OK, whether this is the best argument for not having kids will be for you to decide. But I happen to think it’s a good one — and a very simple one, too.
(No offense to those of you who have kids. I’m sure you’re awesome parents, and you’re giving your kids the best life they could have under the circumstances. But for those who are deciding for the future whether to have kids, perhaps this argument is something to consider. Or not.)
Here’s my simple argument; please let me know what you think:
Every time we choose to have a baby, we make a choice on that new human being’s behalf, without his or her consent. Nobody asked that person whether he or she wants to born. Nobody asked that person whether he or she wants to be put into this world we live in. Right? And yet we put the person into this world anyway, without his or her consent. This already would seem to be morally problematic.
But what’s even worse is: we bring a new human, without his or her consent, into a situation that’s very difficult to get out of. Once the person is here, it’s extremely difficult for that person to “opt out” and decide he or she doesn’t want to live. Suicide almost always involves a painful death and a lot of suffering leading up to it and following it, for the person as well as for the person’s loved ones, friends, classmates, co-workers, acquaintances, etc.
It would be one thing if it were easy to opt out of life. We could then try to justify having kids by saying, “Yeah, it’s true I’m bringing this human being into this world without his or her consent, but it’s no big deal, because if this person ever decides life in this world isn’t for him or her, he or she can always just end his or her life. No harm done!”
But that’s not the reality, right? People can’t just easily decide life isn’t for them and end their life. The way society is structured, ending one’s life is extremely difficult and inevitably painful for all involved.
So that’s my argument: When we have a kid, we’re putting someone into a situation (life in this world) without that person’s consent, and then once they’re here, they can’t even check out if they want to, except perhaps with a tremendous amount of suffering involved. Putting another person into any situation without his or her consent, let alone a situation the person won’t be able to get out of painlessly, would seem to be wrong. Wouldn’t it? What do you think?
Against your will were you formed, against your will were you born, against your will you live, against your will you will die.
– Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers 4:22)
That’s the short and sweet rendering of this argument. Now here’s a more wordy, expanded version of the argument, with refutations of possible counterarguments:
Every time you have a baby, you’re bringing a human being into this world without that human being’s consent. Right? So already right there, before even going any further, you have to ask yourself: What right do I have to put someone, anyone, into any situation without that person’s consent?
In this case, not only are you putting that person into a situation without that person’s consent; you’re putting the person into a situation that is guaranteed to contain pain and suffering, as all lives do.
Even if your baby gets lucky and becomes the first human ever to go through life without pain or suffering, even then — what right would you have to make that choice for that person to put him/her into this particular situation?
It would be like if I say to you: “Hey, I’ve got the perfect career for you. It’ll be nothing but fulfillment for you. There will be no bad days at the office. So I’m going to take you now and put you into this career, without your consent.”
Even if I’m right about that career and that person will have nothing but good days in that career, does that mean I have the right to make that decision for that person and put that person into a certain career without that person’s consent?
Similarly, by bringing a person into this world, even if my attitude towards this new person is “Hey, I’ve got the perfect life for you. It’ll be nothing but fulfillment for you. There will be no bad days in your life. So I’m going to take you now and put you into this life, without your consent,” what right do I have to do that? How can I make that choice for that person? It would seem it’s not for me to decide, any more than it’s my right to decide someone should be put into a certain career, right?
In reality, of course, it’s much more problematic than this. As we know, no life is perfect bliss. Everyone who is brought into existence will have bad days, and everyone brought into existence will experience pain and suffering.
Some people learn ways of coping with and even growing from the pain, but despite all of a person’s best coping mechanisms and best therapies, some amount of pain — physical, psychological and emotional — is inevitable for everyone. Indeed quite a lot of pain is inevitable for everyone, when looked at across the person’s lifetime.
And so, in reality, it would seem that having a kid is more like telling someone, “I’m going to put you into a certain career, without your consent, even though this career will include at least some pain and suffering, most likely a lot of pain and suffering.” Would there be any moral justification for me to make such a decision on someone else’s behalf without that person’s consent?
For two and a half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel disagreed. These say: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. And those say: It is preferable for man to have been created than had he not been created.
Ultimately, they were counted and they concluded: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. However, now that he has been created, he should examine his actions that he has performed [and seek to correct them]. And some say: He should scrutinize his planned actions [and evaluate whether or not and in what manner those actions should be performed, so that he will not sin].
– Babylonian Talmud: Eruvin 13b
Now, of course you’re probably thinking, “This is the most ridiculous argument I’ve ever read. Of course you can’t obtain a person’s consent to be born before the person is born! So the best we can do is assume that most people, at least in safe, developed countries, will have happy lives worth living, and I’ll do my best as a parent to make sure that this will be the case for my child.”
I think there are at least two problems here:
Firstly, indeed, you can never get a child’s consent before being born. That’s the point! Since you can never get a person’s consent before bringing that person into existence, what right do we have to bring any person into existence, since it’s always without the person’s consent?
Secondly, no matter how hard we try, even in safe, developed countries, any person we bring into this world will have to experience pain and suffering, as we discussed above.
Now, another response you may be thinking of is: We make decisions on other people’s behalf all the time, when they’re not capable of doing so for themselves and we know it’s what’s best for them. For example, we vaccinate our infants without their consent, even though the needle that supplies the vaccination may cause the infant some pain, and the infant may experience some temporary sickness after the vaccination, because we know that the infant will have a better life this way.
That is, if we make the decision on their behalf, without their consent, to have them vaccinated, they will most likely have a better life, and if we don’t make the decision, without their consent, to have them vaccinated, they will be more likely to have a worse life.
We make many other choices on our children’s behalf, and we also make choices on behalf of those who are too old or infirm to make their own choices for themselves, when the right to make such decisions is out of their hands and has been placed upon us.
However, there is at least one key difference between those other cases where we make decisions on other people’s behalf without their consent and the case of bringing a person into existence without his or her consent. In those other cases, if we don’t make these choices on their behalf without their consent, they will be worse off.
In the case of vaccinations and other decisions made on behalf of people without their consent, we are placed into the less-than-ideal dilemma of:
I make a decision on that person’s behalf without that person’s consent (e.g. to vaccinate the infant) — which is not ideal because what right do I have to make a decision on that person’s behalf? —
I don’t make the decision on that person’s behalf (e.g. I don’t have the infant vaccinated), which would be good in the sense that I’m not making a decision on that person’s behalf without that person’s consent, but in the end that person will be much worse off, because, in the case of vaccination, that person will be more likely to contract polio or MMR or tuberculosis and/or cause others to do so.
So in all those cases where we’ve decided that making decisions on other people’s behalf without their consent is the right thing to do, in every case it’s because if we don’t make the decision without their consent, we have good reasons for believing the person will be worse off.
However, in the case of bringing a new person into existence, it is NOT the case that if we don’t bring them into existence without their consent they will be worse off. If we don’t bring them into existence, there’s no “they” to be worse off! If we don’t make that decision, that person will simply never come into existence at all! Right?
So we can’t say that if we don’t make the decision to bring a child into existence without the child’s consent the child will be worse off, because if we don’t make that decision, there is no child to be worse or better off! And so we go back to our original problem: What right do we have to put someone into this world without his or her consent, let alone when we know that doing so will include pain and suffering?
Finally, one might argue that it’s OK to put someone into a situation, even without that person’s consent, as long as the person can always easily get out of the situation. In this case, it’s OK to bring a person into existence, without the person’s consent, because if that person doesn’t like being in this world, he or she can always choose to leave.
But there are at least two problems with this way of thinking, in my view:
1: Is it even true that it’s OK to put someone into a situation, without the person’s consent, as long as the person can easily get out of that situation? If I’m going to a party tomorrow night and I think you would enjoy it too, do I have a right to take you when you’re fast asleep and throw you into my car, drive you to the party, and place you in the club where the party is going on? Even if I let you leave the party whenever you want, it still wouldn’t make it right for me to have brought you to the party in the first place without your consent, would it?
2: Leaving life is not so simple. It’s not like leaving a party. Quite the contrary; it’s almost always very very difficult to leave life. Once we bring someone into existence, there are parents. There are siblings. There are uncles and aunts and cousins. Pretty soon there are classmates, teachers, friends, BFFs, and, in some cases, a multitude of fans. If the person chooses to check out of life, he or she knows that many people will have to endure a great deal of suffering because of this decision. In addition, people who choose to end their life normally experience a great deal of suffering leading up to this decision, as well as during the act itself.
Therefore, it would seem we cannot justify bringing new humans into existence by saying, “Ah, worst comes to worst they can always opt out if life isn’t their thing,” because a) opting out is normally extremely difficult and painful, and b) even if it weren’t difficult and painful to opt out, we would still have no right to “bring them to the party” without their consent in the first place.
Nu? Tell me why I’m wrong. 🙂
Thanks for reading all that! And I hope you’ve all been doing great the last few years since I last posted!