Let’s begin with Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionary biologist, who has said he wants this passage from his book Unweaving the Rainbow to be read at his funeral:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains ofArabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
This is supposed to soothe the mourners at a funeral, and I think the passage would be uplifting, but if you think about it, what Dawkins is saying is perplexing. Should we really see ourselves as lucky and the unborn ghosts as unlucky? And what are those unborn ghosts anyway? Are they real enough to matter?
Imagine a young couple hearing these words. If they took the speech literally, it could inspire them to do something about some of the unborn ghosts. They couldn’t do much, since the unborn are so numerous, but they could do something about a few. They could save the unborn child who would be formed out of the woman’s next fertilizable egg and one of the man’s sperm. That unborn child will be one of the unlucky ones if they decide not to have a child, and one of the lucky ones if they decide to do so. But is helping potential people really a cogent reason for prospective parents to procreate?
If it were, there would be an altruistic component to having children, a motivation focused on the good of our offspring. We’d have to admire people with large families for saving more potential people from the misfortune of never being born (remember, we are disregarding population issues). We would have to see them in somewhat the same way we see a person like the actress and activist Mia Farrow, who has adopted ten children, saving some of them from much less fortunate lives in developing countries. Is it right to give people with large families this sort of credit?
We are not (if you’re starting to wonder) talking here about saving immortal souls or any such thing. Unborn people, as Dawkins understands the phrase, are also not fetuses at some stage of development. Potential people are purely potential; they are specific people who could exist, or at least could have. Some are permanently locked out of existence. They would have grown from eggs and sperm that never had a chance to meet. Some potential people could still be helped into existence—the ones that would come of eggs and sperm that could still meet. They are saveable, salvageable, helpable—if people decide to become parents.
If procreating saves unborn children from the misfortune of nonexistence, it’s as if there were a cosmic orphanage teeming with potential existers, some capable of leaving it, but some not. Only you can help the would-be children formed from your gametes. The couple at the funeral hearing Dawkins’s words can help a different unborn child. But does any of this really make any sense? Do we help someone when we make a child, or is bringing someone into existence entirely different from “helping”?
Economist Bryan Caplan seems to think we do help people by creating them. He says as much in an interesting book with the odd title Selfish Reasons to Have More Children. We ought to have more children for selfish reasons, he says, but also for altruistic reasons. "To deny the gift of life to a child who would have made your life better is a tragic missed opportunity,” he writes. There are two different tragedies: you miss out (after all, the child "would have made your life better”), but the child misses out too (he or she is denied "the gift of life”).
Speaking of a gift of life is taking the unborn ghosts awfully seriously. They exist first without the gift (the idea must be), but as mere potentialities. Then they receive the gift, and they’re transported out of potentiality all the way to here—to the land of actuality. This is picturesque, but is it true?
Wittgenstein, in his later writings, warned against the way we can be bewitched by the superficial features of language. All noun phrases seem to refer to robust objects out there in the real world. "Tall people” refers to people who are tall, like the basketball player LeBron James, so you might think that "possible people” must refer to people who are possible—"out there” like James, though somehow less robust than him. If you think that way, you’re being seduced by the superficial similarity of the two phrases. But "tall” and "possible” don’t actually work the same way, logically. When we talk about possible people or things, we’re merely saying this or that could have happened, not that the real world actually contains a domain of ethereal, merely possible entities.
We are particularly susceptible to thinking of possible people as if they were actual (though ghost-like and wispy) and therefore eligible to be helped or abandoned. We wouldn’t be as tempted to think that artists rescue or abandon possible paintings when they decide to realize, or not realize, their artistic ideas. Possible people may seem more robust because their blueprints—encoded in the gametes of actual men and women—do exist. So they have something of a foothold in reality, before conception occurs. It’s also true that possible people have just one chance to become actual, and success is against all odds, since they (or their originating gametes) have to win a race against millions of other competitors. So they’re semi-actual, and they’re underdogs.
All this may explain the temptation to think that procreation is a rescue operation benefitting unborn children, but should we really think of it that way? This seems like the truth of the matter: nobody is really unfortunate, if parents decide not to have a child; nobody is actually left languishing in some cosmic orphanage. You don’t let down your possible progeny if you decide to remain childless, or if you limit the size of your family. Possible children are merely possible, and not “around” in the robust sense needed for them to count as unlucky when they don’t come into existence. Since they do not exist, they are not unlucky—or anything else.
If you do decide to have a child, nobody goes from worse to better; nobody starts out without the gift of life, and then receives the gift. Procreating is in a completely different category from helping, rescuing, saving, aiding—t hings we do to ameliorate someone’s condition. Procreation does not ameliorate at all, but rather it brings someone new into existence.