In "The Immorality of Having Children" (2013, pdf) Rachels presents the "Famine Relief Argument against Having Children":
Conceiving and raising a child costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; that money would be far better spent on famine relief; therefore, conceiving and raising children is immoral.
They present this as a special case of Peter Singer's argument from Famine, Affluence, and Morality (1972), which is why they haven't called it something more reasonable like the "Opportunity Cost Argument".
[Note: the use of "Famine Relief" here is in reference to Peter Singer's 1972 example, but famine relief is not where your money does the most good. Treat the argument as "that money would be far better spent on GiveWell's top charities" or whatever organization you think is most effective.]
It's true that having and raising a child is very expensive. They use an estimate of $227k for the direct expenditure through age 18 while noting that college  and time costs could make this much higher. Let's use a higher estimate of $500k to account for these. Considered over twenty years, that's $25k/year or $2k/month. This puts it at the top of the range of expenses, next to housing. It's also true that this money can do a lot of good when spent on effective charities. At GiveWell's current best estimate of $2.3k this is enough money to save nearly one life per month. 
But perhaps we shouldn't be thinking of this money as an expense at all, and instead more as an investment? Could having kids be a contender for the most effective charity? That is, could having and raising kids be one of the most effective things you could do with your time and money?
For example you could convince your kid to be unusually generous, donating far more than they cost to raise. Except that it's much cheaper to convince other people's kids to be generous, and our influence on the adult behavior of our children is not that big. Alternatively, if you're unusually smart, by having kids you could help make there be more smart people in the future. But how many more generations will pass before we learn enough about the genetics of intelligence to make this aspect of parental genetics irrelevant? Rachels considers the idea that your having children might greatly benefit the world, and rightly finds it insufficient. While your child may do a lot of good, for the expense there are much better options. Having kids is not a contender for the most effective charity, or even very close.
Having kids is a special case of spending your time and money in ways that make you happy. A moral system for human beings needs to allow some amount of this. It's like working for $56k at a job you enjoy instead of getting $72k at a job you like less.  Or spending your free time reading instead of working extra hours building up a consulting business. Keeping in mind both the cost and that on average people don't seem to be happier parenting, if having kids is what would make you most happy for the expense in time and money then it seems justified.
(This is how Julia and I thought of it when deciding whether we should have kids.)
I also posted this on my blog.
 College is currently in a huge state of flux. Advertised costs are rising far faster than inflation as colleges realize they can get away with near perfect price discrimination in the form of "either pay the extremely high sticker price or give us all your financial data so we can determine exactly how much you can afford." At the same time online courses and mixed models are getting to where they can provide much of the value of traditional lecture courses, and in some ways do better. I have very little idea what to budget for college for a kid born now; likely costs range from "free" to "all you have".
 Rachels uses a much lower number:
Givewell.org, which assesses charities, estimates that a life is saved for every $205 spent on expanding immunization coverage for children in Africa Sub-Saharan—apparently one of the most cost-effective projects. See L. Brenzel et al. 2006, p. 401
Their Brenzel citation is to the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases section of the DCP2. The $205 number is "Estimated cost per death averted for the Traditional Immunization Program in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia" in table 20.5.
 This is a $16k difference, which comes from taking $500k over 20 years and dividing by two for the two parents, and then adding some for taxes. Though the earnings difference is likely to last more like 40 years.
This argument renders virtually everything immoral. Why is having children singled out? Resources spent on a drink from Starbucks are resources that could be spent on famine relief, therefore going to Starbucks is immoral. Resources spent developing philosophical arguments against various activities are resources that could be spent on famine relief, therefore Rachels's work is immoral. And so on.
Broadly I agree with you, but the reason to single out having children is that it is so much more expensive than other things people do for enjoyment. At $2k/month its comparable to all my other spending combined.
Having kids doesn't seem to be about enjoyment, it's more on the "want" side of the want/like distinction. I think wants are a valid part of human values and don't have to be grounded in likes, though people who talk about "utility" seem to be mostly talking about likes.
I'm pretty sure the OP rarely if ever patronizes Starbucks.
True, but I do spend money on things I want out of a discretionary self-spending budget of $45/week.
Definitely not. My answer to Nisan was misleading in this context. Brief budget summary:
That remaining 70% of my income is enough to raise kids on. Currently we're saving most of it.
I brought in the $45/week because that's the piece of our budget that Starbucks would come out of, but it looks like it just confused things.
I think adoption needs to be delved into into a lot more detail. Rachels Paper only briefly mentions adoption:
My wife and I are fairly well off, so over the course of our life, I would not be surprised if we could potentially give hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities. We are also going to be having our first in person, pre-adoption meeting with a adoption social worker this weekend. If we do adopt a child, we will likely spend that hundreds of thousands of dollars on the child and not on the charities.
So in terms of impact, now would be a VERY impactful time for me to hear any and all arguments for and against this being moral, immoral, or morally neutral, and I feel a bit let down the paper just sort of glosses over this.
Please don't worry about personally offending me! I'll even call Crocker's rules.
Purchase fuzzies and utilons separately. Adopting is not going to be anywhere near the most efficient way to improve the world. Certainly do not do it out of a sense of obligation; that will lead to a build up of resentment that will hurt you all. Do it if you want to, but recognise that you're doing it for your own sake.
Roughly: adopt if you would prefer a life with the child, not because you think it's making the world better.
Up voted for calling Crocker's Rules when things actually mattered.
In general I think it's better to assign x percent of your money to charity and then spend that money optimally rather than compare literally every thing you do to optimal charity. First, because t seems something you can get way more people to do and second because selfishness is a giant driving force behind optimization. Rich people spending money on cell phones in the 80s has led to better tech access now in Africa. If they instead spent that money on feeding people, nothing would be qualitatively different and the world would be worse off on net.
So if you're counting your kids as charity that's one thing, but if you're having kids because you WANT kids that's a different story.
On the kids as charity front: the world could use motivated high intelligence kids a lot more than it can use more people living on the edge of starvation. Even if you don't think smart kids are +EV for the world to begin with, bringing one up to care about Africa will get you a lot more value than you put in, I think. Assuming you're not averse to deliberately raising your kid to agree with your views on helping the world.
There is a sleight of hand in the quote: it replaces "suboptimal" with immoral, where being optimal means maximizing a specific utility function.
For example, if your (fake) utility function is something like "total number of people on earth by the time you die", then yes, you should, among other things, forgo personal procreation. Fortunately, very few people have such a simplistic approach to life. If they did, they would find even better ways to maximize this number, like subverting birth control efforts or something.
Or maybe their utility function is the "total number of people who live to be at least 80 years old", that's why they want to save people from famine. Or something else.
My point is that the quote is an example of fake consequentialism, where some unspoken deontological or virtue ethics is couched in terms of utilitarianism, but without ever explicitly stating the utility function, because any particular action advocated by its proponents would then be revealed as suboptimal.
If having children were a net cost, humanity would have gone extinct long ago -- in fact, it would never have got started. The reality is, though, that on average, over a person's life, they produce more than they consume. For evidence, look around you, and compare the modern cornucopia with 100 years ago, or 1000. The investment that parents make in raising a child is paid back (to the world, not to those parents) in the resulting adult's life's works. This payback is ignored by the above argument.
One controversial or taboo possibility is that an intellectually elite Less Wrong poster may have much more of an impact on technological/economic progress by investing in a child than an equivalent investment in the third-world poor. One could argue that the majority of technological progress is driven by the top few % of people (measured either through intellect or economic resources), and that people in third-world countries (i.e. those who would benefit from bed nets) aren't really in a position to cause much impact.
Why invest the money in your child? If you want to produce smart children, donate to science camps, college funds of tech colloeges or whatever seems most promising. It seems a priori highly unlikely that the best way to invest 500k into producing top researchers or inventors (or basically anything) is by having a child yourself. Even if you have amazing genes, that would only be an argument for sperm donation.
You are right, but I don't think that's relevant to the argument.
The argument isn't that having kids makes people on net worse than before. The argument is that it makes people worse than another action would. (And even then, it's not always suboptimal; the more costly it is to raise a child--and in the first world it is very costly--the less moral it is to raise one.)
That is very much inconsistent with the fact that the median household income in the US, one of the richest countries in the world, is about $50K (before taxes).
The estimate looks bogus to me.
Making a child gives them ~70 QALY's. That's not a lot by efficient charity standards, but it's a lot by "helping the people closest to you" standards. If sibling needed $100K to purchase 14 QALY's, would you help them?
a) having and raising well-educated and well-brought-up kids is expensive, but in the end it is a fantastic investment (and from my own experience, makes one happy) b) having and raising kids who will require charity to survive is cheap, and also immoral
Unfortunately, giving to famine relief promotes b).
Only if you're operating under a utility function that assigns an equal value to all people, or at least the value of one person's well-being is not significantly different from another's. If you reject this premise (as I do), it's not necessarily true that the money would be better spent on famine relief. Perhaps I could donate $200 to a charity that would buy food for starving people, or I could use it to buy a Nintendo 3DS for m... (read more)
That assumption is part of what "utilitarian" usually means. In particular, "utilitarian" does not mean the same thing as "entity that tries to maximize some utility function".
I value having and raising children of my own. I also live in a country with low demographic growth (like most of us), and I think pretty confidently my country would be better off in the long run if educated people with stable lives had more children (assuming no singularity etc.).
I roughly value, in decreasing order: my family and friends; "people like me" (nerds, educated people, etc.); western countries; the rest of the world.
It's not clear to me whether jkaufman is arguing that it is wrong for me to value that (wrong according to whose values? mine??), or that even according to my values, I should still help poor countries instead of having kids.
In Rachels' paper, comparing the happiness of parents to the happiness of voluntarily childless people seems wrong, because childlessness hurts most when it's involuntary. (See how much people spend on fertility treatments.) That said, I don't know if deciding to donate instead of having kids would be more similar to voluntary or involuntary childlessness. That depends on how strongly you feel the urge to have kids. And in the long term, if we view the paper as a call to social engineering, it depends on whether that urge is biological or social.
Actually, the first happiness studies that found that having children massively decreases happiness were using involuntarily infertile couples, not voluntarily childfree folks, as their comparison group; the authors were very surprised that involuntarily infertile childless couples were happier than their child-having peers!
A few of these early studies: Glenn, N.D., & McLanahan, S. (1982) Children and marital happiness: A further specification of the relationship. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 44, 63-72 (great quote: negative effect of offspring on both marital and global happiness of parents "is not absolutely conclusive, of course, but it is perhaps about as nearly conclusive as social scientific evidence on any topic ever is."
Anderson, S.A., Russell, C.S., & Schumm, W.R. (1983). Perceived marital quality and family life-cycle categories: A further analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 45, 127-139.
Bernard, J. (1982). The Future of Marriage. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Campbell, A., Converse, P.E., & Rodgers, W.L. (1976). The quality of American life: Perceptions, evaluations, and satisfactions. New York: Russell Sage.
Campbell, A. (1981). The sense of well-being in America. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Elderly childfree are happy too: Rempel, J. (1985). Childless elderly: What are they missing? Journal of Marriage and the Family, 47, 343-348.
There are two ways of making the world better: you can remove suckiness, or you can increase awesomeness. Deciding to never have kids is ceding one of the primary ways in which global awesome can be increased in favor of decreasing global suck. If you live your life only concerned with decreasing suck - or, more importantly, if everyone lived this way - the worldwide suck level would likely equilibrate to tolerable levels and then stagnate.
Space exploration is indulgent; that money should be spent on mosquito nets. Arts detract from time which could b... (read more)
Suppose you're a book-lover and your house is on fire. You get your spouse and children out and ignore your books. That doesn't mean you don't care about books, it means you've got an emergency that requires you to focus on other things.
Suppose you love awesomeness and the world is full of cheaply fixable suckiness. Maybe you fix the suckiness first and ignore the tempting vistas of awesomeness. That doesn't mean you don't value awesomeness, it means there's an emergency.
So if someone decides that they need to make big sacrifices to decrease suck, it doesn't necessarily mean that they think decreasing suck is all that matters. They might care about awesome too, but trade off awesome against suck in such a way that right now concentrating on suck is important.
Does thinking that way mean endorsing a world in which no one ever does anything but suck-minimization? Nope, not quite. It means endorsing a world in which everyone concentrates on suck-minimization as long as there's a huge suckiness problem. Once we've dealt with the mass starvation, vast numbers of deaths from malaria, horrendous poverty, etc., then we can start paying a lot more attention to awesomeness. And at that point ... (read more)
I mostly disagree with both parts of the sentence "Except that it's much cheaper to convince other people's kids to be generous, and our influence on the adult behavior of our children is not that big." I would argue that
(1) Almost all new EA recruits are converted in college by friends and/or by reading a very small number of writers (e.g. Singer). This is something that cannot be replicated by most adults, who are bad writers and who are not friends with college students. We still need good data on the ability of typical humans to covert... (read more)
I'd argue that there's a significant benefit to increasing the proportion of rational thinkers, which I would think would happen significantly more often with children of rationalists. Your individual child probably won't make a difference, but other rationalists probably think like you, so you're really making a timeless decision that produces many thousands of more-likely-rational children.
According to what moral theory?
Really? And kids are not persons and their happiness does not count?
So, superrationality arguments aren't of the form "what if everyone did that?" but rather of the form "what if everyone did that for the same reasons?" It looks like the argument under consideration argues that on the margin, we'd be better off if more people gave to charity instead of having children. If everyone reasoned similarly, we'd have a decrease in birth rate and increase in charity until charity is no longer better than children on the margin. Which would be good. I think a TDT agent would reject spurious arguments like Rachels' cable technician example where the individual act doesn't hurt people, on net and on the margin.
I clicked this hoping it would be about Sister Y's arguments. :(
They have been rising exponentially at about 6% for 60 years. I don't think it's fair to call that a "state of flux" or a sudden realization.
I previously made a comment that mistakenly argued against the wrong thing. so to answer the real question- no.
the person who commented to my response said "$50 to the AMF gets someone someone around an additional year of healthy life."
but here's the thing- there's no reason it couldn't give another person- possibly a new child- an additional year of healthy life.
a life is a life, and $50 is $50, so unless the charity is ridiculously efficient (in which case, you should be looking at how to become more efficient) the utility would be the same (wh... (read more)
There are several fundamental problems here, but I'm just going to focus on this one; if we intelligent people stop breeding due to this kind of intellectual argument, why do we expect the less intelligent masses to follow suit?
More intelligent wealthy and responsible people, exactly the people this kind of argument (and it's middle class equivalent, "A nineteenth British scholar unfamiliar with technology curves decided we're all doomed!") targets, have the lowest birth rates in our society. This gets more and more extreme the more highly educat... (read more)
ITYM “Is it immoral to have children in the US?” Having children is cheaper in other parts of the world.
If not having children is moral, then moral people will have fewer children, and so the next generation will be less moral. That's clearly not a moral result. Therefore, not having children can't be moral.
The famine relief argument for having children is much more macabre.
I'm curious as to what conditions you think allow colleges to price discriminate. Do you assert that colleges have monopolistic control over prices? Is a Harvard education considered to be a good distinct enough from a Yale education that each can set prices independent of the other? Or is there some sort of collusion?
I think it's quite clear (even without calculating) that having children is less moral than donating the equivalent number of funds to charity under the average Lesswrong-human morality.
However, if we want to use the word "immoral" and keep its traditional connotations intact, we have to show that having children is less moral than not having children and taking the money you would have spent out of circulation. (And that would be a problem we could realistically be uncertain about)
You can choose to save lives, but I disagree that you have a moral obligation to actively save lives.
There are people who believe that morality is just a bug-ridden adaptation to improve inclusive fitness, and that upon analysis any moral intuition will collapse into one of "contributes to your inclusive fitness", "meaningless/obsolete", or "hijacked by others to make you contribute to their fitness". In this case, they are the people who will keep reproducing even if you convince them that by doing so they forego the chance ... (read more)
All hail the unified global moral system. What a dystopia that would be.
Well, that's not the reference group you'd want to be looking at (thus weak evidence).
You provide both nature and nurture, and it's up to you to avoid the usual pitfalls. There were some recent posts on LW on how to raise critical thinkers. Now, intent doesn... (read more)
Why are we trying to analyze this in terms of utilitarianism given that this is the domain where we are least sure what utilitarianism should say?
I don't know, maybe a very special case. I'd say rather it's a way of creating new people with their own utility [I see now Lumifer made this point before me], and ideally their own contributions to overall utility. Alternatively, some new people may represent losses to overall utility overall.
If you think you can produce net-positive children...parents of Isaac Newton, I'm looking at you...it's worthwhile to spend all the time and effort and money to raise them. ... (read more)
This argument against having children is framed within a flawed economic and social system of belief and behavior, and suffers under the basic assumption that there is actually a famine, one whereby donating money to charity will provide a relief of and has moral value, and therefore falsely concludes that choosing to procreate over donating to famine relief charities during this perceived famine ( what i refer to as the famine problem) is bad for humanity.
In reality, the famine problem is predominantly caused by one moral problem split in two and will ... (read more)