Saturday, April 23, 2011
The More the Merrier
What exactly are we doing when we create new people? Are we "doing good," adding something positive to the world, fulfilling the utilitarian injunction to maximize utility? Well, it seems like it. Babies are good things, surely, so making them ought to be praiseworthy. Obviously, we want to have kids for lots of reasons, and we're not looking for ethical "credit," but at least at first glance, it seems like baby-making is beneficent.
OK, so suppose it is beneficent. That's going to lead quickly to some very puzzling conclusions. Take the orthodox Jewish community of Kiryas Joel, near New York (see this fascinating NYT article). If baby-making is beneficent, they get a lot of credit. The median number of children per household is four. There are so many kids that 70% of people live below the poverty level. Median family income is just $17,929. Their poverty shouldn't top us from assuming they have pretty happy kids--positive psychology doesn't show that income makes a huge difference. But as more kids come along, each has a smaller share of the resources--money, parental attention, etc. So it's reasonable to think that, at some point, quality of life starts to drop.
Nevertheless, a big pile o' kids means a larger quantity of the various life goods (like happiness) is added to the world. So the parents in Kiryas Joel are more beneficent, baby-wise, than they'd be if they had smaller families. In fact, this could keep going, generation after generation, until the community was bursting at the seams. Mathematically, a huge number of Joelians who were not so very happy might still add more total good to the world than half that number of happier people. So even considering where they are heading, they get a lot of credit. And that's the puzzle. While it does seem as if making new people is doing good, making gradually worse off people doesn't seem good--even if the result, aggregated together, is a whole lot of good.
Derek Parfit came up with this puzzle 25 years ago. We are embracing his "repugnant conclusion" if we say the Joelians should keep going (up to a point), making more and more babies even if their offspring are less and less happy. With 25 years' time to work on it, philosophers have come up with lots and lots of ways to avoid this assessment (see here). One way to avoid it is to scrap the whole idea that baby-making is beneficent. The idea is: you haven't actually done any good at all by creating a new person, except perhaps indirectly--to people who already exist. Once a new baby exists, you can do good by taking care of it, but there's no credit for adding the baby to the world in the first place.
This view appeals to our liberal sensibilities--it seems odd to give credit to baby-makers. Surely it's no worse to choose not to have a family. The "no credit" view also has appeal because (surely) a person isn't better off existing than he or she was in a pre-conceived, merely potential condition. Making a baby isn't helping somebody get from a worse situation to a better situation. So (the argument goes) it's not beneficent at all.
I "get" all of that, but can't wrap my mind around how it could be neutral to make a baby, considering that human life is a good thing. Call me simple minded, but making a good thing has got to be good.
Maybe we could make some headway on Kiryas Joel and other puzzles by thinking about the "metaphysics" of baby making. What is the good thing you make, when you make a baby? Duh--it's the baby, all 8 pounds, 20 inches of him or her. But what's so good about that? To cut to the chase--I'm thinking the good thing we create, in creating a baby, is a life. The baby is an object, so to speak, the life is an event--a very long-lasting event. It's an event that will last for 80 or 90 years, if the baby is lucky.
This picture of things has a curious upshot: it demotes parents. They're the primary baby-makers, but not nearly as primary where life-making is concerned. Teachers are also in the business of making good lives, even if they don't "manufacture" the body that lives the life. The whole village is involved, whether at a distance or at the center of the process. (Yet, my child is my child--I have special rights where his or her upbringing is concerned. We need to make room for that.)
This picture of things also changes the basic goal--it's not maximizing the number of bodies; it's not maximizing the total number of happy moments; it's maximizing the number of good lives (the long lasting, 80-90 year events).
Suppose the Joelians see it as beneficent to make good lives. They also see that everyone's in the good-life making business, not just couples about to have new babies. Will that shift their attention from procreation to parenting and other life-enhancing activities? That's the idea.
Problem: I think this will stop them from rampant reproduction at some point. It's pretty clear that tons of people living minimally happy lives are not living good lives. But what about today's Joelians, who are deciding to increase their family size from six to seven or eight? They are functional and prosperous enough that they seem to be able to say they are increasing the number of good lives. Yet it doesn't seem genuinely beneficent of them to add to their families. So we don't get everything we would like by thinking in terms of life-making rather than baby-making or happy-moment-making. We don't get to slow down the Joelians now.
Creating new people is the must fundamental and elementary of things, yet it's wonderfully puzzling. Reading suggestion: I'm enjoying David Heyd's book Genethics, which is online here.