The ethics of conception and the concept of harm: A defense of a child-centered ethical appeal
Malek, Janet Irene
Doctor of Philosophy
Ethicists have discussed many different aspects of the difficult decisions parents face concerning when and how to conceive children. However, the perspective of those who will be most dramatically affected by conception decisions, namely, the children who will be brought into existence because of those decisions, has been underrepresented in the ethical dialogue. The scarcity of scholarship that takes the possible child's perspective into account is largely due to the work of philosopher Derek Parfit. Parfit has argued that it is impossible for a child to be negatively affected by the decision to conceive her as long as her life is worth living because if a different conception decision had been made, the child never would have existed at all. This unintuitive conclusion has deterred many philosophers from exploring the implications of conception decisions for possible children in any significant way. However, in my dissertation I show that Parfit's conclusions can be avoided and the effect of conception decisions on a possible child's well-being can and should be taken into account. My purpose was to define and defend a child-centered ethical appeal to be taken into account in the consideration of conception decisions. The dissertation has three specific objectives: (1) To develop a view of what parents owe their children from a moral standpoint. I propose accounts of the interests of children and of the obligations of parents; (2) To demonstrate that this account of parental obligations applies to the decision to conceive a child in spite of Derek Parfit's objections. I show where Parfit's arguments are problematic and demonstrate that his conclusions are therefore unwarranted. I suggest that a slightly modified understanding of the concept of harm can make the idea of conception as a harm philosophically coherent; and (3) To demonstrate how the inclusion of a child-centered appeal yields more satisfactory ethical analyses for cases involving the decision to conceive. In essence, the arguments laid out in this dissertation open conceptual space for the inclusion of a child-affecting perspective in ethical analyses of conception decisions. The appeal I propose is a step toward filling this new space.