Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Fertility Morality

Peter Singer (yes, that Peter Singer) has a piece at the New York Times philosophy blog where he tries to grapple with the question of whether it is moral to reproduce. He spends most of the piece laying out arguments as to why we should choose not to have children due to the suffering that live involves, then at the end states (without much explanation) that he doesn't actually support the idea of voluntary extinction through refusal to reproduce because a would without people in it would not be as good -- though he never explains how he reaches this conclusion given what came before.

On the flip side, Jeff Mirus of writes a piece on how Catholics are ready to change the culture because they actually have the theological and philosophical reason to believe that having children is a good thing.

Who shall inherit the earth?


Kyle Cupp said...

Who shall inherit the earth?

Not the philosophers, I'd wager.

Kate said...

A world without people in it wouldn't be good - because who would there be to recognize something as 'good'? What meaning can categories have if there's no one to categorize?

Mariana said...

What a silly article. Singer just goes along with the idea that fulfilled desire + health = good life, pain + unfulfilled desire = bad life. There we go again, telling people who are poor or disabled or ill that their lives suck and shouldn't be wished on anyone.

Also, if he and his fellow philosophers think human life is just so terrible, why don't they argue for mass euthanasia, to relieve all the suffering? Why wait for the next generation, let's go extinct right now!

Maybe life isn't actually all that bad, hmm?

A Philosopher said...

I know Singer's name, perhaps reasonably, raises a lot of red flags in people's minds. But Singer's being rather badly misread in this piece. He's not arguing at all that life isn't worth living. He's really considering the question of duties toward people who don't yet exist - it's what he calls early in the column "the asymmetry" that's at issue here.

So suppose a potential parent knows in advance that their child will experience some level of good (call it G) and some level of bad (call it B) in their life. (Note that nothing in Singer's discussion really requires that the good and the bad here be identified with pleasure and pain, or desire satisfaction and frustration, or any particular proposal). How should G and B enter into our considerations?

Now here's an observation: lots of people seem to think that there's a level of B which is high enough to make it wrong to have the child (or, at least, that there's a level of B that's high enough to make it reasonable on that basis not to have a child). That's why people with heritable genetic conditions of some sort reasonably, and perhaps obligatorily, decide not to have children. So there's some moral consideration regarding bringing about avoidable bads for as-yet-nonexistent persons.

But do we think that there's a level of G that's high enough to make it obligatory that we have a child (or, again the weaker version, that we take G to be a permissible reason for having a child (it's a weakness of Singer's discussion here that he doesn't sufficiently distinguish between the obligation and permission forms of the issue))? I think the judgments are less straightforward here.

You might think about it like this: a typical couple has a more-or-less monthly opportunity to create a child (or perhaps much more often - there are some tricky issues here). When they don't act on that opportunity, are they doing a wrong because the potential child is denied good G? Well, one might reasonably think not -- after all, the potential child never exists in this case, so there in fact is no one who fails to get G.

Now, if that's right, then you might wonder whether anything is done wrong if we just all stop having kids. Who would be harmed? Not the next generation, because there is no next generation. (There might be harms to us, of course -- set those aside for current purposes). On the other hand, we might think that the world would be a less good place if we did this (this looks like Singer's view, reasonably enough). So one thing that's going on here is that there's a tension between a person-oriented picture of morality (in which it consists of duties toward each other) and a world-oriented picture of morality (in which it consists of facts about which states of the world are good and which bad). Both forms have real grip, and there are difficult issues about making the two sit well together.

Darwin said...

A Philosopher,

I'd certainly agree that Singer's final claim here is not that life simply is not worth living -- he comes around in his conclusion to pretty conclusively stating that he does not think voluntary extinction the right way to go. And the question of to what extent we have moral obligations to consider the welfare of people who do not yet exist is an interesting area of inquiry. (And probably something people need to get better at. One reads some rather hamfisted attempts at doing this in regards to environmental questions.)

However, I have to admit that I, at least, took Singer to be actually addressing the question of whether it would (imagining it were possible to achieve agreement) the right thing to do morally to extinguish our species through lack of reproduction. Perhaps I'm being unfair, but knowing Singer's general reputation and that there are in fact folks out there who advocate this, I figured that Singer might in fact be consider it necessary to address the question, though in the end he clearly rejects the idea.

On the other hand, maybe this is a case where he (or the NY Time blog) picked a title on the theory that it would attract attention, and ended up creating a situation where people only read the title and the first paragraph without seeing the full span of his argument.

Actually, I thought your comment got at the interesting issue rather more incisively than Singer's post -- perhaps the NY Times can bring you on! The idea of duty to future generations is certainly an interesting one, though at first pass I'm not sure to what extent I buy the idea that evaluating the amount of B or G in someone's life is a good way of deciding whether one ought to have children -- though I agree that in certain unusual circumstances it may represent a reason not to have children.

David L Alexander said...

Singer is one of those guys who began with a series of unsound premises all woven together, and then spends the rest of his life trying to avoid their backing him into a corner, all the while refusing to part with them. Were he to relent to his own line of reasoning, he knows that he would eventually discover that he has no reason to live, and neither does anyone else.