Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thoughts on children and population

So you know I've been thinking about kids. As usual, I'm also thinking about ethics. Some considerations:

- All morality aside, I would prefer to have about two children.

- I used to be unsure about whether most people's lives were worth living. I now think it's pretty likely that they are. Reading the recent World Happiness Report reinforced this belief. Americans are doing pretty well in terms of happiness (though not as well as Danes or Canadians.)

- I expect being born would be better for my potential children than not being born.

- Creating new humans is the worst thing I personally could do for the global environment. All our concerns about paper vs. plastic just vanish in comparison to making a new person. Especially if we live in countries with high consumption/pollution rates.

- The US birth rate is right around replacement rate. But I expect US population to grow due to immigration and a higher birthrate among Latinos. So I'm not worried about a population crash here.

- I realize that parenting ≠ making a baby. After years of considering adopting from foster care, Jeff and I don't think it's for us (at least not with our first child). Those kids have been through the wringer, and I'm not prepared to deal with that 24/7. We haven't seriously looked at international adoption because of the high cost.

- Having kids will not impact the amount of money Jeff and I give away, because Jeff has set aside a portion of his income that can't be given away. On that budget, we can either have a quite comfortable life for two of us or a financially tighter life with kids. There's nothing I would rather spend that money on than kids.

- It kind of boils down to the tragedy of the commons. Adding another person is good for that person, but a little bit bad for everyone else. (With most of the ill effect going to people who already drew the short straw and live near a mud-slide zone in Bangladesh.) The question is, will my kids get more enjoyment out of life than they will take away from other people?

So, some thoughts on what Jeff and I are like and what our kids might be like:

- I estimate our environmental impact to be substantially lower than most Americans' because we live in small spaces, use cars and planes rarely, buy most things used, and don't eat much meat.

- Jeff and I give a good fraction of our income to high-impact charities. I think our contributions in this way (and through being nice people to have around) definitely outweighs our negative impacts.

- Jeff and I are outliers in terms of giving and environmental impact. Our kids will probably regress toward the mean, but I'd be surprised if they make it all the way there. Through a combination of genetics and upbringing, I expect our kids to be somewhere between average and us.

- Average US giving is about 2% of gross income. We do about 30%. I bet we can bump our kids up to maybe 6%. Based on our income, our kids are likely to make somewhere around $70K. That comes out to giving about $4K a year, which would save two lives a year at current rates. I'm hoping current cheap problems like malaria will be solved by the time my kids are grown, but there may be new ones.

- Our kids will probably not come out exactly like my estimate, but I can act in good faith based on what I think is most likely.

What do you think? Are there things I forgot?


AlexKG said...

From my environmental philosophy classes in college, I recall that "future people" don't actually hold much weight ethically. I can't remember the rational behind it, but consequently weighing the potential happiness of potential children against their happiness if they weren't born strikes me as problematic. If a person has no life, their happiness is not zero, it has no value that's even vaguely quantifiable. Therefore, I think your point to that effect should simply be stricken. Your other thoughts are, as usual, thoughtful and interesting.

Julia Wise said...

Ethics are kind of up for grabs. :) There are definitely people who think future people matter.

I gather the argument for future people not mattering is about doing things that "affect persons". If a person doesn't exist, our actions can't affect them and so we don't have to take them into account until they exist.

However, I'm more on the total utilitarian side, which cares about the total well-being we can create. If I can either create or not create a new person, I should do whichever will increase the total well-being in the world. (And that future world includes the new person, if she exists, so I do need to take her well-being into account.)

Jeff Kaufman said...


If your environmental philosophy is that future people don't matter much, then wouldn't that mean things like climate change or using up all the oil are not big problems because they mostly affect future people?


Anonymous said...

You should also take into account the benefit they'll bring the world just by doing a normal job. Assuming they're earning a living in a productive field, they're making the world a better place.

Ken G. said...

I came across this recent publication of MIT Press that made me think of this blog post. If you happen to get your hands on a copy, I'd be eager to hear your thoughts on it.

Julia Wise said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'm requesting it from the library.