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Is Coming Into Existence an Agent-Neutral Value?

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David Benatar argues that bringing someone into existence is always a harm, and grounds his argument in a particular asymmetry – the “goodness” of absent pain, versus the mere neutrality of absent pleasure where no one is thereby deprived.

Seana Shiffrin, on the other hand, doesn’t argue that procreation is always a harm, but does refuse to characterize procreation as a “morally innocent endeavor” and argues for a more equivocal view of bringing people into existence. While procreation is not necessarily always a harm, it is often a harm, and procreators should bear moral responsibility for the harm they do. (Shiffrin, Seana Valentine. “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significant of Harm.” Legal Theory, 5 (1999), 117–148.) Shiffrin defends her view with a different asymmetry – that, while it is fine to harm someone in order to prevent a greater harm to him, even without his consent (the rescue case), it is not fine to harm a person without his consent merely to provide him a benefit. Her core example involves a wealthy recluse, Wealthy, with no other way to help others, dropping $5 million cubes of gold from the air on a neighboring island. Many receive his presents with no complications, but one recipient (Unlucky) is hit with the cube and breaks his arm. While the recipient might, after the fact, be glad to have been hit with the gold cube, and consider the broken arm worth it, intuition suggests that dropping $5 million gold cubes on people is wrong. Unlucky

admits that all-things-considered, he is better off for receiving the $5 million, despite the injury. In some way he is glad that this happened to him, although he is unsure whether he would have consented to being subjected to the risk of a broken arm (and worse fates) if he had been asked in advance; he regards his conjectured ex-ante hesitation as reasonable. Given the shock of the event and the severity of the pain and disability associated with the broken arm, he is not certain whether he would consent to undergo the same experience again.

Shiffrin goes on to flesh out the intuition that Wealthy has wronged Unlucky – for instance, we would say that Wealthy owes Unlucky an apology, and if Wealthy refused to pay for Unlucky’s corrective surgery, Unlucky would properly have a cause of action against Wealthy for the cost of his injuries.

Shiffrin’s focus on unconsented harm accords well with my thinking on procreation. I wish to question, though, whether it is the benefit/harm distinction that matters when motivating an unconsented harm. In my view, Shiffrin’s benefit/harm distinction is unnecessarily confusing and subject to contrary individual interpretations of harm and benefit; the very idea of harm and benefit are, in my view, too subjective to form the basis for the rightness or wrongness of inflicting unconsented harm. I think it is both more correct and more general to say that unconsented harm may be only be done in the service of a genuinely agent-neutral value.

Shiffrin considers, as a possible objection to her framework, that the real reason that a rescue is morally right, while Wealthy’s action toward Unlucky is morally wrong, is that in the rescue case, hypothetical consent may be said to exist, whereas not even hypothetical consent exists in Unlucky’s case (he is not sure he would have consented ex ante). Shiffrin argues that it is the asymmetry between harm and benefit that grounds our intuition on hypothetical consent, rather than the other way around. She argues that

there seems to be a harm/benefit asymmetry built into our approaches to hypothetical consent where we lack specific information about the individual’s will. We presume (rebuttably) its presence in cases where greater harm is to be averted; in the cases of harms to bestow greater benefits, the presumption is reversed.

My view is that we can be clearer than this. It is not the harm/benefit distinction that is driving the willingness to infer hypothetical consent; it is the different level of agent-neutrality of the inflicted harm’s consequence.

Thomas Nagel introduces the concept of agent-relative and agent-neutral value in The View from Nowhere. Agent-relative values are values which an agent holds, but which no one but the agent has much reason to promote. Agent-neutral values are values which anyone has reason to promote, whether or not the promotion of the values would benefit him directly. An agent’s desire to climb Mount Everest would be an agent-relative value; he may place genuine value on it, but I have no reason to assist him in his endeavor. However, relieving pain may be said to be an agent-neutral value; if someone is suffering severe pain, I have good reason to alleviate his pain.

In the rescue case, the rescuer causes harm to a person in order to prevent greater harm – to save his life, or to prevent more serious physical injury. Both saving life and preventing physical injury would probably be classified as agent-neutral values. In Unlucky’s case, however, the $5 million gold cube could well be seen as something with only agent-relative value. Shiffrin specifies that inhabitants of Unlucky’s island are well provided for even without the gold. While there might be an agent-neutral reason to provide people with a certain minimum level of money or material comfort, beyond this, there is not much reason to give substantial gifts to strangers. A person might want $5 million, but I have no particular reason to see that he gets it, while I do have a reason to ensure that his basic nutritional needs are taken care of.

A major problem with the agent-neutral/agent-relative classification is whether agent-neutral values exist at all. Eric Mack, for example, argues that there are no agent-neutral values (“Against Agent-Neutral Value,” Reason Papers 14 (Spring 1989) 76-89.) Mack argues that an agent-neutral value must necessarily be an “agent-external” value – something that is valuable in itself, even if no one is ever in a relationship with it so as to value it. Otherwise, all such values are “reducible to [their] value for someone,” that is, they are agent-relative (emphasis mine). Few are prepared to claim that there are truly agent-external value in this sense (things that would be valuable even if there would never exist any sentient beings in the world). I find the possibility of the nonexistence of agent-neutral values disturbing, calling to mind as it does relativism/subjectivism, though I could imagine an ethical system that recognized the existence only of agent-relative values, but also recognized reasons other than personal preference for taking the values of others seriously. Interestingly, Mack refers to the possibility for agent-relative values that are nevertheless, in his words, objective; as long as there can be reasons for taking the (agent-relative) values of others seriously, then the project of ethical philosophy doesn’t fall into dust.

George R. Carlson (in “Pain and the Quantum Leap to Agent Neutral Value,” Ethics, Vol. 100, No. 2 (Jan., 1990), pp. 363-367), while not exactly precluding the possibility for agent-neutral value, argues that Nagel’s chief example, pain, fails to be a genuinely agent-neutral value. He argues that while a person might have reason to alleviate the pain of another, these are not agent-neutral reasons. Rather, they are grounded in the perceptions and empathy of the agent.

What I find most concerning with the benefit/harm classification, as well as allegations of agent-neutral value, is that any of the examples so far examined may, depending on the individual circumstances, be either a harm or a benefit. Saving a life would generally be seen as an “agent-neutral” value; however, since I am a suicide, a rescuer saving my life would do only harm to me. Preventing pain is seen as an agent-neutral value; however, hiding my friend’s car keys so he cannot drive to a club and get beaten up by his dominatrix friend (and thereby preventing him physical pain) would certainly do him harm, not good. And studies of lottery winners seem to indicate that even loads of unnecessary money can do harm. (As J. David Velleman points out, even choice can be a harm.) Can these values really be especially agent-neutral if they are often harms? Is it not more appropriate to call them the agent-relative values of the majority, rather than genuinely agent-neutral values?

Shiffrin points out a “related asymmetry,” from Thomas Scanlon (Preference and Urgency, 72 J. PHIL. (1975) 655–69.). This is the asymmetry between the harm that is is morally correct to inflict on another, and the “harm” that a person may inflict on himself. In Shiffrin’s words (summarizing Scanlon),

One may reasonably put much greater weight on a project from the first-person perspective than would reasonably be accorded to it from a third-party’s viewpoint. A person may reasonably value her religion’s mission over her health, but the state may reasonably direct its welfare efforts toward her nutrition needs rather than to funding her religious endeavors.

This “related asymmetry” is, it seems to me, concerned with both the problem of consent and, indirectly, with the idea of agent-neutral versus agent-relative values. A person may consent to “harm” for any reason whatever, agent-relative or otherwise; but in order to inflict harm on another without consent, we must either (a) have such a good model of the person’s values that we can infer hypothetical consent based on agent-relative values, or (b) act in furtherance of genuinely agent-neutral values.

The ultimate question, of course, is whether coming into existence is the kind of value that it is morally acceptable to inflict harm on others, without their consent, in order to procure for them. Pain, suffering, illness, unrequited love, shame, sexual frustration, sorrow, disappointment, fear, and death are all guaranteed (or nearly so) by the fact of being brought into existence; these are certainly harms. The pronatalist might argue that despite these certain harms, it is not wrong to bring others into existence, because the unconsented harm in the service of an agent-neutral value: coming into existence. (I find the “hypothetical consent” argument unpersuasive, because we have no model, much less a reliable model, of the agent’s future agent-relative values when we contemplate bringing that agent into existence. This is my core problem with R.M. Hare’s “Golden Rule” argument that we should bring into existence those who will be happy to exist and not bring into existence those who won’t. How do we tell the difference ex ante?)

Is coming into existence an agent-neutral value? The problem we run into at this stage is that we have little theory of what qualifies an agent-neutral value. Carlson’s chief criticism of Nagel seems to be a lack of a theory for determining what counts as an agent-neutral value versus an agent-relative value (other than the unsatisfying “pain is awful”). Indeed, there seems to be a genuine question as to the degree to which agent-neutral values exist at all.

Actually, even under Mack’s restrictive definition, I think there is, in some sense, a clear example of a genuinely agent-neutral value, a peculiar value that would retain its value even if no sentient beings ever come into existence to appreciate it. This is the value of no sentient being coming into existence. If no beings exist, no suffering can occur; this is good, even though (and precisely because) no being ever come into existence to appreciate this pleasant state of affairs. The alternative would be worse; it is good that this worse option does not obtain, even though the only way anyone would perceive its better-ness would be by the worse alternative coming to pass.

There may be disagreement over whether coming into existence is an agent-neutral value. I certainly think that it is not, but I think that an argument could be made in good faith that it is. I think there is a stronger argument, however, that no one coming into existence is an agent-neutral value – perhaps the only such peculiar value – and, under my theory, an agent-neutral value is one in the service of which unconsented harm may be countenanced.

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Written by Sister Y

August 15, 2008 at 5:02 am

The Sense of the Asymmetry

with 4 comments

In my most recent piece, “The Austrian Basement and Beyond: Consequences of Rejecting the Antinatalist Asymmetry,” I introduced a couple of examples – the Austrian Basement and Slum World – in order to make a point about the intuitive soundness of the asymmetry that philanthropic antinatalism rests upon, and the consequences of rejecting the asymmetry.

In the Austrian Basement case, I introduced a scenario that, I think, is difficult to analyze in good faith while rejecting the asymmetry. If absent pain were not good, why should we feel a sense of relief should E. F. decide to use the birth control? If absent pleasure were not a much lesser moral consideration – were it not in fact merely neutral or not good, but not bad either – why should we feel horror at the prospect of babies being born into the dungeon?

This is especially important for those who still cling to the “non-identity problem” as a genuine problem. “How can a baby be harmed by being born into the dungeon? Before the baby is born, there’s no one to be harmed! And if no one is harmed, it is not a wrong. So procreate away!” But, of course, it is wrong. We have a duty to avoid creating babies in dungeons. To demand that there be someone to be harmed before we recognize a wrong strikes me as a bit silly. I am with Professor Benatar that it is enough that an outcome be bad for a person, in the sense of worse than the alternative (nonexistence), to qualify the bringing about of that outcome as a wrong.

In the case of Slum World, I attempted to put a concrete face on the so-called “repugnant conclusion” of aggregate well-being measures, and to demonstrate that the claim that nonexistent people have for happiness/existence is weak (that absent pleasure, if someone is not thereby deprived, is merely neutral). The prospective inhabitants of Slum World do not have a strong claim to come into existence. The nonexistence of their pleasures is merely neutral, and the nonexistence of their pain is just good. This is true even though, once born, the inhabitants of Slum World would presumably choose to keep living (lead lives worth continuing). Low Population Splendor World is good, Slum World is awful, and rejecting the asymmetry seems to require one to claim otherwise.

Coming into existence is sui generis, and it is difficult to construct clear examples to use in testing intuition that aren’t just different situations of bringing people into existence. My last example, below, attempts to illustrate something like the asymmetry without being about bringing people into existence.

3. Commercial Children’s Television

An advertisement for a new children’s toy runs several times per hour on a commercial children’s television program. The advertisement creates a desire for the toy in the children who see the commercial. Of these children, many of them will eventually receive the toy from their parents, but others will not. Still other children, cruelly brought to life in the households of liberal academics, do not have televisions and therefore do not see the advertisement, and never desire the toy at all.

a. Which group out of the three is best off?

b. Do television advertisers actually do children good by creating desires that might later be fulfilled?

Written by Sister Y

July 31, 2008 at 1:46 am

The Austrian Basement and Beyond: Consequences of Rejecting the Antinatalist Asymmetry

with 14 comments

David Benatar’s philanthropic antinatalism, explored in his book Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, rests on an asymmetry between pain and pleasure: that, while absent pain is always good, absent pleasure is merely neutral, not bad, given that there is no one who was deprived of this pleasure. A related asymmetry is that, while there is a moral duty to avoid having a child who will be miserable (lead a life not worth continuing), there is no moral duty to create a child who would lead a life very much worth continuing.

Benatar explains the pain/pleasure asymmetry in depth in Chapter 2 of the book, and those who feel they have a slam-dunk logical objection to the asymmetry might be advised to read the detailed treatment of the asymmetry in the chapter before assuming Professor Benatar just missed the objection. Ultimately, though, there remain real, non-trivial objections to the asymmetry, because the asymmetry is built using the common ethical philosophy tool of explaining and analyzing commonly held intuition. Since the asymmetry is ultimately based on intuition, it may be disputed by those who, in good faith, do not share the intuitions upon which it is built.

Many, however, deny the asymmetry without fully grasping the consequences of the asymmetry. I wish to map out some ethical problems that those who deny the asymmetry must explain in a manner consistent with rejecting the asymmetry.

1. The Austrian Basement

E. F. has been kidnapped by her father and imprisoned in an Austrian cellar since her early adolescence. Her father repeatedly rapes her over the course of several years. E. F. gives birth to several children sired by her father. She reasonably believes that all these children have severe health problems, and that at least the female children will likely be abused by her father as they grow up.

In Year 10 of her imprisonment, with four children born and removed from her by her father, she discovers a box (unknown to her father) hidden under a floorboard in her cell, containing everything she needs in order to practice undetectable birth control.

a. Does she have a duty to practice birth control and avoid having more babies? Does she have a duty not to practice birth control, because she would be depriving her unborn babies of life (which, while it would have certain problems, would nevertheless presumably be worth living)? (Assume she would like the company of more babies, but fears the pain of more unassisted childbirth, and the “interests of the unborn children” is the concern that will break the tie, given her personal ambivalence.)

b. Why?

c. (Only for those who think that antinatalism requires suicide.) If you answered that the daughter has a duty to practice birth control, is that the same as saying that the real-life E. F.’s seven children have worthless lives and should be put to death?

Of course, I’m making up the part about the birth control choice, but here’s an excerpt from the real life story:

The dungeon in which they lived was so small that the older ones had to watch as his father delivered his daughter’s subsequent children. Presumably they also had to watch as he had intercourse with his daughter to beget them – she claims that he repeatedly raped her – and regularly beat her. The dungeon contained one padded room, its walls and floor covered in rubber, the purpose of which is still unclear.

2. Slum World

The Supreme World Leaders meet in Tokyo in 2100 and decide that the world has a choice. Either the 2100 world population of 3 billion can be maintained in relative splendor, with fresh kumquats and sensory implants for everyone, or the world population can be increased to 100 billion, with everyone living in conditions similar to the conditions of a 20th century slum, apparently endured by upwards of 900 million people circa the year 2000.

a. Which condition should the Supreme World Leaders choose?

b. Why?

c. If you answered that Low Population Splendor World is preferable to Slum World, what about the interests of the unborn people who would have come into existence had Slum World been selected? Aren’t they being harmed by not being brought into existence? What right to the inhabitants of Low Population Splendor World have to deny the extra 97 billion people a right to exist, just for the sake of the happiness of 3 billion?

Written by Sister Y

July 29, 2008 at 9:01 pm

Tort Law and the Harm of Death

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A question related both to philanthropic antinatalism (especially what some see as its apocalyptic implications) and to suicide rights is the question of whether death is a harm to the person who dies. Objections to death being a harm to the deceased person are that nothing can be a harm unless it is perceived by the harmed person, and that, if there are non-conscious harms, it is difficult to assign the harm to a subject. Thomas Nagel, in his essay “Death,” in Mortal Questions, grounds the special harm of death in the idea of deprivation: the subject is deprived (of future experiences), so to the extent that his life would have been worth continuing, he is harmed by death.

But even if death deprives a person of something, what harm is it to him, since he does not suffer by the deprivation? The case that Nagel finds convincing is that of an intelligent adult reduced, through traumatic brain injury, to the mental capacity of an infant. Surely, for Nagel, this person has been harmed, though he does not realize it or perceive it. Nagel, however, imagines this objection, which I imagine would be Jim’s objection:

He does not mind his condition. It is in fact the same condition he was in at the age of three months, except that he is bigger. If we did not pity him then, why pity him now; in any case, who is there to pity? The intelligent adult has disappeared, and for a creature like the one before us, happiness consists in a full stomach and a dry diaper. [Prurient emphasis mine.]

Nagel, of course, does not find this objection persuasive. He sees the harm as occurring, not to the brain-damaged person, but to the healthy person prior to the injury, in having been reduced to such a state. In other words, Nagel is willing to assign harm backwards in time. But is this so strange?

For a long time, I had a hard time intuitively understanding sexual jealousy. It seemed to have about the same objective reality as the cultural tradition of celebrating birthdays or saying “bless you” when someone sneezes. And, as an irrational, ridiculous, harmful social construct, it deserved no respect, and existed only to be eradicated. However, I have since been convinced by evolutionary psychology data that sexual jealousy is very much real, in the sense that it is not “socially constructed” like birthdays, and causes people genuine anguish. Though it is not intuitive to me, it is only proper to recognize that other people feel harmed by it, rather than assume they are making it all up. (Incidentally, the violent sexual jealousy suffered by humans, coupled with the sexual exuberance that humans also display, seems to function as a very real limitation on human happiness, at least given our current biological make-up.)

If harm can never occur unless someone perceives it as a harm, then we must take the position that sexual infidelity does no harm to the cuckolded partner, even where monogamy is promised, unless it is discovered. This presents two problems. First, it conflicts with the widely-held intuition that sexual infidelity is a harm to the unaware partner. If you refuse to sleep with your friend’s girl, you say, “I wouldn’t do that to my buddy” – not “I wouldn’t do that because it might get discovered.” Second, and related to this, is that when a person discovers that he has been betrayed sexually, he does not date the harm to the discovery; he dates it, most certainly, to the incident of the infidelity. (He is not sad that he found out; given the infidelity, he will probably say he is glad to have found out. He is sad that the infidelity occurred.) In cases like this, at least, it is common to backwards-date harm; are we forbidden to do this with the harm of death simply because, given our conception of time, causality cannot actually move backwards?

I must say that I am not entirely convinced of the rightness of either position; the idea that harm can occur when there is no one to perceive it is intuitively strange to me, but the objections commonly offered do not leave my mind easy, either. (See O.H. Green’s “Fear of Death,” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 43, No. 1, Sep. 1982, pp. 99-105, for a view on how death may be wrong (or “evil”) without actually being a harm.) I am persuaded by the arguments, however, and by the obviously conflicting intuitions of others, to the point where I have severe doubts about the goodness of ending life where a person wishes to continue to live, as prescribed in the “apocalyptic imperative” case.

I want to digress briefly to point out that, in the above-mentioned essay, “Death,” Nagel articulates both a pro-natalist position and the idea that not being born is not a misfortune (usually the more contentious half of the antinatalist asymmetry) in the same paragraph:

The fact that Beethoven had no children may have been a cause of regret to him, or a sad thing for the world, but it cannot be described as a misfortune for the children that he never had. All of us, I believe, are fortunate to have been born. But unless good and ill can be assigned to an embryo, or even to an unconnected pair of gametes, it cannot be said that not to be born is a misfortune.

But back to the harm of death. What I want to explain here is that American tort law, interestingly, accords with the view that death is not a harm to the person who dies, even when that person is killed by the wrongdoing of another!

When a person dies through the wrongful act of another, whether negligent, reckless, or intentional, there are two separate lawsuits (“causes of action,” in legalspeak) that may be pursued. First is what is called the survival action. To call it a “survival action” means that the right to sue existed while the person was alive, and continues after his death. (If someone is legally wronged during his life, he does not lose the right to sue for a remedy if he dies; his estate retains the right to sue for wrongs committed against him during his life.) Second is the wrongful death action, created by statute, to give the relatives of a deceased person a remedy for being deprived of his company and support.

The reason I claim that tort law accords with the notion that death is not a harm to the dead person is that, in the survival action, the decedent may only recover for harm that he experienced during his life. He may recover, for instance, medical expensed incurred prior to death, and for pain and suffering experienced prior to his death. But he gets nothing for being deprived of his life. As the court in the O.J. Simpson civil appeal (Rufo v. Simpson, (2002) 86 Cal. App. 4th 573) noted, in very quick killings, the only “compensatory damages” available may be for the damage to the victim’s clothing. (Punitive damages are available, interestingly, in the survival action for an intentional killing, even if compensatory damages are quite small; this accords with the strange idea proposed by O.H. Green that death may be evil, but not a harm!)

The harm of the death itself is recognized only in the wrongful death action – that is, as a harm to the survivors, not to the decedent himself. Interestingly, this is applied even where the survivors are suing a mental health practitioner for failing to prevent a suicide – the damage is recognized as harming the survivors, not the decedent. It is hard to square tort law’s failure to recognize death as a harm to the decedent with the alacrity with which other areas of the law impede suicide.

Apparently Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks death is a harm, though he doesn’t explain to whom, because “death events” create “negative utility.” Negative utility to survivors? Potential dead people who might fear death? In any case, how can something create negative utility if the people whose utility is to be measured are all dead? Surely there’s someone who’d be very happy to be alone in the world, happier than the average person currently alive. (Average utilitarianism suffers from some of the same problems as utilitarianism based on summing utility.)

[Quotation from poster]Unknown:

“Besides (in the usual single world): is Eliezer willing to kill off everyone except the happiest person, therefore raising the average?”

No. Because that creates Death events, which are very large negative utilities.

Sigh. Seriously, though, dude’s brilliant and I’d like to know what his essential values are.

Edit: Eliezer points to an explanation of his views on happiness and value in his essay, “Not for the Sake of Happiness (Alone).”

Written by Sister Y

June 5, 2008 at 1:22 pm

Birth and Consent: An Alternate Philanthropic Route to Antinatalism

with 54 comments

David Benatar’s route to antinatalism largely rests on an essential asymmetry: that, while bringing someone into existence who will suffer great harm is bad, failing to bring someone into existence who would experience great pleasure is not bad. (Of course, once brought into existence, one may experience both bad and good; the asymmetry Benatar relies on is only an asymmetry in the pre-existence scenario.) Stated in a different way, when someone avoids bringing someone into existence, the lack of harm to that would-be person is good, because had the person come into existence, he would have suffered harm, which is bad; however, the pleasure that this would-be person would have experienced, and is denied by coming into existence, is merely neutral; that is, not bad.

I will not go into more detail on Benatar’s asymmetry. Benatar himself acknowledges that many people, upon understanding the asymmetry and its consequences (coming into existence is always a harm), are willing to claim that they do not see the asymmetry. Also, many have treated Benatar’s conclusion as a reductio ad absurdum of his entire argument. In my own experience, I have heard it criticized as “more clever than deep” and too focused on the negative value of suffering, as opposed to other values – though, to be sure, always by those Benatar would describe as “cheery.” As a (currently non-practicing) suicide, Benatar’s arguments seem merely obvious to me.

For those who would let go of the asymmetry, or feel that the antinatalist conclusion is a sort of reductio of its supporting arguments, I feel there is a more palatable route into antinatalism from a rights perspective. Of course, there are many routes to antinatalism from a misanthropic perspective; I see human suffering as so particularly harmful that I am not particularly persuaded by them, but at any rate, this argument is a philanthropic argument, as is Benatar’s.

Let us consider cases where one person inflicts harm on another without the victim’s consent, where consent is impossible. Benatar draws a distinction (from Seana Shiffrin’s “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm,” in Legal Theory, 5 (1999) 117-48) bewteen, on the one hand, causing harm without consent in order to prevent a greater harm, and on the other hand, causing harm without consent in order to provide a pure benefit:

Thus, we take it to be acceptable to break an unconscious (non-consenting) person’s arm in order to prevent a greater harm, such as death, to that person. . . . However, we would condemn breaking that person’s arm in order to secure some greater benefit, such as ‘supernormal memory, as useful store of encyclopedic knowledge, twenty IQ points worth of extra intellectual ability, or the ability to consume immoderate amounts of alcohol or fat without side effects’ (quotations from Shiffrin by Benatar).

However, Shiffrin and Benatar’s intuition does not seem to be universally shared. Many argue that it is, in fact, completely acceptable to cause someone a harm in order to provide him with a benefit. While many harms parents do to children without their consent are in the interest of preventing greater harm (vaccination), plenty of other harms parents inflict on their children, with the approbation of society, are mostly or purely to provide a benefit, such as education, discipline, and indoctrination into a religion. Many people intuitively accept it as morally fine to strike or otherwise discipline one’s child, or to force a child to study something he or she hates, or to teach frightening religious ideas to a child, in hopes that the child will thereby have a better life, one more in accord with the values that the parent feels the child will hold.

This is the point at which I interject myself. Why is female genital mutilation, performed on children, awful? It is awful because it causes physical suffering, and limits a girl’s ability to enjoy sexual pleasure, perhaps. But if an adult woman chooses to undergo this body modification, in circumstances that lead us to believe that her consent is one hundred percent valid, we might reach the conclusions that Sheldon and Wilkinson reached in their article, “Female genital mutilation and cosmetic surgery: regulating non-therapeutic body modification,” in Bioethics (1998 Oct;12(4):263-85); that is, that as long as genital mutilation is freely chosen by an adult aware of the risks, it should be allowed. So perhaps the harm of the genital cutting of children is a lack of consent.

Consent is the key to a rights-based ethical system. Why, then, should we allow a parent to consent to harm such as vaccination, teeth cleaning, surgery, and education of children, but not non-therapeutic genital cutting of those same children? All might be defined as harm to prevent a greater harm, or harm in the child’s best interests, from the perspective of the parent. There are many ways in which one might try to distinguish genital cutting (it primarily serves the interests of those other than the child, it is a major invasion, its benefits are dubious when considered from a perspective outside the child’s kin group), but none of these distinguish genital cutting from the procreation case.

Our legal system recognizes the principle, and I think it is a good one, that even a benefit must be consented to. A gift is not legally valid unless the recipient consents to accept it. Another problem for the harm/benefit dichotomy is that the harm/benefit distinction is often much less clear in practice than in the examples above. Why should it be morally acceptable to harm someone either in order to prevent greater harm or in order to provide a benefit? Both must be suspect in light of the bias that necessarily accompanies an agent’s judgment of what is good for another.

I propose a general principle: it is ethical to inflict harm without consent only where it advances the values of the victim. (And the greater the imposition, the surer the perpetrator must be that the imposition advances the values of the victim.) However, knowing whether an intervention advances the values of the victim is extremely difficult in the absence of consent. If a person voluntarily consents to a harm, there can be little ethical problem with it (though there may be problems with knowing whether consent is truly voluntary, as with prostitution or other forms of paid work when resources are initially distributed unequally). Consent transforms rape into consensual sex, battery into medical assistance, slavery into employment, a forced march into a backpacking trip. We are free to take suffering onto ourselves. We are not free to impose suffering on others for our own ends, without their consent. This principle should give us pause and make us less sure about our intuition in thinking about even the “easy” cases, like vaccination, care of unconscious people (particularly attempted suicides), discipline, and education.

The problem with the birth cases – and, arguably, many education and imposition of religion cases – is that harm is done not to advance the values of the victim, but rather, to advance the values of the perpetrator (parent). Where we could accurately predict the future values of the victim, and had a good indicator as to whether the victim’s currently expressed values should be ignored (attaining the age of majority seems to be an extremely poor hash), there would be little ethical problem with birth and education: children may be harmed to the extent that their future selves, as accurately predicted by our tools, would want them to be. However, accurate prediction is, of course, impossible (nor is it clear why future selves should take precedence over present selves, and exactly which future self we are here discussing). In fact, the predictions about future values are likely to be biased in predictable ways – optimistic, self-serving, and projecting the mind of the perpetrator onto the victim. A Baptist parent will assume that his child will wish to be taught frightening theology to be safe from Satan; nevermind if the child, once allowed to be free from harmful interventions, espouses Buddhism. I feel that a recognition of this principle is, at some level, responsible for the much less severe methods of education in use today compared to a generation before. We are queasy in the face of harming a child, even if we believe it to be “for his own good.” For we are poor indeed at predicting the future good of another.

The ultimate unconsented intervention – a harm, which, of course, might turn into a benefit if consent could only be obtained – is that of being brought into life. Being brought into existence is a more serious intervention than sex, employment, or even bodily integrity, and yet we require no consent to be born. Of course, this is because it is impossible – there is no one to consent in advance of being brought into existence. But we should realize that this impossibility of consent does not excuse us, any more than the impossibility of consent of children to be genitally mutilated excuses their mutilators.

People have children to advance their own values, not those of the children they bring into existence. Put another way, procreators are using others (their children) as means to serve their own ends, without their consent. This is why it is wrong to bring new people into existence. An intervention as serious and potentially harmful as being brought into this world must be consented to; since this is impossible, it is wrong.

Note: the vaccination case, at least, is made slightly more complicated, but more in line with intuition, when we consider that failing to be vaccinated imposes a potential harm on others in society. However, so does failing to get a flu shot, or failing to receive other vaccinations as an adult, which is not, so far, compulsory. Note also that I am certainly not one of those who believe that vaccines cause autism.

Written by Sister Y

May 19, 2008 at 8:15 pm