Collective Obligation, Personal Virtue

So here's the puzzle I'm scratching my head about (though I ought to be grading papers):  Each society has a more or less ideal birth rate.  Maybe for the US it's ideal if the average couple has two children.  We don't want a higher birth rate for environmental reasons, among others, and we don't want a lower birth rate for lots of reasons -- because new people will be needed to support the elderly, because people are valuable to each other as consumers, inventors, helpers, etc., and because a new human life is intrinsically good. (If the ideal average strikes you as somewhat less than two per couple, so be it.  Let's not quarrel about details.)

Anyhow, there's this ideal birth rate, but on that basis, what moral judgments should we make?  I can't see saying the person with four children has behaved impermissibly, let alone the person with no children.  To justify this reticence, it helps to think that a society has a collective obligation to maintain a certain birth rate, and to think this doesn't translate automatically into individual obligations.  If our birthrate in 2012 is three children per couple then we've gone wrong, but that's not actomatically to say that specific people with zero or four children have gone wrong. If our collective birthrate is in fact two children per couple, then nobody's gone wrong -- not even someone with eight children. 

But now (getting to the heart of the matter): we ought to say something at an individual level. After all, the birthrate depends entirely on individual decisions. What should we say?  If we say every couple should have two children, that's saying exactly what we decided we shouldn't say.  We want to say something "softer" - but not too soft!  Perhaps after saying what we ought to do collectively, what we need to talk about at the individual level is virtue, not obligation.

But ... what's the virtue?  Perhaps I just haven't read the right literature (recommendations anyone?) but it seems like the critical virtue is not one on the big famous lists of virtues, like the Aristotelian list or the Christian list.  The relevant virtue is being "socially responsible." That is to say, being mindful of what's good for a society as a whole and mindful of the impact of one's personal decisions. 

How are we going to credit people or blame then, if we think in these terms?  If the ideal birthrate is two children, we're not going to blame someone with over two children because they may have been perfectly mindful. If you're an American and you know that our birth rate has been 2.1 for the last ten years, you can have four children without there being anything socially irresponsible about it. You may have known that some childless couple would balance your high fecundity.

But what if our birthrate gets too high or too low? Should we think a childless couple, in a country with a too-low birthrate, is socially irresponsible? That's not to say they're acting wrongly, but even saying they're socially irresponsible sounds too harsh. Maybe we just need a subtle distinction.  They're not displaying social responsibility, in that particular part of their lives, but that's not the same thing as being irresponsible.  Similarly, someone who doesn't join the army doesn't display courage, but that's not to say they're necessarily being cowardly.

The same might be said about a couple who have 4 kids when they know the birthrate in their society is too high.  Not socially responsible!  At some point, though, I suppose we have to stop being delicate and just say "socially irresponsible." There's an important asymmetry here. While it's almost never socially irresponsible to have no children, except "in extremis" (think End of the World scenario), it's not so rare for it to be socially irresponsible to have another child -- your 10th or 15th or whatever.

So:  there are collective obligations, but at the individual level, just virtues and vices, as well as their absences (an important wrinkle).  This is not at all how you'd want to conceptualize every domain of ethics, but it seems right in the case of reproduction. Or so it seems, at the moment ....


Alan Cooper said...

What's wrong with the rule that if the current actual birthrate is less than ideal then it is a moral failing to have less children than you can effectively support and if the current birthrate is higher than the ideal then it is a moral failing to exceed the ideal?

Anonymous said...

I think this is a classic "game theory" scenario, and there has to be some feedback to close the information loop.

What if you know others don't care about the ideal rate and will have all the kids they want? Should you modify your strategy to steer towards the ideal rate, or should you somehow retaliate (taxes, etc) against these "free riders"?

I think the easiest solution is the "rule consequentialist" approach, and just stipulate that people should aim at the ideal rate, and put some incentives in place.

Wayne said...

Heh, I'm not one usually to whip out Kierkegaard, but universal prescriptions say nothing about an individual's predicament.

You're talking about a moral good on a macroscopic social level. I'm not sure that ever translates to an individual responsibility. Sure, individual responsibilities get translated to social principles (don't murder, etc), but when we try to apply social goods that don't derive from individual responsibilities, we get weird puzzles like yours.

So lets think of it another way. Who is the birth rate good FOR? Nobody in particular, but society in general. Thus, you don't get any particularly compelling arguments for any individual to behave in a particular way, since it's not good or bad for them to conform to the principle.

And with birthrate, there is quite a bit of elasticity to the goodness of it. If we had a lower birthrate, society can adapt to manage the new challenges that face a lower birthrate. We could institute work policies where non-physically demanding basic work could be preferentially awarded to seniors. It's only a cultural artifact that we think there is some sort of "right" to retirement. So to say that some static number is the good that we should all aim, is a little narrow.

Jean Kazez said...

Sorry for the slow response.

Alan, I've been convinced by various authors that it's just intolerably intrusive to think someone has an obligation to have more children or fewer children, except "in extremis"--in very weird scenarios from sci fi movies. Thus the attempt to put obligation at a social level and not at the individual level.

Anon--interestingly, the most carefully worked out rule utilitarian approach (Tim Mulgan in Future People) does say the rule is "aim for the ideal number" (for lots of reasons).

Wayne, Kierkegaard. I thought I was going to be able to get away with never reading him, but maybe not.

Alan Cooper said...

Jean, Why is it "intolerably intrusive" to suggest any moral obligation regarding reproduction rate? The decision to reproduce has consequences for others just as much as any other kind of activity such as fencing land or making food choices.

With regard to rule utility, I don't think Mulgan's (and anon's) suggestion is optimal unless one knows that the expected net effect of rule violators will cancel (which would make the rule unnecessary).If the net tendency of violators is to overbreed then the optimal behaviour is to aim below the target rate for the overall population, and if the net effect of violations is to underbreed then it is optimal to aim above the target. I do agree with anon that this is a standard problem in stochastic control theory and requires some information feedback, but if the rule is for each individual to aim for the optimal average fertility as a personal target,then compliance needs to be enforced, whereas if the rule is to try to balance against any observed deviations from the overall target then there is at least a chance that rule followers can cause the target to be met without constraining rule violators at all.