Imagine you are pregnant, or the husband of a mother-to-be.

You live in a world which is brutal; relentlessly cruel.

Prior to birth, an offer is submitted to you:

"Bring your child into the horrible reality of this world, or abandon it to an artificial, illusory, virtual life in which it will not suffer; in which it will enjoy only that much pain as is necessary to experience pleasure and in which it will thrive as a creative, kind, intelligent being for the remainder of its life".

The child's thoughts are not the thoughts of an autonomous individual. Their thoughts (including the decisions they make) are provided by a machine. The child's experience of autonomy is entirely false.

The child is an infant; incapable of consent. You must decide whether or not to submit your child to this machine.

You believe either that abortion is unethical or do not have access to abortion services.

Does autonomy always trump wellbeing?

What might this thought experiment teach us about what is truly important to us? (Would you make the same decision for yourself as you would for your child?).

Are there any dialogues which tackle this quandary? It seems a plausible situation, given the trajectory of relevant technologies. It seems to have parallels with ethical discourse on the gene-editing of babies, and with antinatalism: IEP: Antinatalism, The New Yorker: The Case For Not Being Born.

There is also an apparent relevance to talk of causal determinism. If agency is only illusory, do we retain autonomy in any sense other than in a merely an illusory fashion?

Any personal answers to the dilemma are more than welcome if they make reference to a moral/ethical logic/rationale which points to moral/ethical theories which may be further researched.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 19:17
  • Agency isn't merely illusory, it is the only thing that matters.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 16:48

3 Answers 3


This is a case of what the literature calls paternalism, which since John Stuart Mill comes down to limiting the autonomy of a person in order to prevent possible harm from or for the supposed benefit of a person.

Disclaimer: This answer reflects only the academic position and discussion, which is thoroughly based on western thought because of institutional reasons (money and established publishers).

Definition and basic criteria

An SEP article defines paternalism as follows:

“[P]aternalism” may be defined as the intentional overriding of one person’s known preferences or choices by another person, where the person who overrides justifies the action by the goal of substantially benefiting or avoiding harm to the person whose preferences or choices are overridden.

To judge the case, we should look at certain criteria. Luckily, those are pretty unanimously agreed upon, as said article points out:

Though no consensus exists over the justification of paternalism, virtually no one thinks that benefit paternalism can be justified unless at least the following conditions are satisfied:

  • A person is at risk of a substantial and preventable harm or loss of a benefit.
  • The paternalistic action has a strong likelihood of preventing the harm or obtaining the benefit.
  • The projected benefits of the paternalistic action outweigh its risks.
  • The least autonomy-restrictive alternative that will secure the benefits or reduce the risks is implemented.


Given that we are talking of medical paternalism regarding an unborn child, the following possibly applies:

Paternalistic decision making is not problematic if the person in question is incompetent (source)

The problem is: Even as the infant may not be able of consent yet, it certainly would become eventually.

Now, taken the criteria, we may ask ourselves point by point:

  1. Is simply being born into the world like everyone else harm? I think you will be hard-pressed to argue that point. Arguably, we may say that reducing painful experience to an absolute minimum would count as a benefit.
  2. Since this is a premise of your question, it is a given.
  3. Risks are not discussed in your question but they are an important part of the evaluation: Can it be guaranteed that the illusion is complete and can be believingly and technically sustained for the whole duration of this infant's life? Since if not, how great is the suffering that will come from a failure?
  4. Is this really the best, least-limiting measure to ease the 'pain' of living? I think this is the crucial point where your case fails. We cannot possibly know the course of history, who knows how much suffering can be lowered by e.g. fusion energy? We cannot know the preferences, career, and decisions this infant would experience in a normal life. General suffering is very different from individual suffering so there is a lot of conjecture. Also, we would steal a part of the richness of life, maybe more than the taking away of suffering can ever benefit that person. Human life is also about overcoming and growing through obstacles. And we'd ultimately take away all of the possible coming autonomy of that person, not just regarding one specific question. Last but not least, what if we lose our next Einstein?

In summary, because of epistemic reasons we cannot justify such extreme, irreversible measures.


As you can see from my short discussion, current academia does by no means think that autonomy always trumps benefit. Autonomy is regarded as quite high a value, though, so much so that there are very hard criteria even for limiting autonomy for a given amount of time or regarding a certain question. Taking it away from a person for good which is or will become perfectly capable of it does not seem to be considered ethical in any way.

  • Mmmm. I see upon reading your answer that my description of a "world which is brutal; relentlessly cruel", is perhaps vague. 'Relentlessly cruel' is not necessarily equivalent to 'overwhelmingly or insurmountably cruel'. So, in the absence of greater detail, it would be unreasonable to expect a confident answer from either a parent or reader. As Haxor points out, eternal separation - for the parent - is akin to death of a sort, so a parent would be in a kind of unresolvable dilemma and might choose the real world due to indecision if anything else. Nice work with the Paternalism angle. Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 15:44
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    The movie Cloud Atlas presents this kind of scenario well, and the people in it choose their autonomy over any benefits. Life without choice is not really life.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 16:53
  • @PhilipKlöcking. Also, by "unreasonable to expect a confident answer from either a parent or reader", I wasn't referring to you as a reader : ), or that your answer wasn't confident or useful (on the contrary). I was merely admitting that any reader who was trying to determine which choice to make (as the parent) might find the choice difficult given I had provided no reliable means of knowing whether their child would prove capable of overcoming the vague 'relentless cruelty' of the world, or whether it would be better off in the wellbeing machine. Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 17:10
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    @Futilitarian No worries, that's not how I understood your comment. Yes, the question is underdetermined to serve as something to base such an important decision on. But I'd argue it is necessarily so because it involves projections way into the future and this leads to epistemic limitations which render any sufficient justification impossible (see edits).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 19:12

It depends on how much both are valued.

I would assume in an ethical framework rooted in Christianity, autonomy would be valued higher than well-being (might depend on the flavor of Christianity though). Only by giving choice between good and bad choices (with associated suffering) can a person grow into a "good" person. A person that just does good because there is no choice, is not a "good" person (nor a "bad" one). Suffering serves many purposes and is not "just bad and to be avoided at all costs". So, suffering should be reduced but other things are valuable enough that reducing suffering at their cost would be counter-productive.

An ethical framework rooted in Buddhism might give well-being a higher value than autonomy. The goal is to get rid of suffering. (This I say as someone who doesn't know this religion very well, so take with a grain of salt).

I don't see the parallels with gene-editing (as it would remove suffering without taking away autonomy), but very much with anti-natalism. The supposed choice here is between a life with suffering, or no life at all. Again, the answer depends on how the ethical framework sees the value of life/autonomy vs. suffering.

  • What I was getting at with the gene editing was that, if the baby was placed into the virtual realm, he or she would have no say in it. It would be the decision of the parent. The baby would grow up within the virtual world having made no decision to be there, and having no idea about the reality from which they had been 'saved'. Similarly, a gene-edited baby grow up bearing the gifts or curses of the parent(s) who bestow upon them a kind of artificiality; one which they might be unable to undo. Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 14:07
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    In Buddhism, suffering ends by gaining control over your mind. Like how falling down ends when a baby learns to walk. Putting the baby in leg braces isn't the solution.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 17:01
  • @ScottRowe Ok, I don't know Buddhism well, only that "ending suffering" is a goal. Do you happen to know frameworks where sacrifice of autonomy is preferable over suffering?
    – kutschkem
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 7:07
  • Since suffering can be mitigated and loss of autonomy cannot, I would say, no.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 11:58

You make the assumption that well-being and autonomy are two different and separable things, but are they?

Like this is not just an iteration of the matrix where you plug a real person into a simulation where they interact with event, right? I mean you argue that you want to simulate their decisions and make them for them. Which would either not work and create a terrible discomfort for the person because their own decisions would be overridden and they had no idea why which might drive them insane or encourages them to act irrational to retain their agency, making it borderline impossible for any machine to keep up with that. Or you'd essentially make them a zombie, who has no mind of their own at which point you didn't really so much save a child but a psychological corpse or a body in a vegetative state. And whether such an organism can even experience well being is quite debatable.

It also presupposes answers to the mind body problem. Because if mind and body are interlinked than putting one to sleep and playing with the other would also radically alter your psychology, for better or for worse. So idk if that doesn't 100% works and there's reason to believe that it doesn't given no such device exist or is realistically conceivable, it might end up with a state where the user is trying to hurt themselves just to "feel" something, because parts of their body tell them that something is wrong and they want to tickle that itch to see where it is, unable to find it in the simulation.

And depending on the model autonomy is a part of well-being, so at some point the well-being machine is bound to fail it's job when it cannot produce autonomy. Like even without unnecessary brutality people wouldn't think of prisons as positive despite basically being well-being machines offering you with lots of spare time, free food and close contact to other people. But even if it's not a penal institution for people with problems but just regular people under unfree conditions would probably be closer to torture. Now if you've never experienced anything else you might be able to better cope with it, but I'd still think it would leave you with a lack of well-being.

And on the other hand if you you have no well-being then you're thoughts are likely occupied with the questions of how to change that. Even your autonomy in terms of deciding for yourself how to tackle the challenges that you face relies on you being sufficiently well off to not act instinctually. So yeah if the alternative is death, anything else would probably be better, at least it would buy you time to find something better and I think that would be the main motivation for parents to take that option. I don't think anybody would pick it if they had a better alternative.

I mean there are people in the real world who make that decision, who live in regions of crisis and send their kinds to relatives far away or even to strangers in hopes of giving them a better chance at live. So I guess there would be a strong urge for that, but not if there were any better alternatives.

Also can other people determine what well-being means for you? I mean beyond some very basic things that doesn't really work and we see it fail quite frequently and the autonomy to decide for yourself what is well-being is often quite essential for your well-being.

Idk it's kind of your trolley problem where you have to chose between two evils and in a realistic solution problem just worry till you pick one.

Last but not least there is the practical component of your thought experiment, in that it's quite unlikely that a highly destabilized society with rampant violence and death would be capable of building such a machine. And if they do they'd probably not do it for the convenience of the children but to run simulations on them with real life participants and as simulations are usually run on edge cases that might be very unpleasant.

Like you don't have to overthink it, but suppose you're not dealing with a mindset of hard determinism in real life but with people who do in fact have autonomy, then this scenario would basically be a computer game and you'd each and every move of the player would either create another universe or they would rather sooner than later find spots where the developers didn't expect you to go. Like the amount of processing power that would be required to render a perfect world that wouldn't feel like torture to you and that implements autonomy without having it would definitely be too much for your wasteland scenario.

  • Autonomy & wellbeing are distinct concepts, but of course they interact. I would never claim otherwise. The question is one of priority here, not exclusion. "Wouldn't that be technically the same as killing them?". I would way prefer my child be in such a machine, experiencing bliss, than to imagine them dead. Injecting new elements into the scenario may be interesting, but unhelpful here. You've raised some interesting topics to think about, but they are tangential to the question. You don't seem to have addressed the dilemma or pointed to sources which might address it. Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 12:24
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… For example your Wiki article mentions models that do not even treat them as distinct concepts. But your scenario would because it would remove autonomy completely, so it is exclusion not just priority. Of course if it were temporary people would probably favor well-being, in the hopes that they can catch up on autonomy later because the other way around is difficult but golden cage suicides are not unheard of so for a permanent solution as proposed things are not as trivial.
    – haxor789
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 12:56
  • "I would way prefer my child be in such a machine, experiencing bliss, than to imagine them dead. " That's probably a comforting thought, but it's a thought that doesn't work or which depends on a certain conception of what it means to be a human. Like that's like the question of whether you should unplug life support for a brain dead person. Sure it's a comforting thought that they could wake up from that, but would they?
    – haxor789
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 12:58
  • I get what you mean, but we're talking at cross-purposes. By "The question is one of priority here, not exclusion", I mean to say that I'm not making any claim that wellbeing and autonomy don't interact; that they are in any way mutually exclusive. I explicitly state than in the dilemma posed, the child is robbed of autonomy. This is central to the problem. 'Golden cage suicides' are interesting to contemplate, but again, rendered of only tangential relevance to this scenario as presented, in which the child suffers, "only that much pain as is necessary to experience pleasure". Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 13:03
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    Maybe instead of putting so much effort in to building a machine, they could put effort in to improving their situation?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 16:59

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