Wednesday 5 November 2014

Is Parenthood Morally Respectable?

Becoming a parent is a private choice, but it has public costs. Society is presented with extensive and expensive obligations to ensure your children a decent quality of life and their development into successful adults and citizens, and that means massive tax-subsidies for their health, education, household income, and so on. In addition, children have a demographic impact on public goods like the environment which creates additional costs for existing members of society, and perhaps for humanity as a whole.

Does that make parenthood an irresponsible and selfish lifestyle choice?

I. The Public Costs of Parenthood

Parenthood is certainly expensive. First and most obviously it imposes huge costs on the parents themselves, soaking up vast amounts of time and money. Raising a child to 18 costs something like $200,000 in the rich world, excluding the costs of education and healthcare. Those resources could have been used for other things, including improving the life-chances of many existing poor children around the world.

Second, parents' private choices to procreate also impose public costs. Once children are created their extensive and urgent needs become a matter of justice that society as a whole has a clear moral obligation to judge - and to meet if the resources or motivations of parents fall short. Every child deserves a decent quality of life and the opportunity to develop into a successful adult and citizen, and that means massive public (tax) funding for their health, education, leisure activities, social workers' check ups, and so on. It also means reducing the direct costs of parenthood, such as by subsidising child-care and providing lengthy paid paternal leave, so that parents don't have to face tragic choices such as between their careers and their children's welfare.

Third, children have an impact on public goods, mainly by increasing the demographic pressure on limited resources. Environmental quality is the most salient example. The choice to become a parent massively increases one's environmental footprint because it adds consumers who otherwise wouldn't have existed, and who may then go on to have children of their own. With regard to carbon emissions, for example, it has been estimated that an American woman who has a child increases the carbon emissions she would have been responsible for by a multiple of 5.7 (source). 

The environmental impact of a population is a function of population size multiplied by consumption per capita. Therefore, adding consumers must either lead to a greater environmental impact distributed amongst everyone still alive. Or else to a politically directed reduction in per capita consumption to avoid that impact. Either way, the rest of society is forced to pays for parents' decision.

The costs of parenthood raise two distinct moral challenges: fairness and sustainability. The fairness challenge concerns whether it is reasonable for one group - would be parents - to unilaterally impose burdens on the other members of society in the form of taxes we could have spent on other things, whether our own private projects or public projects like improving the quality of life for the elderly. The issue here is that parents' choices determine how a substantial part of the wealth of society is spent without being accountable to the rest of us. Like immigration, parenthood introduces new citizens with full rights to equal moral consideration. But, unlike immigration, parenthood is presently understood as a quintessentially private choice whose social costs must simply be met without question. Parenthood has political immunity: it is not permitted to hold parents responsible for the consequences of their choice.

The sustainability challenge concerns whether the viability of a society - its ability to continue in its present form - is also in the hands of parents. For example, if lots of people in rich countries have children, the planet will be in ever greater danger of cooking without very dramatic cuts to our per capita consumption practices to keep humanity within the bounds of sustainability; in poor countries high fertility rates can contribute to poverty traps if the economy can't grow fast enough to generate sufficient jobs. While the fairness challenge concerns the terms of cooperative social life, the sustainability challenge is more existential, and its relevance depends much more on contingent empirical facts about risks and fertility rates.

II. Is parenthood selfish?

One might argue that children don't only impose costs on the rest of us. For example, because they may be expected to become productive workers as well as consumers they will repay their ‘debt' to us by supporting the economic sustainability of our pension system and thus allow us to continue to afford our habits of affluent consumption.

That may be true to some extent - though it is debatable given that it takes 20 odd years - longer than the average retirement! - and huge investment to convert a baby from a consumer into an economically productive worker. If they can find a job. But it does not address the core criticism of the selfishness of parenthood: that parents make their choice without regard to how it will affect others, not even other would be parents. Since parents aren't motivated to have children by their commitment to supporting the social welfare system or otherwise contribute to society, and would not be willing to choose differently for the sake of the public interest, they can claim no moral credit if that is how things happen to work out. At best, all one can say is that parenthood may have positive externalities for the funding of public pension systems. (And that really isn't much. One could say the same of Phillip Morris.)  

Once these children exist of course society has an obligation to meet their particular needs and respect their equal rights just as for any other member of society. But it seems fundamentally unfair that some people can make unilateral decisions for their own private reasons that impose such expensive obligations upon the rest of us, effectively forcing everyone else to adapt our own life plans to accommodate theirs. Parenthood effectively conscripts one group of people to the service of the whims of others.

The charge of selfishness cannot be rebutted simply by explaining how valuable parenthood feels to people, for example how intensely they have always longed to have children or how wonderful they find their relationship with their children, or how they don't feel complete without children as a Catholic, or as a woman, or as a whatever. So what? A friend of mine dreams of owning a castle, but he doesn't expect society to pay for it because he is sensible enough to recognise that his private desire, however strongly felt, creates no general moral claim on the rest of us.

Even if we are convinced that parenthood is genuinely subjectively valuable to some or even many people - and thanks to secularism, women's rights, and government organised pension systems at least a third of people in many rich countries nowadays profess disinterest - that fact doesn't demonstrate parenthood's objective moral importance, its claim on society as a whole. Many people would probably like to have their own yacht, and a private jet too, if they were on offer. The difference between not getting something you really want and not getting something you really need is the difference between the private subjective state of thwarted desire and the objective state of entitlement. Children themselves have needs that present a clear moral obligation to society as a whole, but so long as the benefits of parenthood are measured only in parents' happiness and satisfaction would-be parents have no particular call on society.

The impression of selfishness is reinforced by the relative absence of children themselves from many accounts of the ‘specialness' of parenthood, which tend to take a subjective utilitarian approach to human welfare reminiscent of how economists think about consumption. Children hardly appear as themselves in these accounts, but rather as a means for parents to achieve their own private happiness. If that is all there is to the value of parenthood, it does not seem unreasonable to encourage people to have pets instead, or, eventually, to develop robots that simulate human children sufficiently for people to have the same experience of parental relationships without the risks and disappointments of real children or their carbon legacy (as in Spielberg's A.I.).

Yet I don't think characterising parenthood merely as personal consumption is just. While parenting may have its own private joys and satisfactions, I hope that is not really why most parents have children, and thus not the only reason why parenthood matters. Let me suggest an alternative, that we think of parenthood as something that resembles a lifestyle but lacks its self-centred character: a vocation or calling.

III. Parenthood Creates Parents as well as Children

Thinking of parenthood as a vocation makes sense of many of our intuitions about why it deserves respect. In contrast to alternative justifications like fulfilling one's religious identity or the pursuit of happiness via the parenting 'lifestyle', it focuses on the the end of parenting itself: the formative development of children into adults who will leave you to make their own way in the world. Parents have the awesome responsibility of making new and independent persons who are no longer children. And they embrace this responsibility despite its unfairness, the asymmetry of love between parents and children, and its risks, that so much of the success of the relationship depends on factors outside parents' control.

Such a commitment deserves moral respect in a way that the good or bad feelings of parents, or their possible contributions to the fiscal sustainability of the pension system, do not. How parents feel about their relationship with their children is an affective response to the success of that relationship rather than its justification, rather as the warm glow one feels after performing an act of kindness should not be mistaken either for its true motive or for its value.

From this perspective, parents aspire not just to the state of parenthood but to change the world in a very significant way - the fashioning of a new person - that matters independently of themselves. They do not act from a merely subjective desire for an expensive form of consumption that only they benefit from, like buying a yacht. This understanding of parenthood is easier for non-parents to sympathise with because it takes the form of voluntarily accepting a moral responsibility upon oneself rather than demanding to be allowed to enjoy your own private happiness however much it costs other people.

What is the attraction of such a demanding commitment to parents, if not the pleasant feelings associated with it? The opportunity to engage in significant ethical projects such as parenthood is a central part of a flourishing human life. For most people our ability to deliberately make a tangible positive impact on the world by our own efforts is distinctly limited. Many people's jobs for example are not of a kind that we can believe really matter, and in any case do not permit us to make a decisive contribution of our own. Building a family – raising a child into adulthood - is the only really significant life's project accessible to many people, the most salient route to trying to make our lives matter.

Seeing the value of parenting in this way changes the category in which it should be placed. Rather than being in the class of consumption goods that make you feel good, like iPads, yachts, safari holidays and so forth, parenting belongs to the class of extended and demanding ethical projects, the opportunities people have to try to do something worthwhile with their lives, like becoming a doctor, artist, scientist, journalist, priest, politician, environmental activist, and so on. Wanting to do a good thing is not the same kind of thing as wanting to do something that will make you feel good.

IV. The Limits of Parenthood

If parenthood is indeed a vocation then it isn't selfish in the crude sense of merely maximising one's private happiness regardless of others'. It is morally respectable and thus deserving of public recognition and support. That addresses one side of the equation - the benefits that are missed in the standard cost-benefit analysis of parenthood. But the social costs of parenthood remain significant. We still need some clarification about how to best address the distribution problem: given that society's resources are limited, how should we decide between the many moral claims on our attention?

Just because we can now assign a positive objective value to parenthood doesn't mean it trumps all other values. After all, parenthood isn't the only way of trying to achieve something important that matters independently of ourselves. And the value of following one's calling is not the only kind of value that deserves respect. Aside from anything else, if the planet melts because of all the rich world's progeny flying about in their personal jets then parenthood will become extinct along with everything else.

Here's one way to go. If one wants to think of parenthood in terms of an objective entitlement, like voting or a proper education, that society should recognise as a priority, then it is be better to think of it in a more general way: people should have the right to (try to) achieve something that matters with their lives.

That is a justification not only for ensuring everyone the opportunities and resources to access the vocation of parenthood, but also to various additional ways of making their lives matter, such as jobs that are more than formless alienating drudgery for a living. It seems unjust that for many people - and especially for the poor - parenthood is the only kind of ethical project to which they have access. If endorsing this right leads to fewer people becoming parents because other ethical projects now call out to them more strongly, that would be no bad thing. The aim is more people living lives they believe matter, not necessarily more parents.

In addition, parenthood may differ from other vocations, like writing novels or working for Amnesty International, in the costs it imposes on others. It is possible that these costs may not only be unfair but also unsustainable. If there is indeed a hard carbon constraint on humanity's total consumption then there may be a limit to the number of people who can follow their parental calling without environmental collapse. Consider this in terms of inter-generational vs. intra-generational justice. In order to maximise the total number of people who have the opportunity to become parents over the lifespan of humanity, there may be a limit to how many members of this generation can become parents.

In these circumstances, parenthood may reasonably be discouraged relative to other vocations. We might have an extended public discussion (such as has been going on over gay marriage) about the popular belief that parenthood is the only or best way to make one's life matter. Governments might launch media campaigns pointing out that having a single child is a more efficient way of achieving one's parental vocation, and one that also allows more other people to achieve it too. Likewise, governments could positively promote alternative vocations that impose smaller sacrifices on other members of society, and perhaps ‘nudge' people who seem unlikely to be successful parents onto other paths (such as we already do for teenagers). At the extreme, rights to procreation might need to be rationed out in some fair way, such as by lottery.


The ethics of becoming a parent and the ethics of being a parent seem to have a different character and different rules. For example what counts as selflessness in the latter may be criticised as selfish in the former. Thus, on the model of the ethics of war, we may separate the ethics of parenthood into two phases, which might be parodied as jus ad parenthood and jus in parenthood. The critique of parenthood as selfish relies on a strong distinction between becoming and being a parent, so that a parent's own selfless dedication to their children cannot count in their favour. The charge is that the decision to become a parent is a selfish one because it is made primarily on the basis of one's own interests and without regard for others, despite its implications for wider society.

My concern in this essay has been to reject the strong distinction between the ethics of becoming and the ethics of being a parent, and hence the claim that parenthood is selfish. Being a parent is, or at least it can be, an objectively morally valuable calling not at all like owning a yacht. Therefore becoming a parent is itself a morally respectable choice that a just society should respect and support if it can. Nevertheless, respecting parenthood doesn't mean that its negative externalities disappear. There is no getting around the fact that, whether you think of it as a personal consumption choice or as an ethical project, parenthood imposes costs on others and those costs are a legitimate public concern.

An earlier version of this essay was published on 3 Quarks Daily. It is particularly inspired by Ingrid Robeyns' work on this topic.