If Anti-Natalism Is Objectionably Paternalistic, Then So Is Family Planning
In her recent column, Laura Siscoe argues that reproductive choices motivated by anti-natalism are objectionably paternalistic because they “seek to decide what’s best for future people (i.e., their non-existence)” and “contradict the strongly held desires of future people.” Although I think her argument is mistaken, it raises some important issues regarding our duties to future generations that are well worth exploring.
To illustrate how her argument goes awry, consider a devoutly Catholic couple who successfully use the rhythm method because they want to delay having children until they feel confident that they can provide a sufficiently stable environment for their offspring. It seems to follow from Siscoe’s account that this practice is objectionably paternalistic because it entails that some future person or people who might have come into existence had the couple not intentionally employed a form of “natural family planning” will not in fact exist. We can safely assume that this would contradict their strongly held desires, so their practice is not just paternalistic, but objectionably paternalistic.
The point of this example is that if the anti-natalist choice to refrain from having children full stop is objectionably paternalistic, then so is any choice to refrain from having children under some particular set of circumstances, when that choice is motivated by the desire to do what is best for one’s future children. Perhaps it does not follow from a choice’s being objectionably paternalistic that it is, all-things-considered, morally wrong. But Siscoe seems committed to the view that the Catholic couple should at least consider the interests of the potential future people whose existence is precluded by their use of the rhythm method in their moral calculus. Moreover, in this calculus, such interests weigh heavily against practicing this or any other form of birth control. This is surely an odd result, given that even an organization as avowedly “pro-life” as the Catholic Church sanctions, and even encourages, some forms of family planning.
If we try to trace the counterintuitive implications of Siscoe’s argument back to one of its premises, however, a problem confronts us. On the one hand, these implications seem to flow from the claim that possible future people have interests that are entitled to moral consideration. Once we grant this premise, and we also acknowledge the seemingly undeniable fact that our actions affect those interests, we seem to be committed to extending moral consideration to the interests of possible future persons who are affected by any choice to refrain from reproduction. On the other hand, the claim that we have some responsibility to act with an eye toward future generations is commonplace both within and outside of moral philosophy, despite some well-known puzzles associated with it. Must we, along with Siscoe, simply bite the bullet and concede that any choice to refrain from reproduction for the sake of the unborn is objectionably paternalistic?
Perhaps we can avoid this result if we examine the notion of paternalism in greater depth. Siscoe’s gloss on “paternalism” is “interference in the freedom of another for the sake of promoting their perceived good.” Rightly, I think, she does not build into the notion of “paternalism” that it is morally objectionable. After all, there are strong arguments in favor of some degree of interference in the freedom of others for their own sake under certain circumstances — paradigmatically, parents’ interference with their children’s freedom.
So, in addition to a definition of “paternalism,” we need an account of what makes paternalism objectionable. Siscoe seems to imply that paternalism is objectionable when it “contradicts the strongly held desires” of others. But this can’t be the whole story: a small child may strongly desire to play hopscotch along the edge of a tall building’s roof, but its parent’s decision to prevent it from doing so, while undeniably paternalistic, is not morally objectionable.
I suggest, then, that paternalism is objectionable if it interferes with a person’s exercise of their ability to act as they want, where that person is entitled to such exercise under the particular circumstances of their choice. This account would explain why the kind of paternalism that gave the notion its name — the paternalism of parents with respect to their children — may not be objectionable. There are many contexts where there are strong arguments that children should not be able to act as they want — arguments that in effect show that they have no right to act as they want in those contexts.
If this account is correct, then to make good on the claim that choices to refrain from reproduction — whether motivated by a commitment to anti-natalism or concerns that are less absolute in their implications — are objectionable, Siscoe must establish that future people have a right to exist, and not just that they very likely would want to exist. Without a legitimate claim on us of this kind, we are not bound to respect their interest in existing, and the argument against anti-natalism from paternalism falls apart.