Defending the Procreation Asymmetry with Conditional Interests

by MichaelStJules7 min read13th Oct 201910 comments


Pain and SufferingPopulation EthicsMoral Philosophy

The Procreation Asymmetry consists of these two claims together:

  1. it’s bad to bring into existence an individual who would have a bad existence, other things being equal, or the fact that an individual would have a bad existence is a reason to not bring them into existence; and
  2. it’s at best indifferent to bring into existence an individual who would have a good existence, other things being equal, or the fact that an individual would have a good existence is not a reason to bring them into existence.

However, if a bad existence can be an "existential harm" (according to claim 1), why can’t a good existence be an "existential benefit"? I.e. if we accept claim 1, why should we accept claim 2? If it’s worse for people who regret being born (or whose suffering outweighs their happiness) to actually be born, isn’t it better for people who are grateful for being born (or whose happiness outweighs their suffering) to actually be born? This is an immediate response to the Procreation Asymmetry, and providing a satisfactory defense which does not rely solely on base intuition (from hypotheticals) would better make the case for it. I attempt to provide one in this post.

My defense here isn’t very original: it starts from interests as being conditional upon existence, so that if someone exists, they may have interests in existing or not existing, but if they do not exist, they have no interests at all. This thinking has been somewhat useful to me in defending the Procreation Asymmetry without just accepting it from intuition, but I aim here to make the argument more formal. It's primarily inspired by Johann Frick’s defense of the Procreation Asymmetry in "Conditional Reasons and the Procreation Asymmetry" and "'Making People Happy, Not Making Happy People': A Defense of the Asymmetry Intuition in Population Ethics", as well as "Person-affecting views and saturating counterpart relations" by Christopher Meacham (full paper here). It's worth noting that these are fairly recent publications (2012, 2014).

The Defense

There is indeed a sort of asymmetry in the situations that can be used to defend the Procreation Asymmetry. I illustrate it this way:

Consider the above graph, and suppose an individual can exist with a positive existence (top left), exist with a negative existence (bottom left) or not exist at all (right). In the graph, the arrows represent when the individual in the given state would have a stronger overall interest in being in the other state. So, if and only if there’s an arrow which points out of the current outcome X, then X is dominated by the outcome Y the arrow points to, from the "point of view" of outcome X (or the point of view of the individuals in outcome X). If an outcome is dominated by another in this way and there's no stronger domination in the exact opposite direction, it is not stable (in a sense somewhat similar to a decision/game-theoretic one), and I claim it’s in one way worse to choose over the more strongly dominating outcome. Other outcomes may of course be impermissible to choose for other reasons.

Here are the two principles I rely on:

Comparative Interests: An outcome X is in one way worse than an outcome Y if, conditional on X, the individuals in X would have a stronger overall interest in outcome Y than in X and, conditional on Y, the individuals in Y would not have an equally or even stronger overall interest in X than in Y.

NOTE: I've added "equally or" in an edit.

Here, "individuals in X " and "individuals in Y " are perhaps underspecified, but they should be interpreted as individuals who exist or will exist in the given outcome, which is the second principle:

Interests Imply Existence: If an individual has interests (and overall interests) in (inside) a given outcome, then they exist or will exist in that outcome.

Conversely, if an individual doesn’t exist and won't come to exist in an outcome, they have no interests in the outcome. Our obligations to others may be, in this way, conditional on their existence.

Furthermore, I claim that some individuals who exist or would exist in some outcomes have an overall interest in not existing, e.g. they may prefer to not to have come to exist, or there's more suffering than happiness in their life. We can say these individuals are exactly the individuals who have negative existences in that outcome. On the other hand, I am agnostic here about the possibility that an individual who exists or would exist in an outcome can have an overall interest in existing, e.g. they may prefer to have come to exist, or there's more happiness than suffering in their life. We can say these are exactly the individuals who have positive existences in that outcome. My argument does not depend on whether or not positive existences are possible.

Here are the arguments for the two claims of the Procreation Asymmetry and each arrow (or its absence) in the graph, regarding only the interests of the individual whose existence we're considering. For readability, I copy the graph here again:

  1. If the individual would come to exist and have an overall negative existence, this means that, in that outcome, they have an overall interest in not existing. So, there is an arrow from Negative existence (bottom left) to Nonexistence. On the other hand, there's no arrow from Nonexistence to Negative Existence, because an individual who does not and will not exist has no interests at all, by Interests Imply Existence. Together and with Comparative Interests, this implies claim 1 of the Procreation Asymmetry.
  2. Nonexistent (and never existing) individuals have no interests in coming to exist, since they have no interests at all, by Interests Imply Existence. So, there is no arrow from Nonexistence (the right side of the graph) to Existence (the left side of the graph). With Comparative Interests, this implies claim 2 of the Procreation Asymmetry.
  3. Although not required to show the Procreation Asymmetry, I also claim existing individuals have an interest to be at least as well off as they are (or would be) or strictly better, so there are arrows going up in Existence, and I claim no individual has an interest in being worse off, so there are no arrows going down in Existence.
  4. By Interests Imply Existence, there are no arrows at all starting in Nonexistence.

Furthermore, those who do exist often prefer to continue to exist and may have an overall interest in continuing to exist, so ending an individual's existence may be a harm, and the weaker version of Interests Imply Existence could account for this, perhaps falling under 3. However, once they stop existing, they no longer prefer to exist.

Narrow and Wide Person-Affecting Views, Briefly

Existence can be understood in a narrow or wide way: with a narrow view, identities matter, but with a wide view, they don’t. The Nonidentity Problem is a classical illustration of the differences between these two views. Briefly, "solving" it means that if you have to choose for Alice or Bob to be born, and Alice would be better off than Bob, then you should choose for Alice to be born, even if Alice and Bob are different individuals. A narrow person-affecting view would be agnostic about whether (or reject that) it's better for Alice to be born than Bob to be born at all if they are different individuals, while wide views typically accept this.

A wide view can be applied to generalize a theory ranking consequences dealing only with the same individuals to different individual cases (with the same number of individuals) by using the principle of Anonymity:

Anonymity: If two outcomes have the same (finite) number of individuals and there's a bijection between the individuals that preserves their utilities (i.e. if A has utility u in one outcome, then A is mapped to an individual with utility u in the other outcome), then the two outcomes are equivalent.

E.g. if Alice in one outcome gets mapped to Bob in the other, they have the same wellbeing.

Examples, Transitivity and the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives

This defense is essentially pairwise comparative: it does not proceed by assigning an overall value to each outcome and then comparing these values, it directly compares pairs of outcomes. As such, it's natural to ask whether or not it's compatible with Transitivity and the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives or if it can be modified to be compatible with them.

Transitivity: If X is at least as good as Y, and Y is at least as good as Z, then X is at least good as Z. If, furthermore, X is better than Y or Y is better than Z, then X is better than Z.

Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives: The rankings of outcomes do not depend on what outcomes are possible, so if X < Y within a given set of possible outcomes (option set), then X < Y within any set of possible outcomes, and similarly with equivalence instead of the inequality.

Compatibility actually hinges upon our interpretation of "interest" in one outcome over another. We still require that an individual who does not and will not exist has no interest in existence, because they have no interests at all in the outcomes in which they never exist.

If you accept the Procreation Asymmetry and Transitivity, but are willing to give up the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives, you may find the following utilitarian approach for comparing outcomes intuitive:

“Person-affecting views and saturating counterpart relations” by Christopher Meacham (full draft here)

His approach is to measure the harm in an outcome with respect to an option set as the sum of the differences between an individual’s maximum utility in this option set and their utility in the given outcome, using 0 if they don’t exist in the given outcome, and then minimize this harm. Interests are therefore relative to the option set, with individual interests relative to the best for the individual within the option set. He then extends this approach to cases with different individuals (different identities) through “saturating counterpart relations”, effectively injective/one-to-one maps between individuals in outcomes, using both narrow and wide views of existence, and an extra minimization condition. An individual's identity matters if and only if they exist in both outcomes, and in this case, they must be mapped to themself between the two outcomes.

It also solves the Nonidentity Problem, and avoids the Repugnant Conclusion, the Absurd Conclusion and a specific principle of Antinatalism:

The Absurd Conclusion: "There can be a moral difference between worlds whose populations have the same distributions of well-being, but where the subjects live concurrently instead of consecutively." (Partfit originally, quoted from Meacham)

Antinatalism: It would be better for anyone who would come to exist with non-maximal utility to not come to exist at all, other things being equal.

In health, a view which minimizes some aggregate of disability-adjusted life years is fairly similar to Meacham's, setting the best life for each person as X years of full health, with X being the life expectancy of the Japanese (the highest of any country), and then doing some age-weighting. You could at least imagine that almost any particular person in the world could immigrate to one of the healthiest countries and live a much healthier life there (although it might be too late to live to 80+ years for many). Whether this outcome should be included in the option set depends on how we decide what's in the option set.

Otherwise, if you aren’t willing to give up the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives, but still accept the Procreation Asymmetry and Transitivity, then this leads, under another modest assumption, to the principle of Antinatalism defined above. This is because for any individual with non-maximal utility, we can imagine the same individual (or, if the Nonidentity Problem is solved, another hypothetical individual) with a higher utility, other things being equal, and that would be strictly better (say if it's always strictly better for an individual to have higher utility, other things being equal, a Pareto principle, but some reject this, e.g. some egalitarians), and by claim 2 of the Procreation Asymmetry, no better than not coming to exist at all, so by Transitivity (and the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives), not coming to exist at all would be strictly better than coming to exist with non-maximal utility. In symbols:

If A has non-maximal utility, there's some (hypothetical) B with greater utility, so

X ∪ {A} < X ∪ {B}, and since X ∪ {B} ≤ X , we have X ∪ {A} ≤ X .

This leads us to interpret interests as relative to all hypothetical outcomes, practically possible or not, with individual interests relative to the best for the individual in any hypothetical outcome. Strong negative utilitarian (including hedonistic and preference-based) views are examples.

Note that positive existences are possible in the above approaches if individuals can have an overall interest in not being dead. For example, if they would continue to accumulate goods in their lives, and these goods outweigh the bads, then continued existence means further accumulation of net good compared to death. In the DALY minimization approach, dying early is worse than continuing to live in good health.

Final remarks

Other things are rarely equal in practice, since in realistic scenarios individuals will have effects on others. This particular Antinatalism principle does not imply that we generally should not have children in practice (even considering the nonzero probability of a bad life), because there may be other reasons why having a child is good, e.g. they may have an overall positive impact on the wellbeing of others, greater than the harm to themselves, although this might mean using the child as a means to an end, which may be wrong as a deontological principle. Even if we accept the Procreation Asymmetry without accepting the Antinatalism principle, having children might also imply using them as means to ends, or not counting the risk that they'll have a bad life. There could also be reasons to have children that aren't based on consequences alone.

See Simon Knutsson's article "The 'Asymmetry' and Extinction Thought Experiments" or his paper "The world destruction argument" for responses to the objection that the Procreation Asymmetry or negative utilitarianism implies we should prefer to go extinct.