The Procreative Gamble

A version of this essay is forthcoming in Think, a project of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. For footnotes, please email me at

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.

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Posted in Population

Reform or Abolition?: Lessons From the Death Penalty

A version of this essay originally appeared here.

When confronted with overwhelming evidence of a discriminatory state practice, a decent society responds in one of two ways: by trying to remove discrimination from the practice, or by scrapping the practice altogether. In the context of capital punishment, the Supreme Court has opted for the former course of action. In 1987, the Court in McCleskey v. Kemp expressed its hope and conviction that, even without a wholesale abolition of capital punishment, any troubling racism in executions was destined to end through Court-facilitated adjustments to the ultimate punishment. 

Nearly 35 years later, that conviction has proved unfounded. As we maneuver our way through a political moment pregnant with possibility—in which the foundations of our criminal justice system are under heightened scrutiny, and in which “abolitionists” debate “reformists” about the best path forward—we should be mindful of what the results of our national experiment with the death penalty suggest. As long as it retains tremendous power, the government will be tremendously dangerous. If government officials are in a position to discriminate in life-or-death situations, Americans will continue to die because of discrimination. If our history with the death penalty is any indication, successfully taming the governmental beast cannot mean simply regulating (that is, making regular) the government’s exercise of all of its awesome powers. Instead, it must mean taking many of those powers away from the government outright. 

Efforts on the high court to excise racism from the administration of the death penalty date back to 1963 (at the latest). In Rudolph v. Alabama, Frank Lee Rudolph, a black man in Alabama, petitioned the Supreme Court for review of his death sentence for raping a white woman. Although the Court ultimately declined to hear the case, three (outnumbered) justices argued that executions for rape raise important constitutional questions and that the Court, therefore, had good reason to weigh in. We now know that Justice Arthur Goldberg, who authored this dissenting opinion, was largely concerned about the death penalty’s disproportionate impact on black men convicted of raping white women. It was only at the insistence of Chief Justice Earl Warren—who apparently felt it necessary for the Court to sidestep the charged issue of black crime—that Goldberg did not mention race in his dissent to the denial of review of Rudolph’s case. 

Those seeking to circumscribe the racialized system of capital punishment by ending executions for rape (of grown women) got their victory in 1977, when the Court ruled in Coker v. Georgia that executing people for rape was so disproportionate as to violate the 8th Amendment. Given the sordid history of the death penalty for rape as a mechanism of racial terrorism in the United States, this was a remarkable achievement. Even so, capital punishment (for other crimes) stayed in place, as did the plague of racism that infected it. 

A decade after Coker, the Court addressed the racial issue head-on in McCleskey, where the majority suggested that it was possible to administer the death penalty in a sufficiently race-neutral way. Crucial to the majority opinion was the Court’s “Batson Doctrine,” named for a then-recent case in which the Court made it more difficult for prosecutors to strike potential jurors on racial grounds. The availability of Batson-based relief, the Court suggested, minimized the odds of unfair capital trials, thereby casting doubt on death penalty abolitionists’ contention that the death penalty was irredeemably racist in its application.

As Carol and Jordan Steiker have pointed out, the Court in McCleskey overstated its case. To be sure, Batson has and had made it easier to thwart prosecutorial attempts to strike jurors because of their race. However, the fact that prosecutorial teams can almost effortlessly concoct and claim benign, non-racial reasons for striking potential jurors of color means that many race-based peremptory challenges probably go unpunished. In any event, Batson failed to address other ways that racial prejudice can surface in death penalty cases. For example, Batson did nothing to remove prosecutors’ vast discretion over whether to seek the death penalty in the first place. Insofar as their implicit racial biases affect prosecutors’ assessment of the heinousness of various crimes, the exercise of this discretion can affect who lives and who dies.

The failure of the Court’s efforts to cleanse the death penalty of its racism is apparent in our own time. In 2018, the State of Georgia executed Kenneth Fults after one of the jurors in Fults’s case claimed post-trial that the “n***** got just what should have happened,” no matter if Fults “ever killed anybody.” Similarly shockingly, the African-American Andre Thomas, after he was found guilty of killing his “white estranged wife” and their child, was sentenced to death by exclusively white jurors—three of whom claimed to disfavor interracial romance. (The state’s conduct is even more shocking in light of the fact that Thomas is so mentally ill as to have removed and eaten his own eye.) 

Those who believe that the death penalty has no appreciable race problem may consider these sorts of cases simple aberrations in a system otherwise designed to withstand attempts at racist infiltration. But the reality is that as long as powerful actors exercise (an inevitable) discretion over the death penalty’s application—by deciding whether to seek the death penalty, whether to grant clemency, and how to weigh mitigating factors in defendants’ individual cases—discrimination is likely to rear its ugly head in the penalty’s administration.

The clear lesson for those seeking to address abuses of American state power in other contexts is to eschew the utopianism, either sincere or feigned, that the Court has embraced in its retention of the death penalty. Reasonable people can disagree about the propriety of hard drug laws, the deployment of armed police officers in response to 911 calls, the placement of officers in public schools, and—for that matter—the death penalty. However, those who would embrace an extensive state presence in people’s lives should not be allowed to claim that the mammoth state—through diversity and sensitivity training, for example, or through peremptory challenge reforms—can be made nondiscriminatory. Simply put, efforts to rid a human institution of the apparently ineradicable human vulnerability to prejudice is doomed to failure. The only way to stop the state from abusing its power is to eliminate the power that the state would abuse. 

Jordan and Carol Steiker’s Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment was tremendously helpful in writing this piece.

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Posted in Criminal Justice

Should Effective Altruists Focus More on American Poverty?

The conventional wisdom among Effective Altruists is that financially secure Americans should support desperately poor people abroad before trying to help poor Americans. Because the relative poor of the United States are richer than the absolute poor of the Global South, the reasoning goes, donations to the latter go further than donations to the former do. By way of illustration: a $3,500 donation to the Against Malaria Foundation is likely to make a literal life-or-death difference to a poor child overseas, whereas an equivalent donation to a U.S.-focused charity, even in the age of coronavirus, is unlikely to save an American child who would otherwise die. 

It is commendable that American advocates of the global poor are sufficiently dispassionate to frame moral matters in such universalistic terms. As various opponents of national borders have pointed out, one’s birthplace is as random as one’s skin color, meaning that any special concern that we have for our country’s poor (and our simultaneous undervaluation of the needs of poor foreigners) may be no more morally defensible than racists’ disparate levels of concern for impoverished members of different racial groups. But that does not quite settle the matter. Even if EAs are right to view national differences as prima facie moral irrelevancies, the psychological burdens of relative poverty, as well as the realities of American political and social life, may give American EAs good reasons to channel some of their charitable energies towards the American poor. 

In the first place, the scourge of suicide among low-income Americans (and lower rates of suicide among richer Americans) should make us question EAs’ common assumption that several thousand dollars, proffered in the spirit of intranational camaraderie, cannot reliably and significantly extend the life of a needy American. Notwithstanding the fact that they have comforts unavailable to poor people in the Global South, many poor Americans still fall prey to self-destructive despair (especially when they live close to wealthier people). Insofar as that despair is born of a sense of worthlessness and exclusion, economic support may allay their pain by reminding the poor that their projects and ailments matter to others. 

Adherents to the traditional ideas of Effective Altruism may rush to point out that the global poor, because of their absolute poverty, often struggle with suicidal ideation as well. According to this counter, the psychological suffering of the global poor matches that of the suicidal American poor, but the global poor experience the additional suffering of, say, extreme food insecurity. Thus, if we must choose between lending a hand to a suicidal American in relative poverty and lifting up a suicidal foreigner in absolute poverty, we should assist the latter, seeing as that assistance can alleviate psychological as well as physical suffering (whereas our donation to an American can relieve psychological suffering alone). 

It is unclear, however, that suffering works in the way that this response suggests. If two people—one a hungry person overseas, another a reasonably well-fed but unemployed Midwesterner—are both so depressed as to seriously contemplate suicide, is it really obvious that the non-American is suffering more than the American is? It seems just as plausible that they have both reached the “limit” of possible suffering—that the pains of the Midwesterner, because of the psychological toll of relative poverty, are indeed as intense as those of the person abroad. 

Even if we conclude, alternatively, that the most despondent among the global poor suffer more than the most despondent poor Americans do, there is yet another reason—grounded in American political dynamics—for American EAs to focus some of their attention on American poverty. Namely, the prevalence of American nationalist sentiments probably means that American campaigns for domestic poverty relief can make greater inroads than our domestic campaigns against global poverty can.

The unfortunate reality is that, at present, Americans care more about American affairs than they do about foreign affairs. The truth of this point may be self-evident; if not, we can review some of the survey data on the matter. As of last month, not even 1 percent of Americans felt that foreign aid—some of which seems to save lives—is the most important issue with which our country is currently wrestling. Nearly everyone surveyed instead identified some American issue (including coronavirus, almost certainly because of its effect on Americans) as the most pressing. 

In the foreseeable future, this American preference for addressing American problems may render any call for a full-fledged global war on poverty a non-starter. By contrast, calls to help cash-strapped Americans—through political changes or private donations—may very well receive a sympathetic hearing from well-off Americans with an altruistic impulse. So even if the domestic poor need the money less than impoverished foreigners do, the fact that a campaign against domestic poverty can garner more support (in the United States) may mean, ultimately, that EAs can do more good by advocating for the American poor than by campaigning against global poverty. 

To be clear, none of this is meant to condemn American EAs’ efforts to eliminate privation abroad. In a country rife with apathy to the struggles of the foreign poor, such efforts are highly laudable. If successful, this note has merely complicated the suggestion that our charitable expenditures do more good overseas than they do at home. It has also suggested that any thoroughgoing EA, in planning her anti-poverty campaigning, should account for the strong possibility that domestic poverty is more likely than global poverty to ignite Americans’ humanitarian sentiments. That this is the case now, of course, does not mean that we must resign ourselves to the dictates of nationalism forever. We can and should hope that, as we push them to take greater cognizance of the poor in our own society, Americans will come to resist an international economic arrangement in which millions of non-Americans are immiserated as well.

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Posted in Distributive Justice

Are There Moral Reasons to Love Those We Serve?

Utilitarianism and egalitarianism are theories of moral (and perhaps political) obligation. Generally framed, they invite people to redistribute things they own—such as dollars, clothes, and body parts—to those who need them more. But do these theories have anything to say about the spirit in which utility-increasing or equality-promoting donations are made? More precisely: are there distinctly moral reasons not only to help the needy but to open ourselves up to loving them in some way? 

At first blush, it may seem that (non-religious) moral doctrines are properly silent on givers’ feelings towards the beneficiaries of the givers’ prosocial efforts. If the size of our paychecks to a charity or the fervency of our advocacy for an important social cause is the same whether or not we feel some kinship with the recipients of our aid, then the kinship (or lack thereof) seems to have no moral significance. But I think we should reject this first impression. I see at least two sets of moral reasons—one recipient-centered, and another giver-centered—for givers to try to cultivate genuine good will towards those benefiting from their efforts. 

Suppose that Sally, a committed utilitarian and champion of the poor, works at a soup kitchen every week and regularly interacts with some of the kitchen’s patrons. When they ask her why she spends her time this way, she replies, “It’s my moral duty to help. Whenever I can increase happiness, I ought to.” For her part, Sue volunteers just as frequently at the soup kitchen but answers the patrons’ question differently: “I just love the people who come through here. You are a deeply caring, thoughtful, and goofy bunch, and it’s an honor to serve you.” 

According to one interpretation, the differences in their answers are morally irrelevant; all that matters is that Sally and Sue, whatever their stated motivations for helping, are providing equally valuable services through their labor. But this interpretation obscures the fact that Sue’s passionate, recipient-focused giving is likely to feel better for the recipient—and, oddly, to maximize utility more—than is Sally’s dispassionate, utility-obsessed giving. For the latter type of giving conveys to the beneficiaries that they are merely efficient means to a moral end—that the fact that they are the ones being helped matters not an iota to the helper. More dignifying (or, to put it in classical utilitarian terms, “pleasurable”) for the receivers is the impression fostered by Sue’s loving giving: that the recipients are receiving assistance because there is some quality they possess, other than their need, that makes them worthy beneficiaries of the giver’s efforts. 

The peculiarity of this position is that it gives us a moral reason to develop affections that sideline morality. That is, in order for those affections to serve their moral purpose, the recipient must feel that the affection is “freely” chosen and not forced by moral demands. For if we suppose that Sally returns to the soup kitchen the following week with an appreciation of the moral importance of love and says, “I am here because I love the beneficiaries of my action, and I love them because my moral doctrine requires me to love them,” the recipients are probably going to feel awkward and unseen again. In practice, this means that even if a moral doctrine is the impetus for our inviting ourselves to love the recipients of our aid, the process of coming to love our beneficiaries should make no further reference to morality. We should open ourselves up to loving the recipients of our aid through a non-moral appreciation for their positive attributes, and we should try to convey to our recipients that this appreciation is the ultimate basis for our helping them (even if our foray into this realm of love was originally inspired by moral ideas).

Granted, these reasons for opening ourselves up to loving those we help can get us only so far. They might not give a highly adept manipulator—who can effectively pretend in front of her beneficiaries that she loves them—any reason at all to cultivate her loving side. It is also possible that nothing here gives us a moral reason to develop affection for orphaned infants, nonhuman animals in distant slaughterhouses, and other recipients of assistance who are not in a position to appreciate our affection. To pick up the slack, we may need another set of arguments. 

The second set of arguments is giver-centered. These arguments hold that a giver’s love for her recipient can have both instrumental and intrinsic moral value because of the joy that helping a loved one brings the giver. According to the instrumentality argument, loving those we serve increases our enjoyment of the service, such that we are more likely to continue to serve our beneficiaries, and to serve them a lot, than we would otherwise be. Of course, there may exist some naturally emotionless or feverishly dutiful givers about whom this is untrue, whose levels of giving would not or could not at all be “boosted” by their developing affection for their recipients; however, most of us are likely to contribute more to overall happiness (by giving more and giving longer) if we feel that we are serving true friends.

Any moral system concerned with increasing overall human happiness must also recommend loving the ones we help for a more direct reason (that makes the aforementioned instrumental reason possible): loving the ones we help increases overall happiness by making the givers happier than they would be if they did not love the ones they help. That is, even if the givers’ developing affection for their recipients does not at all increase levels of giving, the givers’ developing affection for their recipients still increases overall happiness, as the givers more deeply enjoy the process of giving. This is true because it generally feels better to help loved ones than to help unloved ones. 

Surely there are readers who still have not been given a reason by any of the arguments stated to open themselves up to loving the ones they help. These are the readers who (1) are good at pretending that they love their beneficiaries, or (2) devote their prosocial energies to helping individuals who are in no position to interpret the givers’ feelings one way or another. These are also readers (1) sufficiently indifferent to the concept of love, and perhaps (2) already giving so much, that their developing affection for their recipients would not lead them to help the needy any more than they already do. Such readers are so unaffected by love, in fact, that their developing affection for the ones they serve would not even make them—the servants—happier to give than they already are. Perhaps no arguments for opening themselves up to loving those they serve can persuade such readers. Or perhaps I have simply overlooked such arguments. In any event, I hope that everyone else has been given a reason to open themselves up to loving those they serve. For beyond its widely recognized status as one of the most important non-moral goods, love may be a profound moral good as well.


These important articles inspired some of my thinking on these issues:

Selflessness and the Loss of Self” by Jean Hampton

Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality” by Peter Railton

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Posted in Distributive Justice

Fighting Seals: Reflections on Daniel D’Amico’s Defense of Factory Farming

The written form of this lecture originally appeared in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies.



In a written defense of factory farming, Daniel D’Amico argues that our instinct to prioritize human life over animal life in certain lifeboat scenarios reveals that human interests are so much more important than animal interests that the bloody system of factory farming can be justified by its (alleged) benefits for humanity. Through an exploration of Rawlsian reasoning, the reflections in this lecture show—contra D’Amico’s claims—that our instinct to favor humans in lifeboat scenarios can and ought to be justified in a way that does not also commit us to defending the cruel system of factory farming. In service of this rebuttal, the lecture proceeds to demonstrate, via an appeal to intuition, that certain violent acts (e.g., killing animals) that may be permissible in lifeboat scenarios are totally unacceptable when committed in the course of ordinary life. In pursuit of some agreement, the lecture finishes by noting that D’Amico’s apparent commitment to human flourishing may provide an opportunity for collaboration with animal liberationists who also take an interest in universal human uplift. 

Keywords: least well off, animal liberation, lifeboats, utilitarianism



In a written debate on factory farming, Daniel D’Amico outlines a thought experiment that invites readers to weigh the importance of human interests against the importance of animal interests (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). Although D’Amico leaves some of the details unclear, his description suggests that this thought experiment could take one or both of two general forms. In the Sadistic Gunman scenario, a sadistic gunman has forced you onto a beach where, before leaving, you must kill 1,000 baby seals or one human baby. If you refuse to choose, the sadistic gunman will keep you on the beach and kill all of you. Seal Attack describes a situation where you are walking home from baseball practice one day when you find 1,000 baby seals moving towards a human infant. The seals will overwhelm and kill the infant if you continue walking, but the infant will survive if you stop to pummel the seals to death.

D’Amico appears to argue that our strong intuition to save the human infant in both scenarios reveals that human welfare matters more than animal welfare (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). In fact, human interests are so “vastly more important” than animal interests that factory farming—which provides our species with tasty food—is morally permissible, even though it imposes tremendous costs on animals bred for hellish lives of servitude (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). 

The forthcoming reflections offer one of many conceivable liberationist rebuttals to D’Amico. If successful, I will prove in this lecture that it is logically possible both to advocate saving the hypothetical human baby and to condemn factory farming as a moral crime against real-world animals. Then, in the spirit of concord, I will explore a potential implication of D’Amico’s appraisal of Seal Attack that shows that D’Amico’s moral commitments might not be too different from the universalist commitments of many animal liberationists. It is in this harmonious spirit that my reflections will end.  

Rawlsian Objections

Animal liberationists hotly debate the utilitarian method of evaluating public policy, whereby analysts weigh the sum of a proposed policy’s good consequences against the sum of its bad consequences (Regan & Singer, 1985). Whereas some liberationists—Peter Singer, most notably—fiercely defend this utilitarian method of moral calculation, liberationists like Tom Regan feel that this utilitarian approach perilously discounts what John Rawls called “the distinction between persons” (Rawls, 1971, p. 27). Cognizant that pain is experienced on an individual basis, Regan and other Rawls-inspired liberationists claim that the aggregate harm that a policy promises is less important than the policy’s probable impact on the affected individual who, once the policy is enacted, will be least well off (Regan & Singer, 1985). It is most moral, these liberationists claim, for us to pursue the greatest well-being possible for whatever hapless individual will end up occupying this bottom position, even if this pursuit requires us to sacrifice some utility overall. 

Regan’s liberationist doctrine is itself liable to powerful challenges. For example, it may be true, as utilitarians insist, that forcing a psychologically neutral individual into a negative psychological state actually would make moral sense, assuming that this move would somehow allow many (say, one thousand) other individuals to transition from a neutral psychological state to a positive psychological state. However, an exhaustive defense of Regan’s position against such challenges is unnecessary to show that his view, whatever its potential deficiencies, is at least plausible and may very well pose a potent challenge to D’Amico’s position.  Although D’Amico seems to think that no set of pro-liberation ideas could yield arguments in favor of saving the human baby in Sadistic Gunman and Seal Attack, Regan’s pro-liberation Rawlsian ideas do exactly that. 

Unlike utilitarians, who would begin their moral calculations by weighing the potential suffering of the human baby against the potential suffering of all 1,000 seals in either hypothetical, Rawlsians would begin by weighing the human baby’s potential suffering against the potential suffering of only one of the 1,000 seals. Of course, the linguistic limitations of seals and human infants would make it difficult for ethicists to measure these beings’ potential for suffering and for Rawlsians, therefore, to compare their potential suffering reliably. Even so, Rawlsians could note that human babies and seals both have nociceptors and central nervous systems and that, despite their unmistakable aversions to noxious stimuli, individuals in both groups have only a rudimentary understanding of the pains they experience (Costa & Crocker, 2009, pp. 873-878). 

Perhaps Rawlsians would feel, at first glance, that the psychological and physiological similarities between seals and human babies mean that saving the human baby, in either Sadistic Gunman or Seal Attack, is not morally required. But thoroughgoing Rawlsians would know that the threats facing the human child and baby seals in our posited hypotheticals are not the only harms for which ethicists must ultimately account. Surely it matters morally that any human baby’s death is overwhelmingly likely to break the hearts of the child’s adult relatives, subjecting them to a tragedy that, according to some bereaved parents, can feel like a nightmare from which one never really awakes (Mendoza, 2016).

If it is true, as it seems to be, that a human baby’s death would generally haunt that child’s adult family more than a seal’s death would harm the seal itself or any of the seal’s loved ones, then Rawlsians’ choice would be clear. If they opted to save the human baby by bringing about the seals’ deaths, they would be creating a situation in which the least well off individual is a pained seal being beaten to death. In contrast, if they opted to save the seals by bringing about the human’s death, they would be creating a situation in which the least well off individual is an inconsolable human adult whose psychological suffering is deeper than that of which any seal is capable. Because the former option would involve less suffering for the least well off individual, this is the option that consistent Rawlsians would choose. 

We should note that the preceding account would fail if the endangered human infant somehow had no loved ones. But maybe Rawlsians would then have other reasons to save an orphaned human baby at the expense of seals. To wit, if it is true that the human baby’s living future—unlike that of the seal—would involve finding a loving home environment that would allow this human to create art, tell stories, fall deeply in love, and pursue other long-term professional and personal projects, then the joys of the human’s life might outweigh the joys of the seal’s life. Consider:

World 1: Seal Survives and Human DiesWorld 2: Seal Dies and Human Survives
Seal: +5 hedons
Human: -2 hedons
Seal: -2 hedons
Human: +20 hedons

The least well off individual in World 1 is the human baby who experiences -2 hedons as a result of being shot or trampled to death, and the least well off individual in World 2 is the seal that is killed in an equally painful way. Upon first glance, we might feel that this is a Rawlsian “tie” and that Rawlsians would, therefore, be obligated to flip a coin (or something like that) in order to choose between the two worlds. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes hard to believe that this is the correct Rawlsian approach. Indeed, if it were the correct Rawlsian approach, then a Rawlsian would also have to flip a coin between Worlds Y and Z, each with 100 people, where (1) World Y has 1 person at -10 hedons and 99 people suffering nearly as much at -9 hedons and (2) World Z has 1 person at -10 hedons but 99 people living positively ecstatic lives at 1,000 hedons. It is reasonable to suppose that the correct Rawlsian approach to such “ties” is instead to compare the second least well off individual in the first possible world to the second least well off individual in the second possible world. Because the second least well off individual in World 2 (i.e., the surviving human at approximately +20 hedons) is better off than the second least well off individual in World 1 (i.e., the surviving seal at +5 hedons), World 2 is the one that Rawlsians ought to prefer. 

If we accept the preceding analysis, then we may be asked to concede, as an aside, that human fetuses resemble human babies in their capacity to be made better or worse off based on whether they live or die (Marquis, 1989). Of course, many anti-abortion Rawlsians would probably view any such “concession” as a simple truism, the validity of which one would be silly to deny. But it is possible that even abortion-condoning Rawlsians can make this concession without abandoning their defense of abortion. Consider:

World A: Fetus is AbortedWorld B: Fetus Lives
Baby: 0 hedons
Mother: -3 hedons
Baby: +20 hedons
Mother: -8 hedons

The first column reminds us that a fetus, if aborted before the onset of fetal consciousness, experiences no joy but also no pain. Thus, the claim that this fetus is “harmed” by abortion makes sense only by reference to the counterfactual: had the fetus entered conscious existence, this fetus would have experienced joy. In that latter world, the baby might experience +20 or even +100 hedons, but what matters to Rawlsians—searching for the social arrangement whose least well off member experiences the greatest level of happiness—is that the abortion-desiring mother experiences -8 hedons (or some other amount of pain) when enduring the hardships of a pregnancy and mother-child relationship that she does not want. Rawlsians compare this lowest number in World B to the lowest number in World A (i.e., -3, reflecting the emotional distress sometimes associated with getting an abortion) and find that the least well off individual in World A (i.e., the mother getting the abortion) is better off than the worst-off individual in World B (i.e., the mother prevented from getting the abortion). Thus, Rawlsians—even while granting that fetuses can have interests—have good reason to prefer World A and to condone abortion at least before the onset of fetal consciousness (at which point the abortion of the baby might cause the baby in World A to experience suffering). 

In any event, it is now clear that Rawlsians, whatever their positions on abortion, can make a logical, non-prejudiced case for saving one human newborn at the expense of 1,000 seals. However, nothing in this case requires Rawlsians to support factory farming. A brief survey of the conditions under which billions of farm animals live and die every year can prove it so. 

As a result of genetic manipulation, chickens have overly large bodies and place such great weight on their legs that they sometimes lose their ability to walk (Rachels, 2011, p. 3). So that they do not injure each other through anxiety-induced pecking in cramped spaces, billions endure the gruesome process of debeaking (Rachels, 2011, p. 3). After a little more than a month of living, these mutilated creatures are shipped to slaughterhouses to be killed for human consumption (Huemer, 2019, p. 118).

The industry’s pigs and cows fare no better. Workers painfully detach piglets’ tails and press searing irons into cows’ hides (Huemer, 2019, p. 24). Dairy cows are routinely overmilked, and their offspring are hauled away shortly after birth (Rachels, 2011, p. 2). Though many are sent straight to abattoirs, some of the females are kept behind to live painful lives as dairy cows themselves (Rachels, 2011, p. 2). Hundreds of millions of turkeys suffer similar horrors in order to sate Americans’ appetites every year (Rachels, 2011, p. 4). 

So grim are the realities of factory farming that most of this system’s victims—who account for the vast majority of the animals consumed in the United States—probably experience more suffering than joy (Huemer, 2019, p. 64). Thus, billions of potential farm animals, who will enter lives of misery if and only if humans incentivize animal production by consuming animal products, seem to fare much better in a vegan system than in a non-vegan system. Consider:

Human A Eats PorkHuman A Does Not Eat Pork
Human A: 2 hedons
Pig A: -20 hedons
Human A: -2 hedons
Pig A: 0 hedons

Much like factory farmed animals generally, the pig (1) suffers immensely if Human A consumes meat and (2) suffers nothing if Human A does not consume meat and the pig, because of that non-consumption, is never brought into existence. Of course, this consideration alone is not dispositive; if Human A’s giving up pork would cause Human A greater pain than Human A’s not giving up pork would cause Pig A, then Rawlsians would have to support Human A’s pork consumption. But not only can most Americans (even if they love the taste of meat) go vegan without experiencing diet-induced suffering, they can downright flourish without animal products (Huemer, 2019, p. 59). Therefore, Rawlsians—who notice that the least well off individual (i.e., a person annoyed by having to go vegan) whose well-being is affected by a vegan system fares better than the least well-off individual (perhaps a tortured animal) affected by the current food system—must favor Americans’ transition to veganism. 

The Deceptiveness of Lifeboat Scenarios

D’Amico seems to assume that any plausible premises that would lead us to share his ideas about Sadistic Gunman andSeal Attack would also lead us to share his ideas about factory farming. Our exploration of Rawlsian reasoning has shown that this assumption is unfounded. But perhaps we do not even need to delve into a complex system of moral thought (such as Rawlsianism) in order to demonstrate that D’Amico is misguided. It may be self-evident, whether we are Rawlsians, utilitarians, or something different, that the moral “rules of engagement” in grim scenarios like Sadistic Gunman and Seal Attack ought to differ from the rules of engagement in less dire circumstances.

We intuitively grasp this point when our moral calculations involve humans alone. If a sadist stuck a gun to your head and forced you to choose between killing one thousand strangers and killing your own child, perhaps it would be defensible for you, as a loving parent, to kill the strangers. For there is an undeniable, if uncomfortable, wisdom to the adage about necessity’s knowing no law; when nothing less than our child’s life is at stake, otherwise operative moral prohibitions lose their force. But in the course of regular affairs, where the stakes are much lower, those moral prohibitions remain firmly in place. Even if you could be excused for killing one thousand people to save your child’s life, you could not be excused for killing one thousand bright children just to secure your child’s admission to a selective university. Favoring our loved ones is not categorically wrong, but killing innocent others in order to secure such minor benefits for our loved ones undoubtedly falls outside the realm of legitimate favoritism.

If we consider all humans our “loved ones”—as we should—and would thus feel inclined to save one human infant at the expense of hundreds of animals, then maybe D’Amico is right to think that it would be proper for our universalist commitments (to ensuring the well-being of all sentient beings) to give way temporarily, just as it would make sense for our universalist commitments to vanish if we were forced to choose between our own child’s life and hundreds of strangers’ lives. But even if it is possible to justify killing 1,000 animals in order to save one human’s life (just as it is possible to justify killing 1,000 human strangers in order to save our own child’s life), surely humans are not so much more valuable than animals that we can justify killing hundreds of animals on factory farms for one human’s trivial enjoyment. Generally speaking, extremely aggressive acts that might make sense in life-or-death scenarios do not make sense when, in the course of mundane affairs, the promised benefits of extreme aggression are much less significant.

The Preciousness of Human Life

Until this point, we have not considered the important differences between the scenarios described in Sadistic Gunman and Seal Attack. Although an exhaustive exploration is neither possible nor necessary here, it may be worthwhile—for the reputation of the animal liberation movement, and in the interest of closing on a resonant note—to point out a particular one of these differences and to consider what D’Amico’s treatment of this difference says about his ethical doctrine.

Remember that the gunman in Sadistic Gunman will kill us if and only if we refuse to choose between the human baby and the baby seals. Thus, it is in our own narrow self-interest to take action in this scenario. In Seal Attack, it is not in our narrow self-interest to take action, seeing as killing seals is a physically and psychologically draining act that nobody will punish us for refusing to commit. Therefore, it seems that the moral obligation to save the human in Sadistic Gunman, if such an obligation exists, is less demanding than any moral obligation to save the human in Seal Attack.

D’Amico seems to think (though I may be wrong) that a readiness to kill the seals in a situation like Sadistic Gunman is not enough. As he would have it, human life is so valuable that, if necessary, we should be prepared to kill one thousand baby seals for the sake of a human baby even when, in a situation like Seal Attack, our personal interests are not at stake. Surely this view, if it is indeed his view, attests to the depth of D’Amico’s affinity for all humankind. His concern for his fellow man runs so deep that he is prepared, on behalf of any unknown human infant, to participate in—and to urge others to participate in—what he calls the “deeply unpleasant” process of beating hundreds of sentient animals to death (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018).

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of D’Amico’s professed philanthropy. But if his commitment to every human child is indeed as strong as his apparent response to Seal Attack suggests, then it seems fair to wonder whether rich humans, under D’Amico’s moral code, also have a moral obligation to save human babies from threats other than belligerent seals. That is, if every human life is really so precious, then perhaps lethal phenomena beyond improbable seal attacks ought to spur us to action on behalf of vulnerable humans. Specifically, the preventable ailments plaguing impoverished human babies overseas may demand a response from Westerners who are well-equipped to donate money to highly effective social action organizations (Singer, 1972). After all, if it would be wrong to let these infants die in seal attacks, then is it not also wrong to let them die of starvation and illness?

Of course, in most conversations about humans’ obligations to animals, one would be content to table this sort of consideration about humans’ intra-species obligations. However, D’Amico’s repetition of a common anti-liberationist allegation—that liberationists “prioritize the well-being of animals over people”—may make this consideration relevant (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). The least charitable reading of his statement is that, however unimportant human well-being is, surely animal well-being is even less important. The charitable and more plausible interpretation is that, in D’Amico’s eyes, the furtherance of human well-being is a vital project to which animal liberationists are insufficiently committed. But if D’Amico is suggesting that proponents of animal rights—many of whom have unimpeachable track records of working to alleviate human suffering—should be doing even more for humans, then D’Amico must be something of a humanistic superman, a person so committed to human well-being that he can put Tom Regan, Coretta Scott King, Dick Gregory, Henry Spira, and other humanistic champions of animal liberation to shame. If D’Amico is such a superman, then perhaps, in spite of our (present) differences on the question of animal liberation, he and philanthropic champions of animal liberation can at least find common ground in the struggle for universal human uplift. 


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