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Home arrow Psychology arrow The philosophical parent : asking the hard questions about having and raising children

Life Is Good

Are babies lucky to be born or just the opposite?

Once, for almost all, reproducing was an inevitable part of the life cycle, like getting old. You didn’t ponder the rightness or wrongness of having a family any more than you morally evaluated turning thirty. Of course everyone was straight, not gay, and marriage had to come before having children. But now things are quite different. We have access to contraceptives, and a sizable minority prefers a child- free way of life. People can have marriage without kids and kids without marriage. No, not everyone is straight. And yes, gay couples can have children too. We aren’t all on the same life trajectory.

Even when reproduction did start seeming like a matter of choice, it tended to seem like a private, intimate thing, like choosing your friends, and so not something for others to judge right or wrong. Moral scrutiny, if any, wasn’t aimed at the act of adding another person to the world, but at the character of prospective parents. If you had too many kids, without the resources to take care of them, perhaps that demonstrated a character flaw like carelessness; if you had no kids at all, you might be suspected of selfishness. But adding or not adding another person to the world wasn’t itself up for approval or disapproval.

Now it’s different. The world population has doubled in the last fifty years, making it increasingly reasonable to ask whether it’s right to make new people. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the population isn’t growing uniformly in all parts of the world. In fact, some countries’ populations are shrinking. You can wonder if a person is having too many children, but you can also wonder if a person is having too few. If you are in the middle of deciding whether to have a child, there’s a self-interested aspect to your decision-making: will it be good for me if I procreate? But there’s also a second component: is it bad (or good) to add a child to the world?

The second issue is partly about having a child given how many people already exist in the world, or in your region. But once childbearing itself has started to be a matter for moral reflection, we’re going to want to back up to something even more basic. There are ethical questions about the sheer act of making a new life, however many people already exist. These very basic questions have to come first, because they can color the way we think about the population- specific issues.

So set aside, for the moment, the staggering population statistics (or in some locales, the meager ones). As far as this chapter is concerned, we could be living in a world with one billion people instead of seven billion. The issue for the moment is the ethics of creating one child, abstracting from any issues of overcrowding or underpopulation. And we’ll focus on the child. Your parent-child relationship is a fine thing—fine in the way discussed in chapter 1— but what about bringing a whole new person into the world? Is that a fine thing?

As simple and obvious as that question is, it’s a hard one to answer. That’s because it’s very difficult to think about someone not merely going from one condition to another (hungry to fed, short to tall, ignorant to knowledgeable, healthy to sick), but rather coming

into existence. Coming into existence is like nothing else, and resists our usual ways of thinking about change.

 
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