Thursday, June 12, 2008

Reproduction and in vitro fertilization

I've discussed this kind of argument before. But I kind of like the following formulation. I am not endorsing the argument.

  1. In causing x to come into existence solely for the sake of the good of something or someone other than x, we are treating x as our instrument for that good. (Premise)
  2. It is always wrong for us to treat a person as our instrument for a goal. (Premise)
  3. Every action is done for the sake of the good of something or someone. (Premise)
  4. In intentionally bringing it about that a child exists as such, we act for the sake of the good of the child or of some other entity (or both). (By (3))
  5. To act for the sake of A, one must choose to act for the sake of A. (Premise)
  6. To choose to act for the sake of the good of x requires that one presuppose the existence of x. (Premise)
  7. One choose cannot to accomplish something that one already presupposes. (Premise)
  8. Therefore, one cannot choose to act in order that x should exist for the sake of the good of x. (By (6) and (7))
  9. Therefore, in intentionally bringing it about that a child exists as such, we act for the sake of the good of some entity other than the child. (By (4) and (8))
  10. Therefore, in intentionally bringing it about that a child exists as such, we are treating the child is our instrument for that good. (By (1) and (9))
  11. Therefore, it is wrong to intentionally bring it about that a child exists as such. (By (2) and (10))
  12. In engaging in in vitro fertilization (IVF), the couple and the doctor are intentionally bringing it about that a child exists as such.
  13. The couple and the doctor act wrongly in engaging in in vitro fertilization.

The most serious problem with this argument is that it also implies that it is wrong for a married couple to have intercourse simply in order to produce a child. I think this implication can be tolerated. The couple can permissibly intend not the existence of the child as such (now we see the point of the "as such" qualifications in a lot of the claims), but they can intend fecund marital union as such. Marital union is good, and when it is fecund it is even better.

Can the couple making use of IVF say the same thing? "We do not intend the existence, of a child, but we intend a fecund round of IVF?" No. For fecund IVF has mainly instrumental value. One engages in fecund IVF in order to have a child, and so one intends the existence of the child as such. But marital union, fecund or not, has a value in itself.

Objection 1: It is not wrong for God to use us as an instrument.

Response: I agree, which is why (2) uses the word "we", i.e., we human beings. But note that even if our purpose in reproduction is to provide God with an instrument, it is still our intention to provide God with an instrument, so it is still we who are using the child as an instrument for God's purposes.

Objection 2: God can command a couple to reproduce, and then the couple is not reproducing in order that a child might come into existence, but because the reproduction itself is commanded by God.

Response: While it is reasonable to claim that God commands married couple to engage in intercourse, and when it is not unreasonable to try to make the intercourse fecund, we have no evidence that God commands married couples to engage in IVF. It is surely false that God commands all married couples to do everything they can in order to reproduce.


sgirgis said...

More than tolerable, I think it's a sound consequence that a married couple shouldn't have intercourse just to reproduce. Consider, as a professor once invited me to do, the case of Henry XVIII, who plausibly instrumentalized (intercourse with) Anne Boleyn for the sake of producing a son. The distinction is not between artificial and natural means of reproducing, but between making the coming-to-be of a person one's operational objective on the one hand (manufacturing/ instrumentalizing), and accepting or welcoming it as the fruit of an inherently valuable act on the other.

Since you do not endorse it, do you see other big problems for this argument?

Anonymous said...

This is how I just explained to my son how to decide whether he should do something.

D: "Do nice people do it or not?"
S: "Nice people don't do it."
D: "Are you nice people?"
S: "Yes."
D: "Then don't do it."

Do nice people undergo IVF, at great cost and physical and psychological discomfort? Yes. This is prima facie evidence that it is not wrong.

Alexander R Pruss said...


One objection to the argument was given to me by a friend. The argument, he said, mistakenly assumes that "good" is always to be analyzed as "good for x".


Nice people do bad things when these bad things are accepted by the culture. In communist countries, nice people stole from their workplace. I bet some slaveowners were quite nice people. (Take a society where just about everybody of a certain social class owned slaves, e.g., Roman society. It seems very plausible that that social class includes quite a number of nice people.) The Wehrmacht, no doubt, had roughly the percentage of nice people that the general population did (I won't make this claim about the SS and the Gestapo)--yet all of these nice were doing the wrong thing by invading non-aggressive countries (what they should have done is laid down arms and accepted the consequences).

It is also worth noting that the form of IVF practiced by "nice people" in the US is also clearly wrong because it results in the production of children who are never brought to maturity, but who are left frozen or consigned to scientific experiments. I didn't make this argument in my posts because it doesn't apply to IVF in general, just IVF as it is currently practiced in the US (I've heard that it is practiced differently in Germany, for instance).

Alexander R Pruss said...


By the way, when a logically valid argument is given (and this one is, I think, logically valid--if not, it can be tweaked slightly to fix it up), the best way to criticize it is not to disagree with its conclusions, but to say which premise(s) one rejects.

Anonymous said...

"what they should have done is laid down arms and accepted the consequences"

Well, you can blame people for what they do under coercion if you want. They call that blaming the victim. There is no way for a regular soldier to determine if a war is "just" or not. Certainly by your definition all American soldiers in Iraq should put down their arms.

Anyway, that's a side issue. Thieving from a state or state-run business that essentially enslaves you is one thing. But even under communism, nice people weren't thieving from their neighbors. That's the relevant issue.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. We shouldn't do the wrong thing even if failure to do it would cost our lives. I do not assign culpability here (just as I do not assign it in the IVF case), but I do say it was wrong.

2. It may well be that the soldiers were acting in good conscience. But to act in good conscience and to do the right thing are different.

3. There are some bad things that nice people won't do, and there are some bad things that nice people will do.

Jake said...

I have to say that your premise (6) seems wrong. Consider a young couple entering marriage with the desire to have children. Now, it certainly seems possible for them to take actions for the sake of the good of their future children (e.g., start a savings account for college tuition). Such actions do not necessarily presuppose the existence of their future children. They can take such actions while being fully cognizant of the fact that it is possible that they may be unable to conceive children, or that one or both of them may die before conceiving children. A more accurate way of wording (6) would be, "To choose to act for the sake of the good of x requires that one presuppose the possible existence of x." In this case, the entire argument breaks down.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the couple acts conditionally. They act to bring it about that if they have children, then their children's future will be provided for.

A similar conditional intention will not help, however, the couple who wills the existence of the children. For the conditional if the children exist, then the children have the good of existence is always true, and hence cannot be what the couple is trying to make true.

Jake said...

None the less, I think that my example contradicts (6). The fact that one can act conditionally upon the existence of x means that one can act without presupposing the existence of x.

Let me ask you another question. Consider the same couple, but now it turns out that both the husband and wife have a somewhat abnormally low sex drive and are content to have sexual intercourse once a month. They have a happy married life, but after several years of no children (without the use of contraceptives), they opt for using natural family planning to try to ensure that their once-a-month sexual activity corresponds as closely as possible to the woman's fertile period. Have they acted wrongly? According to your argument, it appears that they have.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But one isn't acting for the good of x, then. Rather, one is acting for the sake of an abstract good: "the good of the conditional state of affairs that if A, then B". But this does show that premise (2) is false. For this conditional good is not good for anyone or anything. I think the argument can survive if we add to (2) the third option that one can also act for "abstract" goods that are not the goods of anything or anyone.

The NFP couple in your example shouldn't have sex just for reproductive purposes. There are other goods they should be seeking, such as union. Moreover, they could be seeking the good of fecund union.

Jake said...

In the NFP example, my question was not whether they are acting wrongly in their sexual activity (I am assuming they are not using sex just for reproductive purposes, that they are enjoying the union aspect of sex as well). The question is whether the use of NFP under these circumstances is wrong. It seems that the only reason for using NFP here is for willfully bringing it about that their sexual activity will result in having children. This seems to me entirely analogous to the use of IVF to willfully bring it about that their sperm and ova will be joined for the purpose of having children. Thus, your argument would seem to hold for this case as well.

Anonymous said...

"We shouldn't do the wrong thing even if failure to do it would cost our lives."

The likelihood that a soldier will be asked to be involved in a "just" war, and to engage in moral behavior during that war is practically nil. So, you think all soldiers should refuse to serve. This is a view I respect, and it follows directly from the teachings of Jesus.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yes, if the argument is right, and if the NFP is done only to produce a child, then the NFP is wrong. However, perhaps the NFP is not done only to produce a child, but to make for a fecund sexual act. Such a sexual act perhaps has deeper significance than a non-fecund one.


Sometimes countries are unjustly invaded. In such cases, it is not infrequently the case that a defensive war would be just (sometimes surrender is the best policy instead, bad as that may sound). Moreover, in such a case it can be permissible for another country to help the invaded country.

Of course, particular orders could still be immoral. But as per the US Uniform Code of Military Justice, one is obligated to disobey immoral orders and report to a higher authority the officer who gave the order (when the officer is the Commander in Chief, then I guess all one can do is disobey).

larryniven said...

Now I'm just confused. Doesn't "fecund" mean "fertile," as in, "reproductive"? If so, wouldn't an action done for the sake of the fecundity of a marriage or a sexual act also be done for the sake of reproducing? Unless there's a meaning of this word I don't know, this doesn't seem to help at all.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe the phrase I want is "successfully fecund" or "reproductively successful" instead of just "fecund". It seems to me that it is a good if a sexual act is reproductively successful, just as it is a good if a speech act is communicatively successful (i.e., if it communicates what it is supposed to communicate).

Alexander R Pruss said...

The suggestion I am making is this. Suppose I try to feed a child, and I succeed. Then, in virtue of my action, three goods are instantiated:
- The good of trying to feed.
- The good of succeeding at what one is trying to do.
- The good of the child's being fed.

The first two goods are goods for me. The third is the good for the child.

Somewhat analogously, in successfully fecund intercourse, there is the good of:
- Engaging in a reproductive-type of act (whether or not it succeeds in reproducing).
- Engaging in a reproductive-type of act that succeeds.
- The child's existence.
The first two are goods of or for the couple. The third is a good for the child.

larryniven said...

Er, except for how those first two goods use the reproductive sex instrumentally for the good of the parents, and the third one is invalidated by (8) in the argument. So, again, it seems like you're just adding a word ("fecund") and saying that, therefore, everything works out the way you want it to.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The argument I gave was against the instrumental use of children, not the instrumental use of sex.

larryniven said...

Well, so why change the subject, then? I wasn't the one to bring up the good in sex itself - I thought somehow that related to this argument. It seems not. Let me try again.

Is the (successful) fecundity of the marriage/sex act identical to the child? I hope it is not, because one is an attribute and the other is, at least, a material being. To act for the sake of the (successful) fecundity of the marriage/sex act, then, is different than acting for the sake of the child. Your (8), more powerfully, asserts that to act for the (successful) fecundity of the marriage/sex act is not at all to act for the sake of the child. In other words, using the premises you've laid out in the argument in this post, acting for the sake of the (successful) fecundity of the marriage breaks down into at most the following categories:

Acting for the sake of the good of the marriage.
Acting for the sake of the good of the sex act.
Acting in order to create a child as such.

Again using your argument, though, none of these is morally permissible. How, then, is any reproduction other than accidental reproduction morally permissible? Or, if somehow the fecundity of the marriage is sufficient to break through - which you would still have to explain - why simply assume that all IVFers aren't acting for the sake of that as well? Or, will you say that this kind of problem is why you reject the argument?

Alexander R Pruss said...

This is going to depend on a careful reading of (1). There are two senses of: "Causing A solely for the sake of F", which we can indicate by parentheses:
(a) "Causing (A for the sake of F)"
(b) "(Causing A) for the sake of F"
In (a), it is A that is the instrument for F. In (b), it is the causing of A that is the instrument for F.

There is a distinction between these. For instance, in sense (a) I cause a dinner to be available for the sake of nourishment. There, it is the dinner that is the instrument for nourishment. On the other hand, I might cook a dinner for the sake of passing a cooking school exam. There, the dinner doesn't exist for the sake of passing the exam, but the cooking of the dinner is for the sake of passing the exam.

If (1) is read in sense (b), then your objection applies. But I mean (1) to be read in sense (a).

Your last point, though, raises a second, and more powerful, objection. Can the IVF user act not for the sake of the existence of the child, but for the sake of the marriage's being fecund? I think there is a difference between the way a marriage is fecund and the way an act is fecund, but I don't have a good way to argue for the difference right now.

Intuitively, I think the difference is that IVF tends to be more focused on consequences, and hence on the child, while intercourse is less focused on consequences and more on process. This isn't very helpful. I'll have to think some more, probably in about a month or two when I revisit this section of my MS.

larryniven said...

Ah - good point. I'm not sure, at the face of it, what to do with that distinction, but certainly it changes my reading of the argument somewhat. I'll be interested to see how you address this topic in the future.