Why do we have children? – cont’d

3 goats

It helps to have a couple friends who are PhDs in Philosophy. I really meant the last post to incite a good discussion, and knowing no one would go to the trouble of logging into WordPress to leave a message, I’m posting some of their comments anonymously here (in the spirit of Andrew Sullivan’s blog):

One friend takes the consensus view:

I think all of the reasons other than the environmental reasons are matters of preference. I’ll leave those to you. On a planet with greater than exponential population growth, however, I think that anything beyond replacement (2 kids to 2 parents) is (quite deeply) unethical….

As for the worries about uncertain knowledge and possible technological fixes to climate change, I only note that such knowledge is probabilistic. There is strong scientific consensus around climate change and its causes. The thought that the world is (probably) beyond repair or (probably) technology will save us seems far less warranted than the more conservative view that more human beings living a North American standard of living will probably lead to ecological collapse. Remember, greater than exponential population growth on a finite planet.

So, my vote is to love the kids you have or adopt a kid who already exists and is unwanted. Making less babies, IMHO, is probably the single most ethical act any of us have readily available to us. The upshot is that you get all of the other benefits you note for free.

This is generally very unsettling to me, and has various consequences if applied consistently. Such as: when you use resources for your own survival, are you stealing from someone else? This logic seems to imply that none of us deserve to live a NA lifestyle. Maybe we shouldn’t, but I don’t think it’s a tu quoque fallacy to insist on consistency with this point.

One writer, whose ideal is the liberal arts hobby farm, writes:

I will prove myself naïve, to be sure, but I have this notion that in many ways, more children eventually lead to (1) less work for the parents, (2) more educational opportunities for the children, and (3) more love.

How can I possibly say that more kids is less work? At this point all mothers of the world just stop reading, thinking that I am speaking absurdity. More children require us to have increased discipline and routine at home and require older children to be helpful of necessity. More hands, at least once the older siblings are old enough, mean less work. This is particularly true if home schooling can be combined with hobby farming. Thus, children learn to work hard, and study hard, and have one another to play with, while feeding the family by growing our own food and then every fall preserving it by freezing, pressure canning, drying, and fermenting. Intensive gardening, poultry, goats, requires only a couple of acres. So, my idea is that in the context of a hobby farm managed by a stay-at-home Mom, more children would potentially mean food excess to sell, offsetting the cost of production, or at the very least, a cheap way to feed our own family with what would otherwise take a large double income to provide. So, it is like both parents are working, but the Mom works at home with the children being a part of the work. Everyone gets lots of fresh air, other kids think hobby farms are cool and want to come over to help. This is not an easy life, and requires hard work on the farm from Dad too (free gym and fresh air), but in this context, more children can lead to less work. But the tension, as my experience shows, is that there is slim leisure left for study, reading, potlucks, study groups, community involvement, and many of these aspects of community and life of the mind that make a liberal arts life so much richer. But with imagination and closer proximity to the right community of people, I think there are ways of having it all. If you don’t want to hobby farm, there are ways of employing children to help economically in cities too and there are many strategies to save money….

After a couple more reasons why a bigger family means more love and more fun, he concludes:

To manage a large family well requires imagination, ingenuity, and integrity in the face of jealous peers. Food consumption is more, but buying a cow and freezing is 2-3x cheaper than buying one steak at a time. thus feeding 6 kids can be as cheap as the conventional family spends on 1 or 2 kids. Organic wheat is (at most) $20/50lb bag from a farmer and makes 100 loaves of bread, etc etc. Clothes, books, baby stuff, for the most part is bought once and used over and over. Sports can be arranged in a neighbourhood, it just takes some organization. music can be had by having all kids in a single choir at the church down the street.  So, driving kids everywhere for hockey, soccer, music, play dates, etc, is not necessary. The internet provides so many free resources for anyone seeking an education, that for the ambitious, almost anything can be learned at home. Get together with other families who also home school. The kids can play as the parents visit and ready great books. Barter in a home school associations, can someone teach music in trade for bread and math lessons?

Another, more cosmopolitan PhD philosopher notes all the flaws in my arguments, especially the children as “projects” critique:

about A) children and society/environment. “We could think of children … as they add or detract from society as a whole” — and so of adults, economic policies, and much else. As individuals, we don’t have to, but at least politicians and social planners are required to think at least sometimes in these terms. If we think of children merely in these terms, then we are forgetting their humanity, but when Kant talked about ends in themselves, he said “always also as,” because he knew that or course we have to think of other people instrumentally at times, only within limits. More importantly, there’s an obvious difference between not having a child for environmental reasons, and killing a child (or adult) for environmental reasons. In the second case I’m treating someone in the most abusively instrumental way imaginable, in the first case, I’m not treating anyone in any way at all.
Second, if one accepted a utilitarian argument about limited population, that doesn’t compel one to accept China’s one-child policy. Peter Singer believes that we should all be donating 20% or more of or income to the poor, but he doesn’t advocate government enforcement of his recommendation. One could decide to have only one child to set an example that others might follow (as a middle school teacher of mine did), but you’re right, you’re private choices have no measurable effect on the social scale, so an honest utilitarian can’t really say anything against you (though they might decide some less extreme form of China’s policy was in order, for instance, you might put economic incentives for childlessness … except the economic incentives are already there, as you say). What economists have realized is that if wealth and education increase, birthrates will sort themselves out all by themselves. Last, China’s hardly a communist state anymore, so “comrades” is a little bit much. But imagine a situation of extreme scarcity, where food is truly short and perhaps feeding the other children is already barely possible: would it not then by the only option to think in “economic” terms when it came to deciding to have another? Such situations could also obtain for a community as a whole. Obviously not ideal circumstances, but we can’t always assume ideal conditions.
B) “children as projects” — it’s not clear to me what you’re attacking here. If I think of my children as part of my projects, that I will groom my sons to become philosophers and refute eliminative materialism once and for all, then I am thinking of them, perhaps, as “abstract instruments”, but I don’t see how that’s the same as thinking in evolutionary terms. (It’s probably people who tend to think in evolutionary terms who also tend to have fewer children, I’d wager). The socio-biologists have spilt much ink explaining precisely why evolutionary motives might lead some people to forsake reproduction, or engage in other “non-survival” behavior. More importantly, fitness and reproduction are not moral imperatives for the socio-biologists. The theory is meant to explain what we already do, not what we ought to do. But back to the “liberal arts”  or “optimization” version of the project. If I view my children as themselves the project (not the instruments for my own project), then I don’t see how your objections necessarily obtain. It could be precisely my project to raise intelligent, autonomous children, that would seem to match pretty well with C and with thinking of children as people, as ends in themselves. And, yes, if my children grew up to be eliminative materialists, I would be disappointed. I would have failed, but hopefully they’d have other redeeming qualities. I also don’t see what children as projects has to do with children as “investment in the future”, unless again it’s my project of raising profitable MBAs who will be loyal and pay for my retirement when I’m old.
C) Children need to be loved, certainly, but it does not follow that I need to make more children so that I have something to love. You want a life where love is the concern, not abstract thinking. But thinking of children as a gift seems just as abstract as any other way of thinking about them. What you’re expressing here is your own preference for a kind of life, where having children is more important than iphones, vacations, and so forth. With is a perfectly legitimate preference to have. But certainly any couple who’s decided that two children is enough still love their actual children and know they’re more important than smartphones. But again, the duty to love your children is not the same as the duty to have more. Now you might say that a life devoted to having more children (or at least always open to it) is simply better than the life of vacations and material prosperity, and that’s quite possible since people who think gadgets are the meaning of life are contemptible, but that makes the question a little too easy. Are there no other kinds of life whose demands might outweigh the preference for children? A devotion to politics, art, or scientific research might do so (admittedly, these considerations hardly apply to the vast majority of the childless or child-limited, but Nietzsche certainly didn’t have kids).
I’m skeptical that peer pressure or recognition play much of a role (at least consciously) in falling birthrates. The other economic and social reasons you mention seem more than enough to account for it. And you don’t mention that for many people, the pressure still pulls the other way (to having at least one child, etc.).
Points well taken. I really agree that what you’re doing when deciding to have a bigger family is making a decision about what the kind of life you want to live. You’re right to point out the flaw of desire to love = need to have more children. Making this leap seems to require some kind of religious duty in addition.
What economists have realized is that if wealth and education increase, birthrates will sort themselves out all by themselves.
While I’m skeptical about what “sorting out” means (replacement numbers?), one Chinese woman I know who recently moved to Canada said she wants to have a large family. Her parents are wealthy, and she wants to make up for her family experience as the only child.
 Keep the thoughts coming. Why would you have a bigger family in this day and age?

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