Having Children And Other “Profoundly Immoral” Things

There’s an interesting conversation going on over at VC about the ethics of having children, but one comment in particular caught my attention:

I’m pretty skeptical of the “children are good for the future” argument. Erlich’s “population bomb” may not have been wrong so much as delayed; the Green Revolution pulled a rabbit out of the hat when it comes to producing enough food for six billion people, but there may or may not be another rabbit to be had.

I can’t recall the details, but a report came out a while back indicating that, of all the things one might do as an environmentalist (recycling, using less fossil fuels, etc.) nothing was as effective as not having children. If you believe that resource limitations and pollution are complete non-issues, then maybe it’s reasonable to believe that children are good for the future. But if the world is going to be short on food and resources, then breeding is profoundly immoral.

Concern about the skewed demographics of industrialized countries seems unwarrented unless you factor in the ways in which increased demand for finite resources would lower the standard of living for everyone. (italics his, bolding mine)

Well, tally up another victory for static scoring, he says in jest. The commenter, Tony, is committing the same error that most environmentalists commit when he assumes that supplies are static in relation to our demand for them. Forget the “Green Revolution” he mentions. He ignores the productivity increases that allowed the percentage of the labor force committed to farming to drop from 90% in 1776 to less than 3% today. Did the amount of food available decrease as a result of fewer laborers? No, of course not. It increased due to capital accumulation, technological change and process improvements that were so overwhelming that not only do we have fewer people on the farm, but we are even using less farm land to produce more food. We’ve been continuing along these lines for centuries and there’s no reason to think the future will be different.

Setting aside his static view of the economy, his argument is a setup.

If you believe that resource limitations and pollution are complete non-issues, then maybe it’s reasonable to believe that children are good for the future.

This is a trap. This argument only works within the very narrow (and incorrect) framework he has established. Most people don’t consider either scarcity or pollution to be “complete non-issues”. Scarcity is the reason that economics exists as a discipline and something that economists obsess over. For most the solution is capitalism (or market mechanisms of some sort). On the issue of pollution, well obviously it isn’t a non-issue and is, in fact, a huge issue in human well being. As it happens, there are solutions to pollution and it can be dealt with by exception, without us having to dramatically alter our lifestyle. As pollutants are identified, Pigovian taxes can be put in place, as well as cap-and-trade systems, and these should reduce the amount of the pollutants to an acceptable level over time.

The same reasoning rebuts his follow-on sentence where he “establishes” that a future of scarcity makes childbearing immoral. It only works as he’s framed it and his framing doesn’t reflect reality. In short, reproduce like bunnies if you want, just make sure you can afford them.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a good bit recently, mostly due to things I see on the left side of the blogosphere, but also because of Stephen Hawking’s rambling about the necessity of establishing outposts on the moon and Mars. I favor space exploration and even a moon base, but not for the reasons that Hawking uses to justify it (pestilence, poverty and population). Amanda at Pandagon nails this (note the phallic imagery) in a way that I find pretty satisfactory, though I disagree with virtually everything else she says in the post. She’s right to note that he’s making an appeal to Rapture fanatics and other people with those inclinations. Its when she leaves this reasoning that I start to disagree with her.

As it turns out, Amanda is quite the misanthrope and a hysterical alarmist as well:

…(also to justify having more and more Virility Objects, i.e. children, even though the planet is suffocating from the massive explosion in wasteful human beings)…

…that we’re destroying our planet and very soon going to make in uninhabitable…

…the mundane reality is that life evolved under very chaotic conditions with unbelievable numbers of variables and our wee brains just can’t control all those variables. Our best bet really is to simply know what will surely kill us all and do our best to avoid that. Global warming is a good example…

…rich assholes who buy off scientists to spread imaginary doubt about global warming also think their elite status will save them, so that when the rest of us are crowding to the cities that are still above water and baking from the heat and possibly starving to death, they’ll be bouncing from air-conditioned mansion to air-conditioned car and living off hydroponically grown foods…

Not only is she against reproduction, but she sees global warming as an apocalypse. Combine that with her clear disdain for mankind and she becomes another type of Rapture fanatic: she believes we have destroyed nature and DESERVE to be punished for it. Nevermind that man is a part of nature; we’ll have to forget about that for her purposes. Hmm, whatever shall we do?

As I’ve said before, to the consternation of some commenters, I favor working to solve global warming and believe it’s a genuine threat. Where Amanda and I differ is on magnitude, means and alarmism. Indeed, the alarmism of people like Algore will probably do more to prevent actual action since he comes across as a hysteric when he talks about ten-year tipping points.

This, together with Amanda’s other writings on capitalism, “Othered people” and so forth, reminds me of a quote by Julian Simon (a good page on him):

This is my long-run forecast in brief:

The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today’s Western living standards.

I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse.

Clearly, Amanda is ahead of her time. I’ll make this bit of speculation: In 70 years, when Amanda is 98, she will still be wrestling with the ethics of blow jobs and “the Othered”, while the bulk of mankind is materially better off than today, and Amanda will still be complaining how bad things are.*

*If Malthus’s Amanda’s ideas about capitalism and market economics are followed, we will indeed be worse off. It will be because of stupid policies, not because it had to be that way.

(h/t) Amber, whose uterus is sealed up as tight as a snare drum. No kids for her.

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Robert Prather
About Robert Prather
Robert Prather contributed over 80 posts to OTB between October 2005 and July 2013. He previously blogged at the now defunct Insults Unpunished. Follow him on Twitter @RobPrather.


  1. M. Murcek says:

    Lots of people hate the human race. It’s a form of confusion, but as long as they don’t act on it, they are within their rights to be confused. I propose this maxim for the rest of us:

    “You can hate yourself. You can hate me. You can’t make me hate myself.”

  2. Russ says:

    The Simon quote reminds me of Eiland’s Theory of Compensatory Misery:

    “As human society gradually solves the problems of basic survival and reduces the amount of other miseries rooted in the reality of the human condition, the fringe elements of that society feel an increasingly strong compulsion to become obsessively angry about ever more trivial causes to recapture the sense that life is a painful struggle.”

  3. Robert,

    Ixnay noay ogiclay.

    If people with such interesting reasoning skills decide that the world would be a better place if there genes are not passed on, far be it from the rest of us to get in their way. I think their point that by them not having children the future world will be a better place is accurate.

  4. Alan Kellogg says:

    Amanda conveniently overlooks one little human trait, as the standard of living in a society rises, that society tends to have fewer children. The birth rate may well drop below the replacement rate. The end result is a declining population. When the situation is one – as at present – where some areas have a declining population, and other areas have an expanding population, there will be migration from the latter to the former. When in the future all areas have a sufficiently advanced standard of living one can expect to see population drop worldwide.