Christine Overall in the New York Times

Nice to see another feminist philosopher writing for The Stone.

As a young woman in my 20s I pondered whether or not to have children. Is there a way, I wondered, to decide thoughtfully rather than carelessly about this most momentous of human choices?

It’s a tough decision because you can’t know ahead of time what sort of child you will have or what it will be like to be a parent. You can’t understand what is good or what is hard about the process of creating and rearing until after you have the child. And the choice to have a child is a decision to change your life forever. It’s irreversible, and therefore, compared to reversible life choices about education, work, geographical location or romance, it has much greater ethical importance.

6 thoughts on “Christine Overall in the New York Times

  1. I especially appreciated her observation that those of us without children are regularly (and somewhat insensitively) asked “Why not?” as though these are always chosen states, or as though, even if chosen, it requires justifying to others. Sadly, though, I gently add to Christine’s column that women in poverty, especially in the United States, have indeed been demanded to justify having children. Whether or not you’re asked to think about the choice of having kids may reflect varieties of privilege.

  2. An anecdotal note. I elected not to have children (in the 80s) in part because I was in a marriage where, at the time, I agreed with my partner that children would not add net worth to our lives, and that birth control was not just the province of my spouse, but also my responsibility as well. So I had an irreversible vasectomy. My reasons were sound as I assessed them then. Now, divorced for many years, I wonder how much my decision was a function of co-dependent disorders (trust me, lots of evidence there on both our parts in the relationship). In many ways the decision liberated me, allowing me to look forward to a career where I have had lots of “kids”–my students–and where I look toward a retirement without the commitments children and grandchildren would have imposed. But in other ways I wonder how a pathological relationship–not a healthy one in many respects–closed off possibilities that I (and my ex-) might have enjoyed otherwise. Of course I have no reliable data to use here to judge my life. My regrets are only very arguably counterfactually deep (yeah, my non-existent daughter might have been a Nobel-winner, and my likewise son might have eclipsed Jeffery Dahmer in horror). But as a philosopher I guess I still wonder if I conducted my reproductive decisions on the best reasons.

  3. I got lots of social pressure NOT to have kids. Most of my colleagues are unmarried, and even more are childless. At the reception to celebrate one of my colleagues’ forthcoming marriage he announced that he’d celebrated by having a vasectomy. When I was pregnant with my 3rd kid I got the hate stare.

    I do believe that having children is selfish. But, dammit, I want something for me–I’m just not going to sacrifice that much for the sake of the world. I’m an only child and so is my husband. I want relatives! I wanted more than anything to have a minivan and be a suburban mom! I got that, and enjoyed it to the hilt!

    I am serious: I believe that having children is selfish. But I’m selfish: I just don’t care that much about being a good person. So there.

  4. Harriet, I’m wondering if this is still the case now? At least in Europe, the impression I get is that current female academics are expected to (1) have a scientific output at least that of male colleagues, (2) yet, do more teaching and have better teaching evals than men (3) have at least one, and preferably two children (but not more than 3) by one’s mid-30s, (4) despite having young children, hang out with colleagues, visiting academics, in restaurants and pubs to do “networking”. This is a tall order.

  5. Maybe it was the culture of my particular department–but it wasn’t tied to any idea that having kids would impede professional development, whether teaching or research. Academic standards are not particularly high at my place. The idea was just that having kids was inherently selfish and bad for the environment, and not the sort of thing that was done by the best people–by our kind of people. One of my colleagues is into Deep Ecology and, I suspect, would like to see the human species die out altogether.

    I have no serious philosophical thoughts about this. Off the top of my head, I don’t see that the end of the human species as either a good or a bad thing, because I find it hard to believe that animal species, or the environment, or anything other than the psychological states of sentient beings, are of intrinsic value. But I do think we’d be better off with a smaller human population, and that my having kids–indeed 3 of them–was self-indulgent. However, I have no interest in being a particularly good person or doing the right thing all the time. A C+ morality rating is good enough for me.

  6. The decision to have children has a lot of geographical, ecological etc. ramifications. In some philosophical circles, being childless (especially if you’re male) is indeed regarded as the morally superior option, and I see people with children trying to defend themselves (“we recycle”, “we use cloth diapers” etc). It depends in what department you are (e.g., whether there are bioethicists; they tend to be anti-natalists).
    It’s clearly bad for our planet’s ecology if everyone chose to have 3 or more children. But it’s not clear to me if it’s morally bad if you do it as an individual. I’m reminded of a graduate student who is one of the youngest from a very large (+10 children) family. When asked what s/he thought about his/her parent’s decision to have so many kids, s/he said “Well, obviously I’m happy they thought it worthwhile to keep on going after number x (where x is already a large number).” Of course, if his/her parents had decided to stop at x, there would be no person to deplore his/her nonexistence. But, once in existence, most people seem happy to exist. There’s a non-comparable benefit. Also, as a person you can benefit other people, by being a good partner, friend, colleague. So if your try to raise your children as people who can be that to other people, I don’t see bringing children into existence as necessarily morally problematic.

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