A Curmudgeonly Post About Parenthood

I am not now, nor have I ever been, married. Most of the time I like being single, but I do have my moments of weakness. They’re infrequent and don’t usually last long, but every once in a while, if I squint a bit and tilt my head just so, I can just see the appeal of marriage. On the other hand, I figure most married people have moments when they wish they were single, so it probably all evens out in the end.

I also do not have children, but it simply never happens that I wish that I did. I am at an age (38) where a majority of my friends have young children, but whenever I see them shlepping the kids around town, all I can think is, “You don’t have anything I want.” Parenting seems like all downside to me.

Jean Kazez presents a different view in this post:

This week my class on procreation and parenthood has been exploring hard questions about the moral valence of having children. It’s certainly strongly counterintuitive to say having children is generally wrong. This week I discovered that for college students, anyway, it’s also strongly counterintuitive to say there’s any obligation to have children–they resist saying there’s even a “general” or prima facie obligation to reproduce. They’re not even inclined to think procreation is obligatory in a dire end-of-the-world scenario, where reproduction would make the difference between human survival and human extinction. I was surprised to find that the arguments in this article by Saul Smilansky had virtually no takers.

Sounds like an enlightened class to me. Since I see no moral obligation to continue the species, I am also unimpressed by dire, end-of-the-world scenarios. Come to think of it, since I tend to think Bertrand Russell had it right when he said, “If I had omnipotence, and millions of years in which to experiment, I would not consider humanity much to boast off for my efforts,” I’m not even sure I’d attach the word “dire” to such scenarios. Methinks Smilansky drew the short straw at the debating society and found himself having to defend the indefensible.

Jean continues:

That leaves calling procreation either supererogatory or merely permissible. I don’t think we want to say it’s supererogatory. Some supererogatory acts are heroic–they involve people running into burning buildings to save others. Sometimes the term means the same thing as “beyond the call of duty”–in other words, doing everything you have to, and then some. So for example, doing a fantastic job as a secretary, but going the extra mile–finding a free refrigerator for the faculty lounge, for instance. Nobody thinks it’s heroic or “going the extra mile” to have a child.

That leaves saying that having a child is merely permissible, but that seems odd too. When I explain these things to students, I typically offer something like choosing peas instead of carrots as an example of a permissible act. The prototypical permissible act is neutral–there’s nothing good or bad about doing it.

We’re really not on the same page here. I see nothing odd in saying that having a child is merely permissible. If anything I think parents are the ones who should be on the defensive, especially those with very large families (here defined as more than three children.)

Now, I just can’t see how creating a child could possibly be neutral, even if there’s something politically attractive about categorizing it that way. It makes no conceptual sense, considering that having a child is bringing a great deal of value into the world (Smilansky does a good job of explaining all the types of value). So if we throw making children into the “permissible” basket, and say no more, we haven’t captured its moral valence very well.

We’ll come to Smilansky in a moment. First, though, I’m not even sure what it means to say that having a child brings a great deal of value into the world. The implication seems to be that the world becomes a better place with each child that is born, but that’s far from clear. Even leaving aside concerns about population and resources, we should note that a decision to have children at least potentially affects other people to a far greater degree than most of the other decisions one makes. Pardon my crudeness, but if your kid turns out to be an asshole you might have brought a great deal of negative value into the world. (And taken to extremes, do you really find it hard to think of people whose parents didn’t do the world any favors?)

Moreover, having a child robs the world of whatever value those parents would have created had they chosen a different path through life. So even if we grant, for some reason, that having a child brings value into the world, we can also say that it robs the world of value it might otherwise have had. Asserting that having a child is “merely permissible” just captures the idea that it’s one life choice among many. Whether or not it was a good life choice will have to be decided on a case by case basis. It’s neither inherently good nor inherently bad.

Jean goes on to argue that the category of “merely permissible” should be broken down further to include a subcategory of “commendable” Having kids would be viewed as commendable, but not as uniquely so:

Now, it does seem inappropriate to say procreation is obligatory–it’s too much of a “personal thing”, people will say (phrase stolen from Smilansky). But should we also be disturbed by the notion that having kids is “doing good”–it’s commendable? It’s still “merely permissible,” not obligatory, so there’s no upshot that not having kids is wrong. Furthermore, lots and lots of other things are commendable too–from making a good dinner to running a marathon to writing a novel. So that classification does not single out parents for gold stars and deny them to others.

Seems like a pretty low bar for commendability. If having a child is the same sort of commendable as making a good dinner, then it’s not really that commendable after all.

So how does Smilansky go about defending his preposterous premise? Well, let’s just say I don’t think he added any value to the world by writing his paper. His main section is entitled “Moral Considerations in Favour of an Obligation to Have Children.” The first elaborates on Jean’s point about bringing value into the world:

It can be argued that to give birth to children is to bring value into the world. There are two forms that such an argument might take. Firstly, if people themselves are considered valuable, giving birth to them is, literally, creating value. Secondly, if it is thought that much, if not all, of the value in this world resides in people’s valuing things (e.g. works of art), then to have children is to create more value-appreciators. …But to the extent that we believe human beings are valuable, and/or that human beings are important for the appreciation of value in the world, which are rather common and manifestly reasonable beliefs, to create human beings is pro tanto to contribute to the existence of value in the world.

I have no idea what this means. Even taking it at face value it would only support Jean’s point that having children is commendable. It is no contribution at all to a case that having children is morally obligatory. But I simply don’t understand what it could mean to say that having children is an instance of “creating value.” I don’t understand how you can talk about “value” in such general terms. Surely you must ask, “Valuable to whom?” Have you “created value” by producing a work of art? People who like your work will say that you have, while your critics will say that you have not. What more is there to say than that?

Likewise, I’m not sure what it means to say that “people themselves are valuable.” If thinking people are valuable just means that I think people have certain moral obligations to each other and should be treated with dignity and respect and whatnot, then of course I think that. But if Smilansky means that I should look at the birth announcements in the local paper and say, “Yay! More people!” then I’m afraid I don’t think that at all. Is that the view I am supposed to find manifestly reasonable?

Smilansky unloads other bad arguments, including a truly dickish one about childless people like me being parasitic on more fecund folks.

If relatively few children are born, those who do not have children put a burden on the few who are born. Children being born now are, by and large (i. e. excluding immigration) the persons who will support the economy and provide all care and services in society. It can thus be argued that those who do not have children are in a sense `free riders’, for when they grow old they will depend on other people’s children.

A proper response is impossible, on account of this being a family blog. But of the many points that could be made in reply I would simply note that an enormous percentage of the tax dollars paid by childless people is spent in ways that mostly benefits parents (a state of affairs to which I am not necessarily opposed, by the way). If I am forced to contribute to the raising of other people’s children, I don’t think it’s asking too much that they return the favor in my old age.

A more difficult issue is raised by this point:

Having children may be important for the continuation of a cultural form of life. … Many sub-cultures, religious practices, languages and dialects, occupations, and communities, depend for their flourishing, if not for their existence, on a relatively small number of people. If you happen to belong to such a group and identify with it, there is some ethical pressure on you to do your part to ensure its future. … The ethical significance of this would depend not only on your preferences but on the value of the form of life.

This one has some resonance with me, since I am Jewish. I was not surprised to reach the end of the paper and discover that Smilansky is a professor at the University of Haifa. As non-religious as I am, the survival of Jewish culture is something that is important to me. I would be very sad to see it die out, which, given the smallness of the Jewish population and the practical realities of extensive inter-marriage, is not an unrealistic scenario. But I still fail to see how that puts any ethical pressure on me to help keep it going.

The more interesting point, though, is found in the final line. Smilansky mentions the “value of the form of life.” Surely this relates to our previous discussion about bringing value into the world by having children. You see, there are many cultural forms of life that I think the world would be better off without. I think the morality of religious extremism, for example, is so cruel and damaging to society that a steep decline in its popularity would add great value to the world. Consequently, I would prefer that religious fundamentalists not become parents, because I don’t want their values to be perpetuated. Others will not share my values, of course, but I would think these sorts of considerations are relevant to assessing blanket statements to the effect that having a child is inherently commendable, or that having a child necessarily creates value. Once again we ask: Creates value for whom?

There is more to Smilansky’s paper of course, but I don’t think he has even been successful at making this seem like a complex question. He has not managed to adduce a single consideration, or describe a single scenario, to make plausible the claim that people ever have a moral obligation to have children.

So let’s wrap this up on a lighter note. My parents have never put the slightest pressure on me either to get married or have kids. I asked my mother about that once. Her reply was something like, “I don’t think everyone needs to get married or has to have children. Kids are a pain in the ass!” Well said, Mom. Well said!

Comments

  1. #1 Deepak Shetty
    September 23, 2011

    Her reply was something like, “I don’t think everyone needs to get married or has to have children. Kids are a pain in the ass!”
    So was she speaking from experience :) ?

  2. #2 BJN
    September 23, 2011

    While I’ve never wanted to have kids, I don’t delude myself into thinking that other people are idiots for wanting to be parents and enjoying their children. In fact, whatever combination of nature and nurture made me averse to reproduction is by definition has been selected our of the population (assuming there are no huge surprises I don’t know about). Cheers to the end of our selfish genes!

  3. #3 bob
    September 23, 2011

    An excellent post. The idea that having children was a good thing may have made sense in generations past but not any more, that really could not be more obvious.

    I would also point out the immorality of producing more children before the country takes even halfway decent care of the ones that already exist. Inadequate and inequitable school funding, more than 2 million children going hungry every day right here in America, poor housing, you name it.

    Also, the fact that my tax dollars are used to support children (and by extension their parents) is fine by me except that it is being used inequitably! As taxpayers that have no chips in the game, we childless people can and therefore should be loudly demanding equitable funding of schools and other programs.

  4. #4 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 23, 2011

    Deepak —

    So was she speaking from experience :) ?

    Absolutely! But only because my brother was such a handful. :)

  5. #5 Blaine
    September 23, 2011

    Very nice post. I am married with children and soon to celebrate 30 years. But your points are well taken and I’ve often had similar thoughts. Certainly there are very good economic arguments pointing out that the costs of household formation have dropped to the point where single people can now support themselves alone( at least in the West ), and you are certainly an example. It seems that the current gains to having children are purely emotional. It is a preference that not all will share. Now that humanity’s ecological niche is the entire biosphere, over population is a serious concern.

    I’ve wondered about the obvious lock-in effect in that if wanting children is genetic, those who don’t share the genetic makeup will pass down their genes at a lower rate. I’m sure the issue is more complex, but on its face, there seems to be an obvious lock-in effect. Perhaps education can counteract that or living in a society which offers more options and less social pressure to reproduce.

  6. #6 garicgymro
    September 23, 2011

    One thing surprises me about your post: you talk of being married and being single as if they’re complementaries. But plenty of people are neither married nor single. Or are you using the term “married” in the broad sense of “in a long-term relationship” and “single” in the broad sense of “not in a long-term relationship”?

  7. #7 sarcastico
    September 23, 2011

    children start out as crying, screaming, whining, money sucking little poop machines, and then go downhill from there.

  8. #8 itchy
    September 23, 2011

    I can’t believe you spent as many words refuting this as you did. It’s ridiculous.

    I’ve been married for 8 years, and I have a 7-year-old daughter. To say that I did either for the benefit of society or due to a moral obligation is like saying I ate a grilled cheese sandwich to save the rainforests. It’s possible someone could concoct a connection, but, yum, melted cheese …

  9. #9 Richard Wein
    September 24, 2011

    Like most moral arguments, Smilansky’s starts from some set of moral premises that are just taken for granted. The main moral premise from which Smilansky seems to start is the premise that we have a moral obligation to do what contributes to the general well-being. But few people would assent to the idea that we must _always_ do what contributes most to the general being. For example few people would agree they have an obligation to give away their money to others until going further will cause as much loss of well-being to themselves as it gives to others. Most people will weigh the perceived obligation to help others against the perceived right to enjoy the fruits of their labour (as well as other considerations). Moral arguments always involve a weighing of competing considerations. Even where people agree broadly on which considerations to take into account, they will give different weights to them. (And they probably won’t give the same weights consistently across different questions.) Any moral argument relies on the reader aplying roughly the same weights that the author does. And clearly most readers here don’t have the same weights as Smilansky. (That’s in addition to any disagreements about the circumstances in which having children actually contributes to the general well-being.)

  10. #10 James Sweet
    September 24, 2011

    I mostly agree with the idea that having children is “merely permissible” — and there’s nothing really wrong with that — and I also agree that it’s irresponsible to have a lot of children, at least until issues of global warming and resource consumption are under control… though IMO bob @#3 goes way too far in insisting that it’s immoral to have any children until those issues are solved.

    I’m more puzzled by those who so easily dismiss the end-of-the-species scenario(s). I’m not saying an argument can’t be made that there would be no moral obligation to continue the species, I think that to be so blase about it requires either an extreme moral relativism or else moral absolutism/realism, both of which I am uncomfortable with.

    Irony of ironies, I will be unable to expound on this much at the moment because my 7-month-old son is demanding my attention…! But in brief: If one believes that morality has even the slightest objective component — and to be clear, you can be a moral error theorist and still believe that it has an objective component — then either those concerns have to come from within what it means to be human, or it has to come from something external. I think the idea of it being something external is hogwash (Divine command theory?! Can I introduce you to my friend Euthyphro…) and so I think it comes from being human. So if there’s no humans left, there can’t be any morality anymore, at least not as far as we are concerned. It reverts to being an amoral world.

    Which is not in itself an argument to perpetuate the species, but IMO it does make it difficult now to argue that human extinction would be any less of a tragedy as the extinction of any other species. e.g. you cannot argue that humans are a blight on the planet so we should quietly go away, because once we are gone, the idea of a “blight” is nonsensical. Without sapient life to experience it, let the Earth flourish for another 4 billion years, or toss it into a supernova — who cares?

    There are ways around this argument. The simplest is to reject the idea that species extinction is a bad thing, but I’m pretty sure Jason, for one, doesn’t think that. Other possibilities are to argue that some animals — chimps, dolphins, etc. — are so close to sapience that their experiences are as valuable as ours, and to the extent our existence threatens theirs, it is the greater good (as far as all near-sapient Earth life is concerned) for us to go away. By the same token, I suppose one could argue that the extinction of any given species is an equal tragedy, so if we cause the extinction of even two, it would be better if we didn’t exist — but then I wonder what you think of Dracunculiasis… Or one could try to argue that we have failed as the Earth’s sole sapient species, and ought to clear out the “cognitive niche” to make way for some future sapient species to evolve (though why someone would think this other hypothetical species — were it even to appear, which is not at all a sure thing — why anyone would think they’d do any better of a job, it’s beyond me).

    There are probably other arguments that are not occurring to me, and maybe some of them are quite solid. My point is that to dismiss the idea that continuing the species is of any moral value without considering it from all these angles, it just seems that either a) you don’t care about extinction in general, b) you think morality exists outside of thinking beings, or c) you think morality is so subjective that each individual thinking being can dictate her own morality based on her own idiosyncratic personal preference. I’m not comfortable with any of those!

  11. #11 Iain Walker
    September 24, 2011

    Excellent post.

    Regarding this point of Smilansky’s:

    “But to the extent that we believe human beings are valuable, and/or that human beings are important for the appreciation of value in the world, which are rather common and manifestly reasonable beliefs, to create human beings is pro tanto to contribute to the existence of value in the world.”

    There’s an additional wrinkle here in that any sentient agent is both a creator and appreciator of value, not just human beings. And a lot of what we find valuable in human beings stems from the fact that they are sentient agents. In which case, Smilansky’s argument doesn’t automatically follow. What follows is that we should maximise the amount of value inherent in agents regardless of species. And while humans might count as more valuable than other agents, it’s not obvious that this maximum value can only be realised by maximising the number of human beings. It depends entirely on how you weight the value of different species.

  12. #12 Iain Walker
    September 24, 2011

    James Sweet (#10):

    The idea that it’s better to have a universe which is experienced than one which is not is certainly attractive, and I have a lot of sympathy for it. However, I think there are good reasons for rejecting it as an argument in favour of an obligation to have children.

    Firstly, the most it can justify is a general or collective duty to ensure that at least some children are born. It can’t justify a personal duty to have children on the part of any given individual (and indeed this is the case with Smilansky’s argument as a whole).

    Secondly, while I would agree that the extinction of the human race would be a tragedy, and perhaps even more of a tragedy that the extinction of most other species, I’d also argue that it can be a morally permissible tragedy.

    The key idea here is that one has duties to people who don’t exist yet only to the extent that one has good reason to suppose that they will exist, and so will be in a position to be affected by one’s actions. In which case, we have moral obligations to future generations only to the extent that we can reasonably expect there to be future generations.

    But suppose that all human beings voluntarily decide not to bring any more children into the world, thereby ensuring the extinction of the species. Why should they not? Who are they wronging? Are they failing in a duty towards future generations? No, because such a duty is conditional upon an expectation that those generations will in fact exist, and there is no such expectation here – indeed, the moral decision being undertaken is whether to have future generations at all. But if they’re not wronging anyone, or failing in their duties towards them, then the decision is surely ethically permissible. It might be regrettable in many ways, but it is not morally wrong.

    (As a side note, this argument is also a useful reply to the tiresome “potential person” argument that anti-abortionists sometime trot out.)

  13. #13 Patrick
    September 24, 2011

    Kazez always seems to rely heavily on moral intuitions that I do not share… and worse, I’m pretty deeply suspicious of moral intuitionalism.

    It should be noted, just on principle, that even if we grant the continuation of the species, or the continuation of different cultural groups, as a moral good… that would not make reproduction a moral good. Its not like we have a shortage of children as a species, or in most cultural groups.

    If its creating X is a moral good because it leads to moral good Y, at some point we may have enough X that we have obtained Y. At that point, creating more X loses its moral valence. In fact, if there are negative externalities to creating X, and we continue to keep producing X, we may end up in a situation where creating X is a moral wrong.

    Its not really a tough idea, but I’m terrible at figuring out whether I’ve explained it well…

    A tribe is hungry, so they want to catch fish to eat. Catching fish is a moral good, because it helps reduce human suffering (we’re leaving out vegetarianism for the sake of argument).

    If they catch 100 fish, they won’t starve.

    If they catch 200 fish, they will be healthy.

    If they catch 300 fish, they’ll even put on a little weight, which will be for good next season.

    If they catch 400 fish, they’ll be able to store some for the future.

    If they catch 500 fish, some fish will go to waste.

    If they catch 600 fish, next season there won’t be many fish to catch.

    If they catch 700 fish, next season fish depletion will seriously reduce their food supply.

    If they catch 800 fish, the river will go barren, and there will be no fish in the future.

    Even if catching the first 100 fish was a moral good, it stops being a moral good as the count rises.

    Returning to the current topic, we have a LOT of people.

  14. #14 Richard
    September 24, 2011

    Recommended reading for this topic: David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.

  15. #15 Collin
    September 24, 2011

    @10 “it just seems that either…”
    or d) you actually want humanity to end.

    (e.g., Alpha Meme)

  16. #16 eric
    September 24, 2011

    In total agreement with @8. Be single, be married, have kids, don’t. But whatever lifestyle you choose, I would ignore Smilansky as irrelevant.

    If you try and base your life on some utilitarian calculation about how beneficial your life choice will be to society as a whole, I can’t imagine you’re going to be happy with the result.

  17. #17 Iain Walker
    September 24, 2011

    patrick (#13):

    Its not really a tough idea, but I’m terrible at figuring out whether I’ve explained it well…

    No, it’s a good point lucidly made.

    Also, it occurs to me that Smilansky’s argument could be turned round and used to justify having fewer children, and instead devoting our resources to improving the lot of humanity so that more people have more opportunity to create and appreciate value. In other words, one can give the argument a Rawlsian spin rather than a classical utilitarian one – increase utility by increasing it for the less well off, rather than simply increasing the number of utility-bearing units.

  18. #18 Lenoxus
    September 24, 2011

    From the original post:

    If I am forced to contribute to the raising of other people’s children, I don’t think it’s asking too much that they return the favor in my old age.

    This is the only sentence of yours I disagreed with. Taxation simply shouldn’t be understood that way, in terms of “I should get back exactly whatever I put in”. If it worked that way then we may as well have not government; one of the main points of taxation is to rectify imbalances, not to perpetuate them.

    However, there is a way to frame it like that which I am quite happy with. Namely, I myself benefited from public services as a child (chiefly schooling), and have no problem paying it forward without expecting anything in return — I already got roughly equal value in return.

    James Sweet @ 10:

    Or one could try to argue that we have failed as the Earth’s sole sapient species, and ought to clear out the “cognitive niche” to make way for some future sapient species to evolve (though why someone would think this other hypothetical species — were it even to appear, which is not at all a sure thing — why anyone would think they’d do any better of a job, it’s beyond me).

    Me too. It can be helpful to remember that the very behaviors of human organizations/institutions which result in other species’ extinctions are ultimately rooted in the traits which enabled humans to become top dog in the first place. Sufficiently advanced dolphins, having passed the harsh gauntlet of natural selection, would probably screw things up just as much.

  19. #19 Jean Kazez
    September 24, 2011

    Jason,

    You say you don’t see how creating a child “brings a great deal of value into the world” …

    First of all, the idea is that creating a child is adding value “pro tanto”–or in other words, as far as the child goes. I’m not claiming (and Smilanksy is not claiming) that every time a new child is born, the “total value ticker” (so to speak) necessarily goes up. As far as that child goes, it usually goes up, but adding a child has an impact on lots of things, so total value could go down.

    When the child is a net positive (which is often, on his view), Smilansky is claiming that this creates a “prima facie obligation” to procreate. Again, “prima facie” is a softener. It allows that a person could have other obligations that trump the obligation to procreate, so that all in all, procreating is not a requirement.

    So what Smilansky is claiming is quite mild, if you pay attention to all the Latin parts–the pro tanto and prima facie qualifiers. All the same, he’s still saying something pretty counterintuitive. A lot of people think there isn’t even a prima facie obligation to procreate–there’s just no obligation whatever. The point of my post is that he’s on solid ground when he says creating a child is (pro tanto) adding value to the world, but that agreeing with that doesn’t take you all the way to the idea that there’s an obligation to have children. It could be, instead, that having children is just one of those merely permissible things that qualify as “doing good”–so it’s commendable and no more.

    Lots and lots of things are commendable, little things and big things, just as there are little obligations and large obligations. It’s no real objection to what I’m saying that making children is getting thrown into the same general category as making dinner. It’s also being thrown in the same category as writing novels and running marathons.

    It sounds like you find it odd to suppose that making children is adding value to the world, even just pro tanto. But to say anything else is actually very puzzling. I think most people are going to agree that we add value to the world by increasing happiness (and other good things) in existing people. So–if I have a magic wand that I could wave, and make every person in Belgium twice as happy, I should surely wave it. If making them happier adds good stuff to the world, then it’s quite odd to suppose that no more value is added to the world when baby Belgians are born. Making Belgians is starting new streams that will likely be filled with much more happiness than unhappiness (assuming what positive psychologists tell us, and making many other assumptions about the world).

    Or maybe better, because right now there are overpopulation issues that complicated things, it’s better to stress that if making all the Belgians twice as happy adds value to the world, then it’s quite odd to think that people in an end-of-world scenario wouldn’t be adding value to the world if they worked hard to keep the human species going. So–to soften the point even more (but with no more Latin)–in some situations making babies isn’t just permissible in the peas vs. carrots sense, but actually a good thing to do.

  20. #20 Anton Mates
    September 24, 2011

    Making Belgians is starting new streams that will likely be filled with much more happiness than unhappiness (assuming what positive psychologists tell us, and making many other assumptions about the world).

    This seems like a very unwarranted assumption to me. Where is the “moral zero point” on the happiness/unhappiness scale, and why should we believe that people usually spend most of their time on the positive side?

    If positive psychologists have an argument here, I’d be interested to hear it. Personally, I don’t see a way to determine whether a particular level of life satisfaction is better or worse than nonexistence.

  21. #21 Dr. I. Needtob Athe
    September 24, 2011

    So the guy with a doctorate in mathematics chooses to have no kids, while guess what sort of people are likely to have a dozen kids. This was the premise of a movie called Idiocracy, where a guy with average intelligence wakes up 500 years in the future to find he’s the smartest man in the world.

  22. #22 Roland
    September 24, 2011

    Mothers & children were treated with more respect in the past, because extra hands were needed for the harvest. Not so much any more, because we have an excess: 7 billion. Supply has exceeded demand, so the value has fallen dramatically.

  23. #23 Patrick
    September 25, 2011

    “First of all, the idea is that creating a child is adding value “pro tanto”–or in other words, as far as the child goes.”

    Right, this is the part that doesn’t make any sense. There is a difference between saying “it is good that a child is happy” and saying “it is good that there are children who are happy.”

    Additionally, it almost seems like you’re evaluating the child’s happiness before and after existing… which would surely be an enormous mistake, yes? Apologies if this is just an artifact of informal language.

  24. #24 Michael
    September 25, 2011

    @sarcastico (#7): and the downhill slide bottoms out with jerks like you, I guess. Seriously, don’t you ever think about the fact that you were a child once?

    @Lenoxus (#18): on taxation, you’re exactly right.

  25. #25 Jean Kazez
    September 25, 2011

    Patrick, You are quite that there is a difference between those sentences. The question is whether, if you accept the first, your thinking compels you to go on and accept the second. I’m inclined to say you do have to go on and accept the second, but not for the reasons that you put in your last paragraph. It’s not a question of what’s better for the child, not existing or existing. It’s a question of what’s better for the world, so to speak. What makes the world a better place–for there to be lots of happiness in it, or less, or none? I can’t go into all the relevant reasoning here, so will just suggest a good book on procreative ethics: Jonathan Glover’s Choosing Children.

  26. #26 SC (Salty Current)
    September 25, 2011

    We’re really not on the same page here.

    I’m rarely in the same library as Kazez.

    Moreover, having a child robs the world of whatever value those parents would have created had they chosen a different path through life. So even if we grant, for some reason, that having a child brings value into the world, we can also say that it robs the world of value it might otherwise have had.

    This is especially true for women, and there are many other aspects of discussing this moral issue that have ramifications for women specifically. I’m surprised that Jean would talk about the question and toss out those weak arguments about how important and morally commendable having children is, especially with students, and especially with female students, as though this were gender neutral.

    Surely you must ask, “Valuable to whom?”

    Certainly not to the nonhuman animals they’ll eat.

  27. #27 SC (Salty Current)
    September 25, 2011

    As non-religious as I am, the survival of Jewish culture is something that is important to me. I would be very sad to see it die out, which, given the smallness of the Jewish population and the practical realities of extensive inter-marriage, is not an unrealistic scenario. But I still fail to see how that puts any ethical pressure on me to help keep it going.

    And even if there were, culture is not inherited but learned.

    ***

    and there are many other aspects of discussing this moral issue that have ramifications for women specifically.

    This includes additionally the fact that for the vast majority of women on the planet there’s no effective choice, as they lack access to birth control and abortion. Pro-natalist policies, moreover, fall disproportionately on women, including not only the denial of basic rights but social pressure to have children and moral condemnation and obstacles for those who want a different path. If philosophers are so interested in human happiness, fulfillment, and value, you’d think these social realities might enter their minds.

  28. #28 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 25, 2011

    Jean —

    Thanks for the clarifications. I still have some problems with what you’re saying, though.

    First of all, the idea is that creating a child is adding value “pro tanto”–or in other words, as far as the child goes. I’m not claiming (and Smilanksy is not claiming) that every time a new child is born, the “total value ticker” (so to speak) necessarily goes up. As far as that child goes, it usually goes up, but adding a child has an impact on lots of things, so total value could go down.

    When the child is a net positive (which is often, on his view), Smilansky is claiming that this creates a “prima facie obligation” to procreate. Again, “prima facie” is a softener. It allows that a person could have other obligations that trump the obligation to procreate, so that all in all, procreating is not a requirement.

    It doesn’t help me to say that “as far as that child goes,&rdquo the total value ticker goes up. As others have pointed out, that would imply we have some way of comparing the value of being born into the world against what would have been the case had the child never existed. But let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that a lot of the time the child is a net positive. I don’t see how that implies even a prima facie obligation to have children. At most it would support your idea that it is commendable to have children. Chocolate chip cookies are usually a net positive, but no one would argue that we have any sort of moral obligation, prima facie or otherwise, to bake chocolate chip cookies.

    So what Smilansky is claiming is quite mild, if you pay attention to all the Latin parts–the pro tanto and prima facie qualifiers. All the same, he’s still saying something pretty counterintuitive. A lot of people think there isn’t even a prima facie obligation to procreate–there’s just no obligation whatever. The point of my post is that he’s on solid ground when he says creating a child is (pro tanto) adding value to the world, but that agreeing with that doesn’t take you all the way to the idea that there’s an obligation to have children. It could be, instead, that having children is just one of those merely permissible things that qualify as “doing good”–so it’s commendable and no more.

    Well, I don’t agree that what he’s saying is mild. For one thing, he did imply that childless people are parasites. For another, he claims to have found moral considerations in favor of an obligation to have children, which, if true, would be a truly momentous accomplishment. But I would say Smilansky’s thesis is not just counter-intuitive, it is plainly wrong.

    In my post I didn’t actually challenge your idea that having children is commendable, though as it happens I do have some problems with it. I just don’t see how you can make a blanket statement about the moral commendability of having children. Usually when something is described as commendable the intent is that it had a positive impact on other people, possibly including yourself. You could argue that having a child has a favorable impact on the family itself, and is commendable for that reason. Perhaps, but things can go sour pretty quickly, and I don’t think I’m out of line in asking for some time before deciding whether a given pair of parents did something commendable by having kids.

    Lots and lots of things are commendable, little things and big things, just as there are little obligations and large obligations. It’s no real objection to what I’m saying that making children is getting thrown into the same general category as making dinner. It’s also being thrown in the same category as writing novels and running marathons.

    My remark about having children being lumped in with making a good dinner was not meant as an objection to your argument. I just found it amusing to see something as momentous and life-altering as having children being described with the same language as something as ultimately trivial as making a good dinner.

    It sounds like you find it odd to suppose that making children is adding value to the world, even just pro tanto.

    Yes, that’s correct.

    But to say anything else is actually very puzzling. I think most people are going to agree that we add value to the world by increasing happiness (and other good things) in existing people. So–if I have a magic wand that I could wave, and make every person in Belgium twice as happy, I should surely wave it. If making them happier adds good stuff to the world, then it’s quite odd to suppose that no more value is added to the world when baby Belgians are born. Making Belgians is starting new streams that will likely be filled with much more happiness than unhappiness (assuming what positive psychologists tell us, and making many other assumptions about the world).

    Well, as I said in my post we’re really not on the same page. To me it looks like you gave the game away with that parenthetical at the end. Having a baby just isn’t comparable to waving a magic wand to make everyone happier. Sometimes having a baby just ends up making everyone miserable. I’d like to see the statistical basis for asserting that those baby Belgians will eventually fill the world with much more happiness than unhappiness.

    So the bottom line is this: I don’t think Smilansky has a leg to stand on in arguing that there is ever an obligation to have children. I’m less opposed to your idea that having children is commendable, but even there I’m suspicious, since there are just too many ways in which bringing another child into the world can easily lead to increased misery and unhappiness.

  29. #29 Webmaster
    September 25, 2011

    Me too. It can be helpful to remember that the very behaviors of human organizations/institutions which result in other species’ extinctions are ultimately rooted in the traits which enabled humans to become top dog in the first place. Sufficiently advanced dolphins, having passed the harsh gauntlet of natural selection, would probably screw things up just as much.

  30. #30 SC (Salty Current)
    September 25, 2011

    I’m not claiming (and Smilanksy is not claiming) that every time a new child is born, the “total value ticker” (so to speak) necessarily goes up. As far as that child goes, it usually goes up,

    I don’t see how this is even supposed to make sense. A nonexistent child has no interests. There’s no “that child.” There’s no moral relationship with things that don’t exist. Do you think there are some sort of souls of potential children floating around that have an interest in existing, to whom we owe an ethical duty? It’s just absurd, and frankly it all sounds rather religious.

  31. #31 Jean Kazez
    September 25, 2011

    Jason,

    Sometimes in philosophy you start with an intuition, and then you look for arguments to back it up. For example, you have the intuition that the death penalty is wrong, then try to support that view; or that abortion is permissible, so you look for arguments. Etc. In this case, where I’m saying procreation is merely-permissible-but-commendable, that’s by no means an opening intuition. It’s not my gut feeling that that is the case. Rather, I think it’s where you wind up, if you think through a whole bunch of difficult issues and puzzles. The issues and puzzles are in a big stack of books by people like Derek Parfit, Peter Singer, David Benatar, and many others. Basically, I think calling procreation permissible-commendable helps you stave off having to say much more crazy and counterintuitive things. Long story. I might write another post about this soon.

    I don’t have a pragmatic view of truth about these things–if the best way to solve lots of puzzles it to admit that procreation is permissible-commendable, then so be it. But I also think: no harm done. Lots of things are permissible-commendable, and many of them are things done by single people. If I say you did something permissible-commendable by writing a book about the Monty Hall problem, people who didn’t do that aren’t going to feel slighted. Likewise, childless people don’t need to feel slighted or pressured if they’re told that procreation is (in some but not all cases) permissible-commendable.

    I’m glad you agree that at most we get the idea that procreation is permissible-commendable, from saying a child is a valuable thing, pro tanto, not Smilanksy’s stronger claim that it’s prima facie obligatory. This might seem obvious to you, but there’s a fair amount of literature where the point is not acknowledged. But I do think we get to that conclusion. Important clarification: by saying a child is a valuable thing, we are neither implicitly nor explicitly saying it’s better from the point of view of that child to exist. Creating a child is not at all a question of fixing a problem suffered by non-existent people.

    As to why I think most people are on balance quite happy, that’s what the positive psychology literature says. Like Carol Graham in her book about happiness around the world, and Daniel Kahneman in his research on well-being. And Daniel Gilbert, and the list goes on.

  32. #32 SC (Salty Current)
    September 25, 2011

    I think most people are going to agree that we add value to the world by increasing happiness (and other good things) in existing people. So–if I have a magic wand that I could wave, and make every person in Belgium twice as happy, I should surely wave it. If making them happier adds good stuff to the world, then it’s quite odd to suppose that no more value is added to the world when baby Belgians are born. Making Belgians is starting new streams that will likely be filled with much more happiness than unhappiness (assuming what positive psychologists tell us, and making many other assumptions about the world).

    Wut.

  33. #33 SC (Salty Current)
    September 25, 2011

    Sometimes in philosophy you start with an intuition, and then you look for arguments to back it up. For example, you have the intuition that the death penalty is wrong, then try to support that view; or that abortion is permissible, so you look for arguments. Etc. In this case, where I’m saying procreation is merely-permissible-but-commendable, that’s by no means an opening intuition. It’s not my gut feeling that that is the case. Rather, I think it’s where you wind up, if you think through a whole bunch of difficult issues and puzzles. The issues and puzzles are in a big stack of books by people like Derek Parfit, Peter Singer, David Benatar, and many others. Basically, I think calling procreation permissible-commendable helps you stave off having to say much more crazy and counterintuitive things. Long story. I might write another post about this soon.

    I hope it has some substance, unlike that vacuous paragraph.

    I don’t have a pragmatic view of truth about these things–if the best way to solve lots of puzzles it to admit that procreation is permissible-commendable, then so be it. But I also think: no harm done. Lots of things are permissible-commendable, and many of them are things done by single people. If I say you did something permissible-commendable by writing a book about the Monty Hall problem, people who didn’t do that aren’t going to feel slighted. Likewise, childless people don’t need to feel slighted or pressured if they’re told that procreation is (in some but not all cases) permissible-commendable.

    It is immoral to deny social realities in which people live. People – women, especially – do need to feel pressured if they’re being pressured and forced and denied their rights and opportunities by governments that have decided that it’s morally commendable for them to have babies because they’re good for the country or economic growth or some god or that nonexistent things have rights. It’s not like this isn’t continuing to happen around the world. These claims have effects on real people’s lives, and you can’t worm your way out of defending them by suggesting that they don’t and that this is just all abstract and academic.

    Important clarification: by saying a child is a valuable thing, we are neither implicitly nor explicitly saying it’s better from the point of view of that child to exist.

    You still don’t get this. There is no “that child” unless there’s an actual child. There’s nothing to have a point of view because there’s no thing. Your argument rests on this absurdity.

  34. #34 SC (Salty Current)
    September 25, 2011

    I’m glad you agree that at most we get the idea that procreation is permissible-commendable, from saying a child is a valuable thing, pro tanto,

    He said that even if he accepted the argument being made, it’s the furthest it would take you. But he made several strong arguments against it, which you haven’t addressed.

  35. #35 Anton Mates
    September 25, 2011

    Basically, I think calling procreation permissible-commendable helps you stave off having to say much more crazy and counterintuitive things. Long story. I might write another post about this soon.

    That would be very helpful.

    I don’t have a pragmatic view of truth about these things–if the best way to solve lots of puzzles it to admit that procreation is permissible-commendable, then so be it.

    Isn’t that a pragmatic view of truth right there?

    As to why I think most people are on balance quite happy, that’s what the positive psychology literature says.

    It’s true that most people report being happier than they are unhappy, having more satisfaction than dissatisfaction with their life, etc. But, again, this doesn’t tell you whether most people have sufficient net happiness that they ought to exist. And I don’t really see how it could.

  36. #36 Deepak Shetty
    September 25, 2011

    I don’t think (most) people who think about having children think of it as a moral issue. Let me try.

    The fact that I exist is a good thing for me. Whether it is a good thing for society or not, who can tell? Should I give two other beings an opportunity to experience life ? Again whether these beings are good, bad or evil , who knows – what is being offered is the opportunity for a being(I cant come up with a better word) to experience a wonderful thing called life.

    Though I’d say that most of the reasons for having children are selfish. At-least that’s how it is for me and my wife.

  37. #37 Anat
    September 26, 2011

    Considering that on average parents are less happy than non-parents (see for example mentions in Bundles Of . . . Misery we can’t just assume that the birth of a child adds to total or average happiness.

    I’d leave having children as merely permissible, and only to those who take some measures to arrange for reasonably good upbringing of said child(ren), whether by themselves or others.

  38. #38 crowepps
    September 26, 2011

    All parents are not loving and all childhoods are not wonderful. Some people are so lousy at parenting that their children suffer miserably until they can escape, and may afterwards be physically and emotionally crippled for life. Some parents are so toxic that their children don’t survive to escape.

    Conceiving, gestating and birthing a baby can only be neutral, because there is no value added to society or the sum total of happiness by infants who die from neglect or from lack of resources, by children tormented and abused, or those who grow up emotionally crippled for life after managing to survive a home focused mainly around a parent’s mental illness or a parent’s substance abuse. Given the choice, many people who survived those sorts of homes would immediately opt for retroactive nonexistence.

    Doing a good job of actually raising children so they are mentally and physically healthy does indeed add value to society, and doing an excellent job of it is commendable. It is also unfortunately much rarely than it should be.

  39. #39 Jefrir
    September 26, 2011

    The argument about cultural continuation seems to be more of an argument for helping to raise children, rather than for giving birth to them. You don’t have to be genetically related to a child to teach it your language or culture.
    And end-of-the-world scenarios are generally not taken seriously because they’re so incredibly unrealistic. Humans are seriously not at any risk of dying out. And if we were, the massive population drop would have created societal issues whereby reproducing may well not be a smart move (nevermind that you need a certain population level for it to be sustainable – “last couple in the world” scenarios are not going to work out).

  40. #40 eric
    September 26, 2011

    Jean Kazez @31:

    Sometimes in philosophy you start with an intuition, and then you look for arguments to back it up.

    It is fine to begin testing one’s hypotheses by looking for confirming evidence, but if you stop there, you research could easily come up with an incorrect view of the world due to the confirmation bias.

    You really should make some effort to identify disconfirming evidence – what it would be, how one would collect it, etc. If you look for it yourself, even better, but at least identify it. That way other, future researchers can extend your current “in-what-ways-am-I-right”-focused effort to include the question “in what ways am I wrong?”

  41. #41 Wow
    September 26, 2011

    “You really should make some effort to identify disconfirming evidence – what it would be, how one would collect it, etc”

    This is, of course, the older and more correct meaning of the word “prove”. Armour would be “proved” by shooting a bullet at the armour (or whatever proving was required at the time). “The exception proves the rule” becomes silly if you use the modern accepted meaning of “prove”, since an exception DISPROVES the rule. But it DOES prove as in “tries to break” (and is successful).

  42. #42 Bill Buliziuk
    September 26, 2011

    I recently heard a comedian remark that having kids isn’t even as special as making cookies, as one can’t get drunk fool around with a bag of chocolate chips and mistakingly produce some cookies- but many a drunken encouter may lead to kids.

  43. #43 Dan L.
    September 26, 2011

    I think Admiral Ackbar had the best and last word on both marriage and parenthood. With this crowd, I don’t think I even have to say it.

  44. #44 Dan L.
    September 26, 2011

    The resource contention problem is much more serious than anyone really wants to acknowledge. Having children is immoral at this point in history. Sorry to have to break it to everyone. Exponential growth is not sustainable: not in a population, not in an economy, and not in technology. China will use more oil in the next 30 years than the U.S. has in its entire history. Think about that. Then think that in those 30 years, another 3 billion human beings will probably be born.

    In terms of the moral argument, you guys need to turn the question on its head. Instead of asking whether it’s moral to have children, ask whether some obligation to have children is somehow presupposed as part of our culture’s moral inheritance.

    The whole story of history is the story of who could reproduce the fastest. You can afford to lose a few battles if you’re going to outnumber your opponents 3 to 1 in a few generations. Even the history of the gene for adult lactose tolerance is suggestive here. IIRC, adult lactose tolerance granted about a 3% advantage in caloric intake, and that led to the Hungarian tribe in which the gene developed totally displacing their neighbors to become the ancestors of essentially all Europeans.

    Civilizations undergo natural selection too. The ones who don’t adopt the best technologies, the ones that don’t govern themselves effectively enough, and most especially, the ones who do not breed quick enough simply get overwhelmed by the civilizations that do those three things. Civilizations that develop moral codes that incentivize child-rearing are more successful than those who don’t. As with biological evolution we can call this “selfishness”, but in reality it is utterly amoral behavior.

    So actually, all things told, I think having children these days is immoral (sorry parents), and in fact that probably goes for all of recorded history and then some back to the earliest pre-literate civilizations. James Sweet, I don’t think humans are particularly special or precious or valuable because they can “enjoy” the universe. In my experience, animals seem to do a lot more of that sort of enjoying. Humans mostly seem like they’re bummed out by this whole consciousness thing and they’re trying to take it out on the rest of the world by making it an uglier place.

  45. #45 Jadehawk
    September 26, 2011

    I’m very amused (in a cynical sort of way) that childbearing as “going beyond the call of duty” is so offhandedly dismissed. Mind you, I don’t think it is because I don’t think more children = better. But if I did think so, I’d absolutely consider is “going beyond the call of duty”; sacrificing your health, happiness levels (I recall vaguely reading about studies that have shown that children don’t actually make people happier, but don’t quote me on it), virtually every other hobby and interest you might have had prior to spawning, fuckloads of wealth, etc. cannot possibly be anything other than going beyond the call of duty.

    or, you know, bitches ain’t shit.

    (As I recall, there’s a Sci-Fi story about this out there somewhere…)

  46. #46 Jadehawk
    September 26, 2011

    What makes the world a better place–for there to be lots of happiness in it, or less, or none?

    that’s nonsensical, phrased that way. The world doesn not objectively become “better” or “worse” either way, and there’s no thing called happiness that we need to increase to make it “better”. What makes the world a better place for the people already in it, is for the people already in it to be more happy rather than less happy. The creation of more people for the purpose of creating higher absolute levels of happiness is a silly metric; what matters is the proportion of happy to unhappy in the people that exist at any given time, and it’s not at all established that the creation of more people accomplishes such a goal

  47. #47 Richard Wein
    September 27, 2011

    “The creation of more people for the purpose of creating higher absolute levels of happiness is a silly metric;”

    Well, it’s a strange metric. Total happiness is like total height or total body temperature. Averages of these make sense, because they’re commensurate with a single individual. But totals don’t seem to be commensurate with anything.

    On the other hand, our desires are not a matter for rationality. As David Hume wrote, “‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” If Jean desires the maximisation of her metric, that’s just what she desires. It’s not rational or irrational. But pointing out the strangeness of her metric might reduce her desire for it. And we can certainly criticise her claims that we _ought_ to pursue this metric.

    If you don’t have any preference at all for the existence of people over the non-existence of people, then presumably you have no preference for the continuation of the human race over its dying out. (Let’s suppose the remaining people live long, happy lives right up until the end, so the possible difficulties of the final survivors are not an issue.) That may be the case for you. Personally, I would prefer that the human race continue and flourish, but I have no preference for particularly large numbers. Preferring the existence of some happy people to none doesn’t mean that I ought to prefer the existence of as many as possible. My preferences do not follow utilitarian formulas. (I don’t think anyone’s really do.)

  48. #48 SC (Salty Current)
    September 27, 2011

    The fact that I exist is a good thing for me. Whether it is a good thing for society or not, who can tell? Should I give two other beings an opportunity to experience life ? Again whether these beings are good, bad or evil , who knows – what is being offered is the opportunity for a being(I cant come up with a better word) to experience a wonderful thing called life.

    I’m not sure how you mean this, but it’s perilously close to Kazez’ premise. There is no being to be given such an opportunity. Prior to existing, human beings don’t exist. Creating human beings is creating them; it isn’t offering any being any opportunity to exist – that doesn’t make sense, because there is no being that exists prior to existence to be offered that opportunity.

  49. #49 eric
    September 27, 2011

    Dan L.:

    Having children is immoral at this point in history. Sorry to have to break it to everyone. Exponential growth is not sustainable…

    The former does not follow from the latter.

    Your whole line of reasoning is a naturalistic fallacy, attempting to derive an ought from an is. But if you’re going to do that, at least do it right: sustainability does not indicate 0 kids/couple, as that is not sustainable – humans go extinct that way. Instead, if we’re going to commit the naturalistic fallacy in regards to sustainability, then humans “ought to” average some reproductive rate higher than 0/couple but lower than 2/couple.

  50. #50 Jadehawk
    September 27, 2011

    Richard, why are you talking about personal preferences? The conversation is about a philosophical, ethical argument, not people’s personal preferences. Or do you think ethical philosophy is merely the tool by which we fancily normalize our desires?

  51. #51 Dan L.
    September 27, 2011

    I’m fairly certain I haven’t committed the naturalistic fallacy. (Also, people seem very, very prone to accuse others of particular fallacies, presumably whichever fallacy they most recently looked up in wikipedia. Maybe the approach should be to ask questions and give the person to reprise their ideas rather than make snap judgments.) I did not mean to say that the latter implies the former. If I had, there would have been a conspicuous presence of the words “if” and “then”, order would have been reversed, and I would probably have used a comma instead of a period.

    Having children is immoral because it contributes to the destruction of the world and therefore diminishes the viability of the only known place in the universe where life exists at all. Human extinction would be a small price to pay to prevent the destruction of the rest of the life on earth. I don’t buy the notion that we’re somehow separate from it and get privileged “observer status” above other animals because we’re so freakin’ smart. (Douglas Adams in HGttG said something like “Humans think they’re smarter than dolphins because they invented things like the wheel, New York, and war. Dolphins, of course, think they’re smarter than humans for the exact same reasons.” Think about it for a second. Are there 7 billion of us and counting because we’re really smart? Or because we’re really stupid?)

    If there were only a couple hundred thousand humans employing strict population controls then it would be a moral good to have children. I’m not making some stupid utilitarian argument where I’m trying to walk the knife’s edge between human extinction and human overpopulation by targeting a specific fecundity rate, I detest the sort of authoritarian control necessary for such a scheme. I’m saying anything more than 2 children is clearly immoral, and zero is the most moral of all because it makes up for that other jerk who had 4 kids instead of just 2. It’s like defensive driving, since you can’t control everyone else on the road you need to be aware of them and plan around them.

  52. #52 Dan L.
    September 27, 2011

    Incidentally, the tongue-in-cheek cheesy television sci fi drama Stargate had a great thought experiment about this. A particular race of aliens would go planet to planet giving the (usually relatively primitive) denizens of the planet lives that were twice as long, decreased susceptibility to disease, etc.

    But the treatment also makes people sterile. A few hundred years later, the “benefactors” get the planet for free without firing a single shot.

    The thought experiment is what would you do if offered this bargain in full knowledge that it would cause sterility, especially considered in light of what other human beings would do. Are some humans so fond of children they would forgo another 100 years of life to continue having them? If there’s not enough of those, do we need people to philanthropically forgo the treatment and continue having children to let the rest of humanity enjoy their twice-long hedonistic child-free lifestyles? Into which category do you fall?

  53. #53 eric
    September 27, 2011

    Dan L.: Having children is immoral because it contributes to the destruction of the world and therefore diminishes the viability of the only known place in the universe where life exists at all. Human extinction would be a small price to pay to prevent the destruction of the rest of the life on earth.

    Oh I think you give us way too much credit. Our mismanagement might end up being as destructive as the Cretacious mass extinction (the one that took out all large land animals – including the dinosaurs). But I doubt we could manage a Permian-type event even if we tried. “Life” is not in any danger from us.

    I don’t buy the notion that we’re somehow separate from it and get privileged “observer status” above other animals because we’re so freakin’ smart.

    Neither do I. But I don’t see how your position of discounting humans below the value of other large animals is viable. Either you want to preserve the current ecosystem relatively intact, in which case you can’t do away with hominids (we’ve been a big part of it for over a million years), or you don’t care about preserving the current ecosystem, in which case nothing we do will make much of a difference.

    If it helps, just think about us like wolves. You would probably think someone was crazy who said “I want to keep the current forest ecosystem intact…that’s why I don’t care if we kill off all the wolves.” Answer: such a person should care. Wolves are a part of the ecosystem. And so are humans.

    The thought experiment is what would you do if offered this bargain…

    Golden rule no-brainer: if you, Dan L., would think it immoral for someone to force you to have children – i.e., impose their preferred childbearing position on you – then you should not be imposing your preferred childbearing position on them.

  54. #54 Dan L.
    September 27, 2011

    @eric:

    Golden rule no-brainer: if you, Dan L., would think it immoral for someone to force you to have children – i.e., impose their preferred childbearing position on you – then you should not be imposing your preferred childbearing position on them.

    I’m sorry, did I show up at your home with a pair of garden shears and try to snip you? If not, then I resent the notion that I am “impos[ing] my preferred childbearing position on” anyone by posing what I think is an interesting thought experiment, more or less entirely disconnected from my other posts.

    Oh I think you give us way too much credit. Our mismanagement might end up being as destructive as the Cretacious mass extinction (the one that took out all large land animals – including the dinosaurs). But I doubt we could manage a Permian-type event even if we tried. “Life” is not in any danger from us.

    This seems to be just opinion. Noted. I disagree.

    Neither do I. But I don’t see how your position of discounting humans below the value of other large animals is viable. Either you want to preserve the current ecosystem relatively intact, in which case you can’t do away with hominids (we’ve been a big part of it for over a million years), or you don’t care about preserving the current ecosystem, in which case nothing we do will make much of a difference.

    This is explicitly the thesis I am disagreeing with. We are not part of any ecosystem. We once were, and a very few human beings still are, but since the invention of agriculture we have been subverting ecosystems rather than living within them.

    We are top predators. Back when we were animals, we were competing with cave lions and sabretoothed tigers. Considering the proportion of a typical top predator to the rest of the biomass, our population is far out of scale compared to any stable ecosystem that contains a top predator. Domesticated plants and animals make up a fake ecosystem, much of its energy derived from fossil fuels rather than the sun — which obscures just how unsustainable our way of life really is.

    We have remade the earth to suit what earlier humans thought was best for us. They were wrong. By doing this we’ve thrown ecosystems that were billions of years out of whatever balance they had obtained.

    Humans used to live as part of ecosystems, and a very few still do. Their style of economy has been dubbed “hunter/gatherer.” They have typically strictly controlled their populations to be in line with what they knew they could procure from their environments with their wits, hands and eyes. (They did/do this by practicing various kinds of abortion and induced miscarriage, and occasionally even infanticide.)

  55. #55 Richard Wein
    September 28, 2011

    @Jadehawk:

    Richard, why are you talking about personal preferences? The conversation is about a philosophical, ethical argument, not people’s personal preferences.

    I was responding specifically to your point about whether maximum total happiness is a silly metric. That question need not be limited to the context of moral/ethical claims. Besides, the post of yours that I was responding to (46) was not couched in moral/ethical terms, so I chose to interpret it more broadly. You wrote, “The creation of more people for the purpose of creating higher absolute levels of happiness is a silly metric; what matters is the proportion of happy to unhappy in the people that exist at any given time…”.

    I think mattering is something that can only apply to people (or other conscious beings), i.e. a thing doesn’t matter unless there is someone to whom it matters. So I chose to respond in terms of what matters to people. What matters to you may be the proportion of happy to unhappy people that exist at any given time. But what matters to Jean may be something else, like the total happiness in the world.

    Whether this way of thinking leads necessarily to moral skepticism I leave you to judge. Personally I’m a moral error theorist: I think moral claims cannot be true.

  56. #56 Richard Wein
    September 28, 2011

    P.S. Jadehawk, I may have strayed from the original subject, but I think I was still in the vicinity and it was an interesting point to make. Interesting to me, anyway. If everyone else finds it utterly uninteresting and just a distraction, then I’m sorry for wasting their time. ;)

  57. #57 Jadehawk
    September 28, 2011

    That question need not be limited to the context of moral/ethical claims.

    since my claim is that it’s silly in the context of where in the ethical landscape having children falls, it may not need to be limited to that context in general, but as a response to what I said, it kind of does.

    Besides, the post of yours that I was responding to (46) was not couched in moral/ethical terms

    incorrect.

    I think mattering is something that can only apply to people

    “to matter” = “to be of significance”. Obviously only people can assign significance; however, the word was used in the context of what is or isn’t a significant metric in placing reproduction within the moral/ethical landscape, i.e. the subject of the OP, not in the context of people’s personal preferences.

    Personally I’m a moral error theorist: I think moral claims cannot be true.

    to be honest, this just makes my eyes glaze over.

  58. #58 eric
    September 28, 2011

    DanL @54:

    I resent the notion that I am “impos[ing] my preferred childbearing position on” anyone by posing what I think is an interesting thought experiment, more or less entirely disconnected from my other posts.

    I gave you an answer to your thought experiment. No need to get huffy about the answer I gave. The Aashen (sp?) drug is immoral because it imposes your choice on others even while you would object to their choice being imposed on you.

    As an aside, in that particular story population control was imposed because the ‘victim’ population was considered a military threat – not out of any high-minded ecological concerns. Secretly giving that drug is more analogous to Stalinist Russia’s programs of enforced movement of ethnic populations, which was also done to reduce the chance of rebellion and increase the speed of assimilation in a larger culture. Stargate is fun sci-fi and those episodes weren’t bad, but as a thought experiment, even a cursory assessment should yield the answer that such actions were unethical.

    We are not part of any ecosystem. We once were, and a very few human beings still are, but since the invention of agriculture we have been subverting ecosystems rather than living within them.

    We are top predators.

    We are top predators, but not part of the ecosystem? How does that work? Top predators ARE part of the ecosystem.

    Many animals subvert the ecosystem. Its not like a termite mound or wasp’s nest grows naturally out of the ground: the critters process materials and build them. Leaf cutter ants engage in agriculture. And so on.

    Considering the proportion of a typical top predator to the rest of the biomass, our population is far out of scale compared to any stable ecosystem that contains a top predator.

    I agree with this. But nature contains lots of examples of boom-and-bust cycles between predators and prey species. The fact that we are currently in a 2,000-10,000 year boom is probably not all that significant in the grand scheme of thnigs, and it certainly doesn’t mean we are ‘out’ of the ecosystem.

    In fact, we owe our very existence to such a boom and bust cycle. Early life was probably anaerobic, and produced oxygen as a toxic waste byproduct. Those anaerobic critters multiplied without regard to their poisoning of their own ecosystem. They kept producing this waste to such an enormous extent that they permanently changed the planet’s atmosphere, soil, and water chemistry. They eventually made the planet uninhabitable for themselves. Did life die out? No, in fact life is doing quite well. All of the things you seek to preserve are a result of their poisioning the envirnoment with their wastes.

    Now, I don’t want that to happen to us. We should take that as a cautionary tale of what we could end up doing if we are stupid. But it also is a direct counterexample to your belief that our actions are a threat to life per se. If life can handle a switch from a non-oxygen atmosphere to an oxygen-containing one, it can probably handle anything we throw at it.

  59. #59 Nick Switala
    September 29, 2011

    Let me just second Richard(@14)’s recommendation of David Benatar’s book, which I picked up expecting nothing more than amusement based on the title. That book turned my world upside down. His conclusion is quite a bit more pessimistic than Jason’s, though, and represents the perfect mirror image of Saul Smilansky’s: no lives are ever worth starting, and so worse than being neutral, having children is always wrong. What’s more, he also avoids (for most of the book) any discussion of issues like population and resources; his argument is that having a child is always a harm to the child.

  60. #60 Laura
    November 2, 2011

    Fantastic post I very much enjoyed it, keep up the good work.

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