Thursday, February 28, 2008

Reproductive ethics

Much reflection on "reproductive ethics" is in fact about the prevention or nullification of reproduction (e.g., contraception and abortion) rather than the production of life. On the First Things home page, Ryan Anderson urges us to think harder about the production of life. He suggests that in vitro fertilization treats the new human being as a means rather than a person, and challenges us to develop this kind of an insight further. This is a tough challenge, but one that it is important to try to meet.

A radical way to meet the challenge, would be to claim that it is never permissible to deliberately produce a child, because when one deliberately produces a child, one is producing that child for some end. That end is not the good of the child, as that would arguably be justificationally circular, since the fact that the child will exist is presupposed in talking of what is good for the child. Hence, on Kantian grounds, one is not treating a person as an end in producing the person for some purpose. On this view, then, human life can only be licitly produced by a process that has independent value not merely instrumental to the production of human life, such as marital union, and the process must be engaged in for the sake of that independent value. (George and Bradley have an essay where they make the more moderate, but still strong, claim that marital activity engaged in solely for reproductive purposes is wrong.) If the thought of reproduction at all enters into a morally upright decision to engage in the act of marital union on this view, it is not as an end but as a defeater-defeater (e.g., the couple is not in the mood for marital union, and their not being in the mood is a defeater for the reasons that couples have for marital union; but the possibility of reproduction maybe defeats the mood consideration).

This radical move strikes me as deeply implausible. But there is something to the worry that many possible reasons for having a child do treat the child as a means... Is there a way of defending a more plausible position that will rule out in vitro fertilization on the grounds that it treats the child as a means?

3 comments:

Heath White said...

I’ll just speculate that this line of reasoning isn’t going to work. In most attempts to have a child, there is some thought that having a child would be good for the couple; there is also the intention to love the child for its own sake. One could say the same about an adoption: the couple intends to pursue their own good, as well as the child’s, in adopting it. IVF seems like it’s in the same boat: a couple is producing a child, if you like, for the good of the couple, while also intending the good of the child.

In all three of these cases, it’s implausibly restrictive to say there must be no consideration for the interests of the couple. And it is clearly treating the child as a means if there is no consideration for the interests of the child (we just want an extra farm hand, say). But I’m not seeing a way to accuse IVF of using the child as a means (only?), that doesn’t apply to other cases of coming up with children to raise.

Alexander R Pruss said...

There is an intention to love the child for its own sake, indeed, but that is not the same as an intention to produce the child for the child's own sake. The claim that the radical argument makes is that it is not possible to produce the child for the child's own sake--that would be viciously justificationally circular, in that it would presuppose the child's existence.

Here's an analogy that involves a similar problem. Suppose that one accepts Frankfurt's official view. Then, one can one only be well off in virtue of having fulfilled endorsed desires. And suppose one doesn't yet have any endorsed desires. Would one have any reason to induce in oneself endorsed desires (e.g., through therapy) in order to be well off? No: for absent endorsed desires, on this view there are no reasons. Could we say that the future existence of the desires would retroactively justify one's seeking to have the desires no? No: there would be a vicious circularity here. (In a footnote, Frankfurt considers the possibility that there might be an exception to has account of mattering precisely to handle this kind of a case. The exception would be that even absent endorsed desires, it would be worth having endorsed desires.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add that a version of the radical argument was given by Joseph Spoerl (American Journal of Jurisprudence, 2000). I'd like to than Ryan Anderson for letting me know about the Spoerl piece.