Philosophers claim global warming makes having children immoral

If we were to accept the argument and act ‘morally’, the world’s population would die out – as a solution to climate change, it seems a bit nuts

A newborn baby girl named Danica Camacho, the Philippines’ symbolic “seven billionth baby” who was part of the United Nations’ seven billion global population projection, in Fabella Maternity Hospital Manila on October 31st, 2011. The UN had predicted the world’s population would reach seven billion on October 31st, 2011. Photograph: Reuters/Erik De Castro

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that if we fail to prevent global warming rising by more than 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial world temperature, our children and grandchildren will inherit catastrophic global environmental problems.

Actions to date to slow global warming have been very sluggish, but recently governments across the world have started to take this matter seriously. Proposals abound as to actions that should be taken, some sensible, some not so sensible and some silly.

Towards the silly end of the spectrum, in my opinion, is the latest edition of the journal Essays in Philosophy (Volume 20, Issue 1, 2019) addressing the question Is Procreation Immoral? Several authors basically argue we should respond to climate change by having far fewer children, ideally none at all.

For the human population to maintain its numbers, each woman must bear, on average, 2.1 children. If the birth rate exceeds 2.1, population numbers increase; if it is less, population numbers decline. Regardless of lifestyle, human beings press on the natural environment to some extent and therefore the smaller the human population, the less pressure is exerted on the environment.


Philosopher Gerald Harrison explains in Essays in Philosophy: "Procreative acts subject someone to a life – which is a very significant thing to do to someone – and they do so without the prior consent of the affected party. In other contexts, to subject someone to something significant without prior consent of the affected party – even when consent is not possible, and even when it is likely to be overall beneficial to them – seems to operate with a negative moral valence."

Harrison points out inter alia that new human lives cause harm both to other species and to the natural environment and concludes, “exceptional circumstances aside, acts of human procreation are most likely wrong”.

Despite the seemingly sophisticated philosophical language, I regret to say this argument seems silly to me. Many aspects of our natural world are simply unalterable facts that we must accept. One such fact is that biology requires that conception precedes the existence of a new life and this new life cannot be interviewed prior to conception to see if he/she agrees to the conception. To argue that it is therefore immoral to create a new life is to refuse to accept the unalterable reality of the way the world is constructed. If we were all persuaded by Harrison’s argument and decided to act “morally”, the human race would die out. And while this would undoubtedly deal with the problem of climate change, such a solution seems to me a bit – well – nuts!

‘Morally impermissible’

Another author, act utilitarian philosopher Leonard Kahn argues, "all non-optimal acts are morally impermissible" and that since a child in a rich country uses more resources than a child in a poor country, procreation is therefore morally wrong for rich people – and, "many of us in economically developed countries are morally required not to reproduce at all".

Kahn ignores the reproduction rates reported in the UN World Fertility Patterns 2015 Report – Africa 4.7, Asia 2.2, Europe 1.6, Latin America/Caribbean 2.2, North America 1.9 and Oceania 2.4. Overall world reproduction rate is 2.5. The richer parts of the world, including Europe and North America, already have low birth rates and further significant reductions would destroy these economies. Economically, poor Africa is the area to target to significantly reduce the global birth rate further.

I am not averse to sensibly reducing birth rates when circumstances arise to justify this action. But reducing birth rates to near zero is unnecessary to deal with global warming and decimating the world population would cause massive economic problems in its own right.

Philosophers have important work to do in clarifying, teasing out and testing ideas. For example, philosopher Karl Popper’s (1902-1994) analysis of the nature of science is very useful. But it seems to me that philosophical arguments sometimes miss the wood for the trees.

A philosopher once told me there were substantial philosophical reasons to believe black holes didn’t exist. I emailed him astronomical evidence supporting the existence of black holes. He replied that evidence was not essential in a philosophical argument. I said I envied him such a flexible discipline!

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC