Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Procreative Ethics

There's an interesting article in the New Yorker exploring whether it's wrong to have kids.

The author's main concern seems to be overpopulation, but would-be parents can easily offset their impact on global population size by making an appropriate donation to Population Services International or the like. If the result of their choices is that more children are born into prosperity, and correspondingly fewer born into poverty, then that can only be a good thing. And even without such an 'offset', I'd expect the marginal child born to upper-middle class Americans to produce more positive than negative externalities over their lifetime. (As Caplan says, "More people mean more ideas, the fuel of progress.")

A better argument against procreating may be the lost opportunity for adopting/"saving" children from orphanages, etc., where they would otherwise lack the sort of care and opportunities that you could offer them. Adopting children in need is certainly exemplary, though presumably supererogatory if anything is. Setting this ideal option aside, then, I think we can at least say that for many people it is better for the world that they have and raise biological children rather than doing no parenting at all.


  1. Tina Rulli, a recent Yale PhD, wrote her dissertation arguing that adoption is not just superogatory. I believe she also has interesting things to say about the phrase "kids of one's own".

  2. Yeah, that's an insensitive phrase. I've corrected it.

  3. Does Rulli believe anything to be supererogatory? I'd be very curious to see an argument that we're required to adopt, but not to donate an equivalent amount of effort and resources to the most effective global health charities...

  4. You'd have to ask her! I should say that her position, as far as I understand it, is that there is a pro tanto reason in favor of adoption that is rarely outweighed, if you want to have children. More of the research is described at

    The way I think about it is that there's something about parental resource that is over and above time and money, and so cannot be allocated to other non-child-rearing-like activities. In which case, it's not enough to just give time and money to global health charities, all else being equal. (It may be that the most effective ones are so effective that it's still the right thing to do.)

  5. "more children are born into prosperity, and correspondingly fewer born into poverty, then that can only be a good thing"

    I'm not sure about this. In the present global system, being born into 'prosperity' means consuming far, far more of the world's finite resources and producing far more negative externalities through the consumption of those resources (e.g. pollution etc.) than some-one born into poverty (and this holds even if we don't limit poverty to the 1/3rd of the world suffering abject poverty, but include the other 1/3rd of the world who live on a couple of dollars per day). The 12% of the world who live in the 'prosperous' US and Western Europe consume about 60% of the world's resources. If we're worried about overpopulation for the various material harms it causes through consumption of scarce resources and degradation of the environment, we really ought to reduce the number of lives possessed of (unsustainable, destructive) prosperity. Removing the 5% of the world population that is the U.S. would remove 25% of world resource consumption, for example- which rather suggests that 'overpopulation' per se was never the problem anyway.

  6. Tina, here. Shen-yi has done a nice job representing my view. I assume that there are supererogatory acts. More precisely, I concede that we have agent-prerogatives/moral options, i.e. the permission to favor our own projects, goals and pursuits for more than their objective weight in determining what we ought to do. Interests that would ground options must pass some objective standards of importance; they cannot be entirely justified by subjective weighing. We don't think a person's insane love for his designer suit would ground an option to fail to rescue the infamous drowning child.

    The plight of children in need of adoption is analogous in the relevant ways to familiar duty to rescue cases. If this is true, then the standard for personal interests that are option-grounding in this case will be very high.

    Many people's interest in not becoming parents so that they can do something else will presumably defeat a duty to adopt. I don't argue for this. I imagine there are exceptions. But it seems that the choice to become a parent or not generally would greatly impact personal life projects, plans, pursuits.

    For those who do choose to become parents, I argue that the interest in having a genetic or biological relationship with a child does not pass the option-grounding standard. Reasons to favor biological children over adopted children are generally too trivial or based on empirical/metaphysical mistakes. For all that, it is possible that the monetary and logistical costs of adoption do exempt some people from a duty to adopt. This will depend on any particular case at hand.

  7. Hi Richard,
    I share David's worry. Also, I'm doubtful of this general claim: "If the result of their choices is that more children are born into prosperity, and correspondingly fewer born into poverty, then that can only be a good thing." Imagine a situation (however it might arise) in which a prosperous person could have a second child but this would prevent a poor person from having any child at all, or the prosperous person could somehow coax the poor person into not having children (thereby offsetting). I think it's wrong to say that this can "only be a good thing." One might think there is something good about the situation in which the having of children is distributed more equally. Now, granted, the poor tend to have far more children than the prosperous, so perhaps you could tweak your claim here.

    Your claim might also imply that it could be "only a good thing" if a certain poverty-stricken culture was wiped out entirely because everyone in that culture stopped procreating. Some of us would consider this loss of cultural diversity to be a bad thing, at least in some cases. We want there to be less children born in a given culture because the culture is rising out of poverty, not simply because everyone stopped having kids in spite of the poverty.

    Personally, I'd also like to know more about what these prosperous people are like. If they are hollow, uninteresting people, I think the world might be better for containing more interesting or worthwhile people, even if happiness/prosperity is not maximized. (Brave New World considerations.)

    Perhaps a consequentialist framework can accommodate these concerns. Does your favored brand of consequentialism do so?

  8. David - yikes! (Though I agree that there's plenty of scope for reducing unnecessary consumption, and that that might be the real moral issue behind "overpopulation" worries.)

    Tina - thanks for the explanation! I had been thinking that child-rearing was such an intimate and yet expansive personal project that any autonomy-motivated view on which we have moral options would give us a lot of leeway on (not just if but also) how we go about it. But perhaps this only helps if one conceives of raising biological children as a distinctive kind of project. If the differences between biological and adoptive parenting are normatively insignificant, then your view makes a lot more sense than I initially gave it credit for. (Especially since would-be parents would be investing in parenthood anyway, so the various demands of [adoptive] parenthood are not new demands that morality is placing on them.)

    I expect many people (myself included) have a 'Moorean' attachment to the idea of having biological children, i.e. being more confident in the reasonableness of this attachment than in any premises that might be used to argue against it. But it's an interesting question what, if anything, vindicates this attachment. One proposal might appeal to the symbolic value of a procreative union -- this seems to me non-trivial. And given the heritability of many traits, the desire to have a child that is similar to you and your partner, in various respects, seems like a complementary consideration. If you've time, feel free to reproduce your arguments against these proposals here. Otherwise, I guess I should read your papers sometime!

    Steve - right, I was thinking about changes at the current margins (and, specifically, by preventing unwanted pregnancies). I'm happy to grant that, at the extremes, we might have preservationist reasons for wanting people to continue to be born into a poverty-stricken culture, despite the poverty.

    I'm also sympathetic to the idea that we should especially be wanting interesting and worthwhile people to reproduce. I was implicitly assuming that the audience of people who would seriously consider these sorts of ethical questions would be (for the most part) interesting and worthwhile, or at least that by being raised in prosperity their children would have an increased opportunity (and hence likelihood) for becoming interesting and worthwhile people. But I guess you could question that assumption, e.g. if you thought that material comfort tended to corrupt one's character. (I don't think that.)

  9. To have a duty of any sort to adopt over having one's own child seems wrong to me. It places the moral burden of parenthood choice not on yourself but on whether the people within the society you reside are producing biological children unnecessarily.
    This is assuming (I think correctly), that the majority of adoptions are made for personal/financial reasons and not because parents have died.

    This would lead then to the opposite situation to the one suggested: that in a country with poverty (where adoption systems are less developed and hence there are less children, formerly, to adopt) it would hence be more reasonable to have biological children.

    Also, one would expect i think that it would be very hard to come up with a compelling argument for non-reproduction for the same reason it tends to be hard to compel people to commit suicide. A successful argument could only ever convince intellectually.

  10. Hi Richard. I think you identify important reasons people may favor procreation over adoption. I have written in response to these concerns and would be happy to share a draft of the paper with you. Feel free to email me. I'd prefer that to reproducing the arguments in full here. (Though I could provide a sketch, if you'd rather.)

    Hi Johnson. You say: "It places the moral burden of parenthood choice not on yourself but on whether the people within the society you reside are producing biological children unnecessarily."

    I don't see how this is a problem. Other people's actions impact what we morally ought to do. If someone shoves a child into a pond, I still have a duty to rescue that child. Further, the plight of unparented children is largely attributable to social injustice and not necessarily irresponsible or bad behavior of others.

    "This would lead then to the opposite situation to the one suggested: that in a country with poverty (where adoption systems are less developed and hence there are less children, formerly, to adopt) it would hence be more reasonable to have biological children."

    I don't see how this follows. For one, I don't think our duties to needy children are constrained by national boundaries.

    "A successful argument could only ever convince intellectually."

    I disagree. Intellectual arguments are the reason we have an animal rights and vegetarian revolution--despite the fact that eating meat is "natural" and hard to give up. I think we need to be more optimistic about the importance and power of moral argument as moral persuasion. Also, the genetic bias may be largely socially reinforced rather than simply a biological imperative. Many people already have a more expansive notion of family than one limited to genetic relationships. This is promising.

  11. “Yikes” may be right- but at the ecological situation, not the moral judgement. I think it's a fair assumption that a certain level of consumption will basically destroy mankind, along with much of the world through climate change/depletion of resources. If so then it's not obvious that more people consuming lots is better, given that this will cause terrible disaster for future generations.

    I would support the hypothetical immigration, but only because the alleviation of that individual's suffering is not yet outweighed by the extra environmental destruction caused. It's imperative to get as many people into the 'lifeboat' of the US as possible, but not at the point where the lifeboat will capsize, harming every-one. Of course, the case is really more complicated than this analogy, because the 'lifeboat' in question is already (and not only when it capsizes) harming everybody (and not only its passengers).

    So the prosperous parents deciding to reproduce (and pay to not produce another child in poverty), since they seem to be doing something equivalent to the immigration case, seem to be producing a net good (until the point that additional prosperous individuals causes a net harm, through their ecological damage).

    Producing one extra prosperous individual and one fewer poor individual is a very ambiguous good though. While producing one extra person may be a net good- indeed one additional person always presumably makes little difference ecologically- millions of people consuming prosperously is unsustainable and ultimately disastrous. There's therefore a limited number of people who can consume prosperously and a limited amount of time they can consume prosperously for. Given that there's a finite number of people who can consume prosperously (and a finite amount of resources that can be used to raise people from poverty to adequacy-but-less-than-prosperity), we can't just blithely call it a good that more people be created in prosperity.

    In the immigration case, we aren't given any other options, so it's easy to approve the transfer of an individual already suffering in poverty to a life of prosperity (assuming the ecological harms do not yet outweigh the increase in that individual's utility). In the birth-and-offset case, things are a little more complex. Given that there are suffering people clamouring to get into the finite space of the lifeboat it seems dubious to create another life inside the lifeboat, taking up the space which could have gone to one of the poor.

    It's also not clear how paying to prevent the conception of some-one in poverty count as an “offset” at all. Sure it offsets the “impact on global population size”, but population per se is surely of no relevance at all. If one really wanted to offset the birth of a child in prosperity, you'd need to prevent the birth of as many poor children required to consume as much/produce as much environmental harm (obviously, a very large number of children indeed). Once you have so many children in poverty needing to be prevented, it doesn't seem obvious that it is better to have a single prosperous child than 10 (or maybe a lot more) poor children. It might be that some of these lives are so bad that they're not worth living, but otherwise it doesn't seem that preventing the birth of a worthwhile life in African would even be a good thing in itself. Thus producing one additional prosperous child would be a net good thing (albeit one which exhausts finite resources which could be more efficiently employed and which brings us closer to ecological disaster), but preventing the birth of a child in poverty may be a good thing, but might simply be a slightly bad thing, which also fails to offset virtually any of the harms of population.


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