Friday, August 25, 2017

The Moral Status of Future Persons

Today is the first day of my new life, as it is the day of my first official event as a graduate student - grad student orientation.

It is something like starting a new job. On the first day, one doesn't get to do any real work. One goes through the rituals of becoming a part of the organization. The first day of work, in my case, will be Monday when I attend my first class.

What I wish to do on this blog for the next two years is keep track of ideas that I encounter in my studies.

The overall goal, of course, is to know what good is - or, more precisely, to know what "better" is. Recall that this whole project started with an interest in leaving the world a better place than it would have been if I had not existed. This lead to the question, "What is 'better'? How would I know that this world is better than some alternative?" And that, ultimately, is what I am here to study.

There are far more topics likely to show up in my readings and classes than I am going to be able to write papers about. So, this blog will be a way of saying something about "those other things" that I am not going to be able to put into a paper.

I have just been sent, electronically, a set of readings for one course that indicate that the class will spend some time on the topic of the moral status of future persons.

I can give some preliminary thoughts on the issue of the moral status of future persons. After all, this is a subject I have thought about before.

There are arguments, often used in the abortion debate but that extend far beyond this subject, that says that there is something intrinsically good in bringing a person into the world. Given a choice between a world in which a person exists - capable of experiencing the world, having joys and sorrows, capable of enjoying and appreciating sunsets, friends, falling in love, enjoying friendships - is something that is good as and in itself. Every person that we bring into the world becomes somebody who gets to enjoy sunsets and friends and falling in love.

.So, we should create as many people as possible. Women have an obligation to give birth as often as they can up to the point where the earth cannot hold one additional person.

I take this to reduce the "life has intrinsic value" view to absurdity. Though, my actual reasons for rejecting this hypothesis is the fact that I cannot figure out how to put intrinsic value in any working physics of the universe. Ultimately, the claim that there is no such thing is the claim that such a force or substance is not needed to explain anything that happens in the real world.

Desirism, of course, holds that there is no such thing as intrinsic value. All value exists in the form of states of affairs and desires. To determine the value of a future person, one has to look at what is true about such a world in such a person exists, compare it to a set of desires, and determine whether the propositions that are the objects of those desires are true in the state of affairs in which such a person exists. For example, if a couple wants to have a child, then a state of affairs in which that child exists has value for that couple. If, at the same time, another couple wants to enjoy the freedom (and the financial savings) associated with not having a child then, for them, a state of affairs in which they have a child has negative value.

Desires that might or might not exist yields value that might or might not exist. If the first couple has a child, they will create a being with desires and, in virtue of those desires, there are states of affairs that will have value (good or bad) relative to that child's desires or interests. However, when the second couple decides not to have a child, the desires that will not exist as a result of that decision can neither be fulfilled or thwarted. In determining the value of things in virtue of their relationships with certain desires, relationships to desires that do not exist produce values that do not exist. The thwarting of a desire that does not exist creates a badness that does not exist. (Of course, "creating a badness that does not exist" is actually a contradiction - the more direct way of stating this implication is to say that it creates no badness, at least not here.)

Utilitarians are often bothered by the problem that, if happiness has intrinsic value, and we should create as much of what has intrinsic value as possible, then we need to create as much happiness as possible. This means creating people up to the point where the creation of one more person creates just as much happiness as unhappiness. That is where we stop.

This also means that if there are desires that will exist, then there are future states of affairs that will have value relative to those desires. If we expect that there will be an actual human population in the year 2100, then we can expect that states of affairs in the world at that time will have value depending on how those future states of the world relate to those future desires. Actions that we take now can make life for the next generation, and the generation beyond that, and the generation beyond that, better or worse than it might have otherwise. been. It makes no sense to talk about value relative to desires that will not exist, but a great deal of sense to talk about value relative to desires that will exist.
The obligation to care for the interests of future generations gets complicated. Though future states of affairs will have value relative to the desires of future people, the question is whether we have reasons to be concerned about what those relationships turn out to be.

Future generations have no capacity to reach back in time to cause us to acquire those interests that will dispose us to act in ways that will create future states of affairs that fulfill those future desires. What we need are current reasons to act in ways that create future states of affairs that fulfill future desires. Many of us have this in virtue of our concern for our own children. This concern for the future welfare of children creates reasons to promote a general interest in the welfare of future generations. This is one vary direct way to argue for promote current desires that tend to create future states of affairs that will fulfill future desires. We can, then, defend this as a moral value - though it is a value grounded on current desires for the well-being of future generations and not on future desires that lack any causal power to reach back in time.

Well, these are preliminary thoughts. We will see if the readings for this section of the course will tie in with these ideas. I suspect that will be at more towards the end of the year.

In the mean time, my next subject of concern is with whether plants, machines, and shopping malls have morally relevant interests that are independent of the interests that people have in them.

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