Is Parenthood Just Permissible? (update)

Mark Quinn -- http://www.marcquinn.com/
Update 9/23:  The discussion continues, with the aid of the following diagram.  See Justin's comment at the end of the comment thread. I'm mid-pondering (and busy today), so will reply tomorrow.  There are two interesting issues here: what we mean by "supererogatory" and what moral valence should be assigned to having children.


Originally posted 9/10:

This week my class on procreation and parenthood has been exploring hard questions about the moral valence of having children.  It's certainly strongly counterintuitive to say having children is generally wrong.  This week I discovered that for college students, anyway, it's also strongly counterintuitive to say there's any obligation to have children--they resist saying there's even a "general" or prima facie obligation to reproduce. They're not even inclined to think procreation is obligatory in a dire end-of-the-world scenario, where reproduction would make the difference between human survival and human extinction.  I was surprised to find that the arguments in this article by Saul Smilansky had virtually no takers.

That leaves calling procreation either supererogatory or merely permissible.  I don't think we want to say it's supererogatory.   Some supererogatory acts are heroic--they involve people running into burning buildings to save others. Sometimes the term means the same thing as "beyond the call of duty"--in other words, doing everything you have to, and then some.  So for example, doing a fantastic job as a secretary, but going the extra mile--finding a free refrigerator for the faculty lounge, for instance.  Nobody thinks it's heroic or "going the extra mile" to have a child.

That leaves saying that having a child is merely permissible, but that seems odd too.  When I explain these things to students, I typically offer something like choosing peas instead of carrots as an example of a permissible act.  The prototypical permissible act is neutral--there's nothing good or bad about doing it.

Now, I just can't see how creating a child could possibly be neutral, even if there's something politically attractive about categorizing it that way.  It makes no conceptual sense, considering that having a child is bringing a  great deal of value into the world (Smilansky does a good job of explaining all the types of value).  So if we throw making children into the "permissible" basket, and say no more, we haven't captured its moral valence very well.

What I think we really need, if we're going to say the right thing about procreation, is subdivisions within the category of the permissible.  Suppose I make a really delicious meal for my family.  I can't see that I was obligated to do that, and it's going too far to call that act supererogatory.  What we want is a distinction between the neutral-permissble and the done-good-permissible.  We need "the commendable," so to speak. 

On the other hand, if I make pasta with bottled sauce or order a pizza for the third night in a row, that's kind of bad, but it's surely going too far to call it wrong.   If we must have an adjective, maybe "objectionable" will do.

So now there are six possible valences for the typical act of procreation--

Now,  it does seem inappropriate to say procreation is obligatory--it's too much of a "personal thing", people will say (phrase stolen from Smilansky).  But should we also be disturbed by the notion that having kids is "doing good"--it's commendable? It's still "merely permissible," not obligatory, so there's no upshot that not having kids is wrong.  Furthermore, lots and lots of other things are commendable too--from making a good dinner to running a marathon to writing a novel. So that classification does not single out parents for gold stars and deny them to others.

Calling procreation commendable is much closer to intuitive than calling it obligatory, but perhaps it's still a bit of an odd thing to say.  Making children is just part of the normal business of life--like breathing or eating, in a way.  So kudos seem a bit strange.  Yet if you take it seriously that a life is (normally) a good thing, then I don't see how procreation can fall into any less exalted moral category. It just can't be entirely neutral, and saying it's objectionable or wrong seems apt only in very special circumstances.

So that's my verdict: commendable.  As I say, "commendable" wouldn't be your first impression, necessarily, but it seems like procreation has to have this sort of positive valence, assuming that human lives have great value.


Adam said...

It seems to me that the idea that "human lives have great value" is a bit simplistic. Or, more precisely, what is overly simplistic is the idea that because human lives have great value, more human lives is better.

The central problem with the argument, I think, is limited resources. For example, suppose the entire human population were two heterosexual couples stranded on an island which only has the capacity to feed five people. Then it might be commendable to bring one more person into the world, but if both couples were to procreate, people would start going hungry. Perhaps everybody would starve to death.

Needless to say, the human population today isn't just two couples stranded on an island. However, we still have to deal with problems of limited resources, and, particularly in the consumption-driven western world, bringing a child into the world results in significant resource consumption. Given that, I think that a more sophisticated argument would be required to deduce that procreation is commendable.

Faust said...

I like your breakout of #2.

One general comment I have on this subject matter is the difficulty around "creating a person" or "creating a child," or however you want to phrase it.

The difficulty comes from the fact that creating children (or people) is process that occurs over time.

So there is one question: what is the moral value of creating a newborn baby? Then the question of what is the value of creating a 1 year old child? What is the value of creating a 3 year old child? And so on. If at any point you "freeze" this process, I think you get different answers. It's very hard to think about this material because (I believe) people are going to start importing different elements of personhoood in from the future and imprinting it on the child in question.

For human beings you never "just" create a life by bringing an infant into the world. You have to turn that infant into a child over time, and then so on into adulthood. Rather obviously there is a difference between merely having children and raising them.

I suppose I can imagine a woman who has baby after baby and then gives each one up for adoption, and that this would enable me to consider merely bringing life into the world and the moral status of this "mere" act of creating new children. But then isn't that value going to be contingent on what happens to those babies in the next chapter? Who they are given to? How they are raised? And so forth? I have trouble separating out the singular act of "child creatiion" from the entire sequence of person creation that must inveitably follow in one way or another.

crystal said...

I guess I wouldn't pick commendable either, given over-population. Is it commendable that animals have babies?

Brett Hetherington said...

I wouldn't say that having children is, by definition, "commendable." I would put it closer to "merely permissable," but also a long way from being "neutral."

Except in very extreme medical circumstances people should be free to have children. Although it is counter-intuitive to not put a high regard on life (especially young life, and in animals too) that does not mean that creating it is necesarily virtuous. To knowingly create a baby that you believe will not be loved and nurtured is surely a morally bad act.

We have an intuitive sense of human life being worth preserving, which is why we would call out to a stranger to not jump off a building, for example. But to say that bringing new life into the world without a deep consideration of the life it is very likely to experience is also touching on the immoral.

For this reason, there is a strong argument in favour of limiting the number of children of people in dire circumstances, such as in the slums of some cities.

ɰʑɷɩɓ said...

I think your post is very simplistic. You say "assuming that human lives have great value". Well, what kind of value and to whom?

I think we can agree that nothing is good or bad for he who doesn't exist. And so nothing can be better or worse for him. So we can't say that existing is better than non existing. Maybe it might be "good" in some sense (as Parfit argues), but you need to anchor that to some objective morality (something that Parfit is trying to do).

Still, less assume it might be "good" for the person. We might also agree that it might be "bad". There are many situations in which, I think, a life is not worth living, and a parent cannot control all the variables (diseases, wars, etc, ...).

So I think it is essentially gambling on other's people life against their will and without the outcome possibly being any better for them (compared to non existance).

I would also say that prima facie we are morally responsible for the foreseeable outcome of our actions and inactions (if you are a consequentialist).

Assuming a causaul link between the existence of the child and my actions, and knowing that we all suffer in some measure, and will eventually die I would say that parents are reponsible for the death of their children. They're causally connected to it (at least in some counter-factual sense) and they could have done otherwise. Maybe dying is not such a big deal, but we're still imposing our choices on other people.

There might be conditions when we might chose to impose our will unto others without their consent, even when this will cause them suffering (e.g. operating a comatose patient who will wake up without legs), but here we are in the a peculiar case where the alternative causes no suffering and no loss to anybody.

And again, we've already discussed this, every year there are 80 new million people. Imagine a new Germany made of one year old babies. Every year. And that's not all the newborn, but just the difference of births minus deaths. Rich countries with stagnating populations have their borders defended by the military and thousands of people die trying to get into their territories every year (see Italy).

If you benefit raising a child (because it brings value to your life) you should compare the choice of creating a new life against the choice of adopting somebody who already exists.

Why sharing genes makes any moral difference at all?

March Hare said...

Someone worrying about Malthusian overpopulation, an extreme environmentalist or someone with apocalyptic views on global warming may think that having a child is anything but commendable.

Faust's point about having to bring a child up is well made too. Simply having an infant is in and of itself neither praiseworthy nor wrong, it is what you do with the child from that point onward that counts towards something I'd either comment or criticise.

Jean Kazez said...

Thanks for all the comments.

I am not saying here that having a child is always commendable--in each and every instance. Yes, population matters (and I should have said something about that). Lots of things matter. I am only trying to say what the "general" or "prima facie" valence of child-making is. In any real life situation, there will be much, much more to think about than that prima facie valence, whatever it is.

Smilanksy says we have a prima facie obligation to have children. Benatar says we have a prima facie obligation to not have children. I'm suggesting another possibility--that childmaking is prima facie commendable-permissible (2c). Actually, all I've really done in the post is carve out that possibility--I haven't really made much an argument why that's the best way to classify procreation.

Squiggly, The post is incomplete, but not (I hope) simplistic. I might write a part 2 to address all your points, but here's the short version.

I would say the good of a child is not a "personal" good--the child does not benefit from the birth in the sense of being made better off than she was before. There is no victim, if I don't have a child. Nevertheless, a life is a good thing (See Smilanksy ... and Faust's points are relevant here as well--are you done creating that life after the child is born? No, not really.) It's a good thing like a painting is, if you happen to think paintings are inherently valuable. If you make a painting you've "done good"; if you don't, there's no victim. It's not obligatory, not supererogatory, but it would be odd to say it's just neutral. It's another permissible-commendable act.

What about Benatar's argument, though? My class has also studied that fairly carefully. One of the uses for category 2c, the permissible-commendable, is actually to preempt Benatar. When he proposes his pain-pleasure asymmetry, a very, very central argument for it is that if we don't embrace it, then we'll be stuck saying child-making is obligatory. But no--not so. If we reject his asymmetry, we'll have to say child-making has some positive valence, but we won't have to say it's obligatory, if the permissible-commendable category is available as well.

So that's the idea--I'm not ignoring the Benatar line of thought, but actually introducing a concept I think will help rebut it.

ɡɫʞɫʝɠɰʝ said...

yes. I think if you consider multiple incommensurable dimensions (as we discussed in other posts) and if you cannot simply sum plasure and pain, then you can have situations that maximise both plaisure and pain (a very risky but eventful life) or minimise both (a boring but safe one).

Probably most people think that we have a stonger obligation reduce pain compared to one increase happiness (e.g. negative utilitarians). But one solution of "minimal pain" is no pain at all, when nobody exists.

But things are not so clear. I would probably accept a little more pain in exchange for a lot more pleasure ... so, how do I compare them at all? Singer I think is trying to translate this into explict dollars to make policy calculations transparent.

I think this kind of multidimensional approach undermines Benatar's strategy, but I'm not sure where it would lead. I find it richer than your single-dimension proposal, just with more shades of gray ...

Surely the usual consequentialist position (held by Singer for example) that says that we ought to do what has the best consequences gives very little room to move.

For me, personally, I think that the fact that I am imposing my choice to somebody else who will carry the greatest risks (having a kid is a decision a great consequences for the parents but an even greater ones for the child ...) changes the calculation.

I can do my risk analysis of expected pain vs expected plasure, make up my mind, and accept the consequences, but when I am deciding for somebody else the "primum non nocere" imperative seems stronger than any expected gain.

I would at least like to see some sufficient conditions that justify harming somebody else without their consent. It's hard to imagine that such conditions would still hold when the person is not harmed by our non-actions.

Dave Ricks said...

Smilansky's article made me think:

1) The world needs parents, and the world needs farmers and lawyers, so why didn't Smilansky argue for a moral obligation to be a parent-farmer-lawyer? Srsly, as long as some individuals meet some requirements of society (parenting, farming, lawyering), then some other individuals are free to meet some other requirements of society.

2) I can agree with Jean in different notation. Her table above shows Smilansky cast the discussion in one dimension (a vector), and she mentions he considered parenthood prima facie, so she fix'd it for him by subdividing the vector entry #2 (graphically in the table, and using a hyphenated notation in her text). As a different notation, we could write the subdivision of vector entry #2 as two dimensions (a matrix). You could read along one edge of the matrix (an axis of permissible choices) and say IF you choose to have kids, THEN you could read along the other edge of the matrix (an axis of moral valence) and check a box of how well you raise them. And you could check other boxes of doing other things well in a larger matrix of choices and valences. And for argument, suppose morality has absolute rules. If Smilansky tries to express absolute rules using models with insufficient dimensionality (and lacking something like IF/THEN to navigate the dimensionality), then he directs people to act absolutely wrongly.

TL;DR, where Jean wrote prima facie, I agree by writing insufficient dimensionality. And her hyphenated text was a way of increasing the dimensionality by joining concepts.

3) Right now I'm more involved with families based on adopters and adoptees than the other way (of birth parents raising their birth children), so I read Smilansky's article like a LGBT demographic might read some moral prescription for heterosexual sex. I can't locate myself or my friends in his article.

Jean Kazez said...

Superb video. I especially like this comment over at you tube--

129.46/4 time and the key of 9 minor... perfect

Will read the rest of your comment tomorrow!

Wayne said...

Wait... It is going the extra mile to have a child.... I mean thats why people pay other people to surrogate their babies, and everyone loves the idea of an artificial womb... Pregnancy isn't something most people enjoy, and judging from my friend who quite literally couldn't stand up during most of her pregnancy lest her uterus tore itself from her body and her baby, some people's pregnancies are most definitely above and beyond.

Now I'll admit not all are, but they could simply not have children, have an abortion, etc.

Having the child assumedly benefits the child, (Or maybe it doesn't). but it would definitely benefit the family that adopted the child if the child wasn't kept.

Just because an action is supererogatory doesn't make it necessarily a heroic action. I could simply spend my spare change feeding parking meters that are about to expire... That would be a nice thing to do, that isn't morally required, and goes above and beyond in terms of caring for my fellow man. That isn't heroic, but it is supererogatory.

Rune C. Olwen said...

Fascinating that there is nothing new under the sun.
That discussion was something I suffered in school.
Back then reality was the other way round FOR EACH AND ANY WOMAN on earth:
Being forced to give birth until they died - to rapist´s genetic trash, to their own detriment (I come from a line of women who died of kidney failure, and my mother was one of the generation where the suffering was prolonged by the artificial kidney) and of course, having to put a next generation into economic hopelessnes.

So why does noone use the logical form of the question?

The answer would be:
There is a right to have no children.
For women this is generally the default position - if the respective individual is better off, she might find it easy to have some, or desirable, or...
For EACH AND ANY man it is still a fact: He cannot have one by himself, he always must ask a woman to have a child with him, and respect a "No."
Anything else is rape.

But my opinion of philosophy is still that it is a form of religion, and enforced overpopulation has always been the favourite for faithheads.

Justin said...

Two quick comments:

First, I'm puzzled about your ordering of options, with "supererogatory" out at the extreme end. I can sort of feel the intuition that the supererogatory is even further out than the obligatory -- e.g., it takes only takes a *good* person to do the obligatory, whereas it takes a *really*good* person to do the supererogatory. But that reasoning would also put "commendable" further out than obligatory too, as it takes something more than merely meeting ones obligations to do what's commendable. So I'm more pulled toward thinking that supererogatory should be merged in with commendable, or squeezed in between commendable and neutral. Supererogatory acts *are* commendable, they're better than neutral, but their goodness isn't compelling enough to make them obligatory, nor even to inspire many people to do them. So why not put them between neutral and obligatory?

Second, I have a pretty strong intuition that (planned, responsible) parenting *is* supererogatory. I don't think it's obligatory; I do think it's so costly and difficult as to involve something like a sort of heroic effort; and I do think that it makes a positive contribution to our ongoing society. So I guess I'm a counterexample to your claim that "nobody thinks it's heroic or 'going the extra mile' to have a child." Can you say more about why you don't think parenting should fall in the supererogatory category?

Jean Kazez said...

Justin, Hmm--maybe the word "commendable" is unfortunate. Here's the basic intuition. In the course of your life, you do all sorts of things we wouldn't think of as being EITHER obligatory OR supererogatory. They're just permissible. But we nevertheless make distinctions. Sometimes you're "doing good", sometimes not. Going to the symphony, running a marathon, making a good dinner, going for a nice walk--these are all good things to do. Playing the clarinet, writing a novel, playing with your child...all good. So we want to draw some lines within the category of the "merely permissible."

So there you go--a category with a bunch of things in it. Now the question is whether procreation belongs there, or in the category of the obligatory or supererogatory.

As for the order I've put things in. I don't think it much matters. Sometimes it takes an extremely good person to do what's obligatory. For example, it might be obligatory to care for a spouse with huge health problems, but still very admirable to be able to fulfill the obligation. Sometimes it takes not being very good at all to do something supererogatory--it's easy to drop a dollar into the donation box in the supermarket check-out line. I have supererogatory further out only because I was thinking obligations are "duties" and supererogatory acts are "beyond the call of duty". So further away from the neutral point.

So ... why is procreation just permissibly doing good (like playing the clarinet, writing a novel, making dinner, running a marathon, etc), rather than supererogatory? Well, it strikes me as being like all those other things. Could running a marathon or writing a novel be supererogatory? Surely not, even if they benefit a lot of other people. So the contribution a child makes to society doesn't making creating children supererogatory.

Not sure what's driving this intuition, but it could just be degrees of selflessness. Marathons and novels are extremely satisfying to the ego, and so are kids. So--no extra credit for runners, novelists, and parents. Donating a dollar to a charity benefits others more than me, so there's extra credit. Maybe that's what's behind these intuitions.

Justin said...


I wonder if part of our intuitive difference here is that you think of various acts like parenting and marathon-running as being so intrinsically rewarding that they couldn't possibly be supererogatory, whereas I think of those same acts as darn hard -- even painful -- and hence as prime examples of being supererogatory?

It seems like we might want to look at multiple dimensions of assessment: especially (y) how much good an act brings about, and (x) how costly-to-rewarding that act is to the actor. That would give us a graph like the following (pardon my ASCII art):

\ | obligatory
$ \_|_
* | \____
-- |
wrong |--____

To a first approximation, acts that yield a lot more good than they are costly are obligatory (the band across the upper right of the graph), and acts that yield a lot more bad than they are rewarding are wrong/impermissible (the band across the bottom left).

This leaves a tropical band of merely permissible acts, and this band includes some good acts (north of the equator). Some of these good acts (perhaps those east of the *) aren't very costly or may even be rewarding, so they're the ones you'd call "merely commendable". Other acts up in the nortwest by the $ are both very good and very costly, so they're the ones you'd call "supererogatory"?

That graph helps me to see a potential distinction at least, and we'll just be left with the residual disagreement about how costly-vs-rewarding things like parenting and marathon-running are.

I view things like heavy financial costs, severe changes in lifestyle, increased frequency of illness, and severe loss of sleep as being steep costs of parenting, and I'm not at all convinced that these are offset by the various joys of parenting which are much harder to quantify. Still, given all the significant quantifiable costs, parenting seems to be a *pretty*good* candidate for supererogatory status. No?

Jean Kazez said...

Darn, I think your graph got mangled. Sometimes a blackboard is needed! If you can fix somehow and just email me a screen shot, I can put it up with the post.

But while we wait on that ... I'm going to ponder the fact that you think running a marathon is a supererogatory act. Hmmm....

Wayne said...

So I don't think running a marathon is a supererogatory act, but I still think having a baby is. I don't see a huge ethical value in running a marathon, there may actually be less moral value in running a marathon, simply because it inconveniences a lot of people. (shutting down roads, etc.) Even if marathons didn't do this, I'm not sure what the ETHICAL value of running a marathon is.

I think supererogatory duties, are necessarily ethical duties.

Now being a parent, that is hard do deny ethical status to it. We've talked about this at length, is it a good thing babies are born, etc. It obviously affects other people, yourself, and the child mostly, but secondarily, all those who come in contact with the child. It affects people's happiness, and most importantly, it impacts people's moral duties (specifically it creates a whole host of new duties on the parent), etc. So being a parent is an ethical value.

So what makes something supererogatory? Something would be supererogatory if it isn't a required moral duty. People would not be viewed to be morally "bad" if they didn't engage in these duties. People who violate their duty not to murder, is not living up to their basic moral duties. They are viewed to be morally bad people. So do not murder, is not a supererogatory duty. But helping a neighbor who is having trouble with their groceries would be a supererogatory duty. It would be easy to continue on with your activity. I'm not sure people would think you're a bad person if you didn't assist.

There are SOME duties that are odd... Some duties are moral obligations, but people treat them as if they were supererogatory in how they praise them in. Saving a drowning child when you are fully able to swim, is a moral obligation surely. People would think of you as a bad person if they were to learn that you didn't help when you could have easily done it. But those who engage in that activity are often heavily "over-praised."

But ultimately, supererogatory duties aren't about the praise, but about whether or not you're a bad person if you don't do them. I'm not a bad person if I don't choose to have children. But arguably, it could be a very good thing if I did have children. So it must be a supererogatory duty.

Justin said...

Wayne, just to clarify, the marathon case that I (and I think also Jean) had in mind involved running a marathon *for*charity*, e.g., as a way of ensuring that more pledge dollars will be given to the charity. I certainly agree with you that running a marathon just for its own sake isn't morally valuable enough to count as supererogatory.

I took Jean's and my disagreement to involve the question of whether running a marathon (for charity) was costly enough to count as being "heroic" or "above-and-beyond the call of duty" as people commonly think supererogatory acts should be. Jean thought marathon-running is so personally rewarding that it shouldn't really count as heroic, whereas I think of it as being damn hard, time-intensive, and painful, and hence a good candidate for counting as supererogatory. Maybe she's just in a lot better shape than I am. :)

Also, I think the point of her original post was to suggest that we shouldn't equate supererogatory with not being a required moral duty, as you seem to do. Instead, she's drawing attention to the fact that there are various not-too-morally-valuable and/or not-heroically-demanding good acts that aren't moral duties, and yet aren't supererogatory either.

So I take the two key questions about parenting to be (1) how morally valuable is it? Aside from Benatar, many of us seem to agree that it's at least somewhat valuable, though not valuable enough to make it obligatory. And (2) how heroically demanding is parenting? Jean seems to think it's much too rewarding to count as heroically demanding, whereas I think it is pretty darn demanding.

Here's a clear way to make my point. Suppose Sally Struthers gets on the TV and asks you to change your lifestyle for 18 years, invest several hundred thousand dollars, countless hours of your time, and all the other things that parenting demands, I'm pretty sure that everyone we'd all agree that it would be supererogatory for you to donate all this to her cause, even if she could offer you a heckofa lot of rewarding moments along the way. I feel pretty much the same about parenting.