From time to time, we make decisions for other people. Sometimes, they delegate the decisions to us — they consent to our deciding for them. Other times, they could have consented, but either we do not ask them or we decide for them against their wishes. And at other times still, it is impossible for us to obtain consent: the person may be hiking in the woods and unreachable, or perhaps they in a coma and we have to make medical decisions on their behalf.
In this third case, where consent is impossible, we generally consider the right decision to be either the decision that the person would have made had circumstances been such that they could have made the decision for themselves, or the decision that we deem to be in their best interests.
The two most significant decisions we can make for someone else are whether to create them and whether to kill them (including whether to allow these things to happen). The latter question receives lots of attention, from the popular press, from professional philosophers, and from ordinary people faced with a dying relative. Regardless of one’s position on euthanasia, do-not-resuscitate orders, and medical heroics, pretty much everyone agrees that morally relevant criteria for end-of-life considerations center on the patient’s autonomy and interests. So a child’s wish to euthanize a parent because the parent has become a burden is not considered morally compelling, and neither is a child’s wish to keep a parent alive despite the parent’s wishes because the child likes visiting the parent. Indeed, these wishes are widely regarded as selfish.
The situation could not be more different when it comes to deciding whether to bring someone into the world. Deciding to have a child because you want to pass on your name or genes, or to appease your parents, or to care for you in your old age, or to have someone to propagate your religion or values are all considered by most to be legitimate reasons to have children. Curiously, similarly selfish reasons for not having a child, such as the desire for freedom from responsibility of caring for someone, are often recognized as such. What almost never enters the equation are the two questions that should be entirely controlling: (1) would a pre-existent person choose existence over continued non-existence, and (2) would it be better for a pre-existent person to become existent than to continue in non-existence?
Answering these questions is extremely difficult. For the first question, we lack access to pre-existent persons to pose the question to. For the second question, it’s hard to devise cardinal utility functions in general, and practically impossible to determine the utility of a life, even before you take into account the biases we all possess that make us misjudge how (dis)utile things in our life have been, which would presumably be the starting point for assessing the utility of a life. In the posts that follow, however, I’ll try to make some progress.