Is Parenthood Just Permissible? (part 2)

Marc Quinn - www.marcquinn.com
Some say we have a prima facie obligation to procreate (like Saul Smilansky), but common sense these days says procreation is just permissible.  Yes, yes, there are population worries, but let's set those aside, please.  Not because they aren't pressing and serious, but because they're not relevant to the philosophical questions I'm trying to think about here. 

In my last post on this subject I suggested that the reasons people like Smilansky have for thinking procreation is obligatory are actually better seen as reasons to put it at the "commendable" end of permissible.  Making kids goes in the same basket as other non-obligatory ways of doing good, from making good dinners to running marathons to writing novels. (Again, we're setting aside over-population worries for purposes of this post.)

A couple of commenters had the same reaction:  why permissible-commendable and not supererogatory?  In fact, why even think of running a marathon or writing a novel as permissible-commendable rather than supererogatory?  It would be nice to be able to dispense with the question quickly.  "Well, that's excluded because of the meaning of 'supererogatory'," but it's a little tricky defining that term.

Obligatory acts are required, whereas supererogatory acts are ... what?  A common gloss is "admirable," but that's not so helpful.  When someone fulfills an obligation, that's surely admirable.  Another common gloss is "heroic."  That fits the common example of you or me  running into a burning building to save someone, but it's also supererogatory to put $1 into the breast cancer collection cup when you check out at the grocery story. There's nothing's "heroic" about that.

In the comments on the last post, Justin suggested that supererogatory acts are defined by a certain ratio between cost to self and benefit to all.  Supererogatory acts are too costly to self, in comparison to the benefit to others, to be obligatory.  They're represented by the region labeled "$" in the diagram (his)  below.

Justin's Diagram

I love a good diagram, but I think the relationships represented by this drawing are just frequently associated with these moral categories, not definitive of them.  For example: I used to lead the Darfur initiative at the synagogue we belong to.  We raised $60,000 for refugees, so this was an effort that scored high on the "good/bad" axis.  I found this effort extremely enjoyable, as I think most of the other volunteers did. So it goes way up in the right quadrant, on this graph--in the obligatory zone. In our common sense moral scheme, the effort was a paradigm case of supererogation.

You'd think we could just turn to the various leading moral theories for a simple, easy definition of "supererogatory," but not so. One of the standard objections to utilitarianism is that it leaves no room for supererogation.  Whatever maximizes total good is obligatory; and everything else is just plain wrong, not permissible or supererogatory. We get no more help from Kantian ethics.  What corresponds best in Kant to the supererogatory is his notion of an imperfect duty, but this is actually a very different concept. 

OK--so what does "supererogatory" really connote?  I think the best gloss is "beyond the call of duty."  In any given situation, we are morally required to do various things. A supererogatory act involves going even further than was morally required.  It amounts to going beyond what's expected, but in the area of morality.

Within our modern, individualistic culture we have the notion that we ought, morally, be concerned about breast cancer, but only have to actively help friends and relatives with the disease.  If we do that, when we can, but also put $1 in the cup, we've excelled in the morally significant sphere of breast cancer concern.  We're supposed to care about Darfur refugees, but if we go further and raise money for them, we've excelled, morally--whether or not we're having fun while doing it.

So what about novels and marathons? Most of the time, we don't think of these things as having any moral import at all.  Putting a mere dollar in the breast cancer box is supererogatory, and running an entire marathon is not, because the former starts from a moral requirement (concern for cancer victims) and goes further, whereas the other doesn't do anything of the sort.  There's no "going beyond," in a morally significant sense, involved in running a marathon or writing a novel.

Now, what about making babies?  Is that further out on some trajectory that starts from the morally required?  I can just about see that it would be, in certain exotic scenarios.  You're living in some end-of-the world scenario.  Humankind is on the verge of extinction.  To ensure that there are future people--so more happiness, love, morality, knowledge, and all the other human goodies--you are very careful not to spread your germs, and do your utmost to help people in risky situations, and you share food, etc.  In such a case, perhaps it would make sense to say that mating is obligatory, and mating a whole lot is supererogatory.  As in--having a 6th child, just for "the cause."

But in our world today (remember, we are pretending we have no over-population problem), I don't see what the moral duties are that would have procreation as an extension--a way of going "above and beyond."  It seems instead like having children goes into the same basket with marathon-running and novel-writing. These are all at least potentially good things to do--they make the world a better place (again, leaving aside population issues)--but they are not usually morally superlative things to do.

If procreation is extremely onerous (for me it's quite the opposite--it's extremely rewarding), that doesn't change the picture at all.  It doesn't make procreation any sort of "going further" in a direction that starts from moral duties.  So procreation isn't supererogatory, even for someone who (mistakenly!) expects to find kids a big pain in the ass.


ɕʯɞʢɦʦɨɻɩʀɽɟʬʩʪɣɥɶɻʅ said...

Hello, I'm not sure I understand your post ...

if I am at a fixed (y) "good" level and move horizontally (x) to the left enough I end up (in your graph) in the supererogatory area. Doesn't that contradict your last paragraph?

Also, it is also very strange that the supererogatory and the impermissible areas touch asymptotically.

And you seem to assume a lot (e.g. that having kids is good). You exclude population ethics, but should at least include the child itself in the picture. Otherwise this seems to be a pure self-interested calculus, and I'm not sure there's much space for ethics left there.

We might agree I think that by having a kid you are responsible of creating unnecessary suffering.

Jean Kazez said...

The graph is not mine, and I don't agree with the way it defines any of these terms.

As to child itself being (typically) quite happy--I think that's what positive psychologists tell us, but I'll have to back that up in another post.

ɠʘɺɷɕɥʝɒɮɰɭʧɕɒɾʇʡɽʜʯ said...

ok, sorry I misread your post.

For the kids that are typically happy, it seems to me that we should look at the "happiness distribution" instead of the simple average. The variance around such average is huge, from horrible diseases and suffering to whatever "best" you want to consider.

It seems to me that when we impose our choices on other human beings (who are not hurt if they don't exist) we have to be really careful with the "worst case scenario", kind of a minimax rule, not the simple average.