In modern society, a lot of people think that giving birth is either wrong if it leads to some suffering or at the very least non-morally optional. However, saving a life is considered good. Why is creating a life valued lower than saving one? Shouldn't a newly created person have more value than another person closer to death?

If everyone was destined to hypothetically go to heaven, would it not be a moral obligation to procreate as much as possible?

Even in cases where for example the fetus may have disabilities, would it not be better to be alive with disabilities than to not be alive at all? Most people with disabilities enjoy life and are grateful for existing. So why are abortions often times considered non-moral choices? At the very least, shouldn't the choice to not have an abortion be considered morally praiseworthy/supererogatory.

Shouldn't natalism and having large families be encouraged from a utilitarian perspective?

In summary, I am mainly confused and wanting to understand why modern societal philosophy seems to share this view. Are there any contemporary philosophers that give well-reasoned arguments about why existing persons take precedence over potential people?

  • For a problem for natalist utilitarianism, here, see about the Repugnant Conclusion. Nov 11, 2023 at 16:12
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    Also, if everyone goes to heaven, then presumably the powers of heaven can allow for the existence of new people with such a destination forever, so that reaching one trillion souls saved by time X seems little superior, if at all, to reaching the same number by time X + 1000 (years, say). Nov 11, 2023 at 22:34
  • Perhaps deciding what to do cannot be reduced to mathematics?
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 12, 2023 at 0:09
  • Creating life is usually not a deliberate act - animals make it all the time, even primitive organisms. Stanislaw Lem has an amusing story about a crazy inventor in a distant future, who creates a drug that makes sexual intercourse painful - to transform procreation from a pleasure to an effort in the name of the Communist society.
    – Roger V.
    Nov 13, 2023 at 8:05

3 Answers 3


Why do existing persons take precedence over potential people

There are likely many philosophers who speak to this in the areas of morality, ethics, and theology.

One place where this is central is the abortion debate, especially where we must decide between the mother's and child's life. I think everyone assumes letting both die is clearly bad. A seminal work in this area is A Defense of Abortion by Boonin(see section 4.8 specifically).

I also think KristianBerry makes a good point that "heaven can wait" (to paraphrase ;)

Does actual person > potential person?

In a general sense, I don't know if that is true. Here is a recent case in Texas where a man was sentenced to life without parole for the killing of a 5-week old fetus (the mother survived). Here we are taking away a man's freedom for the death of a potential person. Had the fetus been considered a part of the woman's body or some kind of property, then it would be assault or larceny, which generally carry lesser sentences.

But if we ignore criminals, then I'd argue that an actual person, who has actual losses to sustain and actual dreams that will be unfulfilled has way more to lose than a potential person's potential losses and dreams.

Of course, there are all sorts of edge cases that get brought up (e.g., like vegetative states). I don't claim that the above is at all conclusive, but it is the "elevator pitch" version of my thinking.

  • I guess the fundamental problem of why I am asking this is shouldn't men be obligated to be sperm donors? By doing so, they create people who's lives are good without the cost of anyone's lives. Yet, majority of utilitarian debate on birth is on how it impacts existing people (e.g. climate change, parental happiness etc) then it is on potential people. Also, why is it considered immoral to birth a person with disabilities and similutaneoulsy considered immoral to euthanize a person with disabilities for instance? Nov 12, 2023 at 9:56

To begin, the prevailing attitudes to abortion and other social issues are cultural, which means that you can expect them to be determined by a large number of factors, at least some of which may be irrational. You cannot assume that they reflect some sort of moral logic. For example, killing a young child seems abhorrent, whereas deciding to not have children does not. Do we have those views because we have completed some form of logical moral analysis based on first principles? No. Does that make them any less valid? No. That said, my personal take on the difference is that if a person is saved from death, much sadness and grief can be avoided, especially, for example, if the person is well loved, has a lot of dependents etc. You cannot say the same of deciding not to have children. From a less practical viewpoint, you might take the view that there is a difference between the rights of a human who exists and a human who does not, and give more weight to the former than the latter. You might also consider- forgive me from making the shocking assertion- that the mother's wishes might have a role to play in our deliberations on the matter. Perhaps mothers don't want to be endlessly bearing and raising new babies so that they can end up in heaven. Oh, and by the way, I think some people might take the view that the assumption that babies end up in heaven is just a fairy-tale that humans collectively will one day grow out of.

As for abortion, you can debate it as much as you like, but you can't rationalise your way to an answer that will satisfy everyone. Some people take the view that a fertilised egg is no more a human than an unfertilised one, and neither is an fertilised egg that has sub-divided into n cells. It is only when n reaches a large number that the cells collectively are considered to be sufficiently human like, and that is the loophole through which a lot of pro-abortion justification can be poured.

  • 1) I brought up the destined heaven as a thought experiment (tbh Im not religious at all). In particular, I was wondering why is there an assymetry regarding birthing in good conditions considered morally optional but birthing in bad conditions considered morally bad. I brought up the heaven thing because would it be a moral obligation to birth in a world that has 0 suffering (no negative utilitarianism could be applied then)? If you were to give birth and that did not negatively impact existing people (e.g. being a sperm donor) woudl that be morally obligatory, superogatory, or optional? Nov 13, 2023 at 7:43
  • Many thanks for the comment, but I think you missed my overall point which was that I think morality is a social phenomenon, and therefore the kind of analysis you are trying to perform is inherently subject to question. Nov 13, 2023 at 7:49

Read this Quora answer to a question about regret. A doctor, an army surgeon, answered. It seems he saved a man who had been injured by an explosive. 10 or so hours of surgery later the man was in a stable condition. Good job? No, according to the doc, this victim of a bomb was unable to eat/speak/move, he was in constant pain and I believe, after an agonizing week/so, he asked the doc, why did you save me?

Not an answer, but something worth pondering, oui?

If you want it straight from the horse's mouth, visit Quora.

  • I don't believe that all life is intrinsically good - its just that I think the world is pretty good and I'm wondering if it should be a moral obligation to add more awesome lives. Nov 19, 2023 at 5:53

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