Procreation, morally speaking

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.”)

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Just out of curiosity, do species have moral standing? It seems to me that they do. In which case, “I’m having children because if nobody has children humanity will die out” is a morally permissible reason to have children. If species don’t have moral standing, then why do we care when they go extinct? Or is humanity the only species that lacks moral standing, out of all the other flora and fauna of the world?

    • It’s seems that species extinction is more of a “the world would be a poorer place” sort of thing than “the species as species has a moral standing,” at least that’s how I see it. I do suppose that the last animal of a species would be awfully lonely, and therefore unhappy, and therefore, the preventable loss of his or her confreres would indicate that a moral wrong has taken place by those who failed to prevent the loss.

      But I have a hard time saying that species, as species, have moral standing.

      • I would tend to agree with Pierre. That is, the species has value rather than moral standing as such. But I think you could make an argument along the same lines as a claim that we have moral imperative to promote biodiversity and say that species preservation is an end we need to pursue. I wonder if Overall would say that that would mean that’s what parents have to actually intend by having children, which I’m guessing is a pretty rare reason. She might also say that humans will extinguish more than one species, so if our goal is to preserve the largest number of species, we should let ourselves die out.

  2. During the Summer of Sixteen Cats, Maribou and I did what we could to restrict our neighborhood’s feral population.

    We would catch feral cats in a raccoon trap, take them in to be “fixed” and have their ears notched, then put them back in the backyard after a couple of days of recouperation.

    About halfway through that summer, I woke up every day wondering “what in the hecking heck am I doing?”

    • Jaybird, You are saving the lives of many a songbird.

    • Cats are subject to predation just like any animal of similar size. The problem is that in most urban environments the things that eat cats aren’t welcome, if they even show up. TNR activity provides the check on the feral cat population that’s missing from the world humans have made.

      • I read this and thought for half a second, “Wait, what is the New Republic doing with feral cats?”

  3. I’d hazard that the correct number of children to have is “as many as you feel like having and as many as you can rationally expect to be able provide for”.
    Complaints about overpopulation and environmental impacts are off the mark. People who can be swayed by such arguement are in the distinct minority and probably are better off having a few kids since they clearly have the leisure and wealth to be able to raise them well.
    In any event the verdict is in on reducing birth rates at a society level and it’s unsurprisingly easy to understand: educate a society’s women and the birth rate will fall; provide a society’s women with civil rights and legal protection and the birth rate will fall; improve a societies economic status and the birth rate will fall. Educated, employed, happy women have small numbers of children and care for them well. So anyone concerned with population levels and the like really should focus on womens empowerment and economic growth.

    • Complaints about overpopulation and environmental impacts are off the mark. People who can be swayed by such arguement are in the distinct minority and probably are better off having a few kids since they clearly have the leisure and wealth to be able to raise them well.

      Need to call you out on this one.

      The current extinction rate is orders of magnitude above the background extinction rate. It is estimated that perhaps 140,000 species go extinct each year. Seven out of 10 biologists believe that mass extinction pose a colossal threat to human existence (more serious than climate change). These same biologists also claim that the dangers of mass extinction are vastly underestimated by almost everyone outside of science. 75% of commercial fish stocks are overharvested and at risk of extinction. The most important habitats (estuaries, wetlands, shallow water seagrasses, and coral reefs) are the most threatened. Thirty percent of the world’s mangrove forests and nearly half the world’s coral reefs have been lost due to direct habitat destruction. Habitat destruction is the leading cause of extinctions. The primary cause of habitat destruction? Humans.

      Yep, I’m in the minority because I spend much more time studying science than politics, though I don’t have the leisure and wealth you disparagingly note in your comment.

      You are living in the sixth major extinction event right now, even if you don’t realize it (or want to).

      • I will not challenge you on the facts; I certainly don’t know enough. But my problem with concluding from those facts that one should not have children is twofold. 1) For any one child, her effect on extinction rates (or environmental impacts) is minimal to non-existent. So it is rather difficult to tell any given set of parents that having one child, or one more child, comes with costs that are not outweighed by the benefits of having the child. This is a collective action problem, but if you’re making a consequentialist argument (i.e., that the harms of environmental impact outweight the benefits of a human being), it’s just not true in any one instance. 2) Presumably the solution to this problem will not come from just letting it continue as is. It will require human ingenuity to solve. Which requires humans. Simply having fewer humans alone is not a solution.

        • I was specifically challenging the assertion that overpopulation and environmental impacts are off the mark. Certainly, there is validity in examining how these impact the biodiversity in the world (on which humans depend).

          Regarding 1), this is the “yeast problem”. Yeast will continue growing in culture, each cell adding only one more to the total, which has little overall impact. However, collectively (as you note), it causes a very large problem. The population quickly spikes beyond the carrying capacity of the petri dish, until all of the food is gone. Then, the population crashes and most (or all) of the yeast dies. So, yes, one more human doesn’t make a difference. But one more human (times X% of the global population) does make a very big difference, for the range of X historically and currently. We’re already beyond the carrying capacity of the environment.

          if you’re making a consequentialist argument (i.e., that the harms of environmental impact outweight the benefits of a human being), it’s just not true in any one instance.

          The Tragedy of the Commons comes to mind immediately. The benefit to the individual outweighs the harms to every other person and species. That doesn’t make it correct or logical, just understandable. This is precisely why nothing will be done to solve the problem.

          Regarding 2), I disagree that it will require human ingenuity to solve. We are not so different from yeast. Having fewer humans would solve much of the problem. The difficulty is that we would have to reduce the number of humans to the carrying capacity of the environment. This probably means many billions of humans need to die. Humans will never do that voluntarily. We’ll keep filling up the petri dish until we are forced, by nature and the laws of physics, to drop to the carrying capacity of the environment. I wish we were capable of that – I’d really like to try it. But, it will never happen voluntarily, I’m afraid.

          You can’t solve complex problems with ever more complex solutions for very long, and this would require an unimaginably complex solution (as well as authoritarian responses, which are greatly resisted by humans). This is what destroyed most other empires in the history of our species. We are no different this time.

          • How is the solution you want different from the expected outcome? Both involve getting to a place with a lot fewer humans.

          • Well, the solution I want is humans living in balance with the environment, as most other species do, though there are exceptions of other species going through spike/crash populations. We’re just doing it on a global scale. This means fewer humans; or it means harder and shorter lives; or it means living with much much less than we have now; or it means some combination of those things.

            My expected outcome is that no one will voluntarily do any of this, and, even if we tried, it might not have the impact we think or want (for example: Jevons paradox). We humans have shown throughout our history that we are not very wise, though we are certainly clever, apes.

            I’ve thought about this for over 15 years, and I keep bumping up against a primary constraint: any solution requires a level of authoritarian control that (almost?) every human rejects – the idea that you might not be allowed to have children (or as many as you want). And, so, we’ll get there eventually, but not from the ingenuity or wisdom of humans. It will be very painful and ugly and grotesque, I expect.

          • FWIW, I totally agree that what you’re saying is of the utmost seriousness, and I shouldn’t have spoken as lightly about it. It is a major problem; I’m just saying you can’t make a moral consequentialist argument to one person not to have children. More collective action solutions would indeed involve violations of rights. It’s a serious problem.

          • Well, thanks for listening, Rose.

            I’m just saying you can’t make a moral consequentialist argument to one person not to have children.

            I think you could, but it would require humans to think of the collective impact of their decisions and the decisions of other humans. We have not shown that we are capable of doing that very well, if at all. In the end, it all becomes an authoritarian response to the problem, which has its own dangers.

            There have been societies that have attempted this with limited success. All of them had levels of authoritarian control that populations in the developed world would find abhorrent. The Edo period, aboriginal cultures, parts of the Dark Ages, and the like. There was little innovation or progress (the societies reached near-equilibrium and stayed static), and economically they were flat. Our modern culture could not survive an economy that stopped growing.

          • Well, I meant that you couldn’t make a sound moral argument that any one person is obligated not to have a child. But the funny thing is, I was thinking of consequentialism and deontology. It occurs to me that (duh) on virtue ethics (which I tout at the end there), you could definitely make a decent argument that one shouldn’t have kids.

            Not following it myself – got myself three children, including my disabled kid, who is even worse for the environment than the other two put together. He’s a total resources hog, but he’s awfully cute and happy and cheers up the rest of us.

          • Where I object John is your statement that humans will fill up the petri dish. On the contrary we have observed that in countries with advanced and well established liberal society’s birth rates have plummeted. More importantly they have plummeted with little to no coercive effort from environmentalists or governments. Even in Semi developed areas like Latin America and some parts of the Middle East (and rampant in Asia) population growth has been tapering off dramatically usually hand in hand with economic development and women’s rights. Unlike yeasts, humans appear capable of self regulating our population once certain economic and social milestones are reached. The challenge is to expand these achievements to the entire population.

        • So you’re saying that one extra person in the world has a greater chance of contributing to a solution than not…and that the same person will have a negligible impact on extinction/depletion of natural resources?

          • No, of course not. Just that any person will have negligible negative impact on the environment and will be reasonably likely to add substantial positive value (not necessarily environmental value) to the world. So given that the benefits of the child I want to have will greatly outweigh the negatives to the environment, why shouldn’t I have it? And yes, I think that is perfectly reasonable.

            We would need to take whatever reasonably painless measures we can. Educating women, making birth control available, etc.

            And I was not assuming that any child born is likely to be our savior, but assuming (apparently incorrectly) that reducing the number of humans would not in itself solve the problem – so why go through the pain of reducing humans?

          • So given that the benefits of the child I want to have will greatly outweigh the negatives to the environment, why shouldn’t I have it? And yes, I think that is perfectly reasonable.

            This is the Tragedy of the Commons writ large. And, we are ALL guilty of it in one form or another. I have two children, even with my understanding of the underlying problems.

            It is because we all believe your statement that there is no solution. Evaluating the truth of it is difficult, because the negative impact to the environment may not show up until far in the future (maybe even after we are dead), whereas the benefit of my children are right here in front of me every day.

          • I have two children, even with my understanding of the underlying problems

            That’s below the replacement rate, so even from your perspective you shouldn’t be worried about the morality of it.

          • That’s below the replacement rate, so even from your perspective you shouldn’t be worried about the morality of it.

            The problem is not the replacement rate (though it does contribute). The problem is that there are already orders of magnitude more humans than the environment can sustain. But, my guess is that you don’t really want to engage with the subject, just one liners to dismiss it. If I’m wrong, I’m happy to engage with any argument you’d like to make, as I’ve laid out my position fairly clearly here.

      • mass extinction pose a colossal threat to human existence

        Well, so does everyone not having children, so the outcome seems to be the same either way.

        • Don’t think I ever said no one should have children. However I DID say that humans should live within the carrying capacity of the environment, which would have a much different outcome.

          Or, were you just being flippant?

      • By all means John, challenge away.

        In response I have little to no objection to the facts you list. I would differ, partially, from your conclusions.

        Environmental destruction is caused, I agree, by humans but I’m going to do you one better. For the most part environmental destruction (especially the extinction event driving kind) is mostly done by large numbers of impoverished humans. This is very important.

        The kinds of humans who would be influenced by argument on any form of media not to have children are generally affluent humans. Environmentalism is, as a general rule, the pastime of the developed world.

        The impoverished, on the other hand, care little to not a damn bit about the environment; their priorities are surviving, helping their kids survive and ensuring for their future. In impoverished societies there’s really only one way to do this; you get yourself an undereducated wife with no rights, you make her pop out as many kids as you can (preferably boys), you put those tots to work (often ripping down the local ecosystem or working in an industry that does) and then you hope that enough of those tots will survive to adulthood and look after you in your dotage. If you have a society where this holds true you have a society where the population will increase enormously.

        Thus, economic poverty, lack of education for women and lack of legal rights for women are the principal drivers of population growth. Any person who is concerned with human population would be better served by working for the reduction of those three scourges. If you hector about population numbers in a newspaper maybe you’ll influence a handful of affluent people to have fewer kids. Big deal; those prevented kids are likely to be less ecologically destructive footprint wise.
        If you advocate for economic development (and the trade that fosters it) and for women’s rights and education then you cause enormous numbers of people to voluntarily stop having as many children. This is accompanied by salutary plunges in infant mortality and increases in happiness and health.

        So, I reiterate, if you care about mass extinctions, environmental degradation et all you will get greater return on your effort working towards the empowerment of women than you will in advocating for birth reduction or for top down birth prevention policies.

        • North, I agree that education and the empowerment of women is the best way to reduce birth rates.

          The problem, as I see it, isn’t the developing world, it’s the developed world. As an example, the U.S. uses 25% of the energy in the world, despite only have about 5% of the population. The developing world is certainly doing their fair share, but it’s really the developed world that’s causing (and has caused) more of these problems.

          Regarding humans filling up the petri dish, let’s understand that is a simple analogy (the petri dish). The point is that waste increases, habitat degrades, climate changes, species die, food production plateaus, etc. In short, we are making it harder for all 7 billion of us to continue to survive – not just for our lives, but for generations to come. This doesn’t even take into account the unknown impacts of all these externalities, the complex symbiosis of most life and how the removal of one species can have profound impacts, or the fact that our modern economy cannot function without continued growth. We are hitting the limits to that growth, in my opinion.

        • Just to complete what I’m saying here:

          I’m not “advocating for birth reduction or for top down birth prevention policies”, for I do not think they are possible without a strong authoritarian regime controlling all human births on the planet and the amount the economy grows (or if it grows at all). Humans will reject that regime. There is nothing that can be done to mitigate things, because we do not want to mitigate them.

          And, the developed world “care[s] little to not a damn bit about the environment”. The lithium mines in China are not for the developing world, they are for us in the developed world (just to point to one example). There is a very high environmental cost to lithium mining.

          In my opinion, the damages to the environment by the developing world are much smaller and more localized. The developed world damages the environment on much grander scales. The ice isn’t melting and the climate isn’t changing because of poor farmers in Africa.

          • John the lithium mines are for us in a way, sure. But they’re also for the developing world. They’re not mining lithium there because they upholding our appetite for batteries gives them warm fuzzies; they’re mining lithium because that’s a step they can take along the same path we followed.

            I agree that the ice isn’t melting because of poor farmers in Africa but at the same time the inconvenient fact remains that any reduction in energy use in the developed world simply relocates that use to the developing world (where, mind, it is generally used less efficiently). This is unfortunate but also avoidable. The only way to prevent this would be to either develop some kind of wonder energy source that is cheap and clean or else to forbid the developing world from developing (in which case prepare for a war).

            Developed societies are societies that can afford to worry about the environment. As far as I can see the only like way we shall ever be able to truly save the environment in general and move towards a perfectly sustainable relationship with the earth specifically will be once we have made the developing world into the developed world.

            But my basic point is that any environmental gains generated by encouraging a first world person to have less children is massively dwarfed by the environmental gains generated by encouraging a first world person to support policies and programs that advance women’s suffrage and education in the third world (this is, of course, without factoring in the myriad additional practical and moral benefits of doing the latter). It’s not even close.

  4. Is it because all the jobs that involve making something useful have been outsourced to the Third World that Bryan Caplan and Christine Overall can’t find anything better to do?

    • Philosophy is totally useful! Why…wait a minute. No, it’s not. I still can’t believe I get paid for this.

    • Mike, I chuckled for five minutes straight over this comment. I’m serious, I happened to glance at the clock on my wall before and after. Well done!

  5. I am reminded of Ellen Peck’s book *The Baby Trap*.

    I feel blessed beyond measure to have my wonderful sons.

  6. Good Lord! So the people who have kids are in general the less happy people. Who cares? (I’m citing OTHER studies, which show that people have normative happiness levels that don’t change much based on external events).

  7. I understand the argument (my Ecology prof spent a fair amount of time on similar ones) but I think it misses out some vital points in which having kids also has moral value.

    Firstly, though, I don’t think the argument that “if nobody had kids humanity would die out” is a strong one, simply because lack of population isn’t even close to being a problem in current circumstances, and overpopulation is one. If the population fell to 2 or 3 billion people over the next several generations simply by dint of people choosing not to have children, I can’t see anything that’s inherently morally problematic about that. The idea that everyone would choose not to have children is beyond implausible.

    However, I think there can be a moral value attributed to childrearing in terms of its effects on the parents. I only know this from the accounts of my own parents and of other parents, but having to take responsibility for a being that is entirely dependent on you, and to put their welfare above your own, and to experience the kind of selfless love that comes with having children, can make someone a better person. It can make someone a more responsible person. And having more people who have the experience of living for someone else, and not just for themselves, can certainly be considered beneficial to society.

    Then there’s the question of compensating behaviours. If a person doesn’t have kids, they’ll have more money to spend. Where will they spend that money? In all probability, more consumption. More travel. Things that consume additional resources. Except they’re spending those resources on self-gratification rather than on caring for another person. There’s probably a difference in the moral and psychological effects.

    I, myself, do not intend to have children; I can’t imagine being a parent. But I think, based on my own observations of people, that there’s truth in the idea that parenthood matures people. Maybe not in all cases; there are some dreadful parents out there. But in general, it’s an effect that shouldn’t be discounted.

  8. When people mis-cite that study, it tends to drive me crazy. It’s not that there isn’t valuable information there. It’s just that it doesn’t say what a lot of people who prop up the study say it says.

    If W represents the people who would be happier without children and do not have them, X represents the people who would be happier without children and do have them, Y represents the people that would be happier with children but do not have them, and Z represents the people that would be happier with children and have them, all the study suggests is that the number of people in Category X is larger than the number of people in Category Y.

    That means that pro-natalists ought to take it seriously when people like Burt and Jaybird say that they do not want children. It does not mean, however, that Category-W people don’t exist and that there is a universal effect where having children affects everyone the same way. Yet people keep thinking that it does mean that. They sometimes line up in inverse to those who pester non-procreators that they should have children and will totally love it. Telling those that want children that they only think they do and that it will actually make them miserable or at least less happy. Anybody who knows someone who wanted children and was unable to have them should know different.

    • I don’t even think it suggests that the number in X is larger than Y. I think it shows that children can be friggin’ aggravating a lot of the time.

      That’s not to say that I think children will make everyone’s life go better. But they made mine go better, and a lot of other people’s.

  9. “Having kids makes your life worse!” say people who don’t have kids and believe that having kids would make their lives worse.

  10. Have these people still not gotten the memo about most of the first world having dropped below ZPG a long time ago?

  11. I think it is morally wrong to have children because you have no idea what their lives will be like and have no right to inflict misery on them. I say this as a parent and a grandmother. My parents had no right to have me. My life has been miserable all 54 years of it and if I had really understood what morality was and what I was possibly doing to my children by having them, I never would have. “Life is hell and then you die” to quote an old tv show. And no one has the right to inflict hell on anyone else.

  12. I am 30 and facing the ‘should I have a child?’ decision at the moment.
    So far, despite feeling a strong desire to have children, I am leaning toward not having them.

    My biggest concern is with the risk to my child’s well being in the future.
    To me, the ‘risk’ of my child having a painful life because of the imminent environmental & accompanying survival issues (war, famine, violence, illness etc) is very real.

    I cannot justify bringing someone into the world for my own benefit (which is clearly who I would be aiming to benefit initially given that the unborn child does not exist & has no way to miss not existing) if these risk are present & significant. To me, that is immoral.

    The thing is, my understanding of this risk is limited (the probability of a painful life could in reality be very small). And this is where my decision becomes harder to make & why I am not fully decided.

    So far, I think I prefer to err on the side of caution, than to expose my unborn child to these dangers. From what I have read & what I understand, there is a distinct possibility of suffering within their lifetime due to these environmental issues and the flow on societal effects.

    I know it would be hard to forgive my own parents if I was living a terrible life of suffering because these risks became reality, and I knew they chosen to have me despite knowing the risks existed. Putting myself in my own children’s shoes like this is very persuasive in the argument against having children.

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