A version of this essay is forthcoming in Think, a project of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. For footnotes, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay defends the theory of sliding-scale anti-natalism. According to this theory, the moral permissibility of creating a new human life in any given case is a function of (1) the likelihood that the procreative act will benefit the created individual, which is a value derived from (1a) the likelihood that the relevant life will be joyous on balance and (1b) the probable intensity of the joy in that life. The value of this potential benefit must then be discounted by (2) the force of our moral obligation not to risk harming others.
The essay proceeds as follows. To prove that our general obligation not to harm others entails duties to humans who do not exist yet—and to justify the claim that the commendable act of benefitting people gives us a reason to create happy people—Section I aims to show that individuals can be harmed or benefited by entering existence. Section II explains how the likelihood that a life will be joyous and the probable intensity of the relevant individual’s joy affect the moral permissibility of procreation. Section III explains how the risk of creating a bad life generates a strong moral reason not to procreate. Section IV explains that the preceding variables, operating together, tend to favor the conclusion that procreation is morally suspect. The conclusion follows.
Is Entering Existence Ever Harmful or Beneficial?
The formula articulated above suggests that we would harm an individual by forcing her into a bad life. It also suggests that we would benefit an individual by forcing her into a good life. Some readers may object to these parts of the formula by arguing that humans cannot be harmed or benefited by actions taken before the relevant humans exist. I dispute these objections here.
Perhaps a simple thought experiment is sufficient to clarify the matter of harming those who do not yet exist. Suppose that my snapping my fingers would cause a currently nonexistent person to enter a torturous existence three seconds later. Is it not obvious that snapping my fingers would harm that person? Sure, the person would not exist at the point at which the harm-creating act would occur, but that is irrelevant. One can be harmed by an action that is performed before one exists.
A few readers may maintain, counterintuitively, that snapping my fingers actually would not be a harm, as the concept of harm is unintelligible if there is nobody around to be harmed when the harmful act occurs. I ask these readers: would it be bad for me to snap my fingers? I doubt that any deny that it would be. If it would be bad, though, then surely it would be bad because my conduct would harm somebody. (Otherwise, what would make my conduct bad?) Thus, we find, again, that snapping my fingers would be a harm to the person being created.
Perhaps the rebuttal is that conduct can be bad even if it does not harm anyone and that snapping my fingers would fall into this category of conduct. I doubt that any such moral category exists, but suppose that it does exist and that snapping my fingers would fall into this category. It still follows that I have a reason to try to avoid creating unhappy beings. For even if my creating unhappy beings would not harm anyone, it would still be “bad” in some freestanding sense.
Some scholars accept the preceding account of the potential harm of entering existence but deny that anyone can ever benefit from entering existence. But if entering existence can harm the person being created, then surely it can benefit the person being created as well. In the preceding three paragraphs, the force of our intuition that a person could be harmed by entering existence probably stemmed from our sense that nonexistence is a neutral psychological state, such that entering a torturous conscious existence constitutes a harmful “step down” for anyone who enters that existence. If this is correct, though, then it seems that transitioning from the neutral psychological state of nonexistence to a joyous state of happy existence constitutes a beneficial step up for the person who is thrust into a joyous existence.
None of the objections to this account seems satisfactory. We may be tempted to argue that there is no one to benefit at the moment in which we bring a happy person into existence; however, we already defeated a variation of this argument by showing that an individual need not exist yet in order to be affected in a morally relevant way by others’ actions. We could also argue that the nonexistent do not and cannot benefit from the joys of existence because the nonexistent—being nonexistent—have no preference to experience those joys. But this argument falls flat as well. For if the nonexistent (as we determined above) can be harmed by entering a painful existence even though they lack a preference not to experience suffering, then, by the same token, the nonexistent can benefit from entering a joyous existence even though they lack a preference to experience joy.
It is possible that I have missed some devastating argument against the position that I have been advancing. But if my account of harming and benefit is correct, then we can proceed with the assumption that humans can benefit from—or be harmed by—entering existence.
The Goods of Existence
The moral permissibility of creating a new life increases and decreases as (1) the probability of the resulting being’s happiness and (2) the probable intensity of the resulting being’s happiness increase and decrease. The truth of this proposition may be obvious, but if not, then consider this case: a newborn baby has been completely unconscious throughout its short life and is in the doctor’s office awaiting treatment. The doctor has a medicine that has a 90 percent chance of making the baby happy and healthy but a 10 percent chance of making the baby suffer immensely for the rest of its life. Whatever we feel about the morality of the doctor’s giving the child the medicine, surely our intuitions change as the probabilities involved change. If, for example, the medicine is made to have a 99.9 percent chance of giving the baby a good life, then the moral permissibility of administering the medicine increases in our estimation; alternatively, if the medicine is made to have only a 40 percent chance of giving the baby a good life (and a 60 percent chance of giving the child a bad life), then the permissibility of administering the medicine significantly decreases.
There is another way in which our moral assessment of administering the medicine might be affected. Suppose that the medicine has a 90 percent chance of giving the child an on-balance happy life but that this on-balance happy life will be only barely experientially better than the child’s never having entered conscious existence at all. If this is the case, then administering the medicine is less moral than it would be if the medicine had a 90 percent chance of giving the child a life of pure ecstasy. Thus, we find ourselves taking heed of two figurative “dials”: (1) the dial affecting the probability of an on-balance good life, and (2) the dial affecting the intensity of the goodness of the potential on-balance good life.
These are (two of) the dials that ought to guide our thinking in the procreative context as well. Like the administration of medicine to an as yet unconscious baby, the creation of a preexistent human should be judged in part by the odds of the eventual child’s living a good life and the odds that the good life in question will be very good.
The Duty Not to Risk Harming Others
Our moral reasons to refrain from performing some action become stronger as the odds that the action will harm someone increase. It is morally worse, all else being equal, for me to drive a car with my eyes closed than it is for me to drive with my eyes open. This is because the odds of my injuring somebody increase once I close my eyes. (If, somehow, I acquired the ability to drive completely safely with my eyes closed, then our moral objections to my closing my eyes behind the wheel would probably disappear.)
These considerations should inform our ideas about procreation as well. We should believe that it is morally worse to create a child with a 5 percent chance of living a bad life than it is to create a child with only a 1 percent chance of living a bad life. Again, this is because actions with a higher chance of harming somebody are, all else being equal, morally worse than are actions with a lower chance of harming somebody.
Procreation as a Morally Suspect Behavior
The notion that the preceding variables belong in our moral equation might not be so controversial. Far more controversial is the question of how the variables interact. Though entire books could be (and, indeed, have been) written on the matter, a couple of thoughts here will suffice. First, the fact that procreative risk-taking occurs at the expense of someone else (i.e. the child) strengthens our reasons to forgo procreation. Second, the apparent fact that pain is more intensely bad than joy is intensely good gives us a particularly strong reason to focus on avoiding harm in the procreative context.
To kick things off, suppose that your making an initial investment of 100 dollars in the stock market would give you a 50 percent chance of making another 100 dollars (leaving you with 200 dollars) and a 50 percent chance of losing your initial investment (leaving you with 0 dollars). Maybe it is unclear whether you ought to make the investment. But now suppose that you were invited to make the investment for (an unaware) somebody else—somebody whose money you would be investing on that somebody’s behalf. Surely, in this case, your moral reasons for not investing would be stronger. This is so because investing the money would involve risking harm to another person—something that you have a prima facie duty to avoid.
Of course, it may be responded that, in certain cases, we also have a strong duty to help other people (which would argue in favor of your investing the money on the person’s behalf). This may be right, but it seems likely that our duty to help others—even on the most altruistic moral account—is not as strong as our duty not to harm them. Generally speaking, I do something worse by stealing 50 dollars from you than I do by not making 50 dollars for you. That being the case, I should generally ensure that I meet my moral obligation not to steal 50 dollars from you even if this means that I must fail to meet my (lesser) obligation to generate an extra 50 dollars for you.
That we have a general duty to avoid harming others does not mean that the correlative duty to avoid risking harm to others is indefeasible. If there were a 99 percent chance that my secretly snatching 1 dollar from your wallet would allow me to turn a 1 million dollar profit on your behalf, then it seems that my taking the 1 dollar from you would be hardly morally objectionable. But then, my using my own dollar would be less morally objectionable still. The decision to gamble at other people’s expense—even if the probabilities involved seem to favor the gamble—always calls for caution. And procreating is gambling at other people’s expense. It is, quite simply, forcing people into conscious existence without any certainty that the created lives will be good. Thus, tremendous caution is warranted before procreating.
Let us now turn to the second reason to doubt the moral permissibility of procreation: namely, that the possible joys of existence are less intense than are the possible harms. To see that this is so, suppose that the question now is whether we would consent to a gamble in which we would have a 55 percent chance of living a life of the greatest joy possible and a 45 percent chance of living the most hellish life possible. Suppose, too, that the joys and pains would be no more intense than are the joys and pains that humans actually experience—the joys of falling in love, spending time with family, eating good food, and having (protected) sex, for example, and the pains of having one’s eyes gouged out, one’s heart broken, and one’s relatives murdered in front of one. It seems to me clear that none of us would ever consent to this gamble. Indeed, we would probably reject the gamble even if there were only a 20 percent chance of our ending up with the bad life.
The reason that we would not consent to these gambles is not that we are irrationally risk-averse. Instead, it is that we feel—rationally—that the worst pains that humans experience are more intense than are the greatest joys that humans experience. If this asymmetry between the intensity of pains and the intensity of joys does indeed exist, then we have yet another reason to disfavor procreation. Whatever the probability that a given life will be joyous, the intensity of the joys that could possibly be gained by the living person might not be great enough to compensate for the risk of an intensely painful existence. On this understanding, participation in the procreative gamble is like risking a loss of 10 dollars in an effort to win 2 dollars.
While granting that the intensity of maximum pain is greater than that of maximum pleasure, the pro-natalist may maintain that the odds of living a life of maximum pain are too small to constitute a strong argument against procreation generally. Maybe so; but then, the odds of living a life of maximum joy are too small to constitute a strong argument in favor of procreation generally. If most lives (in the West) exist somewhere between the markers of “on-balance medium suffering” and “on-balance medium joy,” and if medium suffering is safely assumed to be more intense than is medium joy (for the same reason that maximum suffering is safely assumed to be more intense than is maximum joy), then the procreated still have a high chance of incurring a loss weightier in value than the goods that they have a high chance of gaining.
The pro-natalist may at this point argue that the odds of ending up with a life of “on-balance medium joy” are so much greater than the odds of ending up with a life of “on-balance medium suffering” that it makes sense to risk the medium suffering. As an analogy: if my putting down 5 dollars now means that I will have a 1 percent chance of losing the 5 dollars but a 99 percent chance of keeping the 5 dollars and gaining 1 extra dollar, then perhaps I ought to put down the 5 dollars, even though I technically stand to lose more than I stand to gain. In other words, the high odds of gaining a value through the gamble are so great as to help compensate for the paltriness of the value to be gained.
This, finally, brings us to the crucial question: whether the real-world odds of a child’s living an on-balance good life justify the gamble that we take at her expense. Though intuitions on this point are likely to diverge sharply, a handful of sobering statistics and observations should leave all of us doubting the auspiciousness of the procreative gamble. More than 35 percent of American marriages end in divorce. More than 30 percent of Americans get cancer. Perhaps 4 percent of Americans can be expected in any given year to have “at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment.” 12 percent of Americans are alcoholics. 3.5 percent of American adults suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Data aggregated in 2007 suggest that 1.2 percent of Americans will suffer at some point from anorexia nervosa, 2 percent will suffer from bulimia nervosa, and 5 percent will suffer from binge eating disorder. Those lucky enough to avoid such ailments are more likely than not to suffer at some point from romantic break-ups, the loss of loved ones, frustrated ambitions, status anxiety, the instability borne of climate change, and the horrors of pandemics. All of us, too, are likely to suffer from the realization that our bodies and minds will deteriorate over time, that the opportunities available to us will evaporate as the years go on, and that, eventually, we will die.
The preceding should show that the odds of creating an on-balance good life are not necessarily large. The pro-natalist may proffer as a rejoinder that most people affected by the issues described above are nonetheless happy to have been born. But the question is not whether most individuals after the fact are glad that their parents took the procreative gamble on behalf of their offspring. It is, instead, whether the information we have before we know whether a child will be happy argues in favor of the procreative gamble.
By way of illustration, suppose that we have to decide whether to steal 200 dollars from somebody in order to buy a nonrefundable lottery ticket that promises a 60 percent chance of a 300 dollar windfall. Suppose that we then win the lottery and give the 300 dollars to the person from whom we stole. That we were lucky enough to win does not mean that we were justified in taking the gamble in the first place. Indeed, given the weight of the potential losses involved and the considerable odds of losing, we were positively unjustified in taking the gamble. By the same token, the alleged fact that most people now are happy that their parents took the procreative gamble for them does not mean that the parents were justified at the time in taking the procreative gamble or that would-be parents are so justified going forward.
The argument here has been that the morality of procreation increases and decreases in conjunction with the probable value of the life being created. Our moral reasons for procreating are at their zenith in cases where the odds of a good life are high and the odds of a very good life are almost just as high. But because (1) we are taking the procreative gamble for somebody else, (2) the potential harms of existence are immense, and (3) the odds of those harms’ materializing are discomfitingly high even in these instances, we always have weighty reasons to avoid procreating. Whether these reasons make it appropriate to condemn procreation altogether is a matter to explore another time.