Elizabeth Kolbert has written a piece for the New Yorker that sketches several contemporary ethical analyses of procreation, leading with Charles Knowlton’s 1832 Fruits of Philosophy: The Private Companion of Young Married People, by a Physician, one of the first books to introduce a distinction between sex and procreation. Christine Overall, to begin with, finds that most of our reasons for having children are morally repugnant:
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.”
Another is David Benatar, and his new book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, appropriately dedicated to his parents. His case turns on the doubtful notion that life’s suffering can be quantified, and concludes that pleasure missed out on because of nonexistence does not count as harm, while suffering avoided for the same reason counts as a good:
“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,” Benatar writes. He acknowledges that many readers will have difficulty accepting such a “deeply unsettling claim.”
Finally, Caplan draws on economics to make his case in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. He concludes that the golden number for progeny is three. While provoking, these books prove that utilitarian ethics and economics may not be the only tools necessary for deciding how many children to have. And what’s missing from all three accounts is any reason to believe that there is something objectively good about procreation: When did perpetuating the genetic line become a serious concern for the modern family?
Read the article here.