Defensive About Not Having Children? Philosopher Says We Have It All Wrong

The unselfish choice: Maybe it is to NOT have children.

Posted Jun 20, 2012

Whenever I talk about singlism—the stereotyping and stigmatizing of people who are single—someone invariably points out that people who do not have children are stigmatized, too. They are right. In fact, in the book Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It, there is a separate section on “Singlism’s cousin: Stereotyping and stigmatizing of adults with no children.”

About those who would put people without children on the defensive: Is it possible that they have it exactly wrong? That’s the argument expounded by philosopher Christine Overall on the opinion page of the New York Times. Her essay, titled, “Think before you breed,” was published on Sunday. That’s right, Father’s Day.

It is commonplace, Overall observes, for adults with no children to be asked to justify their decision. It is noteworthy, she adds, that

“…no one says to the proud parents of a newborn, Why did you choose to have that child? What are your reasons?”

The decision to have children is a profoundly ethical one, the philosopher argues, and as such, it deserves “at least as much thought as people devote to leasing a car or buying a house.”

What makes the decision to have children an ethical one?

“…it is about whether to bring a person (in some cases more than one person) into existence—and that person cannot, by the very nature of the situation, give consent to being brought into existence. Such a question also profoundly affects the well-being of existing people (the potential parents, siblings if any, and grandparents). And it has effects beyond the family on the broader society…”

Couples who choose not to have children—like people who are single—are relentlessly chided for being selfish. Professor Overall, author of Why have children? The ethical debate, argues the contrarian position:

“The genuinely unselfish life plan may at least sometimes be the choice not to have children, especially in the case of individuals who would otherwise procreate merely to adhere to tradition, to please others, to conform to gender conventions, or to benefit themselves out of the inappropriate expectation that children will fix their problems. Children are neither human pets nor little therapists.”