The New Yorker on the Ethics of Fertility
By Bryan Caplan
Elizabeth Kolbert has a fun piece on the ethics of fertility, featuring Christine Overall, David Benatar, and me.
Kolbert on Overall:
Of course, people do give reasons for having children, and Overall
takes them up one by one. Consider the claim that having a child
benefits the child…
this argument on two grounds. First of all, nonexistent people have no
moral standing. (There are an infinite number of nonexistent people out
there, and you don’t notice them complaining, do you?) Second, once you
accept that you should have a baby in order to increase the world’s
total happiness, how do you know when to stop?… This reductio ad Duggar Family
was first articulated by the British philosopher Derek Parfit; it is
known in academic circles as the Repugnant Conclusion. Overall considers
it dispositive: “A simplistic utilitarianism is wrong about the ethics
of having children.”
Hopefully Overall eventually considers the more moderate view that creating life is very good but supererogatory.
Kolbert on Benatar:
Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure
and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone–that is, had the life never
been created–no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it.
of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and
containing only the most minute quantity of bad–a life of utter bliss
adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick–is worse than no life
at all,” Benatar writes.
Or to take a slightly different example, no one should ever write Benatar a check because it’s a pain to go to the bank to deposit it.
Kolbert on me:
Benatar’s child-rearing advice, if followed, would result in human
extinction. Caplan’s leads in the opposite direction: toward a
never-ending population boom. He declares this to be one of his scheme’s
advantages: “More people mean more ideas, the fuel of progress.” In a
work that’s full of upbeat pronouncements, this is probably his most
optimistic, or, if you prefer, outrageous claim.
A slight exaggeration, but when someone accuses me of outrageous optimism, I take it as a compliment.