Philosophers vs Breeders, Part Deux

Given that I don’t want to bore our few remaining readers to death, I’ve mostly kept silent to that piece in The New Yorker about breeding to which many on Twitter have alerted me.

(I mostly found it dismaying. The piece gives two-thirds time to the anti-kids perspective and one-third to the pro-kids, and oversimplifies and misrepresents their arguments.)

But, since TAS Overlord Ross decided to chime in, and since this is Easter (a day which, naturally, is even more about birth than Christmas), I wanted to complete what he says.

Ross takes on the most anti-kids philosopher portrayed in the piece but, to my sense, only takes up half the argument.

Here it is (quoth NYer):

Benatar’s case rests on a critical but, in his view, unappreciated asymmetry. Consider two couples, the A’s and the B’s. The A’s are young, healthy, and rich. If they had children, they could give them the best of everything—schools, clothes, electronic gaming devices. Even so, we would not say that the A’s have a moral obligation to reproduce.

The B’s are just as young and rich. But both have a genetic disease, and, were they to have a child together, that child would suffer terribly. We would say, using Benatar’s logic, that the B’s have an ethical obligation not to procreate.

Ross eloquently takes up the argument that, no, we would not (or at least, not so readily) not say that the A’s don’t have an obligation to reproduce. (Enough negatives here?)

But this is only part of the problem with Benatar’s case, and in my view, the least problematic and insidious part. (Ross also does a fine job taking apart breeding philosophers’ “the Repugnant Conclusion”, which to me sounds a lot like “the Awesome Conclusion.”) The most important part is the case of the B’s.

Benatar (and the author, more importantly and tellingly, since she self-consciously represents the Candide point of view on the whole kids debate) casually take it for granted that we would say that the B’s have an ethical obligation not to procreate.

This casual assertion strikes me as extremely widespread, extremely misguided, and, at the end of the day, extremely inhumane.

Why should the genetically diseased not reproduce?

Not because they would sully the gene pool. Surely, we don’t think that. (Do we?)

Ah, it’s because their child would “suffer terribly.” But this is a non-sequitur.

I actually agree with Benatar: all life involves suffering. But this is precisely why it cannot be a criterion for whether a life should be lived (or else you reach Benatar’s conclusion that all human life should be extinguished). All life involves measures of terrible suffering and measures of bliss. And, most importantly, we cannot know ahead of time what the mix will be, for anyone. Including those with a “genetic disease”.

It is the height of arrogance to believe otherwise. It is, in a fundamental sense, inhumane because it entails a lack of real empathy: yes, even the sick, even the handicapped, even the poor, even the downtrodden, have life experiences that are worth living.

If you truly put yourself in others’ shoes—truly, not as “How would I feel if I were…” but truly take others’ perspective, it is impossible not to see this.

It is, of course, an impulse of good intentions that lead us to believe some lives are not worth living. But it is a logically and humanely intenable position.

(And, obviously, the slippery slope is real: once we decide that some lives are more worth living than others—literally, worth more than others—the circle of the blessed keeps ever narrowing. Those who use Rawls’ veil of ignorance to justify redistributive taxation ought to apply it to more areas of life.)

There are, of course, countless examples. Many with genetic diseases lead very happy, productive lives. No one who has met children with Down syndrome would seriously claim that they do not by and large enjoy life immensely. (I can think of, in fact, a couple exactly like the B’s: both of them wheelchair-bound with degenerative diseases, who had a daughter who is lovely and precious, and take care of her very well thank you very much. Since you ask, the girl does not share their disease, though there was a big chance she would have.)

But once we’ve decided that we can determine a priori which lives will be worth living, that some people have a duty not to bring into the world people who are different, then truly we are missing something fundamental.

Do I think the B’s have a duty to reproduce? I don’t think they have more or less of a duty than the A’s, because I think all people are equal in dignity. I do think society has a duty to make it easier for the B’s to lead normal lives, which includes bringing up children should they want to.

It’s kind of amazing that this has to be said.