Colloquium: Wide Procreative Beneficence

Thomas Douglas (co-authored with Katrien Devolder, Ghent)

Prospective parents sometimes face choices about what sort of children to have. This is most obviously the case in the context of in vitro fertilisation where parents can choose to make use of genetic information about their embryos to inform decisions about which of several embryos to implant to produce a child. Recent debate on genetic selection has focused largely on Procreative Beneficence, an ethical principle holding that prospective parents have significant moral reason to select, of the possible children they could have, the child with the best chance at the best life. Many have objected to this principle on the grounds that it is too demanding, restrictive or perfectionist. Some have suggested alternative weaker principles, for example, the minimal threshold principle, according to which prospective parents have significant moral reason to select a child expected to have a life worth living over any that is not.

Procreative Beneficence and the main suggested alternatives are all individualistic principles in the sense that they focus solely on the wellbeing of the future child, and not at all on the wellbeing of others affected by the selection decision. We propose that such individualistic principles should be replaced by a principle that we call Wide Procreative Beneficence. Wide Procreative Beneficence asserts that prospective parents have significant moral reasons to select a child expected to possess a set of traits at least as good as that of any alternative child they could have, where ‘good’ should be understood in a wide sense that takes into account both the wellbeing of the future child and that of others. An implication of Wide Procreative Beneficence is that parents should select children likely to possess traits with a pro-social element (for example, disinclination towards violent aggression). We (1) present the case for adopting this principle, (2) consider how it might be applied, drawing on some recent research in behavioural genetics, and (3) defend it against a range of objections.