Bryan Caplan  

How "Ethically Risky" Is Creating a Life?

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Today I appeared on Anthony Brooks' NPR show to discuss the ethics of having kids (audio now up).  Philosopher Christine Overall, my sparring partner, emphasized that having a child is "ethically risky."  Who knows what this child's life will be like, or what his effect on the world will be? 

Here's how I would have responded if I'd had the time.

Having a child is no more "ethically risky" than saving the life of an unconscious stranger lying in the gutter.  Yes, it's possible that the stranger will turn out to be the next Hitler.  But that's an absurd argument against lending a hand.  The odds of this horrific outcome are vanishingly low.  Indeed, as I've argued before, the mere existence of civilization shows that the average person is a creator, not a destroyer.  (I flesh out this argument in much greater detail in my book and here).

You could even argue that creating a life is less ethically risky than being a Good Samaritan.  On the plausible assumption that violent people are relatively likely to become the victims of violence themselves, there is some extra reason to worry about the stranger you're saving.  In contrast, if you're the sort of person who ponders the ethics of having kids, you're probably a peaceful, intelligent, disciplined individual who can reasonably expect to pass these very traits on to your child.

Contrary to Overall's claim in the interview, none of this implies a moral "mandate" to have children.  Thoughtful people can disagree about whether there's a moral duty to be a Good Samaritan.  But there's little doubt that it's morally good to be a Good Samaritan.

P.S. My fourth child, my first daughter, Valeria Jacqueline Caplan, is scheduled to be born on Saturday, so my posting may be sporadic in coming days.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
aretae writes:

Congratulations, Bryan.

Saturos writes:

Best of congratulations, Bryan! A girl at last! (You'll have to update your website).

Vipul Naik writes:

So you decided not to use Ayn or Fanya as the middle name.

Sean writes:

You might be interested in the newest issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy, Bryan. It's all about anti-natalism.

PrometheeFeu writes:

First of all Congratulations!

Of course, I'll follow up by disagreeing. The stranger who is dying in a ditch is probably looking forward to a lot of suffering between now and oblivion. The child who is never born faces no such prospects.

TimG writes:

It strikes me as weird to talk about this in a general sense, it depends on who is having the child. A married a professional couple having a child is not ethically risky, a unmarried, jobless, meth addict having a child *is* ethically risky.

Neal writes:

amazing you know her name already! Is this an American thing?

Many congratulations anyway...your basic logic above seems sound

(Neal, father of a mere 2)

nitesh writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for irrelevance to the thread. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Daniel Klein writes:

Nice post.

Your point speaks to some of Walter Block's critique of a paper I did with Michael Clark. Here is Block's critique. Here is the Klein-Clark paper that he is criticizing.

Jeff writes:
having a child is "ethically risky." Who knows what this child's life will be like, or what his effect on the world will be?

and yet, somehow, billions of people have been having children for centuries, and this never bothered any of them.

Some people really need to get out more.

infopractical writes:

It's one thing to worry about whether the kid you have would be a benefit to the universe. It's another to worry about whether the universe would be a benefit to your kid.

John David Galt writes:

Even in the unlikely event that one's next child were to grow up and become a major bad guy, I would not blame the parents. That's tantamount to denying the child's personhood.

But I can see having a child as ethically risky in a different sense. My child might be born with (or develop in childhood) an expensive disability, thus obliging me to provide support (care and/or money) I'm not capable of providing, maybe even on into Junior's adult life (I know people with this sort of disability). At that point, no matter what I do, I haven't done enough.

Steve Z writes:

Congratulations on the new additional to the family. Having a daughter is great, I think you will enjoy it. (For one thing, there is less risk when changing their diapers. . .)

David Jinkins writes:

A person can decide to end her life, but she cannot decide whether to have ever lived. That decision is made by her parents. I can imagine that there are people who would have strongly preferred to never have existed. When you create a life (AND when you don't create a life), you make that important decision for someone else. The decision to create a life is risky in the sense that you may be seriously violating the wishes of someone that you will care deeply about.

Doug Bennett writes:

Can you comment on good decision procedures for selecting a son's name?

I essentially have carte blanche from my wife, it is mostly my son and future self I want to please.

Currently and historically, I prefer traditional names.

My son may someday face transliteration of his name into Chinese and pronunciation of his name in Mandarin. I don't know how much weight to give this.

Evan writes:

@Prometheefu

Of course, I'll follow up by disagreeing. The stranger who is dying in a ditch is probably looking forward to a lot of suffering between now and oblivion. The child who is never born faces no such prospects.
Bryan's experiment could be clarified by imagining that you have the power to painlessly kill the stranger in the ditch, and not get caught. If I had to choose between killing them and saving them I'd save them without hesitation. Pain may be bad, but life is good and it is bad to prevent it if doing so doesn't seriously interfere with another value (and no, this does not imply the repugnant conclusion).

@infopractical

It's one thing to worry about whether the kid you have would be a benefit to the universe. It's another to worry about whether the universe would be a benefit to your kid.
Excellent point. I believe that at the moment, the average person is a benefit to the universe. This trend will likely continue for a long time, maybe forever if Julian Simon is right. In a first world country the universe is currently a pretty awesome place to be born into. I think this trend is also likely to continue for a while, maybe forever if Simon is right.

@David Jinkins

A person can decide to end her life, but she cannot decide whether to have ever lived.
That's a valid point, but the odds of someone deciding that it is better to have never lived seem vanishingly small. The fact that the majority of suicides are committed by senior citizens, and very few by small children, indicates that most people end their lives because their life was good to a point, but they don't want any more, not that it was never good (obviously the fact that children are less physically able to kill themselves confounds things, but I think my point is still valid).

Jacob Lyles writes:

Cheers Bryan! Congrats on the new family member.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Evan

"Bryan's experiment could be clarified by imagining that you have the power to painlessly kill the stranger in the ditch, and not get caught."

I don't think that's a useful thought experiment for the following reason: most people would suffer from the mere knowledge that their life is about to end. Fear of death is a common thing. Sure, you can remove their senses, the knowledge of their impending doom, their pain, etc... But then, I would argue the person is already dead for most intents and purposes.

Evan writes:

@PrometheeFeu

I don't think that's a useful thought experiment for the following reason: most people would suffer from the mere knowledge that their life is about to end.

Bryan clearly stated that the stranger in the ditch is unconscious. If you killed them before they regained consciousness they'd never gain the knowledge of their impending death, and hence never suffer from it.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Evan:

That's only if you are taking the decision in isolation assuming perfect freedom of choice. But in the real world, you are constrained by all sorts of institutions, internal and external. So really, what you are describing is not just a single act, but also a broader world in which such acts tend to be taken. And that is going to generate anxiety in individuals.

In other words, assuming some weak version of perfect information, the unconscious man will have lived his life knowing that you might make such a choice. That is where your action will harm him.

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