The New Yorker has a piece up about the morality of having kids. I have heard various arguments that claim to show having children is immoral (e.g., because they will make more pollution). Now there’s a new book out called Why Have Children: The Ethical Debate by Christine Overall. It apparently claims having children is immoral, and about a third of the New Yorker article summarizes Overall’s arguments. (The article is well-written, and describes the arguments with which I am familiar nicely.)
I have not read the book, nor do I have plans to. Maybe if I read it, I would find it completely convincing and totally regret having had my kids. But I’ll spout off a few thoughts on the argument as described in the article, with the caveat that the book might make a better case.
The argument is intended to show that there is no morally permissible reason to have children, so you shouldn’t. It correctly dismisses the usual reasons people give for having children (maximizing the amount of happiness in the world by maximizing people, one shouldn’t create someone for the purpose of caring for you in your old age), etc. Overall is reported as pointing out, as any good deontologist should, that non-existent people have no moral standing. So you can’t say you are bringing them into the world for their sake.
Then Overall addresses people who claim that their children made them happy (and the article author seems to endorse this, but it’s hard to tell).
Finally, lots of people offer the notion that parenthood will make them happy. Here the evidence is, sadly, against them. Research shows that people who have children are no more satisfied with their lives than people who don’t. If anything, the balance tips the other way: parents are less happy. In an instantly famous study, published in Science in 2004, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asked nine hundred working women to assess their experiences during the preceding day. The women rated the time they’d spent taking care of their kids as less enjoyable than the time spent shopping, eating, exercising, watching TV, preparing food, and talking on the phone. One of the few activities these women found less enjoyable than caring for their children was doing housework, which is to say cleaning up after them.
Good Lord, will people stop citing this study to mean that having children makes your life go worse? Having more aggravating moments does not mean your life is worse. You can still value your life more due to X, despite X giving you more day-to-day aggravation. Think of a challenging but worthwhile job. I totally love being in academia (for as long as I get to be in it), but I hate grading and formatting citations and find sitting down to write philosophy often grueling and tedious. If you ask me about the pleasure my job gives me on a certain day, it’s often non-existent. But I would still say I love teaching and having written philosophy.
People love their kids and want them around. They value them. They seem to get awfully upset when their kids die, even though it means less cleaning up after them. I suggest another research project – ask a bunch of parents if their life is better for having their kids. I’m guessing the ayes will have it. Why is the Kahneman study more illuminating than the one I suggest? Both involve subjective evaluation by the subject — just over a different time frame. Why are the momentary evaluations more telling than longer term ones, so that one is warranted in telling parents, “Even though you think your kids make you happy, you’re wrong.”
But none of this really matters. Procreation for the sake of the parents is ethically unacceptable. “To have a child in order to benefit oneself is a moral error,” Overall writes.
If the non-existent child has no moral standing, then what’s the problem with having the child in order to benefit oneself? You’re not using anyone as a mere means, because there’s no one to use. So you’re free to act in your own interests. Then, once the child is in existence, it presumably becomes a shared interest of parent and child to continue the child’s life, and you are not treating the child as a mere means (or end in herself, or whatever).
(I have to say, one of the many appeals of virtue ethics to me is that it is rather better at avoiding arguments that end in conclusions such as “it is immoral to have children.”)