A while back, I wrote about Peter Singer, David Benatar, and the supposed case against having children. Singer’s blog post in that instance was about one of the more extreme conclusions of Benetar’s reasoning, namely the idea that no one should ever have children leads to the proposition that the human race should end. This argument sounds a bit over-the-top to many.
A recent piece in the New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert (entitled “The Case Against Kids”) dials back the rhetoric a bit — in fact, it really downplays Benetar’s ultimate conclusion — and instead writes somewhat approvingly of recent philosophical literature dedicated to proving that intelligent moral humans should not reproduce.
I should admit that when I was younger such arguments might have had a much greater appeal to me. In fact, for over a decade I had convinced myself that there were strong moral reasons not to have children. For me, the argument had to do with my pessimistic outlook on the environment as well as social change and decay. Who would want to bring a child into a world like that which I foresaw in the future?
But then I grew up.
As I have acknowledged in previous posts, I did eventually decide to have children. I probably would not have done so had my wife not had strong feelings on the matter. She really wanted to have children; I was more ambivalent because of my pessimism. Eventually, I acknowledged that it really was just pessimism — that is an irrational emphasis on the possibility of negative outcomes — that was driving my logic. I do not regret my decision to reproduce at all, and I think I’ve actually become more optimistic by spending time with the very young.
Unlike some people, I do not think anyone has a moral duty to reproduce. If the human race were in danger of extinction, maybe we might have a discussion about that issue. But absent such dire circumstances, I think it may be difficult to make a strong argument in favor of reproduction.
However, I think any attempt to find moral fault in reproduction in general is just as ill-conceived. There are all sorts of reasons not to have children, some selfish (e.g., “I want more time for myself or my career”) and some based on the perceived benefits or detriments to the future child (e.g., “My family has a high incidence of a certain congenital problem”).
I think parents need to make informed judgments about the risks in the latter cases. There may be cases where couples just decide that the risk of a certain genetic problem with their children is too great to risk bringing a child into the world. (If we were rational about this, we would need to note issues that might seem problematic to some, like the fact that women over 40 are more likely to give birth to a child with birth defects than couples made up of first-cousin marriages.)
And we might even entertain sentiments like those I used to have, where parents question their future prospects or the future prospects of our society as a whole. If they don’t think those prospects are strong enough to support a decision to have a child, whether or not the parents are perfectly rational in their evaluation, I think they certainly can have a reason to think twice before having a child.
I do not presume to judge anyone who chooses not to have a child. I do, however, take issue with philosophers who try to claim that no one should have children on moral grounds. Let’s review Kolbert’s two primary sources for such arguments.
Christine Overall and the tragedy of the commons
Kolbert first references a recent book by Christine Overall, which reexamines our assumptions about procreation:
Overall, who teaches philosophy at Queen’s University, in Ontario, dismisses the notion that childbearing is “natural” and therefore needs no justification. “There are many urges apparently arising from our biological nature that we nonetheless should choose not to act upon,” she observes. If we’re going to keep having kids, we ought to be able to come up with a reason.
Fine. I agree with that. There are many possible reasons. Some are selfish, like parents who would like to have someone to take care of them in their old age, a practice that was pretty universal in most societies until about a century ago. Kolbert writes that Overall says such people are “probably deluded,” which shows how divorced the morality of this position is from historical values. To argue that a reasonable assumption by the vast majority of people in their family dynamics not long ago should be considered “deluded” today demonstrates that Overall is coming from a novel social perspective which probably should not be taken as valid for all time or perhaps even in our present circumstances.
But let’s take Overall’s assumption that selfish parental reasons for having children should not be considered over the rights and disposition of the child. If we grant that, we might argue from a utilitarian perspective that if we can give the child some happiness, we have increased the overall happiness of the world. However, this is not without its problems:
[O]nce you accept that you should have a baby in order to increase the world’s total happiness, how do you know when to stop? Let’s say one kid eating ice cream represents x amount of added pleasure. In that case, two kids eating ice cream represents 2x, four kids 4x, and so on. The family with eight kids could perhaps afford to buy ice cream only half as often as the one with four. Still, provided the parents were able to throw in a bag of M&M’s, they (or, at least, the world) would fare better, total-happiness-wise, with the larger brood. And, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, things would be even better if the parents kept pumping kids out.
This supposedly inevitably leads to an untenable situation:
Generalize this process, and the world would teem with more and more people leading less and less satisfying lives, until eventually the happiness of each individual would start to approach nil.
I can’t figure out if Kolbert and Overall are just being dense in believing such an argument to be valid, or if they are too inexperienced to realize that this issue falls into a classic philosophical conundrum, namely, the “Tragedy of the Commons.” This philosophical issue concerns the fact that public resources in high demand can be overtaxed.
Let’s take a simple analogy. Suppose there is a public park in your neighborhood with a small patch of grass. Suppose that people like to walk around in their bare feet on that grass: they find it to be a pleasurable thing to do on a spring or summer afternoon.
If you, a single person, decide to go down to the park and walk around on the grass in your bare feet, because you find it pleasing, the utilitarians would say that the happiness in the world has been increased. It is therefore moral.
But now suppose that everyone in your neighborhood goes to this park and does this every single day. In this case, the crowds will kill the grass, and after a few weeks, no one will get any enjoyment from walking around on it.
According to Overall, we should conclude from this that a decision for any single person to enjoy themselves on the lawn once in a while cannot be a moral choice, because if everyone did it constantly, it would result in something bad.
A similar argument could be used to say it is not a moral choice to drive your car (lest everyone do it and cause a traffic jam) or go to visit the museum on the weekend (lest everyone do it and ruin the exhibits with their excessive wear and sweat and…), or, well, just about anything. You might as well not try to leave your house.
In case it isn’t obvious, the “Tragedy of the Commons” isn’t a useful argument about the morality of a single person taking an action, or even about a group of people taking an action in most circumstances. If a resource is overused, there can be a moral issue about how to handle that, but there is an easy utilitarian answer to Overall’s question: “how do you know when to stop?” You stop when the population density starts to decrease the overall happiness of the world significantly. While that exact number may be difficult to determine, the fact is that the utilitarian argument does not fail on its face.
And it should be noted that there is a difference between moral justification and moral duty. I might easily have a moral justification to risk my own life to save a drowning person from freezing water, but I do not necessarily have a moral duty to do so if the danger is great. Similarly, the prospect of future happiness for a child can easily be a moral justification for having a child, but it imposes no moral duty upon us to continue popping them out as long as we can (especially since pregnancy always has significant risks).
In sum, Overall’s arguments seem rather confused, and I’m surprised that Kolbert seems to present them uncritically. But the confusion here pales in comparison to the ridiculous arguments propounded in the rest of the article.
David Benatar and the triumph of pessimism over logic
Kolbert presents Benatar’s argument by beginning with similar scenarios to what I described in my introduction. Perhaps some parents would have a high risk of producing a child with a congenital abnormality, and perhaps in that case we might argue that parents might have a moral duty to refrain from procreation (or at least seriously consider other options if they want to have a family).
I think these are perfectly reasonable elements to consider, but Benatar wants to go much further. He argues that no lives are good enough, that all parents should refrain from procreating, and even that pregnant women should have an abortion in most cases, simply to save the child further suffering. (The latter element is not mentioned by Kolbert, presumably because readers would find the implications a little too repugnant.)
“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.
Wow. I thought I was pessimistic at times in my life, and I went through a few stages where I was borderline clinically depressed. But my pessimism is nothing compared to this argument.
As I detailed in my previous post on Benatar, there is an unjustified — and irrational — inequality in Benatar’s moralizing. Either we view the pains and pleasures of future lives to have moral value — thereby holding a good life to be a “good” and a life of suffering to be “evil” — of we consider both to be morally neutral. Claiming that morality only applies to bad lives is an unjustified distinction. A similar logic would say that killing someone is evil, but saving a life has no moral value. To deprive a child of food is wrong, but to feed a starving child has no moral value. Are we really ready to accept such an extreme and unequal morality?
(Although the details are not in the New Yorker article, Benatar would object that I’ve mischaracterized his argument, because he believes that his argument only works for non-existent entities. To cause a non-existent entity to suffer is evil; to bring a non-existent entity pleasure is morally neutral, since denying a non-existent entity pleasure is not wrong. This way of stating the argument, of course, is patently absurd. There is no moral calculus at all for non-existent entities. So, he frames it instead as — to bring an entity into existence knowing that X will happen, etc. Well, once that happens, we’re talking about actual human beings, and the normal pain and pleasure comparisons I gave above apply.)
Of course, Benatar and Kolbert skip over such problems. The only justification that is given is that we’re delusional about our perception that our lives are worth living.
He acknowledges that many readers will have difficulty accepting such a “deeply unsettling claim.” They will say that they consider their own existence to be a blessing, and that the same goes for their children’s. But they’re only kidding themselves. And no wonder. Everyone alive today is descended from a long line of people who did reproduce themselves. Evolution thus favors a kind of genetically encoded Pollyannaism. “Those with reproduction-enhancing beliefs are more likely to breed and pass on whatever attributes incline one to such beliefs,” Benatar notes.
In other words, we were bred to believe that life and reproduction are good, but our lives are actually much worse than we would believe. And that is true: psychological studies show that most people, in the long-term, tend to underestimate the amount of suffering in their lives while focusing on the good times.
Such a view leads, as I detailed in my previous post, to the conclusion that no one should have children and the human race should become extinct. Setting aside the issue that morality is a human construct, and the morality of the extinction of the human race cannot be judged since there will be no humans around to judge it, there are obviously further issues.
Again, Kolbert omits the details of Benatar’s extreme reasoning, which could be seen to lead to a conclusion that we should go out and kill anyone who is suffering right now, and perhaps — if we take his view that we’re all deluded seriously — that we should all commit suicide right now. Why does Benatar not advocate immediate suicide, or at least genocide on the poor and suffering of the world?
He does not, although Kolbert doesn’t note this. He spends a chapter of his book discussing the issue and comes to another bizarre and unjustified distinction. To bring a life (even any sentient being) into existence is to cause it to suffer and is therefore morally repugnant, but once it is alive, we seemingly have no duty to help end its suffering.
Only someone raised in the current ridiculous state of medicine where quantity of life is seemingly valued over anything else (including quality of life) could possibly come to such a nonsensical conclusion. This is like saying we have a moral duty to prevent a dog from running across the street since it will prevent suffering if it happens to get hit by a car, but if it gets hit by a car, we are perfectly within our moral right to simply stand there and say, “Oh, poor thing, it’s suffering… but oh well, that’s the way things are… we have no moral obligation to do anything more now, since the situation has come to pass.” Benatar’s argument is actually worse, since it justifies him in sitting around and watching children starving around the world while pontificating about our moral duty to the rights of people who don’t exist.
(Again, Benatar would undoubtedly accuse me of misrepresentation here, and indeed I am not saying that he argues in favor of living people suffering needlessly. For him, an argument about a non-existent being allows a sort of objective evaluation of the facts, which he would say always goes in favor of pain and thus argues for non-existence. But once a life is set into motion, things apparently get more complicated. Someone might actually have a decent life, and we apparently have no duty to get involved and end it. Hmm… methinks there is a little hand-waving going on here, and hence I don’t think my discussion really misrepresents him.)
It’s pretty obvious why Benatar doesn’t argue for immediate suicide or the murder (no matter how mercifully) of impoverished people. His arguments would be reviled even by the extreme philosophers who accept his other arguments. There’s no rational reason to say we shouldn’t take the chance that a future person might suffer but then say we have no moral obligation to stop this “morally repugnant” state of affairs. Even if we argue that individual rights prevent us from murdering other humans, we do at least have a moral duty to commit suicide immediately. To continue living not only continues a morally repugnant state of affairs where we delude ourselves, but we are also continuously increasing the suffering of other sentient beings by our drain on our planet’s resources.
I simply do not understand why Benatar is still alive. Well, I do — because he’s an irrational selfish person who is pretending to ground his arguments in logic and rationality when he is actually deluded. I do not presume to say whether he is deluded in his decision to continue living, but he is deluded to believe that his arguments are logical and not simply a result of pessimistic opinion, coupled with an apparent fear of killing himself and of carrying out the actions necessary to stop the apparent morally repugnant suffering going on every day in the world around him.
The moral value of life
Of course, I fundamentally disagree with many elements of Benatar’s argument, as well as Kolbert’s decision to present such a crazy idea in an issue of a reputable magazine like the New Yorker.
The fundamental assertion — that life is not worth living because of too much suffering — is simple to counter. Why did people continue living at Auschwitz? Or what about Stephen Hawking? Has his life been worth living since his debilitating illness started? Why did people continue living in oppressive regimes or in centuries or millennia past where conditions on the whole were far worse for most people than they are today? Why doesn’t every teenager who is dumped by her boyfriend immediately commit suicide, if a single moment of suffering is repugnant enough to justify Benatar’s argument to destroy the entire human race?
Perhaps people are “deluded” in a sense: people do tend to have hope, even if it is irrational, in the most extreme sets of circumstances. They continue their lives, and there is no objective measurement of suffering. If most people do not decide their lives are not worth living, we must take them at their word, since suffering is a subjective experience. That is pretty hard empirical evidence against Benatar’s argument that we shouldn’t bring new lives into the world because of future suffering.
But there’s an even larger point that’s missing: suffering is necessary. I’m not talking about severe suffering or some sort of religious idea that we all have to suffer for our sins. I’m talking about the simple fact that we learn best by failure. If everything always goes our way, and we never encounter any obstructions in our lives, we generally do not end up as very good moral people who might debate the philosophy of suffering. Instead, the people who never have an obstacle and always get what they want generally end up as the epitome of “spoiled rich kids,” who know nothing and care about nothing.
While a lot of suffering may be morally undesirable, a little bit of suffering allows us to learn, to cope with failure, to persevere and overcome obstacles, in essence, to be a good human being with a life worth living. A life without any of this, in my view, is actually one of the few lives not worth living.
Anyone who actually has a child probably realizes this fact. Children are much more vocal than adults about their perceived suffering. Babies generally spend a lot of time crying. But over time they learn how to get what they want. Parents must at times allow a child to suffer in minor ways to get them to understand how to get what they want, how to achieve new things, and how to be a good and moral person who might someday be a philosopher writing about morality. If, as a parent, I intercede whenever I see my child struggling with a problem, sometimes even if he seems upset or asks for help, I may not be allowing him to discover how to do things for himself and to develop new skills. If one is a competent parent or even a teacher, one should realize this.
Suffering on a small scale is not a bad thing. It is a necessary part of life. We may not tend to evaluate the amount of suffering we go through in rational terms compared to our achievements and moments of happiness, but many times those achievements and moments of happiness are only made possible by suffering through experiences that we didn’t particularly like at the time. We don’t need to suffer psychological wounds that remind us of how much we suffered, because much of that suffering was productive. It set up obstacles that allowed us to improve ourselves so we would not suffer that way again. This is a fundamental part of what it is to be a sentient, intelligent being.
None of this is to argue that we should bring a child into the world when we know that there will be great suffering. But Benatar’s supposition that any amount of suffering is a grave evil that should convince the human race to create a kind of collective suicide by not reproducing is just silly. It misunderstands the role that normal amounts of suffering play in most people’s lives, and, most importantly, it completely ignores the reality of what is necessary for a person to develop morality in the first place — the very thing that Benatar seeks to end with his collective suicide pact.