Paternity tests endanger the unborn

Should paternity testing be compulsory at birth? In discussions of this elsewhere I haven’t seen one set of interests come up: those of children who would not be born if their mothers were faithful. At the start of mandatory paternity testing there would be a round of marriages breaking up at the hospital, but soon unfaithful women would learn to be more careful, and there just wouldn’t be so many children. This is pretty bad for the children who aren’t. Is a life worth more than not being cuckolded? Consider, if you could sit up on a cloud and choose whether to be born or not, knowing that at some point in your life you would be cuckolded if you lived, would you? If so, it looks like you shouldn’t support mandatory paternity testing at the moment. This is of course an annoying side effect of an otherwise fine policy. If incentives for childbearing were suitably high it would not be important, but at the moment the marginal benefit of having a child appears reasonably high, so the population effects of other policies such as this probably overwhelm the benefits of their intentional features.

You may argue that the externalities from people being alive are so great that additional people are a bad thing – if they are a very bad thing then the population effect may still dominate, but mean that the policy is a good idea regardless of the effect on married couples. I haven’t seen a persuasive case for the externalities of a person strongly negative enough to make up for the greatness of being alive, but feel free to point me to any.

44 responses to “Paternity tests endanger the unborn

  1. If you think there are big positive externalities associated with creating more children, the sensible policy is to make taxpayers subsidize parents on a per-child basis. Not to trick an unfortunate subpopulation into bearing all the costs.

    • Of course. The issue is where to spend effort if you don’t have the power to magically change as many policies as you like. I’m suggesting not spending effort trying to change paternity test policy, which on its own will make things worse.

    • You mean, like we already do in every developed country in the world?

  2. I think it’s usually taken for granted in arguments that could have a side-effect on the abortion rate is that we shouldn’t consider the interests of the fetus, as this leads to all sorts of tricky policy considerations. Not that this is a sufficient reason to discount the issue of the interests of fetuses, but this argument could be extended to affect all sorts of policies that affect the abortion rate (or even the conception rate?) at the margin.

    Alternatively, a simple workaround here would be to make paternity testing contingent on a waiver of elective abortion rights.

  3. Would you similarly subsidize rape, or at least reduce the penalties on rape, as rape also creates more kids?

  4. If families are typically of fixed size, then the opportunity cost is the legitimate child left unborn. It ain’t N that changes so much as the composition of N.

    Oh, and Robin’s question.

    • I’m not sure how set people are on particular numbers of children, but I doubt having an extra child at some point reduces the chance of another child nearly completely – for some it would and others not probably.

  5. Robin and Eric, I’m not suggesting adding more incredibly inefficient regulations to increase population, just not expending effort removing existing ones if they will have a negative effect. If you want to increase population there are presumably much less harmful ways to do it than incentivise rape!

    • So *if* rape were now legal you would not expend effort to make it illegal, because that would reduce population?

      • Act Utilitarianism vs. Rule Utilitarianism Altert!

      • You’re conflating separate factors. Katja addresses three: the (supposed) congenital utility created for those otherwise unborn; the disutility of cuckholdry for husband; and the dispersed disutility of additional regulations and efforts to enact them. To compare rape, the congenital utility is the same; the disputility of rape is much higher; and the disutility related to bureaucracy is higher; so, even if the last factor were lower, the second prevails.

      • It of course depends how good being alive is, how bad being raped is, how many rapes happen per resulting child, how many people get killed in the ensuing revenge by those who think their sisters or girlfriends shouldn’t be raped etc. I doubt my guess at these things is better than yours.

  6. I can take your point if a couple are already at their preferred number of kids and then this is an additional one, but think of the poor jerk who’s gotten a vasectomy thinking he’s had his two….

  7. Even as an abstract principle your premise inverts logic. Robin Hanson has already said the first thing that popped into my mind – you seem to be implying rape is ok too.
    Your argument is pretending to stand on the rights of the unborn individual – this is a strawman argument. The child would still be born, still get to enjoy life (as many people manage to do despite missing parent(s)) – The only thing a paternity test would do is shift the burden of support to the male person who was biologically responsible for the baby.
    Following your logic would imply that I should proceed and try to deceptively impregnate women (for e.g. by saying I have vasectomy) and then run-off (I travel a lot) leading them to bring up and support the kid themselves. Common decency, a sense of fairness and simple honesty stops me from doing so. The same sense of ethical correctness should also apply to cuckoldry.

    • I’ve no idea what you mean it inverts logic. What makes you think the child will still be born? Do you think women wouldn’t anticipate the fallout?

    • Rape probably more unpleasant than being cuckolded as long as the men remain unaware of the fact. Also, rape leads to pregnancy in a relatively smaller number of cases than consensual sex.

  8. I am not in favor of mandated paternity testing, but there are some arguments for it that you’re not considering.

    While some marriages may fall apart after husbands finding out that the newborn is not theirs, some new mothers will be able to go after the father for child support (and I don’t mean just the government-mandated cash, but actual involvement with child-rearing).

    Also, at least some children will benefit significantly from having access to true paternal health history.

  9. Mandatory testing makes marriage and fatherhood more attractive to men, especially those suspicious of their partners. I doubt it, but its possible that the extra children born because of this would make up for the effect you worry about.

  10. Pingback: Paternity Dna Testing

  11. Why should we care about the unborn any more than we care about sperm cells or laboratory rats?

    • If you are of a consequentialist bent, arguably the unborn have comparatively better consequences if they are born than not, compared to the differences in killing or spilling those or not.

  12. I’m with you Katja, this sounds like a low cost way (in terms of utility) of increasing desirable population growth.

  13. “The greatness of being alive” is a bit of a fudge, Katja. You wouldn’t know it from your critics, who revert to deontology when it suits, but you need a way to conceptualize the utility of being alive.

  14. Robert,

    If you had a way to conceptualize the relative weight of utilities and disutilities, your suggestion would be a start. But their relative effect on conduct is a function of different discounting curves over time, making the experiences of reward and punishment qualitatively different. Katja’s thought experiment concerning whether you would choose to be born is a bad intuition pump: the being making the imaginary choice is still you, and you have no way to evaluate the utility of never having been born distinguished from dying now. Put differently, evolution had no reason make us assessors of the inherent value of our own existence; saying life is worth living is at best only an expression of one’s mood.

  15. So contraceptives should be illegal, I suppose. (Or at least, they should not be subsidized by government.)

    The rights of those who might have been? Sure, why not, bring on policies to encourage more octomoms… I mean, the rights of EIGHT might-have-beens surely trump just about any other consideration, right?

    I am sorry, but this is quite possibly the stupidest argument I have read in months.

  16. Just to pile on Robin’s question: would your argument suggest that contraceptives should be banned or subject to extra taxes?

    • Sure, if it were politically feasible.

    • No. Obviously all these policies would be extremely harmful compared to subsidising children directly, so if you were working to add policies you would work toward something like that, not a convoluted, ineffective harmful way of achieving the same end. As I said previously, my point is merely that where there are already such laws, working to remove them would probably be a net harm.

      Similarly if you have an awful house, you might be even worse off if you burn it down. This doesn’t mean you should look for an awful house when you are buying.

      • True, if you’re choosing political projects for support, you should favor those featuring more straightforward and effective policies, but that preference doesn’t rebut your duty to favor less effective policies that increase birth rate. Perhaps, limiting contraception is the best that’s politically feasible; probably, various policy measures favoring births are more additive than competitive.
        If banning contraceptives seems a bad bargain, it’s because it’s paid for in the counterfeit currency of birthright utility, not because there are more efficient ways to raise birth rate, a consideration irrelevant to assessing the relevant bargain’s terms.

  17. > Should paternity testing be compulsory at birth?

    Who has suggested that it should be? I expect there are more Americans who would like to outlaw paternity testing.

    Paternity testing gives the father information that he can use to decide how much effort to invest, and thus seems libertarian, or possibly Republican. Outlawing paternity testing will result in more children being supported, even though by men who personally wouldn’t want to if they had more information; this is more liberal.

  18. This is one of the worst arguments I’ve ever seen. At its very strongest utilitarianism, you’re comparing enslaving men to child support to the utility of women being able to betray their significant others to replace their potential children with those of other men.

    It’s both stupid and reprehensible.

  19. Your argument is way too strong. To see that do a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis.

    A Util Rule approach:
    + More marriage for men (around 20% have no interest in America/30% who want to marry but are fine being single right now).
    +More stable marriages
    +More traditional virtue on the part of women (however much this is worth to you).
    +More traditional virtue on the part of men (child support will prevent lots of would-be wife boners, slightly less pleasure for them I suppose)
    +More justice for men (obvious)
    +More justice for women (they collect more and from the men they’ve chosen with this policy in mind)
    +More genetic information for society
    +More babies born as father’s know that their paternity
    +More babies born as mother’s know that their father’s will support them

    -Cost of the program
    -Cost of future tyrranical superstate using the information against its citizens.
    -Less lascivious pleasure for women
    -Less lascivious pleasure for men
    -Less babies being born from this lascivious pleasure
    -Initial breakups/rationality-lagged costs (cost of time it takes for women/men’s rationality to kick in)

    Even if you give absurd weightings to cuckolded babies over the possibly fewer non-cuckold babies that would be born in their place, the +’s of more, stabler marriages, and public genetic information alone ought to save enough lives to counterbalance the anti-cuckolding effects of paternity testing.

    Unlike birth control technology, the first order effects on a rationally behaving married couple ought to be neutral. As soon as the policy is instituted, a woman’s desire for child should not change if it is a good in and of itself.

    You seem to be suggesting that a woman prizes the genetic information she obtains from philanderers over her husband and thus fewer babies would be born as the cuckolding process that allows the beta-male husbands to pay for ill-begotten children ends. As this is the primary scenario that MPT will terminate, I suspect you believe that a significant portion of the female population has these attributes. As a feminist, I cannot agree and any true feminist (consequentialist or otherwise) ought to disagree as well.

  20. Interesting post!

    This is a quandry for me as I’m inclined to (1) support the existence of human life and children in particular as a tremendous good and (2) support increased transparency and quality of information.

    However, like a good advanced ape, I’ve come up with a potential solution…what if a shift in norms towards mandatory paternity testing resulted in a deemphasize on monogamous partnership/child-rearing?

    Societies like this crop up a few places, so it seems within the scope of permissible human arrangements. Arguably this may reduce reliable resources for child-rearing, but could this be made up through state or community support?

  21. This type of thinking is a clear indication of how immoral our society has become and explains a lot of the dysfunction we see around us.

    In our cartoon world today concepts of right and wrong are considered the domain of the simple minded. It is amazing the lengths people will go to justify things that are clearly wrong.

    Rape is wrong. Cuckoldry is wrong.

    Full stop.

    The fact that we punish the former (an act primarily committed by men) yet reward the latter (an act committed ONLY by women) tells us a great deal about how far our society has fallen.

    There should be no doubt why such huge numbers of young men are turning away from marriage. Marriage has become a rotten deal for men in this country and hey are, wisely, reacting accordingly.

  22. Let’s think about this for a second…

    A MAN or MALE is supposed to just believe that a woman would NEVER lie about him being the father- yet on shows like Maury and even genetic testing done on children which proves that many men that women pont to and yell and cry out loud are NOT the father…and men are just supposed to accept this?

    Why is it a woman has the choice to decide whether a child is born or not, no matter the man’s wishes or views and yet the SAME man who will be EXPECTED to pay for the child through care or financial and emotional support does NOT have the right to find out whether it is his child or not?

    At this rate, any woman can point a finger at a man, claim he is the father, and get HIM to pay child support for a child he has never seen and a woman he has never met. Doesn’t that constitute fraud and dishonesty?

    With regards to married couples, if you get a chance to look at women’s confession boards, they ADMIT they have been cheating and the child is NOT the husbands, bu t rather than lose their cushy life or walking ATM and child supporter, they would prefer to let a man live a LIE rather than face the consequences of their CHOICES. BTW, since it seems that women seem to not care what a MAN thinks, why should a man who has the slightest doubt NOT get a DNA test? The hospitals know the truth…they will refuse to tell a man because if a man finds out he is lied to, he MAY harm the mother and the child. Gee, why is that such a threat? Perhaps the man will react to a woman LYING to him about fidelity, about supporting and believing the LIE he was told, and the sense of betrayal the woman showed him. Is THIS what women are afraid of?

    Or are women afraid that their deeds and conduct will come to light?

    Well, women…do you fear the men…or the truth?

    Warhammer Axe

  23. Here’s some evidence that shows why men NEED to get DNA testing:

    From a legal advice website:
    [quote]Is it possible to get a DNA test of my baby while I’m pregnant or should I just wait till I give birth?

    Then I can see which of the 3 men he looks like then tell them the baby is theirs?

    Cos I don’t want to do a DNA test after cos everyone would know I sleep around.[/quote]

    Imagine such a woman telling all three men they are the father- imagine how much $$$ they would be required to spend-
    imagine how it would feel to be this woman’s ATM…

    and guess what…she CAN legally do it…and get away with it.
    Men, she could be YOUR girlfriend…or YOUR wife…

    think about it

    Warhammer Axe

  24. To clarify, I agree cuckoldry is an extremely horrible thing for a woman to do to a man. My point is that if you accept human life is worth a lot, side effects of an otherwise fantastic or terrible policy on human life can overwhelm the calculations and make it the reverse. John Broome has made a similar point much better at Of course I would far prefer any of the possible solutions where there is sufficient incentive to have children and also for women not to exploit men. It’s just hard to justify working toward the latter without also the former.

  25. “….there just wouldn’t be so many children. This is pretty bad for the children who aren’t. ”

    The same can be said for birth control and abortion.

    But those benefit you, so those are just fine and it goes without saying that your wants and needs outweigh the lives of unborn children and pretty much anyone or anything else.

    However when its something that benefits the father and inconveniences you, like paternity testing, the standard is of course reversed and the unborn child’s rights become paramount. Well, isn’t that *special*. How typically hypocritical and solipsistic.

    And in what can only be said to be an act of mastery of cognitive dissonance, you can hold both of these contrary opinions to be simultaneously true and see no logical disconnect. And yet you probably still think you’re some sort of an intellectual.

    Anyway, the point is moot. The genie of paternity testing is out of the bottle and you can’t put this ‘toothpaste’ back in the tube. Ban it, and the inevitable, unintended consequences of prohibition take effect. Did you really think you could use female privilege to contain technology?

    There is another point you might not be considering. Some of us are actually for equal rights between the sexes. But when I see arguments like this, it *sorely* tempts me to think that’s not really possible, or even desired by the other side. And if one of us is going to end be a second class citizen no matter what, I’d much prefer it be you.

    • Where did I say this doesn’t apply to birth control or abortion?

      • So you oppose all birth control and abortion then?

        • In the long run, I support birth control, abortion and mandatory paternity testing. In the short run for all of these things it depends on the counterfactuals. If there is a fairly wide choice of them, my preferred possible world also includes all those things. Whether it is worth campaigning for something is a different question to whether it is worth not campaigning against a policy that already exists though. If you assume that human life is worth a lot, then encouraging more of any of these things at present seems like it would destroy more of value than it created, for reasons discussed above. But all forms of forcing parents to have children they don’t want are awful ways to increase worthwhile human lives, so of course I would not recommend making it easier for women to exploit men or making it harder for women to get birth control and abortion, as a means to more human life. I would recommend any of the very much better policies that encourage the people who most want children to have more of them.

  26. if the identity of the father doesn’t matter, then logically the identity of the mother doesn’t matter. Right? Makes sense no? So at birth a mother who gave birth should have her child taken from her and be given a baby at random from the maternity ward. Most babies look the same at birth anyway.

    BTW, if you have a problem with the concept of DNA testing, you can always move to France, Australia or New Zealand. in New Zealand it is a crime for any father to have his child DNA tested unless:

    – the mother of the child gives her express permission
    – the father successfully obtains a High Court Order

    So if a man has doubts there, he is at the mercy of the female and the court and she has the power to screw him over is she so chooses.

    If women have the power to exploit men ‘for the children’, men should refuse to acknowledge paternity…’for the children’

    Gentlemen, Remember:
    No DNA test = No birth cert signature

    Warhammer Axe


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