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Ozimek's Reductios

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Adam Ozimek offers two reductios against my claim that it's almost always good to create life.  Reductio #1:
[I]f you take seriously the notion that the utility of not being born is less than the utility of being born, it seems to me that the moral imperative is for everyone who is capable to be reproducing at the maximum rate possible, because the marginal utility is likely massive. Surely the positive marginal utility of a life of poverty with 20 siblings relative to the utility of not being born is greater than the negative marginal utility of the 20 siblings and parents being burdened with one more family member. So when do you stop?
Reductio #2:
[T]here is a huge market failure whereby the unborn are unable to contract with their potential parents to pay for life. This argues for taxation of everyone (the set of people who are born) in order to subsidize reproduction. Yes, we indirectly do some of this already, but this should trump all other charitable and redistributive concerns.
My reaction to both reductios is the same. 

1. If you're a strict utilitarian or wealth maximizer, Ozimek has merely added two more bullets to the ammunition depot your position already requires you to bite.  (Like: Utilitarians with First World incomes are morally obliged to give away virtually all of their income). 

2. Adherents of all other moral positions can simply repeat their standard rationales, beginning with, "People who actually exist count a lot more than people who could exist but don't."

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (5 to date)
Adam Ozimek writes:

My response to #2 is if we're considering the unborn agents for whom we can conduct welfare analysis, why do they count as less? And how much less?

John Thacker writes:

The issue that as I see it that you don't address is the claim that the processes of life, of being born and dying, are nonconservative, that is, that it involves a change in utility that cannot be reversed by committing suicide. (Unlike conservative forces, like gravity or other things with which we're familiar.) Moving from point A (not alive at time A) to point B (not alive at point B) without being born and dying may not represent the same total work or happiness as moving from point A to point B by being born and dying in between.

It is possible under some readings that being born imparts a negative endowment to people, but that dying, rather than returning that to zero, imposes additional costs. It is simply logically possible to be born and for committing suicide to make one (and the world) worse off without one still being better off than having never been born.

I share the distaste for invoking "dividing by zero," though, as some did on the thread before. I feel that it's a bad metaphor in that it obscures more than it clarifies.

StrangeLoop writes:

To not exist saves one from all of the disutility of living. Primum non nocere.

David Friedman writes:

People interested in the general issue of comparing futures with different numbers of people in them may want to look at an old piece of mine, a chapter in one of Julian Simon's books:

"What Does Optimum Population Mean?" Research in Population Economics, Vol. III (1981), Eds. Simon and Lindert.

Pandaemoni writes:

The reductios don't appeal to me either, but largely because they make a similar questionable assumption to the original proposition. They all personify the "unconceived" hypothetical "individual." It's hard not to personify these unconceived hypothetical people as a matter of language, because there so little need to consider such "pre-persons" that the right words are elusive. It's rather like talking about what existed "before" the Big Bang, even though the Big Bang seems likely to have created time itself.

The pre-person may not have a utility function. In this view "his" expected utility over any given period is not simply "zero", it is not defined at all because such a person has no ability to experience or conceive of pleasure or pain, comfort or discomfort. "Utility" is a vague concept, but to make sense it seems to require some ability (however slight) to perceive something on some level.

There are some theological positions that do ascribe varying degrees of consciousness to those in a "pre-mortal" state, which would no doubt disagree with that assessment, but it is a mistake to simply assume that we can meaningfully compare the utility of a existing person to that of one who, by assumption, does not. There is a lot of philosophical and metaphysical baggage to unpack before we try it, not the least of which is defining "utility" in a way that does not require sensation, consciousness or perception of any kind.

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