“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best,” chants the chorus in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, “but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came.” They make a quick inventory of life’s miseries, including pain, envy, war, and old age. Which seems like rubbing it in, considering Oedipus is an ex-king who, in the trilogy’s earlier play, tore his own eyeballs out of their sockets.
In any case, the sentiment is hardly original. Consider another king, Midas, of golden-touch fame. He kidnaps Silenus, teacher and drinking companion of the god Dionysus, and demands that he reveal the most desirable thing in the world. Silenus resists answering for a while but finally blurts it out: "Never to have been born." It's not the voice of clinical depression speaking but a nugget of grim wisdom from antiquity. It's Western civilization's way of saying that your parents did you no great favor.
I don’t see much good in arguing the point, one way or the other. Cosmic pessimism is a sensibility, not a proposition. It's not even that dour, necessarily. Silenus doesn't kill himself; in the myths, he seems to be having a pretty good time. If anything, pessimists might find life easier to bear. They’re less likely to be disappointed.
In her new book Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate (MIT Press), Christine Overall, a professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Ontario, assesses the usual grounds for having kids or deciding against it. She scrutinizes them like an IRS accountant in the middle of a ruthless audit. Few claims survive her red pen. To summarize her findings with somewhat reckless brevity, Overall maintains that many of the motivations for having children are, for the most part, at least somewhat ethically dubious -- while the decision not to have them tends to be less problematic.
“Deciding whether to procreate is a moral decision,” she writes, “…because it affects so many people -- not only the prospective parent(s), but also the prospective child, other family members, and other members of the community. Although one is certainly entitled to take into account the effects of having a child on oneself, if one decides only on the basis of a gamble about one’s future well-being, then one is refusing to treat procreation as a fully moral matter.” Having a baby to boost self-esteem, or save a marriage (does that ever work?), or simply because it's expected of you, grossly underestimates the seriousness of becoming responsible for someone's existence.
Conversely, even if a person's reasons for opting out of reproduction are specious or self-interested, that doesn’t make the decision itself bad. It has little impact on anybody besides the decision-maker, apart from the occasional unhappy would-be grandparent, perhaps.
She is particularly critical of arguments that there is some obligation to have children -- duty to nation or community, for instance, or obedience to a divine command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Her guiding concern is the moral right to autonomous decision-making about whether or not to reproduce. Otherwise, we have “the compulsory and unwilled use of people’s bodies for procreative purposes, whether they are other individuals’ or the state’s purposes.”
Here the phrase “people’s bodies” is a little more gender-neutral than strictly necessary. If presidential candidates or members of Congress tried to outlaw vasectomies, or made sperm-bank donations obligatory -- well, that would be bad, but it’s not something men tend to worry over. Given the extremely asymmetrical distribution of the burdens involved in procreation, the real issue is whether women can decide not to have children. The precondition for making an ethical decision about having children is that it actually be a choice.
Perhaps I’ve made the author sound like an echo of the chorus in Sophocles. She isn’t -- very much the contrary. Overall has two children, and the final pages of her book are a testament to the distinct satisfactions of raising them and seeing them grow into adults. She recognizes that antinatalism (the philosophical brand-name for arguments that coming into the world is a horrid misfortune) tends to be explicitly misogynistic. “The idea that it is better in every case never to have been [born],” she writes, “implies that women’s reproductive labor in pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and even rearing children contributes to the accumulation of net harm on this planet.”
For that matter, “the theory can be interpreted to mean that both contraception and abortion should be mandatory” -- hardly an attitude consistent with autonomous decision-making.
But antinatalism isn’t a real force in the world -- while the expectation that if you can have kids, you should, remains fairly strong. Overall’s book is a welcome antidote.
“Children are not essential to all good lives,” she writes, “nor are having and rearing children prerequisites to becoming a good person. Moreover, there are many childless persons who support, love, care for, and teach other people’s children. Chosen childlessness has as much potential for the good life as chosen parenthood has.”
There is more to this passage in a similar vein. It appears on page 219. I mention it because some readers might want to photocopy it to post on the refrigerator door, when the family comes around.