The Philosophical Parent

I'm hereby beginning a series of posts about parenting, starting from the beginning and moving through lots of philosophical issues that come up in the lives of parents. This is to get ideas and examples for something I'm writing.

The beginning means--the decision to make a baby. Here's the puzzle that really bothers me. Say you are in the worst possible circumstances for having a baby. You're 18 and already have 3 kids. You're in prison and you're dallying with the guards...

[For examples like this, the book Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is fantastic. Actually, the book is fantastic in all ways.]

...Or maybe you're just a single woman without economic security. Or you're way, way older than the average parent.

So you're in one of those situations and you contemplate having a child. You think to yourself--even if worse comes to worst and the kid's situation is going to be pretty bad, he (she) is almost guaranteed to be glad to be alive.

What does the kid's being glad to be alive tell us? Does it prove there really was no problem with creating that child, as far as the child is concerned?

Your thoughts welcome.


Oscar said...

I would suggest Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar. I've not read the book myself, although I would like to do so. From the product description: "Although the good things in one's life make one's life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence. . . . The author then argues for the 'anti-natal' view---that it is always wrong to have children---and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about foetal moral status yield a 'pro-death' view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). . . ." It certainly seems counter-intuitive and, on the face of it, quite ridiculous, but it may be worth a look if for no other reason than how notorious such an argument could be. (I think he goes beyond the voluntary human extinction movement line -- although he does support that as well -- by placing coming into existence as a moral wrong, and not merely as a Bad Thing For The Planet, as it seems VHEMT proponents do.)

Jean Kazez said...

Thank you Oscar. That's a great suggestion. I have read the book, and have a quick, casual little review of it here on the site (under "recent articles"). The arguments in that book are definitely very relevant to the question I'm asking here.

Faust said...

In the Eastern Religions of Hinduism and Buddhism there is, as some have noted, a "nihilistic" strain, particularly in Buddhism, but I think it can be seen in Hinduism as well. Because the goal of Buddhism is "cesation of rebirth" it would seem that being born at all hooks into the kind of thinking referenced by Oscar's book recommendation above.

It should be noted that neither Buddhism nor Hinduism advocate as central doctrine not having children--except in the general sense that for totally dedicated adherents celibacy is advocated...this seems to be true across most (all?) of the major religions. This I think in an interesting tension in religious doctrine: celibacy (and other forms of self deprivation) for the saints/monks/priests but not for the primary culture.

Tea Logar said...

"However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence. . . . "

There's just something odd about this sentence... saying that something could not have harmed *you* if you didn't exist somehow reminds me of the problem of "The present king of France is bald." - it's neither true not false, since neither *you* nor the king of France in fact exist in these scenarios.

In other words, yes, you can't benefit a non-existent person, but neither can you harm her. You can therefore turn the argument around and simply replace "harm" with "benefit", and perhaps even conclude that we should reproduce like bunnies for as long as we're fertile.

I've always found this question fascinating, though. Philosophically speaking, it doesn't seem to make much sense to argue that you can harm people by bringing them into existence (except maybe in cases that involve extreme suffering). On the other hand, I always feel sorry for the kids who are products of irresponsible parents, and wish they were smart enough to have used contraception.

s. wallerstein said...

Is there good evidence that children of irresponsible parents are unhappier than those of responsible parents? Some responsible parents are pretty unbearable as human beings; some people are all too responsible. It seems that if not carefully thought out, this argument could have a class bias: that only middle class (or upper class) people are in a position to have children, that the lives of the poor are too fragile or precarious or unsettled for them to have children.

Jean Kazez said...

Tea, I need to read more of the literature. I wonder if anyone has ever connected the dots between the strangeness of seeing existence as harming or benefiting a child (I see it just as you do) and one of the standard replies to the ontological arguments--that existence is not a perfection. If existence is not "good making" or "bad making" then it's not clear how it can benefit or harm.

Yet I do have the intuition that it can be bad to have a child, and bad in some way that's all about the child. I am trying to figure out how best to talk about this. Jonathan Glover's book "Choosing Children" is very good and helpfu.

rtk said...

Occasionally a philosophical question pops an image into my head that I can't push away - a person with eyes crossed and rolled back, hands tied behind back and clearly needing to go to the bathroom. This was one of those questions.

In fact, when choosing to have a child, does anyone who does not think for a profession consider the harm that will not fall upon the unproduced being. Say wha'? I suppose some parents-to-be really do deduce their intentions. Others of us, the one in jail, the poor woman, the young one, and me too, just go with the hormones. Having a baby was not an option. The fact that it would not always be a newborn was beyond my imagination. I'll go even further; the state of pregnancy itself was desirable and the product - a real genuine baby - was emotionally a surprise. Some of us are not so different from canines, felines, monkeys and all the rest.

Jean Kazez said...

rtk...ha (on all fronts), but there are situations in which people do think about these things...and should! For example--two people with achondroplasia (little people...dwarfs...whatever you're supposed to say) have a 50% chance of having a kid with the same condition, 25% chance of having a normal kid, and 25% chance of having a kid who soon dies. Should they have a baby?

Or say two people are way over traditional age--like both are 60. Should they make a kid who's going to have creaky parents?

These are real questions, but I admit what makes them delectable is that as soon as you start thinking about them, things get very, very puzzling.

Fair enough, though about the canines, felines, etc. I think it's true that for most people reproduction is pretty much like that. It might be good all around, though, if it weren't.

Tom said...

Hey Jean,

I recall Joel Feinberg having some interesting stuff about apparent parental harm to children who wouldn't have existed without the event that (intuitively) caused them harm. I think this is from his book *Harm to Others* but I'll try to look around in other papers of his to see if I can find anything else.