If ‘birth’ is worth nothing, births are worth anything

It seems many people think creating a life has zero value. Some believe this because they think the average life contains about the same amount of suffering and satisfaction. Others have more conceptual objections, for instance to the notion that a person who does not exist now, and who will otherwise not exist, can be benefited. So they believe that there is no benefit to creating life, even if it’s likely to be a happy life. The argument I will pose is aimed at the latter group.

As far as I know, most people believe that conditional on someone existing in the future, it is possible to help them or harm them. For instance, suppose I were designing a toy for one year olds, and I knew it would take more than two years to go to market. Most people would not think the unborn state of its users-to-be should give me more moral freedom to cover it with poisonous paint or be negligent about its explosiveness.

If we accept this, then conditional on my choosing to have a child, I can benefit the child. For instance if I choose to have a child, I might then consider staying at home to play with the child. Assume the child will enjoy this. If the original world had zero value to the child, relative to the world where I don’t have the child (because we are assuming that being born is worth nothing), then this new world where the child is born and played with must have positive value to the child relative to the world where it is not born.

On the other hand suppose I had initially assumed that I would stay at home to play with any child I had, before I considered whether to have a child. Then according to the assumption that any birth is worth nothing, the world where I have the child and play with it is worth nothing more than the one where I don’t have it. This is inconsistent with the previous evaluation unless you accept that the value of an outcome may  depend on your steps in imagining it.

Any birth could be conceptually divided into a number of acts in this way: creating a person in some default circumstance, and improving or worsening the circumstances in any number of ways. If there is no reason to treat a particular set of circumstances as a default, any amount of value can be attributed to any birth situation by starting with a different default labelled ‘birth’ and setting it to zero value. If creating life under any circumstances is worth nothing, a specific birth can be given any arbitrary value. This seems  harder to believe, and further from usual intuitions, than believing that creating life usually has a non-zero value.

You might think that I’m unfair to interpret ‘creating life is worth nothing’ as ‘birth and anything that might come along with it is worth nothing’, but this is exactly what is usually claimed. That creating a life is worth nothing, even if you expect it to be happy, however happy. I am most willing to agree that some standard of birth is worth nothing, and all those births in happier circumstances are worth more, and those in worse circumstances worth negative values. This is my usual position, and the one that the people I am debating here object to.

If you believe creating a life is in general worth nothing, do you also believe that a specific birth can be worth any arbitrary amount?

19 responses to “If ‘birth’ is worth nothing, births are worth anything

  1. John Broome has made roughly this kind of argument in several places. A standard response involves denying the completeness of the “better than” relation (i.e., denying that “A is not better than B” implies that “B is at least as good as A”). If the “better than” relation is incomplete, you can say that having a child and playing with it is better than having a child and not playing with it, while still thinking that neither is better than having no child. The idea is that adding a child with a life worth living never makes things better or worse than not having the child (modulo causal side-effects).

    Some examples suggest it is not crazy to have “better than” be incomplete. Suppose two very different job offers are roughly on a par, and you’re having a tough time deciding between them, though you know pretty much all of the relevant facts about each of the jobs. (The classic case is a choosing between a nice job as a lawyer and a nice job as an academic.) You might be tempted to say that, in this case, assuming your attitude is reasonable, neither job is better or worse than the other. If “better than” is complete, this means the jobs are exactly equally as good. Now imagine someone says, “If you take the second job, I’ll throw in a six-pack of beer.” If they were equally good before, then now the second job is better. But you might think that in a hard choice like this, the mild sweetening shouldn’t change things (though you agree that job 2 with beer is better than job 2). It is fairly natural to model this situation with an “incomplete” better than relation.

    In the end, I don’t think that is the way to go, but there is more fight to be had with the folks who want to say that adding people is neutral. (Though I think your argument shows that people who think that adding people leaves things exactly equally as good are mistaken.)

    • Oops, that was my first time using HTML tags. The correct comment follows:

      I think that something that avoids troublesome statements about the neutrality of birth while still providing similar decisions is a lexicographical preference for the well-being of those who will exist. This appeals to intuitions that no one is harmed by not being created, but that once they are created (or are expected to be created) we should care equally about their well-being.

  2. You are saying “worth nothing” in a way that suggests “worth zero”. But those of us who claim that you cannot impute value to potential births are not saying the value is zero, we are saying it is undefined, as in *dividing by zero*.

    • So the total value to everyone in a possible world where people are born is always undefined, since it contains undefined terms for each person’s birth?

      Could you explain why you think it should be undefined?

  3. Noah: That might work for an individual instance, I suppose.

    But I find the possible claim that we can’t even probabilistically speak about the value of births untenable; we should be able to rank them negative, neutral, or positive, on average, if we’re able to value being-alive in any form at all.

    And if we’re not going to deny a probabilistic valuation of births, I’m not sure what the problem is.

    Sure, we couldn’t be sure that any specific birth would be on the average (rather than better or worse), but that’s true of every real-world action, yet we have no difficulty assigning value to them as classes.

    And if you literally mean you can’t comprehend the idea of a potential birth having value, in the same sort of way that division by zero is literally undefined, well… I suppose there’s nothing I can say to that, except that the rest of us don’t seem to have a lot of trouble doing it.

  4. As you yourself note, the value to the child is conditional on them existing in the future. So, it isn’t that being born has no value added compared to the value of not being born, because for the unborn child the precondition of future existence remains unmet. In a sense, being born is worth everything, because without it there is no worth.

    Lest you think me a monster for finding no worth, as opposed to zero worth, in the life of non-existent children, I came to this opinion while writing about the duty of parents to abort fetuses which are known to have conditions that will have a serious negative effect upon the standard of life of the resulting person. Because I like being argumentative, my initial position was that the parent had an ethical duty to prevent this future life the suffering; however, since choosing not to have the baby removed the perspective from which comparison was possible, I couldn’t see anyway to say the child’s life was better for not existing. Aborting, re-fertilizing, and selecting for a child without the condition might exchange one life for another that would be happier and put less stress on the parents, satisfying some abstract utilitarian calculus, but since the original child would never exist, it seemed wrong to say aborting it somehow “did it good.”

    In regard to the original context you have for this question, I have to admit I also think that killing someone doesn’t harm them, as once again there is no existence, which is a necessary precondition for value to be assigned. However, differences choosing not to have a child, whether by abortion or decision not to conceive in the first place, and killing someone can be differentiated in two ways. First is the fact that a culture which condones killing leaves those who are alive nervous about their prospects of staying that way, which can be evaluated as a negative effect. Secondly, when people are killed, those who survive obtain negative value in mourning.

    Thank you, this post, and the blog in general, seem wonderfully interesting. I look forward to “wandering around” a bit more!

  5. I don’t follow the math, at all.

  6. I frequently came across silica gel packs at the bottom of food containers. The description read “do not eat,” with nothing more. I was around 10 years old. I wanted to punch someone in the face with my tiny, tiny fists.

  7. This is good. Put it into maths and show it violates transitivity.

  8. Stuart Armstrong

    Nice post, and interesting argument.

    But it doesn’t even undermine average utilitarianism. It only seems to undermine particualrly naive “birth means nothing”-type arguments. I take the position that “preferences are irrelevant if the agent having the preferences doesn’t exist when they are having that preference” (so, for instance, present preferences for after death are relevant, but preferences had “before birth” or “after death” are never directly relevant). This position seems to me to be entirely immune to your argument (?) Though it is, of course, under-specified.

    • So you agree that preferences for being alive during life are relevant before life? e.g. If I created a person they would want to be alive, so it is good for me to make them alive, though they presently want nothing. If so, I’m not trying to argue against you.

      • Stuart Armstrong

        We disagree on whether there is a difference between death and non-existence. I would perfectly agree that preventing the death of someone not yet born is a positive act. But giving birth to them is not something intrinsically positive.

        There’s a counterfactual aspect to this. Had I not chosen to look deeply into FHI/less wrong/overcoming bias, I would have had very different preferences to those I have now – for instance I’d be more attached to sexy-seeming charities that trully effective ones. I do not, however, feel any need to fulfil the desires of my counterfactual copy (even from a timeless perspective; “we each fulfil our own desires” seems the best timeless decision). Or of the version of Stuart that liked cucumbers and not chocolate.

        This counterfactual Stuart feels like a “non-existent entity who might like to live”. Do you think I should take any of his preferences, personal or non-personal, into account?

        • If doing so would bring him into existence, e.g. if you could make yourself into the currently non-existent entity who likes cucumbers, then perhaps. But you would be doing it at the expense of the current version who likes chocolate (and being alive). So you would have to weigh up the costs and benefits.

          • Stuart Armstrong

            Just to check – are you arguing that those are your moral values, and that is what you would do (which I have no argument with) or that there are some extra prescriptive reasons that everyone should follow it?

            • I am arguing that if you want to value a person being born at zero regardless of the content of their life, and you assign value to the contents of people’s lives conditional on their existing, your system of values must have some strange feature like refusing to compare the values of many combinations of worlds or assigning arbitrary value to some births.

              • Stuart Armstrong

                I agree that assigning zero to someone newly born, in the naive way you describe, leads to incoherence.

                I wouldn’t say the same for assigning value to the contents of people’s lives, though. Even average utilitarianism compares all worlds and doesn’t assign arbitrary values to some births.

  9. Pingback: Resolving Paradoxes of Intuition | Meteuphoric


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