Monday, May 11, 2009

Quick thought on reproductive ethics

Everyone agrees it would be a good thing if fewer children were born into poverty (and more born into financial security). The ideal way to achieve this would be for no-one to be in poverty to begin with. That would help the older generation as well as the new. But the benefit to the new generation could also be achieved by another route: namely, by poor people having fewer children, and financially secure people having more children.

That's clearly an inherently desirable outcome (pro tanto, at least -- and 'all things considered' if it is achieved by morally permissible means, e.g. the voluntary choices of all involved). But I suspect many people would not be willing to actually admit this -- perhaps due to the perceived association with eugenicists and other "unsavoury" types. (But remember, Hitler was a vegetarian!)

Anyway, I was struck by this the other day in class when we were discussing an author who claimed the following asymmetry: that although there's some (epistemic) chance that in having an abortion we violate weighty moral reasons, supposedly nobody thinks there's any such moral risk involved in carrying a child to term (at least excepting rare cases of severe disability, such that the child's life would be utterly miserable).

I find it interesting that most people seemed willing to accept this claim without a second thought. Because it seems to me very obviously false. We have pressing moral reasons to increase the average quality of life of future generations. And one way to achieve that is for people in less fortunate circumstances to bring fewer children into those circumstances. This will help bring about less poverty, crime, etc., and that is surely a very good thing indeed.

(To preempt any misunderstandings, I'm not suggesting that abortion is obligatory. It would certainly be inappropriate to demand this choice, or to censure poor women who have many children despite the evidence that they will have worse-than-average lives. That's their business, not anyone else's. But insofar as they are trying to decide for themselves what to do about their pregnancy, I think in many circumstances -- e.g. so long as it wouldn't be traumatic for them or anything -- it really would be best were they to abort.)


  1. Could you clarify something?
    You say: "I'm not suggesting that abortion is obligatory." Do you mean morally or legally obligatory?
    And if it makes the world so much worse, as you seem to think, for poor women to have children-- "it really would be best were they to abort"-- then are you not tempted to say that there really is a moral obligation? Compare: "Look, gratuitous pollution makes the world a much worse place, but it isn't mandatory not to pollute and we shouldn't coerce factories not to pollute so much." Seems like there's a kind of instability in your position.

    Worse than that, how is there not a kind of classism implicit here? You seem to say: a child born into poverty makes the world less well off than it would be if a child were instead born into a wealthy family. Sure, the poor child might have a less enjoyable childhood, but what reason do you have for thinking that the world overall is worse off over the course of the entire life of the child? Plenty of poor children grow up to do great things, make other people happy, etc...

    These are surely obvious criticisms but it seems that you've painted a very vulnerable picture.

  2. I'm not seeing the vulnerabilities.

    (1) I mean 'morally obligatory', in the social sense explained in the linked post. You're right that often things that would be very bad (e.g. pollution) should be enforced against with social and/or legal sanctions. But not always. In some circumstances (especially where deeply personal decisions and hence core autonomy is involved) such enforcement would do more harm than good. In such circumstances, although one has decisive moral reason to act one way, it is not 'obligatory' in the sense I have described.

    (2) What do you mean by 'classism'? It sounds like you are wanting to associate my position with unsavoury types. I don't like it when people do that -- it impedes the honest pursuit of truth. (Again, I remind you that Hitler was a vegetarian.)

    "what reason do you have for thinking that the world overall is worse off over the course of the entire life of the child?"

    This follows from the truism noted in the first sentence of my post: the world would be a better place if fewer kids were born into poverty. Why think this is true? Because overall, children born into poverty are disproportionately likely to (i) have worse lives themselves, and (ii) be less skilled/productive in their working lives, (iii) commit violent crimes, etc.

    This all suggests that the expected utility of having a child born into poverty is lower than that of having a child born into financial security.

    "Plenty of poor children grow up to do great things, make other people happy, etc."

    Of course. The point is simply that (proportionately) more children born into fortunate circumstances do so.

  3. Maybe this helps to show my worry.

    "This follows from an implication of the truism noted in the first sentence of my post: the world would be a better place if fewer kids were born into African American families. Why think this is true? Because overall, children born into African American families are disproportionately likely to (i) have worse lives themselves, and (ii) be less skilled/productive in their working lives, (iii) commit violent crimes, etc."

    This sounds racist on its face, right? The empirical claims (i) through (iii) might be true in the racial version and in the class version; that's frankly not the issue. The issue is the claim about the world being a better place.

    To be clear, as perhaps I wasn't, I'm not associating you or your position with anything other than the potential objections I've described to your post.

  4. But "the claim about the world being a better place" logically follows from (i)-(iii) and obvious moral truths (e.g. that violent crime makes the world worse). Are you accusing logic of being inherently racist? :-P

    Seriously though, the reason why the argument "sounds racist" is not because there's anything inherently wrong with it, but just because most people who say such things have disreputable motives. Besides, race is not the best proxy we have for the sort of 'unfortunate circumstances' the argument is concerned with. (Poverty is better, if still not perfect: I'm perfectly happy to allow that some poor people in unusual circumstances might have very good grounds for expecting their future children to have better-than-average prospects. So I really want to target 'unfortunate circumstances', not 'poverty' per se. But it's no accident that there's significant overlap here.)

    P.S. The point about 'associations' is perhaps better stated as follows: truth-irrelevant claims are irrelevant. There's no point objecting to an argument on the basis of "racism" or "classism". Just show what premise is false, or what inference is invalid.

  5. [Actually, I should clarify: the racial argument may be misleading insofar as it suggests that there's something inherently good about children not being a certain race, when in fact race is a merely accidental proxy for other features of social circumstance that are what really matters.]

  6. Here's a claim I find plausible. If it's never pragmatically appropriate to counsel someone that they ought to do X, then that's a good clue that it is not the case that is morally best to do X. Now I think it's never pragmatically appropriate- there is no context in which it is acceptable to assert- that a black mother ought not to conceive a child absent expectation that the child will lead a better than average life.
    Can you think of straightforward cases where what it is appropriate to say is so divergent from what morality would have us say?

    To say an argument is racist or classist is just shorthand for saying that it involves (explicitly or implicitly) some faulty reasoning about race or class; it's not to impute bad motives to the one making the argument.

    My main objection, though, is that we shouldn't reason from some empirical claims about the success, wellbeing, etc. of various types of people to claims about the quality of the world in the relevant sense. Is a world with blacksmiths less valuable than a world in which we subtract the blacksmiths, replace them with robots that do the same work, and add some people of average quality of life, leaving all else equal, just because blacksmiths have a "lower" quality of life than average?
    Let's distinguish quality of lives from the quality of the world. That's my main objection.

  7. Richard,

    If I understand you correctly you are advocating selective reproduction (poor people having less children, well-off people having more children) as a means to generating greater average utility. (Your argument isn't dependent on holding average utilitarianism, but you seem to be endorsing such a view).

    So, this is how I understand your argument:
    1. Average utility will increase if there are less poor people in future generations, and more people who are financially comfortable/well off
    2. We have moral reasons to increase the average utility of future individuals
    3. The proportion of future individuals who will be poor are influenced by current reproductive choices
    4. Poor people should be encouraged to terminate pregnancies, and to use contraception, while well-off people should be encouraged to have more children.

    The argument may be valid, but there are two major objections to it. Firstly we may have serious doubts about our capacity to influence the reproduction rates of sub-sections of the population. For example numerous programs that have attempted to reduce teenage pregnancies have failed and continue to fail. On the other hand various countries with low fertility rates have attempted to encourage couples (especially those who are educated and well-off) to have more children - again with fairly pathetic results.
    The underlying problem is that the socio-economic factors that influence reproduction tend to work in the opposite direction to selective reproduction. Poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity and lack of health care tend to lead to higher rates of child-bearing. Education and higher financial status have a corresponding influence in the opposite direction. Those influences have in the past been stronger than the influence that population planners have been able to bear.
    Secondly, we may doubt whether such measures can be introduced without adversely affecting the liberty and wellbeing of existing individuals. This may outweigh the benefits of such a policy. I take it that this is part of Matt's objection - that selective reproduction would not lead to increased average utility (because it would require the curtailment of reproductive liberties and lead to reduced wellbeing in some of the population).

    Of course, the good news is that the most effective means of population control is the provision of education (especially to young women). Since education has other distinct advantages in terms of increased wellbeing and reducing poverty it is the ideal mechanism to reduce poverty in future generations.

  8. This sounds to me like an interesting argument for radically increasing opportunities for social mobility. I think it's quite natural to worry about the conclusion of the argument, but if we could make the quality of life of the offspring depend far less on the wealth of the parents (as in Plato's Republic, socialist countries, etc.), the argument would be blocked.

  9. You base your argument on the claim that "the world would be a better place if fewer kids were born into poverty."

    Better compared to what, fewer compared to what? I agree the quoted sentence is true when you compare two worlds with equal number of births, and one having more proportion than the other of children of wealthy families. But that doesn't give you an argument to recommend abortion for the poor (rather, it could recommend that they give the children in adoption to wealthy families).

    To recommend abortion, you need to argue that the world would be better if there were fewer children born in poor families, holding fixed the number born in wealthy families. That is not at all obviously true, but it would depend many complex factors. For example, if the number of wealthy children is very small, it would be better to have more poor births or otherwise the population would decline a lot. More realistically, one could argue that if there is some intrinsic value in a "poor" life that is not utterly miserable, it could be that this intrinsic value outweighs some negative social consequences if there are small enough.

  10. Matt,

    Richard is right about the argument not being classist, I'm afraid. A classist argument would take as an initial premise "Poor people are worse people than more affluent people" and reason from there that the poor ought to abort. Clearly this is classist, and the racist analogue is obviously wrong as well.

    That is not the initial premise of Richard's argument though, which is instead something like "Poor people, in general, live worse lives than affluent people". Given a reasonable assumption about the quality of a world tracking the quality of the lives therein, it is perfectly logical to derive the conclusion he does. If you want to contend this argument, all you can really attack is the above "reasonable assumption" about the quality of the world.


    Better compared to how it is now. Fewer compared to how many are now. Or, even, better/fewer compared to some other benchmark. The conclusion is not applicable only to our society, or to any particular set of social conditions.

    I agree, however, about the tenuousness of the jump from a) "The world would be a better place if more births were into rich families" to b) "The world would be a better place if poor people had fewer children". The issue is that a world with a maximum of sentience may be the best world. If it was assured that the aborted poor births would be replaced with rich births, then the conclusion would, I think, be true. But this is obviously not even close to assured.

  11. M I,

    The relevant premise is that poor people make the world worse off than do rich people, and that is what I deny: the "reasonable assumption" that "the quality of a world track[s] the quality of the lives therein." I reject that unless we have a sufficiently rich notion of the quality of a life, which notion would lead us to reject the general claim that poor people make the world better than rich people. It is this claim I mean to call classist, though I'm more concerned about its truth than about whether its appropriate to call it that or not.

  12. Yes, some further clarification would be useful here, for certainly logic itself is not inherently racist, but some of the users of logical modes may be.

    So, from the original post, it seems we are operating on a number of assumptions:

    - that rich people create a good world and commit far fewer crimes than poor people

    - that the flaw is in the type of human and not the social system, i.e., more African Americans go to jail because more African Americans commit crimes since they are poor people and pore people commit more crimes (instead of something more plausible, like poor people cannot afford the legal representation that rich people can and poor people are more likely to be targeted/profiled by the police/media/politicians/etc.)

    - That if poor people stopped having babies, then no new impoverished class would arise (again, assuming it's not a result of our socio-economic system, i.e., capitalism, or some other systemic issue that creates such economic imbalances, but is merely a result of poor people having poor children).

    - that presumably, and falsely in my opinion, we could similarly halt various cancers and other ailments by having those people refrain from reproducing. Furthermore, we could remove other social unpleasantness by having people who smoke (or who suffer other addictions, such as addictions to money or, ironically, sex) refrain from reproducing.

    Maybe this "quick thought" on reproductive ethics should have been a little less so.

  13. Dominic - my initial claim was more modest: just the axiological observation that it would be good for "poor people [to have] fewer children, and financially secure people [to have] more children". (Often people seem reluctant to accept even this very weak claim, as some of the above comments demonstrate.)

    It's a further question whether, as a matter of policy, we should try to encourage this. Presumably we should try to encourage good things insofar as such efforts are likely to be effective, and have no bad unintended consequences. But you're absolutely right to question whether those extra conditions really hold in this case. I would certainly be strongly opposed to any kind of invasive or coercive measures. (Mere 'advertising'-style encouragement, if it would actually work, seems fine though.)

    Alejandro raises a good objection to my later claim: the desirability of [X] alone doesn't follow from the desirability of [X & Y], since the combination might be essential here. (That is: it might be essential that the worse-than-average lives be replaced by better-than-average lives, rather than reducing the total population.) I find the additional claim independently plausible, but I agree it's worth explicitly noting that it relies on further assumptions (either something like average utilitarianism, or else very pessimistic assumptions about the net impact of the marginal less-fortunate life), which one might reasonably reject even if they accept my initial claim.

  14. Matt - "Can you think of straightforward cases where what it is appropriate to say is so divergent from what morality [advises]?"

    Yes, I think this is fairly common when it comes to deeply personal decisions and/or self-sacrifice. For a straightforward example: sometimes forgiveness may be morally appropriate, but not appropriate to ask for. (Similarly for affection, etc. Such things are considered within the "protected sphere" of the individual's autonomy, closed to outside scrutiny; but that doesn't mean that the individual can't exercise their autonomy in better or worse ways.) For more radical examples: perhaps you ought to donate a kidney to your friend, though it would be inappropriate for her to make such a demand of you. Or a terminal patient using up scarce medical resources may make the morally right decision in asking his doctor to turn off the life support, though it would seem horrifically inappropriate for anyone else to ask him to make this sacrifice.

    "Let's distinguish quality of lives from the quality of the world."

    I certainly distinguish these (since I think a life-worth-living might contribute negative value to the world). But it would seem silly to deny that a world containing better lives is, in that respect, a better world. So we at least have some ("pro tanto") reason to prefer the outcome I've described. If you think this is outweighed by other features of the world that would make it worse overall, you'll need to say more about what those bad-making features are.

  15. Richard, thanks for the response. I think the analogous cases are ones in which no one can advise what morality advises, not just certain parties. Your life support example is arguably such a case, though I might dispute whether it is inappropriate in that scenario.

    As I said in my last post, I'm happy to accept that better lives make the world better in that respect, provided we're very careful to give a rich (no pun intended) characterization of what makes a life good. I would be wary of including socioeconomic and other easily measured factors in that characterization; the quality of a life is a rich normative notion that, for me, will depend on what a human being ought to be like (a eudaimonistic ethic, I suppose). The root of our disagreement is probably round here somewhere.

    Thanks for the pleasant Dean's Date distraction!

  16. Richard,

    Future generations cases often raise difficult problems. here is another question - provoked by your post.

    How should parents consider the effect of their reproductive choices on future average wellbeing? Do they have a 'pressing moral reason' to alter their reproductive choices if doing so will increase or decrease average utility?

    The reason for the question is this:
    It is intuitively plausible at a policy level that there is a moral reason to make decisions such that future individuals will have higher rather than lower wellbeing, to be well-off, rather than poor. But how does this translate into a reason that impacts upon individual parents?

    Parents have an obligation not to reproduce if the child that they will conceive will have a life of negative net wellbeing, a life-not-worth living. We may also think that where parents have a choice between different children that they could conceive they should choose to conceive children with higher rather than lower wellbeing (this is the principle of procreative beneficence).
    But what if parents cannot conceive a child with higher wellbeing? Say, for example, they are poor and unable to improve their material status. They have reason to believe that no matter when they choose to conceive, or what they do, their child will have a life worth living, but below average wellbeing.
    Is this a moral reason for the parents not to conceive?


  17. Dom - sure, if an act would make the world better, why wouldn't that constitute a moral reason for the individual to so act? (Unless you just mean to be pressing Alejandro's point that individual acts of this type might not make the world better after all.)

    Matt [a fellow Princetonian?] - I think if we compare the lives of people born into poverty, and those of people born into more fortunate circumstances, the latter will turn out to be better on just about any plausible conception of wellbeing. (I certainly don't think money intrinsically matters. But its deprivation does reduce one's opportunities to engage in the things that do matter: philosophy and other creative arts, etc.)

    Note that your view seems to imply that poverty is nothing to worry about. Since it apparently doesn't reduce one's chances of living a flourishing life, we have no reason to want to relieve poverty, or to want our own children to be born into financial security rather than poverty, etc. I submit that these implications of your position are absurd.

  18. The reason poor people respond so negatively to the idea that they shouldn't breed what they can't feed is, I think, fairly obviously a product of biology. Just as people will 'save a relationship' they both hate, because 'coupling-in-itself' seems valuable.

    People just seem to be incapable of looking at children as what they are: luxury items, on top of that, ones most people don't know how to properly care for.

    Beyond that I basically agree; but unfortunately intelligent and wealthy people tend to have interests apart from brute biology and vulgar socially constructed norms, thus the proliferation of idiots living like parasites upon their ideas.

    Not to sound too Randian or anything.

  19. If you want to contend this argument, all you can really attack is the above "reasonable assumption" about the quality of the world."M. Integer, it seems to me that there's quite a bit more to contend with than that.

    The argument itself does, in fact, imply classism. For instance, who exactly would be making the determination of who is poor enough to be 'discouraged' from having children? The homeless? Lower class? Lower-middle? Where's the cutoff point, exactly? Above and beyond the classist angle, there's a seriously slippery slope to be contended with here.

    Also, there's little factual basis on which to determine whether a life is 'happy' or 'worthy'. It's subjective, at best.

    I certainly don't think money intrinsically matters. But its deprivation does reduce one's opportunities to engage in the things that do matter: philosophy and other creative arts, etc.Richard, you seem to be saying one thing in this quote and then immediately arguing against it ("Money doesn't matter, but it does"). Care to clarify? Money very much matters, at least as far as the basis of your argument goes. One could say that, rather than telling poor people to f**k off with all their nasty rutting, perhaps we should be striving to make educational resources and opportunities available to all. Or at least more.

  20. "who exactly would be making the determination of who is poor enough to be 'discouraged' from having children?"

    Re-read my post. It is not about 'discouraging' other people. It is about personal moral reasoning. My suggestion is that anyone who can see that they'd be bringing a child into relatively unfortunate circumstances should decide for themselves not to have children.

    "It's subjective"

    See my previous response to Matt.

    "Money doesn't matter, but it does. Care to clarify?"

    It matters instrumentally, i.e. as a mere means. If a poor person had some other means to providing their children with education, opportunities, good peer groups and role models, etc., then that would be no problem at all. The only worry is that in practice, many people aren't actually in a position to provide all this.

    "perhaps we should be striving to make educational resources and opportunities available to all. Or at least more."

    Yes, of course. (See the second sentence of my original post.) That's compatible with thinking that, while those opportunities aren't available, one may have pressing moral reasons not to have children.


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