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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Why have Children

Children Ought to Be Produced for Their Own Sake, Not to Satisfy Our Desires

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Naturalistic Fallacy Thesis

3. What does it mean to produce children “for their own sake”?

4. Why do we have children?

5. Changes in demand for children and how they can be explained

6. Is It Moral to Produce Children?

7. Conclusion

8. List of References

9. Declaration


Every moment of the day, in every part of the world, children are born. Some of them are greatly desired, some are seen as a gift from a deity, others are viewed as accidents and are scarcely welcomed. The motivations for pregnancy are many and because the motivation for having a child may affect a child's development and the total family, it is an important consideration. To create a new human being and then to guide that baby, then child, then adolescent in a way that allows him or her to develop his or her own best self, are deeply satisfying experiences. In the 21st century, birth control is widely available. This permits a woman to consciously override her ovaries and choose when, or if, she will bear children. Ultrasound and amniocentesis enable women to spend decades in a career and still look forward to bearing a healthy infant. In some parts of the world, notably those where liberalism is the order of the day, adults are free to devise and implement their own life plans, including the freedom to form and raise a family according to their own conception of the good. In other parts of the world, tribal and social norms influence the bringing into the world and raising of children. Where ever children born, however, the child’s needs create parental duties. Pre-eminent woman scientist Anke Ehrhardt is described by Sarah Hrdy (1999:407) as a woman “every bit as impressive for her warmth and grace as for the accomplishments that made the world's expert on children's development of gender identity.” Hrdy describes how over breakfast at a scientific conference in Prague this  “extraordinarily nurturing” woman confided why she consciously decided never to have children. She said it was because she “knew too much” about what they need.

It is with the above in mind that I intend to present an ethical reflection on the statement: children ought to be produced for their own sake, not to satisfy our desires.

In discussing critical reasoning, Chris Swoyer (2002:7) says that good or cogent reasoning is reasoning that is based on reasons or evidence rather than on rash appeals to emotion. It should be arrived at by, and withstand, empirical questioning which seeks to find out what the facts are. Empirical questions are not matters of opinion and are not answered by guessing. They can only be answered by checking to see what the facts are. Emotions are a central part of our lives and they play a quite legitimate role in our thinking. Intense emotions, however, “lead to poor reasoning” (2002:12).

By asking a number of questions and then seeking to answer them from ascertainable facts I will indicate why I disagree with the statement children ought to be produced for their own sake, not to satisfy our desires and even suggest that the strength of the evidence against the statement suggests that the statement commits what Joe Lau (2003:23) calls a fallacy of insufficiency because any evidence in support of the statement would be insufficient or weak in the face of the strong evolutionary and other evidence I will put forward against the statement.

Some of the questions I will ask are:
  • What does it mean to produce children “for their own sake”?
  • Why do we produce children?
  • Is it moral to have children?

The answers to these questions will provide a number of “is” statements which I will use to disprove the “ought” statement in the title of this essay. In doing this it could be suggested that I am committing the naturalistic fallacy which claims that the normative and descriptive spheres must remain separated, but with Tullberg and Tullberg (2001:173) I will argue that the “is” of science is highly relevant to the “ought” of ethics and agree with Barrett (1991:436) that “if we feel that we must take Darwin really seriously, then we must realise that we can only do this by showing how the naturalistic fallacy thesis should not be taken seriously at all”.

2. The Naturalistic Fallacy Thesis (NF-thesis)

Acknowledging that the NF-thesis is so popular that questioning it in a blunt manner may be construed as a provocative or unfruitful exercise, Tullberg and Tullberg (2001:165-174) nonetheless proceed to do so believing that simply because the current opinion favours the NF-thesis does not make it right, or by default provide it with immunity from deliberation. Judging by their references they are not alone in questioning the validity of the NF-thesis. Pointing out that Aristotle and Adam Smith formed their ethical ideas under strong influences from observations of reality, they ask whether they blundered.

It is an aim of ethics to discover what “are those properties belonging to all things which are good” (2001:166), but far too many philosophers have thought that when they named these other properties they were actually defining good. People like Hume and Moore responded to this error which saw these properties not simply as ‘other’, but rather as absolutely and entirely the same with goodness. The doctrine of the naturalistic fallacy rapidly ceased to be a ban merely on defining good, but rather it was taken as setting up two classes of expression leading to a ban prohibiting any attempt to deduce an evaluative conclusion from premises that are entirely non-evaluative. They ask whether this really is a strong argument and ask whether anyone has actually said that “is” and “ought” are synonymous. They then argue that while not synonymous they are not entirely different and without connections and suggest that a dichotomy often creates an illusory division, fundamentally non-existent, and give various supporting examples. They identify the NF-thesis as having both strong and weak interpretations. The strong interpretation being in the literal sense, and the weak being one which allows for the inclusion of an ought premise which then allows for an ought conclusion to be drawn. They regard both as invalid.

Ethical discussion needs some bases and they suggest that in our time, when religion has lost much weight we “are left with a void that has been partly filled with a semi-secular altruistic philosophy that hangs in the air while the pillars of religion disintegrate” (2001:171). Remembering how science and religion were kept apart, they recall Francis Bacon's statement that moral philosophy is but a ‘handmaiden to religion’ and suggest that this led to a similar conclusion, namely that philosophy and science need to be kept apart. Science should stick to analysis of the facts, means and affects - but what constitutes good and what should be done are left to others. “The ground for these other decision-makers is unclear, and the mystery of values prevails. The demarcation line has been set and is seen as practical by many - even though the intellectual founding eroded with the theory of evolution” (2001:172).

They convincingly connect the split between science and philosophy with the Cartesian separation of the soul from the body and point out that once man himself was accepted as a natural product of the evolutionary process, the rest of the Cartesian compromise could hardly be maintained. They suggest that the ongoing acceptance of the NF-theory is that many academics believe in some kind of Cartesian compromise even though neo-Darwinism rules such a possibility out. “Academia is doing everyone a disservice by voluntarily disconnecting their “is” from the “ought” of the discussion” (2001:173).

Using an illustration from Tullberg and Tullberg I will justify the “is” statements I will be making to disprove the “ought” statement in children ought to be produced for their own sake, not to satisfy our desires. When a doctor prescribes a treatment, we don't normally object that this practice bridges the logical distinction between the facts of diagnosis and the value of health. Biology, like medicine, has much to teach us about our species and the risks we confront by ignoring the natural basis and consequences of our habits of life.

With Tullberg and Tullberg (2001: 173) I argue that a preoccupation with the naturalistic fallacy makes us vulnerable to the real fallacy - the ideological fallacy: to think that something exists because it is wished. When the “ought” is disconnected from the profane “is” the road is opened for illusions of positive thinking.

That children ought to be produced purely for their own sake is an example of an illusion of positive thinking.

3. What does it mean to produce children “for their own sake”?

To produce children for their own sake would mean having absolutely no ulterior motive. The motive would purely be for the sake of producing offspring and populating the world. While some religious populations might see this as a good goal to have and a good reason to produce children, evolution by natural selection has rather favoured quality over quantity. Nature reveals examples of offspring that are produced because of the parents’ desires. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (1999 : 333) records a study on Seychelles Warblers which proves conclusively that these bird parents adjust sex ratios, producing offspring of the sex most likely to enhance the family's situation, depending on the circumstances prevailing when they hatch. “These birds clinched the case that animals can custom tailor their families” and they do this precisely by following their desires - producing 87% daughters, the sex most inclined to stay and help out, in food rich areas (when help is needed), as opposed to only 23% daughters in food poor territories(when help is not needed). “Seychelles warblers are adaptively configuring offspring sets in response to family history and local conditions, just as surely as human parents do”(1999:333).

She goes on to show how in well-studied monkeys, baboon and macaque species, daughters have been shown to inherit rank from their mothers. Because daughters remain nearby, it behoves a high-ranking mother to produce the sex that will benefit most from her own status. High-ranking mothers do just this, they overproduce daughters. On the other hand, low ranking females produce few daughters and more sons. The reason for this has been shown to be that whereas as sons who depart their natal group can leave the disadvantage of their mothers’ low rank behind, daughters cannot (1999:334).

Animals do not just produce children for their own sake, but rather to satisfy their desires. One more example will suffice: it has been shown how a solitary mother fig wasp who breeds alone ruthlessly manipulates her progeny (in accordance with her desires) in ways that suit her long-term reproductive interests. She does not produce children for their own sake, but rather, by fertilising the egg she lays or not, determines the exact configuration of daughters and sons which she can translate into the greatest number of grand-offspring. Out of a batch of 250 eggs one mother produced 235 daughters and just 22 sons.

Jerry Coyne (2009:161) reminds us that “the currency of selection is not really survival but successful reproduction.” I have already shown that successful reproduction is not related to quantity (have children for their own sake) but quality (have useful children, according to your needs). “Natural selection never rests while vaccine elusive viruses such as HIV/AIDS, avian influenza and herpes threaten the human population and other infections keep up a constant attack on crops” (Quammen 2008:370), therefore, we should, as natural selection has chosen over the years, have children according to our desires and not just for their own sake. I suggest this so that natural selection, which has brought our species to its current stage of development, can continue its work unhindered. Without a doubt, natural selection is busy developing a solution or ‘cure’ for AIDS, namely a human species more resistant to the HI-virus.

Concluding this section on what it means to have children “for their own sake” and how this is the very antithesis to evolution by natural selection, it is important to remember that “nature with its self organising systems of sexual reproduction, biodiversity and natural selection, has been successfully evolving for 3.7 billion years. During that time, it has survived even the harshest environmental catastrophes such as the annihilation of up to 96% of marine life on earth. Humans on the other hand, began the process of crafting evolution to suit their species soon after the end of the last ice age and then became seriously proficient at it during only the last 200 years – that’s less than 100th of a second to midnight from the scale of earth history when measured on a 24hour clock. Whatever approach we take, humility is key. In the world of artificial selection, man’s survival will always at some level, be dependent on nature. Conversely, in the world of natural selection, nature has absolutely no need for man.” (Lloyd 2009:371).

It is into such a world that children are born and it is now necessary to ask the question: why do we have children? (Not, why should we have children?)

4. Why do we have children?

Peter Singer (2010:1) asks “Have you ever thought about whether to have a child? If so, what factors entered into your decision? Was it whether having children would be good for you, your partner and others close to the possible child, such as children you may already have, or perhaps your parents? For most people contemplating reproduction, those are the dominant questions.” Mary Lou Moore (1983:126-128) in discussing the motivation for childbearing begins by saying that pregnancy and the child may meet a need in the lives of the parents that is not necessarily in the best interests of the child. She then presents a list of reasons why people have children, some self explanatory and some which I will discuss, but all certainly show that people do have children to satisfy their own desires and that these desires are sometimes not good reasons for having children. A person supporting the statement children ought to be produced for their own sake, not to satisfy our desires would possibly use this list to suggest that the current reasons why children are produced are so bad that they really should be produced purely for their own sake.

Moore’s list of reasons for childbearing:
  • childbearing as a source of joy;
  • childbearing as a manifestation of the father and mother's love for each other;
  • childbearing to create a loved and loving family;
  • childbearing as a bridge to the future - children offer parents the chance to achieve a kind of immortality;
  • childbearing as a sacred duty;
  • childbearing as a stepping stone into the adult world - frequently adolescents and young adults see pregnancy as an affirmation of their competency as adults;
  • childbearing to save a relationship;
  • childbearing as a substitute for a relationship;
  • childbearing to please others;
  • childbearing to produce an heir or child of a specific sex;
  • childbearing to replace a lost child;
  • childbearing as an escape - pregnancy may be viewed as a means of escaping from undesirable situations; for an adolescent this might be an unhappy home life while for a more mature woman it might be to get out of a job;
  • childbearing to fill a void;
  • childbearing as therapy for physiologic problems - perhaps as a cure for menstrual cramps, migraine headaches or a variety of other ills. Here it is the pregnancy that is desired, the child becomes a by-product;
  • childbearing for the emotional satisfaction of producing a perfect child;
  • childbearing as an act of rebellion or hostility.

Now several of the above are definitely not good reasons to have children and could, as I have said, be included on a list entitled “why we ought not to produce children” but I want to include one last example of a bad reason to produce children:

  • childbearing for their own sake and not to satisfy the desire's of the parents.

It comes across as rather cold and clinical and suggests that the desires of the parents should play no role in the decision to produce children. But is this even possible? Is it possible to produce an action without an underlying desire? Donald Hubin (2003:334) reminds us that “practical reason is, as Hume maintained, the ‘slave of the passions’.” It is a tenet of neo-Humeanism that it is desires (or Hume's ‘passions’) that generate reasons for acting. Hubin acknowledges that while numerous objections have been levelled against this view it should still be acknowledged that (and he convincingly shows why) actions are grounded ultimately on subjective, contingent, conative states of the agent and that these states are “typically, if incautiously, called desires by neo-Humeans” (2003:317).

Derek Reiners (2001:152) in discussing the role of desires and emotions in decision-making says that they “provide a link between evolved preference, strategies and action” and that they enable people to commit to actions that are in their long-term interest instead of trying to maximise utility in each individual situation.

I suggest that all the above is evidence that to produce children outside of the desires of the parents, is not only not possible, but is wishful thinking.

So, why do we have children?

Darwin suggests (19--: 918) that the reason we should produce children is so that our species can advance still higher. We thus should not have children 'for their own sake', but rather for the sake of the species (and as I have shown earlier, this generally favours quality over quantity). In discussing how much attention we give to the pedigree of horses, cattle and dogs, he proposes that people “in any marked degree inferior in body or mind” should refrain from producing children, but admits that such wishes on his part are utopian. The point though is that in Darwinism, the production of children is never for the sake of the child but rather for the sake of the species. David Quammen (2008:121) puts it this way: “sexual reproduction exists to allow genetic change. The whole purpose of joining sperm with egg is to shuffle the genes of both parents and come up with a new combination which might perhaps be more advantageous to the species.”

5. Changes in demand for children and how they can be explained

Paul Turke (1989) proposes an elaborate hypothesis regarding fertility transition - or, changes in demand for children - informed by evolutionary theory. Noting the documented large and enduring decline in fertility (what he calls the fertility transition) and in completed family size that has occurred in society after society during the course of modernisation, he supports the theory which argues that change in human fertility occurs through change in three variables: supply of children, demand for children, and costs of fertility regulation. He shows that although we have evolved to maximise reproductive success (measured in quality offspring rather than quantity) we have at the same time even in the most high fertility societies, developed a relatively low rate of reproduction and this is ascribed to the fact that in our evolving we have also become a species that relies heavily on learned behaviour (1989:63). I would suggest, based on this, that we have learned to not produce children for their own sake. He then goes on to develop a hypothesis (which I would suggest has at its very heart the satisfaction of the desires of parents) to explain this evolutionary decrease in fertility which favours the production of fewer, better nurtured offspring. His propositions can be summarised as follows (1989:64-72):

  • Resource insolvency brought on by the birth of children has been an important selective pressure throughout human evolution, and as a result humans have evolved to strive for social and economic success.
  • In traditional societies, extended kinship networks function to disperse the costs of childrearing among an array of relatives.
  • The pursuit of social and economic success in societies undergoing modernization leads to the breakdown of these kinship networks. Simultaneously, there is a tremendous increase in the complexity and number of routes to social and economic success (and related fashions and luxuries).
  • Following the breakdown of extended kinship networks, childrearing costs are concentrated on parents, thus potentially constraining the pursuit of social and economic success.
  • Also following the breakdown of extended kinship networks, resources formerly controlled by the kin group (usually its elders) come under the control of young adults, enabling them to concentrate resources on a small number of children. Once some parents concentrate their resources on small numbers of children, other parents must follow suit if their offspring are to be socially competitive.

It is clear in each of these points how, evolutionarily speaking, the desires of parents are very important in the production of children.

In another explanation of decreasing fertility, Miller et al (2004:193) discuss the motivation for childbearing and once again show the centrality of the parents’ desires in the process. They say that motivations are those broad psychological forces that
impel individuals toward some goal. In the case of fertility motivations, the goal is childbearing and, like all motivations, they reside within the individual actor. By its very nature, however, sexual reproduction requires the concerted action of two individuals. This means that two separate motivational structures must somehow be integrated if reproduction is to be achieved. When both members of a reproductive
couple have closely similar motivations, such integration is easily accomplished. However, fertility motivations are psychologically complex and commonly vary across reproductive partners both in terms of the strength of their different components and in terms of their relationship to other (often competing) motivations. They then present a framework which they call the Traits-Desires-Intentions-Behaviour (TDIB) framework which describes the sequence by which motivational traits are translated via conscious desires and intentions into behaviour. The motivational traits which affect childbearing arise from a motivational substrate that is based in nurturant schemas. Childbearing motivational traits involve both the positive and negative feelings that are evoked by babies or children and their care. The desires into which these traits are activated are much more specific and decision-related, and include desires to have a child, desires for a certain number of children, and desires about when to have a child. These three categories of fertility desires all have their corresponding intentions. The difference between desires and intentions is akin to
the difference between what one would like to do given no situational constraints and what one actually plans to do given the reality within which one ordinarily operates.
The last step in the TDIB sequence is the implementation of intentions in the form of behaviour. Thus childbearing desires and intentions may be described as the conscious intermediaries between the schema-based motivational substrate for childbearing and the instrumental behaviours that are designed to achieve or prevent pregnancy.

It seems it is not possible to produce children without the desires of the parents playing a crucial role.

6. Is It Moral to Produce Children?

I would never have thought of asking this question, but Peter Singer does in a recent New York Times article (Singer: 2010) stating: “very few ask whether coming into existence is a good thing for the child itself.” This takes the topic of this essay out of the realm of whether we should have children for the sake of the children, or whether we should have children to satisfy the desires of parents and places it in the realm of whether it is moral to have children at all! Lainie Friedman Ross (1998:3) states that, particularly in a liberal state, people have the freedom to “form and raise a family according to their own conception of the good.” But outside of the evolutionary reasons I've mentioned for producing children, is it good to produce children? Is it good to add to the strain that nearly 7 000 000 000 people are already putting on our planet's environment? Is it good to produce children for their own sake or to satisfy the desires of their parents into a globally warming environment which cannot sustain them and their children indefinitely?

David Benatar suggests and argues convincingly that children should not be produced for any reason whatsoever and in his own words: “I am entirely serious in my arguments and I believe in the conclusions” (2006:5). The following are among the claims Benatar defends in this book: It is always wrong to have children; it would be better if pregnant women aborted foetuses in the earlier stages of pregnancy; ideally, there should be no people in the world; and, it would be better, all things being equal, if human extinction happened sooner rather than later.

These claims are straightforward implications of the central thesis for which Benatar argues: Coming into existence is always a serious harm. Benatar summarises the thrust of his argument as follows: “Although the good things in one’s life make it go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence” (2006:1) He presents a thesis which states that coming into existence can be a harm and then proceeds to a thesis that coming into existence is always a harm..

Benatar proposes anti-natalism, according to which it is wrong to have children. He maintains that there is a pro-natal bias in society. He argues not only that there is no duty to procreate but that there is to the contrary a moral duty not to procreate. He says, however, that there is no conflict between this idea and the widely recognised right to procreative freedom because the right to procreative freedom is best understood as a legal rather than moral right. Benatar contends that, once we accept the idea that early foetuses should be granted no moral standing, we can see that the view that coming into existence is always a harm entails the ‘pro-death’ view of abortion, according to which it would be better to abort foetuses in the early stages of pregnancy. He says that it is not abortion that requires justification, but rather failure to abort.

He applies his view to the whole population and addresses related questions. How many people should there be? His answer is zero because, again, coming into existence is always a harm. Should future human extinction be regretted? His answer is negative. He contends that extinction could be bad for those who experience its final stages, but the state of human extinction itself is not bad. Would it be worse if human extinction came sooner rather than later? His answer is, again, negative. He argues that it would be better, all things being equal, if human extinction happened sooner rather than later.

I like his thesis on the basis that without saying it, he supports the evolutionary conclusion that humans are not the most important goal of life on this planet and the planet in fact will be far better off without humans. I do not however, agree that coming into existence is always a serious harm. I include his ideas because they eloquently address a view contrary to the one I take in this essay.
A less eloquent but more influential view, also contrary to mine, comes from Steve Watters, Focus on the Family’s Director of Young Adults, who says: "While it's trendy to talk about curbing baby emissions, most industrialized countries actually need more population: more babies to sustain and care for their aging population. It's a general misread of demographics across the world to see it as a baby problem. But most importantly, the world needs to see Christians leading lives of fruitfulness. That's fruitfulness across the board — biological fruitfulness in marriage, but also lives of fruitfulness where we're showing generosity in care for the elderly and our concern about social problems, but not trying to solve them by adopting trendy practices of birth control.” (Watters 2010).

7. Conclusion

Carol Levine (1990:34) reminds us that “families are no longer primarily centres of production and procreation; they have become instead centres of emotional and social support. Procreation is separated from sexual behaviour and is an active choice rather than necessity.”

In this essay I have argued against the idea that children ought to be produced for their own sake and not to satisfy our desires.

I have shown that the facts of evolution by natural selection indicate that the human species has in fact evolved in such a way as to make desires an essential part of decision-making and that natural selection favours species that produce offspring in order to satisfy their desires rather than species that produce offspring purely for their own sake.

I suggest that it is illogical to suggest a practice (the producing of children for their own sake and not to satisfy our desires) which is the very opposite of the practice (producing children to satisfy our own desires) that has allowed us to evolve to the point where we can debate this issue.

8. List of References

Barrett, J. 1991. Really taking Darwin and the Naturalistic Fallacy Seriously in Biology and Philosophy 6:433-437 Available: Accessed: 09/07/2010.

Benatar, David. 2006. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Coyne, J.A. 2009. Why Evolution is True. Oxford: Oxford University Press.161.

Darwin, Charles. 19--. The Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man. New York: The Modern Library Random House. (Please note that this (very old) book in the UCT library has no year of publication in it and the librarian suggested I use what they have on their computer system, which is 19--.)

Friedman Ross, Lainie. 1998. Children, Families, and Health Care Decision-making. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer.1999. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape The Human Species. New York: Pantheon Books Ballantine Books.

Hubin, Donald C. 2003. Desires, Whims and Values in The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 7, No. 3 (315-335) Available: Accessed: 09/07/2010 09:19.

Lau. Joe. 2003. A Mini-guide to Critical Thinking. 23 [in FAMH 7014 binder].

Levine, Carol. 1990. AIDS and Changing Concepts of Family in The Milbank Quarterly, Vol. 68, Supplement 1 (Part 1). A Disease of Society: CulturalResponses to AIDS (1990), pp. 33-58 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of Milbank Memorial Fund. Available Accessed: 09/07/2010 09:05.

Lloyd, C. 2009. What on earth evolved? London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 370-371.

Miller, Warren B., Severy, Lawrence J.,  Pasta, David J. 2004. A Framework for Modelling Fertility Motivation in Couples in Population Studies Vol. 58, No. 2 (July), pp. 193-205 Available: Accessed: 09/07/2010 09:14.

Moore, Mary Lou. 1983. Realities in Childbearing. 2ed. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company.

Quammen, D. 2008. Natural Acts. New York: W.W. Norton. 121.

Reiners, Derek. 2001. Stuck in Pleistocene: Rationality and Evolved Social Roles in Politics and the Life Sciences 20 No.2 September 139-154. Available:  Accessed: 09/07/2010 09:22.

Singer, Peter. 2010. Should This Be the Last Generation? in New York Times June 6 2010. Available: Accessed: 28/07/2010.
Swoyer, Chris. 2002. Critical Reasoning: A User’s Manual. Version 3. Available: Accessed: 09/07/2010.

Tullberg, J., Tullberg, B.S. 2001. A Critique of the Naturalistic Fallacy Thesis in Politics and the Life Sciences 20 No.2 September 165-174 Available  Accessed: 09/07/2010 09:22.
Turke, Paul W. 1989. Evolution and the Demand for Children in Population and Development Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (61-90) Available: Accessed: 09/07/2010 08:51.
Watters, Steve. 2010. Be Fruitful and Multiply in Christianity Today August 2010. Available: Accessed 01/08/2010.

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