The having and begetting of children is central to human life. For many, it is a natural and unqualified good. The belief that your life is somehow incomplete or inferior if you do not have children persists in many cultures. Most people never question whether it is ethical to have children. But when you think about it this is pretty odd. A child is a sentient being who is highly dependent on the care of other human beings (typically its biological parents). So if you do have children, you are voluntarily taking on a significant moral responsibility and entrusting into your care a being capable of suffering great moral harms. This is not something to be taken lightly.
Consequently, it seems legitimate to ask the question: is it (morally) right to have children? In other words, is the having and begetting of children morally permissible, impermissible, obligatory or supererogatory? These are questions addressed at considerable length in Christine Overall’s book Why Have Children: The Ethical Debate. One of the unique features of the book is how it takes seriously the special responsibilities and risks that procreation imposes on women. And one of the remarkable conclusions of the book is that most arguments that are and have been made defending the permissibility of having children are bad or unpersuasive. I want to see why this is the case.
I start today by looking at deontological arguments in favour of having children. As you know, deontological arguments are always premised on the notion that certain actions are intrinsically good/bad and hence it is permissible/impermissible to perform them, irrespective of their consequences. Or that we have a moral duty/obligation to perform certain acts. In the case of deontological arguments for having children, this means that the claim shared by all of the following arguments is that having children is intrinsically good or required by some obligation/duty. How can this be defended?
We’ll look at six possibilities, all discussed in Overall’s book. The first two claim that having and bearing children is intrinsically good; the other four focus on alleged duties to have children. All are problematic.
1. The Argument from the Intrinsic Heroism of Bearing Children
The simplest deontological argument for having children works from the claim that bearing children is itself an act exemplifying intrinsic goods. This is a tricky concept to get your head around — I have heard it said that claims about the intrinsic worthiness of particular actions are the last refuge of those with strong moral commitment but no actual argument. But it has been defended by at least some people.
Overall cites the example of Rosalind Hursthouse, who has argued that in bearing children women do something that is intrinsically morally heroic. She draws explicitly on an analogy between going into battle and bearing a child. Men have historically been praised for their courage and heroism in participating in warfare. Oftentimes the praise has little direct connection to the moral merits of the warfare itself. Thus, for example, although many agree that WWI was a hugely wasteful conflict, many still praise the heroism of those who participated, believing that their actions cultivated a number of key moral virtues.
Rosalind wonders why similar praise is not heaped on women for the act of bearing children. She thinks that in performing this act, women also do something that cultivates moral virtues like courage, fortitude and endurance. In fact, she goes further and suggests that women have the great advantage of being born with the biological capacity to bear children and that failure to exercise that capacity may (tentatively) imply that one hasn’t done anything worthwhile with one’s life.
The suggested argument here is the following (this is my reconstruction, not Overall’s):
- (1) It morally permissible (perhaps praiseworthy) to engage in actions that cultivate moral virtues like courage, fortitude and endurance.
- (2) In exercising their innate capacity to bear children, women engage in an action that cultivates moral virtues like courage, fortitude and endurance.
- (3) Therefore, it is morally permissible (perhaps praiseworthy) to have children.
Overall thinks that Hursthouse’s argument is refreshing, insofar as it takes seriously the differential risks and responsibilities of procreation, but she finds it pretty unpersuasive nonetheless. Even if we grant that premise (2) is true (and it may not always be true) we are forced to consider the flaws in premise (1). It is simply not true that it is permissible or praiseworthy to perform acts that cultivate moral virtues. This seems to be true in the case of the soldier, if we consider it in more depth. There may be some sense in which a Nazi officer exhibited the virtues of fortitude and endurance when performing his duties at a concentration camp, but the value of those virtues would never be sufficient to outweigh the harm that his actions caused. He ought not to have done what he did; he cannot be praised by simply ignoring the consequences of his actions.
The same reasoning applies to prospective mothers. However noble the act of bearing children might be, we cannot lose sight of the fact that it results in the creation of a sentient life. If the quality of life of that being is deficient, or if it involves great suffering, it automatically cancels out the goods associated with the act of bearing the child. Furthermore, we must remember that children cannot consent to their own creation, nor can we claim that we bear them for their own benefit: they do not exist prior to procreation and gestation, and so cannot be the recipients of moral gifts.
In the end, Overall suspects that Hursthouses’s commitment to the moral worthiness of child bearing relies implicitly on claims about the value of things other than the act of bearing them. The argument is thus unpersuasive as it collapses into other reasons for having children.
2. The Argument from the Continuation of Lineage
So what might these other reasons be? One popular claim is that having children is intrinsically good because it helps to continue one’s family lineage. In this context, “family lineage” can be understood in a number of distinct ways. Three common understandings are of lineage as the continuation of a family name, the possession of family property, or the perpetuation of a certain shared genetic makeup.
The argument seems to work like this:
- (4) It is intrinsically valuable to continue one’s family lineage (i.e. name, property possession and genetic makeup).
- (5) Bearing and raising children ensures that one continues one’s family lineage.
- (6) Therefore, bearing and raising children is intrinsically valuable.
We cannot doubt the popularity of this rationale for having children down through the ages, particularly in terms of continuing the family name and the possession of property. Anyone who follows period dramas set in aristocratic courts or the fantasy series Game of Thrones will have some sense of this. Also, I know from my own family history that the continued possession of farmland has been a powerful rationale for marriage and procreation. That said, in most of those cases it is not the continuation of the family lineage itself that seems to be valuable but rather the fact that continuation of the lineage is linked to other social goods (e.g. power and prestige). So it’s not clear that the continuation of lineage is valuable enough to offset the moral risks and responsibilities associated with procreation.
The other problem is that the social goods that are linked to the continuation of the family name or the possession of property are, to some extent, socially arbitrary. Historically, women could not continue their family name through procreation, only men could do that (though there is some cross-cultural variation here, e.g. continuation of Jewish identity is matrilineal not patrilineal). Even if we have some system that is less sexist, it still wouldn’t be clear why the continuation of a name is intrinsically valuable. Likewise, property inheritance regimes often denied ownership to some children and hence made their lives more difficult than they might otherwise have been. And, in any event, the question of inheritance arises after birth; it cannot be a reason for procreation in the first place. The arbitrariness of the link between procreation and these other social goods creates problems for both premise (4) and (5) of the argument. It creates problems for premise (4) insofar as it suggests that the continuation of one’s family lineage is not necessary for other goods or sufficient to offset risks and responsibilities arising from procreation. And it suggests problems for premise (5) insofar as it suggests that bearing and raising children may not guarantee these other social goods.
But this is to focus on continuation of lineage in terms of name and property possession. What about the continuation of a certain genetic lineage? This has also been cited as a rationale for procreation. It was perhaps most popular during the heyday of the eugenics movement. The motivating principle behind that movement was that those with a superior genetic makeup had a duty to perpetuate that makeup (and oftentimes also to stamp out ‘inferior’ genetic makeups). The association with eugenics may, in itself, be enough to damn this version of the argument. Most people will be familiar with the sordid history of that movement, though it should be noted that many of the more sordid aspects were associated with negative eugenics (i.e. the stamping out of ‘inferior’ genetic makeups) not with positive eugenics (i.e. the continuation of the ‘superior’ lines). Is there anything at all to be said in favour of the latter?
Probably not. As Overall notes, to believe that there are ‘superior’ genetic lines is itself problematic. It is often a mask for ableist, classist and racist assumptions. Added to this, to believe that one’s own genetic makeup is intrinsically worthy of continuation seems pretty conceited, and runs contrary to what we know about biological evolution. It is now pretty clear that the continual mixing of genetic lines is essential to ensuring the health and well-being of future generations. After all, if continuing a particular genetic line was the optimal choice, we should be favouring incestuous unions. The problem is that the mixing of genetic lines is going to undermine the preservation of any one line in particular. A final problem with this argument is that the desire to perpetuate a genetic lineage is often premised on the desire to preserve your own phenotypic traits, but there is, of course, no guarantee that your biological child will share those traits. And assuming that they will (or that they must) may create an unhealthy and unrealistic set of expectations.
For all these reasons, the continuation of family lineage argument seems problematic.
3. The General Argument from Duty to Others
All the remaining arguments focus on the duty to have children. We can start with a very general version of this argument and introduce specific variations as we go along:
- (7) You ought to fulfil your moral duties to others.
- (8) Having and raising children fulfils your moral duties to others.
- (9) Therefore, you ought to have and raise children.
The first premise of this argument is straightforward, perhaps even tautologous. The second premise is the key. Who could one possibly owe a duty to that would require the having and raising of children? Obviously not the child, since they do not yet exist. So who else could it be?
Overall notes that there are many ‘pronatalist’ pressures in society. That is to say: pressures to have and raise children. These pressures emanate from many sources and can certainly create the feeling that one owes it to others to have children. A common source of these pronatalist pressures is one’s family, e.g. parents or grandparents. As she puts it:
Some people long to become grandparents. Such people may put pressure on their adult children to “start a family”. Pronatalist pressures are still ubiquitous, and the resulting tendency to define womanliness in terms of procreation and manliness in terms of begetting has not disappeared…Having children thereby becomes a means to conformity, a way of giving the community the gendered behavior it expects. Married persons who are childless…are then…bombarded by suggestions that they should “get busy and have a baby”.
Within this quote there is already an objection to the general argument from duty to others. Put simply, there is no real moral duty to have children emanating from these social pressures. Instead, there is a pressure to conform to social norms, which may themselves have negative aspects (e.g. the perpetuation of gendered social dynamics). In addition to this, as Overall points out, having children out of a sense of duty to others will rarely be adequate to “sustain the great amount of commitment, work and devotion that go into child rearing”. Not focusing one’s attention on the real, sentient human being that will be created through the act of procreation is never a good start.
On the specific claim that there might be a duty to one’s parents, Overall is equally dismissive. Partly for the reasons just cited but also because if the belief is that one needs to honour and respects one’s parents, then there are perfectly good ways to do that without entailing the same level of moral risk and responsibility. One could, for example, provide them with care when they need it; help them achieve and perpetuate other values; encourage their life endeavours and so on.
In sum, arguments from a duty to others face an uphill battle. But let’s focus on a few more specific variants.
4. The Argument from Promise to One’s Partner
The first more specific variation rests on the claim that one might have a duty to have children that emanates from a promise to one’s partner. This argument cannot apply to everyone; only to those who have made a relevant promise to their partner. It works something like this:
- (10) You have a moral duty to fulfil your promises.
- (11) You may have promised your partner that you would have a child with them.
- (12) You may have moral duty to have a child with your partner.
This argument can be dispatched with relative ease. It only gets off the ground because people believe that promising X incurs and duty to X. This belief is problematic. We could grant that a promise to X gives rise to a prima facie duty to X; but we cannot grant that it gives rise to an all things considered duty to X. The promise to X must always be weighed against countervailing moral considerations. In this case, one’s lack of enthusiasm for the endeavour (if present), coupled with the moral risks and responsibilities that having a child entails, would always seem sufficient to outweigh the prima facie duty incurred by promising.
In fact, I would go further than this. Some people have this notion that promising gives rise to content-independent moral reasons for action. That is to say, that in promising X you have a reason to X, irrespective of the actual content of X. I think this is implausible. I think a promise to X only gives rise to a reason (possibly a duty) to X if X is itself morally permissible. If I promise my father that I will cut the grass, I may have a moral reason (possibly even a duty) to cut the grass. This is because grass cutting is a morally permissible act. But if I promise my father that I will kill another man, I cannot possibly have a moral reason (or duty) to kill another man. This is because killing another man is not morally permissible. In other words, promising is not a type of moral alchemy: it cannot convert a morally impermissible act into a duty.
To bring this back to the debate about children, the problem is that the morally permissibility of having children is itself under dispute. To argue that promising incurs a duty is, consequently, to presume what needs to be established.
5. The Argument from Religious Duty
Another class of specific duty arguments arises from certain religious beliefs and commitments. Many are familiar with the biblical injunctions to “be fruitful and multiply”, often taken to extremes by individual religious movements, e.g. the Quiverfull movement. Arguments in this vein are usually premised on a commitment to the Divine Command Theory of metaethics, which holds that the content of moral duties is determined by God’s command. The argument works like this:
- (13) God specifies the content of your moral duties through commands.
- (14) God has commanded you to have children.
- (15) Therefore, you have a moral duty to have children.
I find this argument pretty difficult to evaluate in a short space of time. I have already written so much about the general problems with Divine Command Theory and the specific problems attached to the interpretation of alleged commands. I can’t really do justice to the full sweep of problems in this post. I direct interested readers elsewhere. I also find this to be one of the more frustrating passages of Overall’s chapter on deontological argument insofar as I feel she doesn’t do complete justice to the issues raised by this type of argument.
Nevertheless, I will follow suit and say three things about this argument. First, I would point out that this argument will hold no appeal for the non-believer. The believer might argue that the duty applies irrespective of belief in God, but as I have discussed elsewhere, this is a dubious claim. Second, I would point out that, even if you are a theist, there are serious philosophical problems associated with the belief that God specifies the content of your duties via His commands. These problems arise because of classical and modern variants of the Euthyphro dilemma, as well as the existence of alternative, more plausible, metaethical theories. Finally, even if one were committed to the DCT, it is often difficult to interpret specific biblical passages as divine commands. The authorship of the biblical text may cause one to doubt that it contains genuine commands, and oftentimes what counts as general command is disputed. Many sophisticated bible-believers hold that certain commands (e.g. the command to commit genocide on the Amalekites) must be understood in the proper context and do not apply to modern audiences. Maybe the same is true of the alleged biblical commands to procreate?
6. The Argument from Duty to the State
A final variation on the argument from duty to others focuses on one’s duties to the state (i.e. the social, political and/or legal authority under which one lives). Here, we seem to be drawn back into the torrid world of the eugenics movement which, particularly in its fascist guise, focused on the duty to procreate for the benefit of the state. This may, once again, be enough to impugn this argument, but let’s see if something more favourable can be said.
In doing so, we must distinguish between different state or society-centric arguments for having and rearing children. There are consequentialist arguments, which are concerned with the future benefits of one’s offspring to the society; and there are deontological arguments which are concerned with a specific duty one owes to the state or society. The latter could be forward-looking, in the sense that the duty might be thought to flow from the positive consequences of having children (a kind of rule utilitarianism). Or they could be backward-looking, in the sense that the duty might be thought to flow from the fact that one has been benefitted by the society already and one must now repay this debt.
Because she deals with consequentialist arguments elsewhere, Overall focuses her attention on the backward-looking variant of the argument in her chapter on deontological arguments. But it is difficult to formulate an actual argument here. Instead we seem to be left with a general principle to evaluate:
- (16) If your society has benefitted you in the past (e.g. by providing you with an education, access to healthcare, a participative public space, employment and fulfillment etc), then you have a duty to repay that debt by contributing to the creation of new citizens.
There are lots of problems with this principle. For one thing, its conditional nature implies that there will be some people who don’t owe this duty. People who have not been benefitted by society, who have been victims of poverty, crime or war, will have nothing they need to repay. For another thing, it is very difficult to see why the mere fact that one benefitted should give rise to a specific procreative duty. A society might be good, but that doesn’t mean that there is a moral obligation to perpetuate it.
More importantly for Overall, there is the fact that if this duty were taken seriously, it would seem to convert women into “procreative serfs”. Women would be viewed by the state and other members of society as mere instruments for securing some social good. I think Overall might be slightly exaggerating the impact of accepting such a duty, but there are certainly dangers here that we should avoid. In any event, having a child out of a sense of duty to the state, when one really doesn’t want to, would raise the inadequate parent problem once more.
To sum up, in this post I have looked at a variety of deontological arguments for having children. These arguments have been premised on the belief that having and rearing children is intrinsically valuable, or on the belief that there is a moral duty to have children. As we have seen, most of the traditional arguments in this vein are unpersuasive.