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An Asymmetry in the Ethics of Procreation



According to the Asymmetry, it is wrong to bring a miserable child into existence but permissible not to bring a happy child into existence. When it comes to procreation, we don’t have complete procreative liberty. But we do have some discretion. The Asymmetry seems highly intuitive. But a plausible account of the Asymmetry has been surprisingly difficult to provide, and it may well be that most moral philosophers – or at least most consequentialists – think that all reasonable efforts to provide such an account have by now been exhausted. In this paper, I argue that, despite the difficulties, the Asymmetry is too important to be set aside. I also note a handful of accounts of the Asymmetry that have been proposed and why they fail. It seems, for example, that it will not do to say that some people matter morally and others don’t, or that a person matters morally in some worlds but not others. My own conclusion is that, while we are bound to say all people matter morally – you, me and the merely possible – we are not bound to say that all their losses– or all ours– matter morally. We can instead distinguish between morally significant and insignificant losses, with the distinction between the two being a matter of where the loss is incurred in relation to the person who incurs it. This way of looking at things – which I call Variabilism– provides the basis for a plausible account of the Asymmetry. The availability of such an account suggests, I think, that our prospects for rescuing the Asymmetry are bright.