How "Ethically Risky" Is Creating a Life?
By Bryan Caplan
Today I appeared on Anthony Brooks’ NPR show to discuss the ethics of having kids (audio now up). Philosopher Christine Overall, my sparring partner, emphasized that having a child is “ethically risky.” Who knows what this child’s life will be like, or what his effect on the world will be?
Here’s how I would have responded if I’d had the time.
Having a child is no more “ethically risky” than saving the life of an unconscious stranger lying in the gutter. Yes, it’s possible that the stranger will turn out to be the next Hitler. But that’s an absurd argument against lending a hand. The odds of this horrific outcome are vanishingly low. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, the mere existence of civilization shows that the average person is a creator, not a destroyer. (I flesh out this argument in much greater detail in my book and here).
You could even argue that creating a life is less ethically risky than being a Good Samaritan. On the plausible assumption that violent people are relatively likely to become the victims of violence themselves, there is some extra reason to worry about the stranger you’re saving. In contrast, if you’re the sort of person who ponders the ethics of having kids, you’re probably a peaceful, intelligent, disciplined individual who can reasonably expect to pass these very traits on to your child.
Contrary to Overall’s claim in the interview, none of this implies a moral “mandate” to have children. Thoughtful people can disagree about whether there’s a moral duty to be a Good Samaritan. But there’s little doubt that it’s morally good to be a Good Samaritan.
P.S. My fourth child, my first daughter, Valeria Jacqueline Caplan, is scheduled to be born on Saturday, so my posting may be sporadic in coming days.