01
Sep
09

do you benefit someone by making them exist

You’re thinking about having a kid. Will this benefit the kid?

This phrasing of the question makes its awkwardness apparent. The issue is that benefiting usually requires a comparison between two states. Imagine that I could give you a hundred dollars.  If I give it to you, you are better than if I didn’t. The situation in which I act is better than the status quo.

So, it seems like bringing someone into this world does not benefit them because not giving them this benefit does not leave them worse off (because they don’t exist). Take the hundred dollar example again. You’ve got a hundred dollars coming to you, but I intercept the money and throw it away. I’ve just harmed you because you would be one hundred dollars richer if I hadn’t acted. My action moves you from a more beneficial status quo to a less beneficial one in which I take the money. But now go back to having a kid. Pretend that you are going to have a kid and then decide not to. It seems that you don’t make the kid worse off by doing this, because who would you be harming? There is no person yet. And so, if not having a kid harms no one, then its hard to see how having one would benefit someone. Usually these go together.

But what about death? If I save someone’s life, this is usually considered a benefit to them, but if harm and benefit are symmetrical, then it’s hard to see how to make sense of this intuition. Pretend that I was about to save your life, but decide not to and you die. Under the argument above, this does not harm you, because to have harmed you, you have to be worse off than if I had saved you. But you aren’t worse off due to my laziness. You don’t exist.

Derek Parfit thinks that since saving someone from death is a benefit, bring to life should be one too.

I’m not sure what I think…hopefully I’ll write about this again when I know what’s going on.

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