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Does it benefit a person to bring them into being?

Over the last four decades or so, philosophers have spent a good deal of time on this somewhat peculiar question. Why? After all, it’s not a question that people ordinarily ask, like ‘Do animals have rights?’ or ‘Is abortion permissible?’.The reason is that the answer one gives may have important implications for many such ordinary questions, such as ‘What duties do we have to future generations?’ or ‘What moral reasons are there for or against my having a child?’. For example, you might think that morality at least recommends, other things being equal, promoting the well-being of others. If you have a child, and you think that bringing someone into being benefits them, then you have done something recommended by morality.

It seems to me, however, that the question, and the way it’s often approached, can be a little misleading. First of all, we should distinguish between something that is merely good, and something that is ‘good-making’. Just recently, I had an experience that, I think, was good for me: sailing with my daughters. But this experience’s being one of sailing with my daughters isn’t what made it good. Indeed I can remember a similar experience in the past which wasn’t good. What made the recent experience good for me was, at least in part, its being enjoyable. Being enjoyable, that is to say, is a good-making property, whereas being an experience of sailing isn’t.

Which category does someone’s being brought into being come into? The same as sailing. Imagine that you bring someone into being, and they immediately die, their life having contained nothing plausibly good or bad except their having been brought into being. Some philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel, have thought that merely living is good;  but this is not an appealing view. Life is often good, but only for what it contains. So, if you do bring someone into being, and they have a good life, any good (or ‘benefit’, if we understand this to mean just what is good for someone) you have provided consists only in the goods in their life, not in your having brought them into being.

Fair enough, those who want to answer our original question in the negative might say. But, they may suggest, note also that we might insist that the verb  ‘to benefit’ can be used only in connection with individuals who already exist. Imagine that I give you some pleasant experience. Other things being equal, I have benefited you, since I have made you better off than you would otherwise have been. But you can’t say this about bringing someone into being. If you hadn’t done it, you can’t say you’ve made them better off than they would have been, since they would not have ‘been’ – that is, existed — at all.

It seems pretty clear to me that ‘to benefit’ doesn’t have to be understood in this way; but it’s also fine to stipulate this sense of it, as applying only to those who already exist. Those who answer the question positively may of course use ‘benefit’ in a different way, which allows that, if you do something that has the result that a person has certain goods in their life, you have benefited them. In this sense, there’s no need for comparisons, and so no need to compare existence with non-existence. (Here it might be worth mentioning the helpful work by Derek Parfit and Jeff McMahan on the distinction between comparative and non-comparative benefits.)

So should we say that the answer to our question is: ‘Yes, in one sense of “benefit”, and No, in another’? I think that is probably correct. This means, first, that philosophers would be well advised not to continue insisting that their conception of benefit is the correct one. Both of those I’ve mentioned are coherent enough, and there may be others. And, second, the concerns that lie behind the question remain. What we want to know is whether we should understand moral principles of beneficence in one or the other sense, and that question can be answered only by ethical theory at a deeper level.

It might even be that we should avoid the very question. As Wittgenstein said, ‘Language sets everyone the same traps; it is an immense network of easily accessible wrong turnings’. If we can ask our fundamental moral questions – such as ‘Does morality concern only those who already exist; or those who exist and will exist; or those who exist, will exist, and might exist?’, or ‘Is there a moral reason for bringing someone into being if they will have a life that is good overall, or against if they will have a life that is bad overall?’ — without using the potentially confusing notions of ‘benefit’ and ‘harm’, then perhaps we should.

(Many thanks to Theron Pummer for discussion and for comments on a previous draft.)

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10 Comment on this post

  1. Whatever the semantics, it’s fairly clear that the non-identity objection cannot satisfyingly dispell all the moral aspects of creating beings that, once created, will predictably recognized as having some sort of moral status.

    1. Sorry, I’m not sure I used “non-identity objection” as correct jargon. What I meant what the stated argument that “If you hadn’t done it, you can’t say you’ve made them better off than they would have been, since they would not have ‘been’ – that is, existed — at all.”

      I think this proves too much for plausible moral intuitions, since it would justify bringing a child into predicable severe torment and death would be no harm, but merely neutral.

  2. Thx, HT. I agree that this is a serious problem for person-affecting views. But the claim you state is consistent with non-person-affecting claims, such as the claim that it is just wrong to bring into being someone whose life will consist only of torment.

  3. “Does it benefit a person to bring them into being?”

    As you’ve implied, one might just as well ask: “Is a person disadvantaged by never existing?” Obviously the question involves a simple error of logic.

    The question makes more sense written: “Has having been brought into being benefited this (existing) person?” which is really just a needlessly peculiar way of asking “Does this person find life worthwhile?”

    If it’s a question about possible future offspring, it could then be: “Is my prospective child likely to find life worthwhile?”

    1. Thx Nikolas. I’m inclined to agree with you, but there are some people (including some in Oxford) whose linguistic intuitions allow them to talk about harms to people who potentially exist, but don’t actually exist. As I was suggesting, I think that’s fine, as long as it’s clear that in effect they are saying the kind of things you and I are saying.

  4. Bravo. Argument over the meaning of a word can be a useful way into a metaphysical/ethical debate. But sometimes people seem to imagine that what they think about the meaning of a word somehow gives them the answer to the metaphysical/ethical question as well, and that seems to me to be (almost?) always wrong.

  5. Lately I have been pondering which properties are good-making.

    A preference utilitarian might say that if a person would prefer to have been born, their life is good. Most folks would clearly choose being born, even idiots or criminals. We could just accept this at face value. But ask yourself, if someone forced you to choose between being a retard with no prospects for success, and never being born, what would YOU pick? I would rather just not exist at all. Maybe the relevant criterion is not what a person would choose, but how an average (or possibly better-than-average) person would respond to a choice between being that person and not existing.

    1. Interesting suggestion, but it’s hard to conceptualize that choice! If one can make sense of backward causation, it might work.

      1. By the way, I basically agree with this post.

        By backward causation, do you mean having (or not having) regrets? So, someone could do something really fun but then regret it, and I think this would at least sometimes make it bad, under any plausible view. Right?

        1. That might count, but I was thinking of the possibility of your doing something now which actually changed the past so that you never came into existence. Obviously quite a few people would say that’s incoherent — but not everyone!

          Glad you agree!

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