Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Essays

Creation: Pro(-) and Con

When you bring children into being, you give them the gift of life, but you also impose on them these terrible costs.

Kieran Setiya

Claude and Paloma Drawing (detail), 1954, by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), private collection; photograph © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images; © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The day after my son was born, my mother-in-law diagnosed me with an acute case of paternal postpartum euphoria. It was the worst she had ever seen. Hopped up on hormones and relief and stupefaction, I was too excited to sleep. Around day three, my wife sent me upstairs to take a nap and found me hours later dancing naked in the bedroom with my earbuds in, air-conducting the “Ode to Joy.” “You have to sleep,” she said. I didn’t.

At night, I would lie with my eyes closed, consciously breathing. Or I would step down the hallway into Elliot’s room, careful not to wake him when I pushed the door, peering at the bundle in a basket with the tiniest features, face scrunched up like a fist.

In the daytime, I would not stop talking: about the baby, about the need to memorize every detail, about the pregnancy book that advised against oral sex in the third trimester, because exhaling in the vagina could cause an embolism. My mother-in-law was nonplussed: We did not have the kind of relationship in which you talk about sex. I thought it was hysterical.

My mania subsided, but I didn’t regret the episode. It never occurred to me to question why we celebrate new life, why my euphoria was apt—any more than it occurred to me to ask, seriously, whether or not I wanted to have a child. My wife and I had talked about how many, but I never considered that the answer might be none.

Nowadays, when friends bring up the prospect of parenthood, that answer is always on the table. Contemplating the catastrophe of climate change, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked, on behalf of a generation, “Is it still okay to have children?” Her question caught the spirit of the age, spawning countless replies, some incensed, others more empathic. Is it fair to bring a child into a world of mass extinction, looming floods, droughts, shortages of food and water, civil war, resurgent fascism—and now a global pandemic? There’s an old Jewish joke: “In these days, it is better never to be born. Yet who is so lucky? Not one in a thousand!”

* * *

As a moral philosopher by profession, I should not have been surprised by AOC’s question. It has been studied in sophisticated ways by contemporary thinkers, whose work I ought to have known. The first thing they teach is that my retrospective joy, my affirmation of Elliot’s life, is no guide to the wisdom of my past decision. A hackneyed argument in favor of procreating—that you’ll be glad you did—is decisively flawed.11xKieran Setiya, “The Ethics of Existence,” Philosophical Perspectives 28 (2014): 291–301, drawing on Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1984), 360–61, and Elizabeth Harman, “‘I’ll Be Glad I Did It’ Reasoning and the Significance of Future Desires,” Philosophical Perspectives 23 (2009): 177–99.

An example shows why being glad is not enough: Imagine that, while trying to conceive, you are offered a drug that ensures that only sperm with genetic damage are able to fuse with the egg. It is obviously wrong to take the drug. If you do, and if a child is born—prone, perhaps, to recurrent migraines, or suffering from celiac disease—and grows up glad to be alive, as you are glad to be a parent, that doesn’t justify your choice. In a sense, you can’t regret the choice in retrospect, since the existence of the child you love depends on it. If you hadn’t made that choice, a different child would have been born. But your action was immoral. It doesn’t follow from your present affirmation of your child’s existence that you were right to have the child back then.

Once we separate the parent’s retrospective question—How do I feel about my child’s existence?—from the would-be parent’s quandary, we can ask more clearly whether you should, or may, conceive a child. Philosophers have their doubts. This is true even before we get to the peculiarly awful prospects of the world ahead of us. We need only attend to the inevitable trials of life. I am thinking here of an extraordinary essay by the philosopher Seana Shiffrin, which begins with a niche question in jurisprudence and ends by locating a flaw in the human condition.22xSeana Shiffrin, “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm,” Legal Theory 5 (1999): 117–48.

Reflecting on “wrongful life” suits—in which representatives of a child born with predictable, crippling disabilities sue the parents or their doctors—Shiffrin dwells on the fact that life is invariably hard. Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, and in favor of procreation, that the gift of life is a benefit, that it’s good for you that you exist. Still, we can’t ignore the downsides. As Shiffrin puts it, matter-of-factly,

By being caused to exist as persons, children are forced to assume moral agency, to face various demanding and sometimes wrenching moral questions, and to discharge taxing moral duties. They must endure the fairly substantial amount of pain, suffering, difficulty, significant disappointment, distress, and significant loss that occur within the typical life. They must face and undergo the fear and harm of death. Finally, they must bear the results of imposed risks that their lives may go terribly wrong in a variety of ways.33xIbid., 137.

When you bring children into being, you give them the gift of life, but you also impose on them these terrible costs. Even if the good outweighs the bad, that may not be enough to justify your action. In a mordant thought-experiment, Shiffrin compares the prospective parent to a man who drops million-dollar gold bars from a helicopter onto unsuspecting victims, cracking skulls and breaking limbs. On balance, the recipients of this largesse may well be glad they were hit: They’ll recover from the injuries, use the gold to pay their bills, and have a wad of cash left over. But what their beneficiary did was wrong. It is quite different when you harm someone in order to prevent a greater harm—for instance, breaking their leg as you pull them from the wreckage of a burning building. What is not okay is to injure someone in order to deliver what Shiffrin calls “pure benefit”—a nice thing they didn’t need and wouldn’t miss—without their actual consent.

You see where the analogy is going. How are parents different from the crazed philanthropist, conferring benefits their children would not miss—because the children would not otherwise exist—along with, quite literally, the suffering of a lifetime. The unconceived are in no position to accept the bargain, however sensible that might be. Shiffrin’s essay closes with uncertainty. It may not be wrong to have kids, she concedes, but there is a moral objection to be met.

* * *

When Elliot was little, my wife and I were responsible for most of the harm that came to him. Sure, there were bumps and scrapes and falls. But he was far more anguished by the episodes of parental discipline: the things he wanted that we would not give him, the things we made him do under protest. No, you can’t just eat more cookies. Broccoli first! You can play with my phone for two minutes, but I need it back. You have to get another shot; it will be over in a second.

A lot of this counts as causing harm so as to mitigate further harm. Vaccinations hurt, but they prevent you from getting sick. (They also contribute to “herd immunity,” a less self-serving benefit.) You could make a similar case for eating vegetables. But it’s increasingly clear to me that some of the costs we impose on Elliot—who, at fourteen, goes by “Eli”—are not preventative: They are intended to make his life better in ways that we hope he will one day appreciate, even if he cannot do so now. How else to justify the nagging insistence that he practice the piano every day—if not to confer the pure benefit of knowing how to play, something he doesn’t need and likely wouldn’t miss? Why else require that he pick an afterschool activity? Aspiring parents put their kids through all sorts of travails—going to temple, learning to ride a bike—that are not geared to preventing greater harms but to enhancing future lives.

This all could be a grave mistake, a gold brick dropped from a dangerous height. I do think there are moral risks in such paternalism; when and why parents are entitled to impose burdens on their children to make their lives go better overall is a difficult moral question. But I don’t think the answer is only when imposing such burdens prevents a greater harm. At least for now, I feel justified in making Eli practice the piano and go to choir.

That is why, although I don’t have a theory of paternalism, I don’t see Shiffrin’s doubts as insurmountable. Strange as it may seem, procreation is a bit like making your kid learn a musical instrument. It’s true that the harm endured in a typical human life dwarfs the pain of being made to practice for a half-hour every day, as the rewards of a good life dwarf those of knowing how to play the piano. But these facts make the simile frivolous, not inept. Within limits, parents are entitled to impose costs on their children for the sake of pure benefit. If your child’s life is good, on balance, that is the bargain you make when you procreate: Shiffrin’s objection can be met.

As we turn from ordinary hardship to the present crises—climate change, fascism, coronavirus—the basic moral calculus does not change. If things get so bad you can’t expect your child to have a life worth living, that is a reason not to procreate. But as long as things are not so bleak, you can justify yourself to your potential child, as I justify myself to Eli when he balks. You’ll thank me one day—probably.

Still, this speaks to only part of our dilemma. What AOC was getting at wasn’t just—was not primarily—the hardship your kids will face themselves, but the effects of their lives on others. Each biological offspring adds a half again to your ecological footprint, corresponding to your share in their creation. Don’t complain that it’s their footprint, not yours. The environment cares how much we use and how much waste we produce, not whose column it gets counted in. What should you think of someone who, for his own private reasons, opts for a lifestyle that expands by 50 percent or more the ecological harm he does? Selfish, uncaring, reckless at best.

No doubt you have a right to procreate; it would be grotesque for others to prevent you. But that doesn’t mean you should decide to have a child.

* * *

What reason can we give for procreating? Why go to the trouble of having kids?

It is so difficult to be articulate about these questions that philosophers have found themselves reduced to mystification. A recently influential take is that we cannot rationally decide to have a child because parenthood is an “epistemically transformative experience.”44xL.A. Paul, Transformative Experience (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014). Paul makes a further argument about personal transformation, in which one’s fundamental values change. While this poses problems in some cases, I don’t think it’s a special obstacle to deliberating about parenthood, where the most likely change in values—coming to love your child—is both welcome and predictable. You can’t know what it’s like to be a parent until you become one, so there’s no rational path to that decision. You don’t know what you’re choosing. (By the same token, I suppose, you can’t know what it’s like to be old and childless until you are. So there’s no rational path to that conclusion, either.)

When I first heard this argument, I’ll admit that I was shocked. Do people really decide whether to have kids by imagining what parenthood will feel like? I’m not sure how I knew I wanted to have a child, but what it would be like to have one—the subjective quality of parental experience—was not my reason. I guess if I had thought I would hate it, I wouldn’t have done it. But so far as I hoped I would like being a parent, I hoped I would like it because I recognized something good in having a child. Whatever positive feelings may exist in parenthood should reflect the reasons for becoming a parent—not provide them in the first place. The philosophers may be right to say that you can’t know in advance what your experience as a parent will be like, but that shouldn’t be your focus, anyway.

Even those who don’t frame the decision to procreate as a choice of subjective sensations often suggest that the reasons for having kids are basically selfish. We do it because we think, or hope, that it will make our own lives better. But that’s equally untrue to my experience. When I wanted to have a child, I honestly don’t believe I thought it would be better for me.

Was I being altruistic, then? As Benedick avows in Much Ado about Nothing, “The world must be peopled.” It’s good for humankind to persist, for future generations to build on what we have done and to repair the many things we have done wrong. We need them to take care of us as we grow old, and to a degree we rarely appreciate, our investment in our own activities depends on their place in traditions that project into the future.55xFor versions of this argument, see Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982) and Samuel Scheffler, Death and the Afterlife (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013). But I won’t waste your time. For those who live in affluence, as I do, it’s preposterous to think that the most altruistic path is procreation—that I can do the best for the world by creating another affluent life, at exorbitant cost, even as the human population is growing and so many are in dire need. The world must be peopled, but not by me.

There’s a tendency to classify all reasons as either selfish or altruistic, prudential or moral. If you insist on that division, you’ll find it hard to explain why having children is different from pursuing an extravagant hobby. But I think our inarticulacy goes deeper still: as deep as the roots of ethics itself. For there are intellectual pressures that obstruct us from saying what we might otherwise say in defense of ourselves as parents. They’re connected to the pressures that prevent me, usually, from talking about sex with my mother-in-law. They have to do with our justifiably uncomfortable relationship with our animal nature.

* * *

When I asked my wife why she had wanted to have a child, she spoke eloquently about creating human life, about parental love and the unique relationship our son has both with us and with our parents, the generations of our families tracing through the past into an open future. I found her words compelling—but all she was doing, in the end, was describing human procreation. That it is what it is doesn’t explain how it’s different from, or better than, an expensive pastime. I can imagine someone who races muscle cars speaking eloquently about the work of repairing and maintaining them, about the thrill of the track, the great tradition of design—taking care not to mention the gas consumed, the fumes, and the carbon emissions. You have the right to spend your time that way, but why not pick a more responsible hobby? Should we treat parenthood with greater respect?

If there’s a positive answer to that question, it’s that procreation satisfies a deeper human need. But we are rightly uncomfortable with that idea. Introducing a book of essays by writers who decided not to have children, Meghan Daum reports that “in thinking about this subject steadily over the last several years, I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative.”66xMeghan Daum, ed., Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (New York, NY: Picador, 2015), 1–2. More poetically, John Berger writes,

If there were no process of aging, if time and its passing were not built into the very code of life, reproduction would be unnecessary and sexuality would not exist. That sexuality is a species leap over death has always been clear; it is one of the truths which precede philosophy.77xJohn Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1984), 40–41.

The problem is that it is dangerous to concede that a biological imperative makes something a better reason. We don’t want to stigmatize those who have no desire to procreate, and the association of sex with reproduction is a reactionary threat to women’s rights. You can’t justify misogyny or xenophobia by claiming they belong to human nature. So how can you do it with the urge to procreate?

* * *

There are no simple answers here. In the end, the practical, nuts-and-bolts question, whether or not to try for a child, leads inexorably to the most difficult problems of moral philosophy, problems about the basis of ethics, as such.

Let’s agree that if bias, oppression, and selfishness come naturally to us, they are not thereby justified. What’s natural is not always good. Moved by this fixed point, we may look to Plato, for whom ethics is transcendent, its standards written in the pristine language of Forms, untarnished by the ugliness of human nature. Or we may follow Immanuel Kant, for whom ethics is implicit in freedom—it binds rational beings together, from earth to outer space; if you can act for reasons, you are tacitly committed to the moral law. But if we won’t advert to human nature and to the role of procreation in human life, and in human sexuality, we won’t be able to explain why having kids is something more and better than racing muscle cars—why parenthood is not as selfish, uncaring, and reckless as wanton consumption and waste.

If you are like me, you don’t accept these fantasies anyway. There is no transcendent Platonic reality, and ethical standards can’t derive from the mere possibility of free action, as Kant believed. If ethics is more than subjective expression or the play of cultural forces, that is because its sources lie in our specifically human nature. In different ways, this is the position of both Aristotle and David Hume. I think it must be right, on metaphysical and epistemic grounds—it’s the only way to make sense of objective ethical knowledge.88xKieran Setiya, Knowing Right from Wrong (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012). How to do that, in detail, is a philosophical challenge. How to do it without forgiving the darker sides of human nature is more challenging still. But philosophers must try. We must explain how human nature shapes the human good without equating what is natural with what is right. If we can do this, we’ll be able to explain, as well, why the desire for children is neither selfish nor altruistic, not a mere whim or the itch for an expensive hobby, but a source of ethical value—even though there is nothing wrong with those who do not share it.

People sometimes ask why philosophy matters, especially in its more abstruse and esoteric forms. The problems of metaphysics and epistemology are technical, and intricate, and inaccessible. But it turns out that you can’t respond to a question that stokes fierce emotions in many of us—Is it okay to have kids?—without taking an implicit view of these problems. We are not wrong to find the question difficult. We are wrong if we think it’s difficult only because we don’t know how our children’s lives will go, or how they will affect the wider world. It’s difficult because the answer turns on a puzzle that goes back to the birth of Western philosophy. How does our nature as human beings, our peculiar embodiment, shape how we should and should not live?