In a post last week, I asked:
How can it be okay to remain childless but not okay to have children and treat them badly—given that the children themselves would presumably prefer being treated badly to not being born at all?
There are a lot of comments there worth reading, including one from Ryan Yin that rephrased the problem so clearly that I want to highlight it here.
First, though, some answers that I think don’t work. Cos asked:
Why is it so puzzling that we value the preferences of people who exist over the hypothetical preferences of people who might’ve existed but don’t?
Sierra Black drew the same distinction between people who exist and those who don’t, though she phrased it in terms of rights:
Children aren’t possessions or art projects, they’re people. Before you have a child, you’re a person with a certain right to control what happens to your body. After the child is born, that child has some of the same rights you do, including the right not to be mistreated.
Ryan Yin (after agreeing with Sierra!) put his finger on exactly why I find her answer (and others like it) so unsatifying— though I’m not sure he intended his observation to be used in exactly this way:
Suppose you were thinking of having a child. Suppose that once the child is born, the child would wish he’d never been born (and prefer that to killing himself), and further that this is entirely predictable. By the logic given above, you aren’t allowed to care about this fact until after the child is born (at which point there’s nothing to be done). This seems like a very odd way of valuing the preferences of others.
Exactly! If (as Cos says) it’s perfectly reasonable not to value a person’s preferences until after s/he’s born, or (as Sierra says) people don’t acquire rights until after they’re born, then there can be no objection to creating a miserable life. I might be dooming my child to a life of misery, but that’s okay because s/he hasn’t been born yet and therefore has no rights and no preferences I choose to care about.
Surely this can’t be right. And if it’s not, then the Cos/Sierra story can’t be exactly right.