How to Test Whether Life is Worth Living (Test Five: Pre-existence Test) Along with Objections, and Conclusion

In part one, I went through Smuts’ article on certain tests on what makes life worth living. I went through Camus’ Suicide Test and showed Smut’s argument on why it fails.

In part two, I went through mainly Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence Test and showed Smuts’ argument on why it fails.

In part three, I went through the third test motivated by Cicero and Hume called the Extra Life Test and showed Smuts’ argument and my thoughts as well.

In part four, I looked at the fourth test motivated by Bernard Williams which he obtains from the Book of Job where the test asks that one’s life does not have worth if one prefers not to have been born.  Smuts responds to this test and I have given a few objections to this test.

In this final post, I look at Smuts’ own test, called the Pre-existence Test, a few objections with Smuts’ responses, and final concluding thoughts.

Not my image

Here is the formula:

Pre-Existence Test (PET): Life L is worth living for person P iff a benevolent caretaker with foreknowledge of the facts about L would allow P to live L.

This has the advantage from previous tests in that PET can account for objective criterion. That is, PET does not matter on whether P wishes to have been born or not, but whether P should have been born.

PET asks us to imagine a benevolent judge who has the relevant facts and information about P’s life where P has a worthy life and that P doesn’t resent living L.  Being benevolent also means that P would not be used as a means to reach some cosmic end.  At the same time, PET could allow an afterlife.  In other words, living one’s life may be miserable, but an afterlife may be valuable.  Or living through miseries may potentially be soul-making possibilities for P.  The point behind this is not to defend an afterlife, but to show that P’s life is continuous with P’s afterlife.  In other words, P living one’s life L is the same person P while she is living an afterlife.  The point is to show that this takes care of the problems regarding personal identity that previous tests had, specifically parts two and three.

As a way to show PET, Smuts’ uses what he calls the “pre-crib test:” “Imagine looking down at your infant child in his crib. Think of all the things that you want for the child: close friends, a good education, an interesting career, and the like. These are things that contribute to the child’s welfare. The crib test is designed to hone in on welfare considerations” (p. 14).   With this test, we can suppose an ideal evaluator that can apply PET.

Notice, again, that this does not tell us what makes life worth living; rather, this is a general way to track the general extension of the concept.  In other words, “[t]he test captures the idea that a life worth living is a choiceworthy life” (p. 14).  So far, I see a couple problems.

Problem 1: An interesting side note here.  If Smuts is correct, this entails what to do about birthing children, having children, or aborting conceptuses.  After all, if someone is pregnant and one can foresee that the future child will not have a worthy life, then not only is abortion permissible, but one ought to abort the conceptus because a benevolent caretaker would not allow that being to have a life.  Smuts argues that it doesn’t because “PET has the virtues of an infanticide test while avoiding concerns about the morality of infanticide and abortion. Morally, PET is akin to a counterfactual contraceptive administered by a well-informed guardian” (p. 14).  However, I think it goes much further than that.  When it comes to abortion, the morality behind the issue is that one elects to have an abortion because either one does not want to have children at the moment, and/or having a child would be ruinous to either the parents’ lives or the future child’s life.  Moreover, one who elects to get an abortion chooses to obtain one.  With infanticide, the issue is trickier because that it is more morally problematic, but I think the issue could apply.  I understand that infanticide has more complexities because the cultural beliefs and that the practice has to do with helping the child die now rather than letting the child suffer later, but the point is is that the same principle applies: better to get rid of this being now rather than later so that the future child (and perhaps parents) don’t suffer.  But with Smuts’ PET, the test does not suggest that one can opt to obtain an abortion or perform infanticide.  It seems much stronger than that: one ought to get an abortion or perform infanticide and the “ought” means that one does a duty rather than simply making a choice.

Now, the test itself does not say that if life is not worth living, then one ought to kill or get rid of that possible life.   But how far does this benevolence go?  If one can see that suffering is happening (since the caretaker has enough foreknowledge of the facts, according to PET), then the caretaker ought to do something to get rid of that suffering.  Of course, it comes down to whether it’s in the caretaker’s power to get rid of the suffering.  But notice that PET suggests that the caretaker would allow P to live if P’s life is worth living.  Taking the contrapositive: the caretaker would not allow P to live if P’s life is not worth living.  Thus, there is still a connection between PET and whether one ought to receive an abortion or perform infanticide.

Problem 2: If the parents don’t want the child because they feel that the child’s life would not have much worth as opposed to a better time to have the child, this puts a strange view of applying PET.  If the parents have the child now, then they would view the worth of that child’s life pretty low.  If the parents have the child later, then they would view the worth of that child’s life pretty high.  Let us assume that this is also objectively true.  Applying PET, having the child now would have a less worthy life, and so it seems that it is more allowable to not allow that conceptus to live.  If the child later would have a more worthy life, then it is allowable to let the conceptus to live.  There is a sliding scale here: the more worth the child has, the more allowable it is to let the conceptus to live.  Worth can have ups and downs, and it is comparable to other things that have worth.  But can allowability?    It’s obvious that we can say that X has more worth than Y, but does it make sense to say that X is more allowable than Y?  I don’t mean in the clear since where X is allowable but Y isn’t.  There are things that have a clear black and white answer.  What I’m asking is does allowability have this variability where X is more allowable than Y?  Suppose a couple is ready to have a child, yet they would be more ready if they waited.  This would suggest that it is allowable to have a child, but it would be more allowable if they waited.  Does this make sense?  It’s possible, but this does give a strange view of allowability.

On the other hand, Smuts does suggest that PET sets a standard where if one passes the bar, then the benevolent caretaker would allow P to live L.  Presumably, if one does not pass the bar, then the benevolent caretaker would not allow P to live L.  This would keep the worth having different measures yet allowability to be either a clear yes or no.  Still, asking whether allowability having a clear yes or no, or whether is has different measures is worth asking because it could effect PET.


There are a few objections that Smuts discusses, but I’ll handle one of them: the Borderline Problem.  It’s obvious we can think think of cases of life worth living and what it consists of.  We can also think of cases of life not worth living because of what these lives consist of.  But what about the not so clear cases?  If so, this suggests that worth comes in degrees.  Certain activities such as collecting rubber bands or writing handwritten copies of War and Peace have lives that have less worth than those lives where the people can accomplish good ends.  Yet, these lives are more worthy than a life where a person lives a life in pure agony and despair.  Yet, lives where one pursues one life collecting rubber bands or writing handwritten copies of War and Peace seems to be a wasted life.  Yet, is this still a life worth living?  What would PET say?  Specifically, what would the benevolent, ideal caretaker say?  This is hard to say, and there is a definite grey zone here.  Between “live worth living” and “lives worth avoiding” is a between grey area: “lives worth neither.”  Obviously, the benevolent, ideal caretaker will consent for P to live a life worth living, and would not consent for P to live a life worth avoiding.  But would the benevolent, ideal caretaker consent for P to live a “life worth neither?”  We don’t know.  More importantly, if the caretaker avoids the issue, this is equivalent to saying that the caretaker would not let P have L anyways.  Thus, this is a forced option.  Perhaps what this suggests is that the test is forced into two options, but since worth comes in degrees, the test forces worth into options to be carried out.  To escape this, we need a reason for the caretaker to exercise the decision to consent or not to let P have L?  But for this to work, we need a theory of worth and a theory of what makes life worth living, which is what I have been saying throughout these past posts.

Overall, the test is instructive in that it is not meant to give us an account of testing out lives worth living, but to construct an objective theory of worth.  What’s interesting is that the test is meant to be a heuristic rather than a final say on the worth of a life.  What this whole article is to give a starting point for some criteria on a theory of worth.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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