Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Non-identity, Variability and Actualist Partiality

Melinda Roberts has a fun piece in Philosophy Compass, 'An Asymmetry in the Ethics of Procreation', which explores the non-identity problem, and how to account for the putative "Asymmetry" according to which "it is wrong to bring a miserable child into existence but permissible not to bring a happy child into existence."  I've previously argued that the Asymmetry is best explained by value holism as applied to our contingent circumstances of high average welfare.  Now I want to focus on the more general question of how we should balance the conflicting interests of (i) people whose existence is contingent on our choice, vs. (ii) people who will exist regardless of our choice.

By way of background: I'm inclined to think that, while we can of course have impersonal reasons to take non-existent people into consideration (e.g., by preventing miserable lives from coming into existence), we cannot have personal reasons that ultimately stem from non-existent entities. Roberts argues against this view by means of a temporal analogy (p.769):
[T]he judgment that continuing to exist would be worse than dying for me, on the face of things, would seem perfectly cogent. I am not sure why the judgment that coming into existence makes things worse for the miserable Meg is not just as cogent. The subject doesn’t exist at the world where the choice is made not to bring Meg into existence, just as the subject doesn’t continue to exist at the world where the choice is made to die. But in both cases there is still a subject; the future could have unfolded in a way that includes Meg, just as the future could have unfolded in a way that (still) includes me.

But this strikes me as a bad (or at least limited) analogy.  Given Eternalism, I exist (here and now) regardless of whether I die tomorrow or not.  My current existence suffices to provide a subject that can continue to be referred to even after I die.  But in non-identity cases, whether there is a subject at all depends on what choice we make.  If we choose to bring Meg into existence, then there is a subject and we can regret her suffering for her sake. But if we don't, then there isn't, and our reason for relief at avoiding such suffering can only be impersonal.

(Roberts adds, on p.770, that "even if some form or another of modal actualism is true, any plausible articulation of moral law is going to require some reference to – not a de re reference; not a singular reference; but some way of talking, at least in some descriptive way, about – people who will in fact never exist at all."  Which is true enough, but compatible with my view that this descriptive way of talking can only ground impersonal reasons.)

So, let's accept that we have only impersonal reasons to prevent the suffering of the non-existent (by ensuring that they don't exist), but both personal and impersonal reasons to relieve the suffering of actual people.  Does that mean that the latter "count for more"?  One difficulty with this idea is that, were we to discount a supposedly non-existent person's interest in non-existence to the point where we allow them to come into existence (say to prevent a lesser harm to others), then suddenly they turn out to be an actual person whose interests count with full force, and hence who we have wronged by discounting.  So we can't discount the value of preventing miserable existence in this way, relative to relieving the misery of actual people.  The personal value of preventing suffering must substitute for, rather than add to, its impersonal value.

On the other hand, it seems we can coherently discount the positive value of bringing more happy people into existence, compared with the value of making actual people happier.  (Were we to bring them into existence, we would turn out to have personal reasons to be glad we did so.  But no personal wrong is done by failing to bring them into existence.  This seems like a curious case where the moral quality of one's options depends upon which option one actually takes.)  So it's open to us to hold that personal value adds to the impersonal value of increasing happiness for actual people, in contrast to the case of preventing misery.  This would seem an odd asymmetry though.  What could explain such an asymmetry between promoting the good and preventing the bad?  Perhaps just the observed point: If we are to count personal value over and above impersonal value, this is the only coherent way to do it.  (Still, I want to stress that it strikes me as very much an open question whether we should want to count personal reasons in addition to impersonal reasons, rather than as merely substituting the one kind of normative force for an equally weighty other kind.)

For a point of comparison: Roberts proposes a view she calls Variabilism to systematize the asymmetry (p.773):
The loss of wellbeing incurred at a world where the person who incurs that loss does or will exist has full moral significance for purposes of evaluating an act performed at a given world that imposes that loss and any alternate act performed at any alternate world that avoids that loss, while a loss incurred by that very same person at a world where that person never exists at all has no moral significance whatsoever.

This accommodates some central intuitions, but seems to lack any theoretical rationale.  So I wonder whether the central intuitions might be better captured by the view I describe above.  If we take seriously the idea that personal value can only arise for actual people, together with the idea that discounting the misery of non-actual people is incoherent, then this also gets us the desired results that (1) We have strong reasons to prevent miserable lives from coming into existence, and (2) We have weaker reasons to bring happy lives into existence (at least if we actually refrain from doing so).

There are a couple of subtle differences between the two proposed views that may be brought out as follows. (i) Suppose Adam actually exists, and consider a world w where he never exists.  Obviously w is in no way accessible from our world, but we might still adopt various evaluative attitudes towards it.  On one natural understanding of my account, we should regard w as lamentable for its lack of Adam (even if some other, similarly happy person 'Bob' exists in his place).  Not so on Roberts' account, as I understand it: Adam doesn't exist in w, so when evaluating w his loss counts for nothing.

(ii) Imagine a world w+ where the (actually non-existent) 'Bob' is even happier than in w, and another world @+ where Adam is similarly happier than he is in the actual world @.  On my proposed view, we have merely impersonal reasons to prefer w+ to w, and whereas we have both impersonal and (non-substituting) personal reasons to prefer @+ over @.  So the latter preference should be stronger than the former.  On Roberts' view, since the beneficiaries each exist in their relevant world (w+ and @+, respectively), they both have "full moral significance" and hence there would seem no grounds for any difference in preference.

While these are subtle differences, I think they count in favour of the view I've described.  If we are to countenance any fundamental asymmetry at all (and I'm not yet convinced that we should: the merely 'derivative' asymmetries offered by value holism seem quite adequate to me), then it seems to make most sense -- on both theoretical and case-based grounds -- to have it stem from a kind of partiality towards actually existing people (within the above-noted constraints).

[UPDATE: See my paper, 'Rethinking the Asymmetry', for more detail.]


  1. [Melinda Roberts writes:]

    While I find the Asymmetry highly intuitive, my argument involving the principle "Variabilism" isn't an argument for the Asymmetry. It's, rather, a reply to an objection against the Asymmetry that many consider definitive, according to which, on pain of inconsistency or conceptual incoherence, we cannot take both the position that it's wrong to bring the anguished child into existence and the position that it's permissible not to bring the happy child into existence. What Variabilism establishes is that -- if we want to take both such positions -- we can do so *without* contradicting ourselves or becoming enmeshed in incoherence.

    A couple of responses to Richard's note.

    Richard suggests the initially plausible claim that we must find a way to give the suffering of people who do or will exist however we make the choice under scrutiny more weight, in some sense, than the suffering of people whose existence depends on that same choice. My own view is that this tactic is doomed to failure. A range of problem cases shows, I think, that we are going to have to consider all persons, actual or merely possible, on par. Maybe not all *losses* are on par (more on that in a minute) but all *people* are -- and so by the way is all of the felt suffering they do, or might, endure.

    Richard himself investigates the idea that "we have only impersonal reasons to prevent the suffering of the non-existent (by ensuring that they don't exist), but both personal and impersonal reasons to relieve the suffering of actual people.") But in the end he decides that that can't be right.

    Even so, however, he still wants to maintain a distinction between dependently and independently existing people -- provided that they are happy. (In one case, we take into account only impersonal value; in the other, we are to add personal and impersonal values.) The upshot, as he notes, is that the weight of our reasons to bring the happy child into existence is going to vary, depending on what we in fact do. But that seems implausible. Wlodek Rabinowicz's axiom of normative invariance is implicated; the weight of my reasons to perform some future act shouldn't be a function of whether I in fact perform that act. I can't make an otherwise permissible act wrong, simply by doing it.

  2. [continued...]

    One last point. Richard says that he doesn't see what the "theoretical rationale" behind Variabilism could be. Others have said similar things to me, as in (A) yes it preserves the Asymmetry and shows that the Asymmetry can be asserted consistently and without loss of cogency, but it does so on an ad hoc basis, and/or (B) yes . . . , but if losses have moral significance at worlds where their subjects exist, why don't gains? But I don't think these are strong points. Why shouldn't we distinguish between the lesser wellbeing level (the "loss") that p incurs at a world w where p never exists at all, relative to a world w' where p has an existence well worth having, and the loss that p incurs at a world w where p exists and has an existence that p would be just as well off never having at all, relative to a world w' where p has an existence well worth having? In one case you have a loss that has no at-that-world-existing subject; in the other you have a loss that has an at-that-world-existing subject, a flesh and blood creature who suffers. Why shouldn't we say that -- while p arguably incurs a loss in some sense or another in both scenarios -- one loss has no moral significance at all while the other has full moral significance? Then, on the benefit side: why shouldn't we say that the benefit accorded by the choice that avoids a loss on behalf of no at-that-world-existing subject has no moral significance at all, while the benefit accorded by the choice that avoids a loss on behalf of an at-that-world-existing subject, a flesh and blood creature who suffers, has full moral significance?

    So I don't think it's plausible that the distinction Variabilism makes between the two losses (or equally the two gains) is arbitrary or ad hoc.

    [- Melinda Roberts]


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