How responsible are we when we decide to have children?
You Are Not Having a Baby.
When people announce that they are becoming fathers or mothers, they often say “I’m having a baby.” That’s fair enough, they are, after all, giving birth to a baby.
But that baby is a human being. You are giving birth to another human being: a person that may live beyond 100. A human being that will likely be 18 years old and get drunk; a human being that may well be bullied; that will likely have a complex about an aspect of how they look; a human being that will be ill many times in their lives; a human being that will surely suffer and cry; a human being that will get depressed; a human being that will argue with you and will likely leave you to start their own family. That human being will (hopefully) live to old age and worry about time’s effects on their body, and will likely live to the day that you die and suffer for it.
It’s not as straightforward as “having a baby” is it? When I consider fatherhood I consider this. I don’t think of a delightful miniature human being, I think of a human being in its potential entirety.
I’m forty years old and have recently got engaged. We have decided that we would like to have children. It’s not a decision I take lightly because I can’t get around the idea that I’d be fathering a person.
I don’t want to have “kids” or a “baby” because I have a biological urge or it’s just fun to do. I want to really think through why I would want to father somebody.
The Paradox of Parenthood
I pretty much know that if I have a child, I will unconditionally love them as most fathers do. But birth is a death sentence. When you become a father, you are condemning a person to death since death is (at least for now) inescapable.
That’s an easier burden for religious people who believe in life after death (and the ultimate meaning to life that comes with serving God), but what of the atheists and agnostics? Wouldn’t atheists and agnostics want their children to experience a kind of eternity?
It feels weird to write this sentence but: I would want my child to have the choice to live for eternity. Without that guarantee, we’re faced with the paradox of loving the person we have condemned to death.
Even if we came up with a cure for death, human existence simply requires a lot of pain, pain that your child never technically consented to. Your child could resent you for bringing them into being.
This is the case with Raphael Samuel, a 27-year-old Mumbai businessman featured in the news this week. Samuel is suing his parents for giving birth to him without his consent.
Mr Samuel, of course, knows that consent cannot be sought from a non-existent human being but insists that it wasn’t his decision to be born. Since it wasn’t his decision, he claims that he is due compensation and wants to be paid for the rest of his life.
He likens birth to kidnapping, writing on his Facebook page: “Isn’t forcing a child into this world and forcing it to have a career, kidnapping and slavery?”
Samuel’s belief is rooted in “anti-natalism”, a philosophical position that assigns a net negative value to the creation of new human beings. To give birth, these people believe, is ethically bad. This is not an ecological argument — though that does play a part — but an ethical argument.
Non-existence is non-pain, whereas human existence guarantees pain. It’s a hard case to argue against in the secular and utilitarian modern world, where “the greatest good” (the alleviation of suffering) is deemed to be society’s goal. Anti-natalists argue that we have a moral obligation not to create unhappy people, and we have no moral obligation to create happy people.
The anti-natalist argument goes back as far as the ancient Greeks. According to legend, Silenus, the wise companion of Dionysos, the God of Wine, got drunk and wandered.
Having been apprehended by hunters Silenus was taken to Midas, their king. The legendary King couldn’t help asking this divine creature what the greatest good for mortals could be. Silenus responded:
“you, seed of an evil genius and precarious offspring of hard fortune, whose life is but for a day, why do you compel me to tell you those things of which it is better you should remain ignorant? For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune; but for humans, the best for them is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best, for both sexes. This should be our choice, if choice we have”
Why do we have kids?
When you seriously consider having children it can be terrifying to contemplate. Firstly, there’s the chance that we can’t have a child and that could be heartbreaking for us if we have our hearts set on it.
Giving birth to another human being is also risky. Things can “go wrong”, if they do go “wrong”, you have to get on with it, knowing that you’ll love the child no matter what. Would I feel guilt for my part in things going wrong? I’m not sure, but I confess that I do think about it. Would I be culpable? I suppose in part I would.
There’s also the resentment of parenthood. It’s a taboo that is only sometimes whispered, but parents often have to reconcile the love they have for their child with resentment for the all the opportunities and freedoms that having a child has denied them.
So why do people have children? If life is meaningless, having children is like a great big existential Ponzi scheme. As children we are made to feel special and unique by our parents. Our lives are meaningful in that we are cared for as precious things. As we grow older we realise that is not the case, our life has a hole in it and so we have children to find meaning again. We just fill that hole with a child who grows up to develop that same hollow feeling. And so the Ponzi scheme continues.
Optimism and Pessimism
The problem I have with anti-natalists is that pessimism or even misanthropy is their starting point. Firstly, I don’t subscribe to the idea of a balanced ecology if human beings were taken out of the world.
We’re not a unique species in our capacity for destruction. In fact, our self-awareness of our destruction and the efforts we’re making to mitigate or reverse it is unique among species.
As for suffering, I personally feel that joy is the default condition of life. Of course, I have felt injury, pain and suffering, but the happiness I have simply from living outweighs any pain I’ve experienced so far. Pain and suffering are simply obstructions to be managed.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the happy man sees a different world from the unhappy man. It’s not a matter of “glass half-full, half-empty” judgement psychology, about “feeling good”. The self is the beholder of the world and not merely an inventory of feelings.
I agree with this and I can only presume that there’s a touch of solipsism in my attitude, but I can also only presume that a human being I’d father will also be that way.
A Greater Purpose
But what about purpose? Purposelessness is the epidemic of the modern secular world. What’s the purpose of having a child and what will their purpose be?
Throughout history, people have procreated to contribute human life to something greater than themselves. Most religions actively encourage birth. The sacraments of Matrimony, Baptism, and Confirmation in the Catholic faith that I was raised in make procreation a sacred undertaking.
Nation states and ideologies have also encouraged procreation, usually to ensure their growth and propagation. The Nazis had the “Lebensborn” scheme to propagate the Germanic race, the Soviets had something similar to ensure that the USSR flourished. Both these enormous schemes were of course to the detriment of female rights.
We don’t have programmes like that in modern secular states, but people get tax breaks and benefits for having children. That’s not just a philanthropic gesture, it makes economic sense. We’re encouraged to have kids for the benefit of our own ideology: Capitalism.
Most of us, however, would disregard any “bigger” societal purposes in our reasons for having children.
So for what purpose should we give life to the next generation and what would my hope for their purpose be? My only answer for that will be faith. Faith in the future, faith in progress, faith in people, faith in ourselves, and yes, if we feel it to be right, faith in God or something greater than us as long as it comes to no harm to others.
In Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, the father reassures his young son that he is carrying a “fire” within him. Even in a dark world covered in ash, with no food or clean water, when danger is always present and many have given up, the father carries on for the sake of the child.
That “fire” is what us philanthropes and optimists believe in: the capacity to love, to make meaning for ourselves, to flourish and achieve great things, and to simply take joy in being.
Does eternal life exist? Perhaps. Can we achieve eternal life? Sure, why not? But we need to keep going to get there.