or Required?
I have been thinking lately about the value of existence . In my brief foray into population ethics, one thing I have found quite striking is that many theories seem to imply that we should have children (whenever there is some positive impersonal value in their existence), while others deny that it is even permissible to have them (some say, e.g., that it is better never to have been) (see, e.g. Benatar, Better Never to have Been).
Today I’ll explore the prospects for one way of defending the idea that we are permitted, but not required, to have children. The idea is this: If it is neither good nor bad to have a greater number of people in a population for a wide (or at least non-unitary) range of welfare levels, it is presumably neutral to have children at these welfare levels. One might think this suggestion is a non-starter, as John Broome (amongst others) has argued at length against the wide neutrality idea. In this post I will suggest that his objection fails. So the common sense view about reproduction may be defensible. If it is generally neither good nor bad to have a greater number of people in a population, we may be permitted, but not required, to have children.
Consider why Broome believes that if we say it is neither good nor bad to have a greater number of people in a population for any (non-unitary) range of welfare levels, we will arrive at unintuitive judgments about different populations of potential people. Compare, for instance, the following vectors of welfare (or more generally advantage) A= (1,2), B= (1,2,0), C= (1,1,0). Suppose that the third value in B represents the addition of a person with a level of advantage in the “neutral” range to A. Suppose that C has the same people in it as B but, in C, the second person in B has lost one unit of advantage. If adding people to a population is neutral (regardless of their levels of advantage), Broome says B and C are not worse than A. But since B and C have the same people in them and the second person in C has less than the second person in B, C is worse than B. So, since “worse than” is transitive, C is worse than A. Broome concludes that it is not the case that it is neither good nor bad to have a greater number of people in a population for any (non-unitary) range of welfare levels (Broome, 2005).
One may, however, hold that C is worse than A – there is one respect in which it is worse – it is worse for the second person and the addition of another person to C is neutral – so at least if C is derived from A there is some reason for thinking that it is worse. Moreover, one need not hold that C is worse than B. One can say that if C and B were to come into existence, C *would* be worse than C and if one had to choose whether to move to B or C from A one should choose B. Then there is no problem maintaining that A is not worse than B or C. Rather, there is some reason to think A is better than C.
Consider Broome’s argument against this proposal (Broome, 2004, 152-7). Broome considers a version of the mere addition paradox where most of the individuals in A have 4 units of good and one has 5. He then considers an otherwise identical situation, B, where the individual with 5 has 6 and there is an additional person who has 1 unit of good. Finally, C is the same as B but the person with 5 only has 4 and the person with 1 also has 4. We can represent the situations this way:
A = (4,4,…4,5,*)
B = (4,4,…4,6,1)
C = (4,4,…4,4,4)
Broome says that A is equally as good as B and C for the last person (who has 1 in B, 4 in C and who does not exist in A). B is better than A for the second to last person (who has 6 rather than 5) and A is better than C for that person (who has 5 rather than 4). So B is overall better than A, which is better than C. This, however, violates the transitivity of betterness (Broome, 2004, 152-7).
The problem with this argument is that it is not clearly the case that A is equally as good as B and C for the last person (who does not exist in A). It is true that A is neither better nor worse for that person than B and A is neither better nor worse for that person than C. But this tells us nothing about how B and C compare to each other. If either B or C will be the case, it is clearly better for the last person to be in C than in B. A is incomparable with B and C for the last person. Nevertheless, C is clearly better than B for that person (and better impersonally in one respect). That is, C>B for the last person. So even though B>A>C for the second to last person, it is not clearly the case that B>A>C all things considered.
The preceding reflections do not, however, amount to an argument for the claim that it is neither good nor bad to have a greater number of people in a population, so Broome may be right to reject the intuition that adding a person to a population is neutral in many cases. Still, Broome provides no positive argument for his view. So, it seems, one might say it is neither good nor bad to have a greater number of people in a population for a large range of welfare levels. If so, that might provide one way of defending the idea that it is permissible but not required to have children.
If, however, one rejects the wide neutrality idea, it may still be possible to defend the common sense view that it is acceptable to have children but that we are not required to have them. One could then maintain that there is always some positive value in lives worth living and that this generates a weak (impersonal) reason to bring people who will have lives worth living into existence. One might argue along the following lines:
1. If someone comes into existence, we have reason to ensure that the person is well-off.
2 There is reason against bringing someone into existence who will suffer. (It is generally not permissible to cause suffering just to give someone utility.)
3. The fact that someone will be well-off if they come into existence is a weak (impersonal) reason to bring someone into existence.
4. But since people who do not exist do not have claims to be brought into existence, and there is at least one reason against bringing them into existence (since every life contains some suffering), it is permissible not to bring someone into existence even if they would be well-off.
5. If, however, the expected utility calculus suggests that someone will be well-off, it is also permissible to bring the person into existence.
I’d defend this last claim in something like this way:
a) Actual consent for causing someone suffering is not required when it is impossible to secure; hypothetical consent will suffice.
b) It is impossible to secure our children’s consent to be brought into existence as their existence is contingent on our action.
c) If the expected utility calculus suggests that someone we bring into existence will be well-off, we can expect the person to consent to being brought into existence.
Since this argument does not obviously require saying that it is neither good nor bad to have a greater number of people in a population for any (non-unitary ) range of welfare levels, one might count that as a point in its favour. It is, however, the topic for another post.
Keep your eyes open for a series of papers on the topic and on measuring poverty and health co-authored with Lucio Esposito – an economist at the University of E. Anglia and a paper on population ethics and international aid forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Global Justice.
 Broome makes this exception as his argument is not directed against critical level utilitarians (Broome, 2005).
I worry about premises 2 and 4. Is it necessarily true that the suffering in a life is a reason against bringing it into existence? That would certainly be true of any *uncompensated* suffering the life contained. But if the life contains sufficient happiness to far outweigh the minor suffering it contains, then it seems to me it would be very irrational to refrain from bringing it into existence *for the reason that* it happens to contain some minor suffering. If it’s a pro tanto reason at all, it is outweighed by the pro tanto reasons in favour of existence. But, more than that, I wonder whether the prima facie reason to avoid suffering is in this case defeated (by the fact that all the suffering is more than compensated for in the person’s life as a whole), and so not ultimately a reason against their existence at all.
For what it’s worth, I think a much more natural way to secure a range of permissible procreative options is by appealing to the idea that (many) procreative duties would be excessively “demanding”, as I argue here:
Thanks Richard — I do tend to think of suffering as a pro-tanto reason against bringing someone into existence that can (perhaps easily) be outweighed. Perhaps it is important to figure out how to think about this for other reasons as well (it seems central to many debates about welfare, e.g.). It also strikes me that there is a similar question about equality. Consider how Larry Temkin thinks of equality in responding to the leveling down objection — we might not have reason to level down all things considered though movement towards equality is something to be said in its favor. Many find this implausible. I don’t (at least yet!) have an argument for one way of thinking about the suffering vs. the other, however. Perhaps someone else can weigh in here with some relevant arguments or references?
I enjoyed reading this, Professor Hassoun, so thanks for posting it.
For what it’s worth, I’m skeptical of 4 as well. First, it seems to me that if there’s a reason for an agent not to procreate, it’s not that his or her child will suffer, it’s that he or she has good reasons to believe that his or her child will suffer. That is, what’s going to justify one in not having a child isn’t the fact that one’s child would have suffered, which may not be true, but rather the fact that there are very good reasons for one to believe that one’s child would have suffered.
Second, like Professor Chappell, it doesn’t seem that one is justified in not procreating just because one has very good reasons for thinking that one’s child will suffer, especially in those cases where one also has very good reasons for thinking that one’s child’s happiness will outweigh his or her suffering.
Consider this case: An individual is in need of an emergency operation, and a doctor who is capable of performing the operation is nearby. In this case, it doesn’t seem like the individual in need of the operation has a claim to the operation, and it also seems like the doctor has a reason not to perform the operation, namely that performing it is likely to cause the individual some additional suffering. But we shouldn’t conclude that the doctor is therefore permitted not to perform the operation just because it is likely to cause the individual some additional suffering. Insofar as the doctor’s evidence speaks in favor of performing the operation, that’s what he or she should do.
thanks for the comments! I tend to think there are just two kinds of ‘ought’ in play – one that is responsive to internal reasons and another that is responsive to external reasons. But let’s focus on your second point. In the doctor case, I think I agree with you (assuming the patient can’t consent but would do so if conscious). I think there is a positive and quite demanding right to life so the doctor should save the patient. But I also think there is a dis-analogy between what we should do for people who are in existence and those who we might bring into existence. Consider a case (from “Aid and Future Generations”, forthcoming, The Oxford Handbook of Global Justice): Suppose you can either help a person in the future secure two units of some necessary good or ensure that they come into existence with two units. It seems that the later is preferable insofar as there will be no time during which the person has only one unit of necessary good (and supposing that she needs at least two units). There is even a reason against choosing to help that person (rather than choosing to bring her into existence with two units) if she could be brought into existence with two units. On the other hand, it is quite plausible that we should always help those who are currently in existence secure necessary goods. Of course, I think it can be permissible to help someone who will come into existence in the future secure some necessary goods (e.g. if you cannot ensure that they come into existence with more). Similarly, I think it is O.K. to procreate even knowing your child will experience some suffering as long as they live a minimally good life but there is still one reason against bringing that person into existence – the fact that they will suffer. This may explain why we should generally wait to have a child that will suffer less over having one that will suffer more immediately.
All best, -Nicole