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Is it Rational to Have a Child? Can Psychology Tell Us?

A new paper suggests that life-transforming decisions can't be made rationally.

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According to a new paper by philosopher L.A. Paul, forthcoming in the journal Res Philosophica, deciding to have a child isn’t a rational decision.

Before parents howl in protest, let me assure you that she doesn’t think deciding not to have a child is a rational decision, either. Here's how I summarize Paul's argument in a companion post at NPR’s 13.7: Cosmos & Culture:

Paul begins with a common procedure for how someone with the luxury of deciding whether to have a child might go about making the decision. First, she (or he) considers what it would be like to have a child, and what it would be like not to have a child. After careful thought, our hypothetical person determines whether she has a preference for one outcome or the other, and she pursues that outcome accordingly.

The problem, suggests Paul, is that one can't know what it's like to have a child of one's own before actually having such a child. And that means that our childless decision-maker isn't in a position to evaluate one of her options to see how it stacks up against the alternative.

It's important to note that Paul isn't assuming that having a child is so wonderful and fulfilling that someone without children simply couldn't comprehend a parent's child-induced bliss. In fact, having a child could make someone miserable. Paul's point is precisely that you cannot know what the experience of having your own child will be like until you experience it, whether the experience is positive, negative or somewhere in between.

On Paul's characterization, having a child is an "epistemically-transformative" experience: it puts you in a position of access to knowledge that you didn't have before. And it's this feature of the decision-making process that could threaten rationality, since you can't know which decision will maximize your "expected utility," as required by most standard models of rational decision making.

What I want to consider here is whether psychology offers a way out of the conundrum.

Here’s the idea: Instead of speculating about what it would be like to have a child, one could ask parents about their experiences and life satisfaction. They’ve undergone the epistemic transformation, so they know what it’s like to have a child of one’s own. If parents (on average) have achieved higher “utility,” one might (rationally?) be more inclined to consider parenthood.

(In fact, psychologists have already begun the relevant research. With only one exception that I know of, study after study finds that parents are no happier than their childfree peers when it comes either to moment-to-moment happiness or overall life satisfaction. If anything, the childfree come out on top.)

Does this type of empirical research provide a loophole in Paul’s argument, a way to bridge our epistemic gaps?

Paul doesn’t think so. She suggests that the childfree are poor guides to whether they would have been better or worse off with children, and that parents are unreliable guides to what their lives would be like without their kids. I think this is right, but it’s a reason to have people report on their actual happiness and wellbeing, not on what they think their happiness and wellbeing would be like relative to some imagined alternative.

So I’m not persuaded by Paul’s arguments against an empirical approach to decisions about epistemically-transformative experiences. (Though there’s no question that gathering and interpreting the relevant data would be a major challenge. For one thing, people aren’t randomly assigned to having a child or remaining childless, so any data will be correlational.)

In mulling over this I decided to e-mail Paul herself, who was kind enough to share a few thoughts. She agreed that if we had much better empirical data, and if that data suggested that “in some sense the vast majority of parents were somehow better off, it might be possible to make a choice based solely on the empirical results.”

But she also emphasized that this approach to decision making is radically different from the one that we (rich members of a developed Western nation) tend to adopt. To make the point in her paper, Paul considers a hypothetical woman who has never wanted to have children. Should she do so nonetheless, based on evidence that people, on average, are happier as parents? Paul suggests that this kind of decision making is possible, but strikes us as bizarre and somehow wrong.

I had one other idea to run by Paul, very much in the spirit of her own argument: that having a child might not only be epistemically-transformative in the sense that you’re granted access to what it’s like to have a child of your own; it might also be “value-transformative” in the sense that it changes your views about how you should evaluate “utility” in the first place.

Here’s a hypothetical example to make this point concrete. Psychologists have considered multiple aspects of subjective experience, including something like moment-to-moment happiness and something more like reflective life satisfaction. Suppose that the data suggested the following (which so far, they don't):

  1. That the childfree are happier, but that parents have greater life satisfaction.
  2. That among the childfree, happiness is judged more important than life satisfaction when it comes to evaluating their own utility.
  3. That among parents, life satisfaction is judged more important than happiness when it comes to evaluating their own utility.

So by the childfree’s metric, the childfree would come out on top. But by parents’ metric, parents would come out on top.

Perhaps this would be an ideal outcome; everyone could judge her own choice superior and pat herself on the back. We could all sing happy songs together and smile smugly when we were (weren’t) with parents. But this does present a serious threat to rational decision making. The only way around it (that I can see) is to define utility objectively – that is, in a way that doesn’t depend on how individuals might vary in the aspects of their experience that they most value and prefer to maximize. And I’m sure that comes with its own set of problems.

In our exchange, Paul was sympathetic to the idea that having a child could be “value-transformative” in the sense I suggest, and highlighted that “It brings out how there is a deep problem with the culturally sanctioned idea of self-realization where we are supposed to think of ourselves as constant, persisting selves who, through a series of rational, reflective choices involving personal milestones, knowingly choose a particular path. The idea describes a pretty picture, but if these decisions transform our points of view as radically as I suspect they do, it's an illusory one.”

In the end, of course, there are no easy answers (about whether to have children, about rationality, or about decision theory). But bridging rigorous philosophy with rich empirical data seems like a promising way forward.


You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo