Friday, April 20, 2012

the case against kids: is procreation immoral?

TheNewYorker | In “Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate” (M.I.T. Press), Christine Overall tries to subject that decision to morally rigorous analysis. Overall, who teaches philosophy at Queen’s University, in Ontario, dismisses the notion that childbearing is “natural” and therefore needs no justification. “There are many urges apparently arising from our biological nature that we nonetheless should choose not to act upon,” she observes. If we’re going to keep having kids, we ought to be able to come up with a reason.

Of course, people do give reasons for having children, and Overall takes them up one by one. Consider the claim that having a child benefits the child. This might seem self-evident. After all, a child deprived, through some Knowltonian means, of coming into existence, loses everything. She can never experience any of the pleasures life has to offer—eating ice cream, say, or riding a bike, or, for the more forward-thinking parents among us, having sex.

Overall rejects this argument on two grounds. First of all, nonexistent people have no moral standing. (There are an infinite number of nonexistent people out there, and you don’t notice them complaining, do you?) Second, once you accept that you should have a baby in order to increase the world’s total happiness, how do you know when to stop? Let’s say one kid eating ice cream represents x amount of added pleasure. In that case, two kids eating ice cream represents 2x, four kids 4x, and so on. The family with eight kids could perhaps afford to buy ice cream only half as often as the one with four. Still, provided the parents were able to throw in a bag of M&M’s, they (or, at least, the world) would fare better, total-happiness-wise, with the larger brood. And, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, things would be even better if the parents kept pumping kids out. Generalize this process, and the world would teem with more and more people leading less and less satisfying lives, until eventually the happiness of each individual would start to approach nil. This reductio ad Duggar Family was first articulated by the British philosopher Derek Parfit; it is known in academic circles as the Repugnant Conclusion. Overall considers it dispositive: “A simplistic utilitarianism is wrong about the ethics of having children.”

Overall finds most of the other frequently invoked rationales to be, philosophically speaking, similarly inadequate. Some people justify the decision to have children on the ground that they are perpetuating a family name or a genetic line. But “is anyone’s biological composition so valuable that it must be perpetuated?” Overall asks. Others say that it’s a citizen’s duty to society to provide for its continuation. Such an obligation, Overall objects, “would make women into procreative serfs.”

Still others argue that people ought to have children so there will be someone to care for them in their old age. “Anyone who has children for the sake of the supposed financial support they can provide,” Overall writes, is “probably deluded.”

Finally, lots of people offer the notion that parenthood will make them happy. Here the evidence is, sadly, against them. Research shows that people who have children are no more satisfied with their lives than people who don’t. If anything, the balance tips the other way: parents are less happy. In an instantly famous study, published in Science in 2004, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asked nine hundred working women to assess their experiences during the preceding day. The women rated the time they’d spent taking care of their kids as less enjoyable than the time spent shopping, eating, exercising, watching TV, preparing food, and talking on the phone. One of the few activities these women found less enjoyable than caring for their children was doing housework, which is to say cleaning up after them.

But none of this really matters. Procreation for the sake of the parents is ethically unacceptable. “To have a child in order to benefit oneself is a moral error,” Overall writes.

0 comments: