Bryan Caplan  

Parenthood as the Trump of All Past Regret

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I don't regret anything in my life prior to the conception of my sons. This may sound like sentimental nonsense, but I tell you it's true. Here's my argument:

1. Basic biology: A man produces hundreds of millions of sperm every day. Each of these sperm contains (half of) the genetic blueprint for a different person. The slightest physical movement changes the position of sperm.

2. Therefore, any change in my life prior to my children's conception would have led my children not to exist. If I had crossed my legs differently, or walked to the frig, or even chuckled an extra time, the sperm would have been rearranged, negating my children's existence. I might have had different children, of course, but they wouldn't be the ones I have.

3. Like most parents, I have a massive endowment effect vis-a-vis my children. I love them greatly simply because they exist and they're mine. If you offered to replace one of my sons with another biological child who was better in every objective way, I'd definitely refuse.

4. Therefore, if you offered me a "do-over" on any aspect of my life prior to my children's conception, I would refuse, for it would mean that these specific children would never have been born.

5. Since I wouldn't want to change any event prior to my children's conception, I have nothing to regret. And since I have nothing to regret during this period, I don't regret anything.

Note that this argument only rules out regret prior to the conception of your last child. Events between the final conception and the present wouldn't change the identity of your children, so the argument from the endowment effect doesn't apply. It also doesn't apply if you wish you'd had a different child, or no child at all. But your child has to be pretty rotten to warrant such a wish, no?

If you think this is just my egghead way of saying "Happy Father's Day!," you're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. What I'm really saying is that if you love your children just because they're the ones you got, you have a special reason to be happy every day. After all, you can survey your whole life before your last child's conception and honestly say: "It all happened for a reason. I wouldn't change a thing."

P.S. Happy Father's Day - and if you're reading this, Dad, thanks!


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
AMW writes:

Great. Now I have to think about how every move I make could land me with a rotten brat. Thanks, Bryan.

Dennis Mangan writes:

By your line of reasoning, no one (who has children anyway) has any reason to regret anything at all. Everyone lives in the best of all possible worlds.

eric writes:

According to that logic, you should appreciate everything that has ever happened, including WW2, news reports about Jeffrey Dahmer, etc. Given there are 100MM sperm per ejaculate, and many different moments for conception, many things affected the fact of our children's birth. I don't have an answer, but thanking providence for everything good and bad, for our child, seems a bit selfish, though I agree I wouldn't trade my children for anything and consider myself fortunate.

A good example of this paradox is in an interview with the author of A Drunkard's Walk. He notes that, if Hitler didn't kill his dad's prior wife, his father would have never migrated to NY and met his mother, so he had Hitler to 'thank' for his life. What do you do with that?

dearieme writes:

"or walked to the frig"... I knew there must be a reason why people spell it "fridge".

burger flipper writes:

This is the subject, more or less, of a novel by the incomparable Thomas Berger: Changing the Past.

Available for 38 cents on Amazon.

Hei Lun Chan writes:

How is it any more rational to accept the endowment effect in regards to loving one's children than loving one's country? Granted, the latter is much more likely to lead to bad public policy that affects other people, but many people don't see it that way. For them it's just as rational to favor one's countryman over foreigners as to favor one's children over strangers.

Snark writes:

I fail to see why any economist with kids would question the endowment effect. Almost without exception, parents consider their own kids priceless, but wouldn't pay a nickel for another one.

Blackadder writes:

Bryan,

As you've noted previously, there are at least two different kinds of regret: regret where you wished you made a different choice given your constraints, and regret that you had the constraints. Your argument basically adds the uber-constraint that if you had done anything prior to the conception of your kids even a little differently, they would not have been conceived. This may largely eliminate the grounds for your having any of the former type of regrets, but it doesn't eliminate the grounds for having regrets of the latter type. In fact, I'd say that the argument works precisely by shifting ones regrets from the former type to the latter, so while the type of regrets a person might have changes, the overall level of regret doesn't.

Matt C writes:

Changing the merest detail of your prior life would cause you to have different kids, but it would also cause you to be a different you, loving those kids instead of the ones you have now.

So you need to compare that imaginary self to your real self, not try to put your real self in some imaginary shoes that don't fit anymore.

Alternatively, and I think this is more common, when you're contemplating your prior life and possible mistakes you've made, pretend that making a different decision would only have the direct and obvious effects that you'd like it to have, rather than causing a ripple of changes resulting in what might be a completely different life.

Or you could just quit daydreaming and go do something with your kids instead. Happy Father's Day!

Troy Camplin writes:

WIthout the emphasis on children, I wrote about this several years ago on my blog. In other words, we are in total agreement on this issue of regret.

Kurbla writes:

Logical, but very dangerous deduction, because lie detector could (and probably would) show that you actually feel regrets about your past life, in despite of your deduction that you shouldn't.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"any change in my life prior to my children's conception would have led my children not to exist."

I think that none of the sperm that was alive in the moment of the conception of your son was alive one year (or perhaps one month?) before the conception. Than, probably a move that you made with 7 y.o. would not have replaced your son by another.

Troy Camplin writes:

Butterfly effects. You don't know what action will have what effect. Subtle changes in temperature around the testes affects sperm production significantly.

Robinson writes:

This is one (of many) minor things that has always bothered me about (otherwise fun) time travel movies like Back to the Future. If Marty McFly changed his parents' pasts so much, there's no way the same kids would have been born.

Alternatively, and I think this is more common, when you're contemplating your prior life and possible mistakes you've made, pretend that making a different decision would only have the direct and obvious effects that you'd like it to have, rather than causing a ripple of changes resulting in what might be a completely different life.

This doesn't make any sense. You can't ignore the effects that your hypothetical decisions would have made- you need to recognize that your past self faced physical constraints and tradeoffs. I can't "regret" not winning the lottery, and argue that I can regret not getting any effect "I'd like to have."

Troy Camplin writes:

Your right about "Back to the Future" to some degree, though it has been noted that if you pay very close attention to the 3 movies that the time-travel physics of the movies suggests something akin to jumping between parallel universes.

As for your second comment, keep in mind that he is (and must be) only talking about those things that you can in fact affect. You can't really regret not winning the lottery, since you had nothing to do with it one way or the other (though you might regret not having bought a ticket if you knew that you would have chosen the winning numbers had you bought the ticket).

Miguel Madeira writes:

"This is one (of many) minor things that has always bothered me about (otherwise fun) time travel movies like Back to the Future. If Marty McFly changed his parents' pasts so much, there's no way the same kids would have been born."

But this is exactly the central point of the 1st movie, no?

Robinson writes:
But this is exactly the central point of the 1st movie, no?

Not really- the 1st movie was about WHETHER the kids would be born, but they assumed that no matter how much the parents changed (from losers to successes), as long as the kids were born, they would still look the same.

This is actually the reason that it's always bothered me- they come so close to addressing the problem, but ignore the sperm issue Bryan brings up.

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