Friday, April 04, 2008

Procreative Duties

Bryan Caplan:
In 1996, the GSS asked:

If the husband in a family wants children, but the wife decides that she does not want any children, is it all right for the wife to refuse to have children?


If the wife in a family wants children, but the husband decides that he does not want any children, is it all right for the husband to refuse to have children?

Survey says: 82% affirmed the wife's right to refuse, but only 61% affirmed the same right for husbands. Other than a simple men's rights story, anyone got an explanation?

In traditional households, the mother shoulders most of the costs of childrearing (not to mention childbearing!). If we can assume this background context, then we have 82% of people affirming one's right to back out of a massive burden, compared to only 61% affirming one's right to back out of a not-quite-so-massive burden.

Further: sexist gender norms mean that women are more likely to be stigmatized for being childless. If we can assume this as background, it means that not only is the alleged "duty" less burdensome for the husband, his reneging would impose greater costs on his spouse (compared to the costs to him if the wife were to back out).

These assumptions won't hold in every particular case, of course. But they seem plausible enough in general, so the asymmetry in the survey results seems perfectly sensible -- certainly not evidence of anti-male bias.


  1. It's still an anti male bias even if you can justify it on the grounds that you just did.

    If the difference was a racial difference and the races differed in their average culture in the same ways that we highlight here would it remain reasonable for us to give one race the right to refuse to have a child and deny that right to another?

    Maybe people should just say "this is a nonsense question without context". Unless they want the position I am tending towards which is
    "everyone has the right to refuse" (aside from the moral arguments - I also like that because I think the earth is massively overpopulated).

    Or you might argue - "yes it is an anti male bias but we should be biased against males - at least in this area"

  2. You misunderstand. I don't think the survey respondents are really affirming a universal right for women, and denying the corresponding right for all men. Instead, I expect they're saying "In a typical case it's right for the wife (but perhaps not for the husband)" - because the typical case for the wife is different from the typical case for the husband. Once you fill in those details, gender makes no further difference.

    The judgments presumably won't extend to atypical cases. E.g. if you filled in the details such that it was the husband who would be doing all the work of childcare, etc., (and somehow even bearing the pregnancy himself?), etc., then the "bias" would vanish. So sexism among survey respondents is not the explanation of their judgments (contra Caplan).

  3. Still, the question appears to be phrased as a rights based question.

    we seem to be suggesting they answered a slightly different question. That in itself is a problem because if in part of my process is to answer rights based questions as 'in a typical case' then its likely that I will have a prejudicial effect.

    The next question is did those people really think "in a typical case x should be true" or did they visualize a stereotypical situation and give an answer - In the absence of being able to read their minds - I'm inclined to think for most people the latter is true.


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