The morality of having children

Marcus Roberts
December 13, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

"Save the planet: have fewer kids!"

"Children will grow up to be polluters; therefore you have a responsibility to have fewer of them!"

"If you're serious about climate change, then you need to stop reproducing!"

Perhaps you are like me and have heard a few arguments like this over the last few years. Now though, no less of an august organisation than NBC has published a "Thought Experiment" by Travis Rieder entitled: " Science proves that having children is bad for Earth. Morality suggest we stop having them. " These arguments by Rieder and others are not new at all. Indeed, we've discussed Pope Francis' response to such arguments from Rieder before .

So what does the NBC piece say? Rieder:

"Several years ago, scientists showed that having a child, especially for the world's wealthy, is one of the worst things you can do for the environment."

"Scientists" eh? Our own twenty-first century high priests whose wisdom should never be doubted. It would be better for the planet if there were no humans on it presumably. But would it better for humans? So moving from science to morality:

"If having one fewer child reduces one's contribution to the harms of climate change, the choice of family size becomes a morally relevant one."

But why am I responsible for my children's carbon footprint? Rieder has the analogy to exampling this:

"If I release a murderer from prison, knowing full well that he intends to kill innocent people, then I bear some responsibility for those deaths - even though the killer is also fully responsible. My having released him doesn't make him less responsible (he did it!). But his doing it doesn't eliminate my responsibility either."

This of course requires the acceptance of the view that we are morally responsible for our inadvertent pollution in a similar way that one is responsible for intending to kill others. Are we really? I know that presumably Rieder doesn't think the former is as bad as the latter. But are we really morally at fault just by living our current lifestyle? Does Rieder's argument work the other way? Are we morally responsible for not having a child who turns out to be a brilliant inventor, innovator or businessman who transforms how we live our lives and reduces humanity's carbon footprint dramatically? The inventor of nuclear fusion perhaps? Aren't we then morally responsible for those carbon savings that our potential child did not make? In short, aren't we assuming that all twinkles in our eyes are equally polluting? Do no people actually make a positive contribution to climate change/pollution? Should we not have the future generation of those people? But how to tell in advance if your child will be a net polluter or not? Perhaps the better thing to do would be just to have a few. Who knows, your child might be the saviour of the planet. (Also known as the moral theory of "you've got to be in it to win it!")

But at least Rieder's argument largely focusses on the West. If we are concerned about the impact on the climate by new children, then it's the resource-intensive western lifestyle that we should be focussing on. Too often, as we've argued before , fears of overpopulation and its impact upon the planet have concentrated upon a population "explosion" in Africa or India and do not take into account the fact that a sub-Saharan lifestyle is not nearly as polluting as a Western one.

The other thing to note is that Rieder seems to be going for the easy option. I think that the Pope hits the nail on the head when he says in the encyclical "Laudato Si'":

"To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues...It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption."

In essence, the Pope is arguing that the call for fewer children is an easy way out. It dodges the wasteful, consumeristic lifestyle that we live in the West. We buy the new iPod two years after the last one came out because the "old" one is already broken. (My washing machine broke after about three years and I was horrified when the repairman told me that that was about the expected lifespan of a front loader washing machine nowadays!) It is that sort of thing we need to change if we are really concerned about the planet. Or, to make it a bit more personal, one wonders if climate change conferences really need everyone to get together in one place at the cost of a huge carbon footprint? I wonder if those conferences include meat in their meals…Climate change physician, heal thyself! (Al Gore, I'm looking at you…)

But changing one's lifestyle is hard. Changing the way that our current economic system works - high turnover of consumer products - is hard. It is easier to just shift the argument onto having fewer children. Although Rieder concludes that there is no "tidy answer to the challenging questions of procreative ethics" and asserts that "I am certainly not arguing that we should shame parents, or even that we're obligated to have a certain number of children". Instead, Rieder wants to have a "difficult - even uncomfortable - conversation". However, the concern is that since many believe that climate change is a "catastrophic" prospect (Rieder's words), then the "conversation" quickly becomes a "recommendation" and suddenly government policy. After all, China and Vietnam give great, successful, examples of a governmental programme of forced population control measures. And I'm worried that many of those advocating for climate change prevention measures would love the thought of a global, big government, response. And what could be more big government than mandating how many children each family should have? First step, global tax and redistribution. Second step, global population control. No complaining now, climate change is an existential threat and any measure is justified to prevent it. The science is settled. Kids are bad for the planet.