May 22, 2022

In times of climate crisis, how many children should you have?

None, according to several philosophers

“There is no more any prophet,” is the bitter lament of the Psalmist. We are more fortunate. Sixteen-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has been out-Jeremiah-ing Jeremiah and lecturing the great and the good about the looming catastrophe caused by climate change. Here’s how she excoriated the chardonnay set at Davos: “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”      

Some philosophers are taking her message to heart and argue that the proper response to climate change is not to have fewer children, but to have none at all. It’s hard to say how widespread this feeling is, but the journal Essays in Philosophy has just devoted an entire issue the question: “Is Procreation Immoral?” According to the editor and the four contributors, the answer is Yes. It is, according to the editor, Sarah Conly, of Bowdoin College, in Maine, “the most pressing question of our time”.

In fact, Professor Conly contended in her 2016 book, One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? that population control may be needed to enforce a one-child policy:

I'm going to argue here that we don't have a right to more than one biological child. At this point in time, when the world around us is in so much danger from environmental degradation, doing just as our parents did-having as many children as we happen to want is no longer viable. Given the numbers we have now, it's just not an acceptable option. We are threatened with more population than the planet can bear…

The other contributors have novel ideas about curbing the “irresponsible behaviour” which is devastating the planet.

Anca Gheaus, of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona, observes that having children is clearly guaranteed by human rights documens, but having more than one child could be dangerous. Her solution is increase the number of parents that each child has. “Multiparenting—that is, three, four, or possibly more adults co-raising the same child or children—is a desirable solution. Moreover, in cases where each individual or couple parenting one child would not result in sufficiently steep downsizing, multiparenting may be morally required.”

Amongst philosophers, Gerald K. Harrison, of Massey University, in New Zealand, is on the miserabilist side of the spectrum. “Life is a gift,” he observes. “But it is a gift in the way that injecting someone with heroin and then providing them with a lifetime’s supply of the drug is a gift.” His belief is that “exceptional circumstances aside, acts of human procreation are most likely wrong”.

Trevor Hedberg, of the University of South Florida, believes that the duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions places a limit on the number of children that one can have. None is best and two is an absolute upper limit. “Once a couple goes beyond the replacement fertility rate, it is clear that they are actively contributing to population growth and the associated growth of our collective carbon footprint. No reasonable construal of a duty to limit one’s carbon footprint can permit this behavior.”

By far the most interesting argument comes from, Leonard Kahn, of Loyola University New Orleans. As an act utilitarian Professor Kahn is committed to the view that “All non-optimal acts are morally impermissible”. This compels him to reach a ferociously logical conclusion with respect to procreation. A child in a rich country uses far more resources than a child in a poor country. Therefore, procreation is non-optimal and morally wrong for rich people.

“Many—even most —women in economically developed countries are morally required to have abortions if they become pregnant,” he argues. “More generally, act utilitarians should say that many of us in economically developed countries are morally required not to reproduce at all.

So Greta Thunberg can rest easy. Adults, at least some of them, are taking climate change seriously. She should be sent a free copy of Essays in Philosophy.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge. 

Creative commons
population control