Sunday, 16 January 2011

In Search of Negative Utilitarianism

Negative utilitarianism is the moral theory that the only criterion of the rightness of an action is the extent to which it minimises suffering or pain[1]. In other words, in any given circumstance, the right action is the one that minimises unhappiness.[2] This, of course, stands in contrast to the ‘classical’ utilitarian doctrine of Bentham and Mill that the right action is the one that maximises happiness, where happiness is taken to mean the overall balance of pleasure and pain.

Since its first clear formulation by Karl Popper in 1945, negative utilitarianism has generally been taken merely as a logical possibility, before being swiftly disregarded as incoherent or counterintuitive (see JJC Smart’s treatment in Utilitarianism: For and Against). Indeed, there is something puzzling about a philosophy that holds that pain in the sole moral bad in the world, but which gives no moral consideration to pleasure. I agree that such an ethical system is problematic. Consequently, I think that pure negative utilitarianism is implausible. However, I wish to discuss a few ways in which ‘positive’ utilitarians may become de facto negative utilitarians.

The basic utilitarian ‘Greatest Happiness’ Principle can be broken down into two propositions:

A: The more pleasure an action causes, the better it is
B: The more pain an action causes, the worse it is

The classical utilitarian uses both propositions in evaluating the rightness of an action. In assessing an action, they must calculate both the pleasure and the pain it entails, and the net value of pleasure minus pain represents the salient ethical consequence of that act. By contrast, the negative utilitarian only accepts proposition B, and ignores proposition A.

This move, on the face of it, seems rather peculiar. Why should anybody committed to the proposition that pain is bad not also hold the view that pleasure is good? In fact, I do not think that any advocate of negative utilitarianism actually does deny that pleasure is good. However, there are three reasons why they may nonetheless ignore proposition A. The first reason is pragmatic: pain is seen as easier to identify or eradicate. The second is that pain has lexical priority over pleasure: the maximisation of pleasure, on this view, is a worthwhile moral project, but it is subordinate to the obligation to minimise suffering. While both of these positions are in practice negative utilitarian, neither can accurately be described as negative utilitarian theories, since both in theory can ascribe some positive value to happiness. However, I wish to argue that a negative utilitarianism that gives no weight to happiness is in fact possible, for there is a third reason to deny proposition A: if we believe that happiness does not exist or is unattainable, then the proposition is redundant.

Pragmatic Negative Utilitarianism

There are a number of reasons why a classical utilitarian might consider negative utilitarianism to be a more practical or desirable guide to action. They might be motivated by an empirical belief that in the world we live in it is far easier to relieve suffering than to bring about happiness. This might be because of the large numbers of people (and animals) in the world living dire and unfortunate lives. If most of the world are suffering, it is necessary to relieve that suffering before we set about making them positively happy. Some might hold that it is better to focus our efforts on easing pain because of our relative lack of knowledge regarding how to make people happy

Indeed, it is fairly clear from Karl Popper’s initial formulation of negative utilitarianism that he personally advocated it at least partly out of practicality and pragmatism Rather than denying that happiness is of any moral importance, he simply suggests that “the promotion of happiness is in any case much less urgent than the rendering of help to those who suffer”. Moreover, his reluctance to advocate active promotion of happiness is linked to contingent human fallibility and his fears for personal liberty: “‘Maximise happiness’, in contrast, seems to be apt to produce a benevolent dictatorship”. Popper is not saying that promoting happiness would not be good, just that we are unlikely to be very successful.

Though nobody has been as explicit about it, there is a strong argument to suggest that most utilitarians have been and are de facto negative utilitarians (although with exceptions, like Richard Layard). Take, for example, the most prominent utilitarian voice in contemporary applied ethics, Peter Singer. The causes to which he devotes his energies have, by and large, been efforts to reduce suffering, rather than increase happiness. His defence of euthanasia seeks to ameliorate the pain of the terminally ill; his fight against global poverty that of the destitute; and his vegetarianism intends to ease the suffering of animals.

Nevertheless, pragmatic negative utilitarianism cannot be classed as genuine negative utilitarianism. If the likes of Singer could be convinced of a guaranteed method of increasing pleasure that produced pleasure more efficiently than pain can be eradicated, they would be bound by principle to devote their efforts to that. The fact that they could, under certain circumstances, be as concerned with pleasure as with pain quite clearly demonstrates that they are not really negative utilitarians.

Lexical Prioritisation of Suffering

Another ethical theory which looks a lot like negative utilitarianism is Clark Wolf’s ‘impure consequentialist theory of obligation’. This theory suggests that the reduction of suffering should have lexical priority over increasing happiness. Our only moral obligation is to diminish unhappiness. However, while Wolf suggests that promoting happiness is not obligatory, he still believes it to be morally good. This implies that all acts that increase happiness are supererogatory: desirable, but not morally required. This philosophy is obviously inconsistent with negative utilitarianism because it explicitly embraces proposition A.

However, most utilitarians do not believe in supererogation, insisting that we are always obliged to perform the action that is morally best. A more orthodox utilitarian, who subscribed to this view, but accepted the lexical priority of reducing suffering over promoting happiness would believe something very similar to negative utilitarianism. If duty A has lexical priority over duty B, then we have to totally fulfil all the requirements of duty A before we should consider duty B. Thus the lexically negative utilitarian would have to eradicate unhappiness before their moral obligations impelled them to look to increase happiness. Since eradicating unhappiness seems like an impossible task, the lexically negative utilitarian is, for practical purposes, the same as negative utilitarianism. Of course, this should not obscure the fact that lexically negative utilitarians would still accept proposition A, it is just that they are unlikely to ever be in a position to act on it.

Personally, I have to include myself among those holding the ‘marginalist prejudice’ Wolf dismisses. I simply cannot see how, if happiness has any value, this value will always be trumped by the need to decrease unhappiness. The very idea of lexical priority demands testing with extreme cases. The lexical prioritisation of suffering means that a world in which all are ecstatically happy but for occasional headaches is worse than a world in which people exist in a state of perpetual physical and emotional numbness

Wolf’s rationale for this move is his commitment to Parfit’s “Compensation principle: One person's burdens cannot be compensated by benefits provided for someone else”. Wolf assumes that everybody shares this intuition, but again it does not stand up to extreme counter-examples. If I offer to make every person in your home town (except you) a millionaire if I can pinch your arm, then surely most people’s moral intuition is that the minimal sacrifice is worth bearing. Consequently, I cannot see how the lexical prioritisation of proposition B over A can be justified.


There is yet a third reason why proposition A might be rejected. If we believe that happiness is illusory or unattainable, then there is nothing to give moral weight to. Proposition A is rendered meaningless or redundant. The most famous proponent of such pessimism in Western philosophy is Arthur Schopenhauer. To better understand the reasoning behind the pessimistic denial of happiness, it is instructive to investigate his treatment of the concept.

The first premise of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is that existence, for all living creatures, entails striving. We are all particular manifestations of the will to life, and as such, we are all perpetually consumed by desires of one sort or another, which tend generally to our survival and reproduction as a species (Note the striking parallels with evolutionary biology). For Schopenhauer, ‘happiness’ consists in the satisfaction of the will, in the fulfilment of our desires.

Now it is unclear from Schopenhauer’s philosophy how this specialised use of the term ‘happiness’ relates to the more common meaning of happiness as a positive feeling or disposition. On one reading, Schopenhauer seems to deny that happiness in this second sense is ever possible: Schopenhauer scholar Christopher Janaway calls this the ‘negativity of satisfaction’ thesis. Alternatively, Schopenhauer may merely be saying that the satisfaction of preferences produces positive feelings only rarely and/or fleetingly.

With the ‘negativity of satisfaction’ thesis, Schopenhauer suggests that happiness is an illusion:

"All satisfaction, or what is commonly called happiness, is really and essentially always negative only, and never positive….satisfaction or gratification can never be more than deliverance from a pain, from a want….consequently, we are only in the same position as we were before this pain or suffering appeared."

"We feel pain, but not painlessness; care, but not freedom from care; fear, but not safety and security. We feel this desire as we feel hunger and thirst; but as soon as it has been satisfied, it is like the mouthful of food that has been taken, and which ceases to exist for our feelings the moment it is swallowed."

Schopenhauer’s core assertion is that attaining what we strive for never produces any positive feeling, but all that we experience is absence of the longing or suffering that we felt before. When we fall in love, all we experience is the absence of loneliness. When we win a game, all we feel is respite from the fear of losing. Life, for Schopenhauer, is nothing but suffering after suffering, broken up by the occasional period of numbness. The pursuit of happiness is a “hunt for game that does not exist”.

It is interesting to place this argument in the context of Bentham’s definition of pleasure: “I call pleasure every sensation that a man would rather feel at that instance than feel none”. But as we’ve seen, Schopenhauer, according to the negativity of satisfaction thesis, would insist that it is impossible to have a sensation that is better than feeling none at all. The reason that we are inclined to seek ‘pleasure’ is simply because the satisfaction of preferences allows us to feel nothing at all. Thus on Schopenhauer’s account, pleasure (which of course utilitarians take to be equivalent to happiness) does not exist.

It appears as though finally we have a genuine form of negative utilitarianism that denies proposition A, and grants no weight to happiness. Anyone who accepts pessimism (negativity of satisfaction), hedonism (pain is the sole metric of value in the universe) and consequentialism (the rightness of action depends only on the extent to which it maximises value) seems committed to negative utilitarianism.

It could still be objected, however, that the negativity of satisfaction is just an empirical, rather than a logically necessary claim. It is therefore contingent on certain facts about the world. We could imagine another or future world in which happiness as a positive emotion is possible. Would the pessimist negative utilitarians be willing to grant happiness any moral weight in such a world? If the answer is yes, then pessimistic negative utilitarianism, like lexically negative utilitarianism, is only adopted on practical grounds.

It may be objected that Schopenhauer would not accept hedonism and consequentialism, the central elements of utilitarianism, since his ethical theory is closer to a form of virtue ethics. Even if this is the case, it does not undermine my general argument. All I sought to show is negative utilitarianism is conceivable. Since there have been people who have accepted the precepts if utilitarianism and people who have accepted the negativity of satisfaction thesis, there is no reason why a person could not affirm both. Such a person, I contend, would be committed to negative utilitarianism.

However, it is interesting to note that in the arguments discussed here, Schopenhauer comes incredibly close to espousing negative utilitarianism. Janaway notes that “An undefended assumption in his argument is a stark form of hedonism: something adds positive value to life if and only if it involves a felt pleasure, while something contributes negative value if and only if it involves a felt pain”. Indeed, Janaway explicitly portrays Schopenhauer as a negative utilitarian, in all but name: “we see that Schopenhauer has done something quite bizarre: he has used as the test of value a hedonic calculus in which each felt pain accumulates points on the down side of life, but where the total figure for satisfaction is permanently set at zero”. What is this ‘bizarre hedonic calculus’ but the negative utilitarian’s metric of value?!

Of course, for Schopenhauer’s view to fully morph into negative utilitarianism, he would need to accept consequentialism, which he does not, to my knowledge. Yet in showing that Schopenhauer’s philosophy is so concordant with hedonism, we have brought the pessimist and the utilitarian one step closer to the unification we seek.

At some points, Schopenhauer even looks to be arguing for the lexical priority of suffering over happiness, quoting Petrarch: “A thousand pleasures do not compensate for one pain”. He continues,

“For that thousands had lived in happiness and joy would never do away with the anguish and death-agony of one individual; and just as little does my present well-being undo my previous sufferings. Therefore, were the evil in the world even a hundred times less than it is, its mere existence would still be sufficient to establish a truth that may be expressed in various ways…namely that we have not to be pleased but rather sorry about the existence of the world; that its non-existence would be preferable to its existence; that it is something which at the bottom ought not to be."

Schopenhauer accepts the essential proposition of lexical negative utilitarianism: that no amount of happiness can make up for the mere existence of unhappiness.

Fascinatingly, Schopenhauer appears to embrace the supposedly repugnant conclusion R.N. Smart takes to undermine negative utilitarianism:

"Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race. Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering, and would be the ruler’s duty on NU grounds."

Schopenhauer’s dogged insistence that it would be better if the world had never existed surely means that he would embrace a simple and painless way to put humanity out of its misery. Once again, it is Schopenhauer’s philosophy that contains the tools necessary to defend negative utilitarianism and render it plausible.


Negative utilitarianism will almost certainly remain extremely unattractive to vast majority. It is most reasonable as a rule of thumb for ‘positive’ utilitarians concerned by the difficulties of making people happy. For it to be a stronger philosophical commitment, it is necessary to accept either that no amount of pleasure can make up for the merest suffering or that happiness is an illusion, beyond our grasp. Neither of these are likely to become widely held beliefs. However, enough people have been convinced of these ideas that negative utilitarianism is far from as absurd as has often been made out.

Notice the varying ‘purity’ of these different versions of negative utilitarianism. Pragmatic negative utilitarianism, as a subordinate rule of thumb to ‘positive’ utilitarianism, would cease to exist if we knew how to make people happy as easily as we know how to ease their suffering. Lexical negative utilitarianism would cease to be equivalent to classical negative utilitarianism if all the suffering in the world were to end. Pessimistic negative utilitarianism would collapse into positive utilitarianism in a world where happiness existed. Given the diminishing probability of these conditions being met (from the perspective of the advocates of these positions), it seems the pessimism produces a ‘purer’ version of negative utilitarianism than the lexical version. Both, in turn, are ‘purer’ than pragmatic negative utilitarianism. However, none of these doctrines actually go as far as to say that happiness, were it to exist, is of no moral significance. Consequently, the search for ‘pure’ negative utilitarianism goes on

[1] or unhappiness: these are all taken to be equivalent
[2] for scalar negative utilitarianism read: the more an action reduces net suffering, the more right it is

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Why bother Arguing?

Be honest – how many times over the course of an argument have you heard one of the following (or some variant of them)?:
“You know what, you’re absolutely right, you’ve convinced me”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but now I have, I’ve changed my mind”

“What I said just now was completely wrong”

People do change their minds in the middle of a debate, but not very often. Think how many arguments you have had in your life, and think how few of them have reached this sort of satisfying resolution. It’s so unusual and unexpected that I can’t even read the phrases above without imagining them said either sarcastically or in a wearied if-I-agree-with-you-will-you-just-shut-up-and-leave-me-alone tone of voice.
Most of the time, people are too stubborn or invested in their position to even consider changing their minds. In The Art of Always Being Right, Arthur Schopenhauer observes just this fact:

“If human nature were not base, but thoroughly honourable, we should in every debate have no other aim that the discovery of truth We should not in the least care whether the truth proves to be in favour of the opinion we had begun by expressing, or of the opinion of our adversary. That we should regard as a matter of no importance, or, at any rate, of very secondary consequence.
But, as things are, it is the main concern. Our innate vanity, which is particularly sensitive in reference to our intellectual powers, will not allow that our first position was wrong and our adversary’s right.”

This is a problem. The whole point of an argument, the rules of the game, are that you have to convince the other person. That’s how arguments are set up. It’s as if we’ve been playing football for ages without noticing that there aren’t any goals.
As a would-be philosopher, this is particularly distressing. You’ve just been told that you’ve wasted a one day to argue, for a living and so I’m having to confront the possibility that my life’s calling is futile.

It’s not just me that’s invested in the presumption that rational persuasion is possible. It’s one of the very foundations of our civilisation. One of the central principles of the scientific ideal is that if I am wrong and you are right, you should be able to convince me that is the case. Richard Dawkins has an anecdote about one of his university professors who witnessed the theory he had committed his life to expounding being disproved by a fellow biologist. Far from being angry, or resisting the new theory, he shook the man’s hand and thanked him for showing him his error. Dawkins takes this to exemplify all that is great about science and rationalism.
There’s a debate to be had about how representative this tale is. I’m not sure that all scientists are always so magnanimous and that evidence and methodology are so incontrovertible. However, given the fact that scientists generally share objective criteria according to which they can be proved wrong, scientific argumentation is likely to be different to general disputes.

Philosophers, especially political philosophers, cannot place such faith in objective evidence. We argue about matters that cannot often be reduced to the observation of external facts. Political commitments are among our strongest, the ones we will most stubbornly cling to. So what is the point of trying to sell a tax to the libertarian, or a free market to the socialist? It is often said that political commitments are like supporting a football team. Why do we bother trying to divest the Conservative of their Conservatism when we would never hope to persuade the Manchester United fan to support Liverpool?
The first point to note is that people do change their minds, and do so far often than you would think from watching debates. It is very difficult in the heat of an argument to back down and reject the view you were defending, and so lose face. This pride means that we never want to acknowledge when we have been refuse too concede lodges a seed of doubt in our minds. In the course of the argument, we pretend to be unpersuaded, but the objection or criticism nags away until, far from the public glare we relent and give in to it.

The adversarial nature of arguing means that it’s unusual to give your opponent the pleasure of seeing you change your mind. The fact that a person is willing to argue their case means that they must have some sort of pre-existing allegiance to their position. So long as a person is tied to their position, for example because of family loyalty or ideological conviction, they will not be ready to change their mind.
People will change their mind when they are ready and not before. However, this doesn’t mean that they will necessarily change their minds because they are ready to do so. How common is it for a person to say, ‘I’m not sure what I think about the situation in Palestine/global warming/spending cuts anymore, I’m going to look into changing my mind’? More often than not, such a state, if it occurs will be prompted or catalysed by some challenge to their pre-existing opinions. Thus we argue with our opponents so that when they are ready to change their minds they will remember our words. We may know that our arguments are of no use to them now, but we hope that they will carry them with them and that they will later be ready to confront them.

However, even if we could never hope to win round our adversary, I still think there is a point to arguing. The world is full of people who haven’t considered an issue or don’t know what they think about it. For the most part, they avoid getting tangled in debates because if you don’t have a position it’s harder to participate in a dispute. Yet these people are often the audience for arguments.
Many sorts of arguments presuppose such an audience, many of whom will be malleable for persuasion one way or another. Formal debates are usually public, academic disputes occur for the benefit of peers and students, and court cases take place in front of juries.
In fact, the legal analogy seems apt as an example of antagonistic argument as a means for getting to the truth. Nobody expects the opposing lawyers to convince one another, but they do address one another’s arguments and try to defend their positions as best they can. Presumably it is believed that this is a more effective way of establishing fact than if everyone sat in a cooperative Socratic circle and tried to reason it out together.

None of this, however, challenges the essential assumption that we should be open-minded, and willing to change our position. Reflecting on our innate stubbornness, Schopenhauer suggests it may not be so bad after all:

“Nonetheless, this very dishonesty, this persistence in a proposition which seems false even to ourselves, has something to be said for it.
It often happens that we begin with the firm conviction of the truth of our statement. Then our opponent appears to refute it. Should we abandon our position at once, we may discover later on that we were right after all. The proof we offered was false, but nevertheless there was a proof of our statement which was true…
Thus it is that the weakness of our intellect and the perversity of our will lend each other mutual support.”

Even if it looks like we should be persuaded, we may still be in the right, so it is better not to be persuaded. Does that mean that there is no point to arguing?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Is sex selection on non-medical grounds justifiable?

Advances in medical technology now allow parents to choose the sex of their baby without having to undergo excessively invasive or dangerous procedures. Yet most societies have recoiled from this possibility, and have severely limited parents’ freedom to choose. In the UK, for example, HFEA (Human Fertility and Embryology Authority) regulations only permit sex selection for medical reasons: to avoid serious sex-linked conditions, such as haemophilia.

Yet any close scrutiny of the common justifications for preventing parents from choosing the sex of their child shows them to be misinformed, unreasoned or weakly rationalised gut reactions. Any review of either the ethical literature or the numerous public consultations on the subject is bound to uncover the same set of objections to non-medical sex selection. This essay addresses each of the most common concerns in turn, and seeks to demonstrate that they are misplaced or mistaken.

This is a strategy that needs defence in itself, since it assumes that the burden of proof is on those that would restrict non-medical sex selection. Yet this presumption does not seem unwarranted. Forbidding selection is clearly a restriction of freedom, since it prevents someone (parents) from doing something that they wish to do (choose the sex of their baby). There is not a single moral or political theory which would deny that all else being equal, more freedom or preference satisfaction is better than less. Nor does any philosophy I am aware of permit the restriction of freedom or the frustration of preference without any justification whatsoever. To put it another way, there is no ethical system which requires us to get permission before acting – if things are not expressly forbidden, we can assume they are permitted. The consideration is just a weak one – as soon as there is a countervailing reason against an act, we may be justified in restricting it. However, it hardly seems unreasonable to require some such convincing reason against sex selection as a necessary precondition of restricting it. This article/talk attempts to show that no such compelling reason exists.

The ‘Feminist’ argument: sex selection reduces the status of women

One common concern regarding non-medical sex selection is what David Heyd calls the ‘feminist’ argument (though without referencing any actual feminists who he believes to hold it). The basic idea is that allowing parents to choose the sex of their children will allow them to favour boys over girls, and will further diminish the status of women in society.

Heyd’s first response to this line of argument is to observe that non-medical sex selection does not create or promote sexism, it merely reflects the underlying prejudices of the society. He urges feminists to reconsider their targets, and to focus on the underlying root causes of gender inequality, rather than being distracted by symptoms. For example, Heyd implies that attacking the institution of dowries would make girls less expensive, and would make parents less likely to choose boys.

This response is not fully persuasive. Even if sex selection is just a manifestation of gender inequality, it can still be harmful independently of its root causes. Sex selection could perpetuate and normalise sexist prejudices, by reassuring people that it is acceptable to hold such views and to act upon them.

Heyd also refers to the empirical work of Marcia Guttentag, who suggests that historically, the proportion of women in a society is inversely related to their status. If women are relatively rare in a society, they will be valued more, given more power and freedom. This further undermines the empirical claims of the ‘feminists’.

Heyd’s arguments are interesting and subtle. However, the strongest grounds for resisting the ‘feminist’ criticism is the assumption that boys would, in fact, be preferred to girls. In reality, this premise does not seem to hold in Western countries. Gleicher and Barad’s analysis of choices made by parents in an American clinic that offered sex selection found that those wanting boys and girls balanced each other out. Numerous surveys have established that, if anything, there is a slight preference for girls in Western countries.

The Problem of Sex Ratio Imbalance

These findings undermine perhaps the most common objection to non-medical sex selection: the fear that it will lead to a major imbalance in the sex ratio. Yet this fear is clearly unjustified. As we have seen, those that do opt to choose the sex of their children tend to be evenly split between those who want boys and those who want girls. Even if there were an imbalance in this population, the overall effect would be attenuated by the fact that most people probably wouldn’t choose the sex of their babies in the first place. Hall et al’s review of survey data demonstrates most people do not want to decide.

Of course, these findings are limited to Western countries. In many parts of the world, there would be a strong tendency for parents to choose, and in particular to choose to have boys. In countries where sex imbalance and discrimination are genuine possibilities, it would be irresponsible to facilitate them. But when a society is deciding on policies and restrictions which are binding only on it, the effects that policy would have on other societies not subject to their laws is surely irrelevant.

The only reason I can imagine for the UK or other Western societies to consider the effects of permitting sex selection on other societies is that it might leave them open to the charge of hypocrisy in dealing with those other societies. Thus if the UK permitted sex selection but tried to criticise (say) China for doing the same, it would appear inconsistent. Yet it is clear that the inconsistency is only apparent, an acknowledgement of and response to the fact that the UK and China are different social contexts. It is not that different principles are being applied to different societies, rather the application of the same principle requires different responses in different contexts.

In any case, it is important to remember that even if every parent chose the sex of their child, this would still only have a small effect on overall sex balance because sex selection is currently open to so few parents. Sex selection is limited to those who undergo assistive reproductive treatments such as IVF. These methods have much lower success rates than natural conception, so it seems implausible that many parents would jeopardise their chances of conceiving at all just to ensure they could choose the sex of their child.

Inequality of access

The fact that so few will in practice be able to choose the sex of their children may, though, be used as an argument against permitting sex selection. It simply illustrates that access to this technology will almost certainly be extremely unequal. This concern can come from two sources: the worry that the rich will be able to afford services that the poor cannot, or that those who conceive naturally will be unfairly disadvantaged.

The notion that the rich should not be able to buy a better standard of healthcare is problematic because it brings to mind the ‘levelling down’ objection against extreme versions of egalitarian thought. If nobody is made better-off by equalisation, it is hard to see why we should pursue absolute equality. If we cannot make the blind see, does this mean we should all put our eyes out to ensure we can all see equally badly? In the same way, just because some people cannot take advantage of the option to choose the sex of their child, does this mean nobody should have that option at all?

Yet even if we accept that unequal access to sex selection is wrong, it does not follow that we should ban it. Rather, it makes more sense to extend access to the technology to all. Subsidisation of the service or its provision on the National Health Service would give the poor equal opportunity to choose the sex of their children. Perhaps this focuses the issue: there are certain essential medical treatments that we believe all should have access to, rich or poor, such as emergency care, and so we ensure public provision of these. There are others which are not so crucial which we do not mind the rich having greater access to, such as cosmetic surgery, and so these are generally provided privately. The question then becomes whether sex selection is more like emergency care or cosmetic surgery, essential or not.

If we even up access to sex selection between rich and poor, this still fails to address the fact that only the infertile will be able to choose the sex of their baby (Of course, it is not only the literally infertile who will choose their child’s sex – fertile parents who carry sex linked diseases may do the same. However, the point still holds because in forgoing natural conception they are reducing their chances of conception to that of the infertile). This is a peculiar argument, since it depends on us accepting that the infertile are unfairly advantaged. Stated in these terms it seems plainly absurd: if anything the ability to choose the sex of their baby is a sort of compensation for parents’ inability to conceive naturally, and an inadequate one at that. It is helpful to consider the issue in terms of Michael Walzer’s concept of complex equality. According to Walzer, to determine whether two people are equal, it is not sufficient to look at just one dimension, or ‘sphere’ (such as income), but we must consider all indices. Thus while infertile couples are disadvantaged in the sphere of fertility, they are advantaged in the sphere of reproductive choice.

Misuse of medical technology

The distinction between essential and non-essential medical services leads us to another common objection to non-medical sex selection. Many believe that medicine should only be about curing disease. On this view sex selection is therefore a misuse of doctors’ time and resources. Yet the example of cosmetic surgery illustrates the fact that doctors can and do devote their time to other things beyond curing disease. Not many people would go as far as to call for the banning of cosmetic surgery on these grounds, however, as this position would appear to commit them to.

In any case, it is hardly self-evident that doctors have no duties beyond fighting disease. Many insist that enhancement of patients’ wellbeing is an equally important facet of medicine, for example, reducing pain.

‘Slippery slope’ to designer children

Another common fear regarding non-medical sex selection is that it is the ‘thin end of the wedge’, and that accepting it will inevitably lead to the development of ‘designer’ babies. The thought is that if people are permitted to choose one characteristic of their children – sex – then it will be impossible to prevent them from choosing other attributes, such as eye colour, hair colour, intelligence. Even accepting that this would be undesirable (not everyone agrees - see Nicholas Agar’s case for liberal eugenics), it is not clear why exactly the descent down the slippery slope is inevitable. There is no logical certainty that sex selection entails any other form of selection.

Indeed, as Heyd points out, there is a notable discontinuity between sex selection and the choosing of other attributes. While sex selection can be done through sorting of embryos or sperm cells, full-on designer babies would require genetic manipulation. This difference is key: clinical sex selection involves no interference with the human genome at all, and so is crucially different from the production of designer babies.

It is also worth remembering that most people are willing to accept sex selection on medical grounds without fearing the inevitability of designer babies. Yet this is also a case of choosing the characteristics of one’s child – so how is it any different from sex selection on non-medical grounds?

Argument from religion/nature

It is worth pressing the objection to designer babies a little harder to see why exactly these are perceived to be so undesirable. One strong strand of the argument is a religious one, which sees such tampering as questioning the will of God, and undermining His authority. On this line of thinking, to fail to leave the matter of the sex of our baby to divine providence is to fail to respect God’s wisdom and benevolence. Secularised versions of this argument are often founded on the thought that sex selection is in some way unnatural, or represent humanity in some way ‘overstepping’ its remit. For example, Michael Sandel sees the desire to master the ‘mystery of birth’ as ‘hubris’.

None of these can in themselves provide persuasive accounts of what is supposed to be wrong with non-medical sex selection. The fact that something is natural does not in itself make it right or wrong. This much has been established in ethics since G.E. Moore pointed out the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. There are all sorts of established human practices and behaviours that could hardly be classified as ‘natural’, and yet which hardly seem ethically problematic. From wearing clothes to driving cars to artificial reproduction, to reject all that is unnatural would involve rejecting most of modern human life.

The explicitly religious argument is problematic too. Even if we concede the existence of God, it is unclear why we should spend much time trying to second guess His desires and intentions. To the argument that the conception of a boy or girl is in some way the revealed will of God, we can respond that if God did not want us to choose the sex of our children, He would not have provided us with the technology and expertise to do so. God helps those who help themselves, as the old joke reminds us:

There was an old man sitting on his porch watching the rain fall. Pretty soon the water was coming over the porch and into the house.

The old man was still sitting there when a rescue boat came and the people on board said, "You can't stay here you have to come with us."The old man replied, "No, God will save me." So the boat left.

A little while later the water was up to the second floor, and another rescue boat came, and again told the old man he had to come with them.The old man again replied, "God will save me." So the boat left him again.

An hour later the water was up to the roof and a third rescue boat approached the old man, and tried to get him to come with them.Again the old man refused to leave stating that, "God will grant a miracle & save him." So the boat left him again.

Soon after, the man drowns and goes to heaven, and when he sees God he asks him, "Why didn't you save me? I thought you would grant me a miracle and you have let me down."God replied, "You idiot, I don't know what you're complaining about. I sent three boats after you!!"

The ‘Parental Love’ Objection

Perhaps we are being unjust in writing off people’s unease as superstition or luddism. Some philosophers maintain that the unease many feel with non-medical sex selection is rooted in concern for the welfare of the resultant child. This certainly appears to be the position of the HFEA, which seems to accept the argument that children who have their sex chosen by their parents will be somehow disadvantaged. Peter Herissone-Kelly tries to rigorously formalise this intuition, among the most common gut reactions to the matter of sex selection, into what he calls the parental love argument. This also seems the most charitable interpretation of Sandel’s argument above.

On Herissone-Kelly’s account, what is wrong with non-medical sex selection is that it fails to display ‘proper parental love’: “the sort of love that we think parents ought, simply in virtue of being parents, to have for their children”. Presumably, the implication is that if a parent cannot provide such love, they should not be given children. (Note possible difference between ‘giving’ and ‘letting have’)

Proper parental love must satisfy the ‘any incumbent’ model. For A to love B with proper parental love, A’s love must have only one (necessary and sufficient) condition: that B is A’s child. Another way of putting this is that A would love anyone who happened to be their child. Since parents who choose the sex of their children seem to be making their love contingent on them being the ‘right’ sex, they violate the any incumbent model, and so fail to display proper parental love.

This does not follow. These parents may seem to be making their love contingent on their children’s sex, but this is not necessarily the case, nor is it even that likely. The claim is that all parents who would prefer a boy to a girl would therefore not love their child if they were a girl (or vice-versa). This might hold in a minority of cases, where parents would rather have no child than a child of the ‘wrong’ sex. Yet there are almost certainly many parents who would love and be happy with a child of either sex, but who simply have a preference one way or the other.

It is important to separate two distinct concerns here. On one hand, we may be worried that parents with a sex preference may end up with a child of the wrong ‘sex’, and therefore fail to be good parents to it. On the other, the problem is that even if the parents get the sex they wanted, this reflects a deficiency in their attitude – a lack of proper parental love – which is bound to adversely affect their child. This draws out a central plank of the parental love objection – that our attitude to hypothetical children in different possible worlds is an indicator of our strength of feeling for our real children.

Observe that the ‘any incumbent’ model places very strong restrictions on what can be described as proper parental love. If you can imagine any circumstance under which your love for your child would falter, then you do not love them ‘properly’ as a parent. This is a test that many, if not most, real-life parents would fail. The conditions of their love may be few and weak, but only the most saintly could still love a child who lied, stole, raped, killed without repentance. Parents do disown their children, and often because of the despicable characteristics of the child. Herissone-Kelly accepts this argument, and insists that parents who would not love a ‘diabolical’ child cannot hold proper parental love for their real, non-diabolical children.

However, Herissone-Kelly is very careful to point out that he is not doubting that parents who insist upon this ‘non-monstrosity’ condition do love their children. His point is merely that they do not display ‘proper parental’ love. But what is the difference between ‘proper parental’ and other kinds of love? And why should we care about the absence of ‘proper parental’ love, if Herissone-Kelly accepts that some form of love is present? Herissone-Kelly’s answer is that parental love ought to be reliable, and that making your love contingent on a person’s characteristics makes it unreliable. This links his argument to the virtue ethics rejection of sex selection.

The virtue of ‘acceptance’

Herissone-Kelly explicitly builds on Rosalind McDougall’s virtue ethics approach to the question of non-medical sex selection. Virtue ethics is the philosophy that moral rightness consists in possessing and displaying ‘virtues’ rather than in any given action. Virtues are usually defined as dispositions or mindsets, which entail not only acting in a certain way but also certain “emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities”. Thus an honest person – one who displays the virtue of honesty – does not merely tell the truth, but does so because of the values, beliefs and motivations that we would associate with honesty.

McDougall seeks to adapt the virtue ethics approach to the question of sex selection, and argues that non-medical sex selection is wrong because it fails to display parental virtue. She posits that the criterion of right parental action is that an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous parent would do. Traditionally (at least within the Aristotelian tradition), virtues have been regarded as those traits favourable to human flourishing (the Greek concept of eudaimonia). In McDougall’s account, what makes for a parental virtue is that a disposition is conducive to the child’s flourishing, based on immutable facts about human reproduction and rearing.

According to McDougall, one such immutable fact is unpredictability. Children are always capable of placing unexpected strains or demands on their parents, and so it is in the interests of a child’s flourishing to have a parent capable of adapting to this. Even if we could know a child’s entire genetic code, McDougall alleges, environmental factors are constantly capable of surprising us. For example, the child could be blinded in an accident. This fact implies that acceptance is a parental virtue. Parents must be capable of taking their children as they are, even when they fail to meet their expectations because the sheer unpredictability of children means that they will not always meet their parents’ expectations. This seems to be Sandel’s point when he argues that choosing the sex their child “deprives the parent of the humility and enlarged human sympathies that openness to the unbidden can cultivate”.
The virtue ethics account, like the parental love objection, often seems to read too much into parents’ desire to choose the sex of their baby. This one choice need not imply total obsessive control freakery, a desire to dominate every part of their child’s life. It is just one decision, one feature of the child. There is nothing inconsistent about having a preference for the sex of your child and being generally accepting of its other features: appearance, talents etc. Moreover, it does not follow from the fact that a parent has a preference for a certain sex that they would not accept and love a baby of the ‘wrong’ sex. Thus a person can have a sex preference and possess the virtue of acceptance at the same time.

McDougall accepts that it is not clear that having a preference is in itself wrong, but holds that acting on this desire would be wrong. She also insists that even if the parent’s future actions displayed the parental virtues, including acceptance, this would be irrelevant to this moral question, because it is only the act of sex selection itself that is at issue. Yet this seems to break dramatically with the spirit of virtue ethics, which evolved as a rejection of moral philosophy’s obsession with evaluating individual acts. Rosalind Hursthouse bemoans “the extreme recklessness of attributing a virtue on the basis of a single action”. One lapse does not make a person vicious, it is their general character that must be considered. Therefore, a virtue ethics account of sex selection has to account for the motivations, attitudes and characteristics of parents before pronouncing on their moral status.

However, there is a deeper point to be made against both the parental love and virtue ethics objections to sex selection: that they expect too much of parents. Even if we accept that a parent who fails to show proper parental love or the virtue of acceptance towards their children is in some way imperfective, it is not enough to show that they are negligent or incompetent. Herissone-Kelly has to concede that there are numerous well-functioning happy families where parents love their children, but simply fail to meet the (incredibly high) standards he demands. Similarly, many parents fail to be fully accepting, blame children for faults that are not their own and push them to be something they are not. Yet this one failing does not mean that they are unfit parents, or even that their children will be particularly harmed. Most parents are imperfect, rarely is love truly unconditional.