What’s wrong with the hermaphrodite world?

Making headlines last week, Melbourne bioethicist Rob Sparrow argued that in order to create the best future for their children, parents should select only girl children or hermaphrodites. He imagined a  “post-sex” world in which males are no longer conceived, and women use frozen sperm, or artificial gametes to reproduce.

Sparrow describes his argument as ‘tongue-in-cheek’, and it appears
that his actual targets are the underlying ethical principles that
would lead parents to use reproductive technology to ensure that their
children have the best possible life. If such principles would lead to
such an absurd conclusion, then perhaps the principles themselves
should be called into question. Sparrow argues that to avoid the
hermaphrodite world we would need to accept that:

“we should not use technology to reshape humanity beyond certain natural limits”

The principles that Sparrow appears to have in mind are those of
procreative beneficence” and human enhancement. Advances in
reproductive and genetic technology will allow parents to choose to
conceive children with features such as better memory, higher IQ, or
longer life. Some philosophers have argued that, if available, parents
have a moral obligation to use such technology to give their children
the best chance of a good life.

Sparrow argues that women have natural advantages in terms of
reproduction and life expectancy. Therefore, on the above principles,
parents may have a moral obligation to use sex selection to conceive
only female children.

There are a number of weaknesses to this line of argument. It is not
clear
that being of either gender is a particular advantage in terms of
how well an individual’s life goes, at least not as clear as would be
the case for increased IQ, or memory. We might also think that the
wellbeing of children and adults may be reduced by there being only one
gender. As the number of males decreased in society, there may be a
distinct advantage in being male that would lead parents to choose to
conceive male children, tending to shift the balance back towards the
status quo. If either of these were true, then there is no good reason
to think that procreative beneficence would lead to an all-female
world.

But I want to take a different tack. If we accept Sparrow’s premise
that selecting only female children would lead them to have a better
life we need to ask what would be wrong with such a world? The
well-being of our children and of future generations is of great moral
significance. If it were clear that, overall, people in the all-female
world would be better off than individuals in any other world that
could result from our choices, then there would be a strong moral
reason to bring that about.

One objection to this world might come from the 49% of the current
population who would not be represented in such a world. Men might
point out that they have lives that are worthwhile, but that people
like them would not exist. This type of objection about ‘people like
us’ is sometimes used to object to policies or technologies that would
prevent the conception of individuals with particular disabilities or
illnesses (for example deafness or dwarfism).  It might be based upon
the idea that if I am glad that I was conceived, I have a reason to
object to a policy or technology that might have prevented my
conception. However this idea is misguided. There is no future person
who can regret their non-conception if this policy is endorsed. Imagine
a child born into slavery in 19th century America. Such a child might
have a life that is worth living, though it would be a much better life
if they were not a slave. It would be like such a slave objecting to
the abolition of slavery because if slavery had been abolished 20 years
earlier they would not have been born.(*) Instead it would be rational
for that individual to be glad that they were born, but equally happy
that future individuals would not be born into slavery.

It is not clear that allowing parents to use technology to select the
best children would lead to an all-female world. But, if it did, and
the lives of those in that world were significantly better, we need to
ask whether our objections to it are rational, or based upon a partisan
preference for our own existence and the status quo.

(*) Given the effects that the abolition of slavery would have on the
lives of slaves – their freedom to move, associate, etc, it is highly
likely that the children that they conceive would be different (they
would be a different combination of sperm and egg). Cf Parfit D.
Reasons and Persons

Links

Men on a slippery slide in future hermaphrodite world
The Age 11/7/08

Rob Sparrow

Should human beings have sex? Sexual dimorphism and human enhancement. Rob Sparrow – abstract – currently available here.


Is sex selection desirable?
Philosophy etc 15/07/08

Men are NOT going to go extinct Human Enhancement and biopolitics blog 15//7/08

Female as human enhancement Philosophy and bioethics 11/7/08


Scientist: Don’t fight sex selection
NZ Herald 25/06/08


Who gets born?
New Zealand Bioethics Council 06/08


Procreative Beneficence: why we should select the best children
Julian Savulescu BIoethics 2001

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