trieder-100x100Travis N. Rieder, PhD, one of the Berman Institute’s Hecht-Levi Fellows, recently published a paper in the Journal of Applied Philosophy called “Procreation, Adoption, and the Contours of Obligation.” By weighing potential benefits and harms, Rieder explores the morality of human procreation. Here, a brief interview in which Rieder breaks the issues down for us.


What are “pro-natalism” and “anti-natalism”?


‘Pro-natalism’ is a general view or attitude that procreating is a good thing, or perhaps even that we ought to procreate. Most cultures in the world are pro-natalist, as are most people. This can be seen in the pressure on young couples to make babies, and the sense of a need for justification from those who simply choose not to have children.


Anti-natalism, unsurprisingly, is the rejection of pro-natalism. Anti-natalism is the view or attitude that procreating is a bad thing, or that we ought not to procreate. Anti-natalists are sometimes cynics and misanthropes who hold that “You’d have to be a sadist to bring a child into this world,” but there are other forms, too. Rather famously, David Benatar has argued that coming into existence is always a harm, and so it would be better for each of us never to have been. On the basis of this theory of value, he argues that we are obligated not to procreate, and that it would be best overall, in the long run, if humans went extinct. This is obviously an extreme view, and it is not popular. In my paper, I show that much more modest arguments still generate a disturbingly powerful case for anti-natalism – in particular, for what I call the Anti-Natal Pro-Adoption View (ANPA).


What are some of the “moral dangers” of having a baby?


First, by making a new person, we inflict that person onto the world. The world is full – it’s full of people, and those people are collectively using too many resources (unequally distributed, of course). So adding a new person contributes to this massive problem. The earth simply cannot sustain a population of 7+ billion people, and so we are in an ‘ecological overshoot’. But it’s actually even worse than that for me, because I’m an American, and my child will both use an inordinately large share of resources, and will not be the first to be affected when things go badly. So the issue is both one of contributing to systematic harms that occur as a result of overpopulation,but also of justice, as those worse off are likely to be hit hardest by the harms of overpopulation.


Secondly, we also inflict the world onto the person we create. When I make my child, I put someone that I will predictably love and want to protect in a world that’s in serious trouble. That same overpopulation concern from above, along with related concerns like that of climate change, may lead us to worry about the kind of life that even our privileged children will have in the future. If I choose not to have a child, then it’s guaranteed not to be the case that my daughter – the person I most want to protect in the world – will live through the hardship of overpopulation and catastrophic climate disruption.


What are the moral arguments in support of adoption as an alternative?


The argument in support of adoption is quite straightforward, and has been made by both Tina Rulli and Daniel Friedrich. Many people endorse the Rescue Principle, which holds that if one can prevent great suffering at very little cost to oneself, then she is obligated to do so. Now we add the observation that there seems to be an Orphan Crisis, as there are millions of adoptable orphans in the world, very many of whom will endure great suffering if not taken into a family and given parenting resources. It seems to follow that, for those of us who want to parent, and so for whom taking a child into our families is not so great a cost, we are obligated to adopt one of these children. And since any child that we then create takes the place of one that we could have adopted, it looks like what we might be obligated to do is to adopt rather than procreate.


When this argument is combined with the moral dangers of procreating, it creates a distressingly powerful case for ANPA. After all, for those of us who want to be parents, the choice to adopt-rather-than-procreate does something incredible: it provides a rescue for a child who needs a family, while preventing the harm and injustice of adding a new, wealthy person to the planet, who will then be subject to the harms of living in the world that we leave her.


How would you respond to a woman who wants to carry a child? Is that desire different from, for example, a man’s desire to pass down his genes?


I think this is a really important question, but it is muddled a bit by the language of ‘wanting’ to carry a child. I mean: I want a lot of things – money and motorcycles, but also to have a family. Not all ‘desires’ are the same. So if a woman merely wants to carry a child, then I think the case is not so different than a bunch of my mere wants, which may have to yield to moral demands. However, most women that raise this objection have something else in mind: they have in mind the deep, life-altering, meaning-giving project of gestating, which is unique, special and straightforwardly valuable. Even if it turned out that ANPA were the correct view, and that many of us therefore had an obligation to adopt-rather-than-procreate (spoiler alert: I don’t believe this), I don’t think such a woman would inherit this obligation. That’s because I think that, as moral agents, we get some ‘normative protection’ for at least some of our valuable projects. So a woman who desperately wants to create a child will be permitted to do so, regardless of whether ANPA is true.


This is contrasted with a case in which a man wants to procreate so that his child will ‘have his talents’. Now the first thing to say is that such a belief relies on a problematic assumption of genetic determinism; an adopted child may share very many of one’s talents, and a genetic child may share very few. But more importantly, such a desire does not seem to be the same kind of project that could generate normative protection. Is it really plausible that one’s child’s having inherited some of his genetics is life-altering and meaning-giving in the way that creating life in one’s womb is? It doesn’t seem so to me. Not all desires deserve protection from morality, and perhaps we would need to spend more time on the case to decide whether this man’s does. But the gestational project seems like one that does deserve protection, regardless of whether ANPA is true.


Do people who can afford to adopt have a moral obligation to do so?


So this is the big question of the paper: is ANPA the correct view? Do prospective parents have a general obligation to adopt-rather-than-procreate? Well, I’ve already argued that at least some women do not, if they have what I called the gestational project. But that doesn’t show that ANPA is incorrect; it merely shows that there are some projects that are protected from morality. So in the paper, I ask whether some more restricted view is true. In fact, I even make a concession to the fact that adoption is expensive and difficult, and so I ask whether those who can afford it, and who do not have a genuine procreative project (like the gestational project), might have an obligation to adopt.


In short, I think the answer is ‘no’. But I also don’t think that should give us too much comfort. I don’t think that we have an obligation to adopt-rather-than-procreate for the same reason that bioethicist Maggie Little thinks that women do not have an obligation to gestate: because such acts are ‘first order intimacies’ – the kind of actions that it would be generally inappropriate to consider targets of obligation. But that objection is specific to obligation; it’s because obligation has a strength, and an invasiveness, that other moral concepts don’t. Many philosophers think that if I’m obligated to do something, others have the standing to demand that I do it. Perhaps someone even has a right against me that I do it. But some acts just don’t seem appropriately demandable. Little uses the examples of sex, marriage, and donating a kidney. Even if one has all the reason in the world to have sex with someone – it would be fun, it would do good in the world, you name it – it seems wrong to hold that anyone could demand that someone have sex with him. Or that he has a right to sex with someone. And so it is, I contend, with adopting: becoming a parent is an intimacy of the first order, and it doesn’t seem correct that anyone could demand that I do so through adoption. I thus conclude that adoption, like sex, marriage, gestation, and kidney-donation, is not typically the appropriate target of obligation, and so ANPA is incorrect.


Note, however, that this doesn’t mean that procreation is immune from moral judgment. There is simply one kind of judgment that is typically inappropriate. And in fact, I think that many of us act badly and in ways that we shouldn’t regarding procreation. The case for ANPA is powerful, and so while it doesn’t add up to an obligation, it does seem to provide each of us with very good moral reasons to act in various ways.


What do you think prospective parents ought to consider when they choose whether to procreate or adopt?


In short, I think they ought to consider the reasons they have regarding procreation and adoption. Our culture tells us that the lifestyle of not procreating is the one that demands justification, but I think we should work to flip that around. There are very good, very powerful reasons for not making new people, and for inviting into our families those children who already exist. And there are very, very few reasons to create another person. Now I myself argued that this doesn’t mean one is obligated to adopt-rather-than-procreate, but it seems to demand respectful moral engagement. Some of us desperately want to gestate a new human life – to experience that unique human good – but how many times does one need to experience pregnancy in order to have that good? And some of us don’t even really want to go through pregnancy, but see it as the default path to a family; but why don’t we see adoption as a live option in these cases? Making a new person is a massively moral decision, and so I think we need to start treating it like one.

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Theo Schall
Travis Rieder

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One Response to “Is It Right to Have a Baby When You Could Adopt?”

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