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


It’s important to straighten out whether it’s good to have a child and also why it’s good. If it were good to have a child for one of the reasons I’ve discarded, that would give us quite a strong imperative to reproduce. Forlorn unborn ghosts would have to be taken care of— we would have duties toward them. If they counted at all, I would have to feel guilty for not letting more of them out of nonexistence while going to college and graduate school; and for not having more kids after my first two. It would be good to create lots of kids even if you couldn’t take good care of them or didn’t want to parent them yourself.

If procreation did liberate forlorn ghosts, that would mean it’s almost always a good idea to procreate, even if we know that the person born would have serious problems; after all, being stuck in the closet of nonexistence—if you take it seriously that this is bad— would presumably be very bad. Whatever the outcome of a pregnancy, we would be able to say "Ah, but life is a gift!" when the child is born. We would be able to say we had done the child a favor, just about however his life turned out.

But no, nobody is personally aided by being born, and nobody is personally harmed by not being born. It’s good to create new people not because it’s beneficial to a cosmic orphan, a potential person, but simply because a human life is a (mostly) good thing. So in most cases we add some good to the world by procreating. That makes the pressure to have children very weak. No unborn or future individual needs me to procreate. And when it comes to doing good, there are lots of other options—lots of ways to add some goodness to the world. Not only are there other ways to be beneficent, but we’re not on call, full time, to be as beneficent as possible. We don’t have to run around planting all the flowers we can, writing all the poetry we can. There is no reason to think we must be relentless world- improvers. The "Life is good” commendation of child-making is not to be confused with a pro-natalist rallying call. There’s nothing about it to suggest we must all get busy making more and more babies.

If babies are a plus, the decision to reproduce should still involve many other considerations. We don’t merely make babies, like artists make paintings or factories make cars; in making a baby we usually become the custodial parent of a baby. So it’s crucially relevant to ask, "Can I function as a parent, regarding this child as a second self?” We decide not only to add to the world’s population, but to change our status in an important way. We may play the parental role badly, or do worse in some other aspect of life, if we make more babies. If we only add children to the world, with no intention of parenting them, there are hardships in the child’s life we must be concerned with. Were procreation genuinely a matter of rescuing hapless people from cosmic orphanages, all these other considerations would pale in comparison to the importance of saving them.

So much for looking at child-making in abstraction from population issues. Now we need to bring the rest of the world back into the picture. We make children in a world in which others also make children. How do the other child-makers affect whether it’s a good thing for me to have a child? This is such a large question it needs a chapter of its own.

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