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

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Are People Obligated to Have As Many Children As Possible?

Apparently there is a philosophical paradox known as the "repugnant conclusion" which goes something like this: If you accept the conclusion that the best world is one with the maximum amount of human happiness (which is one way way in which people try to make secular arguments for "goodness") then a world in which there are more people who are less happy could be better than a world in which there are fewer people who are less happy. So if you had to choose between a world in which 1 billion people are 100% happy and a world in which 20 billion people are only 10% happy, you should choose the world with twenty billion people who are unhappy most of the time because there is more total happiness in that big world than in the smaller, universally happy world.

Now, most people who are inclined to judge morality in terms of the net amount of global happiness are not the sort of people used to advocating a world with huge numbers of mostly unhappy people, so the paradox provides an interesting mental puzzle for them. This bubbled up to my notice a couple weeks ago because a philosophy blog called Leiter Reports got a lot of attention running a post about how the (mostly liberal) explainer site Vox had commissioned a piece by philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö at Stockholm University advocating the Repugnant Conclusion, a piece which Vox later rejected (among other reasons) because Ezra Klein was worried it would give the impression that birth control and abortion were wrong. You can read the submitted piece here.

Personally, I don't think the submitted article makes a very good case. The author is trying to write in an accessible, easy to understand way, and I think it mostly comes off as a bit sloppy. Here's his opening, which lays out the paradox itself:

You should have kids. Not because it’s fun, or rewarding, or in your evolutionary self-interest. You should have kids because it’s your moral duty to do so.

My argument is simple. Most people live lives that are, on net, happy. For them to never exist, then, would be to deny them that happiness. And because I think we have a moral duty to maximize the amount of happiness in the world, that means that we all have an obligation to make the world as populated as can be.

Of course, we should see to it that we do not overpopulate the planet in a manner that threatens the future existence of mankind. But we’re nowhere near that point yet, at least not if we also see to it that we solve pressing problems such as the one with global warming. In the mean time, we’re ethically obligated to make as many people as possible.

This idea, that having children is a moral obligation, is controversial, so much so that it’s known in philosophy as the “repugnant conclusion.” But I don’t think it’s repugnant at all.

What I thought was the most interesting part was where he's trying to justify the idea that we have obligations to people who do not yet exist:

You might be thinking at this point, “Sure, more happiness sounds good. But morality is about helping people, and creating more people helps ‘people’ who don’t exist, not yet anyway.” This view is known as actualism. Only actual individuals have rights. We have not done anything wrong, unless there is an actual person who has a legitimate complaint to make against our action.

This means that, if I do not create a happy individual, even if I can do so, I do nothing wrong. A merely hypothetical individual has no legitimate complaint to make. This is the great appeal of actualism: it means that people have total freedom in choosing whether to reproduce or not. My view suggests that we have a moral obligation to keep having children; actualism lets people do as they like.

I can’t help finding all this problematic. Imagine for a second that the Genesis story is actually true. Under the actualist view, Adam and Eve could have morally refrained from having children, even if, had they decided differently, billions of billions of happy persons would have been around!

Here is another consequence of the theory. Suppose I have a choice as to whether to have a baby at 15 or at 35. If I have the baby at 15, I’ll earn much less money in my career, the baby will go to worse schools and live in a worse neighborhood, and generally her life will be much tougher. If I have her at 35, I’ll be able to adequately provide for the baby, pay for college, and so forth. If I have the baby at 15, then, did I do anything wrong? I did not, by actualist reasoning. There is no one there to complain about what I did. The baby is, after all, happy to be around. By creating her, I did not violate her rights. And the hypothetical baby I would’ve had at 35 isn’t around to complain. But this cannot be right. If these are the options I have, I ought to wait. The world where I have a baby at 35 is just happier than the one where I have a baby at 15.

Now, I'm not a philosopher, and I don't play one on TV, but part of what interests me here is that there's a similar argument one sometimes hears from devout Catholics about obligations to those not yet existing which goes something like this: "Think how much our world is suffering because people are too selfish to have more children! St. Therese of Lisieux was the fifth of five children. St. Thomas Aquinas was the eighth of eight children. How many people even have five children today, much less eight? By refusing to have all of the children that God wants to give them, people are refusing to give birth to saints!"

This rests on what I think of as the "bubble gum ball theory of the soul" in which there is a sort of spiritual gum ball machine in heaven with lots of babies waiting to be born. If people don't conceive as often as they are "meant to" then they are refusing to give life to some number of those intended people. By this theory, people are somehow failing in their obligations to these future people when they fail to conceive them.

First off, this strikes me as falling afoul of traditional Christian doctrine. The Second Council of Constantinople (5th ecumenical council: 553 A.D.) condemned the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls, so from a Catholic point of view there clearly aren't actual people failing to exist because their parents never conceive them. Now, it's true that if parents overall have fewer children, then all other things being equal this means that there will be fewer saints, but there will also be fewer murderers, fewer insurance salesmen, etc.

It's also problematic to think of us as having an obligation to give life to the person who would be conceived should we go conceive them right now, in that the number of people who could be conceived far exceeds the number that can be or should be. A man produces millions of sperm a day. A woman usually drops one egg per month. So in theory, there are millions of different people who theoretically could exist if I ran out right now and had sex with some passing woman, depending on which sperm and which egg happened to get together. But that doesn't mean that I and some woman I don't even know have an obligation to give those possible people life. Even with my own lovely MrsDarwin, there are millions of different children we might conceive in a given month, and yet clearly, we can't give life to all of them. We don't wrong some child denied existence while giving existence to another depending on what day or hour or minute out of the fertile window in a month we conceived on. And of course, if we conceive one child in a month, that means that all the other children we could have conceived if a different sperm had met the egg, or if we have conceived the month after with a different egg, or the month after -- all of these other people would be denied existence by the existence of the one.

I think that this kind of reasoning would quickly become absurd. It doesn't seem reasonable to try to decide when to try to conceive and how often to try to conceive based on a perceived obligation to the person who would be given life as a result of that conception, when it's clearly impossible to give life to any more than a tiny fraction of the millions of different possible people one could be the parent of.

I'm not completely clear whether Tännsjö pictures the obligation to people who don't exist yet as being to individual people (you have an obligation to give life to some specific person so that that person can experience the happiness of life) or to people in general (you have an obligation to have children because they will experience happiness). His example about deciding what age to have a child at is doubly odd, since he phrases it concretely: "If I have the baby at 15... her life will be much tougher. If I have her at 35..."

Clearly, you can't choose to have the same child either at 15 or at 35, so it's not as if she will be happier if she is born later. If he doesn't have a child at 15, that child will never exist. If he has a child at 35 instead, that will be a different child than he would have had at 15.

Saying that we have responsibilities towards people who do not yet exist in a general sense (as opposed to saying that we have responsibilities to specific people who could exist) seems far less controversial. Clearly, we the current generation of people have a responsibility to produce the next generation of people. To decide that we would be happier in the short term to focus strictly on ourselves and not go through the work and trials (and joys) of having children would in some sense be selfish. I don't know if it makes more sense to look at the wrongness of that selfishness in terms of us failing in our responsibilities to the generation net yet conceived, or if it makes more sense to talk about us as a current generation not living up to our purpose as human beings (though I lean towards this later rationale), but if all those currently alive decided to be "child free" from here on out, I think there's clearly something very wrong about what we'd be doing. Similarly, I think it makes sense to talk about our duty to care for certain resources in terms of making sure that they are still there for the good of future generations.

However, it seems very problematic to me to envision a moral obligation we could have towards some specific person not yet in existence, such as an obligation to conceive that person.

As for the "repugnant conclusion" itself: It seems to me that it serves mostly to underline that "maximizing global happiness" is a bad way to do moral analysis. Fortunately, as Christians, we have other options.


August said...

I don't think the 'as many as possible' flies, but God is the God of the living. He wants more living. In 1st Timothy, St. Paul actually says women are saved through motherhood.

Given the ten commandments and, well, a lot of the bible, it is also obvious God wants us to be prudent and make sure there is some hope, some quality of life.

One issue with resources- especially environmental resources- ideally, build something sustainable, and then hand it on to your children. Even some environmentalists are learning this- it is no good having no children because of environmental concerns and then having whatever you have inherited by people who don't care about it and destroy it. I expect we will see this in Europe soon enough.

Jenny said...

"First off, this strikes me as falling afoul of traditional Christian doctrine."

I daresay that many people hold the belief of preexisting souls in spite of church teaching. I had a relative ask one of my infants once if she knew my grandmother in heaven. Um, no.

"Clearly, you can't choose to have the same child either at 15 or at 35, so it's not as if she will be happier if she is born later. If he doesn't have a child at 15, that child will never exist. If he has a child at 35 instead, that will be a different child than he would have had at 15."

I also don't think people fully understand that having a baby at different times means the same baby will not exist. I hear people talking about their surprise babies and say something to the effect of, "We would have liked it if Suzy came 6 months later than she did." But if Suzy did not come precisely when she came, Suzy would not exist at all. I am not sure what drives that disconnect.

I read the rejected "repugnant conclusion" essay and honestly my response was that it was a hash. It is hard to get my hackles up defending nonsense even if it was rejected for nonsensical reasons.

I think many people struggle with feeling obligated to have another baby. I know I do, but my feelings of obligation center around society and not necessarily towards the individual conceived. I don't feel like I owe the baby a life, but maybe I owe society another citizen. If I am capable of having another baby and know this baby will be loved and raised in a stable home and other people are declining to have children, am I obligated to do more for the sake of society? Maybe, maybe not?

Anyway, I think it is telling that one of the most prominent NFP sites on the web is called One More Soul, the implication being you should go on and have another.

JoAnna Wahlund said...

Don't forget that Saint Catherine of Siena was #23. Clearly Catholics who have less than 23 children simply aren't holy enough. [tongue planted firmly in cheek]

Agnes said...

I'm sorry but I think the premises are wrong in Prof. Tansjo's writing. If you compare a world where less people are more happy with a world where a lot more people only have a little happiness, it is not overall a more happy wrold because there is no way the little amounts of happiness add up: no one is feeling more happiness because there are a lot more poeple who are 90% unhappy and 10% happy. I borrowed this argument from C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity (I'm sorry I only read the Hungarian text and can't provide the quote now but I'm pretty sure he uses it with the example about separate people feeling toothache). Also, he is using extremes. Small Happy World is worse than Big Bad World because Small Happy World will soon become extinct. There is a lot more in between no children at all and all the children potentially to be conceived to be born (he even advocates signing up for sperm banks...?)

He also says

"Furthermore, it’s difficult to get a grasp of what Big Bad World would be like. But the way people live there may be similar to the way we live. There are ups and downs in our lives. Perhaps a typical human life often ends up with only a little happiness as its net sum. Perhaps many lives end up with a negative sum. But then, is the Big Bad World so bad as one may at first have thought? It’s quite possible that people in Big Bad World aren’t living in abject poverty and misery, but instead have lives similar those of many affluent people living in rich, developed countries today."

Does he even have an idea of the life of people NOT in affluent countries? And how much of the present inhabitants of the Earth are affluent versus live in abject poverty? There is no reason to suppose as he does.

Agnes said...

Sorry but after menmtioning C. S. Lewis I failed to name Prof. Tansjo again. It is he (not Lewis) I'm referring to in later parts of my comment.

Darwin said...


I agree with you that Prof. Tansjo's are wrong. Really, I think in part this shows the problem with trying to use "maximize global happiness" as some kind of a moral foundation.

Agnes said...

I wonder why some philosophers think there is no need to use one's good reason... at least, why they can't do better than sloppy reasoning (I am sorry, I really do not wish to be arrogant, and I am really not even trained profesionally in philosophy but I almost burst with arguments against that reasoning when I read it). Also, the reaction is kind of interesting (that they did not want to run it because... the Repugnant Conclusion was indeed repugnant to them?)