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Should you have children? These five philosophical questions can help you decide

Unthinkable: Procreating to ‘save the West’ is probably a bad idea, but what’s a good reason to have children?

Moralising about procreation used to be the Catholic Church’s thing. But nowadays it is the preserve of anti-immigrant fearmongers and multibillionaire crackpot theorists. “If birth rates continue to plummet, human civilisation will end,” opined Elon Musk, a father of nine, last week in the latest in a barrage of posts about the ageing demographic of the United States and Europe.

Musk’s concern intersects with a growing obsession in alt-right circles with “underbreeding” in wealthy countries. Feminism is one target of blame. “Birthstrikers” – women who have chosen not to procreate because of the climate crisis – are also vilified, while conservative political leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have introduced financial incentives to boost baby numbers. Forty years after Monty Python sang Every Sperm Is Sacred, nationalist politicians are intoning gravely that it’s your patriotic duty to waste no ovulation.

Having a baby for the sake of your nation is almost certainly a bad reason to procreate but what’s a good reason? Mara van der Lugt asks this question in a new book, Begetting. As a philosopher, she takes her role as a killjoy seriously and follows the logic even if it takes you to some uncomfortable places. This week’s Unthinkable draws on her analysis to give you five philosophical questions to ponder before having kids.

Why would you add suffering to the world?

There is a group of philosophers called anti-natalists who argue that reproduction is inherently bad because it means creating a sentient being that will inevitably suffer. Prominent advocate David Benatar insists we have “stronger duties to avoid harm than to bestow benefit” – so you can’t cancel out the pain your child will experience with the pleasure they may enjoy.


Most people recoil from this train of thought, but explaining why Benatar is wrong is not so simple. Accepting that it is okay to add some harm to the world may enable us to see meaning in human suffering. But what stops me from making the case that it’s okay to inflict pain on others if I think that is what’s best for them?

What’s so special about your genes?

Van der Lugt notes that “passing on your genes” is seen by some as a way of outliving death or passing on a “legacy”. But this kind of legacy is “as superficial as someone boasting about his 200 sperm donations”. Emphasising there are numerous ways to create a legacy, she says “there are reasons for being cautious about caring too much about the continuation of one’s own genes; and for remembering that there are many people already existing in the world who could benefit from our care and concern, whether by being parented or in a multitude of other ways”.

What gives you the right to create a child without its consent?

It may seem daft to highlight the lack of consent a baby has for being born but focusing on the issue helps parents to realise the full scale of their responsibilities. One way of making amends for the lack of consent is to consider the perspective of the future child in parental vows. In the Netherlands, this has been done in formal ceremonies whereby witnesses gather to hear a couple promise things like putting their child’s interests at heart when making decisions affecting them. Such pledges reinforce the idea “that parents are not entitled to a child, but a child is entitled to the best of what its parents can give”, says Van der Lugt.

Should you worry about depriving your parents of grandchildren?

Becoming a grandparent is something many people wish for and “there is a special pain in realising one cannot give this experience to one’s parents,” writes Van der Lugt. But she counsels against guilt, suggesting much of our thinking is informed by unhelpful language. To say someone is “deprived” of something suggests they really ought to have it. “The language is all wrong. We need to get rid – in thought and words – of this idea of entitlement [to a child or grandchild].”

Are you an optimist?

One way of answering the question of whether to have children is whether you are the kind of person who can be entrusted with the job. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote that parents must instil in their child “a love for living, which gives him the feeling: it is good to be alive, it is good to be a little boy or girl, it is good to be on this earth!” But what if you’re a pessimist, like van der Lugt – who was interviewed for this column a couple of years ago on the merits of a “glass half-empty” attitude? Should you be disqualified from parenting if you’ve a gloomy – or brutally realistic – outlook?

Van der Lugt suggests not, arguing that pessimism may be an asset for parents. It is the pessimist, after all, who is more likely to avoid wishful, or presumptive, thinking – and arguably, therefore, will be better prepared to face whatever lies ahead.

Ultimately, on the question of whether it’s right to have a child, she says: “It is up to each of us ... to seek an answer to this question in our own lives – in a way that is not judgmental or narrow-minded.”