Bryan Caplan  

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Ed Glaeser says that having kids has positive externalities:

[T]here is another reason to subsidize larger families. When parents decide to have kids, they are creating a massive benefit for their children. As much as parents may love their children, they are unlikely to reap all the benefits those children will offer during their lives. Economists often think that it makes sense to subsidize behavior that generates big "external" benefits for others: parenting seems like a particularly natural example of such behavior.
(Unless I'm misunderstanding Ed again!)

Mankiw demurs:

Ed is implicitly comparing the utility of having been born with the utility of never having been born. But since we do not observe those people who were never born, how can we possibly know their utility? Any theory that relies on things that are intrinsically unobservable (such as the utility of potential people who were never even conceived) seems suspect as a basis for public policy.
Actually, this may well be the easiest utility inference in the world. We know that people almost universally prefer existing to not existing because there are so many cheap and easy ways to stop existing.

As intro econ teachers might say, life is a good with free (or nearly free) disposal. Or as the great Epicurus wrote with timeless eloquence:

Yet much worse still is the man who says it is good not to be born, but

"once born make haste to pass the gates of Death." [Theognis, 427]

For if he says this from conviction why does he not pass away out of life? For it is open to him to do so, if he had firmly made up his mind to this. But if he speaks in jest, his words are idle among men who cannot receive them.


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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Matt writes:

"..they are unlikely to reap all the benefits those children will offer during their lives.."

Why unlikely? In older times of non-planned familes, but not today. Parents can calculate to a bounded zero mean error the benefit of children.

The error in underestimating the value of children is to underestimate their capital value. This leads me to something Arnold pointed out earlier in research on the labor market (sorry I missed the reference). It seemed the employers tended to treat employees as a capital asset (my interpretation), but employees were hired in a market that looked more like a commodity market.

We may be underestimating the value of children by missing some of their capital asset value, that businesses recognize. For example, what is the liklihood that my parents would have enjoyed the Los Angeles highway except for the fact that they had many children. (This is Brian's economy of scale). My parents never counted my value as a potential participant in that freeway system.

Javier writes:

See non-identity problem.

If you're an adherent of a person-affecting moral theory, then it is hard to see how benefits to non-existent people could be of moral concern, especially as the policy in question would likely make it come about that a different set of people would come to exist than would have otherwise.

TGGP writes:

Bryan, you really need to read some anti-natalism. Chip Smith has a series (preceding that are parts one, two, three and four) on it. His main claim is that it is better to have never been born BECAUSE death is so horrible, and being born means you are sentenced to death (at least unless the Singularity comes). I can't say I agree with him, but I don't buy into Rothbardian ethics or Christianity or utilitarianism.

Brandon Berg writes:

Actually, this may well be the easiest utility inference in the world.

This leads to strange conclusions. Suppose you and your wife decide you don't want to have children. But you could really use some help around the house. So the two of you decide to have a baby and raise him as your slave. By your logic, as long as you treat him well enough that he doesn't commit suicide, this is perfectly legitimate.

And speaking of not having children, it's arguably worse than murder. If you kill a middle-aged person, you're only depriving him of half of his life. But you're depriving every baby you don't have of all of his life.

The utility of not having been born isn't zero--it's undefined because there's no one to look forward to being born or to lament not having the chance. That's why these kinds of comparisons break down.

conchis writes:

"We know that people almost universally prefer existing to not existing because there are so many cheap and easy ways to stop existing."

But we don't know anything about whether people prefer having existed to never having existed, because there's no way - cheap, easy, or otherwise - to stop having ever existed.

John writes:

We know that people almost universally prefer existing to not existing because there are so many cheap and easy ways to stop existing.

Bryan, this doesn't seem like the right comparison. People can choose to continue to live and still wish that they had never been born. Many do. Mankiw is on target: judging the merit of large-family subsidies involves "signing" the net utility of the people whom the subsidy will cause to be born, i.e., determining whether it will be positive or negative.

Greg Mankiw writes:

Bryan,

You seem to assume the equivalence of never having been born with having been born and then committing suicide. That assumption is not at all obvious to me. The issue is, I suppose, partly theological, which is why I am uncomfortable with this whole line of argument.

Greg

djd writes:

This puts me in mind of the joke that involves two elderly Jews. One says, "Life is so painful, joy is so short, pain is so long, that we would be better off dead than alive!" The second fellow says, "You are right." The first adds, "Even better than to be dead would never to be born!" To which the second responds, "But who has such luck? Not one in ten thousand!"

Matthew c writes:

Bryan, you really need to read some anti-natalism. . . [he believes] it is better to have never been born BECAUSE death is so horrible, and being born means you are sentenced to death (at least unless the Singularity comes).

This is why "rationalism" is such a toxic meme. Rationalism teaches that the solution to everything is a stepwise series of incremental thoughts that always leads to truth. In fact it leads to memetic dead ends and extreme self-alienation and depression. The mental pathologies of so many so-called rationalists is why I no longer waste time discussing their tail-chasing thought chains.

Their thought processes are simply stuck in broken loops, much like flawed software can get stuck in a loop and consume vast amounts of CPU resources on your computer.

The way out of those loops is not through mental discourse, but understanding when to execute a "break" statement and reset the current context. That is the pattern that we see in evolutionary history, in creativity, and in mentally healthy individuals.

I would recommend that every self-describing "rationalist" read Sam Harris's recent speech. Here are a few pertinent excerpts:


Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.

Most us think that if a person is walking down the street talking to himself—that is, not able to censor himself in front of other people—he’s probably mentally ill. But if we talk to ourselves all day long silently—thinking, thinking, thinking, rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said, jabbering on to ourselves about what we hope is going to happen, what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, what may yet happen—but we just know enough to just keep this conversation private, this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with sanity. Well, this is not what the experience of millions of contemplatives suggests. . .

From the point of view of our contemplative traditions, however—to boil them all down to a cartoon version, that ignores the rather esoteric disputes among them—our habitual identification with discursive thought, our failure moment to moment to recognize thoughts as thoughts, is a primary source of human suffering. And when a person breaks this spell, an extraordinary kind of relief is available.

Chip Smith writes:

Bryan,

While I appreciate the plug, I should mention that my series on antinatalism is informed by arguments articulated in David Benetar's treatise, Better Never to Have Been. If you are curious about the ethical case against procreation (and against your existential intuition), I strongly encourage you to take a look at Benatar's work.

TGGP writes:

Matthew, does rationalism really cause depression? One website does not a survey make. Furthermore, couldn't it also be the case that the same factors that lead to depression also lead to rationalism? Or perhaps it is depression itself that causes rationalism? The depressed are less likely to suffer from self-serving bias that overstates their own abilities, but they underestimate the probability that they will overcome depression.

It is funny that Sam Harris is considered such an ultra-atheist, when it's really more the case that he considers the Abrahamic God to be a really unpleasant fellow. I actually first read that speech when Vox Day linked to it and I'm glad to see he's realized not all religions or even monotheisms are created equal. It reminds me of Isaac Asimov's saying that it is wrong to say the earth is flat and wrong to say it is perfectly spherical but to say both are equally wrong is wronger than wrong (though in this situation I am thinking of scariness rather than wrongness).

Chip Smith writes:

Of course, that should have read David BenAtar. Spelled like the 80s pop diva.

For those who have experienced clinical depression, I suspect the notion of rationalist etiology will ring false. There is probably something to depressive realism inasmuch as the afflicted have a more accurate sense of their situational prospects, but the defining characteristic of deep despair is a kind of tumultuous, ridiculous and extra-rational self-absorption. The happy pills bring clarity and peace of mind, preconditions for rational thought.

If antinatalism is soundly reasoned, as I believe it is, there is nothing inherently demoralizing in the implications. Ultimately, it's a philanthropic position - one that cherishes vitality with an aim toward minimizing harm. That's simple stuff.

Personally, I think there is something at least arguably pathological about the mindset that permits people to wantonly create new life without careful regard for the all-too-preventable suffering this entails. Life is valuable for the living, but it is not a gift. Those who never come into existence will never suffer, and are deprived of nothing. Why role the dice?

This is not a loop. This is not tail-chasing. This is nothing more than a precautionary conclusion. A modest hedge. I sleep well.

Peter Davidson writes:

There is no unborn infant waiting to hear their number called in some heavenly waiting room. What is actually happening is a constant splitting of the first unit into a complex form almost infinite in number, limited in variation, and singular in complexity.

jordan blacker writes:

Of course if one fears the possibility of some form of Hell then committing suicide is not equivalent to not having been born. Even if one assigns a low probability to being damned eternally, the expected value-maximizing move might be to stay alive. [Remember: To be or not to be? That was a classic cost-benefit analysis of what might come after.]

Empirical question: As faith has declined, have suicide rates increased in the West in the last 2 centuries? If so, this would be consistent with the thesis since lives were harsher in times past, so suicide rates should actually fall today if fear of the afterlife were a constant.

Scott Scheule writes:

http://distributedrepublic.net/archives/2007/10/12/killing-children-immoral

Matthew c writes:

If antinatalism is soundly reasoned, as I believe it is, there is nothing inherently demoralizing in the implications. Ultimately, it's a philanthropic position - one that cherishes vitality with an aim toward minimizing harm. That's simple stuff.

It's clearly anti-life and obviously pathological from an evolutionary perspective. And it's based on some assumptions not shared by most people.

Look at the world. Thousands or millions of different philosophical beliefs, based on different foundational assumptions. To assume that your anti-natalism is "rational" and Bryan's pro-natalism is "irrational" -- this is the original sin in discovering truth. To someone who honestly wants to overcome bias and see reality, the fact that human beings are rationalizing animals should strike terror in their heart. Instead I find that most "rationalists" simply ignore all the evidence that reason is virtually always used to justify decisions made for emotional reasons. Because that evidence would threaten their so-called "rational" belief systems. However the fact that so many self-proclaimed rationalists all disagree about so many ideas (like natalism) should be a big honking clue. . .

I think all self-identified rationalists would do well to put some effort into a meditation practice, or use some psilocybin mushrooms in a positive setting, or perhaps a challenge like hiking the Appalachian Trail end to end.

Anything to break them out of their mental "closed loops" and open them up to other possibilities. . .

Matthew c writes:

Personally, I think there is something at least arguably pathological about the mindset that permits people to wantonly create new life without careful regard for the all-too-preventable suffering this entails.

Life involves pain and difficulty, as well as pleasure and ease. For everyone, including the rich and privileged. This is the basis of Buddhism, for example.

Suffering, however, is a thought pattern response to life that can be replaced with hedonically preferable responses. I would submit that your entire antinatalism is based around a thought pattern in the "suffering" category.

Again, understanding that "rational philosophies" are in the service of emotional states and beliefs is the beginning of understanding the human condition and human belief systems.

Life is valuable for the living, but it is not a gift. Those who never come into existence will never suffer, and are deprived of nothing.

They will never experience beauty, love or joy either.

Why roll the dice?

Why get up in the morning? Something bad could happen if you do.

This is not a loop. This is not tail-chasing. This is nothing more than a precautionary conclusion

It's a memetically fatal idea-complex. Given that the purpose of idea-complexes is to support life and survival, I would offer up that memetically-fatal idea complexes that result in lineage extinction are a pretty good analog to software crashes and lock-ups.

A modest hedge. I sleep well.

In an era of modern contraception and abortion, memetic ideas like anti-natalism (which happens to be very prevalent among the political left) are doomed to extinction. You may sleep well, but I think we can be sure that this particular meme-complex will not be around in large numbers for very long. . .

TGGP writes:

Matthew C, it seems to me you are committing the naturalistic fallacy when you judge a meme by its ability to self-replicate. Do we consider AIDS to be wonderful because it has propagated itself, or admire the remarkable ability of cancer cells to keep going when other cells would die?

You seem imagine your choice is between a complete absence of emotion or abandoning rationality. Unless you actually attain rationality though, how can you know if you are judging it correctly? And don't you think there is room for improvements on the margin?

Chip Smith writes:

TGGP beat me to the naturalistic fallacy. I would only add that it is not sufficient to reject antinatalism on the contention that it is a memetically-fatal idea complex (nor on the grounds that it is counterintuitive or axiomatically unconscionable, as Benatar discusses). If you adhere to a harm principle, or a pleasure principle, or really any disposition regarding matters of moral conduct, the case that procreation causes harm begs to be addressed in kind. While I have no illusion that antinatalism will gain currency in the real world, I do know with certainty that by not having children, I absolutely guarantee that some potential people will neither suffer nor die, because they will not be. Ethics is about individual choices, not memetic survival.

You are correct, of course, that people who never come into existence will never experience beauty love and joy. But it is a mistake to characterize this literal absence of pleasure (and pain) as a kind of deprivation. A quantitative hedonic calculus may be justified when we are talking about the already-living, but the eternal unknowing painlessness of pre-vital non-existence trumps the symmetry every time. Those who have not come into existence will never know what they're missing, good or bad. The idea that this is a somehow net subtraction is an existential conceit; those who do not come into existence are not deprived of joy - because they are NOT. As moral agents, we have the option of keeping it that way.

Dog of Justice writes:

Matthew C, it seems to me you are committing the naturalistic fallacy when you judge a meme by its ability to self-replicate. Do we consider AIDS to be wonderful because it has propagated itself, or admire the remarkable ability of cancer cells to keep going when other cells would die?

Self-replication is not a sufficient condition for a meme to be worthwhile. But it is usually a necessary one.

Matthew c writes:

Self-replication is not a sufficient condition for a meme to be worthwhile. But it is usually a necessary one.

I would be even more emphatic and state it as "always a necessary one".

Matthew c writes:

You seem imagine your choice is between a complete absence of emotion or abandoning rationality. Unless you actually attain rationality though, how can you know if you are judging it correctly? And don't you think there is room for improvements on the margin?

TGGP, belief that we are in the (small, select) group which is "attaining rationality" versus all the others who disagree with us is the essential characteristic of self-delusion. It is the original sin that produces unbounded error in its wake.

The best we can do is hold our thought processes in deep skepticism, and realize the radical contingency and tentativeness of our conclusions. Failure to do so leads to personal cognitive cul-de-sacs from which there is no exit. Because our "rational" thought processes are inextricably intertwined with emotional underpinnings that guide and direct them, mostly based on the evolutionary psychology of being social creatures.

Jonathan Haight writes about this quite effectively in this Edge essay, and in this academic paper. A few choice quotes:

Our brains, like other animal brains, are constantly trying to fine tune and speed up the central decision of all action: approach or avoid. You can't understand the river of fMRI studies on neuroeconomics and decision making without embracing this principle. We have affectively-valenced intuitive reactions to almost everything, particularly to morally relevant stimuli such as gossip or the evening news. Reasoning by its very nature is slow, playing out in seconds.


Studies of everyday reasoning show that we usually use reason to search for evidence to support our initial judgment, which was made in milliseconds. . .

The basic idea is that we did not evolve language and reasoning because they helped us to find truth; we evolved these skills because they were useful to their bearers, and among their greatest benefits were reputation management and manipulation.

Just look at your stream of consciousness when you are thinking about a politician you dislike, or when you have just had a minor disagreement with your spouse. It's like you're preparing for a court appearance. Your reasoning abilities are pressed into service generating arguments to defend your side and attack the other.

Anyone who claims to be about "overcoming bias" or a to be a "rationalist" or "moral philosopher" who is not intimately familiar with this cognitive gravitational black hole that completely dominates the trajectories of our "rational" thought processes, is walking blindfolded, stumbling across the landscape of reality on a cloudy, moonless night.

Matthew c writes:

Ethics is about individual choices, not memetic survival.

I should also add that I disagree with this statement. Ethics is all about memetic, social, and organism survival as "encoded" into human preferences. That does not mean that all ethics are equally preferable to me (or to most people).

Chip Smith writes:

Matthew c,

It seems to me that if ethics is about survival - at whatever level - then the game is rigged in your favor.

My empirical proposition is that procreation entails avoidable suffering and death. Antinatalism addresses this by proposing that people refrain from creating new life. If my empirical premise is accurate, and if refraining from bringing new life into existence reduces suffering and death, and if preventing suffering and death is a desirable thing, then we are left with a situation in which a good outcome (less suffering and death) is in conflict with survival. But if survival is posited as a constitutional feature of ethics proper, then my antinatalist preference for reducing harm is rendered axiomatically untenable from the start. After all, antinatalism embraces attritional extinction as a just means of minimizing harm.

It seems to me that either your preference for survival is less than descriptive (and personally, I think it borders on nature-faking), or my preference for antinatalism is extra-ethical. However it's framed, I am certain that I want nothing to do with an ethical order that presupposes the value of survival on such terms.

TGGP writes:

Matthew C, me and the OB folks have read Haidt, and have discussed confirmation bias. None of us claim to be bias-free. We do claim that we can become less biased on the margin if we actually work at it, but you seem to be completely opposed to this effort. We are all willing to discuss these issues with you, but you left OB in a huff and stopped updating your own blog. It can't be the case that you simply aren't going to discuss these issues since you are doing it right here. Why?

Daniel Merritt writes:

I don't know if someone has already pointed this out, but there are also serious costs to others of choosing to die after you already exist that aren't there if you could 'choose' to never exist at all. I suffer from a long-term and serious chronic illness that has made life very, very difficult at times; often then I thought it would be better to have never existed.

Nonetheless, I don't think I ever contemplated suicide for any substantial period (as in, longer than six hours in a hospital ER), and this is without any philosophical or theological opposition to the idea of suicide; I strongly believe in a right to euthanasia and the acceptability of taking your own life if things are truly miserable. But because my utility calculation included effects on others, I never got close to that point despite the pain.

Even though I knew my parents would in some sense understand - since they had even explicitly stated that they would help me find a painless way to die if my disease ever became that intolerable - it was also clear the effect on them would be horrible. Not only would they be emotionally & psychologically devastated, they would be deprived of all the future positive interactions and joy* (we have a really good relationship, so let's note the utility of this would be high, unlike turbulent relationships where the joy would be offset by fights). To a somewhat lesser degree, I would be inflicting the same on my friends. None of these would be caused by, say, either the original egg or sperm being defective and never fertilizing.

Obviously it's your own life and you have no obligation to live it for others benefit, but for anybody who cares about their friends & family the costs of dying (ceasing to exist) and never having existed are drastically different.

* = Some would argue that these same lost opportunities apply to having never existed at all. But whether or not economic theory predicts it, there is clearly a huge difference in human psychology between how we deal with opportunities we never thought of and opportunities we know 'could have been' but aren't.

Jenny7470WCU writes:

Now don't get me wrong I'm glad that people have children because I wouldnt be here if they didn't. However, I think that there are many reasons not to have kids. Personally its hard to see how parents reep so many benifits from children. I can see how they may receive emotional benifits but not so many that are financial. There appears to be many families right now that are living below their means finacially but continue having children. The more children they have the more finacially unstable they are. Its hard enough to give children a good education that are from middle class families, so could you imagine trying to raise children with an income that two people could barley survive off of. It will be hard for those children who are raised by parents who make such a small income to be able to grow up and do better then their own parents. Now I'm not saying that it can't be done but it is a struggle. So why dont some people instead of having large families concentrate on themselves and striving for better then trying to have children who they can not suppport?

WCU Charlie 0893 writes:

The interpretation of these arguments depends solely on just how technical you wish to be. I personally agree with the interpretation that, with so many easy, cheap, accessible ways to commit suicide, we can see that most people prefer life. However, who can really know they prefer life for a a fact? Anyone who has been born has nothing to compare life with. Anyone who has never had life clearly cannot be asked about it.

I found one point in the comments particularly interesting: "...we don't know anything about whether people prefer having existed to never having existed, because there's no way - cheap, easy, or otherwise - to stop having ever existed."

This comment raises the point that there is a difference between never having existed and ending the existence that we have. This brings factors such as devastated family members and loose ends that would be left after committing suicide. Someone may wish they did not have a life or had never been born, but elect not to commit suicide based on what might happen to those they love or things they are responsible for. For instance, what would happen to the preteen children of a single mother who commits suicide?

Matthew Bowen writes:

There are many benefits to having children in today's society and there is nothing wrong with having longer families. Children can provide to their parents a free source of labor; even though they have to be clothed and feed. They can make their parents life a little bit easier when doing things that are time consuming or doing little tasks around the house. Back in the 19th century the main reason for having children was so they could do farm work and have extra hands to help out. I think that children are a utility because without them most businesses would not be able to function, since many companies interests is to appeal to kids. Look at gaming companies or toy companies; they rely on children to buy their products. Economically children are a good thing to have they can be virtually a free source of labor and they help to keep smaller US businesses going by buying their products.

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