Aug 212014

jesus-santa-bff-selfie-l1Thinking about people who don’t exist is hard to do. The most emotional response I received yesterday was:

> I’m not disagreeing that there is some benefit to society when there are fewer people with severe problems, and I’m not saying I would never do something like select not to have a child with severe problems if given a choice (my husband and I talked about that when we were going through fertility treatments), I am saying that categorically saying at a societal level that those people should never exist is terrifying. And by saying that those people should never exist because their life would be too hard does in effect say that I should not exist

It seems to be what a lot of people get hung up on, because it’s very hard to imagine the counter-factual world where these people weren’t born. It’s the same argument used by every pro-lifer who trots out the adorable/smart/loving child of a mother who struggled with the abortion question but ultimately decided against it, saying “Pro-choicers say that this child should never have existed!” It works because we see a valuable person (as all person are valuable) and think “if they were aborted they wouldn’t exist” and emotionally this feels like saying “They shouldn’t exist” = “Kill that girl!!! Chaaaaarge!!!!” Which makes us squirm at the very least, if we are good people.

But when a biological process is stopped or prevented before a person can form, it is not the killing of a person. It is simply replacing them with another person. (I won’t even get into whether the planet can support a limited number of people – it’s more relevant to note that any given couple can only support a limited number of children. So choosing to bring one child into existence is denying life to another child that would have been born in their stead. The egg that released the month prior or after, perhaps.) And since almost nothing can be known of someone before they are born, in the aggregate it’s most accurate to think of the potential future-children of any given couple as undifferentiated entities. The replacing-person is best modeled as the same as the replaced-person EXCEPT for the things that can be known about them before they are brought into existence. If a genetic test shows that the egg released this month will give you a child with blue eyes, and the egg released next month will give a child with brown eyes, the question is not “Should we murder the child with the blue eyes or the child with brown eyes?” Because it is impossible to birth both of them. The question is more accurately modeled as “Do we want a baby Eneasz (or baby Steph) with blue eyes or brown eyes?” Think of the two potential children as the same potential person, differing only in the characteristics that can be determined beforehand. Thus, the question isn’t “Should we murder Mary Sue with Downs Syndrome to birth non-Downs Sally May?” it is “Should we birth Mary Sue with or without Downs Syndrome?” In which case the answer is sorta obvious.
(When taken far enough, the inability to correctly think of persons who haven’t come into existence as substitutes for persons who have, results in the conclusion that any attempt to prevent a pregnancy is morally equivalent to murder, and condoms/birth-control are history’s greatest holocaust. And, indeed, any effort to do anything with one’s resources aside from maximizing the total number of people who are born is morally reprehensible.)

And if one accepts that such a program doesn’t kill people, it only makes the people who are born better off, it means that – as hard as it is to imagine – in the counter-factual world where such a program had been around when we’d been born we’d be healthier, smarter, and have had happier childhoods. Not that we’d be dead.

  2 Responses to “How to Think about Non-Existent People”

  1. I had this thought when I first read this, but forgot to mention it until I saw your link to it this morning. It seems to me the argument here presupposes the idea of souls – fundamentally there is a ‘being’ who will be born into Child 2, regardless of what state Child 2 in. Which I’m perfectly okay with, so go wild and make Child 2 the best she/he could be. But if you don’t accept that, and judging from your other posts I don’t believe you accept that, then I don’t think insufficient knowledge about what the future children will be actually justifies calling them the same person.

    (I originally had a thought experiment here involving a space-neko with a failing databank of digitized people, but it proved unnecessary. Alas!)

    The life of a person with Down’s syndrome is going to be dramatically different than the life of a kid who doesn’t. Two very different brains. With no soul involved, two very different people. You are choosing between them. If you choose the life of the egg without, you are essentially saying the one with is less valuable.

    The solution isn’t to say the people are undifferentiated. Rather, it’s to give up the idea that all potential people are equally inherently valuable – in the sense that more people are always then even more valuable. If a potential-person is as valuable as a real-person, then failing to become pregnant is tantamount to murder whether you differentiate between the possible kids or not.

    Potential-people and real-people are very different. People aren’t valuable because God said so. Real people are valuable because I am a real person. I don’t want people casually using me as means to their ends to my detriment, and so if I’m to participate in a society that prevents that via social contact, I need to follow the same principle! Potential people aren’t part of the social contract.

    So parents have a collection of potential people to pick from, and they will only pick a few. Choosing to have little Jenna wiithout Down’s syndrome does say that little Sally with it will never be – dooming her to non-existence. But that’s fine, because she had no right to exist in the first place.

    This is very different from saying grown-up Tasha with down’s syndrome should be murdered. I don’t want to be murdered if I acquire a disease. You don’t want to be. Therefore, she, as a real person, is protected by the morality of the social contract.

    • I agree with you in all the factual parts. My only disagreement is in how to think about people who don’t exist. I think you can only differentiate between things based on information that exists. ie: if a coin is flipped but I can’t see the result, I don’t think of the situation as one in which “The coin is heads-up” is true, OR as one in which “The coin is tails-up” is true. Rather, I think of it as a situation where “The coin has a 50/50 chance of either one being up” is true, even though this is impossible in the literal sense, and one of the other two is actually the case.

      So while it is factually true that Jenna-w/o-Downs will be a completely different person than Sally-w-Downs, the only information that exists about either one is that one has Downs, and the other does not. For all other purposes any other person can be filled into the remaining details, and as such all possible-persons are plausible, and it then becomes a matter of choosing between between the healthy person or the alternate but otherwise identical Downs-person.

      I think it’s an important conceptual point, because it emphasizes to less-than-perfect people (which is everyone, but some people feel more imperfect than others) that I do not think they should be replaced by someone healthier, I wish *they themselves* had been born healthier.

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