Should we have children? Weighing in on the anti-natalism debate

Recently a lot of people, particularly in the vegan community, have been having an often heated discussion about whether one should have a child or not. Some even go as far as to say that having a children is ‘not vegan’, due to the impact it causes. As with a lot of such issues I weigh in on, I think both sides are missing some key points*.

Let me begin by acknowledging that this can be a very difficult topic to speak rationally about. If one is non-vegan, they can realise they were wrong and become vegan somewhat easily (relatively speaking). If one has kids, changing their mind and even just admitting to oneself that it was unethical to have a child would be world shattering. As soon as this internal conflict becomes a possibility, being completely open often goes out the window.

I also want to add that I am not talking about the personal pleasure of having a child. Many do seem to get a lot of intrinsic happiness from having a child, and I’m just not touching that. I’m talking about purely external impact on wellbeing. My goal here is not to attack either people who have had children or have decided not to, I just want to add some extra considerations.

Let’s first examine why one would make the case that ‘it is more ethical to not have a child’. I think it mostly comes down to the impact that having one additional human on the planet causes. Even if your child is vegan (which is not a guarantee even for two vegan parents), they will still have an impact on others. Just through their food consumption, they will contribute to 0.3 vertebrate animal deaths per year, they will contribute to climate change, and basically any issue relating to population growth. Granted, they will have a lower impact in all of these areas than an omnivore, but an impact they will have nonetheless.

This is the case that anti-natalists make, however I rarely see them acknowledge the pros to having a child. Either they don’t think there are any relative to not having a child, or they don’t think they are strong enough to consider. I hope I am not making too strong of a strawman here.

The external benefits of having a child

Let’s ignore opportunity cost (what else you could be doing with your time and money if you didn’t have a child) and just consider whether having a child is net good compared to doing no other ‘advocacy’ with your life (e.g. activism, donations etc). There is a lot to weigh up here.

There is a chance your child will be share your values (e.g. be vegan = lower impact on suffering over their life, but higher than if they hadn’t been born ; chance of converting additional vegans), and a chance they won’t be (e.g. not be vegan = higher impact on suffering). However, if you believe that you can do a lot of good over your life via other means, e.g. donating a percent of your income to effective charities, via your career and outreach, your child might have similar goals in life (via upbringing and shared genetics).

Let’s do a toy expected value estimate (not to be taken seriously, only illustratively). Suppose you estimate your impact in life to be the equivalent of creating 10 vegans (honestly a very low estimate if you take effectiveness seriously), but your impact of just existing to be equivalent to 0.5 non-vegans (that is to say, 2 vegans have the same impact on suffering, environmental damage etc. as 2 non-vegans – surely an exaggeration). Your life net effect is then to create 9.5 vegans.

Let us now suppose that your child could share your values (create 9.5 vegans), be the opposite (-1 vegans), or somewhere in between. Even if we assume that the child of a vegan is only 50% likely to stay so (which seems low to me, but happy to be proven wrong), the average effect of having a child is equivalent to creating 4.5 vegans in this massively oversimplified example.

Having kids as a personal choice

Sometimes, people say something like “Have kids if you want to have kids, and don’t if you don’t. You can’t tell people not to have kids, it’s a personal choice.” What is interesting to me is that a lot of vegans make this argument, but it sounds so similar to the argument many use to justify eating animals, e.g. “Eat meat if you want to, and don’t if you don’t. Respect my personal choice.”

Anti-natalists typically attack this view, and I agree that it is flawed, but I want to add a nuance here. Anti-natalists see having a child as bad (comparable to eating meat) while natalists see it as good (not comparable to eating meat). I think that people are generally talking past each other and not disagreeing where they think they are.

Opportunity cost

I think the strongest argument (but one I rarely see) for not having a child is actually just that having a child seems like a highly inefficient way of improving the world. Even given the argument that ‘your child will likely (not definitely) share your genes and behaviour and do good in the world’, the amount of time and money that it costs to have a kid could be spent elsewhere. We need to think about it in terms of opportunity cost.

Using Australia as an example, it costs an average of $406,000 (in 2012) to have and raise a child to adulthood, not including time. This money alone could convert dozens of additional vegans on the low end of the estimate, if that is the primary thing you are concerned about. Even if I thought having a child would be an enjoyable experience on the whole, this reason alone is enough to convince me to not to. Along the same vein, instead of having a child, you could mentor or influence multiple people.

Population ethics

Finally, I also rarely see any nod to population ethics in these discussions. I am going to attempt to summarise a complicated and much debated field in a few sentences. If this field intrigues you, please go actually read about it rather than let my text form your view.

People are concerned about overpopulation often because they believe that additional human lives would make the lives of humans already existing less positive. This is probably broadly correct. However, if extra child has a positive life (better off being alive than not being born, as I believe my life is), that has to be weighed against the negative impact of them being born on others. One can conceive of a scenario where having more children is better on balance for global wellbeing even if it makes life for others worse.

Of course, taking farmed *and* wild animal suffering into consideration, this gets far more complicated, but I just wanted to at least acknowledge this field which gets no mention in this debate.

In summary, I lean heavily to the side of the anti-natalism argument, but I admit that the steelman of both sides has good points.

* I should make it clear that by ‘both sides’ I’m referring to the two versions of the argument I’m presenting here. I don’t doubt that many also provide a more nuanced view.

2 thoughts on “Should we have children? Weighing in on the anti-natalism debate”

  1. I agree with the anti-natalist position. If everyone decided to not have a baby then human evolution would be terminated and the animals and Mother Earth would rule.

    Yeh!!!! Go animals!!! Human beings, boooo!!

    1. I’m talking about what marginal actors (which all humans are) should do if they want to maximise the amount of suffering they can reduce in the universe. I made this clear, and never claimed that all humans not having children would be an ideal outcome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: