Is it Ethical to Have Children?

Parenting is fundamental to human life. It’s the oldest, most valuable, and most important practice in the history of our time on earth. But in recent years, due to population booms and the looming climate crises, there is a generation of people, millennials, who are reconsidering the ethics of procreation.

Scientists warn that a catastrophic tipping point is possible in the next few decades. By midcentury, possibly before, the average global temperature is projected to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius; scientists and world leaders agree this point would trigger cataclysmic consequences. At this rate, the way our energy infrastructure is currently arranged, and the heavy environmental toll of our lifestyle broadly speaking we will, without question, fail to avert global crises.

Adding to that the world is expected to enlarge the population by several billion people in the next few decades, each one producing more emissions and waste. Global population is expected to hit eight billion around 2025.

This leaves us with a provocative thought, one well worth considering: the best way to protect our kids is by not having them.

Or at least not having so many of them.

Argument in Favor of Procreation with an Appeal to Nature

One argument in favor of having children claims that it is natural for us to want children and to have children and, therefore, it is morally permissible to procreate.

But the notion that childbearing is “natural” feeling and therefore it needs no justification can be dismissed. There are lots of urges and inclinations that we have, which stem from some inner nature, that are morally unjustifiable. Just because we have a natural impulse to do something does not mean that it is ethical to do it. For example, it can be argued that it is natural to want to be violent or aggressive yet that does not mean we can simply condone violence on the grounds of it stemming from an inner, natural inclination.

So, we should not say procreation is morally justifiable simply because it stems from a natural inclination.

Argument in Favor of Procreation with Appeal to the Happiness of the Non-Existent

Another argument for having a child is that, simply by having allowed the child to exist, it benefits the child. This might seem obvious but the argument claims that a child deprived of her existence theoretically loses everything. She never experiences any of the joys that life has to offer and that she is better off for having existed than not having existed.

But this argument can be rejected on several grounds. Non-existent people don’t have a moral standing. This is for a couple reasons. There are theoretically an infinite number of non-existent people and therefore because ethics is a consideration of the well-being of the numbered existing, the innumerable nonexistent have no weight in that consideration. Also, the idea that we should have we should have babies in order to increase the sum total of the world’s happiness begs the question: when do we stop? How many people should there be in certain countries or in the world? At what number would there be considered too many people?

Argument in Favor of Procreation with Appeal to the Happiness of the Parent

Another argument in favor of parenthood is that it will make the parents happier. The premise itself is arguable. Some evidence points towards to the claim that people who have children are no more satisfied with their lives than people who don’t. The opposing viewpoint claims that children are the most enriching experiences and meaningful things that one can do with their lives.

But I think this argument can be rejected. Procreation with the sole consideration of happiness of the parents is a moral error. Like any moral choices that we make we have to consider the well-being of not only of ourselves but others. Just because something might make us happier and feel more enriched does not necessarily mean that it is the morally correct choice. In brief: morality is about the common good and not personal happiness.

When we set the size of our families, we are, each in our own small way, determining how the world of the future will look. And we’re doing this not just for ourselves and our own children; we’re doing it for everyone else’s children, too.

Argument Against Procreation on the Grounds of Resource Scarcity

This argument against the moral defensibility of procreation claims that there’re too many people on this earth and that the more people there are the more resources are used and, therefore, the more suffering there is in the world. There are countless numbers of children already in foster care or orphaned and in need of parents. This argument puts forth the question: how can we possibly procreate without adding to ongoing global strife? It claims that the responsibility of our children cannot be a mere afterthought added on once a child is conceived.

But I think that we don’t have to take this argument to mean that having children is always necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never had a child but the way in which it described to me is that it can be like having a door opened in your brain; you step through it and realize there is a whole other part of your brain that you never knew was there. The tiny, newborn person you hold is you, half of you, a part of you. It’s a primordial connection you’ve never known before, a connection different than any other kind of connection and a connection worth expounding as intrinsically valuable the human experience.

The above argument also rests on the premise that merely existing takes away something valuable—resources, experiences, happiness, etc.—from the world. But just because every person born—at least in the developed world—contributes to carbon emission and waste does not mean that every person born takes more away from the world than the add to it. There are countless examples of human beings—geniuses, saints, philosophers, scientists, teachers, sages, artists, healers, guardians, doctors, innovators, creators—who have contributed more to the world than they have taken away.

In conclusion, I think that arguments both for and against procreation are weak. What I take from the failings of each of these arguments is that:

  1. it is not at all self-evident that one should procreate
  2. that it is an act that is deeply bound up in morality, ethics, and community
  3. it is not immediately clear that having children is necessarily a bad thing
  4. a well-raised child parented responsibly with love and care and education—cultivated with creativity and empathy—can contribute to the world more than the take away

“In choosing to become a parent, one seeks to create a relationship, and, uniquely, one also seeks to create the person with whom one has the relationship.” This means that parents’ central ethical concern should be forming “a supportive, life-enhancing and close relationship with each of their offspring,” say philosophy professor Christine Overall.

Having children is just one of those morally complex, often painful, yet nevertheless celebrated expressions of our humanity that probably can’t be explained in rational terms.

Parenting and raising children is the fundamental human burden. It’s the best thing we do and the most important thing we can do. It’s also something that, if we are going to survive and thrive in the next coming century, we’ll need to do with the utmost care and consideration.

One thought on “Is it Ethical to Have Children?

  1. As a parent who failed to protect my children from a very bad person (he’ been in prison over 10 years…so yeah) I often feel the gravity of this. Also I see so many have children haphazardly. However, it is children grown who also do remarkable things that save others in their discoveries.

    Liked by 1 person

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