Featured Philosop-her: Tina Rulli


Tina Rulli is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Davis, working in normative ethics, practical ethics, and bioethics. Her research is on moral demands and the implications of accepting moral options to do less than the best. She has defended a duty to adopt children rather than procreate, arguing that genetic-relatedness is morally insignificant. In bioethics, she writes on the duty to rescue in medical and clinical research contexts. She received her PhD from Yale University in 2011.

Conflicts Between Rescuing and Creating

Many thanks to Professor Krishnamurthy for inviting me to share my work on Philosop-her and for her contribution to the profession in running this excellent series.

I’ve argued for the claim that prospective parents have a duty to adopt children rather than procreate, given that there are children in need of adoption and that some prospective parents can afford to do so. My initial interest in the duty to adopt was from the population ethics side—the area of ethics that assesses the moral value, if any, of creating people. But the duty to adopt raises many other rich ethical questions, which became the primary focus of my past research. For instance, I’ve written a detailed exploration of the moral significance of the preference for parent-child genetic relatedness. The project was also the starting point for my research on the duty to rescue.

My initial interest in population ethics is still strong and is the focus of my present research. This refocus is especially timely, considering the refugee crisis and the impending increase in global migration. An estimated 100-300 million people will be forced to migrate from their countries of origin due to climate change induced flooding over the next several decades.[1] Indeed, in 2014, we witnessed the first climate change refugees—the Alesano family was permitted to relocate from low-lying Tuvalu to New Zealand.[2] At the same time, nearly half the world lives in nations with declining fertility rates. Many of these countries (including Russia, Japan, Singapore, Denmark) are incentivizing their citizens to have babies. One may initially think these situations have little to do with one another. But in a world where millions of people are forced to relocate in order to survive, increasing birth rates comes at the opportunity cost of providing scarce resources and land to existing people in need.

Why should we create new lives, which present new needs and demands on resources, when there are so many existing people in desperate need for those same goods? I argue for P1: we have stronger moral reason to meet the critical needs of existing people than to create new people to benefit instead.

P1 reflects a familiar debate in population ethics: we can increase well-being by making existing people better off, or we can create new people with lots of well-being. Much attention has been paid to the latter possibility—do we really have any moral reason to create new people for their contribution to total well-being? But very little attention has been paid to the comparative concern: if creating new people does count morally, how much should it count in a situation where we must choose between creating a new person or benefiting an existing person? P1 goes some way toward addressing that question. It says we should prioritize benefits to needy existing people over providing benefits to potentially existing people.

P1 would be easy to defend on the view that we have no reason to create happy people at all. But while many people find it highly unintuitive that we may have moral reason to create happy people, there are strong theoretical arguments for this claim. For instance, most people would agree that we have strong moral reason to not create a miserable person. To treat the issue symmetrically and non-arbitrarily, we should embrace the idea that we have strong moral reason to create happy people. I concede the point—for my interest is in defending P1. P1 is defensible even on the assumption that we can benefit people by creating them.

P1 is supported by P2: we have stronger moral reason to meet people’s critical needs than to provide people with noncritical benefits. Critical needs are those that, if unfulfilled, lead a person to come to harm. A critical benefit prevents or ameliorates a harm. A noncritical benefit is a “pure” benefit. It is an improvement in well-being that doesn’t ameliorate a harm. P2, in some form or other, is highly intuitive. It is consistent with views that emphasize the priority of basic human rights and with prioritarianism, in which gains in well-being to the worst off count for more than gains to the better-off.

P2 will help us make the right distinction in a choice between rescuing an existing person or creating a new one. Existing people in need will come to harm without a critical benefit. But potentially existing people, though they (by the above concession) can be benefited by coming to exist, are not harmed if they do not come to exist. So rescue is a critical benefit and creation is a noncritical benefit. In cases of conflict, given that we should prioritize critical benefits over noncritical benefits, we should meet the critical needs of existing people rather than create new people.

Defending P1 by appeal to P2 is a novel move in population ethics because it grounds the priority of existing needy people in their critical need for a benefit rather than on their metaphysical status as actual people. P1 doesn’t prioritize all existing people over all possible people. It is unlike the famous Slogan by Jan Narveson, who says morality is about making people happy, not making happy people.[3]

Of course, there are details to work out. P2 may have a threshold. There may be some point at which the amount of noncritical benefits can outweigh the amount of critical benefits such that we should bring about the noncritical benefits. Perhaps we should allocate medical resources to developing a headache medicine that would benefit millions of people rather than spend the same money on providing a life-saving treatment for a disease that affects only a small population. If P2 has a threshold, then P1 will inherit it. There may be some cases where the benefits to potential people greatly outweigh the critical benefits to existing people such that we should favor benefiting the former.

Additionally, the claim that potential people are not harmed (or benefited) in not coming to exist needs more support. Most people think it highly implausible that people can be harmed by not being created. But I concede that potential people can be benefited by coming to exist. Some think the logic of “better than” entails that if someone can be benefited by creation—such that existence is better than non-existence for her—then it must be the case that she can be harmed by not being created—non-existence is worse than existence for her. We can avoid this entailment by employing a non-comparative sense of benefit or harm. Alternatively, we can maintain a comparative sense of benefit and harm by understanding it in terms of the preferences of existing people. Lucy prefers existence to non-existence; so her existence is better for her given her preferences than non-existence. But if Lucy had never existed, she’d have no preferences such that it could be said that she is harmed by not coming to exist. The bigger difficulty is in articulating why potential people cannot be harmed or benefited by non-existence without committing ourselves to deeper theoretical problems. It is tempting to appeal to moral actualism to explain the absurdity of harms of non-existence. Moral actualism is the highly intuitive and popular view that only the interests of actual people are relevant to determining the moral status of an act. But moral actualism has seemingly intractable and counterintuitive commitments. Caspar Hare says it results in “deontic absurdity.”[4] I argue that—though the moral interests of potential people can be relevant to the moral status of actions (contra moral actualism)—only actual people can be harmed or benefited. I want to show that P1 is not undermined by the possibility that potential people can be harmed in not coming to exist, though it does not depend upon the truth of moral actualism.

I don’t suppose that P1 is all that matters morally to rethinking immigration policies. But it is surely one consideration that matters, and it has received little attention from philosophers working in population ethics or on human migration. Past work on population focuses on overpopulation and reducing our numbers, not on establishing a priority principle for allocating benefits between existing and potentially existing people. Moreover, P1 has broad practical relevance. It applies to our personal decision to have children and to global population and resource conservation policy. It is also a fundamental, but under-discussed principle in medical resource allocation. I think it worthy of a deeper exploration.


[1] Rick Noack, “Has the Era of the ‘Climate Change Refugee’ Begun?” Washington Post, August 7, 2014. URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/08/07/has-the-era-of-the-climate-change-refugee-begun/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jan Narveson, “Moral Problems of Population,” in M. Bayles, ed. Ethics and Population (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1976): pp. 59-80

[4] Caspar Hare. “Voices From Another World: Must We Respect the Interests of People Who Do Not, and Will Never, Exist?” Ethics 117, no. 3 (April 2007): 498-523.

3 responses

  1. Dear Tina,

    Thanks for the great post!

    You say in your post that P1 is meant to be action guiding for both individuals and states. Now, I am completely on board that states should take refugees in as opposed to encourage their citizens to engage in procreative parenting. On the other hand, I am not convinced that it gives individuals a stringent duty not to engage in procreative parenting. For one, procreative parenting might be valuable for reasons other than the benefit it bestows on those who are created. I certainly think that there can be a great deal of value in the experiences of conception, pregnancy, labour and breastfeeding for some biological parents (although of course I think that most of the value comes from actually parenting the child which can be equally available to those who choose to adopt instead). But most importantly, there is no guarantee that states will increase their refugee quotas if birth rates decline significantly–they might instead open their borders to skilled immigrants and family members. So choosing not to engage in procreation is no guaranteed way to discharge one’s duty of rescue towards refugees.

    To be sure, I do think that in light of the effects of climate change, it is impossible to justify the personal choice of having a big biological family. But it seems to me that someone who lobbies her government to take in more refugees and leads a very sustainable life-style, is not doing anything wrong when she chooses to have one biological child in order to go through the valuable experiences attached to procreation.

  2. Hi Laura,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you– P1 is not all there is to be said about the procreation/adoption decision. I also don’t think it gives rise to any “stringent duties.” But it does state a moral priority in our reasons. It is one major thing that matters, and it is not salient to most people when they choose to have children. But there may be other considerations to weigh. I have written on some of those other considerations in a paper called “Preferring a Genetically-Related Child” in the Journal of Moral Philosophy. I concede, for instance, the the desire to experience pregnancy might be a very weighty consideration.

    As to your concern with immigration policy: I was thinking of the individual choice about procreation as separate from the state level choice about immigration policy. So an individual can choose between creating a new person or adopting an existing child in need. Separately: the state can choose between incentivizing increased birth rates for economic reasons or filling the workforce with immigrants in need of labor. P1 is relevant to each of this distinct issues. I didn’t mean to imply that the two distinct choice sets are combined, such that an individual fulfills her state obligations to refugees by not procreating. I agree with you– there is no direct relationship between one’s giving up procreation and their state letting refugees in!

    I do want to put pressure on the claim that having one biological child is morally innocent. Granted, other moral values may override my concern. But when one procreates (even just once), s/he is giving a scarce set of resources to a newly created child rather than to an existing child in need. I want to know what experience is so great, or what is it about having a biologically-related child that is so special, that it could trump the great moral value of giving to a child in critical need instead. I think the default position in favor of procreation needs to contend with this exact challenge. P1 makes the challenge clear.

    Thanks again!

  3. Thanks Tina — That really helps! I agree that procreative parenting requires a very good justification, and I agree that P1 raises a good challenge for an account attempting to do so. Thanks again for the great post!

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