The Puzzle of Inadvisable Parenthood

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).

20 Replies to “The Puzzle of Inadvisable Parenthood

  1. Ralph,
    that’s interesting and I do find the solution appealing. Two comments still:
    1. Isn’t the pragmatics story available for pretty much everyone – even for those who don’t accept your semantics? So, I might think that the ‘ought not’ in the given sentence refers to a normative relation between the event of Max being brought to existence and Karen at the relevant time. This account too would make it true that Karen ought not have brought Max into existence.
    Alternatively, I might think that ‘ought not’ expresses my attitude of disagreeing with the plans in which Max is brought about.
    On both of these stories too, one might say that, even though the relevant sentence is true (or one one is in principle committed to express), saying that sentence would conversationally implicate further practical conclusions about Max that are neither true or expressable.
    2. I have couple of worries about how the pragmatics would work in this case. So, I thought that we interpret an utterance to have conversational implicatures if it literally understood would violate the norms of conversation. I take it that this is why you say that the claim would be irrelevant because in practice nothing could do anything about the past. But, even if it is irrelevant in the practical sense it is a highly informative and controversial ethical claim when literally read. Thus, it is hard to think why it would violate the conversational maxims of informationality and so on. Maybe, all practically irrelevant ought-claims do but that would be slightly odd.
    Also, shouldn’t conversational implicatures be cancellable? So, one should be able to say that ‘Max ought not to have been brought into existence I don’t mean that we should not treat him well or anything’ and everything ought to be fine. And, yet somehow the claim still seems weird.

  2. 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
    Ralph, very interesting. Puzzling though. The fact is, there is something Karen can do now (after having Max) such that, were she to do it, it would not have been the case that she shouldn’t have brought Max into existence then. And it does not require a backtracking counterfactual. The argument against having a child assumes (1).
    1. If K were to have a child C at t, then K and C would have a bad life L- (or a worse life than she would otherwise have had).
    But (1) is consistent with (2),
    2. It is possible that [K has a child C at t and K and C have a good life L+].
    So there is world open to K after t at which she and Max have L+. Granted, it is a remote world. But if K were actualize such a world, then it would not have been the case that she ought not to have C at t, right? After all, she and C would have had L+. So it looks like your conclusion (that K ought not to have brought C into existence) at t depends on it being true that K does not actualize a world possible for her, though of course, remote. I’m not sure why that world is not counted among the genuine possibilities in coming to your conclusion.

  3. Ralph,
    I’m not yet convinced that either “Karen ought not to have brought Max into existence” or “Max ought not to have been brought into existence” are true. Isn’t it more plausible to think that the true version is something else – something like “Karen ought not to have brought a child into existence at that point in her life (given the circumstances and likely outcomes, etc.)”? Of course, it was performing this forbidden action that led to Max’s existence; indeed, what we seem to have is one action under multiple descriptions. I see no obstacle to saying that the action is permissible under some descriptions and forbidden under others.
    An analogy. Suppose that an action, A, which I performed, violated Chris’s rights but had a side effect of giving pleasure to Joe. (Assume moreover that Joe is a good guy and deserves pleasure.) It would be true to say that “I ought not to have violated Chris’s rights,” but it doesn’t seem to follow from this that one could truly say “I ought not to have given pleasure to Joe.” The latter claim gets it wrong by focusing on the wrong description of the action—even though, of course, it was one and the same action that violated Chris’s rights and gave pleasure to Joe. Can’t we say the same thing in Max’s case?
    Perhaps the closest one can get to the original claim (which you think is true and I don’t) is something like this: “Karen ought not to have brought Max into existence under these circumstances. The only special thing about this case is that these were, of course, the only circumstances under which Max could have been brought into existence. That’s why we get a bit confused. But I don’t think that special feature of the case really changes anything, or somehow makes true a claim (“Max ought not to have been brought into existence”) that is otherwise clearly false.

  4. Allow me to say, with respect, that it seems to me you’re complicating the analysis somewhat.
    There is no need to distinguish between evaluations at different periods of time. I believe that the two propositions (that Karen should not have had Max and that we must value Max’s existence after he is born) can be held true both prospectively and retrospectively (i.e., that we should agree they are both true whether considering them before or after Max is born – and further that that in no way bears on whether, for instance, we should have tried to prevent Karen getting pregnant or assisted her in getting an abortion).
    Your approach appears to me to attempt to evade the apparent conflict between the propositions by minimizing their impact on one another at different times. (The proposition about valuing Max has no force before he is born, so it does not conflict with the other at that early time; the proposition about it being better for him not to have been born is “practically irrelevant” after he is born, and so offers no practical contradiction with the other at that later time.) This is clever but unnecessary. (And, I suspect, it fails anyway. Whether or not the anti-Max proposition is “practically irrelevant” after the fact, it may still be true; if there is an apparent incompatibility between it and the pro-Max proposition but we cannot practically act on the anti-Max proposition, that does not prove the two are not contradictory, it only proves we are trapped into promoting the less desirable of two alternatives.)
    Instead of employing this diachronic comparison in which the import of each proposition appears to change depending on whether it refers to the past or the future, the dilemma can be resolved much more simply while still holding that both propositions can be true at the same time, either before or after Max is born. It is true that each one is “practically irrelevant” in one of those time periods, but the propositions in question still hold their evaluative force: before Max is born, we still know what it means to say “we must cherish Max [if and when he is born, notwithstanding that he hasn’t been yet]”, and we feel the full force of that moral claim; after Max is born, we still know what it means to say “it would have been better if Max had not been born [if we could have prevented it, notwithstanding that we couldn’t]”, and we feel the full force of that claim. Neither is invalidated by its “practical irrelevancy”, and the apparent contradiction between them is not resolved by invoking that practical question.
    We can proceed instead by assuming that each proposition applies with equal force at all times. As you pointed out, there are different sets of circumstances in life with different potential sequellae, and as they unfold temporally some possible avenues become closed off yet we still must make choices between those that remain open. But the fact that a pathway has been closed – or still remains open – does not change the value of that pathway (it only changes the facts about whether we can pursue it or not). What is true regarding the nature of any given life circumstance and its possible consequences remains true about them for all time. (The proposition that “It is good for Washington to cross the Delaware because that would enable a surprise attack on the Hessians.” is always true even though it is no longer a meaningful potential course of events.)
    So, at the time that it was an open question whether Karen would have Max, it was certainly true that it would be better, all things considered, for her not to have him. At that same time also, it would be true, if we stopped to think about it, that, if she did have Max, then we would be obligated to care for him.
    After she makes her choice and becomes committed to having Max, it is still true that it would have been better for her not to have had him. Nothing has changed about this proposition or its truth value except the tense. At that intermediate time, also, it is still true that, when she does have Max, then we will be obligated to care for him. Nothing has changed about this proposition except it is not longer hypothetical.
    And finally, after she has Max, it is still true that it would have been better
    for her not to have had him. Again, nothing has changed at all about this proposition (not even the tense, since it remains in the unchangeable past). And, now that Max is here, it is still true that, now that she does have Max, we are obligated to care for him. Again nothing has changed about this proposition, except of course for the tense.
    It should be obvious from this phrasing that the propositions are not contradictory at any stage of the sequence. We are merely saying that the overall best life pathway for Karen would be one that avoids having Max at all – and that, after she is committed to some other one that includes Max, the best, or obligatory, pathway involves caring for him. It is nothing more than saying that we are sometimes obligated to embrace situations we would not have chosen if given a completely free range of options – but this is in no way confusing or contradictory, any more than is saying “I wish I had never broken my arm, but I’m glad everyone has been so sympathetic”, or “I wish I hadn’t had to drop out of medical school to take over the family farm, but I’m trying to make the best of it.” We can arrive at this perspective without erecting a mechanism that views alternative choices as changing their values depending on time period. In fact, we could have arrived at it, in its entirety, either before or after Karen had committed to having Max, without changing the evaluated desirability of any of the potential pathways: “With an open choice whether to get pregnant or not, I can see that (a) it’s better overall for me not to get pregnant and also avoid having to care for a child, and (b) if I do get pregnant anyway it will then be better for me to care for that child, notwithstanding that it would have been even better to have chosen (a) and not had him; Now that I have had a child and have no choice of (a), my only pathways include the child, of which (b) caring for the child is best, notwithstanding that it would have been even better to have chosen (a) when I could and not have had him.”
    In defense of this perspective, I suggest that the following statement: “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.” is wrong. Bad choices should be avoided antecedently, but not necessarily undone retroactively. Sometimes you are bound by bad choices (as in making a hasty promise you then must keep). Sometimes it is rational to commit to bad choices (as when the cost of undoing them would be too high, or when the profit from changing one’s mind mid-stream would be less than that of sticking with a suboptimal original choice). Sometimes bad choices lead you into situations you cannot morally undo (among which, giving birth to an unwanted baby may rank highly). If these claims are true, then the fact that it would have been better not to have had Max does not mean it would be better, going forward, to try to get rid of Max. And if so, the perspective I offer still serves to resolve the contradiction using nothing more than the common-sense meanings of “would have been better” and “is better”.

  5. Urging a Different Approach:
    I am struck by the fact that, throughout this discussion – including in my long comment above – the notion of “better” is freely used without any attempt to clarify “better by whom“, or “better under what standard“. In cases the notion of “better for Karen” is explicitly invoked without comment.
    This is a mistake that should be rectified. Doing so simplifies the analysis even further.
    Any evaluative proposition hinges on a standard of comparison. Whenever we say a given choice, or circumstance, or outcome of events is “good” or “bad”, “better” or “worse”, we must be speaking from a particular evaluative standpoint. Even if we claim our standard of evaluation is absolute or universal – a claim that commonly invites mockery – we have to assign the value of the thing in question to some entity. (“Better” for whom?)
    In this case, we are considering events involving Karen alone (whether to have a baby) and both Karen and Max (their life together). Obviously, questions involving only Karen must be evaluated by the standard of potential benefits to Karen; questions involving both parties must be evaluated in terms of the impact on each, with the understanding that that impact may be different for each.
    And from there, the analysis almost writes itself.
    Undoubtedly, not having a baby would be better for Karen. After she has had the baby, she would have been better off both before and now if she had not had it; she would be better off (ignoring legal concerns) in the future if she no longer had it. From Max’s perspective, however, being here certainly beats almost any alternative.
    The theoretical complications that can be invoked are considerable, but we can gloss over them here. Difficulties of analysis notwithstanding, most thinkers, even committed consequentialists, would agree, among other things, that: Karen has no obligation to create a new life simply because life would be good for that entity after it was created; after Max is born, the value (to him) of his life will be so highly positive that it will almost certainly outweigh the negative value imposed on Karen in having to care for him; even if the sum total of good (for Max) and bad (for Karen) in Max’s being born and therefore a burden to Karen turns out to be negative, Karen is almost certainly not justified in killing Max after he is born to save or improve her own life; outside observers owe a duty of at least some beneficial treatment to Max whether or not they would have wanted him to be born.
    Given this – and acknowledging that it is possible to imagine combinations of circumstances that might shake out differently – the results almost certainly would be: it would probably be bad for Karen to have a baby under the wrong circumstances and it is regrettable if she does, for that reason; after she does have a baby, it is a continual net negative to Karen to have to raise and care for him, and give up other projects she might otherwise have pursued in order to do so, and it is regrettable that she must do so, for that reason; after Max is born, it is a highly positive good to him to be alive, and it is worth rejoicing with him that he is alive, for that reason. Saying that it is regrettable that Karen has Max to take care of, and good that Max is alive, is not a contradiction. It is merely the common-sensical awareness that the same thing can be good and bad to different people simultaneously. As for our apparent psychological contradiction – feeling happy and sad at the same time – that too is common, and common-sensical: we can be happy for one person, and sad for another, in regard of the same events.
    We should recognize that it is bad for Karen to have a baby in the given situation, and feel regret that she does; we should also recognize that babies are, in and of themselves, good things, and feel happy that Max is alive. Max’s being born is bad for Karen, but good for Max, and we can recognize, and feel the impact of, both those facts.

  6. Cool problem. But I wonder if we could analyze in a way I find slightly more straightforward and doesn’t depend (I don’t think) on any semantic commitments about “ought”. (I think, though, I’m latching on to something in your solution.) We’re not really saying “Karen ought not to have a child,” in the case as it is presented. (“Karen ought not to have a child” has the feel of the ought of subjective rationality, but given the information presented, it seems to me better to understand the “ought” objectively.) We’re saying something in the ballpark of “Karen ought to have child x rather than child y,” where y=Max, x=the child she would have had had she waited ten years (call this child “Maxine”). (Or maybe “If Karen is to have a child, she ought to have child x rather than child y,” something like that.) But one can sensibly deny “Max ought not to have been brought into existence” while affirming that “Karen ought to have had Maxine rather than Max,” something that we would surely want to affirm, given the facts as presented. Only if Max’s life were somehow not worth living, or something, would we accept the claim that he ought not to have been brought into existence.

  7. I have trouble with the casually dispatched justification for claiming that Karen ought not to have a child. I think that’s a more complicated argument than you’re making it, and those complications have direct bearing on the commitments you have (one has) after Max is born.
    Consider another case: when Karen is 14, her mother gives birth to a son, Rex, and then becomes unable to care for him — maybe she’s terminally ill, maybe she goes crazy and is institutionalized, but this condition is in any case totally unforeseen and when she conceived Rex, no one would have considered having him a bad idea. Say that in the absence of other caretakers, Karen must take on most of the maternal obligations towards her baby brother. All the claims we hold in the case you speak of about Karen’s readiness for motherhood are still true: it would be better if she didn’t have to be a mother. In this case, though, her being a mother (acting in loco parentis) is a deliberate choice — she could refuse, fairly, and have the child put into foster care, which from his point of view might be a negative — even though it entails all the same behaviors, commitments, sacrifices, etc. that caring for her own biological child would. It is a choice, in addition, motivated in part (at least) by Rex’s existence.
    Now, how does Karen’s relationship with Rex differ from her relationship with Max? Karen’s unfitness to be a mother to Rex does not entail that Rex should not exist; there is nothing about her unfitness that would lead us to claim after the fact that it would have been better if Rex had not been born. (It’s a tragic situation, sure, but I don’t see the same compulsion towards a normative judgment.) What is it, by contrast, in her unfitness that leads us to claim that Max should not have been born?

  8. Dang. I should clear up my previous comment a bit. What I *meant* to say was that we appear, in the suggestion that “Max ought not to have been brought into existence,” to be judging this against a certain contrast class: bringing Max into existence, or bringing no one into existence. But in the claim “Karen ought not to have a child” we appear to be judging it against another contrast class: bringing Max into existence, or bringing Maxine into existence. Hence, we can accept that Max should have been brought into existence rather than no one, but also accept that Maxine should have been brought into existence rather than Max. Sorry for the confusion.

  9. I’ll throw a worry out. The incompatible claims are supposed to be (something like) the following:
    1. It’s true that Karen ought not to have Max as of 1994.
    2. It’s false that Karen ought not to have had Max as of 2008.
    Suppose we accept Adam’s story according to which ‘Max’ is non-referring before Max is born, but is a placeholder for some description some individual may later satisfy. Later, as of 2008, ‘Max’ refers to Max. 1 and 2 are then consistent.
    We then explain away the intuition (that they conflict) in something like the following manner: The description that ‘Max’ was a placeholder for, as of 1994, was unhappy. ‘Max’ selected the first individual to be born of Karen, likely to be neglected, to fail first-grade and to never graduate junior high, likely to endorse Kantianism, etc. ‘Max’ as of 2008 refers to Max (and he is a dapper, handsome Consequentialist). It’s perfectly reasonable to have the Max, but an awful violation of duty to have an individual satifying the nasty description.

  10. Thank you so much for all those comments! I’m afraid that I won’t have time to answer them all right now. I’ll just make a few selective comments instead.
    A. Jussi —
    1. You’re completely right that the pragmatic story that I sketched is available to all theorists, and not just to me. The point is this: given the semantics that I endorse, I have to appeal to a pragmatic story at this point. If you endorse a view like Geach’s (that ‘ought not’ stands for a relation between an agent, an act-type, and a time), then you could deny that there is any way of interpreting ‘Max ought not to have been brought into existence’ that makes it true (because it is certainly not true that Max was under any obligation to avoid being brought into existence!)
    2. I do think that the conversational implicature is cancellable. ‘Max ought not to have been brought into existence, but that is only because his mother was so young at the time, and should have waited longer before conceiving a child — we love Max now, and couldn’t even imagine the world without him.’ That sounds perfectly fine to me!
    I guess that I should have emphasized that the statement ‘Max ought not to have been brought into existence’ has another defect besides being practically irrelevant. (After all, the statement ‘Karen ought not to have had a child while she was so young’ is equally practically irrelevant now.) It’s also potentially misleading, since it fails give to the real reason why Max ought not to have been brought into existence (Karen’s youth), and so creates the suspicion that there may be something bad or undesirable about *Max* that explains why he ought not to have been brought into existence.
    B. Mike —
    Your comment raises some very delicate issues about what it means for a possibility to be (as I put it) “practically available” to an agent at a particular time. But I think that these issues aren’t really relevant to this puzzle. If you like, we can just stipulate that there are *no* relevant worlds in which Max exists where Max and Karen don’t have a much worse life than Karen and the child whom she would have had later would do if she had waited longer before conceiving a child. So I think we can just stipulate that we’re dealing with a case where it is true that Karen ought not to have had a child so young.
    C. Troy —
    Surely we can’t say that an act is “permissible under one description but impermissible under another”! (Imagine asking your adviser what to do, and your adviser replying to you, “Under one description you ought to do it, under another description you ought not to.” That would be most useless advice that anyone could give you…)
    On the contrary, I think that it’s intuitively clear that if an agent ought not to have done any act of a certain general type T, it follows that they ought not to have done any act that belongs to a sub-species of that more general type T.
    But by hypothesis, Karen ought not to have done any act of the general type *having a child at the age of 14*. So I think it just follows that she ought not to have done any act of the more specific sub-species *having Max at the age of 14*. So the approach that you’re suggesting just doesn’t seem viable to me.
    D. Dale —
    In a way, I agree with you that there is always a relevant contrast class of possibilities for normative and evaluative statements. In the case of the statements that we’re focusing on, we’re contrasting (i) the possibilities (in the relevant domain) in which Karen has a child at the age of 14, and (ii) the possibilities (in the relevant domain) in which Karen doesn’t have a child at the age of 14 but waits until significantly later in life.
    But unlike you, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be possible for the participants in a conversation to be focusing on the very same contrast class when they evaluate the statement ‘Max ought not to have been brought into existence’. So I don’t see how you can ensure that there cannot be any conversational context in which that statement is true.

    Sorry, I’m feeling too tired now to continue. I’ll try to respond to Keith and Christian and the curious nonphilosopher later. Thanks again for all your comments!

  11. Hi Ralph –
    I certainly didn’t want to suggest that all conversational contexts would make “Max ought not to have been brought into existence” false. Indeed, it seems to me that we would assent to “Max ought not to have been brought into existence rather than Maxine.” I think that’s true. So this is one contrast in which it comes out true, but I don’t see any intuitive difficulty in accepting it. So basically I was trying to suggest that the only context in which “Max ought not to have been brought into existence” seems objectionable is one in which the sentence is understood as “Max ought not to have been brought into existence rather than no one.” But on the story as presented, that’s not the proper understanding of “Karen ought not to have a child.” Upshot: either it’s the same contrast, and the second claim is not objectionable, or it’s a different contrast, and the denial of the second claim is not inconsistent with accepting the first.

  12. I wonder if people would accept the same argumentative form in a different context. E.g. The Iraq war. We ought not have started a war in Iraq, but now that we have started a war, we should continue the war. (So as not to allow Iraq to fall apart in civil war and have thousands of Iraqis killing each other. It’s our mess to clean up.)

  13. Thanks for those comments, Dale and Wayne! Very briefly —
    1. Dale. It sounds as if we basically agree. (Still, I don’t think that we have to suppose that if Karen hadn’t had Max, she would have conceived a different child Maxine. Perhaps Karen would have had a wonderful but childless life — she would have been a devoted aunt and teacher of many adoring young people, say — or perhaps she would have adopted a child without bringing that child into existence. The truth value of the statements that we’re interested in could still be as you describe.)
    2. Wayne. Yes, I completely agree with you that the same structure arises in your case too. Some philosophers, however, would insist that there is something quite special about bringing people into existence. But I’m rather sceptical about the claim that these cases are quite so special…)

  14. I think that we have a further reason for discomfort with the statement that Max should not have been born, although I can’t articulate it as well as I’d like. Our normal expectation would be that Karen will generally be happy for the choice she made after Max is born. Were she somehow offered the choice to go back in time and put her abstinence-only education into practice, she would decline, given that she now loves Max and that any child she might have later in life would not be Max. Our normal expectation, in other words, is that when parents have children their preferences change so that they now strongly prefer states of affairs in which they have these particular children over states of affairs in which they don’t, even if at some earlier point they were very unhappy to hear that a baby was coming. It is not always this way with parents, but it often is, and we find the exceptions disturbing. To say that it would be better if Max had not been born seems to me to have the conversational if not the logical implication that Karen has reason to wish she could undo her decision, whereas most of us would tend to think rather less of her as a parent if she in fact felt that way (even if we would expect her to regret the fact that having Max was incompatible with fulfilling other ambitions).
    None of this poses a problem for the original analysis, of course.

  15. Thanks, Dale!
    Do you really think that it’s correct or appropriate for Karen, after Max is born, to have a definite preference for the possibilities in which Max exists over the possibilities in which he doesn’t?
    I have to say that I’m not convinced. I think it’s more natural for Karen to refuse even to think about or consider the possibilities in which Max doesn’t exist. These possibilities are now irrelevant, and even considering them — let alone positively evaluating them — might seem in a way disloyal to Max. (This is partly because Karen is now always evaluating possibilities partly in terms of how good they are *for Max*, and so it is only possibilities in which Max exists that have any interest or relevance for her.)
    But who’s to say what the world would have been like if she hadn’t had Max? Perhaps it would have been better overall? I doubt that Karen should now be convinced that this is not the case. I find it easier to accept that she should just dismiss this counterfactual as irritatingly irrelevant.

  16. Hi Ralph,
    I think I think it is correct, yes. I’m not a parent, so I larely have to rely on observations and reports of others here. But my impression is that parents tend to be glad that they had the children they had, even if they initially were hoping not to conceive—they are positively glad, as opposed to considering the matter settled and not worth thinking about. And I think that we generally tend to expect and approve of this reaction from parents. Just in general, it seems to me that we reflect on all sorts of choices that we made at earlier points in our lives and ask ourselves whether we are happy with the choice we made, would choose differently if we had to do it again, and so on—the practical irrelevance of these reflections notwithstanding.

  17. Dale — You’re surely right about this. That’s what a lot of us do. In embracing the contingent facts and the past decisions that have made us what we are, we often think that it was *better* or *preferable* that things turned out the way they did.
    I suspect, however, that we often kid ourselves about this. We want to avoid being consumed by fruitless regret, and so we tend to adopt the rosy view that everything was all really for the best.
    Of course I agree that it’s appropriate for Karen to be *glad* that Max was brought into existence when he was. What I’m sceptical about is whether it’s really appropriate for Karen, even after Max’s birth, to regard it as *better* that he was brought into existence when he was. I’m inclined to think that if she takes this view, she is misperceiving the evaluative facts in this area!

  18. Ralph,
    I didn’t mean to contest the point that in regarding it as better that Max was born when he was, Karen was making a mistake. I just think of this as an area where we expect parents to go wrong in their evaluative judgments in a certain way. I wasn’t trying to argue that it was really better for Max to have been born when he was, but only to offer a further point to help explain our discomfort with anyone’s actually making the statements you listed. I meant to add to what you said about pragmatics, in other words. The statements contradict something that we expect Karen, at least, to believe, and they are potentially hurtful to her.
    Sorry to have wasted so many electrons on this small point… I have a general interest in questions about adaptive preferences.

  19. It’s appropriate for Karen to feel glad that it happened, but it would be a mistake for her to think it was better…
    If you’re right, this is a new kind of counterexample to buck-passing.

  20. I am probably missing something, but I have the following issues: Let us assume that x (Max being born) ought not to have happened. It seems that saying that x ought not to have happened is to say that it would be better if –x (Max not being born) had happened. If this is so, then it seems that we are obligated to bring about –x by eliminating x. It also seems that there is a paradox inherent in this issue. If a person ought not to be born if that person’s life can be better if born at some other time, or location, or socio economic level, then no one should be born because it is possible to imagine anyone’s life being better off by adding one unit of what makes life good to the existing life. Maybe the problem is to determine at what point a life becomes (not) worth living and who is to decide this. Does Max’s opinion count?

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