Ethics & the Enviornment 6.2 (2001) 114-118
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Child versus Childmaker: Future Persons and Present Duties in Ethics and the Law
Child versus Childmaker: Future Persons and Present Duties in Ethics and the Law. Melinda A. Roberts. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. Pp. 235. ISBN 0-8476-8901-8 (Paperback)
This book will provide the reader with a systematic examination of some of the most difficult philosophical issues involved in procreation, and most notably those raised by wrongful life claims and the non-identity problem. Can an action without which a given child would not even exist be simultaneously said to harm this very child? This is the key question addressed in this book. It is relevant not only to bioethicists, but also to those concerned with the possibility of harming members of future generations in general. The author proceeds with remarkable clarity in three steps. First, she unveils the core intuition and unfolds the key implications of what is standardly referred to as the person-affecting view. Second, she focuses on the now famous non-identity problem that is supposed to raise a serious challenge to the plausibility of the person-affecting view. Third, wrongful life and human cloning are taken as illustrations of the problem.
The starting point is thus the person-affecting or personalist view. The author argues that what is at stake in such a view is not only a concern for [End Page 114] persons (as opposed to plants or stones), but also for definite persons. The core intuition that "what is bad must be bad for someone" (Derek Parfit) implies a comparison between two states of the same person. As she puts it, "the pairwise comparisons of worlds appealed to within personalism are always in respect of particular people" (6). This does not necessarily imply consequentialism, contrary to what Roberts claims (e.g., 1), at least if we understand the latter, for example, as Philip Pettit does. 1 Moreover, one may very well argue that what is at the heart of the person-affecting intuition is a sense that an action needs to be assessed on the basis of its effect on persons, which would not necessarily imply that such effects require a comparison between two states of the same person. Nevertheless, the extent to which a person-affecting conception--as defined by Roberts--will be in trouble depends on the extent to which comparisons between the same person's states cannot operate. This is precisely where to introduce the idea of a non-identity context, that is, a situation in which not committing an allegedly harmful act would or could also have meant the nonexistence of the allegedly harmed person. For example, had a medical doctor not committed this preconceptional diagnostic mistake (or a father taken a slower or faster means of transportation to come back home), this child would or could not have existed. Can we thus say that the practitioner harmed the child who turned out to be heavily handicapped due, for example, to a genetically transmissible disease (or that the father harmed his child by leaving him with a very polluted environment due to his use of big cars as a means of transportation)?
One key feature of Roberts's approach is that she restricts the scope of the non-identity problem to cases where not committing the allegedly harmful action would have made it impossible for this child to have existed ("two-alternative" cases) (26, 319, 325). This entails that whenever this very child could still have come to existence in the allegedly harmful action's absence, whatever the likelihood of such a coming to existence, we would fall outside a non-identity context ("three-alternative" cases) (27; 94-95). What matters to Roberts is whether or not the same child could have been born better than he is, not whether he would, as a matter of fact, have been born at all. The consequence is that in cases where the same child could have been born, say, unhandicapped, the author remains...