Critical Notice of child versus childmaker: Future persons and present duties in ethics and the law

Noûs 34 (4):634–647 (2000)
In Child versus Childmaker Melinda Roberts provides an enlightening analysis and a cogent defense of a version of the person-affecting restriction in ethics. The rough idea of this restriction is that an action, state of affairs, or world, cannot be wrong, or bad, unless it would wrong, or be bad for, someone. I shall focus solely on Roberts’s core principles, and thus shall not address her interesting chapter-length discussions of wrongful life cases and of human cloning cases. The person-affecting intuition can be spelled out in a deontic and in an axiological form: Deontic Person-Affecting Restriction: An action, state of affairs, or world is wrong only if it would wrong someone. Axiological Person-Affecting Restriction: An action, state of affairs, or world is worse than another only if it is worse for someone. Roberts develops and defends the deontic version of the person-affecting restriction. Indeed, as her discussion (and those of others) makes clear, it is quite unlikely that there is a coherent version of the axiological form of the intuition (e.g., because of problems of transitivity). Roberts rightly rejects any appeal to impersonal ranking of worlds, and appeals only to the (many) personal rankings of worlds of the individuals involved. Roberts defends the view that worlds in which a person does not exist can be ranked in terms of that person’s well-being (how good that world would be for him/her) along with the worlds in which he/she does exist. Worlds in which the person has a life worth living are ranked more highly for that person than worlds in which he/she doesn’t exist (along with some worlds with indifferent existence), and the latter worlds are ranked more highly than worlds in which the person exists but doesn’t have a life worth living. Although this is somewhat controversial (some would deny that we can assess how good a world is for a person who doesn’t exist in it), it seems exactly right to me. Throughout I shall assume, as does Roberts, that non-existence has a value of zero (and thus that lives worth living have positive values, and that lives not worth living have negative values). In what follows I shall formulate Roberts’s theory as a theory of the permissibility of actions. In most of the book, Roberts formulates her theory as one of the permissibility of worlds, but, as I shall argue below, such assessments have little normative relevance, since they ignore the probabilities of realization (which depend on what actions are performed). The core of Roberts’s theory is just as plausible, and in some ways more powerful, when (as is sometimes the case in the book) it takes actions to be the objects of assessment. To start with, however, I shall make a highly restrictive assumption (not made by Roberts) that will effectively eliminate the difference between assessing actions and assessing worlds within the sort of welfaristic consequentialist framework that Roberts presupposes. I shall assume that if a given action were performed, then a specific world would be realized. We shall assume, that is, that there are no uncertainties involved. Everything is completely determined by which of the feasible actions is performed. Later in this paper, I will address the problems that arise once this simplifying assumption is dropped.
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