Thursday, May 22, 2014

A (paradoxical?) argument that intentional reproduction is wrong


  1. We cannot permissibly intend to produce a person for reasons that do not include the specific person's own good.
  2. We cannot intend to produce a person for reasons that include the specific person's own good.
  3. We cannot permissibly intend to produce a person without reasons.
  4. Necessarily, if we intend to produce a person, we do so for no reason, or for reasons that include the person's own good, or for reasons that do not include the person's own good.
  5. We cannot permissibly intend to produce a person. (1-4)
Premise (1) is due to Kantian considerations: persons are ends not means. I will argue for premise (2) shortly. Perhaps the easiest way to argue for premise (3) is that we simply cannot intend—permissibly or not—without reasons. We intend things because they are good, either as means or as ends, and in either case we have reasons. But one might also argue that if it is wrong to produce persons for reasons that do not include the person's own good, it is a fortiori wrong to produce them wantonly, for no reason at all, as it were on a whim. Or one might think that being rational animals, it is wrong for us to intentionally act in a non-reasnable way, and to act intentionally but without reasons is to do that.

Now on its face, premise (2) is false. Surely people do procreate for the child's own good. But I don't think so. They may be acting for the good of whatever child results from the reproduction, but there is no specific child for whose good they are acting. And when they act for the good of whatever child results, the specific child's good ends up being a constitutive means to the good they are seeking, so they do not escape from the Kantian criticism. The good of a person is an incommunicable good: it is that specific person's good. But the existence and identity of the child depends on the couple's decision in a way that the couple is unable to figure out beforehand. Thus the couple cannot be deciding in light of the identity of the child, and hence cannot be acting for the good of that specific person.

Note that God does not suffer from the cognitive limitations that give rise to (2): he can know our identity before he decides to create us, and can decide to create us for our own good.

Now, when a couple engages in the marital act, they have a reason to engage in that act apart from reproduction: the act is good in itself, being an embodiment of marital union. Thus they can act so as to unite, and accept the child as a gift from God that goes beyond their intention. Note that even given my argument they can permissibly rationally consider the reproduction in their decision whether to make love, for instance as a defeater to various defeaters (being tired, etc.) to the marital reasons for lovemaking. On the other hand, in non-coital methods of reproduction like IVF the couple is specifically intending reproduction, and that is wrong if the argument succeeds.

I am not myself entirely convinced of (1), because I am not entirely convinced of the Kantian autonomy framework. We aren't ends in ourselves: we exist as constitutive glorifications of God. Thus it does not seem contrary to the dignity of a person to be produced for the greater glory of God. Kantianism is what you get when you remove God from the story. If that's right, then we get the surprising result that only theists can permissibly intend to produce a child. Atheists, to be consistent, will need to have the Kantian attitude, and while they can permissibly reproduce, they cannot do so with the intention of reproducing, if everything else in the argument works.


Brian Cutter said...

Aren't the reasons for thinking that (2) is true also reasons for thinking that (1) is trivially true---that is, true simply because we cannot intend, permissibly or otherwise, to produce a person?

More specifically, of course we can "intend to produce a person" in a non-specific sense: I can have a non-specific intention whose content is *that for some x I produce x*. But for any person x, I cannot (unless I am very confused) have a specific intention whose content is *that I produce x*. But I think your premise (1) only makes sense on the specific reading. Otherwise, I don't know how to interpret "the specific person."

This means (I think) that, in order for the argument to be valid, we've got to read "permissibly intend to produce a person" in the specific sense. But this makes the conclusion trivially true for the same reasons, and so not as paradoxical as it sounds. The non-specific reading of the conclusion would be a surprising, even paradoxical, conclusion, but if the foregoing is right, it doesn't follow from the premises.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, the way I phrased it suggests that the intention in (1) is that a person come to exist, rather than that a specific one come to exist.

It's true, and a very good point, that one isn't intending that this person come into existence. Maybe that helps a little with the Kantian worry. Maybe not. It's still the case that the person, when she comes into existence, can say: I am part of the accomplishment of my parents' intentions. (I am using "accomplishment" in the way I use it here.) But she cannot say: "They aimed at my good."

Derrick said...

Alex: If it's not too much trouble, could you say a little more about how God could have pre-creation knowledge of a creature's identity. Correct me if I'm wrong, but, given Divine Simplicity, God's knowledge of a creature (including its identity) is His act of creating that creature. So, how could God have knowledge of the creature before He creates it? But, even if we don't accept DDS, how could God have any pre-creation knowledge of the creature that isn't simply general qualitative knowledge?

Alexander R Pruss said...

God precreationally knows all necessary truths. And for each possible person, he knows that necessarily that person is possible.

There are two ways this could be. He could directly know all haecceities (which could be grounded in his mind). Or it could be that the identity of persons is defined by some of their qualitative features, such as their initial causal history. In the latter case, the knowledge that God precreationally has of possible persons is a knowledge that in principle a finite being could have, but that in fact none of us do have as it depends on too much detail.

Mark Rogers said...

Is it not plausible that there are three ways? Some people known from eternity and some only known now?

Dan Johnson said...


Regarding your claim that (2) is not true for God: are you sure that God can create us for our own good? Wouldn't that imply that it is bad for us not to be created? In which case God has acted in ways that are bad for all the possible people he didn't create?

The reason this is significant is that it goes to a classic argument (you find in the Indian tradition and in the West) against the existence of God: God can't create for the good of the creatures (because they don't exist yet), and he can't create for his own good, and so there is no possible motive for him to create.

I'm inclined to agree that God can't create for his own good or for the good of the creatures. I'm inclined to escape between the horns: say that God can be motivated to create good things without being motivated to create for the good of some being. I think that is Aquinas's strategy (the "overflow of goodness" stuff) and Edwards' strategy (divine glory is intrinsically good, not merely good for creatures or good for God).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not *sure* God created us for our own good. The whole line of thought is one I am not all that sure of.

But I am strongly inclined to think that to be good is to be good for something or someone. And that's enough to generate the argument you're interested in.

In any case, from the fact that A is good for x it doesn't follow that lack of A would be bad for x. Not all lacks are bad, but only lacks of due goods. There are many things I don't know which it would be good for me to know but it is not bad for me not to know.

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi, Alex

I reckon that premise (1) is false, by means of testing it precisely against a specific case, in which people intend to have a child, and do nothing immoral; if the Kantian claim that persons are ends not means is understood as implying premise (1), then for the same reasons I say it's false.

Of course, that does not negate that persons should never be treated only as means in the sense that whenever dealing with a person, there are behaviors one shouldn't do, as a consideration for that person, and regardless of one's goals and how effectively ell that person might be used to achieve them.

So, reckon the argument is unsound. But if you disagree with the above rationale, I would make the following parallel:

P1: We cannot permissibly intend to benefit any person for reasons that do not include the specific person's own good.
P2: We cannot intend to benefit any person that will exist in future generations for reasons that include the specific person's own good.
P3: We cannot intend to benefit any person without reasons.
P4: Necessarily, if we intend to benefit a person, we do so for no reason, or for reasons that include the specific person's own good, or for reasons that do not include the specific person's own good.
C2: We cannot permissibly intend to benefit any persons that will exist in future generations.

P1 is based on the same considerations as (1). Even if, in this case, we're talking about benefiting a person, it's possible to benefit a person immorally if one does so for the wrong reasons, and assuming that (1) is true due to the Kantian consideration that people are ends, not means, then the same applies about any kind of behavior towards a person, it seems to me – if not, I would ask for the specific Kantian considerations that support (1) but not P1.

The rest of the premises are relevantly similar to the original ones.

Angra Mainyu said...

Some more thoughts:

While it seems clear to me that it's not immoral to intend to have a baby using assisted fertilization techniques under common circumstances, one may consider unusual yet possible circumstances as well, and those might highlight that it's not necessarily immoral to intend to produce a person.

For example:

Scenario S1:

Some evil cultists kidnap a number of doctors, nurses, etc., as well as five children – Alice, Bob, Mary, Tom, and Sam.
The adults happen to believe, for religious reasons, that embryos are persons. Also, they're all married, but none of the people they're married to, is kidnapped.
The evil cultists divide the adults in 5 groups, G1 – G5, and they number the children they kidnapped, 1-5.
Then, they tell the adults in group G1: “Here, you have frozen sperm, and eggs, and a fully equipped laboratory. Work together and produce persons without sexual intercourse, by means of some assisted fertilization techniques. You have a month. If you do not produce any persons, then we will torture Sam to death, by [insert horrific graphic description if you like]. If you do, we will send Sam back to Sam's parents.”

The members of G1 refuse, saying it would be immoral of them to comply, because it's always immoral to intend to produce a person, and embryos are persons. Then, the cultists go on with the horrible torture, and Sam dies in excruciating pain.

Then, the evil cultists issue the same command to the people in group G2, only instead of Sam, it's Alice.

The members of G2 work together and produce an embryo - which they believe is a person -, and Alice is indeed returned to her parents – that she's been returned to her parents is on TV, and all of the members of groups G1-G5 are shown the news programs informing that.

Then, the evil cultist proceed to the next group, G3, and give them the command above, threatening Bob this time.
The members of G3 reckon that chances are Bob will be released if they produced the embryo, but will be tortured to death otherwise. Based on that, and in order to save Bob, work together in order to make an embryo, which in their view, is to make a person. They succeed. Bob is safely returned to his family. (side note: if needed, we may increase the number of iterations, so that he group of people whose behaviors we assess will have witnessed many releases and many instances of torture to death, before making their decision).


A biological weapon makes any sexual intercourse that might result in reproduction, lethal, and there is no cure – and there are no frozen embryos, either -, so that no assisted fertilization would result in extinction.


Some aliens take a sperm cell and an ovum and credibly threaten to:

a. Fertilize the ovum.
b. Make a baby by means of artificial womb.
c. Grow an adult human.
d. Torture her for decades, and then kill her.
e. Enslave and torture all humans to death – only after reproducing more.

However, if Alice (not the same Alice as in scenario 1) fertilizes the ovum and then carries out a pregnancy, having a baby, the aliens will leave the Earth and all humans alone.
The credibility of the aliens may be established by their previous actions, in which they always delivered what they promised, as far as Alice can tell.
So, Alice does it in order to save both the future person, and humanity, and she saves both the future person and humanity.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Helpful thoughts!

I think P1 is rather different from my premise 1. If you produce an entity x in order to fulfill an intention J, then you make it be that x exists for the sake of J. And that seems to be a way of using x. If you bestow a benefit B on x in order to fulfill an intention J, then it is false that you make x exist for the sake of J: you make B exist for the sake of J. But that doesn't seem to be a way of using x. It's a way of using B. But B is not a person.

(Also, I suspect P2 is different from 2. One can use the phrase "My first child" to refer to a future person who doesn't yet exist, and one can intend to specifically benefit the referent, as long as one has already decided that one will have a first child. But if one hasn't yet decided, one can't intend to benefit that person.)

I am not moved by the examples. Similar examples can be produced for any deontological case. The deontologist simply needs to bite the bullet and say that some things are wrong even if far far greater harms result from not doing it.

Angra Mainyu said...

On the issue of producing the entity, I was asking what specific Kantian considerations you had in mind, that would support (1) but not P1.
Your reply suggests it's that a person is being used. But why?
I would raise the following points:
a. In which sense is she being used, and why is it that it's immoral to use a person in that sense?
b. Why can't they produce person x for the good of person x?
In your defense of premise (2), you say there is no specific child for whose good they're acting, so that's why. But then, similarly, there is no specific child whom they're using. In fact, the child in question does not exist when they act on their intention to produce one.

Regarding the examples, how do you go about testing general moral claims, if not by considering more specific examples, and assessing the morality in those contexts?
Personally, I don't need the weird examples to reject the argument, since the non-weird one is good enough: given that it's not immoral in many usual cases to have a child by means of assisted fertilization, then it follows that premise (1), if understood in that manner, is false – unless premise 2 is false; “specific person” is ambiguous.
However, the examples make the bullets increasingly big, so to speak. It seems clear to me that in the scenarios in question there is no immorality on the part of the people acting in the allegedly immoral way, but rather, it would be immoral to blame them for their actions.
I make those assessments intuitively, and if a more general claim entails otherwise – as premise (1) does -, I conclude it's false. But picking (1) and biting bullets looks like placing the cart before the horses to me.
As for your claim that similar examples can be produced for any deontological case, I don't see why. I would say that perhaps similar examples can be produced for some deontological theories – and based on that I would say they're all false.

But that does not entail that deontology is false. In fact, it seems plausible to me that some things are wrong regardless of whether greater harms come from not doing it – I assess that by considering other hypothetical scenarios.

If it turns out that any deontological theory presented so far is subject to the same sort of examples – i. e., when it collides with clear intuitions -, then the conclusion would be that they're all false. That's unsurprising from my perspective – trying to figure out what the correct rules are is far more difficult than applying them unconsciously. In fact, I don't think it's probable that any human will be able to figure that out, except perhaps in a rather distant future, using supercomputers with artificial intelligence that can study humans better.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Kantian consideration is that persons should always be treated as ends and never as just a means. But if one is being generated not for one's own good, and solely as a means to some goal someone else has, then it seems one is being treated as just a means.

The other kinds of deontological cases I'm thinking about are ones about murder and the like: one can always ramp up the consequences. If you don't commit a murder, millions of murders will be committed, and the like. Or if you don't tell the person you love that you hate her guts, millions will be tortured to death. Or if you don't worship a false god, your family will be killed. Etc.

Sometimes our intuitions about cases are more reliable but at other times our intuitions about principles are more reliable. In regard to IVF, when it was introduced a lot of people had serious moral objections, but people get used to things...

Angra Mainyu said...


The Kantian consideration you mention seems ambiguous to me, since it's not clear what counts as treating people as a means only. For example, let's say that Alice hires Bob to fix her car. She's treating Bob as a means to fix the car, and does not do it for Bob's own good. In fact, it may well be that she does not even know who will fix her car – she just hires a company, and does not know who the employees are.
Now, as long as Alice intends to fulfill her promise to pay for the job, and as long as the wouldn't steal or otherwise attempt to benefit from Bob or any of the employees in a way that they didn't sign up for – to the extent that she knows -, then she's not doing anything immoral, all other things equal (we may consider that the company does not employ slave labor, pays taxes, etc., and Alice knows that, or at least has no reason to suspect otherwise give a usual amount of diligence).
On the other hand, it may be argued that even if her goal is only to have her car fixed – and not the good of Bob's -, she's not treating Bob as a means only.
If the behavior in question counts as treating people as a means only, then I would say Kant is mistaken about that.

That aside, I was raising a different objection:

My point was that if person X is produced for the good of person X – that is the goal -, then X is not being used as a means only; and if it's not possible for humans to produce X for X's own good before X exists – as you argue - , then it seems to me that it's not possible for the humans in question to use X, either.

For example, X does not exist when, say, future parents Alice and Bob decide to have a child, for the purposes of – say – making a new child, and make the child in question – whoever that child turns out to be – happy.

If they're not taking into consideration the specific child's own good (in some sense of “specific”), then they're also not using a specific child, either – at any rate, I would say that if the Kantian view has the consequences your argument entails, it's false for the reasons I've been arguing.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In regard to the last point, see my response to Brian Cutter's objections.

In regard to the first, when one allows a person to decide whether or not to help one, and one gives the person reasons to help one (e.g., financial ones), then that need not be a case of using the person.

Angra Mainyu said...


Regarding other deontological cases, “murder” may be immoral by the meaning of the words (i. e., analytically), but if you're using the word “murder” in a way such that it's not analytic, and rather you're talking about killing some innocent person deliberately under certain circumstances, I would ask for more details about what you mean.

As for the other cases you mention, I think it's okay to tell a person you love that you hate her in order to save millions from being tortured, under most circumstances. I would need more info on the specific circumstances, though. And surely I think that worshiping a false god to save one's family from being murdered is (usually; as always, more details may change that) morally permissible, and even obligatory.

On the other hand, I do not think it would be morally permissible to, say, torture an innocent person for a year in order to prevent a trillion other people from being so tortured by some powerful beings – assuming one believes and should believe the results will surely happen - , so I think it would agree with the deontologist on that. However, I think it's morally permissible to torture an innocent person for a year in order to save that same person from being tortured for a trillion years.

As for the moral objections to contraception, I have no doubts that they existed (not good ones, though). There were – and are - also objections to interracial marriage, to no longer believing that Islam is true, to setting slaves free, and so on. I don't think this is a problem. But I don't think that their intuitions were/are like that – not after reflection, at least, though I guess one may distinguish between preliminary intuitions and after-reflections intuitions, and the former may have been distorted by some false ideology, religious or otherwise.

At any rate, as I mentioned, it seems to me that rejecting clear intuitions is to put the cart before the horses, since we do not seem to have any other means of assessing moral claims, ultimately. That goes for intuitions about cases of different specificity (I guess you'd call it “principles vs. cases”), if we have those, but I have to say I have no intuitions about not using persons as a means only, unless the matter is sufficiently specified. Rather, my reaction to a claim that it's necessarily immoral to use a person only as a means would be to ask “what do you mean by that?”, etc., and after there is sufficient clarification, I would be able to make an intuitive assessment of the claim.

Angra Mainyu said...


On the issue of your reply to Brian Cutter, let's say that Alice and Bob decide to have a child, for the good of whatever child they have. They use some assisted fertilization technique, or just have sex – the means is not the point, since the goal is the same.
Now, they succeed and have a daughter, Amy, whom they love, rear, and who is overall a happy person.
Amy can properly say “The fact that I exist is part of the accomplishment of my parent's intentions”, and she can also properly say “My good is also part of the accomplishment of my parent's intentions”.

I think there is a sense in which they intended to make her, but in that sense, they also aimed at her own good, so in that sense, I think she can properly say that her parents aimed at her good. But if that's not the relevant sense here – or if there is no such sense -, and she can't properly say – at least not in this context - “they aimed at my good when they intended to make me”, similarly in the same sense she can't properly say “they aimed at making me”.

In any case, she can't properly say “They intended to make me in order to achieve some goal other than my own good.” That wouldn't be true. They intended to make a happy child.