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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Philosophers and Family Values: “Repro-normativity” as a contested norm in academia

This summer, I had the pleasure of writing a response to Punishing Family Status by Jennifer Collins, Ethan Leib, and Dan Markel (appearing soon in BU Law review with a reply). In the course of our e-mailing back and forth, “Coleibkel” introduced me to the exquisitely bizarre neologism, “repronormativity,” which apparently denotes the belief that the raising of children is normatively desirable. Discovering that I have repronormative beliefs was like Monsieur Jourdain’s discovery that he had been speaking prose all of his life without knowing it. Repronormativity, like "bionormativity" or “cognonormativity” (my own neologisms signifying the belief in the intrinsic value of life or consciousness, respectively) seemed too obvious to worthy of a special term. Assuming that you positively value your own life, you ought to acknowledge that conferring life on others confers something of value. (And, if you do not value your life, you really ought to kill yourself to leave more room for the rest of us). Alternatively, if you regard value as the result of human choice (i.e., each person legitimately values whatever they happen to choose), then conferring life on someone is a good turn, because a human cannot make choices, even the choice of suicide, unless he or she exists. Conferring existence on others, then, is objectively good whether one’s master value is autonomy or welfare, because more humans means (ceteris paribus, of course) more autonomy and more welfare.

So, of course, I’m “repronormative”: Who isn’t?

A lot of academics, it turns out. Going back at least to Jan Narveson, Utilitarianism and New Generations, 76 Mind 62 (1967), there is a rich array of philosophical arguments that one confers no benefit on a person by causing them to exist. (David Velleman, a fellow NYU prof, has recently offered such an argument in "The Gift of Life"). Just for the record, I tend to take the different view defended by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons 487-90 (1984): In nutshell, Parfit’s argument rests on a claim of symmetry: If it is reasonable to believe that one harms someone by causing them to cease to exist, then it is equally reasonable to believe that one confers a benefit on someone by causing them to exist.

I do not wish to rehearse any of these arguments. Instead, I wish only to note that certain philosophers’ embrace of Narveson’s position smacks of misanthropy rather than reasoned argument. But here’s the good news: This misanthropy undermines both their credibility and their place in the gene pool. As I dislike misanthropes, I find both of these consequences to be comforting, as I shall explain in more detail after the jump.

Is there something misanthropic about adopting the premise that conferring existence confers no benefit? I distinguish misanthropy from the acceptance of unpleasant conclusions by the strength of the premise that implies the conclusion. Of course, if an indisputable premise leads to a disheartening conclusion, then it is our philosophical duty to accept the latter. But philosophers frequently display a willingness to deduce inhumane consequences from a dubious premise, when the decently humane response is to scrap the premise for the sake of humanity. In such a case, one suspects that the premise is the pretext rather than the reason for their baleful deductions: They like being gloomy because it gives them a certain tough-minded cachet to distinguish themselves from the laity. But this is like a captain’s insisting on going down with his ship even when there is plenty of room in the life raft, just because the captain cannot bear to sit in the same boat with the passengers from steerage. This is not principled intellectual rigor; it is ordinary snobbery.

It seems to me – an admitted philosophical amateur – that it is eminently debatable whether one benefits a person by causing them to exist. (Read Parfit’s Appendix G if you do not believe me). I am not sure whether such a premise leads ineluctably to any repugnantly pessimistic conclusion. But suppose that it did: Suppose, for instance, that, if one accepted the premise that it is no benefit to be born, then it would follow that we’d have no reason to prefer a future universe inhabited by humans over a universe devoid of any intelligent life whatsoever. The intuition behind such an inference is that, if those future humans do not exist now, then they’d have no interest in coming to be. Why take the trouble of creating them, an effort that will lead to at least some suffering on their part? As one Herman Vetter observed in Mind:

“[P]eople should be discouraged from having children. If such tendencies are successful enough, the number of men on earth may begin to decrease, and if such development continues long enough, the human race will disappear. This, however, would not at all be a deplorable consequence in… my own opinion: the existence of mankind is not a value in itself. On the contrary, if mankind ceases to exist, all suffering is extinguished perfectly, which no other human endeavour will be able to bring about. On the other hand, of course, all happy experiences of men will disappear. But this … would not be deplorable, because no human subject would exist which would be deprived of the happy experiences.”

80 Mind 301, 303 (1971). A South African philosopher, David Benetar, later extended this pleasant rumination into an entire book with the cheery title, “Better Never to Have Been,” in which he argues that humanity’s non-existence is a positive good.

Such nihilism (a term that here refers not to having no values but rather the valuing of nothingness over existence) is, of course, insane despite – or perhaps because of -- its logical consistency. (Insane people are notoriously consistent: The man who thinks that he is a teapot usually has a watertight account to rebut his critics). The sane response to a nihilistic conclusion is to jettison any disputable premise that leads to the nihilism, on reductio ad absurdum grounds. As I observed above, the premise that we do not benefit those to whom we give life is, at best, debatable. The philosophers’ willingness to stand by debatable premise, therefore, is best explained as a psychological dysfunction rather than philosophical courage or, perhaps, insincere posing. The nihilism is not the consequence of an argument; the argument is just a pretext for a showy display of a chic sort of pessimism.

But here is the good news: To avoid the charge of hypocrisy, David Benetar, Herman Vetter, and their fellow travelers presumably are not having any kids to whom they could convey their views or moods. Their arguments, likewise, are not likely to generate a lot of followers, being largely the result (I suspect) of snob appeal rather than intellectual rigor. By outlining the logical consequences of embracing the premise that conferring existence is no benefit, these philosophers have inadvertently provided an argument reductio ad absurdum in favor of repronormativity. For that service, we repronomativists ought to be suitably grateful.

Posted by Rick Hills on September 16, 2008 at 10:22 AM in Article Spotlight, Criminal Law, Rick Hills | Permalink


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And you think that this position is less insane than the view I attributed to Benetar?

Well, yes. If the human race goes extinct, either a) it will happen within my lifetime, in which case I'll be dead and I won't care, or b) it won't happen within my lifetime, in which case by the time it happens, I'll be dead and I won't care. What value does humanity's survival beyond your lifetime bring to you? It doesn't bring anything to mine.

Posted by: J | Sep 17, 2008 1:47:28 PM

J. writes:

"If we all stopped having children and the human race died out, that would be fine by me, but I'm not going to actively work towards it."

My deepest apologies. Yes, of course, I DID mischaracterize one wing of the anti-repro crowd: They do not want to "actively work towards" human extinction. They just do not give a damn one way or the other.

And you think that this position is less insane than the view I attributed to Benetar?

Posted by: Rick Hills | Sep 17, 2008 10:20:55 AM

While I agree that it is debatable whether one benefits a person by causing them to exist, you've oversimplified the issues pretty dramatically here. Moreover, your list of possible weights of value is off the mark as well. If I assert that life has no objective value, why would I kill myself to make room for the rest of you, since I don't value your life any more than I value mine? I have no reason to act (you might suggest that I have no reason not to act, but not killing myself is the default state from which I would need a reason to be moved). Saying that human life doesn't have inherent value is not at all the same thing as saying that human life has negative value.

So yes, I don't believe that human life has objective value, and therefore I don't think it's a positive act to create children. I don't think it's a negative act, either. If we all stopped having children and the human race died out, that would be fine by me, but I'm not going to actively work towards it. Your characterization of non-repronormative views as misanthropy is, if you don't mind my saying so, typical of those in the normative group.

Posted by: J | Sep 17, 2008 10:11:19 AM

Interesting post. I've been meaning to read those books you mentioned.

People who have decided not to have children can still be "repronormative". For instance, I'm sure most nuns I've met assume having children is normal and vowing to be celibate is abnormal. One can choose to follow an abnormal path to achieve some higher good, to forgo the good to attain the better, without holding the good to be bad.

However, if one holds no philosophical reason to consider life better than non-life, it seems one must reject repronormativity and really, all sorts of normativity, as the word normal would be stripped of its moral content altogether.

Posted by: Clavem Abyssi | Sep 16, 2008 3:52:41 PM

Might repronormativity alternatively be understood as the belief that raising children is preferable to other possible activities or to merely choosing not to engage in child rearing? In other words, I take repronormativity to consist of preferences for those who child rear rather than for those who do not or who engage in other caretaking activities instead. For instance, one could agree that choosing to have and raise children confers a benefit on the children, but there is no reason society should prefer/subsidize that activity to other activities that people might engage in. Or is this interpretation foreclosed by the literature you're referring to?

Posted by: Lesley Wexler | Sep 16, 2008 11:00:10 AM

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