Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A new solution to the non-identity problem?

Molly Gardner in a piece that just came out offers an interesting new solution to the non-identity problem, the problem of making sense of benefits and harms to people who wouldn't exist were it not for our actions of benefiting or harming. Gardner's suggestion is:

A state of affairs, A, is a benefit for an individual, S, just in case if it were true that both S existed and A did not obtain, then S would be worse off in some respect.
This is a clever solution: normally when evaluating whether an action benefits or harms someone, we simply ask how they would have done had we not done the action; but Gardner wants us further to keep fixed that the patient exists.

But clever as it is, it looks to me that it fails. First, suppose that a strong essentiality of origins thesis obtains. Then whenever we benefit or harm a future person, that person couldn't exist without our action. But that means that Gardner's conditional becomes a per impossibile conditional. And concepts of ethical importance should not be defined in terms of something as poorly understood and as controversial as counterpossible conditionals.

Suppose now that there is no strong essentiality of origins thesis. Then, plausibly, a person who was conceived through coitus could also have been conceived through IVF, at least if the same sperm and egg were involved. Now suppose that where the couple lives, IVF technology is highly experimental and works so poorly that children conceived through IVF end up having all sorts of nasty health problems. The couple is wicked and doesn't care about the health of their children, but they also haven't even heard of IVF, and so they conceive Sally the natural way. Now let's consider Gardner's conditional. What would have happened had the child existed and the couple not engaged in coitus? Well, the closest possible worlds where Sally exists and the couple did not have intercourse are worlds where the couple engaged in a poorly-functioning IVF treatment, and hence worlds where Sally has nasty health problems. So the couple benefited Sally by engaging in coitus.

The conclusion that the couple benefited Sally by coitus is, I think, true. For I believe it is always good to exist. But it is clear that Gardner doesn't want to suppose that existence is always a good. And if existence is not always a good, then we can suppose a scenario like this: Sally is going to have an on-balance bad life if she is conceived by coitus, and an on-balance worse life if she is conceived by IVF. By Gardner's criterion, the couple has benefited Sally through coitus, even though Sally's life is on-balance bad. This is surely mistaken. One might say that the couple benefited Sally by engaging in coitus rather than IVF. But since they never even considered IVF, one can't conclude that they benefited Sally simpliciter. (If Sam gives Jim a mild electric shock, he harms Jim simpliciter, but he benefits Jim by giving him a mild rather than severe shock.)

And even if we grant--as in the end we should--that existence is always good, Gardner's conditional gives us the wrong reason for thinking that the couple benefited Sally. For the benefit to Sally has nothing to do with the fact that Sally would have been worse off in the nearby worlds where she existed through IVF.

And even if essentiality of origins is true, the argument concerning Sally works. For it is still true that, per impossibile, had Sally existed but without her parents having intercourse, she would have existed through IVF and hence had very poor health.

The problem with Gardner's approach is this: the worlds that are relevant to the evaluation of her counterfactual may simply be irrelevant to the question of benefit or harm simpliciter.


Alexander R Pruss said...

I can flip my counterexample around to work even on the assumption that existence is always good.

Suppose Sally is conceived the normal way and has a happy life. Suppose also IVF hadn't been invented. Finally, suppose that had IVF been invented and Sally been conceived by IVF, she would have been better off, because she would have been famous, and in her case fame would have been a good thing.

So, then, had Sally's parents not engaged in intercourse and yet Sally existed, Sally would have been conceived by IVF and hence better off. So Sally's parents harmed Sally by engaging in intercourse. But that's absurd. (It wouldn't be so absurd if IVF were easily available to them.)

Molly said...

Hi, Alexander! Thanks for blogging about my paper.

If I understand you correctly, you've got 2 objections; the first is about the essentiality of origins, and the second is about the Sally case.

In response to the first one, I'd suggest that my view is compatible with the essentiality of origins thesis. I take it that the essentiality of origins thesis says that I couldn't have come from a different egg & sperm. That's fine--it just means that when we imagine all the other possible worlds where the circumstances of my birth or my existence are different in various ways, we have to hold constant the particular egg and sperm that I came from.

That doesn't narrow down the class of other possible words too much. There's another possible world where I came from the same egg and sperm, but I'm taller because my mom injected human growth hormone into me when I was little. Or there's another possible world where I came from the same egg and sperm, but I didn't have a particular genetic mutation, or else the effects of the mutation were eliminated with medical technology.

Regarding the second objection, I say a bit more about this in my other paper, "A Harm-Based Solution to the Non-Identity Problem" (published in Ergo). Basically, we can describe harms and benefits in a fine-grained way or a coarse-grained way, and we can describe them as positive states of affairs or negative states of affairs. Depending on how we describe harms and benefits, statements about harming and benefiting will have different truth values.

Is not having nasty health problems a benefit to Sally? Yes, because if she existed and had nasty health problems, she'd be worse off in some respect. By conceiving her the normal way, did her parents cause her not to have nasty health problems? I believe the answer is yes, but I don't believe I'm committed to a yes for that. Anyway, the combo of the two yes-answers implies that by conceiving her in the normal way, her parents benefited her. And that seems fine, although I see that you object to this.

Here's how I think about the case where Sam gives Jim a mild electric shock. I'm assuming that if Sam hadn't given Jim a mild electric shock, he would have given Jim a severe electric shock. (So the mild shock preempted something worse from happening.)

Is getting an electric shock a harm for Jim? Yes, because if he hadn't gotten an electric shock, he would have been better off in some respect. Did Sam cause that harm? Yes. Therefore, Sam harmed Jim by giving him an electric shock.

Is not getting a severe electric shock a benefit for Jim? Yes, because if he had gotten a severe electric shock, he would have been worse off in some respect. Did Sam cause that benefit? Yes, because it's a weird case where we stipulated that if Sam hadn't administered the mild shock, he would have administered the severe one. Therefore, in this weird case, Sam benefited Jim by causing him not to get a severe electric shock.

So on my view, Sam harmed Jim by giving him an electric shock (at all), but he also benefited Jim by preventing him from getting a severe electric shock.

It sounds like you want to say something about benefiting and harming simpliciter. I have a few more things to say about that, but it's in my paper, "On the Strength of the Reason Against Harming" in the JMP. :)

Alexander R Pruss said...


Thanks so much for responding!

1. I was thinking of a particularly strong essentiality of origins thesis on which the *whole* causal history, and not just the identity of the gametes, is essential to the individual.

2. Let me vary the IVF case. Suppose we're in a world where there is no IVF, and Sally's parents conceive her through intercourse. Sally has a happy life. But had Sally existed without Sally's parents having intercourse, it would have to have been by a miracle. But now suppose that Sally always wanted her life to be a miracle, both in the actual world and in the counterfactual world. So it seems that on the harm version of your account, Sally's parents harmed her. For had Sally existed without Sally's parents having intercourse, it would have been by a miracle, and Sally would have been better off existing by a miracle given her desire for her life to be a miracle (we can paint the scenario so that this desire is a rational one). But it seems wrong to say that Sally's parents' intercourse was a harm to Sally, just because the closest possible world where Sally exists without that intercourse is a miracle world.

Here's the basic point I'm getting at (and I wasn't clear on it when I wrote the post). Both in the IVF case and the miracle case, I am getting at cases where the world where Sally exists not through intercourse is so remote from the actual world that it is irrelevant to evaluating benefits or harms.

Here's another variant in the same vein. Suppose that Sally's parents are infertile, and suppose that this infertility additionally causes them to be depressed. Sally is actually conceived by IVF and leads a happy life. The closest world where Sally's parents manage to conceive without IVF is a world where they are not depressed. Not being depressed, they are better parents, and hence Sally's life is even better. So Sally's being conceived by IVF, on the account in questions, looks like a harm to her, since had she existed without being conceived by IVF, she would have been conceived by fertile and hence non-depressed parents. (I am not, of course, claiming that infertility generally causes depression, but only that it does so in Sally's parents.) But that seems mistaken.

3. "I'm assuming that if Sam hadn't given Jim a mild electric shock, he would have given Jim a severe electric shock." I was actually thinking of a case where had Sam not given a mild electric shock, he wouldn't have given him any shock. On reflection, maybe that's a case where although we get to say that Sam gave Jim a mild and not severe shock, it's not a case where we get to say that Sam gave Jim a ma