I read this opinion piece in the New York Times and thought it would be of interest to you and other readers of your site. The author, a professor of philosophy, argues that the decision to have children is the biggest ethical decision we make. But the fact that it’s a decision at all is a byproduct of contraception, abortion, and the mentality that fertility should be controlled at all times. What about those of us who let God and nature take their course instead? Are we opting out of the hard ethical decision-making, or are we acting unethically for not taking control in the first place? I also noticed that she thinks through in depth what parents owe a child but fails to address what a child might give to a parent, especially as pertains to the parent’s access to the full range of human experience and character development.
The premise of Christine Overall’s piece is that it is important to think before having children. My heavens. Has she has been living in a cave? For many years now, people have been abundantly premeditating procreation. We do far more thinking about it than doing it.
It seems Overall, who is Canadian, is unsettled. She mentions the Duggars, the Christian homeschooling family of television fame, and while she allows that it would have been wrong to forcibly prevent the Duggars from having so many children, she thinks their decision was selfish. The fact that it is generally viewed as a decision shows that people think before they have children – and believe it is not right to just have children.
In Overall’s view, there is only one good reason for adults to have children: ”the possibility of forming a supportive, life-enhancing and close relationship with each of their offspring.”
Her reasoning is faulty. The more children one has the more one is likely to create “supportive, life-enhancing and close relationships.”
The relationships between siblings, between grandparents and grandchildren, between cousins, and between adults and their nephews and nieces must be taken into account too. If a couple has six children and they each have six children and they each have six children, that is close to 300 people (counting spouses of the second and third generation), many of whom would be capable of forming “supportive, life-enhancing and close relationships.” If a couple has two children and those two have two children each who then have two children, that is 20 people, counting spouses. That must mean many fewer close relationships.
Have we become a society of “supportive, life-enhancing and close relationships” since the advent of the sexual revolution and mass acceptance of contraception? Loneliness and friction are part of life, but still it seems we live in a society with more loneliness and friction, judging by the crime rate, the divorce rate, fatherlessness, and the number of children and elderly who spend large amounts of time alone. All these things were much less common when people were more apt to believe procreation was intrinsically good, when they didn’t feel the need to rationally justify having children, when Western society desired to perpetuate its vision of life, and when even philosophers believed the act of procreation was a way of glorifying God.
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If the author of the article had more children to keep her busy, we may have been spared her overthinking!
It is curious that she describes the ‘ethics’ relating to the ‘choice’ to bear children – a ‘choice’ only owing to contraception and abortion, ‘choices’ which are strangely considered ethically ‘neutral’. So much for philosophy.
A world with few children is a world in which adults are marooned on islands of arid thought. Adults need children to enlighten them.
Laura wrote: “Have we become a society of “supportive, life-enhancing and close relationships” since the advent of the sexual revolution and mass acceptance of contraception? Loneliness and friction are part of life, but still it seems we live in a society with more loneliness and friction, judging by the crime rate, the divorce rate, fatherlessness, and the number of children and elderly who spend large amounts of time alone. All these things were much less common when people were more apt to believe procreation was intrinsically good, when they didn’t feel the need to rationally justify having children, when Western society desired to perpetuate its vision of life, and when even philosophers believed the act of procreation was a way of glorifying God.”
Beautifully put. I would add that this woman seems unaware that the feminist glorification of the workplace which pulls mothers away from their children works against her when she states that “forming a supportive, life-enhancing and close relationship with each of their offspring” is ethically central.
This women is using the shaky platform of technology-based reproductive choice as a natural, universal and indisputable good for the foundation on which to build her ideas. She is a philosopher, making a philosophical distinction – that deciding to have children is not just a personal but an ethical question – but the basis for her assertion is philosophically unsound: one cannot honestly introduce the idea that choosing to have children is an ethical question when reproductive “choice” itself is an artificial construct, not a naturally existing state, and one in which humanity may or may not be obligated to take part. The more honest, and interesting question would be: “Has bringing children into the world become an ethical question since the advent of reproductive choice?” Or better yet: “Is one obligated to take advantage of reproductive choice in making decisions to have children?” But this might trample on the feminist theory that we can remake human nature to suit ourselves with impunity, by acknowledging that indeed if human existence can be changed, it can be changed again – and can even be changed back; hence their terror of stay-at-home mothers.
From the article, in reference to the Duggar and Octomom families: “We should not regret the existence of the children in these very public families, now that they are here. My point is just that their parents’ models of procreative decision making deserve skepticism…”
Unbelievable. She lumps the two together. Yet she couldn’t have chosen two more polar “models of procreative decision making” if she tried, although nothing she writes indicates she is aware of this. On the contrary, she is blind to this fact. She is simply opposed to large families, which is her starting point. Then she fills in the blanks as she needs to to make her argument.
The real purpose of her piece is not to get people to think about having children, but to get them to think it is wrong to have more than two children.
And, yes, obviously, one cannot build a very “life-enhancing” close relationship with one’s children if one is busy working as a philosophic hack for a university.
It seems some of you are about to say that NOT having children is wrong. None of you dared to say it isn’t pleasant, though. If it isn’t wrong, nor unpleasant…what’s the problem with that?
Deliberately not having any children is wrong for the married (and those in sexual relationships should be married). Why is it wrong? The short answer is, because human life is intrinsically good.
As for whether having children is “pleasant” or not, many people would say that becoming an adult, as hard as it may be, is pleasantly rewarding and that it is necessary to have children in order to become fully adult. Most would say that children are delightful too, but some people through no fault of their own do not possess the capacity to enjoy children and it’s not necessary. (It is, however, virtually universal to find the care offered by one’s children in old age pleasant.)
Regardless of whether it is pleasant for any one individual to have children, there is ample evidence that the widespread belief that children are a burden and the belief that procreation should be approached cautiously — in other words, the mass acceptance of artificial contraception — lead to an ugly, materialistic, demoralized society, a world of rampant stupidity, incivility and lovelessness. In the same way Communism and collectivization create a coarse, brutish world, artificial contraception and sexual freedom are de-civilizing forces. Not a single person is exempt from the effects.
Daniel S. writes:
I always find it amusing when liberals talk about what is ethical or not, since they deny any absolute or transcendent moral order. Assuming a liberal worldview this sophist (I will not dignify her with the title of philosopher, a lover of wisdom, since she is not worthy of the company of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Aquinas, or even the mad, but brilliant Nietzsche) has no basis in which to insinuate that people who have large numbers of children are essentially selfish. I thought, furthermore, that liberals celebrated selfish behavior, provided one did not physically harm others in the process. Of course, I doubt very much that this two-dimensional sophist is concerned with the ethical angst of procreation and rather has a anti-white, anti-Western eugenicist agenda behind her “thinking.”
Jesse Powell writes:
The entire orientation of “reproductive choice” and it being “a woman’s right to choose” is wrong and actively destructive. This is because making it “the woman’s right to choose” sets up procreation as a selfish act merely done for the gratification of the woman. [Laura writes: This is true. However, Overall did not speak of it in terms of women's rights.] In the “woman’s right to choose” formulation both the child and the man are set up as being mere servants to the woman’s desire. This undervalues the independent life of the child and at the same time discourages men from investing into a family situation where their needs and life goals may or may not be met or honored and where the societal message to men is that “they don’t count” and that “they aren’t important” anyways.
There is a stark contrast between “a woman’s right to choose” and the Christian Patriarchy ethic of reproduction being “in God’s hands” or of “trusting in God.” The Christian Patriarchy ethic is meant to serve and obey God while the “woman’s right to choose” ethic is selfishly oriented, placing one human being (the woman) above other human beings (men and children). To me, the Christian Patriarchy ethic is much more honorable, much more moral. To serve a higher purpose is always a better moral foundation than to serve yourself.
From Overall’s opinion piece comes this paragraph (emphasis added):
“The burden of proof — or at least the burden of justification — should therefore rest primarily on those who choose to have children, not on those who choose to be childless. The choice to have children calls for more careful justification and thought than the choice not to have children because procreation creates a dependent, needy, and vulnerable human being whose future may be at risk. The individual who chooses childlessness takes the ethically less risky path. After all, nonexistent people can’t suffer from not being created. They do not have an entitlement to come into existence, and we do not owe it to them to bring them into existence. But once children do exist, we incur serious responsibilities to them.”
In this paragraph there is an explicitly stated bias against having children. Not having children is supposedly ethically simple since no duties are owed to those who don’t exist while having children is complicated since you then have responsibilities to the child you have. This to me is a very arbitrary assertion. The absence of children has just as much effect upon life as the presence of children. The assertion is also made as if it is an objective fact that “They do not have an entitlement to come into existence, and we do not owe it to them to bring them into existence.” Says who! This assertion is the height of arrogance. It seems to be an obvious reference to abortion.
Society cannot perpetuate itself on “individual choice” alone. “Individual choice” as a central societal value is necessarily destructive and degenerative precisely because “individual choice” always ends up pitting one person against another and always ends up placing one person above another. In the area of fertility “individual choice” leads inexorably to sub-replacement fertility rates leading to the literal extinction of such a society.
Even if one believes that there are no duties to the unborn, we have the obligation to make the living part of a full generation and to free them from undue burdens in supporting the old.
But the very fact that we have power over the unborn entails duties to them.
It is amazing that a professional philosopher did not address transcendent reality. She simply assumes the pseudo-transcendent, ever-changing reality of ethics. As an ethics official, I think this is ignorant. Ethics are a state construct not a creation of God. Ethics are rules, laws enacted by humans not by God. They are supposed to be based on morals but are created to foster business and political ends not morals. She fails to consider the transcendent reality of Biblical teachings, which call on mankind to be fruitful and multiply.
She attempts to use character evidence to support her position: she is a mother. This assumes mothers are more credible than non-mothers. Huh?