Melinda A. Roberts -- BOOKS


 ●  Abortion and the Moral Significance of Merely Possible Persons:  Finding Middle Ground in Hard Cases, in Philosophy and Medicine, ed. H. Tristram Engelhardt (Springer 2010)

Abstract.  This book has two main goals.  The first is to give an account, called Variabilism, of the moral significance of merely possible persons—persons who, relative to a particular circumstance, or possible future or world, could but in fact never do exist.  The second is to use Variabilism to illuminate abortion.  

According to Variabilism, merely possible persons—just like anyone else—matter morally but matter variably.  Where we understand that a person incurs a loss whenever agents could have created more wellbeing for that person and instead create less, Variabilism asserts that the moral significance of any loss is a function of where that loss is incurred in relation to the person who incurs it.  That is:  a loss incurred at a world where the person who incurs that loss does or will exist has full more significance, according to Variabilism, while a loss incurred by that same person at a world where that person never exists at all has no moral significance whatsoever

Some other views deem all merely possible persons and all of their losses to matter morally.  Still other views deem no merely possible persons and none of their losses to matter morally.  Variabilism, instead, takes a middle ground between these two extreme positions.  It thus opens the door to a certain middle ground on procreative choice in general and abortion in particular.  Thus, given that, for persons, thinking and coming into existence come together, Variabilism supports the argument that the early abortion is ordinarily permissible when it is what the woman wants.  That is so, since the loss incurred when, as an effect of the early abortion, a given person is never brought into existence to begin with has no moral significance at all.  In contrast, the late abortion is ordinarily subject to a different analysis.  For the loss incurred in that case has full moral significance, according to Variabilism, since it is incurred at a world where the person who incurs it already exists.

Abstract at Springer

●  Harming Future Persons:  Ethics, Genetics and the Nonidentity Problem, eds. M. Roberts and D. Wasserman, in International Library of Ethics, Law, and the New Medicine (Springer 2009) 

Includes papers by Heyd (explaining and defending the person-affecting intuition and relating nonidentity problem to issues of biographical identity), Persson and McMahan (on the Asymmetry), Holtug (proposing a solution to the nonidentity problem with elements sufficiently person-affecting to sidestep the repugnant conclusion), Wolf (on identity), Mulgan (on a rule consequentialist solution to the nonidentity problem), Harman and Steinbock (on when it is wrong to bring the harmed child into existence), Hanser (on standing in an appropriate relation to the harmed child as a condition on causing harm), Roberts (on analogies between one type of nonidentity problem and the two-envelope problem, and approaches to each that focus on the information available to the agent at the critical time), Lillehammer, Herissone-Kelly and Wasserman (on considerations relating to attitude, intention and parental role as helping to the nonidentity problem), Arrhenius (on structural and coherence issues relating to the person-affecting approach generally) and Peters and Shiffrin (on the nonidentity problem, law and public policy).

Abstract at Springer

●  Child Versus Childmaker:  Future Persons and Present Duties in Ethics and the Law (Rowman & Littlefield 1998)

Chap. 1.  Introduction

Chap. 2:  Is the Person-Affecting Intuition Inconsistent? -- John Broome has argued that the person-affecting intuition is inconsistent.  I develop an alternative statement of the person-affecting intuition -- a form of person-affecting consequentialism -- that avoids that inconsistency objection.  Based on the four-place relation "p has at least as much wellbeing in w1 as q does in w2," the principles I suggest focus on maximizing wellbeing not for the aggregate but rather for individual.  Thus for each existing or future person, the proposal is that, with exceptions to address trade-offs, agents ought to make choices that maximize that person's wellbeing.

Chap. 3:  The Nonidentity Problem -- Derek Parfit, Gregory Kavka and others put forth the "nonidentity problem" as a challenge to person-affecting principles generally.  I consider how three variations on the nonidentity problem apply to the form of person-affecting consequentialism I describe in Chap. 2.  My conclusion is that two variations of the nonidentity problem are inconsistent with the basic tenets of person-affecting consequentialism and can be safely set aside, and that the third variation leads to results that are not implausible.

Chap. 4:  Wrongful Life -- I argue that in some instances the choice to bring a new person into existence can harm a person -- create, that is, less wellbeing for a person when agents could have created more -- and that that harm can ground a finding of wrongdoing.  I thus argue that it is sometimes better for a person never to come into existence at all than to come into an existence that is highly flawed.

Chap. 5:  Human Cloning -- John Robertson has argued that "harm to offspring" objections fail in the case of the new reproductive technologies.  His argument derives from the ideas that (i) in the absence of the new technologies the offspring would not exist at all and (ii) the offspring lives are worth living.  Robertson's conclusion is that offspring in general are not harmed, or wronged, by application of those new technologies.  I argue that when cloning is used to produce -- say -- five, or fifty, or a thousand genetically identical people, we can see just how agents could have gone about making things better for any one of those people.  They could have brought one embryo, but not all those others, to fruition.  We, accordingly, find that we have a clear basis after all for declaring the cloned individual to have been harmed.

  Modal Ethics (in progress)

Applications of world theory to issues in normative and population ethics, including (1) obligations in respect of future persons (including the nonidentity problem and the aggregative response, as well as obligations to procreate), (2) the question of “who matters morally,” (3) determining when one act (including any omission) makes things better for a person than another act does, (4) relating the two-place overall betterness relation to the four-place betterness-for relation (including Pareto issues) and (5) comparability issues (can a person be better (worse) off at a world where that person never exists than at a world where that person does or will exist?).

●  Doing the Best We Can:  Dialogue Concerning Future Persons, Harm and the  Nonidentity Problem (in progress)

This dialogue is intended to facilitate the teaching of the nonidentity problem, the person-affecting, or person-based, approach in ethics and issues having to do with the obligations we have in respect of future persons.  Comments very welcome!