Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Non-Identity Problem

My thoughts about graduate school recently have been thoughts about how I am doing it wrong. I have been focusing too much on the student aspect. That should change.

In the realm of learning . . .

I do not think I have written on the "non-identity problem". The problem, at least in the way we are discussing it, goes as follows:

Wilma wants to conceive a child and goes to her doctor for a checkup. The doctor tells her that she has a rare condition whereby, if she were to conceive a child, the child would be born blind. However, he can provide her with a prescription that will cure the disease. After about two months on this medication, she will be able to conceive a child that would - all else being equal - have normal eyesight.

This example comes from David Boonin's book, [I]The Non-Identity Problem and the Ethics of Future People{/I] (who is also the professor who is teaching the ethics class during this three-week period).

Wilma decides not to take the pills and to have a child without waiting, even though the child will be born blind.

Did Wilma do anything wrong.

The vast majority of the people say that her actions are immoral. She did something wrong.

However, Derek Parfit noticed a problem with this.

Who did Wilma harm with her actions?

We will assume for the sake of argument that her choice puts no additional burdens on other people. This means that no other people have any reason to condemn her for her actions.

It is also the case that her choice did not harm her child (whom Boonin names "Pebbles"). If she had taken the pills and waited, Pebbles would have never been born. Instead, some other child (Boonin names "Rocks") would have been conceived two months later from a different sperm and a different egg. So, Pebbles will be born blind and will have to deal with the handicap. But, as Pebbles gets older she should come to realize that there was no way in which she could have been born without being blind - she was destined either to be blind from birth or to not be born. All things considered, she judges that her life is worth living. It would have been a lot better if she could have seen the world, but what she had was better than nothing.

Of course, Rocks has no claim on Wilma. To say that Rocks had a right to be born would be to say that it would have been wrong for Wilma to go childless.

So, why is Wilma's act wrong if nobody was harmed?

Actually, desirism does provide an account of how Wilma's act can be wrong, if certain additional facts hold.

Desirism states that an act is wrong iff a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not have performed that act in those circumstances. (Good desires tend to fulfill other desires, while bad desires tend to thwart other desires. A desire is fulfilled iff the proposition that represents the object of the desire is made or kept true; thwarted if the proposition that is the object of the desire is made or kept false.)

Wilma's actions may be that of a person who has a callous disregard for the happiness of those around her. In fact, we are often invited to think that it is the case that Wilma made her choice merely because she did not want to be bothered by the inconvenience of taking the pills. She has no interest in whether the people around her are happy or sad, whether they are fulfilling their desires or struggling. She just doesn't care about these things. She is indifferent to having a daughter who must struggle with blindness versus a son who would be able to experience the pleasures and conveniences of sight.

If it must be the case - if a person who cared about the happiness and successes of those around her would never have opted to have a blind child over a (different) sighted child - desirism would say that her act was wrong. A person with good desires would care about whether those around her are happy and successful in achieving their ends, or struggling with a serious handicap such as blindness, and thus (except in some extraordinary circumstance) would have taken the pills in order to have a child that she could experience as being happier and more successful in realizing his ends.

But, is it the case that a person with good desires would necessarily have selected to have a child that lacks a certain benefit when that person could have had a child that had the benefit?

Consider Fred.

Fred is white. Fred has a choice. He could either marry a black person and have a mixed-race child, or he could marry a white person and have a white child. The mixed-race child will be missing all of the advantages of white privilege. This will effect everything from how the child is treated by others, whether his accomplishments in school will be properly recognized, the ability to get into a good college, his ability to get a job (particularly a higher-level management job) and to have his contributions and abilities respected and recognized. The white child, in contrast, would have these advantages.

So, if it is wrong for Wilma to have a child that lacks the advantages of sight instead of opting to have a child who can see, it seems we must also declare that it is wrong for Fred to marry a black person and to have a mixed-race child that lacks the advantages of white privilege rather than to have a white child that has white privilege.

Yet, in this comparison case, not only do we declare that Fred's actions are not wrong, we turn our wrath on those who would condemn Fred.

I have never been a fan of moral intuitions, so the fact that intuitions conflict does not concern me. The fact that is relevant here is that the existence of white parents in mixed-race relationships tells is that the claim that only a person with a callous disregard for the interests of others would have a child that lacks certain advantages. I know of no evidence that white parents of mixed-race children demonstrate a strong lack of interest in the degree to which others are happy and successful.

There are, I argue, two ways in which somebody can be interested in the happiness and success of others.

One way of showing this concern is by surrounding oneself with happy and successful people and shunning all others. In this way, Wilma is being told to bring Rocks into the world and to shun Pebbles, as her handicap and the struggles and unhappiness that come with it goes counter to the plan of surrounding oneself with happy and successful people.

The other takes people as they are and tries to add some happiness to their lives. This is the type of person who would volunteer to work in a soup kitchen or in a hospital, or even travel to parts of the world where people need help in order to provide goods and services. This is the type of person who becomes a doctor or a social working - people who are not in the business of surrounding themselves only with others who are happy and successful. The white parent of the mixed-race child simply accepts the child, and then works to raise that child - whether blind or sighted, white or of mixed-race - as well as possible.

The intuition seems to come from a hidden assumption that Wilma must be showing a callous disregard for the happiness and success of those around her. This is an unwarranted assumption in the case of white parents of mixed-race children, and we have no call to make this assumption about Wilma either - not without additional evidence to the contrary. Even if we find this evidence, the specific act of choosing to have Pebbles rather than Rocks is not "an act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not have done". Instead, we can well imagine the person with good desires and lacking bad desires thinking, "The only options for Pebbles are to be born blind or not at all. I am going to give her a chance at life. It may not be as good a life as the life a sighted person would have, but I will do what I can to make sure that it is a life she will consider it worthwhile to have lived."


Piero said...

The problem is that the situations illustrated are sufficiently different to prevent comparison.

In Wilma's case, Pebbles does not exist when the decision is made to conceive her. In fact, we cannot be sure that it was indeed Pebbles who was born, because it depends on too many factors to count. At the time Wilma makes a decision, no child is yet involved. Therefore, the case reduces to "do I want to conceive (i.e. make to exist) a normal child or a blind one?"

Fred, on the other hand, may conceive a child with a black woman because he loves that woman and not some other one. It would be unnatural for someone to choose a partner on the basis of a future child's skin colour: true, whites are privileged, but by that reasoning black people should stop having children altogether. Besides, being black is a disadvantage, being blind is a tragedy.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Your first point is, I think, potentially the strongest counter-argument to my position.

But . . . there's a problem.

It is not the case that there are two options, "Do I want to conceive (make to exist) a normal child or a blind one?" There is a third option - to have no child at all.

Clearly, if Wilma's options are to have no child or a normal child, she may choose to have no child. The decision to remain childless is a legitimate option - one that fits in the category of "morally permissible". It is up to her if she wants to have a child or not.

Furthermore, if Wilma's options are to have no child or a blind child - if it were the case that any child she has would be blind, she it would be morally permissible for her to have a blind child. There are serious moral objections to forcing sterilization on somebody (either medically or through forced abstinence or abortion) on the grounds that their child would be "genetically inferior."

By the principle of transitivity, the options "normal child vs no child" are both morally permissible, and "no child vs blind child" are both morally permissible, then why is it not the case that "normal child vs. blind child" are not also both morally permissible? (If, in terms of moral value, A = B, and B = C, then how can it be that A > C").

As for the second point, it would be best not to assume that Fred has already fallen in love with a black woman and must decide to give her up. To make the cases comparable, we should imagine that Fred is trying to decide whether relationships with black women are acceptable at the start - before any such sentiments exist. That is, such relationships are immoral in the same way that incestuous relationships are immoral, and that black woman should be ruled out as potential mates the same way that siblings are ruled out as potential mates.

Unknown said...


//There are serious moral objections to forcing sterilization on somebody (either medically or through forced abstinence or abortion) on the grounds that their child would be "genetically inferior."//

I’m, quite frankly, stunned at this comment. It’s very presumptuous and almost a straw man. Suggesting that saying it imight be morally wrong to procreate implies we should force sterilization is ludicrous. Like many other immoral acts, it’s seems reasonable that we could use condemnation and not imposition to decrease the likelihood that someone will want to have a child. Isn’t that the entire basis or desirism??

Not creating Pebbles or Rocks is not a harm to either one. Not causing happiness is only a harm if it is a deprivation (unfulfilled desire) of an existing person. No future person is knocking at your door asking to be created. Pebbles wouldn’t have cared if she’d not been created in the first place. If it was a harm to someone to not bring them into existence, then we would have an obligation to bring as many people into existence as we could financially support.

But it does make sense to say that not bringing a blind person into existence is good since it will avoid much unnecessary suffering. For the same reason we would condemn someone that wanted to have a baby just so they could watch it suffer under disease and starvation (iow, simply to fulfill a desire). The lack of suffering where there could have been much suffering is a good thing. That is, we do have an obligation to avoid causing suffering if we have that choice, even if it may cause our own desires to be thwarted. Therefore, we are morally obligated to avoid creating new centers of suffering, I.e procreation is immoral.

And you are question begging to assume the desire to have a baby itself is a permissible desire. If it could be shown that coming into existence is always bad, then we would have to conclude the desire to cause this bad would be prohibited, in the same way desiring to have unconsenual sex with someone is prohibited. And, as I have argued above, bringing a new being that will experience suffering is immoral, and since there is no compensating obligation to create a happy being, I would have to conclude the desire to procreate is immoral. A person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not procreate.

Dov Trietsch said...

Good Morning Alonzo,

The cases of Wilma and Fred are good examples of double standards. Pebbles was guaranteed to be blind, thus the decision was absolutely selfish and wrong, Fred, on the other hand will have a child with a woman he loves, and the child is not guaranteed to suffer the social ills described in the post. Still, in the post you assume it to be the case.

Your answer to Piero, especially when you are consider transitivity, is logically wrong. Not all relationships are transitive. Preferences are not. You actually alluded to this when speaking about intuition. Relations in general are intransitive, only those of equality and cardinality are. For instance, I prefer a over b, b over c and c over a. But 2 is greater than 1 and 15 is greater than 2 implies that 15 is greater than 1, this because they deal with size (cardinality).

Desirism itself is a sample of preference relationship.

Thanks for the post. It awakened my mind.