The Moral Obligation to Have Children?

I'm going to regret getting back into this, I know, but ... while guest-blogging for Andrew I wrote what was probably a somewhat slipshod post arguing that it's somewhat solipsistic to decide how many kids to have based entirely on whether you think each additional child will add substantially to your happiness, since one of the best reasons to have children is to make another person's happiness possible - by, well, making that person's existence possible. Will Wilkinson wrote a rather waspish post in response, in which he accused me of "not making sense, and insulting low-breeders on the way." I'll quote him at length below the fold:

First, you just can’t “diminish the ’subjective well-being’ of all the second and third children who don’t get conceived because their parents decided it wasn’t worth the trouble,” because it is a logical impossibility, an embarrassment to reason. Ross is saying that there exists a person who is harmed by the fact that it has not been made to exist. It refutes itself.

My point was obviously badly-phrased, so let me rephrase it. Human beings are timebound, finite creatures. None of the human beings who exist now will exist in 2150 (probably), and all of the human beings who exist in 2150 are, at the moment, entirely hypothetical, their existence entirely dependent upon the choices that we make now. Therefore, a moral calculus that's concerned with the amount of well-being in the world - which I take Will's calculus to be - should probably take into account the well-being of human beings who do not yet exist, and who therefore may never exist at all. And the only way, for now at least, that these future human beings - and by extension, their happiness - can possibly exist is if other human beings decide to procreate.

So yes, it's technically true that if every human being on the planet decided not to have children, their choice would cause no appreciable harm to any existing person's well-being; to argue otherwise would be to state, as Will says, "that there exists a person who is harmed by the fact that it not been made to exist." Technically true, but beside the point. In order for well-being to exist at all, some people have to have children. Therefore, one might suggest, at least some people must have a moral obligation to reproduce, even if they aren't technically doing "harm" to any existing person if they don't.

Does that mean that everyone has the responsibility to reproduce, and in large numbers? That's what Will thinks that I was saying:

... what is Ross’s moral scheme? We know this much: there is more than one thing that is objectively, non-instrumentally good, producing new human beings is one of them, and is one of the most valuable. Let’s just suppose this is true. Now, it is possible to acknowledge that some things are objectively good without falling under an obligation to produce them. That a state of affairs is valuable is almost always a reason to bring it about, but it does not create a duty to do so. Does Ross think there is a general moral duty to maximize the quantity of such objective goods, like blushing babies? If so, why?

And even if we do have some such amazing duty, it appears that there are other goods in Ross’s moral universe. Do we have similar duties to create beauty? Truth? Even if babies approach the summit of Ross’s taxonomy of goodness, surely some quantity or combination of other goods outweighs the value of an additional baby. A life spent realizing one’s potential, achieving one’s valuable ambitions, say. Certainly Ross understands that pregnancy and motherhood often require the sacrifice of a woman’s other ambitions, other values she could have brought to the world. Surely there are things, even inside this fantastic moral taxonomy, that men and women could do with their lives to compensate for their choice not to have children. Surely not all childless lives are deplorably solipsistic. Surely living a happy life is of some value and must weigh something. Would a mostly unhappy world swimming in billions upon billion of children really be better than ours? Ross seems to think so.

I think this is a rather ridiculous extrapolation from my original post, which only meant to suggest that parents in an extremely wealthy continent with a declining population might want to consider the possibility that the amount of good they would do by bringing a child into the world, and enabling said child to enjoy the benefits of living in an age of wealth and comfort such as the world has never seen, might outweigh the amount of good they would do having more time and money to spend on themselves. Obviously everyone doesn't have a moral obligation to have kids; obviously everyone who has kids doesn't have an obligation to have five; obviously if everyone had twenty-four children the world would end up in some difficulties. Obviously there are things you can do with your life that are just as valuable or more valuable than having children - just ask Sir Isaac Newton, or Mother Teresa.

But I don't think it's unreasonable to say that people who enjoy the benefits of having been born and raised into the richest country in the world ought to consider giving something back, and that one of the best ways to give something back is to help create, and raise, another consciousness that can experience those same benefits. I would never presume to judge an individual, like Will, who thinks that he create more good in the world for himself or others some other way. I'm just skeptical that the aggregate tendency of young white Bobos, in America as in Europe, to have one or zero children doesn't contain at least an element of solipsism.