Reproduction and Moral Obligation

An excerpt from The Case Against Kids by Elizabeth Kolbert on New Yorker:

'Benatar’s case rests on a critical but, in his view, unappreciated asymmetry. Consider two couples, the A’s and the B’s. The A’s are young, healthy, and rich. If they had children, they could give them the best of everything—schools, clothes, electronic gaming devices. Even so, we would not say that the A’s have a moral obligation to reproduce.

The B’s are just as young and rich. But both have a genetic disease, and, were they to have a child together, that child would suffer terribly. We would say, using Benatar’s logic, that the B’s have an ethical obligation not to procreate.

The case of the A’s and the B’s shows that we regard pleasure and pain differently. Pleasure missed out on by the nonexistent doesn’t count as a harm. Yet suffering avoided counts as a good, even when the recipient is a nonexistent one.

And what holds for the A’s and the B’s is basically true for everyone. Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone—that is, had the life never been created—no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it.

“One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad—a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick—is worse than no life at all,” Benatar writes."'

Wait a sec! I don't think that the implication spelled out at the end follows from the reasoning at all. There is a huge difference between a life of terrible suffering due to a genetic disease and a life of utter bless punctuated by a single pin-prick! The B's would have no obligation not to procreate if their child were to have such a blissful life.

While the reasoning makes notes of terrible suffering, it doesn't acknowledge moments or lives of extra-ordinary significance: to possess a genius, like that of Mozart or Einstein, to do something of ever-lasting impact, like Jesus or Marx, etc. I am not sure even with these one can have a moral obligation to reproduce, but it does take the steam out of the reasoning presented above.


Komal said…
This crucial premise seems wrong: "Pleasure missed out on by the nonexistent doesn’t count as a harm. Yet suffering avoided counts as a good, even when the recipient is a nonexistent one."

Our intuitions about the A's and the B's may not be because of the above assumption. We may have these intuitions because we believe that we have a duty not to cause unnecessary suffering, but no duty to cause happiness. Thus, it may be wrong for the B's to bring a child into the world knowing the child will suffer a lot, but not wrong for the A's to not bring a child into the world who will likely be happy.