Is Parenthood Morally Respectable?

by Thomas Rodham Wells

Family clip artParenthood is coming under increasing criticism as a selfish lifestyle choice. Parents' private choices to procreate impose expensive obligations on the rest of us to ensure those children have a decent quality of life and come out as successful adults and citizens, and that means massive tax-subsidies for their health, education, and so forth. We also pay to support parents' self-conception of parenthood, such as by providing lengthy paid paternal leave to allow them to ‘bond' with their children.

In addition there are environmental costs relating to the consumption of the children themselves. The choice to become a parent massively increases one's environmental footprint because it adds consumers who otherwise wouldn't have existed, and who may then go on to have children of their own. The environmental impact of a population is a function of population size multiplied by consumption per capita. Therefore, adding consumers must either lead to a greater environmental impact, or else to a politically directed reduction in per capita consumption to avoid that impact. With regard to carbon emissions, for example, it has been estimated that an American woman who has a child increases the carbon emissions she would have been responsible for by a multiple of 5.7 (source). If lots of people have children, the planet will be in even greater danger of cooking, unless all of us make very severe cuts to our consumption practices to keep humanity within the bounds of sustainability.

One might argue that children don't only impose costs on the rest of us. For example, because they may be expected to become productive workers as well as consumers, they will repay their ‘debt' to us by supporting the economic sustainability of our pension system (and thus allow us to continue to afford our habits of affluent consumption). But even if that were true to some extent, it does not affect the core criticism of the selfishness of parenthood, which is that parents do not stop to consider how their procreative decisions may affect others, including other would be parents. Since parents aren't motivated to have children by their commitment to supporting the social welfare system or otherwise contribute to society, they can claim no credit if that is how things happen to work out.

Once these children exist society has an obligation to meet their particular needs and respect their equal rights just as for any other member of society, but it seems fundamentally unfair that some people can make unilateral decisions for their own private reasons that impose such huge tax and environmental obligations upon the rest of us. Parenthood effectively forces non-parents to adapt their own meaningful life plans to accommodate those of parents; it conscripts one group of people to the service of others.

The charge of selfishness cannot be rebutted simply by explaining how valuable parenthood feels to people, for example how intensely they have always longed to have children or how wonderful they find their relationship with their children, and so on. A friend of mine dreams of owning a castle, but he doesn't expect society to pay for it because he recognises that his private desire has no general moral claim on the rest of us.

Even if we are convinced that parenthood is subjectively genuinely valuable to some people, that provides no justification of its objective moral importance to society as a whole. The desire to become a parent is not universally shared – at least a third of people in many rich countries profess disinterest in having children. To take a popular example from the philosopher Thomas Scanlon (source), imagine someone who deeply desires to build a great monument to his god, who has even dedicated his life to this project at the expense of his health and social relationships. Now he asks society to help. Why should the rest of us pay for the fulfilment of this person's idiosyncratic desire? His god can only make demands on him, not on us. In comparison, a person who asks for society's help in buying food or medicine asks for something more reasonable. Someone who is hungry or ill is in an objective state of need rather than a subjective state of desire.

The impression of selfishness is reinforced by the relative absence of children themselves from many accounts of the ‘specialness' of parenthood, which tend to take a subjective ‘utilitarian' approach to human welfare reminiscent of how economists think about consumption. Children hardly appear as themselves in these accounts, but rather as a means for parents to achieve their own view of the good life. If that is all there is to the value of parenthood, it does not seem unreasonable to encourage people to have pets instead or, eventually, to develop robots to simulate human children sufficiently for people to have the same experience of parental relationships without the risks and disappointments of real children.

Yet I don't think characterising parenthood merely as personal consumption is just. While parenting may have its own private joys and satisfactions, I'm not sure that is really why most parents have children, nor that it is the only reason why parenthood matters. Let me suggest that we think of parenthood as something that resembles a lifestyle but lacks its self-centred character: a vocation or calling.

This alternative way of understanding the objective significance of parenthood is in terms of an ethical project. It seems to me that for most people our ability to deliberately make a tangible positive impact on the world by our own efforts is distinctly limited. Many people's jobs for example are not of a kind that we can believe really matter, and in any case do not permit us to make a decisive contribution of our own. Building a family – raising a child – is the ethical achievement most accessible to most people, the most salient route to trying to make our lives matter. (As a university education has become the salient route to a middle-class life with dignity.) In this account what matters is how well parents do at caring for and raising their children into flourishing independent adults, rather than how parents feel about their relationship with their children.

Because parents aspire not just to parenthood but to be 'good parents' this is a moralised rather than a selfish account. Not a mere subjective desire for an expensive form of consumption that benefits only oneself and is therefore hard for others to sympathise with. But rather, a desire to change the world in some significant way that matters independently of oneself. That aspiration is easier for non-parents to sympathise with because it takes the form of voluntarily accepting a moral demand upon oneself rather than demanding to be allowed to enjoy your own private happiness however much it costs other people.

Seeing the value of parenting in this way changes the category in which it should be placed. Rather than being in the class of consumption goods that make you feel good, like iPads, yachts, safari holidays and so forth, parenting is in the class of extended and demanding ethical projects, the opportunities people have to try to do something worthwhile with their lives, like becoming a doctor, artist, scientist, journalist, priest, politician, environmental activist, and so on. Wanting to do a good thing is not the same kind of thing as wanting to do something that will make you feel good.

Of course, even if parenthood isn't selfish in the way critics suggest, that doesn't mean it is fair to the rest of society. Just because we can now assign a positive objective value to parenthood doesn't mean it trumps all other values. After all, parenthood isn't the only way of trying to achieve something important that matters independently of ourselves. And the value of following one's calling is not the only kind of value that deserves respect. Aside from anything else, if the planet melts because of all the rich world children flying about and enjoying central heating then parenthood will become extinct along with everything else. We still need some clarification about how to best address the distribution problem: given that society's resources are limited, how should we decide between the many moral claims on our attention?

Here's one way to go. First, if one wants to think of parenthood in terms of an objective need, like hunger, that society should recognise as a priority, then it is be better to think of it in a more general way: people should have the right to (try to) achieve something that matters with their lives.

That is a justification for providing people with the opportunities and resources for various different ways of making their lives matter as well as parenthood, such as access to jobs that are more than formless alienating drudgery for a living. It seems unjust that for most people – and especially for those from socio-economically deprived backgrounds – parenthood is the only real option for this that they have. If endorsing this right leads to fewer people becoming parents because other ethical projects now call out to them more strongly, that would be no bad thing. The aim is more people living lives they believe matter, not necessarily more parents.

Second, parenthood may differ from other vocations, like writing novels or social activism, in the costs it imposes on others. Most alarmingly, if there is indeed a hard carbon constraint on humanity's total consumption then there may be a limit to the number of people who can follow their parental calling without environmental collapse.

Parenthood might reasonably be discouraged relative to those other vocations. We might have an extended public discussion (such as has been going on over gay marriage) about the traditional idea, still held by many, that parenthood is the only or best way to make one's life matter. Governments might launch media campaigns pointing out that having a single child is a more efficient way of achieving one's parental vocation, and one that also allows more other people to achieve it too. Likewise, governments could positively promote alternative vocations that require other people to sacrifice less, and perhaps ‘nudge' people who seem unlikely to be successful parents onto other paths (as is already the case for teenagers). At the extreme, rights to procreation might need to be rationed out in some fair way such as by lottery.

Talking about parenthood in this way may seem go against the private right of individuals to make such personal decisions for themselves. Yes it does. Though no one should be forced to have children if they don't want to, there is no getting around the fact that, whether you think of it as a personal consumption choice or as an ethical project, procreation imposes costs on others and those costs are a legitimate public concern.