Should We Have Children?
This fundamental question raises profound ethical issues.
Posted Jul 23, 2017
[Article revised on 30 March 2020.]
Whether to have children or not is, perhaps, the most important question of all.
Despite not having any himself, Pope Francis has said that people ought to have children:
A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society … The choice not to have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: it is enriched, not impoverished.
In that much, Pope Francis is merely echoing scripture. Psalm 127 tells us that ‘children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is His reward’. And in the Book of Genesis, the very first thing that God says to Adam is, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth…’
In most times and places, the only really significant thing that a woman could do was to bring forth children. Women were married off at a young age and, for the most part, did not have much choice or control over their reproductive lives.
Things changed dramatically over the course of the 20th century with the advent of women’s rights and reliable contraception. Owing to the state pension and social support, people no longer had to rely on having children to underwrite their old age. And childlessness today is much less stigmatized than it used to be, and, in fact, increasingly praised. Of the women who reached age 45 in 2016, around in five had remained childless.
The more educated a woman is, the less likely she is to have children. For many women, children conflict with work; whereas for men, children may well mean working more than they would otherwise have needed to. Educated women may also struggle to find a suitable partner, or consider having a partner as more of a hindrance than a help. Interestingly, in the long run, people—both men and women—with children and people without report being similarly satisfied with their lives.
Another factor in the rise of childless, or childfree, women is the decline of marriage. Many people equate marriage with children, and being unmarried is one of the strongest predictors of childlessness. In 1980 in England and Wales, the fertility rate among married women was almost five times as high as that among unmarried women: in 2016, it was still almost twice as high. In 1980, only 12 per cent of babies were born outside of marriage, compared to 48 per cent in 2016—although two-thirds of that 48 per cent were born to cohabiting parents.
Children tend to fare better if they are raised by two parents, and fare best if the parents are married. Marriage generally offers more stability and resources. Children raised within a marriage are much less likely to suffer physical or sexual abuse. They tend to be in better health, to do better at school, and to have fewer emotional and behavioural problems. But this may have as much to do with the kind of people who get married as it does with marriage itself. People who will make good parents, or who have more resources, are more likely to tie the knot.
Before running through some of the main arguments for and against having children, it is worth remembering that we are ultimately animals, and that the purpose of all animal life, and all life, is survival and reproduction.
For many people, the drive to reproduce is an irreducible given that is impervious to argument and deliberation. The philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe (d. 1990) argued, essentially, that the human capacities for reason and self-awareness break with nature, giving us more than we, as a part of nature, can carry. So as not to go mad, ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.’
The novelist George Eliot made a similar point in her novel Middlemarch (1871):
That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
There remains a lot of social pressure on both women and men, but especially women, to have children. This social pressure may be experienced first and foremost as parental expectation, even if it remains largely silent and unspoken. But even without any social pressure, a lot of people would still choose to have children. If anything, it is a romantic idea. A friend once told me that he loved his partner so much that he wanted to mingle his genetic material with hers and live alongside what that would look like.
Beyond the romance, children can fill our lives with meaning, purpose, and activity. They can remove us from our adult preoccupations into the simpler, more immediate, and more innocent dimension of our own childhood, which we can relive through them. The creation of another human being is almost God-like, and their need for us, at least in the early years, can give us a God-like sense of power and significance. We imagine, or hope, that they will grow up to be dutiful, that they will become our pride and solace, and that they will imitate and flatter us by having children of their own.
When we die, they will say some fine words at our funeral and visit our grave. They will carry forth our name, our history, even our traits and habits, our manners and ways. They will inherit our accumulated estate, protecting it from dispersion and dilapidation. They will prolong our work and advocate for our memory.
But having a child is not just about us. It is also, we tell ourselves, an act of generosity, a gift to the world.
But is that really so? More and more people are taking a contrary view. The world population stands at around 8 billion and is still rising at an annual rate of over 1%. For every person alive in Britain or America, how many animals suffer or die? How much carbon dioxide is emitted? And how much waste produced? Putting aside animal exploitation and extinction and other forms of environmental degradation, many experts are alarmed about global heating and its impact on future generations. We may go to great lengths to reduce our carbon footprint, but no amount of restraint and recycling could ever make up for the carbon footprint of bringing yet another person into the world.
Especially if we are middle class, we might hope that, rather than adding to the problem, our child will grow up to become a part of the solution. Perhaps we could offset his or her carbon footprint through environmental action, for example, by sponsoring the planting of trees. At the very least, advances in public policy and improvements in technology are likely to mitigate the impact of a rising population.
But even if having a child does contribute to the greater good, we could make an even bigger contribution by adopting an already existing child, or by remaining childless so as to concentrate all our resources on making a difference.
In the Symposium, Plato says that animals enter into a state of love because they seek to reproduce and thereby attain to a species of immortality. Human beings also seek to become immortal, and are prepared to take great risks, even to die, to attain fame and honour. Some people are pregnant in body and beget children to preserve their memory; but others are pregnant in soul and choose instead to beget wisdom and virtue. As their children are more beautiful and more immortal, people who are pregnant in soul have more to share with one another and a stronger bond of friendship between them. Everyone, says Plato, would rather have their children than human ones:
Who when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod and other great poets, would not rather have their children than ordinary ones? Who would not emulate them in the creation of children such as theirs, which have preserved their memory and given them everlasting glory?
Plato thereby distinguishes between the lesser immortality of leaving behind children and grandchildren, which is relatively easy to achieve but only preserves our memory for at most three or four generations; and the greater immortality of leaving behind a significant artistic, intellectual, or social legacy, which is more enduring but also harder to achieve. The childless Plato wrote the Symposium some 2,400 years ago, and here we are today still quoting from it.
Greater immortality may not be in our grasp, but there are, of course, other reasons for remaining childless. Some people do not feel that they will make good enough parents, if only because they have no affinity for children. Others, quite simply, have not found a suitable partner, or one that they are willing to put up with for years to come. Contrary to popular belief, relationships tend to suffer from the arrival of a child, and those who have found a partner may wish to protect their relationship by remaining childfree. In addition, many people fear that childbearing may be too traumatic or inconveniencing, or that it might damage their health or physique. They might already be in poor health, or carrying a genetic disorder that they worry about transmitting.
And then there are the costs involved. According to the UK’s Center for Economic and Business Research, in 2016, the cost of raising a child from birth to 21-years-old jumped to over £230,000 (c. $286,000), including more than £70,000 for childcare and babysitting alone. This figure is for a child attending state school; for a child at boarding school, it rises to just short of £500,000. To put this into perspective, in January 2020, the average value of a property in the UK stood at £231,185 on the House Price Index.
As well as financial costs, there are also opportunity costs. We swap friends, free time, restorative lie-ins, sleek interior décor, romantic evenings, and spontaneous travel for dirty diapers, temper tantrums, broken sleep, broken things, babysitting, and school runs—and all, perhaps, to end up with a miserable or obnoxious teen on our hands. What if, deep inside, we don’t even love them?
Having a child may well be good for us. It might even be good for the world. But is it actually good for the child itself?
For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, people, by virtue of being people, ought never to be treated as means to an end, but only ever as ends-in-themselves. If we are going to bring a child into the world, our first thought should be, not for our own good or the greater good, but for the good of the child itself.
As we cannot ask a child that does not yet exist for its opinion or consent, we are left to make that decision on its behalf—and to live with that reckoning for the rest of our lives.
If we can see that the child would lead a miserable life, we may feel a moral obligation not to bring it into the world. On the other hand, if we could be sure that it would lead a fulfilled life—which, of course, we can’t—we would not feel a moral obligation to bring it into the world. In other words, we tend to place more value on the prevention of suffering than on the maximization of happiness.
Most people report being satisfied with their lives. Even so, do our lives contain more suffering than happiness? Does life in general contain more suffering than happiness? On some level, this boils down to asking whether life is preferable to death, or, at least, to non-existence.
In one of his Theban plays, Œdipus at Colonus, the tragedian Sophocles (d. 406/405 BCE) has the chorus sing:
Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came.
One of the most famous of the lost writings of Plato's some-time student Aristotle is Eudemus, or On the Soul, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue. A fragment preserved in Plutarch contains the essence of what later philosophers came to call the Wisdom of Silenus (Silenus being the tutor of the wine god Dionysus):
You, most blessed and happiest among humans, may well consider those blessed and happiest who have departed this life before you… This thought is indeed so old that the one who first uttered it is no longer known; it has been passed down to us from eternity, and hence doubtless it is true. Moreover, you know what is so often said and passes for a trite expression. What is that, he asked? He answered: It is best not to be born at all; and next to that, it is better to die than to live, and this is confirmed even by divine testimony … Midas, after hunting, asked his captive Silenus somewhat urgently, what was the most desirable thing among humankind … At length, when Midas would not stop plaguing him, he erupted with these words, though very unwillingly: “you, seed of an evil genius and precarious offspring of hard fortune, whose life is but for a day, why do you compel me to tell you those things of which it is better you should remain ignorant? For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune; but for humans, the best for them is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best, for both sexes. This should be our choice, if choice we have; and next to this is, when we are born, to die as soon as we can.” It is plain therefore, that he declared the condition of the dead to be better than that of the living.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer shared in this ancient ‘wisdom’. For Schopenhauer, beneath the world as it appears is the world as it actually is. This is the world of will, an unconscious force that drives through all of nature, including even our supposedly autonomous higher faculties. Although able to perceive, reason, and judge, our intellect is not designed to pierce through the veil of illusion and apprehend the true nature of reality.
Instead, it and we are swept away by blind and restless will into a life of endless strife and frustration:
Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself an individual, in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, erring; and as if through a troubled dream it hurries back to its old unconsciousness. Yet till then its desires are limitless, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives rise to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its longings, set a goal to its infinite cravings, and fill the bottomless abyss of its heart. Then let one consider what as a rule are the satisfactions of any kind that a man obtains. For the most part nothing more than the bare maintenance of this existence itself, extorted day by day with unceasing trouble and constant care in the conflict with want, and with death in prospect…
The will is the cause of constant suffering, creating deficiencies for us to satisfy. On this account, satisfaction or happiness is not a positive state but merely the removal of striving and suffering. Once a deficiency is satisfied, another inevitably arises, and, with it, more striving and suffering. Even if satisfaction can be sustained for a short while, boredom is bound to set in. All considered, says Schopenhauer, it would have been better if we and the world had never existed.
The only possible liberation is to arrive at the realization, which is the height of Eastern spirituality, that our individuality and the world of appearances are but illusions, renounce these illusions, and wait peacefully for the eventual but ineluctable release of death.
For my part, I think that Schopenhauer is being too pessimistic, and too binary. It is possible to relish striving, or, at least, some forms of striving—like striving to make a difference, or striving to become a better person. It is also possible to rise above suffering, to grow from it, to sublime it into something bigger than ourselves.
Even if life is more suffering than satisfaction—and our subjective report suggests that, for most of us, it isn’t—it can still be worthwhile, and maybe more so than a hypothetical lifetime of sheer satisfaction.
Life is not merely the balance of our suffering and satisfaction, but a journey of turning suffering into satisfaction, which might be called poetry, and which is the greatest happiness of all.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.
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Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1225. Trans. Richard Jebb.
Aristotle, Eudemus. Fragment quoted in Plutarch, Moralia, Consolatio ad Apollonium. Trans. S. H.
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