[What follows is a guest post by Anca Gheaus, of Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, our first contender for the prestigious Applied Ethics April PEA Soup Award.]
Consider these alternative stories involving two characters, a girl and a boy. They will marry and love each other. Both stories have a happy ending! Before happiness, there are some hurdles:
Arranged Marriage 1: The girl is married off to the boy, whom she never met before, without being asked whether or not she wants to marry. The boy has a bit more choice (it’s a sexist world), because he may decide whether to marry or not, but, once he decides he will, he has no choice over the identity of the bride.
The story is disturbing because, in general, it’s wrong to (a) deny people a choice of whether or not to enter an intimate relationship and (b) deny people a vetoof partners in intimate relationships.
Arranged Marriage 2: The girl’s plight is the same as above, but now the boy has even more choice than in the first story; unlike the bride, he may specify some of his preferred characteristics of his future spouse.
Which of the two cases of arranged marriages is morally worse? In some ways, the first, because there the girl is denied an a-choice and both are denied a b-choice, while in the second it’s only the girl who is denied both an a-choice and a b-choice. Yet, I contend that at least in one sense the second story is more objectionable: in Arranged marriage 2, the two parties are even more asymmetrically placed with respect to their entry into an intimate relationship. But the girl and the boy are moral equals in the sense that their interests have the same weight. Arranged marriage 2involves the higher violation of their moral equality.
If you agree with this assessment, perhaps I can convince you of a pro tanto, but powerful objection to attempts to determine certain features of one’s future child. There are different ways in which to try this, some more and some less reliable: by selecting one’s procreative partner based on heritable features that one wishes to see in the child; by using gene therapy; by selecting which embryo to have implanted; or by specifying the features of the newborn that one is willing to adopt.
A basic assumption I am making is that both the parent and the child have full moral status and hence are moral equals in the sense specified above: their interests have the same weight. In another sense they aren’t equals: some kinds of paternalistic behaviour towards the child, but not towards the parent, is morally required. One sort of paternalistic behaviour that is due to the child is to give her parents – that is, authority figures. This is to say that denying her an a-choice is not morally objectionable. Most likely, there is no general duty to become a parent, so it seems right that parents should have an a-choice. The asymmetry between parent and child with respect to a-choices is fine.
What about b-choices? Some children – babies – cannot make them. Others – infants and young children – are presumably able to indicate their preferred parent if given a choice, but lack the normative authority to do so. They are too young to take moral responsibility for such a decision, so others may (and ought to) display paternalism towards them in this respect, too. Older children and adolescents, however, may have a legitimate claim to b-choices – indeed, some argue that older children and adolescents have a right to “divorce” their parents and seek new ones. Hopefully, all children will eventually reach a stage where they are entitled to b-choices.
Where does this leave us with respect to the asymmetry in b-choices between prospective parents and newborns? Newborns – to repeat – cannot make b-choices and, even if they could, the choice wouldn’t be authoritative. However, newborns are not morally static creatures – like, for instance, pets – but, with some luck, they will evolve into individuals with protected b-choices. Indeed, it is most likely in virtue of this feature that all children – unlike pets perhaps, but like someone in a temporary coma – have full moral status and are, in one sense, adults’ moral equals. This indicates that all children are entitled to relationships characterised by symmetry with respect to b-choices.
If newborns could, counterfactually, make authoritative b-choices – if, say, metempsychosis was a thing and we could choose in whose care to re-embody in the next life – this would be a nice practice through which to enact and express the parties’ equal moral status. But metempsychosis isn’t a thing; newborns cannot chose their parents, which is regrettable in one sense, namely with respect to moral equality as defined here. The only way to honour moral equalityis by having parents abstain from making b-choices concerning their future children, unless they have paternalistic (and weighty) reasons to do so.
I promised a pro tanto objection against selecting one’s future child. What’s this objection worth in practice? First, note that I conflated the selection of one possible individual child over another on the one hand and determining particular features of one and the same child on the other hand. I don’t think this is a fatal objection to my argument. Second, I don’t believe there is a generalmoral indiction against shaping children – before as well as after birth. But my view weights against the widespread belief that it’s (prospective) parents who have the moral authority to determine how children ought to, or even may, be shaped. Moreover, the range of (prospective) children’s features that are up for permissible shaping is limited: propensity to good health and to respect others’ rights are easy to justify. Eye colour isn’t.