At a conference in Santa Barbara, California, that I went to recently, David Velleman gave a very interesting talk that focused on the following puzzle.
Suppose that Karen, a 14-year old girl, decides to conceive a child. Having a child at such a young age will make life very hard for Karen, and for her child as well: in general, Karen will have a much better life if she delays having a child for another 10 years or so; and the child whom she would have 10 years later would also have a much better life than any child whom she conceives today. So we might accept the statement that she ought not to have a child at her age.
But then Karen’s child is born; she names him Max. Max is now a member of the community, and we are committed to treating him with concern and respect. So we are now most reluctant to accept the statement that Max ought not to have been brought into existence. But we know that if Karen had not had a child at the age of 14, Max would not have been brought into existence.
The puzzle is, Aren’t our attitudes towards these two statements inconsistent? Yet surely they could both be the appropriate attitudes for us to have towards Karen’s (and Max’s) situation!
I shan’t try to outline Velleman’s intriguing solution to this puzzle here. Instead, I shall simply outline the solution that I’m inclined to favour (below the fold), in order to see what PEA Soup readers think of this.
The solution to the puzzle that I favour arises directly from my approach to the semantics of normative and evaluative terms (as outlined in my book, The Nature of Normativity, chaps. 4 and 5).
According to my approach, all normative and evaluative statements express a certain sort of comparison of possibilities. There is a relevant domain of possibilities, and when we say that a certain state of affairs S ought to be the case, we are implicitly singling out a "favoured" subset of that domain of possibilities, and saying that S is the case in all members of that favoured subset.
For what I call the "practical ‘ought’", the relevant domain is the set of possibilities that are practically available to the relevant agent at the relevant time. Let us assume that the sort of ‘ought’ that occurs in this puzzle is the practical ‘ought’.
Clearly, the relevant domain of possibilities that are practically available to Karen at the time before she conceives a child includes possibilities in which she does not have a child. So it could very well be that all the possibilities in the "favoured" subset of this domain are possibilities in which she does not have a child. So it really was true to say then that Karen ought not to have a child.
Even after Max is born, we can shift our attention back to the domain of possibilities that were available to Karen at that earlier time. Indeed, I think that this is the normal function of the construction ‘ought to have’ in English. So I claim that it really is true now that Karen ought not to have brought Max into existence. (I don’t regard it as relevant that at that earlier time, no one could
have thought of the possibility in question as the possibility of Max’s being brought into existence. If Karen ought not to have brought any child into existence at that time, then a fortiori she ought not to have brought Max into existence then.)
Indeed, so long as it is clear that we are still using the "practical ‘ought’ that is indexed to the situation of Karen at that earlier time, it is even true to say that Max ought not to have been brought into existence. However, since we are no longer explicitly mentioning Karen in this statement, it is a bit harder to hear the statement as indexed to Karen’s situation at that time; we might be tempted to hear it as conveying something patently false, such as that Max ought to have ensured that he wasn’t brought into existence.
So, on my view, the statement "Karen ought not to have brought Max into existence" (and even "Max ought not to have been brought into existence") is true, when understood in the right way. We are now reluctant to accept this statement, not because it is false, but because it has other defects. First, the statement, though true, is now practically irrelevant. The only possibilities that are practically available to us now are possibilities in which Max exists. So Max’s existence is a necessary condition of everything that we now ought to do, and of all the attitudes that we now ought to have (e.g., we ought to try to ensure that Max lives a long and happy life, and we certainly can’t do that unless he exists). To dwell on the fact that Karen ought not to have brought Max into existence might distract us from this crucial fact.
Indeed, the statement might suggest something that would be both false and morally offensive. In many cases, when someone did something in the past that they ought not to have done, they ought now to try as much as possible to "annul" or "undo" the effects of what they did — to make things as much as possible like how things would have been had they not done what they ought not to have done. But clearly, to try to do this in Max’s case would involve ignoring Max or making him "disappear" somehow — which would obviously not be what we ought to do at all….
Anyway, this is how I would try to solve the puzzle. The second statement ("Karen ought not to have brought Max into existence") is not strictly speaking false, if it is understood in the right way; its defects are not semantic, but pragmatic (e.g. it is irrelevant, and potentially misleading in a way that makes it rude and hurtful).