Saturday, 21 April 2012
Why Utilitarian Justifications for Procreation Fail
I've been participating in a debate on procreation over on threequarksdaily: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2012/04/the-case-against-kids.html#comments (cheers to Filrabat for the heads-up on Jim's blog). The main pro-life advocate there has made me clarify my thoughts on utilitarianism, so the debate has certainly been worthwhile. Here's what I've been pondering:
Utilitarian justifications for procreation are generally put forward on two grounds:
A) The majority of lives contain more good than bad, therefore procreation is justifiable in terms of individual aggregate utility. B) All sentient beings are guaranteed to experience some amount of joy, therefore procreation adds to the aggregate amount of joy in the world, no matter how much suffering there may be. This holds even if the amount if joy in an individual life is miniscule compared to the suffering experienced therein. Problems: A is unverifiable. Not only do we not have access to the information necessary to arrive at such a conclusion, but the statement is incoherent even in terms of an individual life for the following reasons: i)Assessments of whether one's own life contain more pleasure than suffering are subject to continual change, due to shifting perspectives in one's conception of joy/happiness, whether the experience of joy can somehow nullify pain and vice versa, and so on. ii)As well as the above, there is no ultimate final point of reckoning available due to death. The individual cannot make a final judgement on his life. (This is the essence of Herodotus's epigram 'Call no man happy unitl he is dead'.) Furthermore, there is no particular reason why we should grant credence to a third party's assessment of another life, either during the duration of that life or afterwards. Whether X judges that I am having a good life while I am alive, or believes I had a good life after my death is nothing but X's subjective judgement based on his partial perspective, his lack of access to my experiences and possible conflicts between his perception of the good and mine.
Therefore is A is unverifiable and ultimately incoherent.
B results in conclusions that I believe a majority of individuals would find morally repugnant. This being so, it strongly suggests that B is incorrect.
Take the following example: X and Y come together. Both are sadists who derive pleasure from child torture. They decide they will procreate in order to create a being they can torture in order to generate more joy for themselves. A child, Z, is born. Z is raised normally for the first four years of its life and experiences a certain amount of joy. Then from aged four, Z is tortured, raped and abused for eight years until he is murdered. The eight years bring great joy to X and Y. On an agreggate utilitarian approach, X and Y have experienced 16 years of joy (plus whatever joy they may have had in the four years pre-torture); Z experienced 4 years of joy before the torture period. That creates a total of 20 years of joy from the act of procreation. Subtract Z's 8 years of torture and we are still left with a total benefit of 12 years of joy. Therefore from the perspective of B the actions of X and Y were justified. (Lest anyone think the example is too extreme, I've cited before the example of my friend who informed me that if his daughter of two were kidnapped, tortured and finally murdered after 10 years he would still believe that her life had been worthwhile due to the pleasure both she and he had derived from her pre-torture period.)
If X and Y's actions were to be deemed acceptable by a majority, I can only assume that all manner of acts that involve inflicting torture and suffering on individuals would become acceptable. For me, such an outcome would lead to an utterly nihilistic and even more chaotic world than we have at present. Not to say that this is an impossible outcome (think of the millions of individuals sacrificed in Stalin's USSR, for example, on the basis of a form of Benthamite utilitarianism), but for me it would contravene my basic moral position of refusing to needlessly inflict suffering on another consciousness.
So in conclusion the utilitarian arguments in favour of procreation as exemplified in A and B are untenable.
All comments, observations and corrections welcome.