The concept of the family

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People born in the future stand to inherit a planet in the midst of a global ecological crisis. Natural habitats are being decimated, the world is growing hotter, and scientists fear we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history. Under such circumstances, is it reasonable to bring a child into the world?

My philosophical research deals with environmental and procreative ethics – the ethics of choosing how many children to have or whether to have them at all. Recently, my work has explored questions where these two fields intersect, such as how climate change should affect decision-making about having a family.

Procreation is often viewed as a personal or private choice that should not be scrutinized. However, it is a choice that affects others: the parents, the children themselves and the people who will inhabit the world alongside those children in the future. Thus, it is an appropriate topic for moral reflection.

A lifelong footprint

Let’s start by thinking about why it might be wrong to have a large family.

Many people who care about the environment believe they are obligated to try to reduce their impact: driving fuel-efficient vehicles, recycling and purchasing food locally, for example.

But the decision to have a child – to create another person who will most likely adopt a similar lifestyle to your own – vastly outweighs the impact of these activities. Based on the average distance a car travels each year, people in developed countries can save the equivalent of 2.4 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year by living without a vehicle, according to one literature review. For comparison, having one fewer child saves 58.6 metric tons each year.

So, if you think you are obligated to do other activities to reduce your impact on the environment, you should limit your family size, too.

In response, however, some people may argue that adding a single person to a planet of 8 billion cannot make a meaningful difference. According to this argument, one new person would constitute such a tiny percentage of the overall contribution to climate change and other environmental problems that the impact would be morally negligible.

Crunching the numbers

Environmental ethicists debate how to quantify an individual’s impact on the environment, especially their lifetime carbon emissions.

For example, statistician Paul Murtaugh and scientist Michael Schlax attempted to estimate the “carbon legacy” tied to a couple’s choice to procreate. They estimated the total lifetime emissions of individuals living in the world’s most populous 11 countries. They also assumed a parent was responsible for all emissions tied to their genetic lineage: all of their own emissions, half their children’s emissions, one-quarter of their grandchildren’s emissions, and so on.

If emissions stayed similar to 2005 levels for several generations, an American couple having one fewer child would save 9,441 metric tons of CO2-equivalent, according to their calculations. Driving a more fuel-efficient car, on the other hand – getting 10 more miles to the gallon – would save only 148 metric tons of CO2-equivalent.

Philosopher John Nolt has attempted to estimate how much harm the average American causes over their lifetime in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. He found that the average American contributes roughly one two-billionth of the total greenhouse gases that cause climate change. But since climate change may harm billions of people over the next millennium, this person may be responsible for the severe suffering, or even death, of one or two future people.

Collective toll

Such estimates are, at best, imprecise. Nevertheless, even if one assumes that each individual child’s impact on the environment is relatively insignificant on the global scale, that does not necessarily mean that procreators are off the moral hook.

One common thought in ethics is that people should avoid participating in enterprises that involve collective wrongdoing. In other words, we should avoid contributing to institutions and practices that cause bad outcomes, even if our own individual contribution to that outcome is tiny.

Suppose someone considers making a small donation to an organization that they learn is engaged in immoral activities, such as polluting a local river. Even if the potential donation is only a few dollars – too small to make any difference to the organization’s operations – that money would express a degree of complicity in that behavior, or perhaps even an endorsement. The morally right thing to do is avoid supporting the organization when possible.

We could reason the same way about procreation: Overpopulation is a collective problem that is degrading the environment and causing harm, so individuals should reduce their contribution to it when they can.

Moral gray zone

But perhaps having children warrants an exception. Parenthood is often a crucial part of people’s life plans and makes their lives far more meaningful, even if it does come at a cost to the planet. Some people believe reproductive freedom is so important that no one should feel moral pressure to restrict the size of their family.

One point of general consensus among ethicists, following the lead of philosopher Henry Shue, is that there is a moral difference between emissions tied to crucial interests and those that are tied to convenience and luxury. Emissions connected to basic human needs are usually regarded as permissible. It isn’t wrong for me to emit carbon to drive to the grocery store, for example, if I have no other safe or reliable transportation available. Getting to the store is important to my survival and well-being. Driving purely for recreation, in contrast, is harder to justify.

Reproduction occupies the messy conceptual space between these two activities. For most people today, having their own biological children is not essential to health or survival. Yet it is also far more important to most people and their broader life plans than a frivolous joyride. Is there a way to balance the varied and competing moral considerations in play here?

In prior work, I have argued the proper way to balance these competing moral considerations is for each couple to have no more than two biological children. I believe this allows a couple an appropriate amount of reproductive freedom while also recognizing the moral significance of the environmental problems linked to population growth.

Some authors reason about this issue differently, though. Philosopher Sarah Conly argues that it is permissible for couples to have only one biological child. In large part, her position rests on her argument that all the fundamental interests tied to child-rearing can be satisfied with just one child. Bioethicist Travis Reider argues in favor of having a small family, but without a specific numerical limit. It is also possible, as ethicist Kalle Grill has argued, that none of these positions gets the moral calculus exactly right.

Regardless, it is clear that prospective parents should reflect on the moral dimensions of procreation and its importance to their life plans.

For some, adoption may be the best way of experiencing parenthood without creating a new person. And there are many other ways for prospective parents to do their part in mitigating environmental problems. Carbon offsets or donations to environmental organizations, for example, are hardly perfect substitutes for limiting procreation – but they certainly may be more appealing to many prospective parents.

The Conversation

Trevor Hedberg, Assistant Professor of Practice, W.A. Franke Honors College / Philosophy Department, University of Arizona

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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61 Comments

  1. Rufus says:

    So, let’s get rid of all people to save the people on the planet. How evil. You have nothing to say about it. How you leftists love death and hate life.

  2. Bob says:

    Perhaps you are right…but I am not sure you go far enough. I think we can greatly minimize carbon emissions, in fact, we could cut them in half and bring balance to Mother Earth by eliminating half of the World’s population. Then we would not have to worry about pollution and there would be plenty of resources for those who remain—-wait, where have I heard this before?

  3. SuzanneL says:

    Thank you for not having children, so that MY descendants will be the ones Inheriting the Earth. That’s what this is really all about. 🤣👍

    “Science” is not a religion, and people speaking in the name of “Science” are not my clergy. Where does this arrogant bigot of an author get off deciding it’s “wrong” for other people to form beautiful families? The next child born might just be the one to solve all the climate changes now happening on all 8.5 planets. (It ain’t even human-caused.) Or he / she might even work for the god-govt holy weaponized weather modification program!. Either way, it’s gonna be one of MY descendants! I’m not gonna just hand over control of the world of my descendents to this guy.

    1. Paul Richards says:

      You can have it

  4. DougR says:

    My wife and I have always been very environmentally conscious, and with a strong sense of responsibility we will remain childless by choice. Nonetheless… I get flack from my (jealous?) sister for being SELFISH. I can’t even count how many times she’s called me that.

  5. T Lorax says:

    It’s funny how the United States is always the example. It’s never China or India who have huge populations and pour enormous amounts of filth into the air and oceans. By far those two are the greatest polluters on Earth.
    If you want to save the planet hold those two accountable. They play the system to avoid international regulations and flagrantly dump poisons into our planet.

  6. Greg says:

    Typical philosopher these days, no real contributions to intellectual thought other than liberal moral pandering. It truly did stop with Plato didn’t it?

  7. Twylah says:

    “Just enough of me, and way too many of you.”

  8. RB says:

    TLDR: Make America China.

  9. Marcos says:

    Why doesn’t this article have an author? It’s written in 1st person, but there is no author? Is this AI?

  10. Paul Richards says:

    Been saying this for over 30 years, nice for somebody to catch-up

  11. Andrew says:

    I have 3 babies, and I wholly expect a good life for them. With all the leftists not having children and having abortions, i figure lefties will be gone from the U.S in about 20 years. That will leave lots of resources for our conservative babies.

  12. AJP says:

    This author and his peers are psychotic. How about we have as many kids as we want, and you and your ilk are free to have none. This way you can pat yourself on the back for being such a hero in your own mind, and have the smug parade you want for yourself, and we can just continue to ignore you, or better yet roll our eyes and laugh at you.

  13. BrynB says:

    I mean if you want to take his logic to an extreme it makes the most sense to march everyone in a developed or developing nation into the Soylent green grinders and mulch them into food for everyone else to reduce carbon emissions.
    But they conveniently neglected to calculate the declining birth rates in the United States and also forgot to mention that the United States and others like it are probably the most likely places where people will invent clever ways to stabilize the ecosystem of the planet.