Op shops in Albuquerque © Samantha Groenestyn

My friend Robyn (the dazzling subject of the above painting) is working on a very interesting PhD topic: the ethics of having children, particularly with respect to overpopulation. She sent me an article from The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert*, who suggests that, rather than it being a natural and morally laudable act to procreate, those who wish to transform potential people into actual people ought to justify this drive (p. 3). Where our ancestors had little control over the consequences of their amorous entwines, we have a distinct choice, and with choice comes ethical implications.

People offer all sorts of charming reasons for producing offspring. A pearler I heard this week was: ‘It just happens.’ A just as convincing argument was put forth in this exchange I was witness to:

Childless woman: ‘I like the bit where I get to be the awesome aunty and then I get to give it back.’
Father: ‘Yeah, and you don’t see the best bit. All the screaming and tears all the way home from visiting the aunty.’

Parents are so deprived of sleep they seem to have lost all rational capacities and can’t see that they are arguing the same thing as non-parents, but incomprehensibly arriving at the exact opposite conclusion.

I suspect that parents, having anticipated roses and gurgling giggles and having subsequently discovered tantrums and mess extending from one edge of existence to the other, have no other recourse but to proclaim their superiority, selflessness and general fortitude over the childless, and they certainly are a self-sacrificing lot of punishment-seekers. Given their children are in existence, they are doing an admirable job of keeping them alive.

However, such parents’ application of morality to the situation is back-to-front. Having children does not give you moral brownie points; nor does refraining from having them make you a selfish and immoral person. Once you have one, you undeniably ought to make a good go of it, and will have ample opportunity to exhibit all sorts of heroic qualities. But ethics enters the equation before birth. In our modern world, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves what the costs of increasing the population are. Kolbert (p. 4) cites Queen’s University (Ontario) philosopher Christine Overall: ‘To have a child in order to benefit oneself is a moral error.’

Overall is arguing that parents place undue emphasis on their own happiness and that of their children at the expense of greater humanity and, indeed, the earth. South African professor David Benetar (p. 5) argues that ‘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.’ I will take it as implied that overpopulation entails some very nasty things for everybody, and won’t belabor the point.

Robyn in fact loves children, and is not taking aim at anyone who happens to have any. But her research highlights the modern reality that once we are able to make decisions about things that previously were an unavoidable fact of life, we face some difficult ethical evaluation of our options. No more can we rely on the simplistically happy response of the past, branding every pregnancy ‘[insert name]’s baby joy!’ And no more should the childless accept accusations of selfishness and general condescension from those who haven’t given the question adequate thought.

* Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2012. ‘The case against kids: Is procreation immoral?’ in The New Yorker.

Above, Robyn enthuses over the glorious op shops of Albuquerque.


7 thoughts on “Babies

  1. I love this post. I especially love that you cite proper articles. I usually just rant about breeders and can never be bothered to look things up properly.

    “Kolbert (p. 4) cites Queen’s University (Ontario) philosopher Christine Overall: ‘To have a child in order to benefit oneself is a moral error.’”

    I need to copy-paste that and hang on to it somewhere. Maybe a framed cross stitch.

    • Haha. Thanks. I loved too much about your post on this topic. Great article, huh? A friend of mine’s step-dad once said, ‘Don’t have children to keep you company in your old age–they’ll be off doing their own thing. And don’t have children so that they can do all the things you never did with your life–they are the very reason you never did it.’ x

  2. J says:

    The `no kids’ standpoint is not merely neutral with respect to overpopulation, since it results in an active decrease of the population. Presumably the most neutral thing to do is to have two kids – one for each parent.

    Therefore, if the population was at equilibrium with the world’s resources, it would actually be un-ethical NOT to have kids, because then you would be shifting humanity towards extinction. So the ethical argument from population size is a double-edged sword.

  3. Robyn says:

    Tee hee. I feel like a bit of a celebrity! 🙂
    Sam, I particularly like your emphasis on the newness of childbearing as a choice, and thus an ethical issue. We differ from other (incl. previous) species in having the rational capacity to deliberate on a wide range of choices. Regarding procreation, we also differ from other (incl. previous) societies in having the technological capacity to widen the range of choices on which we can deliberate.
    J – agreed. The long-term population-neutral number would probably be 2-point-something, determined in part by rates of child mortality. But most people concerned with procreation choice/overpopulation (including Overall, but not Benatar) do not argue that we should all have no kids. Regarding the (in my pessimistic opinion extremely unlikely) event that the human population were at equilibrium with the world’s resources, and population decline were eminent: I would still question whether declining population or extinction would be bad, especially in an ethically relevant sense that would make us obligated to procreate in order to avoid them. And I mean question here as in, really don’t know the answer (yet). 🙂
    Luckily, I have to go now!
    Great post. x

  4. Pingback: Rant For Today: Breeding Ethics « Tin Roof Press

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