Of course I chose that word because it's vague. I guess, if I have to narrow it down, it's a feeling that something is disrespectful.

I think people's reasons for having kids usually fall into one of the following categories:

  1. It's what normal people do, so I'll just go with the flow.
  2. I have an emotional desire for a parent-child relationship.
  3. I want someone to take care of me when I'm old.
  4. I want an extension of myself to provide me with a kind of proxy immortality.

It might be more obvious why I find 1, 3, and 4 to be disrespectful? So I'll just talk about 2, which I suspect includes the kind of "liking kids" that you are talking about.

Imagine that, from now on, as soon as a baby is born, it will be instantly granted certain benefits. The baby is given the size, strength, and agility of an adult. They get the intellectual capacity of an adult. They get an assortment of knowledge and skills implanted into their minds, well-suited to independent living in their society, and proof of having those skills. They get the wisdom, rationality, and emotional skills of an adult. But they do not get any episodic memories implanted. They don't come pre-loaded with any emotional attachments to specific people, which is just fine, because they have great emotional and self-care skills to support them as they meet various people and decide who they want to form relationships with.

Does this even count as a child anymore? Would a relationship with this person satisfy the parental desire in #2? I bet it wouldn't. All because the person is no longer weaker or more incompetent than the "parent", and is free to form emotional attachments of their choice based on getting to know people. Liking kids, specifically as kids, usually amounts to liking the weakness and vulnerability of kids. I have heard some people say that what they like about kids is their "innocence" but I don't believe in this innocence thing, except as a euphemism for ignorance. I cannot think of a single thing about my child psyche which was better than my adult psyche. My child self was more trusting, which I bet many adults liked, but I think my current state of being less trusting is better, and therefore the fact that those adults liked that about me was disrespectful--it was liking my weakness. Some adults may have enjoyed teaching me things. That is a case of them enjoying my ignorance.

I'm not so put off by people wanting to adopt kids, because they see a need that they feel well-suited to fill. But creating a brand-new kid because you want a relationship specifically with a small, weak, ignorant person who is almost guaranteed to love you? Icky.

Ah, I see now where you're coming from.

Well, let me just say that you're describing what I'd call a very dysfunctional family. Not all families are dysfunctional.

Is it immoral to have children?

by jefftk 2 min read22nd Oct 2013320 comments


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 [1] 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. [2]

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. [3] 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.

[1] 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".

[2] 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.

[3] 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.