|Mark Quinn -- http://www.marcquinn.com/|
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--
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.