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Volume 11, No. 4—May/June 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

Lives We've Never Lived
Is nonexistence worth the trouble?
By Jim Holt

LATE LAST FALL, FRANCE'S highest court handed down a ruling of great moral and even metaphysical interest. The court declared that a seventeen-year-old boy was entitled to compensation for being born. Because he contracted German measles from his mother while she was pregnant with him—both a doctor and a laboratory failed to diagnose her illness—the boy is deaf, mentally retarded, and nearly blind.

From the parents' point of view, the court's decision makes eminent sense. Had they known about the measles and the associated risks to the fetus, they could have aborted, waited a few months, and then started another pregnancy that would probably have resulted in a healthy baby. From the seventeen-year-old boy's perspective, however, the logic of the decision is a little peculiar. The correct diagnosis, after all, would have led to an outcome in which he did not exist. Would this really have been better for him?

The very idea of judging one's life better or worse than nonexistence strikes some philosophers as absurd. Bernard Williams, for example, has argued that a person simply "cannot think egoistically of what it would be for him never to have existed." Others, like Derek Parfit, contend that it at least makes sense to say of a life that it is worth living or not worth living. If the former, that life is better than nothing; if the latter, it is worse than nothing. Yet even Parfit shrinks from the implication that a person whose life is not worth living would have been better off if he or she had never existed.

Some people feel that any kind of life, no matter how awful, is better than nothing. In his essay "Death," Thomas Nagel characterized this view: "There are elements which, if added to one's experience, make life better; there are other elements which, if added to one's experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive."

If every life is worth living, then it can never be wrong to bring a child into the world, no matter how painful that child's life might be. But most of us feel that it would be wrong knowingly to conceive a truly miserable child. Boys afflicted with Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, for example, not only suffer mental retardation and excruciating physical pain; they also compulsively mutilate themselves. Surely, one has a duty not to bring such children into the world deliberately.

But are we certain we believe in such a duty? Consider a couple who know that if they have a child, he or she will likely have a happy life. Does this couple have a duty to go ahead and conceive a child? Most of us would say no. But why? After all, if the misery of a possible child creates an ethical obligation not to bring it into the world, shouldn't the happiness of a possible child create an ethical obligation to bring it into the world? Why should the well-being of a possible child enter our moral calculus in one case but not the other?

Moral philosophers have yet to come up with a satisfying explanation for this asymmetry. Witness Peter Singer's rather tortuous attempt: "Perhaps the best one can say—and it is not very good—is that there is nothing directly wrong in conceiving a child who will be miserable, but once such a child exists, since its life can contain nothing but misery, we should reduce the amount of pain in the world by an act of euthanasia. But euthanasia is a more harrowing process for the parents and others involved than non-conception. Hence we have an indirect reason for not conceiving a child bound to have a miserable existence." In other words, it is the unhappiness that would be experienced by the actual parents, not by the possible child, that justifies treating the two cases differently.

If the French boy's life is even marginally worth living, then he is fortunate that his mother's case of German measles was not diagnosed. Let's suppose, however, that the boy's life is not worth living. One might say that the doctor who failed to detect the measles infringed on the boy's right not to have a miserable life. Yet this is a right that, in his case, could not possibly have been fulfilled: Owing to contingent features of the human reproductive system, a child conceived a few months later would have had a different genetic makeup, and hence a different identity.

As for the child who might have been conceived by the French couple several months later had the measles been diagnosed, there are two ways of looking at his or her plight. If you believe only in the actual world, then the closest he or she came to reality was as a pair of unconnected (and now-defunct) gametes. Nothing can be fortunate or unfortunate for such an entity. If, on the other hand, you believe in the reality of possible worlds—as, for instance, the Princeton philosopher David Lewis avowedly does—then there are many, many possible worlds that contain versions of this child; and within each of those worlds, the respective child is fortunate to exist.

Whether or not you agree with Nagel's cheerful assertion that "all of us...are fortunate to have been born," he certainly got it right when he added, "It cannot be said that not to be born is a misfortune." And when the chorus in Oedipus at Colonus gloomily declares, "Not to be born is best of all," the appropriate riposte is: How many are so lucky?


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