Consider these two scenarios:

  1. Parent(s) have a child. Mother and father realize they cannot feed the child, so they kill it.

  2. Parent(s) think about having a child, but realize that they will not be able to feed it. They don't in the end.

Obviously one of these is pretty messed up, and the other is fairly normal. I'm wondering, how you can explain this from a moral/ethics standpoint though.

If you think about it from the perspective of an emotionless alien; the only real difference is that in scenario one the child got to live for a while. What am I missing?

  • 2
    Welcome to Philosophy.SE! What moral framework are you working with?
    – user2953
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 7:10
  • What do you mean by "the child got to live?" I ask that seemingly silly question because the definition of "living" and the "value of life" are quite nuanced parts of ethics. An emotionless alien may have trouble coming up with good definitions such that the result of those definitions does a good job of predicting human behavior. As an example, the Catholic faith believes in ensorclement, the point in time where a body receives a soul. After that point, it must be treated as a child with a soul rather than a lump of flesh, because the soul is what matters.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 15:44
  • 3
    An amusing instance of this idea is that vegetarianism is bad for cows. If everyone stopped eating beef, most cattle would not be bred for food, hence millions of cattle would not have the chance to live! So which is worse, breeding a cow then eating it? Or not breeding it at all?
    – user4894
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 20:16
  • Why would the emotionless (unaffected) alien even bother to consider the problem? Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 17:32
  • If you were the child to be killed, you might have objections. If you were a child that never existed, you would not exist, so you could not have objections.
    – tkruse
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 8:16

4 Answers 4


When a child has been fathered and is on its way to become a self-conscious being, it can feel pain (in particular when being killed) and can have hope for happieness. Therefore it is evil to kill it in a society where murder is considered evil.

When a child is not created, there is no child, no pain no hope. In addition, the billions of possibe configurations of children that could develop by chance after one sexual act but obviously cannot all be realized, makes it irrelevant whether one more remains unrealized.

  • When the child is dead, it cannot feel any more pain, it is not sad or hurt. I don't see how what happened before the death matters at all.
    – Tvde1
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 12:48

Consider what makes one wrong and the other NOT wrong: murder, or the taking of someone's life. Since the child in example 2 is not yet created the murder cannot be committed.

Additionally, killing a child they can't feed is not the parents' only option - adoption is also USUALLY an option - murder is a selfish act.

Moreover, you can't take this perspective to an 'emotionless alien' since they most likely will not have a moralistic worldview, making that irrelevant.

Finally, the people in example 2 cannot be called parents, since they didn't actually conceive and bear a child. :)


On a surface level, the end result seems to be the same and if one would assign a value to a situation only depending on the existence of lives it would be the same.

However, once a person exists, it is no longer the same for that person. The prospect of having one's existence terminated and never existing to begin with are not the same and the former is usually considered undesirable, i.e. it usually has a negative ethical value assigned to it, like explicitly suffering, while the later usually has a neutral value. Therein lies the difference.

  • When I am dead, does it matter if I died peacefully or violently? I don't think there is some magic "negative energy" released into the universe or anything. Dead is dead.
    – Tvde1
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 12:52

Although I think it is not wrong (as dead people will not be hurt or sad), evolution has led us to feel it is wrong.

It makes sense that a species which feels bad about death of others, outlives other species that do not care about life and death. Our feeling of "right" and "wrong" is a result of hundereds of thousands of years of evolution, to create a species that preserves itself.

But logically, I don't see much of a difference in both of your scenarios. Your instincts will call me crazy when I say that the dead child is not unhappy/hurt/whatever, and that the hurt that might have existed moments before death is irrelevant. I don't think there is some kind of magical negative energy released in the world when the child dies. Of course the only impact is on the parents and the people that know what happened. As long as they can cope with it, it's okay.

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