3/26/10

Why have children?

I am starting a new book about parenthood--or perhaps I should say, to be cautious, a new manuscript.  (Whether it winds up being a book remains to be seen!) 

For the longest time, I've been stuck on the most basic of basic questions--What's a good reason to have children? I'm also interested in the more straightforward question--why do people have children?  But let's focus on the more "normative question"--what makes sense as a reason to have a child (in today's world)?  Here are your options:

(1)  To benefit myself in some way (care to specify?)
(2)  To benefit the child.  (explain!)
(3)  To benefit other people (eg, to benefit a sibling)
(4)  To make the world a better place (in a sense different from any of the above).
(5)  No reason necessary. (Why not?)  

I mainly just want to listen.  Any comments will be appreciated.

11 comments:

amos said...

To benefit myself. Why? Because a child is someone with whom I can be stupid, who will understand me more deeply than I understand myself, with whom I can communicate better than with anyone else, with whom I can share more things than with anyone else. Raising a child is a lot of work, and if there were no benefit to me, I certainly would not have one.

Faust said...

Well I think it's great that you are pursuing this topic, because its probably one of my 3 primary interests, philosophically speaking. I'm interested in it specifically in the context of the rights/lack of rights of the unborn, but I'm interested in that topic at least in part because I think it represents site of the shift from non-being into being of particular individuals. We draw lines in the sand and say: here is a being of moral worth at 24 weeks, birth, and then there is a big gap and we add a bunch of xtra stuff in the mid to late teens. And then drinking at 21 :P

But even more generally I think the question of procreation goes to the question of what human beings are FOR generally, as the reasons we have children will relate to our views about community in general. Perhaps children are crucial as a source of labor, or perhaps children are an oppotunity to create a better society through extensive training (indoctrination?), or perhaps children are an opportunity for the parent to test themselves and "complete their emotional development," or...

Unlike moral questions that have to do with the way that non-impaired adults capable of rational interactions should relate to each other, the question of what we should DO WITH children, or how to DO RIGHT BY children will tell us a great deal about the society in question (e.g. societies the have honor killings and those that don't).

One question that haunts me is this: why do I have greater ethical obligations to my own child rather than other children? Is it because I made the choice to bring her into the world? But then, doesn't that mean her moral worth is contingent on me? If all children have the kind of "intrinsic" moral worth that my daughter FEELS like she has to me, then I'm really not sure that we shouldn't really change the way we relate to children generally. If the value of children is intrinsic, we should all be taking care of each others children in some (very strong) sense.

You can see the preceeding point being played out in the odd behavior of pro-life groups: they will fight viciously for the rights of ALL unborn. As far as they are concerned the unborn "belong to God" or "belong to society," but then, on birth, they are no longer willing to extend this kind of blanket moral protection and an entirely alternative moral calculus sets in. Witness the difficulty of passing simple SCHIP legistlation to provide healthcare for children in the poverty bracket. But once the children are born they no longer belong to "everyone," they become the sole responsibility of the parent who had them. I find this logic to be completely incoherent.

Ed said...

The two reasons people have children are

1) To benefit themselves. To satisfy some need of their own (they love kids and they want some of their own, they want to please the grandparents, they want to keep up with their siblings and friends, they want to fit in with social expectations, they want to shore up a shaky marriage, etc.)

5) No reason necessary because it just happened - birth control failed or they were not using birth control.

I don't think these are good reasons for bringing a child into an already overcrowded world. I think we have kids for essentially selfish reasons. The other options offered strike me as rationalizations, not reasons. I don't suppose anyone has ever said "I hate the whole idea of raising a child. I know I wouldn't get any joy out of it, and I can just imagine the pains and sorrows involved. But I guess we'd better have one so that we can make him or her happy (once he or she exists) and to make the world a better place."

Jean Kazez said...

Thanks for these answers, keep 'em coming.

Amos, Hmm. I wasn't thinking along those lines--thank you. Interesting questions--when we decide to have a child do we actually know that we're going to benefit in the ways you describe? I think maybe not. Possibly some of our best reasons to have children are ones we can only see with hindsight.

Faust, I agree about the puzzling pro-lifers. The conservative crowd is in a rage about democrats securing health care for millions of Americans (including babies), but would do anything for the unborn. Sorry to say, but I believe these people are completely insane. Dangerous, too.

Also--what you say about "intrinsic worth" makes me think of what Harry Frankfurt says about love and children in "The Reasons of Love." Interesting, enjoyable book.

Ed, On what basis are you explaining why people have children? Personal experience? Surveys? Speculation? I'm not disputing your view, just wondering how you come by it.

amos said...

Jean: you asked "what makes sense as a reason to have a child", not why did I have children. You are correct: my reasons comes from hindsight. However, you did not ask why I had children in the first place (a personal and somewhat confused matter), but what are good reasons to have children.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, You took my comment as a criticism but I didn't mean it that way. I'm just observing that, paradoxically, some of the best reasons to have children are ones a person can't appreciate until after they've made the decision.

amos said...

My mistake, but if there is one thing which people do in life without reasoning about it, it's having children, not that they shouldn't think about it, but when
you're 24 and in love and "know" that you've met "the one", you don't do much serious reasoning.
As you say, people discover the good reasons with hindsight.

Wayne said...

What makes sense as to have a child? All of the above. Some people have a innate drive (dare I say biological instinct) to reproduce. Without satisfying this, they feel incomplete. Others feel as if they can continue living on through the child, or that a family life simply makes them happy.

Others think that it might benefit the child, since they find their life, on the whole, satisfying, so they want to share that with an offspring.

I think when people have a child to benefit another, in the sense of 3, its a little ethically dubious. Just so that child number 1 has a playmate? really? I think a better justification might be that so child number 1 could have a kidney, or a bone marrow transplant...

I think lots of people think of number 4, since they believe that their child will be a force of good in the world. And for the most part, I believe anyways, people are morally good. But its just as plausible that we give birth to the next Hitler or a gang member.

But ultimately, I think number 5 is really the one that needs to be addressed more than anything. Truly.... Why not have children? If I were writing your manuscript, I'd start with that one first. Bring up all the opposing arguments for having children. Overpopulation, environmental footprints, emotional risk (I just had a friend who had a miscarriage at 5 months...), physical risks, quality of life loss (although this one is subjective... but I can't imagine most people think that staying up with a crying infant is adding to their quality of life.), the risk of failure (we're not all good parents). etc.

Ed said...

I think that people have kids to satisfy their own needs based on my personal experiences; I've yet to actually meet a parent who expresses unselfish reasons for having their children. Admittedly I don't go around handing our questionnaires. I'm also somewhat biased since I think that everything we do is to satisfy our own perceived needs. We do what makes us feel good, and that may often include helping others or working for a more just society.

I can't think of any really good reasons to procreate. We could do with a few less people in this world. It might be a good reason if we could really foretell that our children would make this a better world, but we can't. Our children are their own persons and we don't and can't control how they live their lives.

Melissa said...

Option #1. I believe it makes sense for a couple to have a child because maternal desire can be very strong -- something many women are almost embarassed to admit. I'm currently reading a book by Daphne de Marneffe -- "Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life" in which she describes how a century ago it was women's sexual desires that were unspeakable, "today it is women's desire to mother that has become taboo."

Maternal desire -- that's a selfish reason, true! But I feel it is nonetheless a valid reason.

But if the question were *should* we have children, that's another matter. I'm inclined to say no, we shouldn't (and for certain others, definitely not); However my primary reason for saying so has little to do with concerns about overpopulation. Our world is often cruel and no one gets out alive -- that's reason enough, isn't it?!

Anonymous said...

Linking with Nozick's dimensions of life (meaning, value, importance, weight) I would say that having children gives our life meaning (we link ourselves to something that goes beyond us) and importance (our actions have strong effects on others).

Having said that, I still see having kids, at best, as playing russian roulette with someone else's life.

Life can be beautiful and can be horrible, and we have little control over the vast spectrum of things that can go wrong. Is it really ok to say "well, the probability of my child dying from cancer in his teens is small enough"? I think we are reponsible for the foreseeable results of our actions (and inactions), and if you create a life you are also responsible for his death.

I can accept my death, my suffering, saying that after all my life was worth living, but why should have the right to say that about another person, and force the consequences of my opinions upon him?