Procreating Properly?

On the moral consequences of having kids

Until quite recently, few had the privilege of pondering whether to have children, or why. It was just one of those things that happen. For anyone now weighing the pros and cons, the reasons considered can be as agonizing as they are boringly banal for anyone else. Can I afford it? Do I owe it to my parents to “give” them a grandchild? Will I be a good parent? Should I sacrifice my brilliant career prospects to have this unplanned baby? But not many, I would surmise, would ever ask if it is the morally right thing to do. That is the question addressed in Christine Overall’s clearly written and carefully argued book, Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate.

The question sounds more weighty than simply “what shall I do?”; but what does it really mean? Some actions are freighted with moral opprobrium: stealing, murder. A few present tragic dilemmas —“Choose the child I will kill,” in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice; E.M. Forster’s “Should I betray my country rather than my friends?”—but in most of our choices the options seem too trivial, too private or too particular to raise issues of morality. Nowadays, however, the most trivial options can raise moralistic eyebrows. Should I drive to work? Should I eat meat? How often should I flush? Indeed, according to Overall, “virtually every area of human life has ethical dimensions.”

Overall never systematically tells us what makes a reason ethical, but she invokes the two approaches most favoured (and debated) by moral philosophers. Deontological reasons deal in duties and prohibitions typically stemming from rights inherent in persons; consequentialist reasons weigh the desirability of consequences. Genuine rights trump consequential considerations—or so it is commonly assumed: even to save the lives of five people in need of transplants, one may not sacrifice a solitary vagrant to distribute his or her organs. Similarly, obliging a woman to have a child violates the principle that “using people as mere means to the accomplishment of a goal—a goal that is not inherently related to their own well-being—is a fundamental violation of their personhood.” Yet it sometimes also happens that important consequences trump a real but relatively unimportant right: you have a right to expect me to fulfil a promise to take you to the opera; but if another friend needs an emergency ride to the hospital, her need outweighs your right. So there is, after all, some flexibility about the primacy of rights. What is tricky is deciding when.

As Overall rightly stresses, no actual or anticipated innovations in reproductive technology will change the fact that “procreation requires much more of women than of men.” In case of conflict between an ovum-contributing woman and a sperm-contributing man, that creates an asymmetry. Both have rights, but the consequences for each are vastly different. Everyone (except those who can discern no difference between a zygote and a baby) agrees that no woman is morally obliged to carry a pregnancy to term; but should a man be equally free to walk away from a pregnancy that he has caused? Suppose a woman has inseminated herself with sperm surreptitiously collected from a condom, after oral sex without vaginal intercourse. Does the inseminator, as a victim of deceit, have the right to ignore his biological paternity and obligations deriving from it?

In this case, Overall opts for consequentialism. One can be morally obligated not to exercise a legitimate right. In the case of insemination secured by deceit, the man might have a right to walk away, but he might still be morally bound not to exercise it, for the child might be harmed if the mother lacks the resources to bring him or her up. (Compare the concern one might feel for someone whom one has hurt entirely by accident.) Since requiring the man to acknowledge paternity would seem to reward deception, and given that “childbearing and child rearing are social goods, not merely individual enterprises,” Overall notes that it would be far better if the state were to ensure “at a minimum, that no child goes hungry or without adequate health care.” Although that evades the question of the man’s rights, few in Canada would disagree.

Where the preferences are reversed, what rights can the inseminator claim? Should a woman who does not want a child be swayed by a man’s desire for an offspring? Overall grants that it might be “virtuous” for a woman to take the inseminator’s desires into account, but “the woman never loses her moral right to terminate the pregnancy.”

In short, a moderate regard for consequences should temper absolutism about rights. Unfortunately, appraising consequences is extraordinarily difficult. There are two reasons for this. First, life is essentially chaotic, in the technical sense of the word: the sheer complexity of the web of causes makes it almost always impossible to predict consequences; at best one can adduce statistics, but statistics never determine particular cases. Second, we are notoriously bad at predicting our own future responses to hypothetical consequences. This is particularly true for having children. When we undertake to do so, even if we heed the warning of experienced child raisers that it will “change your life forever,” we have only the vaguest idea about what we are getting into: “you cannot know ahead of time what it will be like to become a parent or what sort of child you will have.”

Despite these uncertainties, Overall invites us to think clearly about our reasons, if only to see that many of those adduced in favour of having children are feeble. Carrying on the family name and handing on an inheritance both fail as moral reasons. The same is true of pressures that may come from prospective grandparents or social conventions. Divine command is inherently unknowable. Even the suggestion that the state has a claim on citizens’ procreative powers is unacceptable: “such an obligation would make women into procreative serfs.”

It is good to think clearly, and Overall does it admirably. But philosophers sometimes follow the argument into what many a reader might regard as idle wheel-spinning. Two notable illustrations are afforded by puzzles that figure prominently in the recent philosophical literature. These make arguments for opposite and equally strange answers to the abstract question of whether it is good to procreate. Overall takes them both up at some length, and disposes of them deftly.

The first, due to English philosopher Derek Parfit, starts from the premise that “utility” (i.e., goodness worth pursuing) is additive across all persons, including non-existent but possible ones. That entails that we should prefer a world in which billions endure lives barely worth living to one where a thousand are supremely happy, if the sum of happiness in the former is the greater. This leads to what Parfit labelled “the repugnant conclusion” that everyone should have as many offspring as possible, even at the cost of a serious degradation of life for all.

A sort of mirror image of the repugnant conclusion concludes that it is always morally wrong to procreate. That view has been defended by South African philosopher David Benatar, on the ground that while the absence of pain is a positive good, the absence of pleasure is not in itself bad. Would you not choose several days without pleasure over one day of extreme suffering? Assuming that no actual life is exempt from pain and suffering, the consequential calculus deems the ledger positive only for those that never exist. Happy are those who are never born.

Despite the asymmetry between pleasure and pain, Overall endorses the common-sense reply: “whether being alive is a benefit or a harm depends on the content of the life that is lived.” But if that is the sole reason for rejecting Benatar’s conclusion, one is driven back to the repugnant conclusion. Every possible child deprived of life is harmed, if the life he or she would have had would be positive on balance. Must we not reduce such harm if we can? (Not that we can do much about it. The number of possible beings is super-astronomically large, so having as many children as one can will make virtually no dent in the huddled masses of nonexistent beings waiting to be born.)

So to reject Benatar’s thesis merely because some lives are worth living is unsatisfactory. Overall offers a better refutation when she points out that “mere existence is not a benefit-conferring or harm-conferring property. Prior to conception, there is no being who can be benefited or harmed by coming into existence.” That effectively disposes of both Benatar’s argument and the repugnant conclusion. If non-existent beings can claim no rights, we cannot harm them either by bringing them into being or by failing to do so.

Here and throughout, Overall’s conclusions seem eminently sensible. One might cavil, however, with some of her arguments. Benatar claims that the badness of life is compatible with the badness of death: in fact, death is just one of the things that make life bad. Against this Overall offers an analogy: “would we say that a party is so dull and boring that it’s a bad idea to go to it, but, once there, the dullness and boredom are not sufficient to warrant leaving?” The analogy seems wanting: dullness and boredom are not equivalent to pain and suffering. Furthermore, the reason death is an evil is that most people prefer to suffer than to die. This may be irrational, yet for biological reasons it is hardly surprising: those who did not care to preserve their life were likely to lose it before reproducing. So on that point Benatar is right: even if death is bad, it might be better never to exist.

Overall wisely denies that non-existent beings can have rights or interests: “mere absence or avoidance is neither good nor bad unless it is good or bad for someone.” But she seems to waver on this point when she writes that “it is genuinely possible to regret the nonexistence of certain people. Thus, an impoverished mother might regret that she did not have the time or resources to have a second child.” That misleadingly exploits an ambiguity of the phrase “certain people.” Those that do not exist cannot be referred to. And what we cannot refer to, we cannot regret. What the impoverished mother regrets is not a non-existent child, but her condition as a mother-of-one.

A similar ambiguity underlies another intriguing puzzle, also due to Derek Parfit. This is the “non-identity problem.” Suppose a woman conceives at a time when she suffers from a temporary condition that puts any offspring at risk. She could have waited to have a different child. Has she made a morally culpable decision? It seems reasonable to say so. Oddly, though, no one is entitled to complain unless the child’s life is clearly not worth living at all. If her child reproaches her, she can retort: “If I had waited, you wouldn’t exist!” Yet it does seem that the mother would have made the morally better choice by waiting: we have an obligation to avoid “creating offspring who [we] know will experience severe suffering.” The case remains puzzling, because we feel the mother is blameworthy, even though no actual person has been harmed by her choice.

On the basis of a highly unscientific informal survey of friends with and without children, most people seem to agree with Overall that overpopulation and ecological damage are pretty much the only recognizably “moral” reasons people actually give for the choice to limit the number of their offspring. But if that is the case, then perhaps insisting that we should take seriously the complex ethical aspects of procreation is somewhat idle. The question is not trivial: it affects many people, including future people who will have rights, as well as pleasures and pains (even if they have none while they remain merely possible). That is surely enough to make the issue one of moral concern. What I am less sure about is how much we should worry about those moral concerns. Perhaps Margaret Laurence was right in responding to the question with the boutade, “Who cares?”

Moral philosophers are professionally bound to claim that ethical concerns are more important than all other kinds. For myself, at the risk of excommunication, I venture to think there are good reasons to resist this hegemony. One is that moral justifications are essentially contestable. Although I agree with Overall on pretty much everything, I am left with the sneaking suspicion that what we share are just opinions. In the absence of universally agreed foundational principles, a sensible and pragmatic mix of intuitions about respect for autonomy and consequentialist considerations is the way to go. But that will not convince anyone whose opinions are different. Second, as noted above, we can predict neither what will happen nor how we shall feel about it. Deciding whether to have children is always fraught with existential anxiety. It seems unnecessarily harsh to burden it further with the puritanical admonition that “we can no longer assume that so-called private life is only personal and therefore in principle immune to ethical examination.” In the powerful flood of merely practical and prudential considerations, the force of moral reasons will be, and perhaps should be, swamped into insignificance.

That said, if you do want to think about the ethics of having a child, you will find no better guide than Overall. And by all means, heed her parting words: “Don’t miss it! … Yet please consider having no more than one each.”