‘Philosophy Killed My Children’: A Response

Baby-chocolate My previous article, ‘How Philosophy Killed My Children and Why it Should Kill Yours’, seemed to have generated some debate. Unfortunately, there was much heat but little light shed on taking the subject further from most commentators/critics. Yet, what little light was shed by critics is a welcome furthering of this important discussion. Considering I was made into the title of a Nicholas Smyth post on this website, and considering the excess to which the debate collapsed into denigration, dogma and shouting matches, I wish to respond to some of the claims. In fact, this might take longer than the original piece itself considering the widespread misreading of my argument.

My argument is quite simple: there is no reason to create more people and every reason not to. I also attempted to severe the link between parenthood – an ethical attitude of helping younger people, wanting to lessen their suffering, and using our own experience to better theirs – and procreation. The latter is my target. Indeed, parenthood need not be tied to procreation. The parenting-attitude can be applied to those who already exist, not requiring us to create human life to care for. No critic highlighted a good argument to create more people, other than emotional reasons which I highlighted is, firstly, unpersuasive and, secondly, is an insult to adoptive parents who can testify to the reciprocated feelings of their adopted children. That is, we may fulfil the desire for parenthood through non-procreative means, adoption being one way.

But adoption, as they say, is one option. As I highlighted, not all of us – including me, given my age, income, etc. – would pass adoption procedures. The information I have obtained from adoption agencies highlights this much. Being unable to adopt should also tell us something important: if adoption agencies won’t let us be parents to these children, what does that tell us about the automatic pass we get to simply use our reproductive organs to make children? If agencies judge us unfit to be parents for those children who do exist, it should smack hard of blatant arrogance to bypass such a well-founded judgement to produce children of our own (I hope adoptive parents will provide some more personal details on this. I prefer hearing from them, rather from adoption agencies). This is why people who argue unless I adopt I should not judge simply fail to make a point: if I cannot adopt because I would not pass first-level acceptance as an adoptive parent, what gives me the right to just breed away? This should immediately tell me I am unfit as a parent, be it for my own or those who exist.

As ‘Namit’, a comrade in this discussion, has pointed out, my main problem is that biological parenthood has been given a ‘free pass’ for too long; it is taboo to judge people who create life. Hence it seems that biological parents, who take my argument on face-value, i.e. accept my premises and conclusion, would no doubt be harsh in their response: after all, there is no return policy when it comes to children. They have already committed an act I think unjustified and indeed immoral; it is an act that you cannot undo. Considering no critic highlighted the failure with the argument, those who are biological parents, taking the trouble to point out I was being ‘stupidly offensive’, perhaps feel this way. However, that is not my problem or a counter-argument: I have yet to be told why we must or should continue breeding or create children (this is a different point to saying people will breed, anyway). What is required is an argument not founded on petty, egotistical notions of immortality, selfishness and prejudice. The vehemence with which some people responded shows me I am tapping into some taboo areas for many people: they don’t like it and they want me to shut up.

An intellectual mentor, Ms Ruchira Paul, has, to an extent, accepted my arguments – indeed, she and others like Nicholas Smyth, say they usually do. This is a pleasant and welcome surprise since I rarely know who agrees with me, but know all too well of the antagonists. Nevertheless, Ms Paul’s argument basically chastises me for judging people who breed. What I would welcome, however, is a judgement on those, like me, who do not and will not. Perhaps Ms Paul sees me as a self-righteous non-breeder, like a self-righteous non-smoker, mocking and deriding those who perform the act I claim immoral. Yet I hope that this is beside the point: I have made an argument, highlighting specifically why I think this is a moral or immoral position, and thus drew from pretty straight-forward premises a conclusion which anyone is welcome to dispute. It has been disputed, but not for any good reason I am able to see. Ms Paul herself is welcome to ‘judge’ me, but I hope on the same grounds I judge procreators: with sound arguments and not emotion (which she has not done, displaying why I call her a ‘mentor’). We are forced into judgement if we find there are no good reasons and perhaps very bad ones for people adopting (excuse the pun) an attitude or performing a set of actions. There is nothing wrong with ‘judgement’ – it is in fact a neutral term, we can judge someone good or bad – but primarily it should be reasoned and clear – not emotional and knee-jerk and snide. I gave my reasons and anyone is welcome to dispute them, but this will not stop me ‘judging’ people and their actions, nor accepting taboo-areas.

A commentator called J. Hawkins seems particularly upset by my criticisms, envisaging everything from child murder to racist sentiments. Mr Hawkins has also not responded to my specific claims, though I would welcome him to dispute my points as I have presented them. He has not pointed out which part specifically is incorrect, nor has anyone else. Mr Hawkins and others have asserted my accusations are incorrect, but have failed to say why – other than something verging on bad taste or knee-jerk responses and working from a misreading of my argument (as I will shortly highlight). Also, Mr Hawkins claims I’ve made a racist argument whereas nowhere in my essay did I highlight a specific ‘race’ of people, be it the children or the adoptees. (See the next paragraph for why I mentioned African children – that is children from Africa, not necessarily black). Also I was taken aback by the automatic assumption that ‘being rich’ or ‘being Western’ means being white – perhaps the majority are, as he indicates, but so what? This is a failure. A very bad and worrying failure on Mr Hawkins’ part: after all I don’t care what your skin colour or nationality is, as long as you are able and willing to aid those who would benefit from aid – also despite their skin-colour. Postulating as he does something about race only reveals his indiscretions not mine, since it is obvious what a stretch it requires to make my argument racist at all. (I mean who says 'rich' loving adoptive parents cannot be black. I certainly did not. But this is entirely beside the point.)

Mr Hawkins and others also take issue with the title. I would like to highlight paragraphs 2 and paragraph 13. To quote from the latter: ‘To not have children is not to kill children; killing is taking away the existence of a living thing, but these beings are neither living nor existing. What is killed is the idea of having children and what is birthed is the ethical obligation we have to look after those who need that love and attention so many of us are willing to suffer for…’ This only shows Mr Hawkins did not, perhaps, read the essay, or perhaps did not retain it: something no critic should ever do when critiquing. By showing this sentence, Mr Hawkins reveals to us he did not read or retain my argument. Though, to give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps in his anger, he simply forgot. I do not fault him for that. (One commentator, ‘MRM’, had the insight to highlight I specifically refute such a reading) Yes, the title is provocative. Provocative enough to warrant focus and indeed discussion, as people can read what I mean by it. It is in fact a litmus test as to whether people read it through to see that I dispute a face-value reading of the title. Mr Hawkins has failed, too, in this regard and is painting a portrait of me that no one would recognise.

Mr Hawkins, Ms Rachel Charlmers and, on Mr Smyth’s post, ‘aguy109’ have also to some degree made some unnecessary character attacks, accusing me of ‘colonialist attitudes’ and ‘racist’ sentiments; a patronising, white-knight colonialist attitude to ‘those garsh darn African orphans’ (not any commentator’s quotations, but my attempt at a stereotype of an American businessman with a fake heart). Their objection falls flat though because there is nothing colonialist about caring for people who exist who require aid, whether in Africa or America; and secondly, perhaps more importantly, her claim about it being internationalist (for me) is utterly refuted since Africa is my homeland and where I currently live. I write about Africa because that’s where my concern lies, on a domestic level before the universal. ‘Aguy109’ says:

I agree that Moosa's argument … reeks of colonialism:” those poor Africans can't be relied upon to bring up their own children and orphans, so let us Superior First Worlders take those children ourselves” It would make much more sense to fund orphanages in their birth countries, employ local people to bring them up according to their culture and enable them to contribute to the economies of their own countries, than to export them en mass to the West.

This makes no sense to me being an African myself! I am not a ‘first-worlder’, etc., Aguy109’s argument is meaningless to me, since I am talking about action within my own country.

I am not sure how one can be colonialist in your own homeland; though perhaps Ms Chalmers and ‘aguy109’ mean a patronising view of the privileged looking down on the poor. Very much beside my point and, as I highlighted, it does not answer my charge. That is an issue of which I didn’t speak and which requires further elaboration. That is not my concern at present; my concern is how we should conduct ourselves with regard to the question: ‘do we create more people?’ or ‘do we not and help those who exist?’ Several have taken pot-shots at philosophy as a whole. Firstly, to say what I am doing is not philosophy is to ignore the work done by many professional philosophers, whose ideas I have drawn from, like Peter Singer (see his articles at The Stone on some of these issues), John Harris (in his book The Value of Life), Mary Warnock, Julian Baggini (and his article at the Guardian), and David Benatar (in his Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence); and the older and dead Lucretius and Arthur Schopenhauer. One need only look through articles published in Bioethics, the Journal of Applied Ethics, and the Journal of Medical Ethics, to see these are deep, concentrated areas of philosophical focus. I am uncertain how it could not be: we are talking about the creation of human life, the suffering and poverty of the world, what is moral concerning both and whether we have duties or obligations concerning children existing and non-existing. To dismiss these as not important is to reveal the dogmatic, axiomatic, and irrational attitude I am specifically targeting; to say it is not philosophy, would (1) warrant a definition of philosophy and (2) dismiss the hard work done by many philosophers regarding these questions, some of whom I have mentioned. Indeed, my professor would find this particularly troublesome, considering his own extensive research and writing in these areas – and considering the centre I study at is focused on such questions. Also to say something is purely philosophical is to negate the relationship between one’s beliefs and actions: my conclusions regarding procreating means I will not procreate. This was why I wrote the essay itself, to highlight your thoughts do play a crucial role in how you act. This is obvious but I am targeting thoughts themselves, I want people to reassess what they take to be axiomatic. I also take exception that this does not apply to people’s lives: do I not count as a person? Do the many people, indeed commentators on my previous post, not count when showing that their negative attitude to procreating has an impact on their life? This is nonsense and displays to me the bigotry I was targeting: non-breeders are persons, too. This is not merely conjecture – it details whether we create new people! I struggle to see how anything I have written is purely conjecture when we know for a fact that people do accept my claims and are themselves not going to have children (not because of me, but obviously because they share my views). This strange assertion has no fruit to bear in this discussion. (There is also something slightly ironic with commentators who take the time to point out a piece is meaningless; if it was meaningless, why comment at all?)

Mr Nicholas Smyth has, as I indicated, written an extensive article criticising my views. I am quite delighted to be able to engage in debate with a writer I respect.

Smyth begins by unfortunately distorting my argument. It begins almost as I have stated it: ‘Human society depends vitally on procreation and on parenting. Without these, we literally have no future. Procreation is a given: children inevitably spring up all over the world for reasons that most of us understand quite well. Parenting involves the love and care of children. It does not necessarily involve the love and care of one's biological children.’ – but then goes on to make a claim I do not: ‘Given that countless needy orphans exist all over the world, a well-off person in the industrialized world is acting selfishly by having their own children. They ought to just adopt the less fortunate children.’ In other words, richer people are bad for not adopting the poorer. Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not – I care only about those who want to procreate at the moment and, too, not necessarily ‘rich’ people. And I also did not indicate the ‘industrialised world’, since my argument applies to people who lives in any country and are in a position to help. Indeed, my argument applies to my fellow Africans as it does to my colleagues in Europe and America. Many people can adopt but do not necessarily have to be rich or live in America.

My counter-argument requires quite careful unpacking, so let me start slowly. Firstly, as Smyth has written my argument, it is almost but not completely my point. If we are in a better position to provide nutrition, health, love, care, affection and so on, and we want to give these privileges to a younger person – who we can love, and so on – I would ask what makes a couple create a person to fulfil this role, instead of adopting? (Please note: this is essentially my main argument)

I am not sure whether my argument does mean that if you are in a position to do so, you must: I think that is a separate argument and one I would have trouble legally enforcing (but might morally argue for), given my slight libertarian blood. Some couples might not want children – an argument must be made and I think can be made constructed out of the threads I have begun.

But my argument is targeting people:

(1) who want to procreate,

(2) who do want to look after and love children, and

(3) will pass adoption policies.

I know many couples who fit this role, as I am sure many readers do, too. I do not think forcing a couple who hate children (i.e. do not fulfil 1 and 2) to adopt will be a good thing for the child – albeit they too would be, I think, selfish, unreasonable, etc. (In this way, I thank Ms Paul for getting me to reverse the argument). That is a much more difficult argument to go into and, once again, not what I was focused on. I was focused on the person or couple who fulfil the three properties above: want to procreate, want to love, will pass adoption policies. I have the opportunity now, thankfully, to clarify this, though I assumed many would read this as a choice not enforcement.

The statistics of African children did not mean we should adopt specifically African children as opposed to, say, European (as I highlighted, I know Africa to a small degree because I live there): it meant that there exist children who do require aid, whose lives are dependent on international support, that there is a way we as individuals can actually help on a more successful long-term goal. I was speaking to my fellow South Africans as well as any who happened to read the post. This is a further reason why another commentator, who said that even if the parent dies there are relatives, is still missing the entire point of the essay: it does not answer the charge against people procreating and focusing on those who require help, anywhere in the world.

Smyth believes my position of standing outside the world to be ethically criminal. The title of his essay indicates as much. ‘What is most troubling about it is its uncritical acceptance of a certain form of ethical reasoning, one where our choices are evaluated from a “zoomed out” or objective perspective, one that ignores how and why individual people actually make these kinds of decisions.’

The zoomed-out perspective is, as Peter Singer writes, exactly the goal of ethics and indeed counter’s Smyth’s claim.

Ethics takes a universal point of view. This does not mean a particular ethical judgement must be universally applicable. Circumstances alter causes … What it does mean is that in making ethical judgments we go beyond our own likes and dislikes. From an ethical point of view, the fact that it is I who benefit from, say, a more equal distribution of income and you who lose by it, is irrelevant. Ethics requires us to go beyond ‘I’ and ‘you’ to the universal law, the universalisable judgment, the standpoint of the impartial spectator or ideal observer, or whatever we choose to call it.’ (Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd edn [New York: NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008], pp. 11-12).

Singer writes this after summarising nearly the whole ground of modern moral philosophy; for example, we can immediately think of John Rawls' ‘veil of ignorance’ or 'original position' when Singer postulates me benefiting from equal distribution of income and you, a richer person, losing by it. I am not sure what I or these ethicists have said that makes, for example, Rawls’ standpoint ‘uncritical’. It is precisely needed (as many essays detail) and, as Singer also indicated, does not necessarily mean it becomes universally applicable. It may be the right thing to do, but it does not mean we are in a position in our specific contexts to do it: you might agree that eating meat is wrong, but be stuck on an island with only chickens.

Smyth’s statement of me is also descriptively not true: I highlighted that parenting is a very human need, but the mistake occurs when people think beings must be created to fulfil that need. But to some degree Smyth is correct: I did not go into the details of why people procreate: I touched on them as you might a stepping stone before it sinks any deeper, precisely because the areas explaining procreating are vast and because I was focused on going somewhere else: should we breed? As Smyth indicates himself: ‘Procreation is a given: children inevitably spring up all over the world for reasons that most of us understand quite well.’

Nevertheless, we can give all sorts of reasons why people breed. I am reminded of Jared Diamond’s wonderful Why is Sex Fun? to answer such questions. Yet, my aim, as should be apparent, would remain: must we breed? Must we procreate? We can have all the explanations it is possible to obtain, but be no where nearer to answering the moral question. It must be asked constantly, beginning and ending, if the couple or individual is in a position to do so.

This was my point. I was not so much ‘ignoring’ the reasons as bypassing them, since as Smyth also indicated they are reasons ‘most of us understand quite well’; as I indicated my targets are those who want to (1) procreate, (2) love, and (3) are able to. They should ask themselves ‘Should we procreate?’ but often they do not. This is the ‘free pass’ of parenthood and one I am unwilling to accept with a shrug of shoulders, saying ‘that’s just what people do’. Smyth might be hinting at other groups, who know nothing else, are not in a position to remain biologically childless, etc., – no doubt then my argument would not so much fall flat as be incomprehensible. This is what Singer means when he says sometimes the right thing to do is not possible in a context. But, these people are not my targets and I would agree with Smyth if he thought I forgot such a fact.

Smyth, however, does not raise this objection. He raises in fact the target of my criticism. He says: ‘To bring out the absurdity of this position, let us begin by imagining a young woman who has decided to have a child. We can imagine that she has committed, with her partner, to conceive via an act of love, to carry the zygote-fetus-child to to [sic] term, to endure the life-changing pain of labour, and to emerge from this experience holding a baby in her arms that she has quite literally grown. And we, (falsely) flying the banner of “philosophy”, are now informing her that she might just as well adopt a newborn infant from an orphanage in Africa, that there is no relevant difference in her doing so. For after all, the only important thing is that a child, any child, must be loved and cared for.’ I do not understand what Smyth is trying to point out, unless it is a mistaken view he has of my position. After all, the woman's child already exists. She has already given birth: I am focused on those who want to procreate (but obviously have not done so, or perhaps who have children but are thinking of another). Smyth I think wants to say that by charging in like the Red Right Brigade, proclaiming ‘philosophy’, pointing to the mother’s child and saying ‘There’s a starving child who needs you more’ is nonsense. Yet, as should be apparent, this is not what I am saying. If Smyth is wondering whether we should tell women who want to procreate, ‘out of love’, with their partners (perhaps), that they are being immoral then I agree: we should tell them. Just as we should tell men. However, as soon as they have begun the term into pregnancy, they have already stepped beyond my three-part property of criticism. They have gone from ‘wanting’ to ‘having’ children. Smyth’s examples do not aid his argument. He then says: ‘Moosa's “philosophy”, it turns out, is utterly unable to make sense of the importance of this particular kind of relation between parent and child, because it has already “zoomed out” to the big picture and decided that procreation and parenting in general are all that matters, and that any other considerations must therefore be irrational, or worse, “selfish”.’ Yet I have already catered for that relation; I have only said we do not need to procreate to have it fulfilled.

He also makes a comment I take exception to: ‘(By the way, I hope that keen feminist ears are paying very close attention here to the deployment of ideology in ways which denigrate certain experiences and perspectives particular to women.)’ The time I mention women is to highlight the need for their choice, their emancipation, that this is another area which traps them. I take particular exception to this glib comment because of my own, very minor, efforts to raise awareness of autonomy for the better sex. I also hoped it was clear that most of my arguments hold for both sexes, even single-parents of either sex – gay, straight, black, white, American, African. It doesn’t matter to me. Smyth also says: ‘What ought to disturb us about Moosa's argument is that at no point does he attempt to address or engage with the reasons parents actually have for wanting to have a child they can call their own.’ What happened to Smyth's proposition of having children for ‘reasons that most of us understand quite well’? (Perhaps Smyth said this as an indication that I was bypassing it, perhaps slightly mockingly restating my position).

Nevertheless, this is true: I do not go in-depth into it because it was not my concern (and because to a degree many know why we breed). The explanations are not justifications for my targets. I have listened to the reasons people procreate; I have asked and spoken to many couples, read numerous reports and arguments. But I have yet to have a reason why we should procreate. At no point does Smyth provide a reason to breed, which I am seeking but which no one has provided. And, furthermore, as I said, adoption is one option (I welcome suggestions of others); an option not all of us would succeed in. Yet, just because we cannot adopt does not mean we should, therefore breed. If anything, it means we should probably not be parents.

Perhaps wanting to adopt could be a reason for us to reach a position in life where an adoption agency can look on us favourably; I certainly want to be in such a position. It is an indication of our own individual accomplishments and the ability to maintain them. As I said, if an adoption agency (possibly a local one, in my case a South African one), rejects your application because you are too young, too poor, too financially unstable, it is hard to say who loses out on working toward being older and wiser, getting more financially stable in your own life so you might share your proceeds with someone else, and so on. As I said, if people are already in this position but who do not want children, perhaps we can make the argument they are being selfish. That is I think a separate essay, perhaps to be penned by someone better than myself. (Indeed, Smyth’s proclaims this to be my argument when it is not)

No one has told me why we should procreate. All arguments regarding my colonial attitude are made nonsense by the realisation that I am talking about my own country and continent and applies to each person within their own (of course it can be made across borders, too); the ‘moral totalitarianism’ fails because Smyth imagines the objective perspective as uncritically premised when in fact it is a conclusion to critical arguments made by most modern ethicists (indeed, how else should we ethically deliberate?); it is judgemental of procreators but I hope that I have clearly outlined why I have made such judgements, based on a rational argument not dismissive self-righteousness; I also hope readers now understand who my targets are, in the three-tiered property (want to procreate, want to love and care, will pass adoption policies); at no point do I refer to murder, races, etc., and this is a complete fabrication of my views. I thank Mr Smyth for at least taking the debate further and giving me the opportunity to clarify my views. I do not expect to have changed anyone’s mind, but I do hope I have made myself clearer. My original argument still stands.

PS: If you feel like I have ignored your argument, feel free to email me. I probably just did not think of it given the vast number of responses. I might not reply immediately. If you take the time out to contact me, I will most likely reciprocate.