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.
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!