Saturday, June 12, 2010

So Maybe I'm Not Crazy After All

As time progresses my views on various issues have become increasingly idiosyncratic, a fact which occasionally give me pause. For example, after long reflection I've come to the conclusion that there's no moral justification for reproduction. This position seems completely justifiable to me, but is wildly divergent from the general consensus that kids are a good thing. We can't both be right, so am I especially principled or just getting crazy in my old age?

Turns out that if I'm crazy then at least I'm in decent company. Peter Singer, a man who has some idiosyncratic ideas of his own, recently wrote an opinion piece in the NYT considering that thesis. The piece is thoughtful for the most part, but I can't say that I care much for his conclusion:

... Let’s assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too — here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do — that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. No one’s rights will be violated — at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?

I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now.

That's a remarkably squishy answer; I would expect him to do a little better than that. Though, perhaps, the pages of the NYT aren't the place for a rigorous defense of the position. In particular Singer treats the question of whether non-existent people have rights as something of a throw-away, though I think that it's critically important for understanding the discussion at hand.

The question is fundamentally nonsensical; there is no such thing as a "non-existent person". I hold to a functional definition of personhood which, incidentally, was/is strongly influenced by Singer's defense of infanticide. Non-existent entities don't meet the functional criteria for personhood, therefore they are not persons. If you accept that rights accrue only to persons1 it follows from there that these hypothetical, not yet born individuals have none.

Given this result I've arrived at a conclusion which is similar to, though slightly more absolutist, than that of David Benatar as discussed in the article: you cannot harm someone who doesn't exist, but you're inevitably bound to fail to fulfill your obligations to any children which you do have. Thus the correct thing to do is not to breed. QED.

That's a hard conclusion to stomach; people like having kids and the desire to perpetuate the specifies is deeply engrained in every culture. Which is why I suspect Singer gives a squishy answer; to come out and say "having kids is wrong" in a major newspaper is just asking for a whupping. It would no doubt lead to people asking for him to be fired and so on, so it's probably a statement best avoided.

1 Which is certainly open for debate; a lot of people would assert that certain classes of entities (animals, for instance) have rights even though they don't meet the functional requirements for personhood. In this specific case, however, it's hard to think of a justification for assigning positive rights to non-existent entities.


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