Terrifying moral dilemmas

A regular interlocutor and occasional sparring partner over at MercatorNet asked for my opinion as an ethicist on a difficult moral dilemma: should couples who are, or suspect they are, genetically predisposed to terminal illness or other serious disease avoid having children?

For me these questions hit close to home. It is not difficult to imagine having children with serious illnesses or disabilities, though it is undoubtedly more salient for people who have witnessed and experienced the same in their families for generations.

Difficult cases such as these seem overwhelming when considered in isolation. It does indeed appear prudent and reasonable to avoid having children in order to avoid certain or highly probable disease.

However, ethics forces us to think not only of the outcomes, but of the principles behind an action. This is reasonable in part because our ability to assess outcomes is heavily constrained. For example, how do we correctly weigh the value of a life lived for thirty years, cut short by illness?
Even in a strictly consequentialist sense, we are not equipped to predict what medical advances or discoveries may come in the future.

In terms of the principles behind the action: at first glance, simply avoiding having children does not appear to be as bad as, say, actively killing people in order to root out genetic faults or variables either in utero or in vitro. The harm done is not to the non-existent offspring (assuming non-abortifacient contraceptive methods or alternatively NFP methods).

The harm done is to the marriage, and to the otherwise-would-be parents themselves. The nature of the harm or error is multifaceted and not obvious. It ranges from the simple harm of missing out on the fulfillment and enrichment that offspring provide, to the perhaps more ‘existential’ harm of adopting a worldview in which one is able and morally required to act with certitude and control in regard to circumstances and outcomes that are generally speaking beyond both our knowledge and our true control.

However, this last point broaches on terrain typically regarded as ‘religious’ and not encouraged in public debate. But I would say nonetheless that if the purpose of life is to avoid suffering and delay death, then perhaps such actions are a noble sacrifice. But if the purpose of our life is more than that, or better yet, the context of our life is broader than suffering and death, then we may have hope that such painful moral dilemmas are not as closed and complete as they appear.

I think the melancholic temperament is well-suited to ethics because it searches always for the principle or ideal behind an action. Melancholics are not good with ‘exceptional circumstances’ or arbitrary redrawing of boundaries. If we decide as a society that it would be wrong for children with certain disabilities to not be born, then an ethicist should (quite rightly) start to look for the operative principle behind such a conclusion.

The melancholics are, I think, merely more sensitive than most to the principles that exert constant albeit imperfect influence on all humans. That is why the eugenic fantasies may begin on ‘safe’ territory with the killing of severely disabled infants or the execution of the very worst serial criminals, but they tend to end with the elimination of those unlikely to achieve good university GPAs, and the culling of people with minor impulses toward rebellion or unconventional behaviour.

6 thoughts on “Terrifying moral dilemmas

  1. The history of eugenics is one of abuse and murder, but eugenics need not be evil; its original goals were benevolent: a reduction in suffering with benefits for future generations. Would you concede that a change in population genetics toward better health, intelligence, morality, or whatever society values, is a desirable outcome? If it were attainable through morally acceptable means, would you support it?

    For many people, there is no need for non-abortifacent contraceptives, as an embryo is not a person, and so no harm can be done to it in a moral sense.

    That aside, for what it’s worth, prospective parents with a possibility of passing on a serious genetic disease should not have children. Or more humanely, the state should fund a round of IVF with PGD screening to allow them both to have a child and to be certain he does not suffer the disease.


  2. That escalated quickly. Posts flew and topics diverged before I got a chance to collect my thoughts. So I’m going to raise some diverse points.

    Eugenics is not a modern phenomenon. It had already happened, and was happening, by the time Lewis wrote Abolition of Man (quoted in the follow up post). Humans have been trying to breed undesirable traits out of themselves for as long as, well, agriculture. That doesn’t mean we should be wary of wide-ranging eugenic-flavoured schemes, but we should realise that a golden age, where there were no grand plans to make society better by excising certain parts, never existed.

    Genocide may result from the Slippery Slope of selective breeding, but so may any number of other consequences, including ‘not much at all’. And the longer the chain of causation, the less likely the most alarming outcome will be. Slippery slope is itself an attempt at a consequentialist argument; common, gripping, but out of place when you’re trying to argue the principle of something.

    It may be more instructive to examine what differentiates prudence from eugenics from genocide. Is it scope of intent? Is it the scope of effect? Is it ability to compel others? I’ll leave that question to the philosophers.

    This paragraph in particular provoked some reflection by myself and my wife:

    “The harm done is to the marriage, and to the otherwise-would-be parents themselves. The nature of the harm or error is multifaceted and not obvious. It ranges from the simple harm of missing out on the fulfillment and enrichment that offspring provide, to the perhaps more ‘existential’ harm of adopting a worldview in which one is able and morally required to act with certitude and control in regard to circumstances and outcomes that are generally speaking beyond both our knowledge and our true control.”

    Ultimately, my strong reaction was self-centered on the insecurity surrounding a continuing choice to be child-free. A simple fear of missing out. I understand what a tragedy it would be to want a child but be compelled to choose otherwise – which I think is what you had in mind above. At the same time, there are plenty of ways to undermine a marriage. And having children – able-bodied or otherwise – when you know you really don’t want to seems like a better marriage-killer. Which brings me to my last thought, aimed less at your post and more at the essence of my doubt:

    Is marriage pointless without children? No. Historically, marriage has been about strategic alliances. (Children – for the ruling class, anyway – about succession.) Double your assets! Unemployment insurance! A pro bono auditor! What’s not to like? Even in these modern times the Family Law deals with property as well as children. The take-home is that while children are a large part of marriage, they are not a mandatory part.

    To return to topic: Should couples genetically predisposed to illness avoid having children? No. Nor should they be compelled to breed.

    • Thanks dtcwee.
      I was going to do a new post in response, but I think I’ll save some of the points for a future article instead. In the meantime, I have to admit that despite having a child, and finding great enjoyment and challenge in that aspect of life, I was not wildly enthusiastic about having children in the first place. I believed that I would warm to it eventually, and that prediction has been realised. So in a somewhat philanthropic sense, I would like others to know (perhaps men in particular) that it is not a prerequisite to feel that one is ‘ready’ or deeply desirous of having offspring.

      Nonetheless, I realise that people’s lives are complex and difficult, and as you conclude, compulsion in procreation would be as inappropriate as compulsion in marriage. On the ethical side of things, there are a number of areas in life in which we may realise that something is objectively good and desirable in principle but not in fact. I have met people who, for example, seem to enjoy their jobs and some who even find immense satisfaction in their employment, as though it were a vocation or calling that gave meaning to their whole lives. I do not have that. If I did, I would be able to enjoy that particular form of fulfillment, and I’m pleased to be able to acknowledge that without feeling I am a failure or somehow culpable for being unable to achieve it.

      On a slight tangent, I’m not exactly thrilled with the ‘marriage is for procreation’ line that has emerged as one of the main objections to same-sex marriage. Not sure if you’ve come across it, but I think it’s a partial truth that’s been seized upon by opponents of same-sex marriage, and will ultimately cause more problems if it becomes entrenched. I agree with you that marriage has value apart from procreation.

      Anyhow, back to eugenics. The problem as I see it is not so much a slippery slope in the sense that ‘A is good, B is okay, but C is bad; and if we accept A we will invariably end up with C’. Rather it is an in-principle objection to treating other human beings as our creations. That it resembles a slippery slope in many arguments is perhaps because many people seem to have trouble grasping or recognising the problem with the principle in its most subtle form, and hence more extreme or obvious applications of the principle are presented.

      On the other hand, even though it is an in-principle problem, like many such problems we can live with it quite happily until the actual slippery slope develops. Eg. corruption is wrong in principle, but we can tolerate small amounts of it. However, corruption tends to escalate, either in terms of individuals becoming more greedy over time, or more individuals becoming corrupt over time, or both.

      Likewise, eugenics and the underlying attempt to control and improve our offspring to the point that they become more like our own creations is wrong in principle, but is more tolerable when it consists of, say, enrolling them optimistically in tennis and piano classes, than when it consists in utilising PGD to try to select embryos with specific genetic traits.

      We tend to emphasise large-scale eugenic dystopias, but small scale examples can be just as disturbing. Imagine a friend or relative explaining how their latest child was selected for genetic markers that increase the likelihood of pro-social tendencies with diminished risk of introversion and idiosyncratic behaviour!

  3. Perhaps the answer to why we find small-time eugenics (slightly) more tolerable than big-picture eugenics has to do with a precursor question, ‘What are children?’ Seriously, if they’re not our creations, then what are they?

    If they’re gifts from God, are they then chattel? If so, then I could put my hypothetical toddler on the smartphone line, maximising ROI and teaching them valuable entrepreneurial skills by example.

    Are they, as Whitney Houston put it, our ‘future’, and thereby a lightning rod for our unrealised dreams? If so, then it would make sense to tinker with their chemistry – no matter the cost – so that even though they were – by your example – a douchebag with ADHD, they would be the perfect douchebag with all the ADHD tools they needed for success.

    But you’re the ethicist, so, What are children?

    Just please … no Kahlil Gibran.

    • In the Nicene Creed there’s a bit that says of the second person of the Trinity “begotten, not made”. It’s a distinction that disappears in the etymology, but is supposed to signify that the second person is not subordinate to the first, is not something willed into being, not an intended product but an equal of like kind.

      This applies equally well, I think, to the parent-child relationship. Children are ‘begotten’ not made or created in the sense in which we intentionally and willfully craft an object that is then subordinate to us. Various forms of reproductive technology and the promise of genetic engineering risk turning them from essentially immature wards who are nonetheless equals, into objects of our own pride and control. We can, as children, come to appreciate sincere attempts by our parents to equip us well for adult life. The same may not be said of attempts by our parents to live vicariously through us, or to manipulate us like extensions of their property.

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