Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Philosophies of Reproduction

Ross Douthat links to a New Yorker review of three books dealing with "how many children should you have".

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.

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?
Apparently Overall then goes on to examine and reject other arguments as to why one should have children.

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.)

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.
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.

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.

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.
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.

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.


Brandon said...

I haven't read any of Overall's work in this area, but her work in philosophy of religion is truly, laughably, bad; she's best known there for arguing that the occurrence of miracles would prove that God does not exist. In philosophy this sort of thing is actually quite fine if you come up with really clever and interesting arguments, but, no, her arguments for the conclusion are as bad as you would think they would be.

Darwin said...

she's best known there for arguing that the occurrence of miracles would prove that God does not exist.

Sounds like something straight out of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, though Douglas Adams' version may have been funnier:

"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing."

"Ah," says Man, "but the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway. It proves you exist and so therefore you don't."

"I hadn't thought of that," says God, and promptly vanishes in a puff of unsmoke.

Man then goes on to prove that black is white and is run over at the next zebra crossing.

GeekLady said...

I find this sort of discussion fascinating, and maybe a little ridiculous, since I long ago determined that there was no good reason to have a child. I could not and still cannot think of a reason good enough that it doesn't slip into a habit of treating children as things. And there's a word for people who are things, however politically incorrect it might be to say it.
...sin, as Granny Weatherwax would point out, is treating people like things.

Anonymous said...

Why is continuing the human race not a good reason? If people don't have children, there won't be any more humans. There's no treating someone like a thing in that.

GeekLady said...

Continuing the human race is not a wicked reason, of course, but it is a negative reason in that it's a reason against not having children, and not a reason for having children. It's also meta, in that it applies population wide, but is not generally considered by the individual. Even in the nerdiest of nerdy biologist circles we don't use 'propagating the human species' as a reason to have kids, except for cheap laughs. And even there, the tendency is to instead crow about being 'evolutionary successes.'

I don't think bearing children is bad, of course. But reasons for or against having children commoditizes them, and that way lies IVF, abortion, and madness. Having children because they are the natural consequences of sex is the only perspective that respects their fundamental dignity as people.

GeekLady said...

A brief thought experiment on propagating the human race:

World War III breaks out, and as a consequence of widespread chemical and nuclear warfare, the surviving human population is rendered sterile, But there are some surviving sperm banks, research stocks of cloned human ova, other sources of preserved human gametes, preserved embryos from past IVF etc. are available. What do you do? Do you resort to unethical methods of propagation to survive? Or do you focus on trying to treat and/or repair the reproductive damage to the population? Both? How do you avoid turning any children born into a commodity who's value lies in their ability to prevent human extinction?

bearing said...

Whoa, GeekLady. That's a great quandary you've come up with there.

The Ubiquitous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Ubiquitous said...

I'm unimpressed with the New Yorker reviewer. I think a better question is: Why control birth so liberally? That seems to be the essential question of Catholic thought. Why mess with what's not broken?


Aren't there adoptive moms who today bring embryonic children to term, expressively thwarting the designs of the Destroyer? Is this not praiseworthy?

Here I thought IVF is an intrinsic evil when defined as recklessly destroying life by positive action and no uncertain indifference. This happens because IVF involves a shotgun scattershot approach to implantation and actively divorces sexual congress from procreation. But if by no fault of our own sexual congress is divorced from procreation, we should take steps to do both and renew both. In the interim, we should take a deliberate, precision approach to IVF.

So to implant a child one at a time, as tedious as would be, would be a moral means for a moral end.

GeekLady said...


Isn't it? I don't consider it at all probable (else I'd be curled up in a fetal position in my bunker), but I just wanted to illustrate that ulterior reasons, no matter how desparate or noble, for having children is ultimately commoditizing them. I'm content to have plenty of reasons to have sex and leave childbearing up to the natural consequences of those reasons.

I'm kidding about my bunker. If the human species depended on my fertility to repopulate the world, we'd be doomed.

The Ubiquitous,

My understanding is that Catholic moral theology is still undecided on the nature of embryo adoption. While such actions are generous, and quite frankly heroic, given the risk to the surrogate mother, that doesn't make it necessarily good.

Darwin said...


I'm always really hesitant to dig into elaborate hypotheticals, but I think your core point is a really important one: Deciding whether or not to have children seems like the wrong way to think about the issue. At a basic level, our children don't belong to us. We cannot summon them from the vasty deep through our own power (and come to that they don't always listen when we call). They're a gift. Like many gifts, a gift we tend to naturally want, but still very much a gift, not an entitlement, not a piece of property.

Anthony said...

Caplan says:

“Many think there’s no place for unskilled workers in the high-tech economy of the future, but someone has to do their jobs.”

This is funny, just because people who read Caplan are very unlikely to have children who end up as the unskilled workers in the high-tech economy of the future.

Caplan isn't really making a case for having children versus not having children, but trying to convince those who have decided to have some number of children to have more. That leads to a very different sort of argument than if he were addressing the larger philosophical question.

GeekLady said...

Yes, we'll I've done a lot of thinking on the topic in the last six years.