I just read this article about the felicific calculus of parenthood.

 The average happiness worldwide is 5.1 on a one out of ten scale; Americans are at 7.1. Arbitrarily deciding that one year of a 10 life is equivalent to two years of a 5 life, the cost per QALY of having a child for total utilitarians is $5500.

However, NICE’s threshold for cost effectiveness of a health intervention is about $30,000 (20,000 pounds) per QALY. Therefore, for total utilitarians, having a child may be considered a cost-effective intervention, although not an optimal intervention.

...surrogacy is an underexplored way to do good. Rather than costing money, the first-time surrogate earns thirty thousand dollars, which can grow to forty thousand dollars for experienced surrogates– and it still creates 109 QALYs that otherwise would not exist. These children are likely to grow up in wealthy families who really, really want to have them, and are thus likely to be even happier than this analysis suggests.

 In the comments section, the following grabbed my attention.

Estimates for the size of a sustainable human population appear to mostly range between 2 billion and 10 billion, and the meta-analysis here (http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/54/3/195) suggests that the best point estimate is around 7.7 billion. Meanwhile most estimates of population growth over the next hundred years suggest the total population will reach 10-11 billion. It seems likely that at some point in the next couple hundred years, the population will decrease substantially due to a Malthusian catastrophe. This transition is likely to cause a great deal of suffering. Surely even a total utilitarian would agree that it would be better for the necessary drop in population to be as small as possible.

And even if the population never rises above sustainable carrying capacity, it’s not obvious that total utilitarians should see a larger population as preferable. The drop in happiness due to increased competition for resources could outweigh the benefit of an additional person existing and having experiences.

Then, I read this article. Here are the highlights:

 

Bryan Caplan’s excellent book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids[7] reviews the evidence from 40 years of adoption and twin studies with a frankly liberating result: *barring actual deprivation or trauma, children are largely who they are going to be as a result of their genetic makeup. In long-term measures of well-being, education and employment, parental influence exerts a temporary effect which disappears when we are no longer living with our parents. So costly added extras (music lessons, coaching and tutoring, private school fees) are probably not going to change your child’s life in the long term.  (However, data on the antenatal environment suggests benefit to taking iodine, but avoiding ice-storms and licorice during pregnancy.[8]) Sharing time together and finding common interests can build a good relationship and help a child develop without major costs.

In addition to straightforward financial outlay, parenthood comes with costs of time and opportunity. Loss of flexibility and leisure mean you won’t be able to take all opportunities (like taking on extra work to make more money or advance your career). Late notice travel is unlikely to be possible. You will probably be sleep deprived for a large part of the first year or more of your child’s life, and this may impact on your work performance. The work of parenting will take time, though some of it may be outsourced at the cost of increased financial outlay.

So, this baby is going to cost you about £2000 a year and take a variable but large amount of your time, which will equate in the end to another chunk of money. For parents taking parental leave or working less than full time to provide childcare, there may be delay to career progression as well as income.  Does this represent an unacceptably large sum of money and time to be compatible with the goal of maximising our impacts for the good?

In the light of this reality, the rationalist suggestion I have encountered – that one guard against a desire to become a parent by pre-emptively being sterilised before the desire has arisen – seems a recipe for psychological disaster.

 Finally we may ask whether parenthood – and the resulting person created – will benefit the wider world? This is a harder good to calculate or rely upon. The inheritance of specific character traits is difficult to predict. It’s certainly not guaranteed that your offspring will embrace all of your values throughout their lifetime. The burden of onerous parental expectations are extensively documented, and it would appear foolish to have children on the expectation they will be altruistic in the same way you are. However, your child is likely to resemble you in many important respects. By adulthood, the heritability of IQ is between 0.7 and 0.8,[13] and there is evidence from twin studies of significant heritability of complex traits like empathy.[14] This would give them a high probability of adding significant net good to the world.

 

That's rather confronting:

* a '5' on a scale of happiness ain't that bad

* don't stress too much when raising your biological kids, you can't do that much

* they're probably not worth having anyway

Just kidding. But, the evidence is quite fascinating.

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"They're probably not worth having anyway"

This quote makes me feel uncomfortable. As a young adult i'm asking myself.

When someone is about to be a parent (I think this question stick more to a man than a woman, considering the empathic link that's been biologicaly created between a child and his mother) is he really asking himself: Will they worth it ?

I mean, being a parent is a serious challenge, but a the dawn of "parenthood", are we going to ask ourself if we are ready to face this challenge ? Or if the child will worth it ?

Because to my mind, there's a huge gap between them. But i wonder how i'm going to react when the time will come. That one question makes me sick, but does it belong to our nature of self centered creature to ask something so horrible? Or does it only belongs to the worse parents. I wonder.

Dear Lesswrong's parents, how did you react back then ? Would you kindly tell me ? [I'm 19 by the way]

I have always seen having children as an issue of cooperation. Not having children is obviously less work than having them. But if my parents would have been thinking this way, I wouldn't be here.

Whatever trait you have that is making you consider not having children, by not having children you make this trait less frequent in the next generation. Think about the long-term impact.

It's like a Newcomb's dilemma, where you if you choose the box containing some additional difficulties in life, the Omega will also give you a box containing existence of more people like you.

For me the important question before having a baby was whether my partner is equally dedicated to provide a good background for the baby. Because one parent is not enough. Now my experience is that it is difficult, but less difficult than I expected.

Whatever trait you have that is making you consider not having children, by not having children you make this trait less frequent in the next generation.

Only if that behavior is genetic in origin. In many cases, voluntary childlessness is a learned idea that doesn't need children to get passed on.

Learned ideas depend on the genetic ability to be receptive to that learned idea. So if you don't have children because of the learned idea that it is better not to have children, future generations will be less receptive to the idea that it is better not to have children.

I think a prospective parent should be asking all of the following questions:

  • Am I -- are we -- ready to face the challenge?
  • Will I (we) be happier for having children?
  • Will the world be a better place for our having children?
  • If we have children, what will their lives be like?

If you only ask "will I be happier?" then yes, there's probably something wrong with you. But I don't think it's an unreasonable question to ask alongside the others.

The answers to the last three questions, especially if asked about the first child, are "We don't know".

The answers to [...] are "We don't know".

Just like the answers to all questions.

The answers to all of them are probability estimates. "don't know" applies to all decisions, but isn't a helpful framing.

I would like to see a probability estimate for "Will the world be a better place for our having children?", for example, one that's based on some empirical realities and not on looking upwards and going "Hmmm...."

The outside view is certainly positive on the overall bundle: most humans choose to have children. Starting with that prior and adjustiing for heritability of IQ and social influence, it seems very likely that children of most LW readers will be net positive value.

It's not what you asked for, but it's sufficient to base decisions on.

The outside view is certainly positive on the overall bundle: most humans choose to have children.

That's just hardwired biological instincts. They have nothing to do with the questions asked.

When someone is about to be a parent (I think this question stick more to a man than a woman, considering the empathic link that's been biologicaly created between a child and his mother) is he really asking himself: Will they worth it ?

I think the situation is very different planned vs. unplanned. For me, once the decision was made I had no second thoughts. Also, the little munchkins re-write you emotionally once they arrive <- no one told me about this, so it was actually a bit of a shock.

empathic link that's been biologicaly created between a child and his mother

Me not understand. What's this "empathic link," in physical terms?

[-][anonymous]6y 2

(The paragraph about sterilization being psychological disaster doesn't quite follow from the preceding one, or am I missing something?)

In long-term measures of well-being (...) parental influence exerts a temporary effect which disappears when we are no longer living with our parents.

Everything in human life is temporary. The temporary effect while living with our parents is about 20 years, the average human life is about 70 years... so these "temporary effects" still make about 25% of human life; enough to be included in the utilitarian calculation.

'well-being' is kind of vague here and the subsequent examples imply that the importance is far less than 25%. 'employment' and 'education'? The employment you have while living with your parents as a teenager is a rounding error on your lifetime income (and increasingly teen employment hardly exists) and is worth far far less than 25%. The education is a little more important, but as Caplan has blogged about prolifically, education past middle school is almost entirely about signalling for your career rather than building important skills or learning important knowledge and so it is subsumed under the previous employment point, and the effects of education seem to fade out as other signals assume more importance.

To be honest, all this "what happened in your childhood does not matter, because when you are 18 years old, your life resets to tabula rasa anyway" always felt very suspicious to me. (Strawmanning to better express how I feel about it.)

The employment you have while living with your parents as a teenager is a rounding error on your lifetime income

Sure. But the money your parents have, and how much they are willing to support you, influences whether you have to take the first available job to pay your bills and then get stuck in the "rat race", or whether your hands are untied and you can experiment with learning and working on your own projects.

education past middle school is almost entirely about signalling

Maybe I had an exceptionally good university education, but I believe that learning computer science helped me understand the concepts that I probably would struggle with otherwise; at least judging by my colleagues who are smart and diligent, but didn't have the same education.

Also, I'd bet that social class strongly correlates with parents' social class. But yeah, one could argue that the social class is determined by genes. So we would have to study adopted children.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Good point. The interpretation I made there was that parents ought to be less determined to determine their child's future by pressuring them to sacrifice present well-being for adult gain.

Those twins studies constitutes a low-power measurement of effects of whatever it is that parents in the broad population happen to be doing during the time period of the study. It should not be confused with a measurement of the effects of best practice. Many professional and parent-mediated interventions have been shown to have significant effects in random controlled trials or by other means that are not confounded by genetics. As a broad estimate, any intervention that health insurance will pay is such an evidence-based intervention and there are more outside of that category, the standard for which evidence-based intervention are cover vary from state to state, nation to nation. Some of these have long-term effects.

You write "barring...trauma". Is the definition of "trauma" broad enough to capture all the evidence-based interventions?

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Those twins studies constitutes a low-power measurement of effects of whatever it is that parents in the broad population happen to be doing during the time period of the study.

Wow, I never thought of it that way. Thanks

It should not be confused with a measurement of the effects of best practice.

Aren't twin studies best practice? What's better?

As a broad estimate, any intervention that health insurance will pay is such an evidence-based intervention and there are more outside of that category, the standard for which evidence-based intervention are cover vary from state to state, nation to nation. Some of these have long-term effects.

That's a useful hereustic. Thanks for making it so clear :)

You write "barring...trauma". Is the definition of "trauma" broad enough to capture all the evidence-based interventions?

I'm a little confused here.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

...but you can do that little, and then live in grief for however long you have. It's not just 'I'll teach him to be nice' that parents obsess about, it's more of 'no touching electrical outlets'. And it's the electrical outlets which makes people stress out in most cases, I bet.