Thursday, July 16, 2015

Procreative Externalities (and bad moral advice) revisited

There's an interesting podcast with ethicist Travis Rieder (ht: Daily Nous) discussing the ethics of having kids in light of climate change.  Rieder suggests that it's morally problematic to have children at all, and probably out of bounds to have more than one, given the immense "carbon footprint" of the decision (especially in the US).  This one decision, after all, can be expected to make more of a difference than everything else in your life combined (especially once you build in the likelihood that your child will themselves, at some point down the line, have further children of their own).  At one point they mention estimates that a lifetime of recycling saves 19 tons (iirc) of CO2-equivalent, whereas the long-term legacy of reproducing is estimated at 9000 tons.

In line with my previous post on the topic, there are two main points I'd like to highlight in response.
1) Given that you can offset carbon for around $1 per ton, these numbers are actually relatively trivial.  The average American is responsible for around 20 tons of carbon emissions per year.  In light of this, it seems completely ridiculous to suggest that people mustn't have children, when they could instead do just as much good by committing to donate at least $20 per year, per child, to Cool Earth or similarly effective environmental charities.  That is a much less onerous moral ask!

Even if you go with the high-end estimate of 9000 tons (which I gather is meant to cover the long-term "carbon legacy" of reproducing), I bet a lot of would-be parents would much rather pay a one-off $9000 "environmental impact child license fee" than refrain from procreating.  So again, it just seems like bad moral advice to insist on the latter.

(2) As further explored in my previous post, this completely neglects all the positive effects your child will have on others throughout their lifetime (and your children's children's lifetimes, etc.).  If you raise your child to more than offset their carbon footprint (which, again, just costs $20 per year), their existence could be positive for the climate -- a positive effect which, like the previously assumed harms, gets amplified over time by the "legacy effect" of in turn influencing their children, and so forth.  (And that's not even getting into the non-environmental benefits discussed previously.)

And this isn't just idle speculation of a "well, somebody could choose this..." form.  If we focus our attention just on those who would otherwise be convinced to refrain from having children for environmental/moral reasons, we're talking about a highly morally/environmentally motivated audience.  If they were willing to refrain from having their desired number of children just for moral-environmental reasons, they'd surely be willing to instead donate a few dollars a year to achieve the same environmental goals.  And they're likely to raise their kids to share these values. (One can never be sure how one's kids will turn out, of course, but I assume there's at least a decent correlation between the values they're raised with and the values that they end up accepting and living by in future.)

So again, given how easy it is to make a huge difference with a small donation, I just find it baffling that ethicists even talk about -- let alone categorically recommend -- such unnecessarily drastic sorts of measures.


  1. I agree with the conceptual points here, but am afraid they are being tied to a weak empirical base.

    Specifically, that Cool Earth estimate is a rough and unreliable calculation, and lower than prevailing prices in carbon markets, which would probably regress upwards on deeper investigation. I think the general point that the best climate donations will offer cheap expected value offsets will ultimately stand, perhaps with payments for climate advocacy groups instead (although many would say aren't as clear an offset), but the argument as is relies on a tendentious empirical claim. If there were an up-front birth fee of $90,000 (more typical of carbon offsets on offer) some might adopt instead, or have fewer children.

    1. Ah, fair enough. Though I do think the "up-front" fee (pre-emptively buying out the reproductive decisions of one's descendants) doesn't make as much sense as a "pay-as-you-go" approach, and even if it was $200/year I rather think that's a price most parents would be willing to pay! (Though there might well be a bit more adoption, etc., going on at the margins, which would be an independently good thing, for sure.)

      Interestingly, it would become (orders of magnitude) cheaper than claimed in the OP to offset harms done if we move beyond narrowly environmental offsetting and instead compensate for the expected humanitarian damage done via more effective ways of securing health improvements (e.g. GiveWell's top charities). Though non-consequentialists might not see that as acceptable, since it's no longer undoing one's causal contribution to a harm, but rather compensating by helping others (distinct from those who are harmed).

    2. Yes, with pay-as-you-go carbon emissions would wind up a modest portion of the lifetime personal costs of a kid.

      "the expected humanitarian damage"

      The QALYs per ton of carbon is also ill-sourced in that article, BTW. Although again, the conceptual point holds that you can buy QALY offsets in malaria cheaper than carbon offsets with the same QALYs.

  2. Hi Richard, thanks for listening to my interview and for taking the time to write up your thoughtful comments. I haven't yet written up a formal argument for non-procreation against off-setting, but your response here makes me think that perhaps I should consider it. Given that I have not worked up an argument, what I write here won't be one either; instead, I'll try to offer you some thoughts or concerns that might make it less 'baffling' that I 'even talk about it'!

    1. Carl's point is important, and a focus on the empirical is important for several other reasons as well. I think it's Broome who discusses in his _Climate Ethics_ the affordability of offsetting, and how it is tied to the fact that so few people do it. So that affordability is intensely contingent; if people took seriously that having children required an expensive offset, and more people started to do it, then it may well become prohibitive. For these reasons, I think it's important to think about the possibility of there being a moral burden on our procreative behaviors themselves.

    2. I'm also concerned with the general idea that we rich folks can buy our way out of environmentally harmful behavior. As long as offsets remain cheap, the argument you've put forward has the result that all of our wasteful carbon-emitting activities are characterized by a moral disjunct: either we ought not to do it, or we ought to offset it. One of the things that I think is interesting about exploring individual morality in the context of massive problems like climate change, is that doing so requires that we think about how we ought to act and be regardless of the consequences. It seems plausible to me that taking a conservationist attitude toward the world is morally good, and that thinking that we can buy our way out of our wasteful lifestyles is morally problematic -- indeed, that it may be part of the mindset that will prevent us from changing quickly enough to avoid catastrophe. It seems morally important that we become the kind of people who see a transatlantic flight for an extravagant lunch as something to be avoided, rather than something that can be offset if you have enough money.

    3. The most obvious response, which I include briefly in the podcast, but which I discuss at more length in some of my work, is that it is not only the consequence for the world that ought to concern us; it may well be the consequence for our children that might worry us. Now, this is philosophically hairy, and difficult issues about whether we can ‘harm’ one by creating her, and if not, whether we could have moral reason not to create her, make the issue almost impossible to discuss with a lay-audience. My own view, which I can’t defend in the comments section of a blog post, is that there is an Asymmetry regarding our procreative reasons, such that we can have very good moral reasons not to create a person, but that we cannot have any moral reasons to create that person. My fear is that for our generation, and especially the next one, our relative inaction concerning climate change starts to make it plausible that there are terrifyingly good moral reasons not to bring into the world someone that you will predictably love and want to protect from harm. If we continue along business as usual (and boy are we disconcertingly giving the impression that we will), then my daughter will see a dark world. Perhaps she will be fortunate enough to be relatively unscathed, but children of hers likely will not be.
    Thus, there is another reason not to have a child that offsetting cannot undermine.

    Like I said, this does not constitute a formal argument, but these considerations do, I think, constitute a set of reasons to think it not incredible that an ethicist might consider such a recommendation. Thanks for the opportunity for discussion, Richard!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Travis -- very helpful (and interesting) explication!

      1. On the contingency of offsetting's affordability: That may well be correct, but I don't see it as a reason not to promote the disjunctive requirement. It's just to say that, if people do as they ought (which they probably won't anyway), the "offsetting" disjunct may eventually be out of reach of many, and they may need to resort to the "no more kids" option. So yes, certainly fair enough to discuss this possible eventuality, but I don't see this as a reason to insist on the "no more kids" option right now, while we do have feasible, preferable alternatives.

      I should also clarify that I don't think our focus here should merely be on "offsetting" our precise carbon footprint, but more generally on how to most effectively improve environmental outcomes. Those with environmentalist values might well find them best served by making much larger donations to organizations like Cool Earth, that are very effective at reducing climate impacts (compared to anything we can do ourselves directly in our everyday lives).

      2. On "buying our way out of our wasteful lifestyles", there's of course a pretty big difference between "waste" in the service of trivial luxuries (transatlantic lunches!) and "waste" in the service of important life goods like having children. I'm certainly not wanting to defend any kind of anti-conservationist attitude here. I just think we should try to avoid demanding excessive sacrifices in the name of conservation, if they aren't really necessary. (We may also have some deeper theoretical differences here though, as I think consequentialism can do a better job of guiding us out of collective problems than most people typically assume.)

      3. Definitely some deeper theoretical disagreements here! I do think we can have strong moral reasons to bring good lives into existence (but understand if you don't have time to pursue the ideas in the linked post -- you're certainly welcome to join in that argument too, though, if you wish!). I'm very suspicious of Benatar-style anti-natalism, and so long as our descendants' lives will be significantly positive on net (as I expect they will be, unless something far more catastrophic than expected happens), so, I think, are our non-instrumental reasons for having them. But I can certainly see reasonable grounds for disagreement here!

  3. Very interesting! One thing I should point out, given your point 3, is that I do not endorse a Benatar-style argument, nor am I an anti-natalist. My asymmetry is very different from Benatar's, and mine doesn't imply his. My asymmetry is the one named by McMahan, and then discussed by Parfit. So, while I do think that it's possible (and worth keeping in mind), that there are good moral reasons, based in the interest of one's offspring, not to create that offspring, and that there are no such reasons in favor of creating a person (here we differ), I do not share Benatar's view that it is better for each of us never to have been.

    So, lots of interesting stuff in your comments that I will think about, but just wanted to make clear that my view isn't all that closely related to Benatar's, and that I am not actually an antinatalist. I also discuss my view in more depth in my paper, "Adoption, Procreation, and the Contours of Obligation" in the _Journal of Applied Philosophy_.


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