Thursday, April 5, 2012

 

Is it Ethical to Have a Child?

This world can be a cold, cruel and violent place; millions of babies are born who--because of genes, environment or some toxic combination of both factors--are doomed to suffer mentally, physically and/or emotionally. Is it ethical to bring an innocent, defenseless child into such a world? The answer to that question only seems obvious to people who hold one of two extreme viewpoints--either that life is very beautiful and meaningful or that life is very ugly and meaningless--but if this question is examined in a logical, detached manner it is not at all simple to provide an intelligent and ethically sound answer.

In the April 9, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews three books that discuss the ethics of having children. Christine Overall, author of Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate, dismisses the notion that because having children is a natural biological function there is no need to justify doing so: "There are many urges apparently arising from our biological nature that we nonetheless should choose not to act upon." Kolbert describes how Overall systematically rejects several of the most common reasons that are offered for having children:

Some people justify the decision to have children on the ground that they are perpetuating a family name or a genetic line. But "is anyone's biological composition so valuable that it must be perpetuated?" Overall asks. Others say that it's a citizen's duty to society to provide for its continuation. Such an obligation, Overall objects, "would make women into procreative serfs."

Still others argue that people ought to have children so there will be someone to care for them in their old age. "Anyone who has children for the sake of the supposed financial support they can provide," Overall writes, is "probably deluded."

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.

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.


The title of David Benatar's book--Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence--makes his opinion very clear. Kolbert explains:

Benatar's title refers to the passage in Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" in which the chorus observes:

Never to have been born is best,
But once you’ve entered this world,
Return as quickly as possible to the place you came from.

It also alludes to an old Jewish saying: "Life is so terrible, it would have been better not to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand."

Kolbert summarizes Benatar's thesis: "Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone—that is, had the life never been created—no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it."

Benatar offers a very harsh conclusion: "One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad—a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick—is worse than no life at all." Obviously, if the human race followed his prescription then our species would disappear. Benatar realizes this and has no problem with that conclusion: "Humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth. The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more" people on Earth.

Bryan Caplan makes the case for the opposing viewpoint in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. Kolbert notes that Caplan's approach is rooted in the economic concept of cost/benefit analysis:

According to Caplan, a professor at George Mason University, the major mistake that parents (or prospective parents) make is overvaluing the present. This is a common enough error. Workers in their twenties and thirties don't save enough money for retirement because it seems such a long way off. Then their sixties roll around, and they wish they'd spent less on S.U.V.s and HDTVs and put more into their 401(k)s.

Couples, he argues, need to think not just about how many children they might want now, when they have better things to do than microwave Similac, but how many they will want to have around when they’re old and lonely and watching "The View."

Not surprisingly for someone who attacks this question from an economics angle, Caplan is certain that he has a formula that precisely calculates the optimal number of children for each couple to have based on the prospective parents' ages, future plans and so forth; Kolbert provides a wry parenthetical comment: "Unfortunately, he does not explain what parents should do if their ideal number of children includes a fraction."

Most people would probably agree that it is not ethical to place someone in a situation that might cause suffering without first getting informed consent from that potential sufferer. An unborn child cannot offer such consent, so from that standpoint it is hard to argue that it is an ethically sound decision to have a child. That brings us to Benatar's argument; clearly, if no one had children the human race would become extinct. Benatar thinks that this would actually lead to less suffering (presumably not just for humans but also for other species that suffer or even become extinct due to the actions of humans). This issue is more complex than the first one but it essentially requires providing an answer to this question: Does the overall amount of happiness in the world equal or exceed the overall amount of suffering? Only if the answer to that question is "yes" can it possibly be justified to ignore the informed consent issue in the interest of preserving the human race, though it could still be asked if the "greater good" of overall happiness supersedes the tremendous amount of individual suffering in the world.

What about the great achievements in art, literature, science and other fields that human geniuses have created? Don't these justify the existence of the human species, don't these bring beauty into the world? Humans have undoubtedly accomplished many great things but we have also inflicted great suffering on other humans and on the planet as a whole--and we have inflicted great suffering on many of the very same geniuses who created our species' greatest works of art, literature and science! Is it in any way fair or justifiable that geniuses such as Vincent Van Gogh suffered for decades and battled suicidal thoughts? Why should geniuses have to pay such a high price--emotionally and financially--while others enjoy the fruits of their talents? The large number of geniuses who have committed suicide indicates that many brilliant people have decided that they agree with the previously cited Sophocles quote; I suspect that many, if not most, people who rank above the 99th percentile in intelligence have at least once seriously considered committing suicide (one could darkly joke that only an idiot thinks that life is worth living!).

As for Caplan's perspective, if the best case that can be made for having children is provided by an economist who is sure that he knows how to calculate exactly how many children each couple should have, then any sensible person should be inclined to agree with Benatar's verdict!

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Comments:
"Is it in any way fair or justifiable that geniuses such as Vincent Van Gogh suffered for decades and battled suicidal thoughts? Why should geniuses have to pay such a high price--emotionally and financially--while others enjoy the fruits of their talents?"

These people have free will. If they thought their lives weren't worth living, they would have committed suicide. Most did not. They chose to "pay such a high price," because they apparently found some value in their existence.

This is the problem with Benatar's argument. Most people, even those extreme cases, don't commit suicide. Obviously, such people prefer existence to non-existence. If we had a suicide rate greater than 50%, perhaps Benatar's argument might have something going for it... but we don't -- it's nowhere near that number, even historically for people who were in terrible conditions.

Most people prefer to exist. Benatar's argument fails empirically.
 
Anonymous:

Did you read Kolbert's article? Benatar notes that due to natural selection people have probably evolved to have a predisposition to value life (those who don't have such a disposition would be less likely to have children); even a suicidal person can have difficulty committing suicide because, instinctively, a person's mind and body fight to live--but the fact that we are wired in some fashion to think this way does not prove that it is ethically correct to bring into the world a child who is likely to suffer. Benatar's point is that someone who never exists never suffers but anyone who exists will inevitably suffer in some fashion and thus it is not ethical to create more suffering. This may seem like an abstract concept to someone living a comfortable existence in a Western country but there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who do not have enough food to eat, who don't have shelter and/or who are preyed upon in some fashion by other people (soldiers, criminals, etc.). There are also indications that even countries where those issues are not as prevalent are filled with people who are suffering psychologically and emotionally, people whose lives have physical comfort but lack any larger meaning.

If you read the biographies of highly gifted people you will find that, regardless of how many of them actually committed suicide, a large number of them at least considered it at one point. This is particularly true among writers and artists.
 
Many intelligent people do come to the conclusion that there is no inherent meaning and have an existential crises where they seriously consider suicide. I've had it, many people I know have had it. And yet, we continue living despite this point of desolation. And somehow, through this continued existence, we seem to learn how to stop caring about meaning and just enjoy what we have because it's more preferable to the despair from looking into the apparent void of meaning in life. I don't know entirely what to make of it but it does seem quite common.

On a more argumentative note..
"Most people would probably agree that it is not ethical to place someone in a situation that might cause suffering without first getting informed consent from that potential sufferer."
A child doesn't have the capacity to consent and a parent is expected to responsibly make decisions and consent for that child. A child emerges as a property of its parents and develops its independence and awareness over time. A child cannot very well retroactively revoke consent after its born, which creates some problems, but its consent was not its own at the time of the making of the decision. It is worth considering the cost and benefits of the child when you bring it into the world, but I think most parents that have the luxury of doing so likely have the ability to drastically reduce their child's suffering (at least externally).

I also think that the suffering of others around the world can sometimes be drastically exaggerated because we project out own preferences onto their situation. Sure, we live in relative ease compared to those who are hungry and oppressed, but their overall happiness is for them to decide, not us. It could very well be that they are suffering, but I can't say with any accuracy how many are truly suffering more than they are thriving.
 
One other complaint I had with the article..

"Overall rejects this argument on two grounds. First of all, nonexistent people have no moral standing. (There are an infinite number of nonexistent people out there, and you don’t notice them complaining, do you?)"
+
"Pleasure missed out on by the nonexistent doesn’t count as a harm. Yet suffering avoided counts as a good, even when the recipient is a nonexistent one."

It doesn't seem consistent to dismiss the pleasure of a nonexistent entity while still assigning a benefit to the suffering prevent by a nonexistent entity. If he says there are an infinite amount of nonexistent entities, and each of them are receiving a benefit of prevented suffering, then it would follow that no amount of suffering created, caused, or induced, could ever outweigh the benefit of the infinite beings whose suffering was never had. No, if pleasure of the non-existent entity cannot be weighed, neither can their suffering. Only to existent beings should prevention of suffering be morally relevant. I think that defeats his argument that any life is worse than no life at all - it allows us to weight the positive against the negative and attempt to create a net positive.
 
Anonymous:

Do you believe that the hundreds of millions of people who are trying to survive on the equivalent of a dollar a day, who don't know where their next meal is coming from and/or live in the middle of a war zone are not suffering? Do you believe that, if given a choice, they would have chosen such an existence over non-existence?

Of course, this issue extends well beyond physical suffering/deprivation, even though physical suffering/deprivation is quite prevalent around the world; there are also many, many people who live in physical comfort but suffer from psychological anguish; the fact that many of those people choose to commit suicide even though living beings are clearly hard-wired not to do so is compelling evidence that many people would not have chosen to be born if such a choice had been available.
 
Anonymous:

The argument you make in your second comment is not logical. It does not harm a non-existent entity to prevent that entity from experiencing pleasure--but it clearly harms a previously non-existent entity if you bring that entity into existence (i.e., have a child) and that entity subsequently suffers. No one is harmed if someone chooses to not have a child but if one chooses to have a child and that child suffers (or if that child acts in a way that causes suffering to others) then harm has been caused.
 
"Do you believe that the hundreds of millions of people who are trying to survive on the equivalent of a dollar a day, who don't know where their next meal is coming from and/or live in the middle of a war zone are not suffering? Do you believe that, if given a choice, they would have chosen such an existence over non-existence?"

Yes and no. I think given a choice many of those people would prefer to have an existence with less suffering to no existence at all and would prefer some existence to no existence - this might be purely biological instinct. It's very difficult to tell what others are feeling and to gauge the extent of their suffering without experiencing it. But I don't think the experience of suffering is even necessarily and wholly negative - suffering can be embraced and appreciated. There are different forms of suffering and different aspects to them - when trying to gauge whether no suffering is better than any, these distinctions gain additional importance.

"Of course, this issue extends well beyond physical suffering/deprivation, even though physical suffering/deprivation is quite prevalent around the world; there are also many, many people who live in physical comfort but suffer from psychological anguish; the fact that many of those people choose to commit suicide even though living beings are clearly hard-wired not to do so is compelling evidence that many people would not have chosen to be born if such a choice had been available."

I'm not sure the act of committing suicide accurately provides evidence that they would have chosen to have never been born - I think it's just evidence that human experience is emotive and powerful. They may wish to end the suffering of one point of their life but may not wish to undo their life completely, and I think this isn't a fair way to gauge the value of life. You can feel accomplished and your life can have deep meaning despite suffering that is so great you choose to take your own life. Kant said something to this effect (I can't seem to find it) that we should value life on more than just the metric of happiness and suffering. This seems to be far too subjective to try and simplify for an easy cost-benefit analysis for an ethical decision.

I also see where I was mistaken on my second comment - no suffering caused can be viewed as a net neutral, whereas suffering created is always more than suffering prevented. I still think it's one-sided to only consider suffering as only a net negative without evaluating the positives - It is very possible that life is a net positive when considering the cost of suffering and the benefit of thriving. One must make sure to evaluate all possible benefits of life though.
 
People have kids because they are selfish, ignorant and/or egotistical. That is it.
You're gambling with other people's welfare. You don't take the risk, the child you imposed life on takes all the risk.
It is an evil and unethical thing to do.
You impose life on someone without asking their permission for your own selfish desires. What else is there to say?
It is a no brainer unless you are a religious nut that lives a cartoon life.

 
"Most people prefer to exist. Benatar's argument fails empirically."
What an idiotic comment
You just failed empirically.
heroin addicts prefer heroin....your point? I guess herion is good and we should try to create more herion addicts.
Plus the point is you are imposing. Even if it is just 1% of people that don't want to exist, you are forcing life on those people.
If you can guaranteed that your kid is going to be as dumb as you, then I would say fine go ahead torture each other.
But you don't have that guarantee.
 
People are selfish, and mindless breeding has been tres vogue for ages man. In my country, people explicitly tell their adult children that they are essentially their parents' retirement plan, as though I shoukld work a few decades to support your senile ass out of...gratitude for my meaningless struggle? How can people takeorders so complacently from their instincts/conditioning? Life is objectively worthless, suffering is objectively bad (it's not an 'illusion', it's just hard to verify outside of the consciousness concerned) but we all hold out that our kids will make peace with existence, and confer grandkids upon us....
 

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