Tuesday, April 3, 2012

It deepens like a coastal shelf

One of the increasingly big, increasingly headache-inducing problems in my life is the problem of children. I don't want them, have never wanted them and can see only one advantage having kids: to prevent future boredom and loneliness. Hmm. My partner, on the other hand, does want kids, is great with kids and will generally probably be miserable if he can't have them. This, clearly, is a conundrum and one that, as I tiptoe up towards 30, has a time limit. The assumption I have made is that if one of us doesn't change our mind in the next five years or so we'll presumably break up. Yeah, it's not really much of a plan.

Anyway, I didn't start this blog to talk about my personal life but to point out this rather interesting article in The New Yorker looking at ethical issues around having kids.

There's plenty of interest in here, not least of which is this bit:
"Finally, lots of people offer the notion that parenthood will make them happy. Here the evidence is, sadly, against them. Research shows that people who have children are no more satisfied with their lives than people who don’t. If anything, the balance tips the other way: parents are less happy. In an instantly famous study, published in Science in 2004, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asked nine hundred working women to assess their experiences during the preceding day. The women rated the time they’d spent taking care of their kids as less enjoyable than the time spent shopping, eating, exercising, watching TV, preparing food, and talking on the phone. One of the few activities these women found less enjoyable than caring for their children was doing housework, which is to say cleaning up after them."

But the part I found most interesting was the part that - to my surprise - more or less summed up my main inner argument against having kids, the reason I keep coming back to regardless of how many times I try and tell myself "maybe I'll feel differently when...". To say, this (and apologies for the length of the quote):
"David Benatar, a professor at the University of Cape Town, also turns to philosophy to determine the ideal family size. He gives away his answer in the title of his book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence... Benatar’s case rests on a critical but, in his view, unappreciated asymmetry. Consider two couples, the A’s and the B’s. The A’s are young, healthy, and rich. If they had children, they could give them the best of everything—schools, clothes, electronic gaming devices. Even so, we would not say that the A’s have a moral obligation to reproduce. The B’s are just as young and rich. But both have a genetic disease, and, were they to have a child together, that child would suffer terribly. We would say, using Benatar’s logic, that the B’s have an ethical obligation not to procreate.

"The case of the A’s and the B’s shows that we regard pleasure and pain differently. Pleasure missed out on by the nonexistent doesn’t count as a harm. Yet suffering avoided counts as a good, even when the recipient is a nonexistent one. And what holds for the A’s and the B’s is basically true for everyone. Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone—that is, had the life never been created—no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it.

“One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad—a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick—is worse than no life at all,” Benatar writes.

"He acknowledges that many readers will have difficulty accepting such a “deeply unsettling claim.” They will say that they consider their own existence to be a blessing, and that the same goes for their children’s. But they’re only kidding themselves. And no wonder. Everyone alive today is descended from a long line of people who did reproduce themselves. Evolution thus favors a kind of genetically encoded Pollyannaism. “Those with reproduction-enhancing beliefs are more likely to breed and pass on whatever attributes incline one to such beliefs,” Benatar notes."

It goes on and on and the whole thing is well worth a read if you have any interest in the subject. Of course the New Yorker article is fairly long and involved. If you're feeling a bit lazy and/or short of time you could do worse than consult Philip Larkin on the subject:

This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

I mean I think he had a point too.

1 comment:

JB said...

I bet you knew I'd comment on this :) since we've had a bar conversation or two on the topic.
I might register an observation or two. I have an aunt who never had kids, now she's obsessed with her dogs, so much so that she will interrupt a great story someone is telling, just to say look, my dog wants a pat.
Think about the adults you know who haven't had kids, and enumerate the things that are socially awkward with them. Not to suggest you will be socially awkward when you're 50 Kate. But I see lots of evidence of that in my life.
Another way of looking at it is, if you, as a highly intelligent morally centered woman and your partner too, if you don't have kids, it means society's kid balance will be skewed toward bogan children of bogan parents who got knocked up as a teenager and drink beer for breakfast. And then everyone will suffer.