Monday, March 20, 2006

Creation: Pro and Con

We have examined an argument against marriage; now for an argument against children.

In the case of marriage, the argument turned on a positive objection, a reason not to marry. In the case of pro-creation, the con is typically expressed by a rhetorical question:

What reasons can one give for having a child?

This is sometimes pronounced with cynicism: who would bring a child into this fine mess? But I think its force is meant to be more general. It stems from two constraints on what the critic is willing to accept in response.

In the first place, the answer cannot appeal to the interests of the parents. It is – the questioner assumes – not a reason to have a child that one would enjoy it, or that it would benefit one's relationship (if it would). Or, more accurately, it is not that such considerations have no weight at all, but that they seem defective or mis-placed, at least when offered by themselves. These cannot be the only reasons that a good parent has.

Perhaps the missing reasons are altruistic ones? But this threatens to violate a second constraint: our answer to the question cannot turn on benefits to the child. There is a puzzle about whether causing someone to exist can benefit that person, at all. (See Part Four of Reasons and Persons.) But even if the answer is yes, and there is an altruistic reason to procreate, the critic seems right, once again, to doubt that this is the sort of reason we want to give.

Even worse is the argument from the threat of extinction. ("The world must be peopled!") And this is not much improved by the invocation of public goods. ("The world must be peopled – to some extent; and in refusing to participate, we free-ride on the arduous labour of parents." This could be, at most, an argument for public child support.)

Although I haven't presented the point with care, I am sympathetic to the critic of procreation, at least to this extent: that the answers to the question considered so far feel palpably inadequate. If the question is pressing, remarks like these will not put it to rest. What is less clear, and much more puzzling, is why we should feel obliged to answer the question, at all. Justifications come to an end; why not here? What makes us think that we need a further reason to do what comes naturally?

I wonder if the source of pressure, for those who feel it, is a rationalist fantasy whose effects reverberate in other, more prominent parts of moral philosophy: the fantasy that practical reason is more than human. Here is a familiar challenge in the discussion of "animal rights":
Why assign moral status to human infants but not to non-human animals that have greater mental powers? What if the infant lacks even the potential for rational thought?
The assumption is that "It's a human being" is not a good enough reason by itself. Nor is "in order to have a child." It is as if reasons must speak to reflective thought, as such – to angels and Martians, as well as to us. We feel the need to convince an interlocutor who will not accept the argument, "This is what human beings do." But when we try to meet this demand, what we say seems to miss the point.

Of course, "human nature" is a pretty feeble guide. But one need not embrace it blindly to doubt that there is anything wrong with a (defeasible) prejudice in favour of human life.


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