“Is procreation immoral?” asks Elizabeth Kolbert in her latest New Yorker piece, a review of three books. She doesn’t arrive at an answer, and she doesn’t make me want to read any of the books. But her review offers a few interesting tidbits, which I’ll round up here so you don’t have to trudge through the whole 3,000-word essay.
In discussing the book Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate by philosophy professor Christine Overall, Kolbert hits on one of the best arguments for going childfree:
[L]ots of people offer the notion that parenthood will make them happy. Here the evidence is, sadly, against them. Research shows that people who have children are no more satisfied with their lives than people who don’t. If anything, the balance tips the other way: parents are less happy. In an instantly famous study, published in Science in 2004, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asked nine hundred working women to assess their experiences during the preceding day. The women rated the time they’d spent taking care of their kids as less enjoyable than the time spent shopping, eating, exercising, watching TV, preparing food, and talking on the phone. One of the few activities these women found less enjoyable than caring for their children was doing housework, which is to say cleaning up after them.
The environment crops up in the section of the review on Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence by another philosophy prof, David Benatar:
“Humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth,” he writes. “The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more” of us.
But he’s such a gloomster on the larger question of whether life is worth living that you can’t take him seriously:
“One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad—a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick—is worse than no life at all,” Benatar writes.
Oh puh-leeeze. No wonder I didn’t study philosophy.
On the opposite, uber-Pollyannaish end of the spectrum, we have Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think by economics professor Bryan Caplan. (I actually have a copy of this book; it’s going to be my primary text when I write the definitive rebuttal to the claim that it’s selfish to be childfree by choice.) Writes Kolbert:
Benatar’s child-rearing advice, if followed, would result in human extinction. Caplan’s leads in the opposite direction: toward a never-ending population boom. He declares this to be one of his scheme’s advantages: “More people mean more ideas, the fuel of progress.” In a work that’s full of upbeat pronouncements, this is probably his most optimistic, or, if you prefer, outrageous claim.
No wonder I didn’t study economics.
Two philosophers and an economist walk into a bar … and have an irritating, constrained discussion on what should have been a fascinating, engaging topic. Sigh.