The idea of being a parent should be thought through more carefully. When we assess the idea, it is clear that, given the current conditions of the world, there is no reason to create more children.
I proposed this argument in 2010 and received vitriolic replies, which brought more heat than light to the discussion (which isn’t necessarily bad, just unhelpful in many cases). I hope, but do not expect, things to be different here. My argument is simple and I will outline some common responses. I’d also like to thank the few who took the time over the years to extend their support for the argument; indeed who are now involved in adopting and not creating children.
My argument, which I don’t think is original, goes like this.
The Argument for Pro-Active Adoption:
Given the large number of orphaned children in the world, I can see no reason why people should create children. Secondly, a failure to become adoptive parents is not sufficient reason to then procreate. I also think it goes much further, in that I can see no reason for anyone to create children. However, for this initial stage of the discussion, I do at least want to focus on the argument for pro-active adoption.
Two forms of parenthood
The first thing many will say is that there’s no reason to say we ought not to breed. However, that is precisely my point: What reasons do we have for breeding that can’t ethically be catered to by adopting? Or, as in a corollary: What good reasons are there for creating children in general?
The initial aspect to note is that “parenthood” is a messy word: it’s tied up both biologically and symbolically. In the former sense, it’s simply the factual assertion that this or that person gave you half your genes. This is, to me, morally irrelevant: Just as presumably most parents are good to their children, so we also have the Josef Fritzl’s of the world, doing horrific things to their biological children. Though there is a scientific reason why genetic relations will, more than likely, lead to ethical treatment (this is descriptive), it doesn’t mean there will or should be. Just because Josef Fritzl is Elisabeth’s father is no reason she ought to treat him with the dignity and respect many of us accord our parents. Indeed, the only reason we ought to love our parents (and indeed any family members) is the same reason we love anyone else: for what they do for us, not what they genetically gave or share with us. We might as well say we ought to be kind to people who share the same eye-colour for all the moral worth genetics holds. No one gets a free pass because of biological relations.
In terms of parenthood of the symbolic sort, this is the state that probably most biological parents are in and have been: looking after, loving, being kind and wanting the best for the more vulnerable (in this case, children). But notice: this doesn’t depend on biology for it to occur. Adoptive parents do this for their adoptive children, too. Indeed, older siblings or friends can do it for the younger too. (Indeed, you might say that, later in life, some of us will be doing it for our parents.)
I want to make these two definitions of parenthood clear: it is the second one that matters to us, not the first, since biological parenthood only tells us about biological relations, not moral or behavioural ones. (That’s why I’ve always found it strange when people want to find their “real” parents – why? Who cares? Just because they share genes with you doesn’t mean they love or want to love you.)
Why these definitions matter
Why does this matter? The world will be a better place if we had more of the latter type of parenthood (symbolic) and less of the former (biological). That is the essence of my argument. And, keeping with this, it means that creating children is not the essential element of being a parent: it’s about doing the best you can for children.
Our world is overpopulated; it’s teeming with disaster, frustration, misery in individual and collective lives; our environment is getting worse with more demands on ever decreasing resources (or rather, increasingly incapable means of distribution of said resources), made worse by further mouths to feed and bodies to clothe. And, for some reason, we want to create more people, create more burdens on resources, create more lives to suffer? I can see no reason to create life when there are lives, right here and now, that require that attention (symbolic parenthood).
The strangest reply I get to this question is that people want (or “just want”) their genes or themselves to continue. This is a strange idea and also an unjustified moral one: There’s many things we “want” but what good reasons do we have for wanting them? That is, what’s so essential about our genes that the world needs (more of) it? Legacy is written into our actions, not our blood. Genes of course have some foundation for what kind of person, and therefore, what kind of actions we will have in the world; but that is not morally relevant to the decision on the moral obligation to adopt children. After all, what matters is symbolic parenthood, not genetic.
There is no good reason to create children, when adopting a child can cater for the needs and desires of parents – aside from the morally irrelevant desire to see one’s genes spread.
More importantly, by doing so, in many instances, we are able to help existing children who actually are capable of suffering and joy – unlike potential children who, by definition, do not exist. There is no one being skipped over in your decision to adopt, since your potential offspring do not exist. If no one is being skipped over in your decision to not have children, but someone would be skipped over if you did have children, then the answer seems obvious: we ought, in every instance, to adopt a child since these children actually exist.
No doubt many will reply that adoption is difficult; many people won’t pass the strict adoption laws. I will summarise my reply with a question: If you are unable to adopt, because you are deemed unfit as a parent, doesn’t that give you even more reason not to create a child? And secondly, what’s so essential about breeding that gives you justification to do so? It is particularly this second point that troubles me, since I have yet to find a satisfying answer.
Finally, many might say that if we all did this, the human species would go extinct. According to some estimates, this is going to occur anyway. And, what is wrong with human extinction in general anyway? Pragmatically, it’s unlikely many people will adopt my position (ignore the pun) anyway – but those few who do, will no doubt be making a great and good impact on existing people.
If an important aspect of moral action is to try make better lives for more people, or to remove unnecessary suffering, surely the focus should be on existing people – like orphans – who require our love and attention? The non-existent children who so many yearn for by definition don’t exist, whereas, right now there is someone who does and could use symbolic parenthood in his or her life.
Further thoughts: Ben and Michael from The Brain Exchange Podcast discuss this article in their second episode, available here.
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