Helpful Hints on the Morality of Parenthood

One Thomas Rodham Wells, who apparently fancies himself a philosopher, has posted an article entitled Is Parenthood Morally Respectable? over at 3quarksdaily.  It explains to the rest of us benighted souls why it’s immoral to have children, except in situations where the number is limited to one, and the prospective parents’ motives in having children are scrutinized for moral purity, presumably by a board of philosophers appointed by Wells.  Such tracts have been popping up in increasing numbers lately, mainly emanating from the left of the ideological spectrum.  I really don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see them.  They’re the ultimate expressions of what one might call a morality inversion – morality as a negation of the very basis of morality itself.  Moral objections to parenthood are hardly the only manifestations of such suicidal inversions observable in modern society.  For example, often the very same people who consider parenthood “evil” also consider unlimited illegal immigration “good.”  I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised.  Jury-rigging a large brain on a creature with a pre-existing set of behavioral traits, and then expecting the moral emotions to catch up with the change overnight would be a dubious proposition even in a static environment.  Plump that creature down in the environment of today, radically different as it is from the one in which its moral equipment evolved, and such “anomalies” are only to be expected.

On the other hand, Darwin happened.  He certainly had no trouble making the connection between his revolutionary theory and moral behavior.  It was immediately obvious to him that morality exists because it evolved.  The connection has been just as obvious to many others who have come and gone in the intervening century and a half.  In this post-Blank Slate era the fact should be as obvious as the nose on your face.  It should serve as a check on the intellectual hubris of our species that, in spite of that, so many of us still don’t get it.

I won’t go into too much detail about how Wells rationalized himself into a morality inversion.  It’s the usual stuff.  Parenthood is selfish because it imposes social costs on those who choose not to have children.  Parenthood is irresponsible because the carbon footprint of children will melt the planet.  Parenthood is unfair because the burden of other people’s children on the childless don’t outweigh their advantages.  And so on, and so on.  As usual, all this completely misses the point.  The “point” is that the ultimate reason that morality exists to begin with, and absent which it would not exist, is that it increased the probability that individuals of our species would survive and have children who would also survive.  In other words, using morality to encourage genetic suicide is manifestly absurd.  It is basically the same thing as using one’s evolved hand to shoot oneself, or using one’s evolved feet to jump off a cliff.  One can only conclude that, in the midst of all his complex moral reasoning, Wells never bothered to consider why, exactly, there is such a thing as morality.

Should one go to the trouble of pointing all this out to him?  Why on earth for!  The rest of us should be overjoyed that he and as many others like him as possible are delusional.  If anything, we should encourage them to remain delusional.  If they have no children, we won’t have to feed them, educate them, the planet may not melt after all, and, best of all, there will be more room for our children.  As for me pointing this out to my readers, I admit, it does seem somewhat counterintuitive.  On the other hand, so far there aren’t enough of you to seriously risk melting the planet, and if you’re smart enough to “get it” it’s probably worth my while to keep you around to provide a little quality genetic diversity in any case.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “Helpful Hints on the Morality of Parenthood”

  1. That’s not what I wrote. I actually gave a defense of the objective moral value of parenthood.

    Also, you seem to be confusing proximate and ultimate levels of explanation with regard to the evolution of morality.

    Also, with regard to the survival of the human species qua human genome, overconsumption via overpopulation seems a rather greater threat at present than underpopulation. (The threat is greater still to the flourishing of human civilisation, which I see more reason to care about then human genes.)

  2. I realize, as you can see from my second sentence, that you defended parenthood “under certain circumstances.” You might call it a case of “damning by faint praise,” and, as you can see, a number of the commenters to your original post saw it that way as well. In any case it really doesn’t matter as far as the point of my own post is concerned. The point is not that parenthood is objectively good or objectively evil, but that there is no such thing as objective moral value to begin with.

    As I also pointed out, when it comes to levels of explanation, I consider evolution by natural selection to be the ultimate reason for the existence of morality. What we refer to as morality is basically the response of creatures with unusually large brains to some subset of a suite of behavioral predispositions which are fundamentally emotional in nature. So much seems obvious to me, and it is becoming increasingly obvious with the expansion of our knowledge of the brain and human behavior.

    One can certainly make utilitarian arguments about what the degree to which the state should control reproduction. However, it follows from what I’ve said above that the actions of the state should be determined as rationally as possible, and with no more involvement of moral emotions than is unavoidable given the kind of creatures we are. I say that even though I realize that, as Hume pointed out, even the “reason” of the state must be a slave to the “sentiments” of some subset of its citizens.

    I understand that you personally assign a higher value to human flourishing than to the fate of your own genes. However, it follows from what I’ve written above that your opinion in the matter represents, at bottom, no more than a personal whim. My evaluation is different, and represents my own whim. There can be no objective standard for deciding which whim is “better.” I do not claim that my whim is “Good” and your whim is “Evil.” I simply point out that your whim appears to me to be based on a misunderstanding of the phenomenon of morality. In other words, the realization of your whims induces you to behave in a way that seems to me a negation of the ultimate reasons for the existence of morality. Again, I cannot say that your behavior is therefore “Good” or “Evil.” All I can say is that it is a type of behavior that doesn’t appeal to me personally.

    I realize in saying this that the chances that I will “convert” you are vanishingly small. That is all to the “Good” as far as I am concerned, for the reasons I pointed out in my post.

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