Bryan Caplan  

The New Yorker on the Ethics of Fertility

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Elizabeth Kolbert has a fun piece on the ethics of fertility, featuring Christine Overall, David Benatar, and me.

Kolbert on Overall:

Of course, people do give reasons for having children, and Overall takes them up one by one. Consider the claim that having a child benefits the child...

Overall rejects this argument on two grounds. First of all, nonexistent people have no moral standing. (There are an infinite number of nonexistent people out there, and you don't notice them complaining, do you?) Second, once you accept that you should have a baby in order to increase the world's total happiness, how do you know when to stop?... This reductio ad Duggar Family was first articulated by the British philosopher Derek Parfit; it is known in academic circles as the Repugnant Conclusion. Overall considers it dispositive: "A simplistic utilitarianism is wrong about the ethics of having children."

Hopefully Overall eventually considers the more moderate view that creating life is very good but supererogatory.

Kolbert on Benatar:

Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone--that is, had the life never been created--no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it.

"One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad--a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick--is worse than no life at all," Benatar writes.

Or to take a slightly different example, no one should ever write Benatar a check because it's a pain to go to the bank to deposit it.

Kolbert on me:

Benatar's child-rearing advice, if followed, would result in human extinction. Caplan's leads in the opposite direction: toward a never-ending population boom. He declares this to be one of his scheme's advantages: "More people mean more ideas, the fuel of progress." In a work that's full of upbeat pronouncements, this is probably his most optimistic, or, if you prefer, outrageous claim.

A slight exaggeration, but when someone accuses me of outrageous optimism, I take it as a compliment.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Vipul Naik writes:

I'm confused by Overall's overall argument. On the one hand, she is saying that altruistic explanations don't work because those would necessitate having continually more kids. On the other hand, she rejects "selfish" explanations because ... well, I'm not sure, they sound too selfish?

How about a convex combination of altruism and selfishness? The altruistic component would urge maximum fertility, but the selfish part would peak after (say) three kids, so taking the suitable convex combination may yield some middle ground like four or five kids.

Probably, Kolbert hasn't represented every angle of Overall's argument, but Kolbert doesn't list any reasons Overall gives *against* having kids. In the absence of such reasons, what's the problem with having as many kids as you want? If I'm telling somebody to not do something they want to do (in this case, have children), isn't the burden of proof on me to justify my insistence, rather than on that person to try to offer justifications for his/her actions?

I'm sure David Benatar regards chili powder as evidence of insanity.

MikeP writes:

People who don't take individual liberty as the default position that must be proven false in the case being debated are indistinguishable from psychopaths.

Steve Sailer writes:

"a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick--is worse than no life at all," Benatar writes. "

Wow, she's really changed her mind since "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

Nathan Smith writes:

My dissertation (see here: http://gradworks.umi.com/3471056.pdf) provides still another argument for population optimism: Adam Smith-style division of labor. "Smithian" growth has long been assumed not to apply at the margin in modern economies. I explain why this dismissal is an error. Not only does more people mean more ideas, it means finer specialization, liquid markets, economies of scale.

Evan writes:
Second, once you accept that you should have a baby in order to increase the world's total happiness, how do you know when to stop?...
Boy, I sure am hungry and it's making me unhappy. I better get a snack to increase my happiness. Wait, if I get a snack to increase my total happiness, how will I know where to stop? I'll have to keep eating and eating until my stomach bursts!

Having children to increase the world's total happiness has the same stopping point as eating food to increase my total happiness. You do it until it starts to conflict with other important values. I stop eating after my value of eating food conflicts with the value of not getting sick or fat. You stop having children after the value of increasing total happiness conflicts with other values, like increasing average happiness.

This reductio ad Duggar Family was first articulated by the British philosopher Derek Parfit; it is known in academic circles as the Repugnant Conclusion. Overall considers it dispositive: "A simplistic utilitarianism is wrong about the ethics of having children."
The only reason the Repugnant Conclusion seems to have any argumentative force at all is that philosophers unconsciously assume that increasing total happiness is the only value. If you admit the existence of other values its fallaciousness becomes apparent instantly.

This is one field where ethicists need to learn from economists. Ethicists try to pick one Great Principle and argue that we should Maximize it. Economists take a look at all our different values and ask what percentage of our resources we should use for each on. It's the difference between categorical and incremental values. Bryan understood this perfectly when he said in a previous post:

Shouldn't we hold both the quality and the quantity of human life precious?

My gut feeling is that an ethical society would use abut 20-40% of its resources increasing total utility and 80-60% of its resources increasing average utility.

Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone--that is, had the life never been created--no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it.

"One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad--a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick--is worse than no life at all," Benatar writes.

The end result of Benatar's argument would be the immediate extermination of all life on Earth. The pain this caused in the short run would be far outweighed by the long run pain experienced by the millions of future generations those people and animals will give birth to if they aren't killed now. Nekron from Blackest Night is currently the most accurate depiction of how a committed antinatalist would really act. Benatar advocates nonviolent means of population reduction, but I presume that's only because he doesn't have his own army of zombie superheroes.

Anti-natalism, like the Repugnant conclusion, is yet another example of maximizing one value at the expense of all others.

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