Seeing having children as a harm

A recent Breakpoint article led me to read an opinion piece on nbcnews.com by Travis Rieder, a research scholar with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins, titled “Science proves kids are bad for Earth. Morality suggests we stop having them.” Rieder references several articles that indicate that the most effective way that individuals, particularly those in affluent societies, can reduce their impact on climate change is by having fewer children. The articles that he references suggest that having fewer children would have a much bigger impact than any conservation measures that we might take.

It is important to be clear that in spite of the title of the article Rieder is not advocating that we have no children or that there should be a specific limit on how many children people have. However, he is saying that each child that we bring into the world represents a negative impact on our environment and that we have a moral obligation to consider that harm in our moral decision-making about having children. He deals with some possible objections to his position in which include concerns about whether a child’s environmental impact is the responsibility of the child or the parent, and the idea that individual actions place such a small role in global issues such as climate change that they are insignificant.

However, I think that he fails to consider the most significant objection to his position. By suggesting that the net effect of having a child can be considered a moral harm, he is failing to consider the immense value of an individual human life in his reasoning. This is primarily because he is seeing moral decisions consequentially. One of the failings of consequential or utilitarian moral thinking is to look only at measurable consequences and to neglect the more difficult to measure value of individual human lives. The immeasurable value of a human life makes it difficult to see the act of bringing a child into the world as something that involves more harm than good. There may be some situations in which it is morally proper to decide not to conceive a child with a high likelihood of intense suffering. Beyond that the value of a human life is greater than presumed consequences.

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Mark McQuain
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Well stated Steve.

Further, there is always the unmeasurable possibility that one such future child (presently assumed as a net negative utility) may solve the climate change problem for the good. Morality in this utilitarian case would demand that he or she be born. Black Swan events like these ought give us pause before relying any utilitarian ethical calculus where we humans really lack an understanding of even the most simplistic utilitarian moral universe.