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.