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?