Tuesday, August 14, 2018

RoME 2018 08: Non-Identity Problem

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 08. Timothy Campbell
‘The Bullet-Biting Response to the Non-Identity Problem’
Commentator: Michael Tooley (University of Colorado Boulder)

Abstract: According to the bullet-biting response to the non-identity problem: Given a choice between creating a well-off child, A, and a different child, B, that is significantly worse off than A, it is not wrong to create B. David Boonin has presented an argument for the bullet-biting response. He claims that although the conclusion of his argument is implausible, the rejection of the argument is even more implausible. But Boonin’s argument is more implausible than he realizes. Three specific premises, together with what I call the existence requirement—that creating a child cannot make that child better or worse off than she would otherwise have been—jointly entail that it is not wrong to create children whose lives contain only pain and suffering. This is a damning objection. It can be avoided by rejecting the existence requirement, but this would undermine two other premises of Boonin’s argument.

This is an issue that I have written about a few times recently.

It concerns a woman, Wilma, who is given a choice between conceiving a child (Pebbles) now who will be born blind, or taking a tiny pill for two months and giving birth to a child later, Rocks, who will be a healthy child capable of leading a regular life.

Many have a moral intuition that for Wilma to conceive Pebbles now, rather than taking the pills and conceiving Rocks later, would be immoral. As I interpret it, it means that she would be deserving of condemnation.

For me, when I hear this argument, I am treated to memories growing up when I was told that I would deserve condemnation if I were to marry a black person and conceive a mixed race child, rather than marry a white person and give birth to a white child. The arguments that I heard growing up were the same arguments used here. I was told that my decision to bring the disadvantaged person into the world rather than the person who has all of the advantages of white privileged was selfish. I was, for all practical purposes, expressing a willingness to harm a child for the sake of what I want.

Of course, I would not be harming anybody. I would give that mixed-race child the best life I could, under the circumstances. If the quality of her life is less than the quality of life Rocks would enjoy, that is not my responsibility. So long as Pebbles would have, in the end, decided that she would have rather lived than not lived, then I could be content that, in giving her as much and as good as I could have given her (Pebbles), I have given her enough.

Timothy Campbell wants to reject this line of reasoning and argue for the condemnation of the Pebbles' parent - whether it be Wilma in Boonin's story, or the mixed-race child in my own.

Campell's line of reasoning is to come up with a rule that would allow us to condemn the person who wishes to parent the child that will have the lower quality of life. However, he is concerned about a parallel case in which a person is faced with a choice in which he must choose between (1) saving an existing child with the quality of life of Pebbles, or (2) replacing Pebbles with another child that will have the quality of life of Rocks. Campbell thinks that he can find the difference in the fact that failure to save Pebbles will be a "significant cost" that the would-be parent of the would-be child with the lower quality of life does not inflict on their child. Campbell's would-be rescuer is prohibited from inflicting that cost.

One objection to make here has to do with asking whether one is inflicting a cost or providing a benefit. In fact, rescuing Pebbles may be better understood as providing her with a benefit. That benefit is a continued life of a particular level of quality she can obtain in the face of her disability. Now, if we assume - as we must - that the quality of life of Pebbles rescued from the fire is identical to the quality of life of Pebbles conceived by not taking the pill, then we have no way to distinguish the two cases. If one is permissible, then so is the other.

In another part of the argument, Campbell drew a bar graph on the blackboard that indicated Pebbles' quality of life. He then drew a dotted line identifying the minimum morally respectable quality of life. However, he drew this line above that which Pebbles would enjoy. This is in spite of the fact that Pebbles would, ex hypothesi, consider her life worth living. Against this, I asked by what justification does Campbell draw the line for the minimum level of an acceptable life ABOVE where Pebbles would have drawn it for herself. Campbell at least needs to give an assumption in Pebbles' favor, that she knows the minimum acceptable quality of her life better than Campbell does, unless Campbell can override this presumption with superior evidence.

For these reasons, I conclude that Campbell has not given any good reason to condemn the parent who would intentionally choose to have a mixed-race child that would have a lower quality of life than the pure blood child he could have otherwise fathered.

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