Saturday, June 02, 2007

X-Phi: Parfit's baby (help!)

Ladies and gents, a call for help.

In Wall's class, we discussed the case of Parfit's baby. The case is this:

A doctor tells a husband and wife that if they decide to have a child within the next two weeks, that child will be born with some deformity, or some problem (say, with only one leg). This deformity/problem will not make it the case that life is not worth living, but will make life more difficult than otherwise for the child. However, if they wait a month, they will have a perfectly healthy baby. The parents are too impatient, and for no good reason decide not to wait. Sure enough, a baby is born without a leg.

The questions are: 1) Are the parents blameworthy? (Yes, No, Who knows?), and 2) Does the child, many years later, have a grievance against her parents? (Yes, No, Who knows?).

I think most people will answer 1) Yes, they are blameworthy (they really should have waited to give their child the best possible future) and 2) Yes, the child does have a grievance or reason to be angry.

The problem with the second answer is that, if the parents had waited, it would not be the *same* child, but a different one. The child with one leg would not be alive if the parents had waited. But we've agreed that that child's life is still worth living, so the child herself would rank living-with-one-leg-fewer higher than not-living-at-all (and maybe all of us have reason to give this ranking than some other).

This leaves us with tough options. Do we keep our original intuitions and try to explain away the apparent problem? Do we claim that most people are mistaken when they say that the child has a grievance (and maybe lean on the indeterminacy of identity in pre-birth cases to explain the error)? Or some other option?

I would like to run an experiment with this question, and one other. This other question is intended to be structurally identical to the first, with only one major difference--the persons in the scenario have a past, and a clear identity. I could use help formulating this second question, so I'll give you what I've got so far.

It is the year 2,200. Scientists are looking at all the people who have (properly) cryogenically frozen themselves, all two of them, Jones and Smith, and are ready to defrost them. Alas, they can only defrost one at a time, through a process that lasts a year. Alas, alas, they also know that the equipment used to freeze them will soon fail, making it impossible to defrost more than one person. Looking at the frozen Jones and Smith, they see that Jones is missing a leg, while Smith is perfectly healthy and perfectly fine. Knowing that Jones' life will not go as well as Smith's, but will still be worth living, they decide to defrost Jones.

The questions are the same: 1) Are the scientists blameworthy? (Yes, No, Who Knows?) and 2) Does Jones have a grievance? (Yes, No, Who Knows?).

I suspect that in this case most will answer "Yes" to 1, but "No" to 2. That would present us with an asymmetry.

My questions to you are: 1) Are there differences in the second case that muck up this possible experiment? That is, is the second case different in more than one relevant respect (that being the pre-existence of Jones and Smith in the past, versus the "newness" of the child)? (If so, can it be adjusted or changed?) and 2) What do you have to say about these cases?


  1. Part of the intuitive force of the argument is, of course, tied up in the idea that, had the parents waited, it would not have been the *same* child. Clearly, however, our hypothetical child, when all-grown-up and angry, doesn't share this intuition (at least, not as strongly as we might). My question is, what, then, is the ground of the child's intuition that he could have had another leg had his parents waited... If confronted by their child, certainly the philosophically-savvy parents will explain that it would have been a different child, and so the one who exists really has little to complain about. But even if the child understands (and accepts) this reasoning, I doubt the child would feel any less angry...

    So I'm wondering: whence the anger? whence the intuition that (from his own perspective at least) he could have had another leg? I'm thinking that our third-party intuitions to condemn the parents have something to do with these questions insofar as, as third-parties who imaginatively put ourselves into the first-person perspective of the child, we'd probably have the same kinds of reactions (anger, resentment, etc) and whatever the source of this sympathetic response, I think it may be playing a role in our moral evaluation of the parents actions.... so its worth asking about the source of these responses and intuitions themselves...

  2. I think part of the intuitive force of the argument isn't from the identity of the affected person, but from the relation the person has to the agents in the scenario. In the case of the parents, the child's anger is in virtue of the parents thoughtlessness towards the child, not their premeditated injury to that particular child (which would be impossible of course).

    In the case of the frozen Smith and Jones, Jones of course will not object to being unfrozen rather than dying, and can further appreciate his being chosen because to the extent that it was he that was chosen instead of Smith, he can recognize care or concern in the intentions of the scientists. If, however, he learned that the scientists wanted to unfreeze him because he was lame, and they intended to use his hobbled existence to bring about misery or some kind of disutility, then he might object to their malevolence even while he endorsed his being unfrozen.

    So basically, what seems to count is the intention toward the person affected by one's actions, and when any particular individual satisfies one side of the relation, they can, in virtue of that relation, take on the appropriate sentiments commensurate with it. They need not be picked out individually since they (and all of us do) stand in relations that do not refer to us as individuals.

  3. David Shoemaker sent me a message. He would have posted it here, but he didn't feel like opening a Google account. That's fair.

    David suggested that I make the second case more symmetrical by making it more sci-fi-ish. Imagine that, many years in the future, scientists have a few complete DNA strings from persons who died a premature death many years ago. When in the lab, about to use the DNA to bring one person back from the dead (they only have the money for this one person), Smith's DNA, which includes code for only one leg, is closest at hand.

    "Hey," says one of the scientists, "shouldn't we maybe walk on over to the next room with Jones' DNA? You know, he died with perfectly healthy and normal DNA in a freak car accident. If we bring Jones back, he'll have a perfectly healthy life to look forward to."

    "Smith's life won't go as well as Jones', I agree, but I don't feel like walking over there just now. We've got Smith's DNA right here," says the other.

    "Yeah, I don't feel like walking over there either," says the first scientist, "let's just bring this guy back."

    This is a touch more symmetrical in the relevant ways. And in both cases, just a little bit of extra "umph" will get us a person who we have reason to believe has the best life prospects.

    Does this change things for you Ben and Corwin? Do you have slightly different intuitions in a case like this?

    Ben: The scientists don't stand in a particular relationship--that of parents to child--to Smith and Jones, but don't we think that they do stand in the sort of relationship that we all do to everyone? And don't we all have reason to pick that life that we have most reason to believe will go best if the choice is up to us? Regardless of our more particular relationship ties?

  4. Peter, I'd suggest that the revised case suggested by Shoemaker does indeed preserve the intuitions from the case of the parents, but I think we might be in agreement about the morally relevant feature in each case.

    I'm suggesting that one's grounds for complaint as Jones or as the disabled child is based not on what one's life might have been like (in the case of the child, and not in the case of Jones) since that clearly runs afoul of substantive theories of identity. Rather, the relation one stands in relative to the people making the morally significant choice is the common feature in Shoemaker's revision and in the case of the impatient parents.

    The impatient parents are being selfish to whatever child satisfies the description (in Kripke's sense), and when Robert Paulson (Parfit's baby has a name, his name is Robert Paulson) criticizes his parents, that criticism is justified because it turns out that it is Robert Paulson who stands in the maligned relation.

    That intuition is similar in Shoemaker's revision because the putative intention of the researchers' project is to restore a maximally good life to someone in all available respects over which the researchers have power. The researchers in the revised case have the power to give whomever stands in the "revived" relation a life that includes no disabilities, and for them to not bother to walk to the other side of the lab for their eventual patient's benefit is not an evaluation of the real persons to whom each the DNA belongs, but a failure to treat whomever their project revives with the due value we believe belongs to human beings.

    These cases are testing our intuitions about where we locate moral value, and I think it's a mistake to try to adjudicate them by appeal to the functioning of the patients. In general, we do not place any greater moral value on someone's life on the basis of its functionality. We might argue about whether or not we should, but this is to put pressure on the value of the lives of the disabled as Singer controversially does. I'm unwilling to suggest that the thing valued in any person's life is missing from the disabled person's life. We can argue that there are goods unavailable to the disabled, and even that there are goods unachievable by the disabled, but it does not follow from either of these that the value they have as human beings rests in or is diminished by functioning that they do or do not have.

  5. Ben, I was supposing that the missing leg was just a tangible way for us to understand that the baby would be less happy. I agree that we shouldn't be putting value upon function as such, so maybe it helps to think of the baby (or jones)as genetically disposed to depression.

    Peter, personal identity is one of those philosophical areas that ordinary people don't think about, but once it's explained to them that the one legged baby couldn't actually have been born with two legs, they get it. Were you thinking that their pre-coached intuitions would reflect some deeper truth here? Why not think that their intuitions are just off-base? Seems to me that neither the one legged baby nor the scientist has a legitimate grievance. Also, in Shoemaker's revised scientist example, I'd be a little worried that since the scientists are described as lazy (at least that's how I would explain their behavior) we're going to be mad at them for their character traits rather than their actions.

  6. Arthur and Ben: Predisposed to depression is good. So is spina bifida. I want something uncontroversial.

    You make a good point about laziness.

    I disagree with you about what people's intuitions are going to be with respect to Parfit's baby. One strategy for the paper is to claim that the intuitions in the second case are "better," and that they impugn the intuitions of the first case. Then the task would be to show that we make a mistake in Parfit's baby case, and try to explain why we make that mistake. The indeterminacy of identity in the baby case stands out, as does the special relationship between parents and child.

    I won't describe the scientists as lazy, I won't have them talking to one another. It will simply be pointed out that there is either a DNA string in the other room which the scientists are aware of, or that some other scientists are working on the DNA of Jones who died perfectly healthy in a car accident, but that they will be done putting the DNA together a month from now. The scientists will still decide to bring back Smith, who is pre-disposed to depression, or has spina bifida, or is missing one leg, or --insert as uncontroversial a "defect" as possible here--.

  7. It seems to me that there is no paradox. Clearly we are talking about two different people, one that actually exists with one leg and the one that would have exited in its place with two legs had the parents waited. However, it seems that the child that exists wants to be the child that would have existed had the parents waited and that the fact that she is not that child is the source of her unhappiness and grievance.

  8. I'm concerned about Shoemaker's example only because we have it stipulated in advance that we have the DNA from two entirely different people in advance. The reason I think we should focus, in part, on our intuitions regarding the 'identity' of the "defective" child and the hypothetical-better child.

    Whatver the source of the intuition (and this is indeed, I think, the important question), the child may say to himself "I could have had another leg... could have avoided depression, etc...), this differs fundamentally from the Smith/Jones case. Bringing back Smith with his 'defect', we have NO intuition that Smith himself could have been brought back without that particular defect.

    But in the case of Parfit's baby, there's at least SOME intuition (at least, the child himself may have this intution) that he himself could have been born differently.

    Only if we accept in advance that our intuitions that THIS BABY could not have been born otherwise does the situation with the scientists appear analogous. This is part of the reason I think we need to pay some attention to the grown-up-defective-child's source of anger. He certainly has the intuition that he could have had another leg (or not had depression, etc.). But Smith does not think to himself, "If only they had resurrected Jones instead of Me, I would not have this depression."

    So I'm thinking that, at least from the Child's perspective, his intutions will be radically different from Smith's intutions about their respective caes. The child will have some intution that he could have been born better. Smith will not.

    I don't know that, in the end, this will make a substantive philosophical difference: perhaps the Child's intutions are just wrong. But it seems that we have to take a strong stance on personal identity in order to say that our responses to the two situations should be the same. In any case, its worth exploring, I think, the ground of the child's intutions that he could have been born less-defectively...

  9. I have to say, I'm with the commenter who suggested that this is just a case where a few minutes reflection dispenses with the intuition. Once we really internalize the idea that the possible children are distinct, the idea that the child has a grievance falls away quite readily. That the actual anger of a child in such circumstances might not strikes me as a basically uninteresting psychological fact.

  10. "Once we really internalize the idea that the possible children are distinct, the idea that the child has a grievance falls away quite readily."

    One might wonder, though, why the 'possible children' concept must be temporally limited. E.g., would a child at one year of age who somehow acquires gangrene in one leg, and who (unfortunately) has parents too impatient to go to a doctor and request treatment that would save the leg (leaving their only option to be amputating the limb themselves), not have a grievance against the parents at a future date?

    Granted, the latter action is quite illegal, and the whole approach I raise can be challenged on grounds of whether a fetus is a person that can have post facto claim rights, etc.

    But my point is simply that on the 'possible children' model, all anyone ever needs to do in order to exculpate his/herself from any wrongdoing whatsoever is to claim that the aggrieved person is not the same person as he/she who wasn't aggrieved. This seems to be specious reasoning (at least to me).

    In fact, it jettisons the possibility of any claim-right to redress whatsoever, insofar as one can never claim that one was due a benefit, for one isn't the same 'possible person' as he/she who did receive the benefit.

    Rightness/wrongness thus becomes an empty concept insofar as one has already defined each and every action (beneficial or harmful) as categorically necessary to the existence of the person in question.