Dworkin on Choice

Notes for November 14

Main points

We spent most of our time talking about how standard microeconomics is committed to the claim that Gerald Dworkin denies: that it is always better to have more choices rather than less.

We also discussed one of Dworkin’s cases in depth: the one involving the decision to have a child with known congenital problems.

Children and choice

The particular example we discussed stems from technological and legal changes. The technological changes enable us to tell if a fetus has known abnormalities, such as those characteristic of Down’s Syndrome. Legally, parents can end a pregnancy through abortion. Combining the two, it is now more a matter of choice whether to have a child with one of these identifiable conditions than it was previously.

I think that Ian got what Dworkin was saying most directly. It is that this is a kind of choice that people find it terrifying to make. It’s like Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, only with much more concrete consequences. You have to weigh the suffering of the child, your family, and yourself against considerations about the value of life in general and your own picture of yourself (as, say, a generous rather than selfish person). I think Dworkin is right to say that having such a choice obviously imposes a cost on those who have to make it.

Our discussion revealed a variety of additional costs that are consistent with Dworkin’s general view even though he did not specifically mention them in relation to this case. For instance, there will certainly be social pressure brought to bear on parents who get a test result like that and it will surely come in both directions.

Maddie also pointed out a possible social ramification. To the extent that it is easier to hold parents responsible for the choice to have a child, there will be greater room for society to disavow responsibility. You can see this sort of thinking on display in Prof. Mankiw’s ruminations on the Affordable Care Act.Former philosophy student Matt Ygelsias has an interesting reponse. PPE in action!

This led Professor Brown to note an ambiguity in Ronald Dworkin’s theory of equality. Are the costs of having children something that individuals have to budget for in bidding on resources and buying insurance plans? Or are those costs assumed as part of the children’s share of resources and insurance?

Professor Brown also took up Jessica’s suggestion that there must be a more straightforward case for this phenomenon. She proposed Sophie’s Choice.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted November 14, 2013.
Freedom, Markets, & Well-being