What’s Your Intuition – Part III

Please consider the following three cases and then take the following poll:

Case A (‘A’ for Abe): Abe poisons his son, Larry. The poison causes his son to develop prostate cancer at the age of 40 and die soon afterwards. Had Abe not poisoned Larry, Larry would have lived until the ripe old age of 80. Despite being poisoned, Larry does lead a good life up to the age of forty, which is when he is diagnosed with prostate cancer. He dies two months later. Had he not been poisoned, the quality of Larry’s life would have been no better or worse on average, but it would have been twice as long. Abe poisons his son Larry so as to prevent five others from poisoning their sons. (His example will demonstrate to these others the folly in poisoning one's son.) So, although one consequence of his poisoning his son is that his son lives for only 40 years instead of 80 years, another consequence is that he thereby prevents five other men from poisoning their sons. As a result, the sons of these five men live until 80 rather than dying of prostate cancer at the age of 40. Everything else is equal, and I have not left out any morally relevant details.

Case B (‘B’ for Bert): Bert wants very badly to have a biological son. Unfortunately, though, he has a rare disease, where none of his Y-chromosome-carrying sperm can swim. Since only his X-chromosome-carrying sperm can swim, he can conceive only daughters. But a new pill has just become available on the black market that can help him get what he wants. The pill causes a genetic mutation in the sperm, converting all X-chromosome-carrying sperm into non-swimmers and all Y-chromosome-carrying sperm into swimmers. An unfortunate side-effect of this mutation is that it causes the sons that he thereby conceives to develop prostate cancer at the age of 40 and then die soon afterwards. Bert is so eager to have a biological son that he gladly takes the pill. Consequently, he gives birth to a son named Matthew. Matthew leads a good life up to the age of forty, which is when he is diagnosed with prostate cancer. He dies two months later. Had Larry chosen instead to conceive without taking the pill, he would have conceived a daughter, whom he would have named Nicole. Nicole would have lived to the ripe old age of 80. The quality of her life would have been, on average, no better or worse than Matthew’s, but it would have been twice as long. Everything else is equal, and I have not left out any morally relevant details.

Case C (‘C’ for Carl): Carl has the same disease that Bert does. Carl also takes the new pill that causes the same genetic mutation that’s described above. He does so in order to prevent five other men from taking the pill. (His example will demonstrate to these others the folly in taking the pill.) So, although one consequence of his taking the pill is that he conceives a son who lives until 40 instead of a daughter who would have lived until 80, another consequence is that he thereby prevents five other men from taking the pill. As a result, these five men have daughters who live until 80 rather than sons who would have all died of prostate cancer at the age of 40. Everything else is equal, and I have not left out any morally relevant details.

Please take the following poll. Answer according to what your intuitions are, not necessarily according to what your favorite moral theory implies. Please don’t say in the comments what your response was or why responded as you did. I don’t want this to influence other people’s responses.

7 Replies to “What’s Your Intuition – Part III

  1. Doug,
    I have a question about case B. Does Bert know that the pill has these effects? That he knows this is suggested, but not entailed, by the sentence ‘Bert is so eager to have a biological son that he gladly takes the pill’.

  2. I am inclined to think that Abe, Bert, and Carl all acted impermissibly in these three cases.
    However, judgments of permissibility are not the only sorts of moral judgments that we are capable of making! Although all three acted impermissibly, there are also important moral distinctions that can be drawn between them.
    In particular, it seems to me that what Abe did was very significantly worse than what Bert did, while was Bert did was very slightly worse than what Carl did.
    What Abe did was monstrous almost beyond belief. He murdered his own son — thus compounding the crime of murder with the ultimate betrayal of his parental obligations. The only good feature of his act was that it prevented five other such monstrous crimes from being committed by others; but as all right-thinking deontologists know, this good feature is not in any way a justification (or even an excuse) for crimes of this sort.
    What Bert did is a lot less bad. He deliberately brought into existence a child who has a life that is a lot less good than another child whom he might have created. This is wrong, but it is not murder, and it is not a betrayal of any pre-existing parental obligations.
    What Carl did is in turn a little bit less bad than what Bert did. Carl’s act is just like Bert’s, except that it has the additional good feature that it prevents five other bad acts of this sort being committed by others. This good feature does slightly mitigate the act’s badness — although (as with the monstrous crime of murdering one’s own child) it does not amount to a full-blown justification (or excuse) for the act.

  3. Ralph and everyone else,
    I ask that you respect the request that I made in the post above: “Please don’t say in the comments what your response was or why responded as you did. I don’t want this to influence other people’s responses.”
    I’ll have another post on what the poll results are and what, if anything, I think that those results establish. At that time, you can say whatever you want (within reason).

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