Tag Archives: potential people

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?

Ignorance of non-existent preferences

I often hear it said that since you can’t know what non existent people or creatures want, you can’t count bringing them into existence as a benefit to them even if you guess they will probably like it. For instance Adam Ozimek makes this argument here.

Does this absolute agnosticism about non-existent preferences mean it is also a neutral act to bring someone into existence when you expect them to have a net nasty experience?

You might be population too

I recently attended a dinner forum on what size the population should be. All of the speakers held the same position: small. The only upsides of population mentioned were to horrid profit seeking people like property developers. Yet the downsides to population are horrendous – all our resource use problems multiplied! As one speaker quoted “The population can’t increase forever, and as a no brainer it should stop sooner rather than later”. As there are no respectable positives in the equation, no need for complicated maths. Smaller is better.

I suggested to my table what I saw as an obvious omission in this model: I at least am enjoying the population being big enough to have me in it, so I would at least consider putting a big positive value on human lives. My table seemed to think this an outlandish philosophical position. I suggested that if resource use is the problem, we fix externalities there, but they thought this just as roundabout a way of getting ‘sustainability’, whereas cutting the population seems straightforward and there’s nothing to lose by it. I suggested to the organizer that the positive of human existence deserved a mention (in a multiple hour forum), and he explained that if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t notice, as though that settles it.

But the plot thickened further. Why do you suppose we should keep the population low? “We should leave the world in as good or a better condition as we got it in” one speaker explained. So out of concern for future generations apparently. Future people don’t benefit from being alive, but it’s imperative that we ensure they have cheap water bills long before they have any such preferences. Continue reading

Moving marginal mothers

Julian Savulescu suggests extending the idea of paying drug addicts not to have children to everyone.  At first the purpose is to avoid the eugenics feel of discouraging only one set of people from procreating, but then he reasons:

“The benefit of a policy of offering inducements to sterilisation is that it would select those who do not value, do not understand, do not want the role of parent. And it is precisely these people who are likely to be the worst parents.

Being a parent is, at best, a difficult job. Why not excuse those with the least motivation and determination? There are plenty of others willing to take their place. And the earth can only sustain a finite number of people.”

It’s of course true that if you penalize an activity, those to whom it is most expensive already will be the ones to quit. However:

  1. The existing costs of parenting already induce those who dislike parenting most not to parent. Adding another cost to parenting would just move the line where it becomes worthwhile to parent, not implement such selection. Justifying this requires an argument that the level of value at which people find parenting worthwhile is too low, not just a desire to encourage better parents to do a greater proportion of parenting in general.
  2. “Excuse those with the least motivation and determination”? We aren’t exactly pushing them to do it. Why presume they don’t excuse themselves at the appropriate point? This goes with the above point; the line where parenting seems worthwhile could be in the wrong place if parents were pushed for some reason to have too many children, but why think they misjudge?
  3. Why would there be plenty of others willing to take their places? Presumably those wanting to bear children will do so already or at least would not start at a 1:1 ratio on the news that others are not. Few factors influencing conception depend on the ambient birthrate.
  4. If others really were willing to ‘take their place’, the exit of poor parents from parenting  wouldn’t be relevant to the total population and whether the planet can sustain it.
  5. Presumably the issue is how big a finite number of people the earth’s resources can support, and more importantly why and to what extent parents should be expected to misjudge.
  6. Smaller populations are not automatically better if you value human life at all. That parents are unlikely to account for the entire value of their potential child’s life is a strong reason to think that parents don’t have enough children. If that is the overwhelming externality, the line should be lower, and we would be better off paying people to have children.

    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.