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Why Vox didn't run a piece endorsing "the repugnant conclusion"

So, a word on Vox's policy around freelance, and whether there's a litmus test around certain issues.

The backstory here is that Dylan Matthews solicited a piece from philosopher Torbjorn Tannsjo. The piece was related to a philosophical idea known as the "repugnant conclusion" — basically, that there's a moral obligation to maximize the human population's size because more humans means more happiness, even if every individual human isn't particularly happy.

We ultimately rejected Tannsjo's piece, and he published the rejection email, in which Matthews said, "I ran the piece by some other editors and they weren't comfortable running it; I think the concern is that people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which, while I know it's not your intent, is a real concern."

I was the editor who ultimately rejected the piece, and while Matthews's note relays some of my concerns, I think it's being misinterpreted, so let me add a bit more detail.

Tannsjo's basic claim is:

You should have kids. Not because it’s fun, or rewarding, or in your evolutionary self-interest. You should have kids because it’s your moral duty to do so.

My argument is simple. Most people live lives that are, on net, happy. For them to never exist, then, would be to deny them that happiness. And because I think we have a moral duty to maximize the amount of happiness in the world, that means that we all have an obligation to make the world as populated as can be.

The idea that every human being has a moral obligation to produce as many children as physically possible has, to say the least, a lot of implications. Two of them, though by no means the only ones I raised to Matthews, were that birth control and abortion are, under most circumstances, immoral. I am very, very uncomfortable telling anyone that it is their obligation to bear child after child, starting at the moment of first fertility and ending only at menopause. And I didn't think the piece made its case convincingly enough for us to stand behind a conclusion so sweeping and dramatic.

(As it happens, I also didn't really think of the piece as particularly pro-life in the political sense of the term; its basic argument is not one that most pro-lifers, or really anyone, would endorse — that's why it's called the repugnant conclusion.)

But the other issue was that the piece was commissioned when we were looking to launch a new section for unusual, provocative arguments. That section, for various reasons, didn't launch (though maybe we'll revisit it someday!), and so we didn't have a place to put this piece where it felt to me like it would make editorial sense. If we had launched the section, I would have asked Dylan to send back an edit that dealt with the various objections, but in the absence of the section I thought the result would just be too confusing, and too unusual, for the site.

I'm personally pro-choice, but Vox doesn't have a policy against publishing pieces that are pro-life. Back in January, for instance, we sent two reporters to a pro-life rally for a piece that was simply portraits of pro-life protesters, as well as their reasons for being pro-life and attending the protest. The piece was basically 10 arguments for being a pro-life protester, and it was a great article.

Vox also doesn't have a policy against hiring pro-life writers. We've made job offers to at least two pro-life political writers. These hires didn't ultimately work out, but the fact that their pro-life views would be reflected in their work had nothing to do with it. (Some of Vox's current staffers are pro-life, though their coverage areas don't intersect with the issue much.)

That said, Vox reserves the right to publish or reject freelance pieces at our discretion, as do pretty much all publications. I didn't think this piece made sense for us, and I still don't. But that's not because of a blanket policy on pieces that tilt pro-life (or in any other direction), but because I didn't see a way to make this particular piece work for our site. We run plenty of articles I disagree with, and I expect we'll run many, many more.

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