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Procreative permissiveness
  1. David Benatar
  1. Correspondence to Professor David Benatar, Department of Philosophy, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa; philosophy{at}

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There is much to praise in David DeGrazia's Creation Ethics.1 However, in my brief comments, I shall focus on one important juncture where I find his argument unconvincing.i

The widespread view that procreation is a morally innocent activity is hard to sustain. Any thoughtful discussion of procreation, as David DeGrazia's is, must concede that (at least) some procreation is morally wrong. The crucial question is how restrictive a view one should have of the moral permissibility of this practice.

David DeGrazia's view is that one may procreate when one can provide the resultant children what they are owed. He maintains that children are owed (1) lives worth living; (2) in which there is a reasonable expectation that their basic needs will be met (although he allows some exceptions in cases where the failure to meet these needs is due to external circumstances beyond the parents’ control) and (3) extra that parents can provide without undue sacrifice (pages 166–7).1

This set of conditions implies that a life in which basic needs are not met can nonetheless be a life worth living. This sets the bar for a ‘life worth living’ii very low indeed, given that basic needs include “nutritious food, clean water, safe shelter, protective clothing … freedom from slavery … and [from] physical abuse” (page 168).1

It is true, of course, that Professor DeGrazia's distinction between a life worth living and one in which basic needs are met has practical significance only in those situations in which parents’ failure to meet their children's basic needs is attributable to external circumstances beyond their control.

However, that exception …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i Here I develop in more detail some brief remarks I offered in the course of reviewing this book for Mind (Review forthcoming).

  • ii The phrase “a life worth living” is ambiguous between “a life worth starting” and “a life worth continuing”. (For more on the significance of this distinction see Benatar D. The wrong of wrongful life. Am Philos Q 2000;37:176–7.) Professor DeGrazia is not clear which of these senses he has in mind. The point I make in this paragraph applies to both meanings, but especially to the first.

  • iii We are not considering, for example, a case of an “owner” raping a slave, who then produces offspring destined to a life of slavery.

  • iv He makes this more explicit in endnote 4 on p. 194, but even there no argument is given why we should accept this view.

  • v I am assuming that because the gambling is compulsive it is not, in the relevant sense, within the parent's control.

  • vi I happen to think that it is wrong for anybody to procreate (Better never to have been. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.) However, I do think that the worse one's child's life is likely to be the morally worse it is to have that child.

  • vii It might be objected that the poor often have little or no control over their reproduction. However, that argument can be a two-edged sword, for insofar as their procreation is not autonomous, preventing them from procreating would not be a violation of their autonomy.

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