What’s Wrong With Having Kids?


The current issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy (Volume 32, Issue 3: August 2015) covers a number of topics of likely interest to What’s Wrong? readers.  In “Procreation, Adoption and the Contours of Obligation,” for example, Travis Rieder critically evaluates the merits of the claim that those who wish to raise children are obligated to adopt rather than to procreate. What’s Wrong? has selected Rieder’s article as the first in its forthcoming series of featured journal articles of the month, a regular feature of What’s Wrong? that will make selected pieces from Bioethics, the Journal of Applied Philosophy, and the Journal of Social Philosophy available to its readers in rotating order and that will provide a platform for discussing the pieces with their authors.  What’s Wrong? is grateful to Wiley Publishing for helping to make this arrangement possible.

Travis Rieder is a Research Scholar and the Assistant Director for Education Initiatives at Johns Hopkins’ Berman Institute of Bioethics.  He has provided some background to his article in the brief comments that follow below.  Thanks to Wiley Publishing, a copy of the article can be freely accessed here.  And if you have any questions or comments for Rieder about his article, you can post them to the comments section by leaving a comment below.

(image: empty strollers)

I want to thank What’s Wrong? for the invitation to feature this piece, and the Journal of Applied Philosophy for making it available. Rather than merely summarizing my paper, “Procreation, Adoption and the Contours of Obligation,” I thought I would here give you a perspective on this project and the research program from which it grew.

Many colleagues who have read this paper or seen me give a talk on this topic have called me an ‘antinatalist’. Now, while I don’t think that’s an insult (many of those who call me that do), I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not clear whether it’s true. Indeed, as anyone who reads the paper under discussion will see, the goal of the paper is eventually to defend the permissibility of having a child, and I take no stand on the value of coming into existence. So why the charge? I imagine it’s because I take the arguments against procreating much more seriously than many philosophers, who would like to believe that any case against the morality of procreation must be ridiculous. But the case against the morality of procreation isn’t ridiculous; it’s disturbingly powerful (or so I argue).

Another likely reason for the antinatalism charge is that, even though I argue for the permissibility of having a child, in this work and others, I admit that a plurality of negative moral judgments may still be appropriate for those who unreflectively procreate when they could adopt instead – especially those who have children for bad reasons or who have too many children given the earth’s limited resources. And doing this apparently strikes many philosophers as being sufficient for my being an antinatalist. But now it’s important to get really clear on what precisely antinatalism means. If it were to describe the view that there may be something morally wrong or bad about procreation, depending on the context, well then yes: I suppose I would be an antinatalist. But I take it that this is not the accepted definition. Rather, I take it that antinatalism means something like: the view that coming into existence generally or always has weighty, negative, moral value. So am I an antinatalist on that definition?

Rather than give you an argument one way or the other (and make you read another paper!), I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide whether you think so. But I will make one suggestion: if the arguments of this paper commit me to antinatalism at all, it is of a rather modest sort. I see the wonder and beauty in making babies, and many of the reasons that we have not to do that are contingent on the badness of the world; further, as I argue in the paper, they do not get us all the way to an obligation to refrain from procreating.

Many thanks to any of you who made time to read my paper, and I welcome comments or questions.


4 responses to “What’s Wrong With Having Kids?

  1. Hi Travis,
    I’m interested in the idea that prospective parents are protected from the demands of morality—from positive obligation—because their situation is relevantly similar to situations in which an “intimacy” is involved. I’d like to know more about what both you and Little think constitutes an intimacy. The paradigm examples are gestation and intercourse, and these are clear to me. But how is “what is at stake for prospective families” intimate in the same way gestation or intercourse are? For one, the latter involve, literally, the occupation or intrusion on one’s body. Adopting a child does not.

    No doubt sharing one’s family or designing one’s family is an intimate decision in some larger sense (if this larger sense is protected, is what I want to know). But it also involves some quite mundane (though large) benefits— like providing a house and food for someone and financially supporting them. One also comes to have a special relationship with the adopted child so she becomes a part of one’s circle of intimates. It would be inaccurate to describe an adoptive parent involved in some very routine intimate or bodily activity with her child— say changing her diaper, wiping her nose when she has a cold— as fulfilling an impartial obligation of beneficence. She is caring for her child!

    Maybe: one way of reformulating the question is— what constraints are there on the demands of an impartial morality on the kinds special relationships we ought to enter into? Can morality demand that I pick my spouse based on who needs the benefit of my companionship and finances the most? I want to say no. And if no, then can the same or similar reasons be applied to the adoption situation. Can morality demand that I take in a stranger as my child? But this is yet a different question from that of intimacies. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about and intend to write on as a follow up to my work on adoption.

    So I’d love to hear more about adoption and the idea of intimacies. I think there’s a lot more that needs to be said here.

    An entirely separate question (and not my primary one if you want to focus in): I wonder how easily we can separate the deontic status of acts from the moral assessment of agents. You want to say that we cannot be required to adopt children, but we might still be callous for not doing so. But sticking with the intimacies analogy, I’m having a hard time seeing how someone who declined (within her rights, obviously) to have sex for the sake of impartial beneficence could be seen as callous. It seems the grounds for her exemption will also mitigate harsh agent assessment. So I guess I’m wondering how tenable your anti-natalist position is, as such.


  2. Travis N. Rieder

    Hi Tina,
    Thanks for taking the time to write! Your questions are clearly good ones, and I have only partial answers for them.

    1. You’re right that I would need to say a lot more about intimacies in order to defend a full theory about normative protection; I wasn’t prepared to do that in the paper, and I’m sorry to say that I’m still not. But you’re also right that I wanted the analogies to do enough of the work to make the view plausible. So you might have forgotten, but I actually do discuss the case of marriage alongside abortion and sex, and my suggestion (and Little’s) is that marriage is ‘an intimacy of the first order’ in a way that will help my make my case. So yes, let’s suppose it’s the bodily integrity aspect that makes sex and gestation so intimate (that also works for organ donation, which is another example that Maggie uses). That doesn’t work for marriage, but my reaction to marriage is similar — that forming a family with someone and becoming a spouse is too intimate to be subject to the demands of positive obligation. When Maggie discusses choosing to gestate, one of the things she talks about is that doing so ‘turns the woman into a mother’; well, the same thing is true of adopting a child. So marriage turns me into a husband and adopting turns me into a father, and choosing to form a family in either way seems so intimate that it should be protected from being the object of obligation. This language of ‘turning me into someone’ has made me hypothesize that the intimacy may be related to practical identities, but I haven’t had a chance to try working this out (and it was not included in the paper; just a suspicion). Of course, since I’m not giving you a story about why intimacy plays this role, it being plausible at all depends on you sharing my intuitions about the other cases, and seeing the category of ‘first order intimacies’ as what plausibly holds them together. Although I don’t think my case is anything like air-tight — and that it ultimately needs more theoretical backing — I still find it plausible.

    2. I’m less bothered by this one, but that’s because I think that there are a real multitude of moral judgments that break apart from one another in all sorts of messy ways. I think permissibility, obligation, and prohibition are really just the tip of the iceberg. As a moral community, we have a lot of reason to care about them, but getting only that piece of the story leaves us with a thin understanding of morality. So just to fill in the picture a bit, I think that Scanlon is really onto something with his discussion of the ‘meaning’ of an act, which depends on the actor’s reasons; and I also tend to think that praiseworthiness and blameworthiness tends to track the meaning of an act rather than it’s permissibility (this is a surface gloss of a view like the one he defends in _Moral Dimensions_). Further, I’m not entirely sure what story to give about virtue and vice, but it also seems to depend a great deal on the reasons for which one acts, along with other more ‘internal’ features of agents (like habit formation, commitments, deliberation, etc). So I agree with your judgment of a case in which someone declines having sex for beneficent reasons: there is no reason from the description to think that she or he is acting callously. Our judgments don’t *always* have to come apart (hopefully we regularly act honorably and well while fulfilling our duties). However, if someone declines to have sex with another man *because* he’s black (that is, all reasons point to sex, except the other man’s skin color), then I do think we can make all sorts of moral judgments that come apart from permissibility. This is similar, I think, to our accusation of someone being ‘shallow’ if she would never have sex with someone who failed to meet some ridiculous beauty standard; we’re not saying that she is obligated to sleep with less attractive folks when all the reasons align, but her refusal to do so does tell us something morally relevant. So on my view, one tends not to have positive obligations to have sex; but if one does so, say, *for racist reasons*, then the act is bad (though not a violation of obligation), we might blame him for it (depending on the context), he’s a racist (or at least being racist), and this probably relates to various character developments in a negative way.

    So, I certainly don’t expect to have convinced you in two (long) paragraphs, but I’m afraid that’s the best I can do for now! Thanks for the comment, Tina.


  3. Hi Travis,
    Thanks so much for your helpful and thoughtful comments. A few remarks: for one, it seems to me that marriage is an intimacy of the first order because in (most) marriages there is an expectation of sexual intimacy. I can see how Little’s intimacy account would straightforwardly include marriage.

    I like what you have to say about practical identities, and I look forward to hearing more as your thoughts develop. I wonder how this will or will not make a distinction for prospective parents who could become adoptive parents. As you know, I limit my claim for a duty to adopt to prospective parents– those people who want to have a child and have the opportunity to make a decision about this. Prospective parents, then, may become procreative parents or adoptive parents (these are not mutually exclusive, since some parents in same-sex relationships have to adopt the children they help to procreate using ART). Is there something about a duty to adopt rather than procreate that changes some prospective parent’s identity– to becoming an *adoptive* parent–an an illicit way? This is meant as further food for thought. Feel free to engage here or not. I hope we’ll have a chance to discuss in the future.

    Thank you!


  4. Travis N. Rieder

    As always, really nice thoughts, Tina. And mostly I’ll just have to ‘digest’ your food for thought. But I will report that I don’t think the intimacy of marriage depends on sex. And this report makes me more interested to pursue the train of thought regarding practical identities. In short: a completely sexless marriage still seems plausibly protected from obligation because it involves becoming one’s spouse. So the intuition (which may or may not be shared) is supposed to be: I will tend not to have a positive obligation to marry someone (say, out of beneficence) because becoming a husband is not the kind of thing that we should take to be a positive duty, and this is so even if the marriage would be completely without sex. I’m repeating myself now, but the idea is that marriage, like procreating or adopting, is primarily about building a family with someone, and we aren’t typically obligated to build families (so it seems to me).

    I don’t think I quite understand the full thrust of your second point, but I just want to assure you that I don’t see a significant difference (in the normative protection) between becoming an adoptive parent vs. becoming a procreative parent. So I think that the intimacy explanation for why we don’t have a duty to adopt nicely explains your intuition that those who don’t wish to be parents are protected from that obligation. Like I said: forming a family doesn’t seem to be a positive obligation, which is why we’re not obligated to adopt, but also why those who wish not to be parents would not be obligated to adopt or procreate. I’m not sure if that addresses your second thought, but I at least wanted to make sure to make clear that I don’t see becoming an adoptive parent as significantly different from becoming a procreative parent, for reasons of normative protection.

    Thanks for some great comments, Tina!


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