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Reproductive Autonomy and Climate Change

photograph of stick family carved into beach

Last week, fellow writers Daniel Burkett and Marshall Bierson debated the ethics of having children against the background of climate change. Burkett defended the view that we should have fewer children due to the negative impact each child (throughout their lifetimes) has on the climate (and therefore others). Bierson, among other arguments, pointed to the positives that a child’s life might bring about, including donating to effective climate causes. Bierson also discussed reasons to have fewer children he finds more convincing, including the opportunity costs. “I expect that over the course of my life I could have easily donated well more than 50% of my income to those in real need,” writes Bierson, “but instead I got married and plan to have kids. And this, I expect, means I will do less good for the poor.”

Both of their approaches to the ethics of childbearing are interesting and well-argued. But neither writer engages with the value of personal choice and reproductive autonomy. Burkett worries that the moral calculation of putting another human on Earth doesn’t pay off due to the climate harm it causes. Bierson worries that he could have maximized the good more effectively. What is implicit in both these worries, I think, is what the philosopher Bernard Williams called a “totalizing” and “impersonal” conception of morality.

To get a grip on Williams’s point, let’s take a clear example of a totalizing and impersonal conception of morality: maximizing act utilitarianism. This moral theory states that an action is permissible only if it would produce the best possible consequences. Of any choice in life, whether it is whether to have a child or an ice cream, we can always ask if it produces the best possible consequences. So, since every choice has some consequences, good or bad, every choice is actually a moral one. Williams describes utilitarianism as “totalizing” because it suggests that morality’s demands relentlessly reach out into every domain of human life and tell us what is permissible and what is impermissible.

Williams thought of utilitarianism as “impersonal” because it suggests that, regardless of our personal wishes or life projects, we all have exactly the same moral duty in every case: to maximize the good. He asks, “But what if [morality’s demand] conflicts with some project of mine? This, the utilitarian will say, has already been dealt with: the satisfaction to you of fulfilling your project, and any satisfactions to others of your so doing, have already been through the calculating device and have been found inadequate.” The utilitarian view is that any personal choice based on your own deeply held commitments and desires is only acceptable if it just so happens to generate the best consequences. Williams’s complaint is that this picture provides very little space for the values of autonomy or personal integrity.

Having such a sprawling, demanding, and inescapable conception of moral obligations can come to eclipse the value of individual freedoms like reproductive autonomy. But the vast majority believe we have not just a legal right to choose whether we reproduce or not, but also a moral right to exercise that discretion over our private affairs. In other words, there is an intuitive moral right to reproductive autonomy.

Consider, for example, how you would feel if an ethicist approached you and insisted that you morally ought to conceive a baby in the next month, regardless of your actual wishes or particular situation. You would, presumably, not be terribly interested in having this stranger dictate permissible options to you. You might think the choice to have a baby or not is a personal one, yours alone. Indeed, to “give in” to the stranger’s demands might threaten to seriously damage your personal integrity, your sense of self.

If Williams is right, then there must be limits to the demands impersonal utilitarian morality can make on us: areas of our lives that make room for individuals to decide things for themselves. Perhaps our choices about reproduction are one such domain which must allow an ethical role for personal choice.

This is not to say that reproductive choices are free from all moral considerations. But perhaps the relevant, weighty moral considerations will be more personal (and interpersonal) than those impersonal considerations on which the utilitarian focuses. Rather than maximizing the impersonal value of your actions’ consequences, we might focus on more personal and interpersonal moral questions might such as “Would I be a good parent to my child, if I had one?” Or, “Would I be able to live a life I find meaningful, with children?” It is these more individual, more human-scaled, sorts of ethical questions that most of us seriously consider when we consider bearing children. And perhaps we are right to do so.

Children and Opportunity Costs

photograph of silhouetted figure alone on bench at sunset

In a previous piece, I argued that concerns about a potential child’s future carbon emissions do not give us any good reason to have fewer children. My basic argument there was simple: while a human life causes some harm via carbon production, it also causes far more total good. Human lives are, on net, a good thing for the world.

But while I don’t find the carbon cost argument persuasive, there is a different argument against having kids I find much more convincing.

Had I stayed single throughout my whole life, I expect I could have done a lot of good. Were I to eventually secure a good job — which I expect I will eventually do — then, with only myself to support, I could have donated a lot of money to high-impact charities.

I don’t have expensive tastes, and in the past I always found it easy after I receive a raise to mostly maintain my prior standing of living and funnel my new income to those in need. (To be clear, this is not because I’m a particularly generous person; I just don’t really buy much stuff. For example, I have a terrible time coming up with things for people to buy me for Christmas even when I know the money won’t otherwise be donated.) Had I not married, I expect that over the course of my life I could have easily donated well more than 50% of my income to those in real need.

But instead I got married and plan to have kids. And this, I expect, means I will do less good for the poor.

That is because kids are expensive. The USDA estimates that raising a child costs over two hundred thousand dollars (not including college). That is money that I could, and probably partly would, have spent providing malaria nets to families in Africa or funding vitamin A supplements.

This objection to having kids, what Stuart Rachels calls the “Famine Relief Argument,” is powerful. It points out that while the direct costs of having a child are not very high (my child will probably not make the world a worse place), the opportunity costs of having a child are huge. If one can save a life by donating about three thousand dollars to high-impact charities, then for the amount of money the average American spends raising a kid, I could save almost one hundred lives.

Of course, I could be more frugal than the average American parent (and do hope to be). But even living frugally, having kids will substantially increase my essential expenditures.

An Uncomfortable Demandingness

This argument is extremely strong, but you don’t see it brought up very much.

I’ve seen far more people on Facebook mention climate costs as a reason not to have kids than mention opportunity costs. Every couple months we see a new news article asking whether climate change should make us rethink procreation. I don’t see similar news articles about if global poverty should make us rethink procreation (other than those occasional very confused articles that suggest that poverty might be a result of overpopulation). There is a whole BirthStrike movement of women refusing to have kids until progress is made on climate change. Why is there not a BirthStrike movement of people refusing to have kids till we’ve eliminated global poverty? Why is more attention paid to the climate costs of having children, rather than the much, much larger opportunity costs?

It’s always dangerous to try and guess at underlying psychological motivations. But I expect two things are in play.

First, we never see opportunity costs. We see the damage our actions do but are never viscerally confronted with the goods we forgo by not performing certain actions. Thus, our brains are much better at considering costs other than opportunity costs.

Second, once you begin factoring in opportunity costs you suddenly realize just how radically demanding your ethical duties are. If I don’t have a child, I can donate far more money to charity. But also, if I give up philosophy and become a lawyer, doctor, or computer programmer, I can probably make far more money to donate to charity. Am I required to give up the career I love to help the poor?

Americans spend over 10,000 dollars per child on average each year. But Americans also spend over 3,000 dollars each year eating out. And the good of eating out is surely at least three times as small as the good of a child’s life. Are we doing something wrong anytime we eat out at restaurants?

Part of the reason you don’t see the opportunity cost argument made very often, is because making the opportunity cost argument forces you to confront the extraordinarily demanding nature of justice.

Responding to the Argument

Are there any plausible responses to this argument?

You could deny that ethics is really all that demanding. Perhaps your money really is yours, not just in the sense that you have the right to decide how it is used, but in the sense that you don’t have any moral reasons to use it to help others.

But, I’m convinced this is wrong. It really is wrong to spend money on luxuries when you could be donating that money to effective aid organizations. So are there any considerations that might justify having kids, even if they would not justify eating out or buying a new car?

Maybe. If there are, I think they come down to the special sort of value involved in a human life. The value of a child is very different from the sort of value involved in going to a restaurant, buying a new car, or taking international vacations.

All four (children, restaurants, cars, and vacations) are luxuries in the sense that they are not things that we need. Thus, you might think that since there are others who need food, shelter, clothing, and medication, it would be unjust to acquire those luxuries.

But there is also this important difference. If it was unjust to buy the car, it is obviously also unjust to keep the car. If I don’t need the car, not only should I not have bought it, but now that I have it I should sell it and donate the money to the poor.

But the same is not true of a child. Once I have a child, I should not sacrifice that child even if it means I can donate more to charity. Why is that? Because the value of a human life is profoundly different from the value of a car. Cars have a fungible value. It makes sense to trade one car for another, or to exchange one car for a certain amount of food.

Human lives are different, as is clear when we consider the unique type of tragedy involved in a human death. Consider how the point is put by Tal Brewer:

“Human beings have a very distinctive kind of value, wholly unlike the value of a physical pleasure, or a pocket full of money. It can make perfect sense to trade off physical pleasures against each other, foregoing one so as to experience another that differs only in being longer and more intense. … The loss of a human being is not compensable in this sense by the creation or preservation of another human life. This is not to deny that it sometimes makes sense to choose a course of action that will lead to the foreseeable death of one person but will spare the lives of many others. It is only to deny that in the wake of such a choice, it would make sense to regard the lost life as compensated for without remainder—indeed, without a literally grievous remainder—by the fact that other lives have been spared. This is precisely the blindness at the heart of utilitarian conceptions of value. …

It is worth pausing for a moment over the enormity of what we are referring to when we say such things as that the loss of human life cannot be compensated without remainder. … What is at issue here is that which we cannot or at any rate won’t quite believe in the possibility of when we struggle to fathom the fact that someone no longer is: it is an unfillable absence, a sense of which opens like a fresh wound when we turn our thoughts to the person who has been lost.

… For example, mature grief at the death of a loved one involves an awareness, whether articulate or inarticulate, that nothing could represent a compensation for what has been lost. Consolation might be possible, but compensation is not.

When we seek to stretch ourselves towards a fuller appreciation of the badness involved in the death of strangers, we often remind ourselves that the deceased was someone’s son, someone’s best friend, someone’s lover. … This familiar discipline of vision, then, testifies to a widespread confidence that the value of human beings is seen more clearly through the eyes of love than through the aggregative arithmetic of the utilitarian or the bureaucrat.”

Of course, the choice to not have a child is different from the choice to let a child die. To let a child die is monstrous, it is not monstrous to not have a child.

But even if this does not show there is any obligation to have children, I do think this should give us reason to doubt that we are obligated to not have kids in order to donate more to charity.  A human life has a type of value totally different than that of a car — it is a life with its own sort of incalculable meaning and importance.

And because of that unique value, it is unclear to me if it makes sense to make the sort of comparison required to say that it is more important to donate to charity than it is to have a kid. I worry such a comparison misunderstands the unique kind of value possessed by each and every human life.

On the Permissibility of Procreation

photograph of four silhouetted youths at sunset

People are, increasingly, citing climate change as a reason to not have children. Two kinds of arguments are generally made. Some argue that it is cruel to bring a potential future child into a rapidly warming world. Others argue that having children harms other people by contributing to climate change.

While I think both arguments are mistaken, in this post I will address the second argument since that argument has recently been made quite powerfully by fellow Prindle Post author Daniel Burkett.

Daniel’s Case

Our children, Daniel calculates, will produce approximately 16.16 metric tons of carbon per year. Multiplying that by an average life expectancy of 85 years, he finds that the carbon cost of procreation is, on average, 1373.6 tons of CO2 per child. And this leads Daniel to conclude that the choice to have a child will contribute far more to global warming than any other choice you might make in your life.

But even if having a child is the biggest contribution we will make to climate change, just how big a deal is that contribution?

To try and answer that question Daniel cites an article by John Nolt which argues that an average American’s lifetime carbon contributions will, over the next millennium, cause the suffering and/or death of two future people. (Though note, because Nolt wrote his article a decade ago, he was using a much higher per capita emission figure of 1,840 metric tons — 500 metric tons higher than the number Daniel cites for life-time emissions.)

So, Daniel argues, in choosing to have a child you are making a choice which will cause the suffering and/or death of two future people (or 1.5 future people if we adjust for the now lower per capita emissions rate).

This leads Daniel to the conclusion, expressed in a related article of his, that if individuals bear responsibility for their carbon emissions, then “we have strong moral reasons to refrain from choosing to procreate, reasons which – for many – amount to a moral obligation to refrain from choosing to have children.”

My Response

I believe this argument, while compellingly presented, is wrong. Trying to fight global warming by having fewer children strikes me as an unbelievably inefficient strategy. We end up fighting global warming by sacrificing all the goods of a human life. This, it turns out, is a terrible trade no matter how concerned you are about global warming.

To demonstrate this,  I want to raise a number of objections to Daniel’s argument. Some descriptive, and some normative.

Descriptive Disagreements

First, these numbers are misleading. Even if we agree with Daniel that having one fewer child would decrease total emissions by the per capita emissions rate (something you might doubt given economies of scale), these estimates are far too pessimistic. Per capita emission rates are already dropping. In the year 2000, the annual U.S. per capita emissions totaled 20.472 metric tons, in 2018 that number was down to 15.241 (my data source only goes to 2018).

While some climate models do assume emissions will remain constant, the authors of these models acknowledge that this is because the point of the models is to show what would happen if we don’t lower emission rates. The point of such models is not to show what is actually likely to happen in the future.

But what should matter to a prospective parent is what the future emissions of their child will likely be, not what they would be if everyone throws up their hands. Once you account for expected future policy shifts, the apparent benefits of not having a child plummet. This was shown in a report by the Founder’s Pledge (an organization dedicated to finding the highest impact solutions to climate change). If emissions stay the same, not having kids looks like a great idea. But once you account for expected policy shifts, not so much…

I expect the Founder’s Pledge report is overly optimistic; many states will not hit their emission goals. However, given that we have already seen a 25% drop in per capita emissions over the last 20 years, and given that we have every reason to expect that drop to continue or accelerate, the Founder’s Pledge report seems to better reflect the reality.

Are Humans on Net Bad?

But what if you accept Daniel’s predictive claims? It would, I think, still not give us a good reason to not have children. This is because not having a child is one of the most costly things you could do to fight climate change.

It can sometimes be hard to assess these costs when looking at potential people. So instead let’s look at an actual person: yourself. Ask yourself, “would the world on the whole have been better had I not existed, and so had the world been spared my carbon contributions?”

When I ask this question about my own life, the answer seems clearly to be no — even if my carbon emissions will cause the suffering and/or death of two future people.

I have probably already, very early in my career, donated enough money to prevent at least that much suffering. If, over the course of my lifetime, I donate a measly one percent of my future income to effective aid organizations then I will prevent far more suffering than I cause in carbon contributions.

It might be worth pausing here and unpacking just what is meant by the phrase: “the suffering and/or death of two people.” John Nolt included under this category anyone who will be “adversely affected” by “increased coastal flooding, reductions in water supplies, increased malnutrition and increased health impacts.”

Why is this important? Because the sort of suffering caused by global warming, and so caused by my carbon contributions, is the same sort of suffering that someone in a developed nation can prevent for an absolutely tiny percentage of their lifetime earnings. If I donate ten percent of my income to combat malnutrition or improve childhood health outcomes, still far less than what I think we are morally required to donate, then the amount of suffering I prevent will dwarf the harms I produce through climate change by several orders of magnitude.

We live in a world where it is easy for those in developed nations to do a huge amount of good at very low cost. But this means that bringing even moderately good people into the world has extremely high positive value. It turns out your child may only need to donate a mere 1% of their future income to carbon offsets to sequester more carbon than they will produce (using Daniel’s numbers for the cost of carbon offsets).

If you factor in that carbon emissions are likely to decrease, or that the cost of carbon capture will likely go down with scale, or that — as people like Matthew Yglesias and Tyler Cowen point out — more children increases the chances of discovering technical innovations necessary to reach carbon neutrality in developing economies, or that your child might donate, 2%, 3%, or even 5% of their income to climate causes, then suddenly having a child looks like the overwhelmingly best thing you can do for climate change.

To suggest you should not have a child because of climate concerns strikes me as bizarre. It is making one of the costliest sacrifices imaginable, the entire good produced by a complete human life, for the comparatively tiny benefit of lowered carbon emissions.

Adding in Generations

The case becomes even clearer if we consider future generations.

In considering our impact over time, Daniel mentions a paper by Murtaugha and Schlax estimating that the true carbon costs of an American having a child are approximately 9,441 metric tons of CO2. This number is derived by looking, not just at your child’s emissions, but also your children’s children’s emissions, and your children’s children’s children’s emissions, and so on. Murtaugha and Schlax then weight these numbers by relatedness (so I’m responsible for half my child’s emissions, a quarter of my grandchild’s emissions, an eighth of my great grandchild’s emissions, and so on).

But here is the thing, 9,441 metric tons was the number you get if you assume “constant emissions” across ALL future generations. In other words, you get this number if you assume that the 25% decline in U.S. per capita emissions we’ve seen over the last twenty years suddenly halts and never resumes.

Murtaugha and Schlax acknowledge this assumption is implausible, the number was not intended as a prediction of the future, but an illustrative model of a possible scenario. For example, they also consider an ‘optimistic scenario’ where we meet the UN’s 2100 emissions goals. In that scenario, you are responsible for only 562 metric tons of CO2 — one sixteenth the original number.

Now the optimistic scenario is, indeed, too optimistic (just as the “constant emissions” scenario is far too pessimistic). That is not the point. Rather, the point is that we should expect with each generation that per capita carbon emissions in developed countries will go down. However, we have no reason to predict that the amount of good a person can do will decrease nearly as quickly. The average person has the resources to do far more good now than the average human at any previous point in history. And that potential to do good is only likely to increase, at least in the immediately foreseeable future. (Eventually we will gather all the low hanging fruit for high impact interventions, but also by then technological development and economic growth will likely have expanded our resources even further.)

If carbon costs will decrease faster than our ability to do good — as they almost certainly will — then as you consider each subsequent generation the case for having children gets stronger and stronger. This is important, because remember that John Nolt’s study looked at the suffering and death caused over the next millennium. If you take the long view on costs, you need to take the long view on benefits.

A Deontological Rejoinder

But, you might object, even if children will do more good than harm, does that really justify the harm that they do? It is wrong to kill one person to save five, so then isn’t it wrong to have a child if that will cause the suffering or death of one even if it helps avert the suffering and death of many?

Deontological constraints, however, do not apply to the diffuse and temporally distant effects of our actions. If they did, just about every action would be deontologically constrained. Anything you do, by setting off a ripple of changes in the causal ether of the world, will result in a radically different future. By driving to work, and so slightly altering traffic patterns, you probably change each and every human who will exist five hundred years from now.

This, in turn, means that every particular murder that happens five hundred years from now would not have happened had you not driven to work. Of course, any number of different murders might have occurred, and so we have no reason to think that driving to work is a bad idea.

There is no particular person in the next millennium who will suffer and die as a result of my child’s carbon emissions. So, there is no concrete death or instance of suffering that I either intend or cause by having a child. Since deontological constraints require such causal particulars, there is no deontological constraint against procreation.

Conclusion

Having a child does not violate any deontological constraint against causing harm. Nor does it make the world a worse place. Having a child does more for the good of the world than almost any choice you can make because it enables the good of an entire human life.

Of course, none of this is necessarily a reason to have a child. There is something odd about bringing someone into existence just so that they can fight climate change. You are having a child, not summoning a genie. But, even if these considerations don’t show you should have a child, they undermine the thought that climate change gives you a reason not to.

Of course, there are other worries about the ethics of having a child — worries that have given me much greater pause. But a discussion of those worries will have to wait for a future post.

The Worst Thing You Can Do for Climate Change

photograph of NYC at rush hour

Last month, the United Nations marked World Population Day – the anniversary of the 1987 date on which the world’s population first surpassed 5 billion people. It took hundreds of thousands of years for us to reach the first billion humans, then only two hundred more years to increase that number sevenfold. The UN projects that our current global population of 7.9 billion will grow to 11.2 billion (an increase of roughly 140%) by the end of the century.

Such explosive growth would be concerning at the best of times. The resources of our planet are finite, and research suggests that our global population level is already at 2 to 3 times the sustainable level. But we are also in the midst of a climate crisis, the effects of which will be devastating for both the environment and our society. As a result, many believe that we each have an obligation to do all we can to avert climate catastrophe. Despite this, little mention is made of the worst thing you can do for climate change: namely, have a child.

Why might we think that having fewer children is a viable way of combating climate change? Consider the numbers: In the U.S., giving up your car will save approximately 2.4 tonnes of CO2 per year, while recycling and going vegan will save an additional 0.21 tonnes and 0.8 tonnes respectively. Yet the choice to have one less child will instead save a whopping 9441 tonnes of CO2or 59.8 tonnes per parent per year. To put this into perspective, the carbon cost of a single child is enough to undo the lifetime recycling of 684 other people.

This figure may seem outlandish, particularly given that the per-capita carbon emissions of an individual living in the U.S. is around 16.16 tonnes per year. Why, then, is the carbon cost of procreation so high? The main reason is that, in deciding to have a child, a parent chooses not only to create that child, but also all of the future persons who result from the existence of that child. To use an analogy: choosing to roll the snowball down the mountainside makes you responsible for the avalanche at the mountain’s base. Each parent is therefore taken to be responsible for 50% of their child’s emissions, 25% of each grandchild’s emissions, 12.5% of each great-grandchild’s emissions, and so on. Using average fertility rates, lifespans and projected per capita carbon emissions, it is then possible to calculate the average carbon added to the atmosphere as the result of an individual’s choice to have a child.

But perhaps this is unfair. If I’m morally responsible for my choice to have a child, then surely my children are also responsible for their procreative choices. So maybe I should only be accountable for the children that I directly choose to have. But even if we limit our responsibility to only our first generation of descendants, this is still a carbon cost of 1373.6 tonnes of CO2 per child. Even at this discounted rate, having a child remains the single worst thing an individual can do for climate change. It’s damage that a lifetime of going carless, recycling, and eating vegan doesn’t even come close to counteracting. To put it into stark terms: the carbon cost of a single child born in the U.S. is enough to cause – through climate-related harms – the severe suffering and/or death of two other people. Of course, climate-conscious parents could attempt to offset these emissions by purchasing carbon credits. But at current rates (around $4.99 per 1000lbs – or $11.00 per metric ton), this would cost them $15,109.60 per child. Offsetting the full carbon cost of their future descendants would instead come in at an astronomical $103,851.00.

But in spite of all of this, our procreative choices rarely factor into discussions of climate action. A study of ten Canadian high school science textbooks yielded 216 individual recommended actions on how to address climate change – but none of these suggested having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions. And this silence goes far beyond textbooks, with The Guardian, The New York Times,  and The Huffington Post all omitting procreative choices from their lists of the best ways for an individual to reduce their carbon footprint.

I recently wrote a paper on this inconsistency in our attitudes towards climate action. In response, many are tempted to point to the far greater emissions of industry, and claim that the burden is on those companies – not us – to address the climate crisis. But this is a bad argument for several reasons. Firstly – as I demonstrated in a previous article – attempting to avoid your responsibility by pointing to the greater responsibility of others simply doesn’t work. Secondly, this argument misses the important fact that industries don’t simply emit carbon for no reason. Rather, the coal burned by power plants and the gas used by Amazon delivery trucks is a by-product of profitable activities carried out to meet consumer demand. Fewer people means less demand, which means less pollution by industries in the long run. Thirdly, there’s no reason to treat this as an either/or scenario. Morality may very well require both systemic changes by companies and the modification of our own personal behavior. In fact, a recent study shows that 59% of emissions savings between 2020 and 2035 must come from individual behavioral changes. Such ‘dual obligations’ are nothing new. Consider the fast-fashion industry: It’s clear that corporations might have a moral obligation to stop utilizing rights-violating sweatshop labor to manufacture their clothing. But at the same, we as individuals also have an obligation to modify our own behavior and buy less sweatshop-manufactured products.

Finally, redirecting blame towards industries isn’t just an argument against reconsidering our procreative choices – it’s an argument against taking any individual action at all. If industries are the only ones who can fix the problem, then we, as individuals, might as well give up doing anything to combat the climate crisis. Driving less, recycling, and going vegan all become pointless from a climate perspective. If, however, we truly believe that what we do as an individual matters, then it only makes sense to focus on those actions that are most effective. While small positive changes are to be lauded, it’s important not to lose sight of other choices that are far more important – like the choice to have or not have children.

Procreative Autonomy and Climate Change

photograph of father walking with daughter in the water on the beach

From record-setting wildfires raging the Amazon to rising sea levels and melting ice caps, the devastating effects of climate change are becoming ever more apparent. Scientific data maintains that much of the rise in average global temperature is a direct result of human activities that emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The effects of climate change that we are currently facing are a consequence of a one-degree Celsius increase in average global temperature when compared to pre-industrial times. At this rate, we will experience up to a 4°C increase in average warming by 2100, which will only exacerbate and magnify the already rampant environmental degradation.

Fortunately, this future is avoidable as long as mitigating measures are rapidly implemented at the individual, community, and national levels. Recent analysis suggests that if immediate changes to halt climate change are made, carbon emissions can be lessened within 12 years, which will keep the rise in average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Given that our actions now are crucial to the future of the biosphere and consequently the future of all people, climate-conscious individuals recognize the urgent need for change.

Even though scientific consensus asserts the existence of climate change, to global warming and climate change skeptics, this is still a point of contention. But to the rest, the numerous impacts of climate change can raise valid concerns over the sustainability of natural resources, and the kind of dystopian reality future generations will be grappling with in their lifetime if we do not act now.

A contentious resolution that has been proposed is factoring in climate change when deciding whether or not to have children and how many, if at all. Climate change has forced people to contemplate the ethics of having children in a consistently warming and thereby deteriorating world. Curtailing the population means the environment will suffer a reduced impact due to human activities, which will translate to a higher standard of living for the remaining population in terms of an increase in per capita availability of natural resources. Earlier this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced criticism from conservatives following her Instagram live stream in which she pondered, “Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”

For BirthStrikers, the answer is decidedly tough but evident. UK-based environmental activist Blythe Pepino set up BirthStrike, a voluntary organization for people who have made the decision to not have children given the inevitable environmental deterioration looming in the future. Pepino maintains that BirthStrike does not aim to dissuade people from bearing children but to instead spotlight the exigency of the ecological crisis. BirthStrikers are a part of a growing movement of people who have made this decision and the movement continues to gain momentum as conversations regarding the ethics of bearing children are fostered in groups of climate-conscious people.

On the other hand, some are quick to dismiss the notion of limiting procreation due to climate change as absurd, such as Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah who in March, stated that the solution to climate change is having more babies. On the Senate floor, Lee shared his solution in a presentation, declaring that, “More babies will mean forward-looking adults, the sort we need to tackle long-term large-scale problems.”

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University echoes Lee’s thoughts on climate change and bearing children. Cowen argues that having more children and increasing the population of a nation would also increase the chances of nation coming up with innovative solutions to climate change. Cowen states, “If progress on climate change is at all possible, someone will need to contribute to it,” and goes on to explain that the most promising people who will do so is our potential children, especially if we are climate-conscious.

However, Lee and Cowen’s reasoning does not account for the series of carbon footprints our descendants will be producing which will collectively continue to add to the problem we are aiming to solve. Lee and Cowen also fail to address scientific data that deals with decisions made at the individual level, with recent research pointing to having children being detrimental to the environment given its already fragile state. Researchers calculated that having one less child would result in a family in an industrialized nation conserving 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is much more efficient than other proposed solutions to limiting carbon dioxide production such as giving up cars (saving 2.4 tons) and flying (saving 1.6 tons per transatlantic flight).

Discussing the prospect of not having children as a legitimate solution to climate change gives rise to other ethical concerns such as our right to bear children and the innate value of procreation. Procreative autonomy is one of many forms of autonomy people can employ to govern their lives and an extension of one’s right to liberty. In the context of human reproduction, exercising procreative autonomy means having total freedom in their choices regarding bearing children and, ultimately, retaining dominion over one’s body. Implementing policies to curb procreation interferes with individual procreative autonomy. While this value is of great significance, we might wonder whether whatever right we might have to it is absolute. If every individual possesses an inherent right to bear children, does this right also mean that an individual should have as many children as they want without any regard for the environmental consequences of their decision?

The instinct theory of human procreation states that all animals including humans have an inherent and fundamental desire to procreate, which is why almost all animals reproduce. This theory goes on to explain that if humans do not procreate, having left their purpose unfulfilled, will be unhappy. This theory is not without its flaws – the notion of an intrinsic desire for progeny lacks supporting empirical data. The urge to procreate is not universal amongst humans – people have and still choose not to experience parenthood simply because that is not what they want. In this light, the procreation-instinct theory comes across as an oversimplification of human nature.

If population growth is to be regulated to resolve climate change, can governmental restrictions on the number of children one can bear ever be justified? Sarah Conley, a philosophy professor at Bowdoin College argues it can indeed be justified in her 2005 journal article, The Right to Procreation: Merits and Demerits. Conley explains that if procreative autonomy is considered a right or an extension of the freedom to live life on our own terms, then restricting the number of children one can have would be an encroachment of this right. But Conley also notes that, “Imposing one’s children on an overpopulated world is also a kind of interference […] in the lives of others in that world. Whose desire should trump?” Comparing the significance of different people’s rights, Conley points out how one person’s right to something can outweigh another person’s right to something else, and how the more basic a right is, the more difficult it would be to supersede. Even though it would be repressive for a government to regulate the number of children one can bear, it may be even more repressive to rob others of the right to basic needs of life by contributing to overpopulation, which would deplete finite natural resources. Hence, Conley believes that governmental restrictions on childbearing is ethically admissible because unlimited procreation would impinge on others’ fundamental rights even more so than governmental limitations on procreation would interfere with one’s procreative autonomy.

Regardless of where one stands on this issue, decisions about bearing children remain deeply personal. While all people have the right to bear children, the fact is that overpopulation and the resulting increase in human activities are contributing to climate change. Whether you regard the climate impact of having a child an important consideration or not, taking action to remedy climate change is becoming ever more pressing and contemplating the ethical concerns climate change presents can serve as a driver to help us arrive at an equitable solution.

Population Growth and Anti-Natalist Philosophy

photograph of tightly-packed crowd

July 11 marked World Population Day, observed by the United Nations (UN) each year since 1989. It was established after the human population of Earth reached 5 billion on July 11, 1987 to, “…focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues.” As of July 11, 2019 the human population has reached 7.7 billion and is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Continued overall positive population growth, combined with a general upward trend in worldwide human life expectancy, has created concerns about overpopulation: that is, a situation in which the resources of particular regions—or the planet in general—are outstripped by the needs of the human population. 

Concerns about human population are not new. Throughout history, legislators and scholars across cultures have been concerned with either depopulation, overpopulation, or population density. In Ancient China, Kongzi (Confucius) advocated government policy to ensure a balanced distribution of people across the arable land of China. Mozi, though a critic of Confucianism, also advocated government policy concerning population. One of the three  moral/political criteria for beneficial actions (, “lì”) in Mozi’s philosophy was that it promoted population growth. In Ancient Greece, Plato fixed the ideal population of a city-state at around 50400 (accounting for 5040 citizens, and then other non-citizens such as women, children, and slaves). Aristotle criticizes Plato’s calculations for not taking into account issues with fertility rates, mortality rates, and the size of territory required to sustain a population. In the Middle Ages, the Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun wrote extensively on population dynamics, advocating for denser population centers to facilitate social and economic prosperity.

Much of the contemporary discussion of human overpopulation is traceable to Richard Malthus’ 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” Malthus provides a mathematical argument as the basis of his thesis that overpopulation was a problem that would steadily grow worse: human population grows exponentially while the food supply only grows linearly. That is, the increase in food production occurs at a rate which remains the same over time whereas the increase in population occurs at a rate which itself increases over time. Malthus’ view of the problem focused on the poor and destitute, whom he viewed as those whose position was more vulnerable to famine and disease. These twin killers are examples of what Malthus referred to as positive checks on population: calamities that arise naturally from overpopulation and serve to check population growth. Allowing population to grow until checked by such natural forces was cruel in Malthus’ view. He argued that the better measures were so-called preventative checks: e.g., abstaining from or delaying procreation. 

In the current day, there is significant sympathy with the preventative aspect of the Malthusian position. In light of the growing population, and ever-increasing evidence that human activity is a primary driver of climate change, some people believe that having children is immoral. Or, at least that it is a decision which has to be made in response to the issues facing the world—and not narrower personal or familial ones. Other contemporary scholars have generated their own strands of reasoning to argue against procreation—or at least against the presumption that a decision to have children stands in need of no special justification. In general, arguments to the effect that procreation is immoral are referred to as anti-natalist views. Canadian philosopher Christine Overall and South African philosopher David Benatar both provide their own versions of anti-natalism.

Overall, in her book Why Have Children, canvasses the usual arguments both for and against having children and finds them all lacking. She concludes that the decision to have children always stands in need of justification, and that the justification must be given in terms of the possibility of a healthy relationship developing between parents and children. Benatar, on the other hand, argues that human existence is generally characterized by misery. Because of this he argues that it is always bad to bring new life into the world. In other words, whereas Overall claims that having children can possibly be justified—though not in any of the usual ways—Benatar argues that having children is always unjustified. In his Better Never to Have Been, Benatar claims that life is bad—but so is death and dying. The only way to avoid this double-bind is to never have existed in the first place. (Incidentally, the sort of arguments Benatar gives are among the types of arguments Overall finds lacking.)

In the broad sweep of history, anti-natalist views rise and fall with the population itself. At times when populations have significantly decreased, arguments arose advocating having more children. Barring the success of a general anti-natalist argument like Benatar’s, issues about overpopulation are broadly about resources and climate. Given the dire warnings and predictions about the state of Earth’s climate future, sympathy with anti-natalist positions will likely continue or even increase.

Antinatalism: The Tragedy of Being Born

A baby's hand holding a daffodil petal

On February 7th, Mumbai business executive Raphael Samuel made international headlines by indicating his intent to sue his parents for causing his life. Samuel explained that his parents’ decision to procreate was purely in their own self-interest and never accounted for the likelihood of suffering that he would later endure; just like how he might sue someone for causing him physical and mental distress, Samuel believes that his parents’ choice to give birth to him led to essentially the same result as if he had been kidnapped: he was forced to go somewhere against his will. Although he has been unable to find a lawyer to represent him and no judge has indicated a willingness to hear the case, Samuel insists that he is mostly concerned with making a public statement to underline his belief that procreation is not necessarily a good thing – and this is also why he plans to sue his parents for only one dollar.

Samuel affirms what’s known as ‘antinatalism,’ a philosophical position which contends that it is always, in principle, wrong to procreate. Though antinatalism can take a variety of forms, a common threadline amongst its defenders is not simply that an increased population overstresses the environment or that giving birth to people leads to problems for others down the line, but rather that it is bad for the person who is born that they are born – that is to say, antinatalism argues that birth is an inherent harm, not merely an instrumental one.

In the words of philosopher David Benatar, life is “permeated by badness” to a degree that irrevocably tips the scale against any possible assessment in its favor; despite being filled with pleasurable experiences and beautiful things, the world is also home to (literally) every kind of evil and pain – to force someone into such an arena against their will is to expose them to possible goods, but guaranteed harms. Of course, death is also a harm, so Benatar insists that it is only morally permissible to perpetuate a life, not to cause one to either begin or end.

Samuel is also concerned about the impact of humanity on other species; as he told the BBC, “There’s no point to humanity. So many people are suffering. If humanity is extinct, Earth and animals would be happier. They’ll certainly be better off. Also no human will then suffer. Human existence is totally pointless.” By 2050, Samuel’s home country of India alone is predicted to have nearly 1.7 billion residents, a threatening problem that has sparked national conversations about government policies to curtail overpopulation. In Samuel’s mind, antinatalism could serve a functional role to better manage the limited resources of an already-crowded globe.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published a paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” where he argued that rational agents acting in their own self-interest could easily deplete a shared resource of limited size (for it always makes sense to each individual to take a little bit more, despite the eventual burden placed on the system as a whole). Particularly as questions of climate change, sustainability, and overpopulation loom in the contemporary discourse, Hardin’s illustration of a hillside laid barren by nothing but rational choices resonates more than many would care to admit.

So, although it is unlikely that many will find Raphael Samuel’s nihilistic doctrine or David Benatar’s anti-birth philosophy attractive in itself, a second look at the antinatalist thesis might make more sense than people initially think – even if it might make for some awkward tension at your next family gathering.