Expected Value of A Fetus

February 2, 2009 | 39 comments
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A thoughtful reader asked me if there were any economic tools that could be brought to bear in valuing a fetus.  Of course there are!  And in fewer than a 1000 words, no less!

First, let’s clean the docket a little as to what we want.  We would like to know how much a spirit values the fetus that will, barring tragedy, become its home.  We aren’t going to look at the cost side (today, anyway), nor are we evaluating how much God might value the life.  Not that these aren’t important, but rather, one blog post can only aspire so far. 

Suppose B represents the value of a newborn baby to the spirit inhabiting it.  If we were to convert B into dollars it might be around 2-6 million dollars for babies born in the U.S,  based on the numbers used by policy-makers for a statistical life in other contexts.

Now, as best I can tell, the crucial question for the spirit becomes, “When am I irrevocably attached to that body?”.  In most discourse, this is something like “When does humanity begin”.  If the spirit can switch to another body, should something happen to the first, well the value of the fetus plummets, because it is no longer the unique gateway into mortality; much like missing the train is not as big a deal if there will be another one in ten minutes.  On the other hand, if that fetus is uniquely attached to that spirit, then, once we’ve reached that point of irrevocable attachment, the value of the fetus is going to be very close to B (though perhaps slightly less owing to the possibility of mishap).

And so we are left in a difficult spot.  We, or at least most of us, recognize that there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty about when the fetus and the spirit are uniquely connected.  We can readily limit ourselves to say it is somewhere between fertilization of the egg and  birth, but beyond that it can get pretty dicey. 

I wrote a little about uncertainty in the context of global warming and California’s Prop 8; we’ll use similar tools here.  Instead of asserting beyond our knowledge that humanity begins at some discrete point, a better approach, from a policy perspective, is to define a set of possibilities and work from that.  Assign the probability, for every week from 1 to 40, with birth as a special end case, that the fetus has gained humanity by that point.  Then the “expected value” of the fetus is B times that probability.  It is not, by the way, the actual value of the fetus, which is unknown and, for us, unknowable.  It is our best guess of that value. 

Example 1:  We assign a steady, uniformly increasing probability to the fetus being human (meaning beyond then it is in some sense irrevocably attached to a given spirit).  Thus the chance that a 10 week old fetus is, in this sense, human is 10/40, or 25%.  A 22 week old would be 22/40.  In that case, the expected value of a 10 week old is about one quarter that of a newborn.  If the value of a newborn is around 3 million, for example, then the value of a 10 week old fetus, in expectation, would be about $750,000.  Remember that we don’t know the actual value, this is just our best guess.

Example 2:  I assign a small probability in the early months, that rises rapidly as I hit viability.  Thus I might think the chance of a newly fertilized egg being human are one in 100 (or one in a million), but by the time I get to week 25 the probability is close to 1.  Depending on how I assign the intermediate probabilities, a 10 week old might be worth anywhere from B/1000000 to close to B.  By somewhere around week 25, the baby is worth about B until brought to term.   

So where in the world could we get such probabilities?  Shy of God revealing them, we have to be somewhat fanciful.  We could perhaps conduct a vote based on a “wisdom of the masses” sort of argument.  Not, by the way, a vote of “when do you think humanity begins”, but rather “how likely is it that humanity begins by week X”.  Or we could use a uniform distribution like that in the first example as an expression of our ignorance – until we know more. 

Current policy, and this is crucial to understand, does not avoid this problem.  It currently acts, as best I can tell, as if the probability was almost completely stacked up around birth.  This is probably not what you would get from a poll.  In other words, you cannot get away from this problem by ignoring it.  We can infer back from current policy what we are implicitly assuming about when humanity begins.  Given then, that we have to make some choice, we might be better off thinking about it up front, rather than hiding from what we are assuming.

This post is long enough, so I won’t go into a lot of detail on this, but suppose we knew, hypothetically, that a ten week old baby’s value was around B/20 or approximately $150,000 (i’m making this up, but you can infer back from the above examples what assumptions would give you that number).  Then we might begin thinking seriously about whether or not prospective aborters internalized the full weight of that cost.  If, for example, what pregnancy delivered were not a baby, but rather $150,000 in cash,  I’m guessing the number of abortions in the U.S. would drop like a rock.

So if whoever is making the abortion choice, whether it be parents, grandparents, or a single mother, are not internalizing that cost, we’d want to think about how to get them to face the full weight of it, so that they can make a socially optimal decision.  Much like we often wish to tax polluters to make them internalize the full social cost of their pollution.

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39 Responses to Expected Value of A Fetus

  1. Matt Evans on February 2, 2009 at 1:42 am

    Very interesting, Frank. Help me understand the theory you’re applying:

    — what is the theoretical context for how a spirit would assign a dollar value to its body? Wouldn’t dollars be like Monopoly money to a spirit?

    — what is the theoretical rationale for why a spirit might value their body at $3 million but not $6 million?

    Maybe I’d understand the model better if you explained how it would apply to the analogy I use to explore how we should treat a fetus given our epistemological obstacles to know its humanity:

    Imagine the rule we’d want hunters to follow in circumstances where they see something moving in the bushes, but can’t tell whether or not it’s a lost Cub Scout. How certain would we want a hunter to be that it was NOT a lost Cub Scout stuck in the bushes before he opened fire? I trust that most people would choose a rule prohibiting hunters from shooting their rifles at things moving in the bushes until the hunter is 100% certain that it’s not a Cub Scout.

    How would this scenario be analyzed in the theoretical model you’re using above?

  2. Dan on February 2, 2009 at 8:06 am

    Frank,

    So if whoever is making the abortion choice, whether it be parents, grandparents, or a single mother, are not internalizing that cost, we’d want to think about how to get them to face the full weight of it, so that they can make a socially optimal decision.

    You’re thinking like a man here. Tell me what pregnant woman will ever consider such cold, calculating, sterile thoughts as she is considering whether to abort or not her fetus. Maybe if you gave her $150,000 in cash (or even payments over time), she might reconsider. But based on abstract philosophizing?

    There are far too many unknowns in this world to try and make a reasoned judgment as to the value of a fetus. In the grand scheme of things, of course, it isn’t too hard. God has promised that everyone that accepts Jesus and makes the everlasting covenant, will eventually become a God. This is open to every single person. But in terms of the events of this life, a fetus’s value isn’t very high. There are six billion some odd people on this planet right now. Losing a few million here and there really doesn’t dramatically affect the human race. Where it does affect, of course, which we can’t really judge, is future people being born. Who knows if another Albert Einstein happened to have been aborted. Who knows if another Adolf Hitler happened to be aborted. But those arguments, I don’t think, can be used, because we simply cannot know what kind of spirit is attached to each new fetus.

    The church’s position is that abortion should be allowed in extreme cases where the life of the mother (who happens to already be here on earth) is in danger. Apparently, according to the church, the life of the mother is more valuable than the life of the fetus. That should raise a question about the true value of a fetus for you. If we attempt to translate value in terms of dollars, it would seem that the value of a human being rises with age, and that a fetus, on its own, is not that valuable, at least not the same as that of a grown human, that is if you had to choose between the two. If you had to choose between the life of a grown human and the life of an unborn fetus, apparently the church feels that the grown human is of more worth in this world. This of course, takes into account the value of that grown human to others who love that human (like the husband and possibly other children that mother has).

    Personally, I like the church’s position. The choice of an abortion should be that of the woman’s, but taken only in extreme circumstances, where the life of the mother is at stake, or when she was raped, etc. There are many other good families out there who want to raise up adopted children.

  3. Ugly Mahana on February 2, 2009 at 8:26 am

    I’m not sure that Frank is thinking like a man so much as like an economist. He set out a specific question at the beginning of the post, and then answered that question at the end, with his reasoning in between. He added some thoughts on the possible effects of his conclusion, but did not make any policy prescriptions. It was sterile, true, but Frank’s a dismal scientist.

    Or maybe he was trying to make a move to the right of the brethren, and deserves to be reprimanded by the bloggernacle thought-police.

  4. Frank McIntyre on February 2, 2009 at 9:32 am

    Matt,

    The idea is that the spirit will occupy a full-grown body (barring events that preclude that) and so at that point would be able to contract with money.

    The dollar value comes from estimates used in policy contexts for valuing a statistical life. Those values range from a little over a million to more like 6 million, depending on the group involved. There is a connected literature that notes how much money it takes to get people to take life threatening risks, which comes up with comparable numbers. The whole area is tough to work with, but one can probably get within an order of magnitude.

    Dan,

    You know that nothing you said really contradicts the points I am making in my post, right? The post very much allows for the fact that living people could be valued more than fetuses. And I think Mahana perfectly explained the way to think about this post.

    “Tell me what pregnant woman will ever consider such cold, calculating, sterile thoughts as she is considering whether to abort or not her fetus. Maybe if you gave her $150,000 in cash (or even payments over time), she might reconsider. But based on abstract philosophizing?”

    Actually, our public policy might wish to consider giving or requiring cash payments or some other reallocation. So it sounds like we agree that such things could affect decisions. If you think I wrote the post in the hopes that it would, in and of itself, convince a woman not to abort a baby, well rest assured that I don’t. This is an attempt to think through just one, but a rather important one, of the many issues surrounding unborn children. One can just as readily apply it to thinking how much we should spend, societally or individually, to try to save babies threatened with miscarriage.

  5. Last Lemming on February 2, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Taking this logic to its extreme, we can estimate the value to a spirit of any given unfertilized egg. Upon ovulation, there is a nonzero probability that the woman will have intercourse with a compatible man resulting in fertilization and an embryo that would be uniquely matched to that spirit. Refraining from sexual activity with said man carries a cost to the spirit that is almost certainly not internalized by the woman. Were those costs internalized, she would perhaps be engaging in a lot more sex than she currently is.

  6. Dan on February 2, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Frank,

    I don’t think I was disagreeing with you much. The only real quibble I had with you was the cold calculus, which I didn’t think that a pregnant woman (particularly a younger one, a teenager) would really take into consideration. As to the rest, I was just laying out my own thoughts on the matter, and it seems we do essentially agree. :)

  7. Frank McIntyre on February 2, 2009 at 10:31 am

    LL,

    I was wondering along those lines too, but I don’t think it works. A spirit not uniquely attached to the body will still get to mortality no matter what happens to a given unfertilized egg. If that is true, the value of a given egg does not really latch on to the value of a newborn.

    On the other hand, those who believe that there is no pre-existence would perhaps need to think along exactly those lines.

    Dan,

    I think we agree, too. Of course, I suppose were we to offer the young woman $30,000 not to abort, or charge some sort of community service fee for aborting a fetus, the question would become much more immediate.

  8. queuno on February 2, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Any female economists who can comment?

  9. Kaimi on February 2, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Frank,

    Why do we assume that the spirit adheres only once the egg is fertilized? Can’t just as good an argument can be made that every egg and sperm cell is the carrier of spirit? (Cue the Monty Python song, “Every Sperm is Sacred.”)

  10. Steve Evans on February 2, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Queuno, I believe your question is “any female economists?”

  11. Frank McIntyre on February 2, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Kaimi,

    “Can’t just as good an argument can be made that every egg and sperm cell is the carrier of spirit?”

    No, I don’t think it can (and I doubt you do), but certainly that would be a possibility you could factor in if you felt differently; the same type of analysis would work.

    Steve, I’d guess about 20-30% of economists are female. Top econ doctoral programs these days are typically about half female.

  12. Steve Evans on February 2, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Frank, I would estimate you to be no more than 20% female.

  13. Frank McIntyre on February 2, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Steve, I think that’s a safe upper bound.

  14. Starfoxy on February 2, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    If, for example, what pregnancy delivered were not a baby, but rather $150,000 in cash, I’m guessing the number of abortions in the U.S. would drop like a rock.

    I don’t think it is really very forthright to be making assertions like this in posts where the costs of pregnancy and childrearing aren’t even addressed. Anyone would take a one time cash payment of $150,000 if there were no associated costs. And the fact remains that in this economy and in strictly economic terms children are not assets, or investments, they are liabilities.

  15. Frank McIntyre on February 2, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    “I don’t think it is really very forthright to be making assertions like this in posts where the costs of pregnancy and childrearing aren’t even addressed.”

    The idea is that, given whatever those current costs are, and they can be substantial, people don’t internalize the value to the born child. Thus if they did, some fraction of them who were close to the dividing line would probably change their mind.

    Also, I think I wrote that part wrong. It should be a hypothetical where you have the baby _plus_ $150,000 (or however much you wish to put in your hypothetical). The way I wrote it sounds like we’re replacing one with the other.

    “And the fact remains that in this economy and in strictly economic terms children are not assets, or investments, they are liabilities.”

    Exactly. But having a body is an asset to the person born, and we may doubt that some fraction of prospective parents fully internalize that benefit to the child. This post attempts to think about how that asset should be valued pre-birth. It need not be in dollars, one can also think in terms of fractions of the value of a newborn, B, — however you want to think about, or denominate, that.

  16. Kaimi on February 2, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Frank,

    Isn’t there an inherent problem in valuing the damage done to a being who may not yet exist?

    For example, ask a #7 child how she values her life. She’ll give some number, say $5 million. Her parents’ decision to have her, therefore, was worth $5 million to her.

    So, you now go to a family with six children, who are planning on having no more. And you inform them that they are depriving their as-yet-unconceived seventh child of $5 million in future value.

  17. Kaimi on February 2, 2009 at 1:26 pm
  18. Jeremiah J. on February 2, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    I like this law-and-economics approach to the extent that it comes closer to getting the incentives to match up with how much people want to do wrong. But I don’t like it inasmuch as it implies that a life only has value to the extent that it has subjective value to particular individuals. In fact it’s wrong to murder even a suicidal, hated person. And it seems like it’s a wrong not just to that particular person’s interests, but to some objective right that all persons participate in.

    I’ve never really liked the when-does-the-spirit-”attach”-to-the-body arguments, for several reasons (though your “probability” and the “wisdom of the people” way of dealing with it is pretty clever). In this context I think the problem is that it assigns a positive value to an option to live, assuming that an unborn spirit would view this choice the same way we do. We have some vague sense that spirits want to be born and live for some significant period of time. Would they, however, be willing to *pay* in order to come into existence and live to accountability rather than being killed at a very early age (even before birth) and rise to the celestial kingdom? Most of the time *we* would readily pay to continue living, because we have a more developed survival instinct, and we have ongoing projects in this world that we’d like to see completed, a fear of the pain of death, etc. The unborn don’t have these same reasons to pay to go on living that we do, and would probably approach the choice differently. They might value prolonged life much more or perhaps much less.

    Another problem, which you acknowledge in #7, is that this discussion of the value of life requires strong theological assumptions (i.e. pre-mortal existence). This strikes me as unnecessary in the context of abortion because we already have strong non-religious moral intuitions about the value of life. What’s more, the common Mormon claim that at some point in development the body *doesn’t* have a spriit attached to it (and might therefore be dead matter) undercuts the moral implications of the straightforward biological observation that it’s some kind of life.

  19. Frank McIntyre on February 2, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Kaimi,

    Fortunately for us, we have some pre-existence doctrines to help us out of this quandary. But even if not, I don’t think there is any economic difficulty with thinking about the issue using expected probabilities. The real problem people have is that it would imply that the socially optimal thing is to have vastly more children — and people would not like that conclusion even if it follows from reasonable assumptions.

    One way to get around that is if you said that people don’t care being alive, they just are scared of dying (or something like that). Then they would still report high values to their life, but the unconceived would be treated differently as they would not ever die. I am sure there is something to that idea, but I would still guess that a fair chunk of the value we attach to life is separable from a fear of dying. It is for me anyway.

    Of course, many of the same issues arise when thinking about global warming, where the costs are incurred by the as yet unborn. We actually don’t even know how many people will be alive to be affected by global warming. But we can make best guesses.

    As for the article you link to, this is exactly the same kind of analysis, and a much more standard example. But a deep flaw with these kinds of analyses is that they fail to account for the huge externality _on_ the unborn. It’s like doing a cost-benefit analysis of immigration policy but ignoring the effect on the immigrant. Some people do it, but it’s poor practice.

  20. Frank McIntyre on February 2, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Jeremiah,

    I think those are excellent points. Of course, this posts does not try to lay out _all_ the costs and benefits, just tries to think carefully about one of them.

    As for the Mormonness of it, being able to assume our doctrine is why T&S is fun. But, as my conversation with Kaimi discusses, you certainly don’t have to assume pre-existence to ask the same kinds of questions.

  21. greenfrog on February 2, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Frank,

    What a fun thought-experiment!

    A couple of side-thoughts:

    1. I’d question the assumption that current law uses a flat (at zero) curve until birth. Blackmun’s opinion in Roe v. Wade seems to draw increasingly stringent lines as gestation progresses.

    2. If we accept the LDS doctrine of pre-existence to give form and shape to the thought experiment and if we posit unique spirit/body attachment (ditching MMPs, for instance), then shouldn’t we also posit the “death before accoutability=celestial kingdom)” doctrine? I think that might change the equations some, depending on whether spirits prefer the drama and uncertainty of mature earth life over the certainty of celestial glory. If they do, that also raises some interesting questions.

    3. As to your point in 19, I’m not sure the conclusions about social optimums follows from the reasoning of your thought experiment. If we assume (as I thought you did) that the relevant value attaches only when body and spirit become uniquely bonded, then the hypothetical (i.e., pre-conception) optimum number of bodies generated per woman depends on a net present value calculation. Since we don’t (and, I’d venture, can’t) know the discount rate of a body today vs. a body ten years or ten decades or ten millenia from now, we can’t conclude that it’s socially optimal to reproduce like bunnies today.

  22. Frank McIntyre on February 2, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    1. I think that is right, for the original decision. My limited understanding was that later decisions tended not to allow for much differentiation. But certainly that original decision might have been more in line with allowing increasing value as birth nears.

    2. That’s a great point. I think, though, that the fact that God seems to want us to come here might make me hesitant to jump into that too readily. I have trouble, frankly, thinking that humans have the power to arbitrarily assign people to the Celestial kingdom by killing them young. Thus I am inclined to think there is more going on in the background that we don’t know about God’s role in all that.

    3. In 19 I was entertaining an alternative hypothesis that Kaimi advanced, where bodies (or eggs) are linked to spirits pre-conception. I find it a silly notion, but I was just trying to work through the implications. I agree that in the original formulation I gave it, no such conclusion about reproduction is forthcoming.

  23. greenfrog on February 2, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Interesting thoughts.

    One further: while for the purposes of this experiment, it makes sense to think of bodies and spirits separately, the more I contemplate such things, the less sense I see in separating them.

    I realize that doctrinally, we make such distinctions, but when it comes down to it, I can’t imagine a human body up and running without a human spirit embodied in it. Nor can I readily imagine a human spirit not associated with a body. Now that may reflect a lack of imagination on my part, but there I am. Everytime I pick out a characteristic that I want to ascribe exclusively to “spirit,” I run into an account of someone with a particular brain impact or condition that seems to demonstrate that the characteristic I thought of as unique to spirit is absolutely dependent upon a particular arrangement of physical matter.

    A decade or so ago, a dear friend in my ward developed brain cancer, which was (blessedly) operable. The cancer was removed, and she was restored to full health.

    The only weird part — while the body and memories were unquestionably the same person before and after surgery, the personality was truly, deeply different. That quality that I thought of as Sister X before the surgery was gone, replaced by a different Sister Y. Not better, not worse, but completely different.

    Notwithstanding those kinds of facts, I still enjoyed this conceptual exercise.

    Thanks.

  24. z on February 2, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    Why don’t you try to assign a dollar amount to the utter misery of a deeply unwanted pregnancy, and to the opportunity cost to the family of raising an unwanted child? While you’re at it, what about the cost of raising and supporting all the severely disabled fetuses that are commonly aborted?

    I don’t think anyone is going to like where this bizarre line of reasoning is going.

  25. Matt Chandler on February 2, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    Frank,
    I know this part is important, but I’m not sure why. With our poll on when life begins, why would we ask “how likely is it that humanity begins by week X” rather than “when do you think humanity begins?” Is it only to get a (much) better distribution (a very important factor, of course), or is there some an additional reason?

  26. Matt Chandler on February 2, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    Z (although you weren’t addressing me directly) -
    Those are interesting thoughts that could be taken into account in the analysis. It would be interesting to compare the value of an unwanted fetus with to the value of living as discussed in the original post. As to raising an unwanted child, there are many families who want to adopt and would really value the opportunity to do so (as shown by all the adoptions that occur even though there are high fees and time costs in the process), so that would add additional value to that fetus, rather than costs.

  27. Frank McIntyre on February 2, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    z,

    You most definitely would want, as a matter of policy, to include the costs of pregnancy. I am pretty sure I mentioned in the post that, for brevity’s sake I was just talking about one aspect where economics could say something useful.

    The optimal outcome is to have the agent making the decision make their choice when facing all the costs and benefits. Often, she, if it is a woman making the choice as it typically is in this case, is already facing the costs you are discussing — thus she is doing her best to account for those. It is not as clear that every aborter always internalizes or fully accounts for the benefits to the fetus. If you think she always does, then the outcomes are likely already efficient. If you think she often does not, then there may be some room to improve the social outcome.

    Matt,

    I think you’ve got the idea. You need a distribution, not an average. Thus very few people might think that that a fetus at week 3 is human (or whatever), but many people may think there is some positive probability that this is true.

    Unfortunately, people are not generally very good at answering those sorts of probabilistic questions.

  28. m&m on February 3, 2009 at 12:18 am

    Interesting thought experiment (even as my brain doesn’t do econ very well).

  29. Alex Valencic on February 3, 2009 at 9:05 am

    “…I was just talking about one aspect where economics could say something useful.”

    And I don’t think we should *ever* begrudge an economist trying to be useful!

    Interesting post! Makes me wonder how many other “social” issues can be addressed this way.

  30. Kaimi on February 3, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Frank,

    I think the problem with your analysis is that you haven’t gone far enough in applying this idea.

    It’s well known that applying a utilitarian calculus to Mormon theology creates some wacky results. Most notably, infanticide — it would be best, from a utilitarian perspective, to kill children prior to the age of accountability, thus ensuring their place in Heaven.

    However, Frank’s analysis suggests a new wrinkle. If it’s true that the spirit adheres to the body prior to birth — enough to be considered as having received a body, and thus move on to the next life — then the real answer isn’t widespread _infanticide_. Instead, it is widespread _abortion_.

    From a perspective of producing bodies for spirits to inhabit, widespread abortion seems to be a clear winner. Frank’s initial suggestion of carrying babies to term probably produces, on average, one body per woman per two years (given time to give birth, physically recover, and nurse for a year).

    In that same time period, that same woman could have six or seven early-term abortions.

    The overall result is, on the one side: One spirit housed in a body, and (should he survive past age eight) subject to possible non-celestial outcomes. On the other side: Seven spirits housed in bodies, done with this life, and guaranteed a celestial outcome.

    I think we have a clear winner.

    In fact, the value of these straight-to-Heaven shots is such that every woman should be having abortions, all the time. Marital status should not be an issue. Yes, premarital sex is a sin — but that is almost certainly outweighed by the value of sending seven souls straight to Heaven in a two year period.

    If every LDS woman of childbearing age had three abortions per year, that would be — what, 15 million souls sent straight to Heaven?

    Who could possibly argue against that outcome?

    But wait — let me anticipate a counter-argument. This policy would send lots of souls to Heaven, but would deplete the supply of population in one generation. Therefore, it gives short-term gains but is not sustainable over the long term.

    That’s correct, I think. That one child could give birth to many more. So maybe the seven-to-one ratio is incorrect.

    But then, this is only the case for women. Men are essentially superfluous in the birth process. One fertile man can keep 100 women constantly pregnant.

    So, it’s true that women probably shouldn’t abort _all_ fetuses in order to achieve maximum long-term results in soul placement. Rather, they should abort nearly all _male_ fetuses. One or two men per hundred is more than enough to keep the constant cycle of birth and abortion going strong. The rest should be aborted as soon as we can tell they are male (about 15 weeks with early testing).

  31. Proud Daughter of Eve on February 3, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Kaimi, what about the value of genetic diversity? Sure, 1 or 2 men can keep those 100 women pregnant but the children of those women would have to marry their half-siblings or cousins.

  32. Frank McIntyre on February 3, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Kaimi,

    Given that we don’t accept the original infanticide argument, I don’t see any reason we should accept it’s pre-birth counterpart. We can reasonably assume, for the sake of the post, that whatever reason we should not be engaging in infanticide to send children to the Celestial Kingdom would similarly hold for fetuses uniquely attached to spirits.

    This, by the way, is not some peculiar fault of “utilitarian calculus” so much as a part of the doctrine the workings of which we don’t understand. There are hosts of unanswered questions about how that doctrine fits in with the rest of our beliefs.

  33. greenfrog on February 3, 2009 at 10:45 am

    This, by the way, is not some peculiar fault of “utilitarian calculus” so much as a part of the doctrine the workings of which we don’t understand. There are hosts of unanswered questions about how that doctrine fits in with the rest of our beliefs.

    Yes, though Kaimi’s point highlights the essential instability of this particular thought experiment. Yes, after we prune away lots of interrelated (and arguably much more significant) issues, we can analyze a particular question of valuation, but we shouldn’t mistake the clarity of the results of that analysis for confidence that we’re right on the question once all the other interrelated issues are added back into the equation.

  34. Frank McIntyre on February 3, 2009 at 10:50 am

    greenfrog, very true. This is, of course, the problem with all human reasoning.

    But I question whether Kaimi’s example is a particularly troubling one. The essence of the original thought experiment was to point out that one need not take a binary position on fetal value, but rather one can be probabilistic about it. This is still going to be the case. In fact, the less we know, probably the more it is going to be the case!

  35. Rob Perkins on February 3, 2009 at 10:58 am

    “It’s well known that applying a utilitarian calculus to Mormon theology creates some wacky results. Most notably, infanticide — it would be best, from a utilitarian perspective, to kill children prior to the age of accountability, thus ensuring their place in Heaven.”

    You’re probably just as well schooled as I am in refuting this, Kaimi, but I can’t resist:

    First, “Heaven” is widely understood as an Aristotelian concept (the opposite of “Hell”) which Mormonism is not only not required to embrace, but implicitly rejects by dint of the degrees of glory doctrine.

    Second, if the eternal welfare of the person committing infanticide is considered, the benefits of committing it evaporate quite suddenly, and the utilitarian argument is exposed as fraudulent.

    Accordingly, any extension of the reasoning to the unborn is just as fraudulent.

  36. Rob Perkins on February 3, 2009 at 11:13 am

    “Second, if the eternal welfare of the person committing infanticide is considered, the benefits of committing it evaporate quite suddenly, and the utilitarian argument is exposed as fraudulent.”

    I should explain why I think so, since you tried to cover that base: I don’t believe God operates on a “net positive” kind of calculus. That is to say: No matter how many infants go to “Heaven” via infanticide, it isn’t counted as a net positive.

    His purpose isn’t to get us here to draw breath and die, it’s to teach us how to distinguish between good and evil (and, possibly to identify the grey areas inhabiting the space between) and decide what we want.

    Thus, it’s incredible to suppose that He would not just punish the murderer, but also all the people who didn’t stop the murderer, as just as culpable.

  37. Alison Moore Smith on February 3, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    Very interesting post, Frank.

    It currently acts, as best I can tell, as if the probability was almost completely stacked up around birth.

    Except for Barbara Boxer, who stacks the probability at going home from the hospital.

  38. RP on February 4, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    First, let’s clean the docket a little as to what we want. We would like to know how much a spirit values the fetus that will, barring tragedy, become its home.

    How might the spirit’s calculus be changed if it knew it would be born with fetal alcohol syndrome to an abusive mother in abject poverty?

  39. Frank McIntyre on February 4, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    “How might the spirit’s calculus be changed if it knew it would be born with fetal alcohol syndrome to an abusive mother in abject poverty?”

    Then B would be lower, though presumably still substantial and positive.

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