Today in my Metaphysics seminar we discussed Derek Parfit’s “Non-Identity Problem.” It’s a neat problem–here’s what I hope is a faithful version of that problem.
A 14-year-old girl is told by medical professionals that if she has a child before her 18th birthday, the child will have a 75% chance of being born with a debilitating disease (dd), but that the child’s life will still be worth living (the dd will not be so bad that it burdens her with little or no quality of life). On the other hand, if she has a child after her 18th birthday, there is a 0% chance that her child will be born with a dd, and consequently her child will likely have a much better quality of life. Soon after receiving this information the 14-year-old girl has consensual unprotected sex (with a 14-year-old male, say, to avoid issues of genuine consent) and becomes pregnant and nine months later has a child with a dd. Was it immoral of the girl, knowing the risks, to have a child before her 18th birthday?
Most people think: yes. At any rate, I’m inclined to say ‘yes.’ Under the circumstances, the morally right thing for the girl to do was wait until her 18th birthday. But I’m also inclined to accept the following two assumptions, each of which strikes me as plausible:
Explanatory Assumption: The girl’s act is morally wrong because it harms her child.
Analysis Assumption: P harms P2 by X-ing only if P2 would have been better off if P had not X-ed. (If P’s X-ing in no way detracts from P2’s well-being, then P’s x-ing has done P2 no harm.)
But it seems that I cannot coherently believe that (i) the girl acted immorally by having a child before her 18th birthday, (ii) EA, and (iii) AA. Why not?
If we accept AA, then the girl cannot be said to have harmed the child born with a dd, since it is not true that that child would have been better off had the girl waited until her 18th birthday. Rather, that girl would not have existed.
So if we accept AA, then we must reject EA. But if we reject EA, we need a different explanation of why the girl’s decision was immoral. Alternatively, we could keep EA, and reject AA. But AA seems really solid. Alternatively, we could keep EA and AA, and reject the claim that the girl’s decision was immoral.
Which option should we choose?