Ira W. DeCamp Bioethics Seminar
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In a recent case in the UK, a 20-year-old woman with spina bifida brought an action against her mother’s physician for failing to advise her to take folic acid supplements for several months before becoming pregnant. The court ruled in the woman’s favor, accepting her claim that, had the physician not acted negligently, the mother would have had a healthy child. Yet this healthy child would have been a different child. So the physician’s omission was not worse, or on balance bad, for the plaintiff, who has a life that is well worth living. If anything, it benefited her. So on what basis can she claim a right to compensation? I consider whether the court might have justified its decision by appealing to Parfit’s “No-Difference View,” which asserts that it makes no moral difference whether a bad effect is worse for anyone. I will consider as well whether there is a requirement to cause a better-off individual to exist rather than a different, less well-off individual, or whether it might be permissible to cause the less well-off individual to exist. Also, does it matter to whether an agent is liable to pay damages in a case of wrongful life what the agent’s intentions were? Finally, is a claim of wrongful life better grounded if the explanation of why the individual ought not to have been caused to exist concerns suffering in the individual’s life rather than a comparative lack of benefits?
Jeff McMahan is Sekyra and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (OUP, 2002) and Killing in War (OUP, 2009). He is currently writing a book based on his 2019 Rutgers Lectures called The Ethics of Creating, Saving, and Ending Lives.
Respondent: Adam Lerner, Department of Philosophy (Princeton University)