“Against Parental Choice of Future Children”: A Guest Post for Applied Ethics April by Anca Gheaus

[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[1]. The only way to honour moral equality[2]is 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[3].

[1]    It may be welcome in other sense; but I suspect that whatever is desirable in the unchosen aspects of the parent-child relationship is spoiled by parental choice of future child.

[2]    Without excessively disturbing the status quo.

[3]    A previous version of this argument can be found in my article “Parental genetic shaping and parental environmental shaping”, The Philosophical Quarterly 67(267):263–281.

14 Replies to ““Against Parental Choice of Future Children”: A Guest Post for Applied Ethics April by Anca Gheaus

  1. “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”

    This is interesting. It seems like a defence of leveling-down in a broadly deontological context. Let us grant arguendo that we should be able to make both a- and b-choices. The claim here is that if someone is unable to, other participant(s) in that relationship should be unable to, or at least there is something significantly morally valuable from an egalitarian perspective in them being unable to.

    My question is, given that leveling-down is usually taken as a cost to a theory or at least something to be explained away, why should we adopt it here?

    [I am assuming we are only taking the theoretical equality as a point, not potential implications for their interests. For instance, if we were taking potential implications for their interests, you might think that, if at least one person in a relationship is likely to have her/his interests satisfied with respect to features of the other person, they are more likely to endorse and put emotional labor *into* the relationship, thus making it more likely to succeed. That would be an interest-based reason to want one, as opposed to none, of the participants to have preferred characteristics in the other(s) and, thus, to endorse this inequality.]

  2. Yes, I see how Arranged marriage 2 can be seen as a case of leveling down compared to Arranged marriage 1: in Am1 at least one future spouse gets to exercise their freedom to choose whether, and whom, to marry. I have two thoughts about this. The first is to bite the bullet and say yes, it’s a case of leveling down but we should adopt my claim that Am2 is (in one respect!) better than Am1 because leveling down rarely involves merely the waste of value, or failures to abide by deontological constraints. You can level down as a way to create relational goods – solidarity, or inclusion, or community. In this case, perhaps it’s easier to start life with a spouse who didn’t have either more or less choice than you did, because then you’re in it together on equal terms with respect to how you got in the relationship; this makes it easier for you to become a cooperating team. (Of course, as you note, there can be other interests of either one spouse or both spouses that may be advanced if one, rather than none, has a choice.) Moreover, I think you can sometimes level down in order to express respect for somebody: for instance, if I know you’re abstaining from sweets and we dine together I may decide to skip desert out of respect for you (and not merely because I worry you may suffer seeing me eat cake.) The second response – and your comment makes me see this more clearly – is that perhaps there is no leveling down from Am2 to Am1 in terms of respecting deontological constraints. I’m not sure that you have a right to choose the conditions of entering a relationship with a moral equal who is denied the choice. (We do this all the time with children, indeed, but the point of this post is to figure out whether we do so permissibly.) Perhaps the right is to be given – if, and to the extent to which, this is possible – as much choice as your relationship partner. Because taking more freedom to choose than your relationship partner has is incompatible with you relating to each other as moral equals, Does this make sense?

  3. Correction: I mixed up Am1 and Am2 in the first sentence of my reply. The issue is whether there is leveling down from Am2 to Am1.

  4. Thanks for the response Anca!

    – In terms of (concessive) response 1: yes, I think it’s a sensible thing to say that in one respect. But then you get in the hard place of trying to weigh up different respects. (I’m inclined to think practically it is pretty important that it might be more successful a relationship than one where no party has any ability to choose the characteristics of the other(s), for instance.) All we have, if we accept this leveling down, is one pro tanto consideration and, in the abstract, it seems too little to draw any all things considered conclusions in such a way that they would support the second phase of your argument.

    – In terms of the (non-consessive) response 2: I’m not sure why you brought in rights-talk, although I assume that was meant to be a rhetorical flourish for whether it is *permissible* to enter an intimate relationship on unequal terms. I’m not sure how that avoids leveling down, but I read you as saying that leveling down is just not an objection in deontological contexts (or that deontologists should not be concerned about leveling down). Two wrongs can make (more of) a right than one wrong because there is equality with respect to the wrongs, at least when the wrongs are of a certain type for intimate relationships. This seems suspicious to me, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument.

    Here, I suspect our intuitions might just diverge. While we might agree that a- and b-choices are especially important choices for intimate relationships, real-world relationships basically never have equal choice (perhaps that condemns almost all real-world relationships, but that seems implausible to me), often for benign reasons. So, for instance, often one partner has more opportunities than other (in which case they don’t approach the relationship on a par) or one has more pressure on them than the other (e.g. from family member or their community or even financial, in which case again they don’t approach the relationship on a par). If you adopt ‘Perhaps the right is to be given – if, and to the extent to which, this is possible – as much choice as your relationship partner’, you’ll have to do a lot of work to specify which kinds of choice limitations are invalidating and which are not. I’m inclined to think it isn’t possible to specify the relevant thresholds–or at least not in principled or non-arbitrary ways.

    [PS I haven’t figured out how to get my WordPress login to work for commenting. Where do you log in? If anyone could help me, that would be great!]

  5. ^PS Obviously, I realize that doing so would be way too much to ask in a post of this size! I am just expressing a general worry about the project, even given more space.

  6. Many thanks for the follow-up, Kian!

    The reasoning starts from the premise that we do have a moral right to decide whether or not to have relationships at all (i.e. to make a-choices), and also a right to veto a relationship partner (i.e. b-choices.) In the response to you, I contemplated the possibility that we don’t in fact have such general moral rights, but merely the right to be symmetrically placed to our relationship partners vis-a-vis these choices. If so, when both people are denied a- and/or b- choices there may be no wrong involved. It’s not the case that two wrongs make (more of) a right than one wrong – there’s simply no wrong involved.

    I think this sentence was misleading: “I’m not sure that you have a right to choose the conditions of entering a relationship with a moral equal who is denied the choice.”; I should have written “I’m not sure you have a general right to make a-choices and b-choices.” Then, I don’t see why this dooms most real-world relationships. Leaving aside children’s relationships with adults, aren’t people in liberal societies usually having the same freedom to decide whether or not and with whom to have relationships? And in the few cases when sociability is imposed – having siblings, in prison, or in the army – both parties are denied a say. The (a) and (b) conditions, as I see them, do not require that parties experience the exact same conditions (economic, psychological, social etc.) that can generate incentives to form relationships and/or accept particular partners. I don’t think *equal* choice-conditions are necessary to honour the ideal of equal relationships I have in mind but whatever conditions are needed to make the a- or b- choice either free for both parties or unfree for both parties. Sometimes conditions excessively constrain, for one party only, the choice of having (or not) a partner and of accepting a particular partner. But this seems a feature rather than a bug of my view – people (including in the academia) tend to be critical of such relationships.

    (If I get your point on arranged marriage well: I concede that in Am2 the relationship may work better than in Am1, because the guy has a choice of bride; but, *for the very same reason*, it may also go worse than in Am1 – he may make a bad choice. At least if the alternative is not a random assignment of spouse by, say, a computer, but the bride’s and groom’s families making the choice. More generally, perhaps we’re be better at choosing relationship partners for ourselves than for others, but not in cases when one party lacks the freedom to choose or reject us – because then the relationship-seeker is cut off from an important source of information. In any case, as you noticed in your first comment, this is not where the action of my post is.)

  7. This is a really interesting post, and an illuminating exchange with you and Kian.

    I think, though, that AM1/2 are crucially disanalogous with the decision to choose children’s future traits. In AM1/2 there is an injustice because society/family *denies* choices to the children – both a- and b-type choices. Choices those kids could have later in life, if marriages are only allowed when they reach the age of majority. And I see the further injustice/disrespect in AM2, that society/the family chooses to afford one gender more choices than the other.

    But choosing traits isn’t like choosing one’s partner. For many reasons, but here, the most important: society/the family is not unjustly denying kids rights to choose their traits. Rather, that’s a fact of nature (for some pre-creation interventions, it’s not even metaphysically possible for children to choose their own traits). So there’s no asymmetrical injustice in terms of societal/familial denial of choice.

    I think we need a case where group A due to nature is unable to make choice X, while group B is potentially able to make choice X. And ask whether that asymmetry gives us reason to restrict group B’s choice. For example, unconscious individuals are unable to make choices about their life. Does that give us pro tanto reason to deny choices about life to conscious individuals? An affirmative answer would be very radical indeed.

  8. Owen, thanks. Yes, I see that if I modify the Am2 case a bit, and assume the woman is temporarily unconscious and so in no position to make a choice of spouse, she will have – once she recovers – one complaint less than in the unmodified Am2. She won’t be able to say: “You could have given me, too, a choice – as you gave to my groom – but you didn’t.” Similarly, if parents decided their future child will have brown eyes, the child won’t have the specific complaint that they denied her the choice of eye colour. That’s a choice the child couldn’t have made. However, both in modified Am2 and in parental choice of future child, there remains the asymmetry complaint. I don’t know exactly how much weight to attach to this complaint, but I think it has *some* weight. You may disagree. Before you do, however, consider one more case – involving only adults. Suppose you’re the citizen of a country who takes in refugees, and who has a scheme that places each refugee to live with a host-citizen until they settle in the new society. Refugees can’t possibly specify what kind of host they’d prefer – they don’t even know the language and, assume, there’s nobody to translate. Isn’t there at least a defeatable reason, having to do with the moral equality of the participants in the future relationships, to ask future hosts to also refrain from specifying what kind of refugee they’d prefer to host?

    Talking of people who cannot give consent at the time when a choice is made for them, but who will in the future gain, or regain, the typical capacities of adults: Matthew Clayton has a general account of why it’s impermissible to intentionally shape one’s children – or anyone temporarily lacking the capacity to give authoritative consent – in ways that reflect particular (and controversial) conceptions of the good.

  9. I may be too late to raise this but perhaps it will be food for future thoughts, Anca. Lovely post, but it has me thinking uncomfortably of Jean Harvey’s notion of “interactive power,” the power to take the initiative in and direct the course of a relationship. Parents have all the interactive power, of course, as you so well demonstrate above. When I consider the relationships of your arguments to Harvey’s, it is not clear to me how easy it is to justify the claim that most likely, there is no duty to enter into a parenting relationship. This seems most easily justified in highly ideal contexts in which starting a family is an entirely unfettered and highly individualized choice to adopt a child which will presumably be cared for excellently if one doesn’t adopt. But if a not-yet-adopted newborn and a potentially capable could-be-parent have equal moral status (equally weighty interests), and the contexts in which the newborn’s needs are not met are the opposite of ideal, then why does the a-choice remain firmly in the supererogatory category? Perhaps I am mis-reading you. Stimulating post, thanks for writing it!

  10. Thanks, Kate! Children can’t make (authoritative) a-choices. I think this means there is something desirable about people having kids by accident; but having the choice of whether or not to (try to) parent is too important to both prospective parents and prospective children to make it all things considered undesirable – or impermissible. So I can accommodate a duty to parent/adopt, in spite of the regrettable lack of children’s a-choices. In fact, my view is particularly hospitable to such a duty! Assuming the duty is enforceable, this denies the prospective parent, too, an a-choice. (Think of a situation where reasons supporting an a-choice for would-be parents are defeated; like your case in which the orphan’s fate would be otherwise bleak, and which therefore looks like a rescue situation.)

    I don’t know Harvey’s work, but shall look it up – thank you!

  11. Hi Anca, wonderful post!
    I have two clarificatory questions:
    First, you object to “attempts to determine certain features of one’s future child”, including the selection of one’s partner to, presumably, gene therapy, genetic enhancement, etc. I wonder if your objection overgeneralizes to other, and apparently unproblematic, reproductive choices, e.g., about, say, when the child is born, where she is born&raised, etc. Does “certain features” include, for the lack of a better term, such more extrinsic features? If not, why not? We can imagine a variant of AM2 where the groom can specify the bride’s “extrinsic” features, nationality, place of birth, age(?), or when to marry, etc., and the bride cannot—and it is would be no less morally problematic, it seems to me, than the original AM2. But it certainly is perfectly fine for a couple to choose when and where to have child (and we can even hold the identity of the fetus constant—e.g., imagine that prospective parents can make such specific choices with the help of IVF).
    Second, I am not sure that I understand the basis for the (young) child’s entitlement to b-choices. Is the idea that because she will, if things go well, in the future grow into someone who is entitled to such choices, so she is presently entitled to them as well? But normally the fact that someone will (in all likelihood) acquire certain right in the future does not imply that she presently has the right. Am I missing something here?

  12. Thank you PB! First question: The choices with respect to which I think moral equals should be symmetrically situated are: (a) the choice of whether to do relationships and (b) a veto on particular partners. What it means to “choose a partner”, and maybe even to “veto a partner” is open to interpretation. But I can’t see how choosing the time or place where you start the relationship is part of any plausible interpretation of what it is to choose/veto a partner. Maybe you think that the reasons I give for a-type and b-type of symmetry generalises to a third kind of symmetry, which includes matters of timing/location etc. If so, can you please tell me more about this?

    Second question: The thought is that moral equals have presumptive entitlement to be in relationships in which either both parties have a-choices and/or b-choices or no party has the respective choice. (This is not exactly how the post puts it, but see exchange with Kian.) In the case of children there are defeating reasons against children’s entitlement to a-type symmetry: Children lack the moral power to decide not to be parented by anyone, and adults’ interest in having a choice whether or not to parent is, in general, so weighty that it defeats the reasons for symmetry. (However, as I told Kate above, I do find something desirable about situations in which people have children by accident precisely because neither party choses to have a relationship. But a moral duty to only have children by accident in order to reserve a-symmetry would generally be too morally expensive.) However, there are no defeating reasons against children’s entitlement to b-type symmetry. A number of different people could be a child’s parent, and it is possible for people to parent perfectly well without having chosen their future child. So, the fact that newborns cannot choose their parent, and children up to a certain age cannot make a morally authoritative choice of parent, is a reason to think that prospective parents lack a right to make b-choices with respect to their future children. In other words, children are not entitled to b-choices but to symmetry with respect to b-choices – hence, to parents who don’t make b-choices. Again, there may be situations when there are defeating reasons against b-type symmetry.

  13. Hi Anca

    Thanks for the clarifications! (and sorry for the delay…)
    There are a lot interesting points in your reply that I have to think about, but for now let me just clarify my first question: I had in mind cases where parents choose when to have children for economic or personal reasons (say, a couple might seek to have a pig child—a child born in the year of the pig, then they would avoid having a dog child or a mouse child who would otherwise be born). Similar for choosing where the child is born. To me all these seem like b-choices too, whether or not the choice is identity-determining. But they do not seem morally problematic.
    If they are *not* b-choice, then perhaps I was suggesting along the lines you suggested. It could be a third type of choice. Perhaps, then, we can distinguish, very crudely, two kinds of reproductive choice:
    1) choices(/vetos) based on specific intrinsic/necessary features a child has (I think this is closer to what you have in mind and find problematic)
    2) choices(/vetos) based on specific extrinsic/contingent features a child has.
    (the second can be further distinguished into two kinds, depending whether or not those features are *merely* extrinsic/contingent—that is, whether or not they also bear on the intrinsic/necessary features)
    Then my original concern was that we can imagine a cases where the groom can have asymmetrical power to for the second type of choice, and it would still seem morally problematic, but its counterpart in parental choices (e.g., about when the child is born) does not seem to be morally problematic. This, by itself, does not undermine your argument, if the argument is based on another type of choice (those based on intrinsic features), but it does, I think, call into question the analogy between arranged marriage and selective reproduction, and makes one wonder why the difference between 1) and 2) makes such a difference in selective reproduction, but not in arranged marriage. I hope this makes sense.

  14. Hi PB, thanks! I’ll have to think more, but one one thought is that the reasons parents have for making choices re, say, timing, matter a great deal in this case. If they decide to have a child 3 years from now for economic reasons, this doesn’t seem objectionable wrt b-symmetry. If they want to have a child 3 years from now because they think this is when the – say – musical children will be born (on account of how stars align, for instance), this does disrupt b-symmetry, But, as I said, I’ll have to think more, especially about the distinction between (1) and (2).

    PS Who are you? 🙂

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