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


Religion is one path to procreative abandon. In the village of Kiryas Joel, in upstate New York, the average woman has four children, two more than the national average. They have this many children because they are Hasidic Jews, members of the Satmar sect, and tend to avoid birth control. Mothers of young children rarely work outside the home, and many of the men work at Torah study—the result being that the average family income is lower than anywhere else in the United States. They’re having so many children because they follow the biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply.” Traditional Mormons are driven by a more complicated reproductive theory. According to the doctrine of eternal progression, human spirits are created outside this world by the heavenly father and heavenly mother. More of these spirits get to have physical bodies and to be raised in the true faith if Mormon couples have more children. So for this reason, and presumably others, many Mormons have large families. In a 2014 Pew Research Center study of Americans, Mormons between the ages of forty and fifty-nine were found to have 3.4 children apiece, on average. Catholics are not supposed to limit their fecundity with contraception, but few seem to follow official teaching; the same Pew study found this group had 2.3 children apiece. Among evangelical Christians the average number of children is 2.3. Jews—when all denominations are included—have 2.0 children, and nonreligious people have the least of all: atheists were found to have 1.6 children on average, and agnostics only 1.3.

A nonreligious case for extra procreation is made by Bryan Caplan, the economist I mentioned in chapter 2. Caplan counsels his readers: however many children you were planning on having, consider having more! He has three, but will consider a fourth. A family with six should consider a seventh. Kids bring us a great deal of satisfaction, he says, especially if we are laid back and not unduly worried about them. They particularly bring satisfaction when they have grown up. Caplan makes a point that will not have occurred to everyone: kids bring satisfaction for your whole lifetime. So you shouldn’t think just in terms of the early years. If you’d like to have four adult children when you’re eighty years old, but just two toddlers when you’re thirty, a good compromise might be to have three kids.

One point in favor of big families is that they do more to support the elderly. If you bring up eight contributing members of society, they will contribute much more to the Social Security system than if you bring up two. Another consideration is that a larger affluent population is linked to even greater prosperity. If innovators are one in a million, Caplan writes, seven billion people yield seven thousand innovators. Eight billion people would yield eight thousand innovators. The quality of life goes up, on average, when there are more people, not down (he claims). Another pronatal author, the philosopher Toby Ord, suggests that we are in the middle of an exciting explosion of technology due to the surge in population since the mid-twentieth century. The standard of living around the world has improved in many respects thanks to there being far more people, and therefore both far more ideas and far more trade.

But what about the impact of seven (or eight, nine, or ten) billion people using resources and producing waste? Aren’t we using up the earth at such a rapid rate that there won’t be anything left for future generations? Caplan points out that many resources are becoming cheaper, a sign that they are not less plentiful. But wherever there is a problem, yes, he says, we should fix it—in a targeted fashion. We should have a carbon tax to tackle global warming. If there are too many people on the highway at rush hour, we should have electronically collected tolls. We should be seeking to control overconsumption, not to limit population. On the whole, he argues, "the good effects of population far outweigh the bad.”

Many environmentalists adamantly disagree, and at an absolute minimum, they’re right on one issue. One of the negative effects of a growing human population is the concomitant dwindling of wilderness and wildlife. There are now only three thousand tigers left in the wild, for example. Compare the remaining tigers to the 86 million domestic cats living just in the United States. Animals we eat are even more numerous. There are an estimated 1.3 billion cattle in the world today. As humans become more numerous, there will be even more cats and cows, and probably even fewer tigers—until there are none in the wild at all.

It seems like something very good is lost as a result of the crowding out of other forms of life. Though one human is a fine thing, a veritable Picasso, our world seems like a museum stuffed with too many Picassos. Gradually, all the other masterpieces are being crowded out. Where we ought to see ourselves as sharing a world with other sovereign species, we have become one world, under human domination. Of course, there is still vast wilderness remaining and still abundant wildlife, but biologists argue that we are in the middle of and responsible for one of the great historic periods of extinction— the Anthropocene, as they have started to call it.

We should reproduce responsibly, but how should we think about that? What does "responsible reproduction” mean, if you are a person who would like to have a large family?

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