Monthly Archives: June 2013

Wrongful Life

Suppose that in the future, people lose the ability to reproduce naturally. Instead they create new humans  using machines construct zygotes from raw materials.  There are, not infrequently, though not the majority of the time, errors in the genetic code of these zygotes, so people generally do a scan to check the zygote’s DNA. If a zygote is found that had an error in gene encoding, the zygote is generally discarded and a new one produced. Such errors would lead either to the zygote self-terminating, or, if it were to survive, to the production of a human being who has serious and painful disabilities.

Is it wrong to terminate these zygotes?

Suppose it were the general practice to discard such zygotes, but someone, through negligence, failed to test a series of zygotes and several were produced that had a disorder that would cause severe, untreatable spinal curvature, resulting in extreme pain and disability. The disorder would not be obvious during the first few years of life, but would become increasingly severe after age 10, resulting in complete disability and extraordinary pain by age 25. Would a person resulting from this be right in suing the negligent party for wrongful life? That is, since the alternative to being born with the disability was to not be born at all, what standing should a person have to sue over this? (Notably, such “wrongful life” suits are allowed in some, but not most, jurisdictions, so there’s no universally accepted legal standard here.)

Teletransporter or Mail?

Given a choice between teletransporting to Mars via Derek Parfit’s case-one teletransporter (your body is destroyed on earth and then a perfect replica with all your memories, beliefs, thoughts, intentions, desires, etc. is created on Mars from fresh matter) or being Express Mailed to Mars, which takes only a couple days, but, since it’s the postal service, they lose something, in this case all your experience-memories, personality, etc., which they dutifully replace with a really nice set of experience memories, personality traits, etc., would you choose the teletransporter or the mail service?

Probably need to flesh out the Express Mail version a bit. Some variants:

1. You’re unconscious for the trip, and then your body wakes up on Mars but with the memories of a really happy, healthy, well-adjusted person who’s an all-around good human being and who is not easily perturbed.

2. You’re awake for the trip and the memory and personality replacement takes place gradually over the two- to three-day trip, though it is just as total as in case 1.

This can be seen as thought experiment to see whether someone holds the physical or psychological criterion, and also as a critique of the postal service.

Limited-scope Veils of Ignorance

I’ve been working with a colleague on a paper proposing a new way to include adjunct faculty in faculty governance, and we thought about using a limited-scope version of the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. In short: given that there are adjuncts and tenure track faculty, how would you set up faculty governance if you knew you were going to be faculty, but didn’t know if you’d be adjunct or tenure track? Part of Rawls’ justification for the veil of ignorance is that so much of our social standing (maybe all of it, at least in some readings) is due to luck. We didn’t choose to be born poor or rich, to have exceptional or minimal intelligence, etc. This is even more obviously the case in faculty placement. The background needed to get in to an elite school, the luck of having advisers who helped you apply to appropriate programs, the luck of being liked by grad school faculty so that they would focus on your work and promote your career, having a thesis topic that was trending at the time the job search began, being attractive so that hiring committees are more likely to be positively disposed towards you, etc. The difference between adjunct and tenure track is often a matter of luck.

One thing about this method, though, is that it doesn’t ask: from behind the veil of ignorance, would we create a university/college system that had two types of faculty? Would we allow the tremendous disparity in pay between the two tracks? Etc.? What we’re asking deals with that area over which faculty might have some immediate control: should adjuncts be given more say in faculty governance? We think they should be, not least because so many curriculum and educational policy decisions are made in departmental meetings and faculty senates, and the adjuncts are often the ones doing the lions’ share of the teaching. They not only have to execute these policies, they’re more able to see the immediate effects they have on students in the classroom.

But we also think it is simply fair to have proportional adjuncts representation on faculty senates, and we think the veil of ignorance exercise might help make that obvious.

We also believe that such limited scope veil of ignorance exercises might be useful in other areas where some group has the ability to decide on some given structure, even though they cannot alter a larger structure of which it is a part. So, granted that some injustices exist, of the ones we can alter, which would we tolerate if we were blind to our place in a situation where we do in fact have the power to make a change.