The first two books, which the New Yorker author clearly has more sympathy with, are Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate by Christine Overall and Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence by David Benatar.
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.Apparently Overall then goes on to examine and reject other arguments as to why one should have children.
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?
I think this goes off the rails pretty much at the get-go, where she argues that having children is not natural and thus needs some sort of justification. Given that we, as a species, are designed to reproduce and can only continue to exist by reproducing, it seems odd to assert that we need to come up with a rigorous justification for reproducing or else refrain. Yes, it's true that there are many "urges apparently arising from our biological nature" which we shouldn't act upon, but there are also urges resulting from our biological nature which we must act upon unless we are making an active choice for suicide. I have an biological urge to consume food. I may (wisely) choose not to eat all the time, or not to eat some given thing, but if I refuse to eat at all, I'll end up dying after a while.
Now clearly, any given person is not obliged to reproduce. Unlike eating, the individual can thrive without producing offspring, and that may well be the calling of some people. However, the species as a whole cannot exist without many of its members reproducing, and given that it seems a little odd to me to insist that none of us should do so unless we can come up with a really good reason to. Unless, of course, we think that it's better that we go extinct. Interestingly, this is exactly what David Benatar believes:
The volume is dedicated to his parents, “even though they brought me into existence,” and to his brothers, “each of whose existence, although a harm to him, is a great benefit to the rest of us.” (It’s fun to imagine what family reunions with the Benatars are like.)People sometimes wonder why this blog is called "DarwinCatholic", and the answer is pretty much that last line: Those who have a philosophy of life which opposes reproduction are unlikely to pass on their view, while those whose philosophy provides a reason to foster family life will thrive.
Benatar’s case rests on a critical but, in his view, unappreciated asymmetry. Consider two couples, the A’s and the B’s. The A’s are young, healthy, and rich. If they had children, they could give them the best of everything—schools, clothes, electronic gaming devices. Even so, we would not say that the A’s have a moral obligation to reproduce.
The B’s are just as young and rich. But both have a genetic disease, and, were they to have a child together, that child would suffer terribly. We would say, using Benatar’s logic, that the B’s have an ethical obligation not to procreate.
The case of the A’s and the B’s shows that we regard pleasure and pain differently. Pleasure missed out on by the nonexistent doesn’t count as a harm. Yet suffering avoided counts as a good, even when the recipient is a nonexistent one.
And what holds for the A’s and the B’s is basically true for everyone. Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone—that is, had the life never been created—no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it.
“One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad—a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick—is worse than no life at all,” Benatar writes.
He acknowledges that many readers will have difficulty accepting such a “deeply unsettling claim.” They will say that they consider their own existence to be a blessing, and that the same goes for their children’s. But they’re only kidding themselves. And no wonder. Everyone alive today is descended from a long line of people who did reproduce themselves. Evolution thus favors a kind of genetically encoded Pollyannaism. “Those with reproduction-enhancing beliefs are more likely to breed and pass on whatever attributes incline one to such beliefs,” Benatar notes.
In this regard, the third book reviewed in the article is a bit off on its own, Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think is one that I've been curious to read for a while, but it sidesteps more philosophical questions to focus on the practical (perhaps typically, given that Caplan is an economist).
According to Caplan, a professor at George Mason University, the major mistake that parents (or prospective parents) make is overvaluing the present. This is a common enough error. Workers in their twenties and thirties don’t save enough money for retirement because it seems such a long way off. Then their sixties roll around, and they wish they’d spent less on S.U.V.s and HDTVs and put more into their 401(k)s.Actually, it strikes me that Caplan's rationale has a built in cut-off feature: If the world were such that it seemed clear that having children would not add to one's happiness at any point, then the conclusion one would reach from his argument would still be not to reproduce.
Couples, he argues, need to think not just about how many children they might want now, when they have better things to do than microwave Similac, but how many they will want to have around when they’re old and lonely and watching “The View.” Caplan recommends what he calls the “take the average” rule:
Suppose you’re thirty. Selfishly speaking, you conclude that the most pleasant number of children to have during your thirties is one. During your forties, your optimal number of kids will rise to two—you’ll have more free time as your kids assert their independence. By the time you’re in your fifties, all your kids will be busy with their own lives. At this stage, wouldn’t it be nice to have four kids who periodically drop by? Finally, once you pass sixty and prepare to retire, you’ll have ample free time to spend with your grandchildren. Five kids would be a good insurance policy against grandchildlessness.
Caplan does the math and concludes that in this case “the best number of kids is three.”
Although the figure may vary from one family to another, the same calculation, Caplan argues, applies across the board. Kids are a pain in the ass when they’re small. They require lots of care just at the time their parents tend to be busiest establishing themselves in their careers. As a result, most people stop producing children before they’ve reached the number that would, over the long haul, maximize their self-interest. “Typical parental feelings paired with high foresight imply more kids than typical parental feelings paired with moderate foresight,” Caplan writes. (Unfortunately, he does not explain what parents should do if their ideal number of children includes a fraction.)
Caplan concedes that some may feel compunction about having more (or any) children when they are already short on time and resources. Wouldn’t it be better to provide one or two children with a decent upbringing than to give three or four a lousy one? Here the good news, according to Caplan, is: it doesn’t matter. He cites a variety of twin and adoption studies showing that genetics swamps parenting on traits ranging from children’s health and intelligence to their chances of going to prison. There’s no need to monitor a kid’s French-fries consumption, or ferry him to music lessons, or teach him to avoid felony charges. As long as you “don’t lock him in a closet,” he’ll be O.K. Or not, as the case may be.
Parents who realize just how little difference hard work makes will work less hard. This should, in effect, drive down the cost of procreation and, by the logic of the marketplace, increase its appeal. “If kids are the product, consumer logic still applies: Buy more as the deal gets sweeter,” Caplan writes. At the very least, the additional kids will provide the world with more consumers and more labor: “Many think there’s no place for unskilled workers in the high-tech economy of the future, but someone has to do their jobs.”
Benatar’s child-rearing advice, if followed, would result in human extinction. Caplan’s leads in the opposite direction: toward a never-ending population boom. He declares this to be one of his scheme’s advantages: “More people mean more ideas, the fuel of progress.” In a work that’s full of upbeat pronouncements, this is probably his most optimistic, or, if you prefer, outrageous claim.
As I say, I'm mildly curious to read Caplan's book (which is more than I can say for the other two) in that he's a personality I find mildly interesting online. However, it does strike me that he doesn't really articulate any kind of a philosophy that explains why reproduction is a good -- he simply assumes that you at root understand this (having children will make you happy) and then encourages you not to make to it too hard for yourself and also to consider long term happiness above short term. At a pragmatic level, this may make a fair amount of sense, and as I said above, I don't think one must abstain from being fruitful and multiplying unless one can rigorously prove a justification for it, but generally speaking people do want to have some sort of comprehensive philosophy which explains why they should do difficult things, and Caplan doesn't so much provide that as assure you it's not really that hard.