How Many Children?

28 April 2016


The world already has too many people.  7.3 billion.  It’ll probably hit over 11 billion by the end of the century.  Too many people, too few resources, too much damage to the environment.  Disaster, Disaster, Disaster.

But that doesn’t answer the question.  Do people have the right to have children or not?  General theories of right and morality are above my pay-grade.  But I’m certain that some people don’t have the right to have children.

In particular, I don’t think teenage boys have the right to make women pregnant.  We don’t let kids drive until they are 16, vote until they are 18, or drink until they are 21.  Children should not be allowed to create a situation where a girl or young woman has a nine-month pregnancy, which leads to a human being that may be around for 90 or 100 years.   It’s a lot to expect a hormone driven teenage boy with a not fully developed brain to make such a consequential decision.  Thoughtless act has huge direct consequences on two other human beings.  Ridiculous to call that a right.

To implement this policy we’d need to develop sure-fire reversible vasectomies.  Boys get one at puberty and can get it reversed at 21 or 25 --- or maybe 45 --- when they are old enough to make rational decisions.

As to girls, I don’t see that hormone crazy, boy crazy young girls have the right to foist an additional human being on the world, and existence on that human being, before they are old enough to take care of themselves. 

Well how about a married, adult, reasonably rational couple.  Do they have the right to have a child?  Two children?  As many as they want?  I think if the world reached population equilibrium, couples should have the right to biologically produce 2 children, and to adopt as many more as they can care for.

China was faced faced with a non-equilibrium situation: a population bulge that would enlarge the world’s largest population, in a country with limited resources.  So their one-child policy could be justified on utilitarian grounds.  But not the way they implemented it, which I gather included forced abortions and such. I don’t think utilitarianism is the right moral theory, although it may be part of it.  But I think utilitarian considerations are appropriate for social policies that effect the future of the whole world.

But, as I said, I try to be moral, but thinking about morality is above my philosophical level of competence.  But does that mean I shouldn’t do it?

Comments (11)

Grogerso's picture


Thursday, April 28, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The answer is clearly "no,

The answer is clearly "no, people will not have a moral right to have children". Morals are relative, relative to society at a given time.  We can look at all the things that were once "moral" but are no longer, and see that the world is slowly drifting it's moral compass to the left. Why? Because as "social animals", buried deep in our psyches is the very real sense that as the world becomes smaller and smaller, and we become closer and closer, our very survival depends on mutual caring, cooperation and individual responsibility to the whole. 
It used to be that children and wives were considered property. It was almost unheard of to take children from their parents. Again we see a shift to the left. 
Does the 14 year old boy know that he is too young to be a proper father? Generally, I would say; yes, most 14 year old boys know this. So, already we have a start towards "no it isn't a moral right".
The right "to breed" is very, very sacred to the poor and the uneducated. It gives them "hope", hope that their genetic seed will prosper, that their children will defy the odds and be the savant that rises from the slums. Perhaps we can ?find something else to give these people hope?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, April 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I don't get it, John. Is the

I don't get it, John. Is the question about overpopulation, or promiscuity? Or maybe just your private fantasies about torturing teenage boys? Have you forgotten how horny you were at fifteen? I'd say strapping a man dying of thirst within inches of water would be less cruel! As for the other, the simple facts are that a combination of educating girls, socializing males to their rights, and a modicum of material security have proven themselves to be effective means of reducing the birthrate. Readily available birth-control methods help, but are not essential. Female freedom is. Where these measures are taken the problem becomes a low birthrate, and an economic system that can offer prosperity for all with a shrinking population, a serious problem we haven't even begun to address. The population explosion is the result of addressing infant and child mortality before the other issues. Otherwise, humans have an exquisite natural sense about how many children to have. And the crisis has arisen because of the contemptuous attitude of social planners.

MJA's picture


Friday, April 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM


More simply: The only thing mankind is seriously lacking is self-control. We disguise this inadequacy by managing or controlling everything else on this planet, from water to forests, and even the wildlife which once managed is no longer wild anymore. We label plants evasive and to be eradicated while the eradicators continue to spread. We control the rivers with dams, our national forests with chainsaws and sadly kill the wildlife off for sport and for most nothing more. We shoot horses, don't we?
Wouldn't it be better to focus our management on ourselves first? And if ever our own self-control is achieved, with the effect of balancing ourselves with nature, then and only then would there be time left to manage other things? 
You talk John about the management of our procreation, but what about the management of our own self-destruction. How many people do people kill everyday? And another question: How many people can the Earth sustain? None, a million, a billion?
We need to start at square One, and One is you and me.
Thanks John for this thoughtful place,


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, April 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

There has been much

There has been much discussion lately about rights of many stripes. Some more; some less significant. Part of the discussion falls upon the responsibilities which often accompany the rights we so jealously covet.I think we can agree that having children is a right. But, may we also agree that responsible parenthood is an important part of the overall equation? Now, compulsory sterilization has been abused in the past and eugenics is now commonly regarded as an abomination. How to find a rational and humane solution to the problem of rampant reproduction is an issue difficult to grapple with. And I do not know of any acceptable solution, although it seems clear that one must be found. I have a son and daughter-in-law who have two young children (sons under the age of four (4)). A couple of months ago, she informed him that she is again pregnant. The pregnancy was ill-advised, considering all other aspects of their lives. I am pretty sure that her views concerning religious tenets and perhaps the idea of birth control/family planning itself had a lot to do with her becoming pregnant again. So, the question may well come down to whether or not we have the right to try to save people from themselves. Or, taken a step beyond, do we have the responsibility, or moreover, the obligation to do so? We may find that for the survival of humanity and its little blue planet, eugenics may not be so abominable after all. We have to decide, regardless of how unpleasant the decision may be.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, April 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

An effort was made some years

An effort was made some years ago to convince young people to take a vow of abstinence until marriage. Result: a higher teen pregnancy rate among the oath-takers than in the rest of the community. Freedom, under certain conditions, just isn't freedom. The conditions we need to get the trend in the right direction is not on the individuals, its on a social order that denies them the conditions by which they have a good reason to do what is reasonable. Reasonable, that is, for them, not for us. Reasonable people should be very cautious when they catch themselves reasoning away, or setting conditions upon, other people's freedoms.

sageorge's picture


Sunday, May 1, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

May I intrude on this

May I intrude on this discussion with an extraneous issue?  Right now I don't know where else to go.  I wanted to gain access to Philosophy Talk podcasts, and several weeks ago I did what the website said to do, e.g. unphilosophical things such as sending money, but I still can't access podcasts.  I sent messages to the "Ask a question or report a problem" link on April 12 and again on April 19, and then to the link to what the website refers to as "Laura McGuire" - below I'll explain the quotes around the name  - on April 27, all to no avail.  
My hypothesis: Philosophy Talk is actually an artificial intelligence computer program at Stanford, running on its own with no human involvement other than a first-year compsci student who checks once in a while for any burnt out massively integrated circuit chips.  Entities that participants have until now thought of as human beings such as "Laura McGuire" and "Ken Taylor" are actually pieces of computer code in subroutines within philtalk.exe.  
This situation came about when the AI people at Stanford realized that philosophy is the perfect area of human activity for a computer simulation of human thinking and thus to be able to pass the so-called Turing Test. AI is reportedly plagued by inadequate knowledge bases, i.e. the web of ordinary knowledge human beings have that allows them to process language in areas involving factual information.  These AI whizzes found out - not from taking a philosophy course or reading Plato, but in a random conversation with a philosophy undergrad while waiting in line for coffee at the Stanford Starbucks - that philosophy doesn't depend on complex facts and doesn't claim to provide final, definitive answers to the questions it raises. (Its practitioners even make a virtue of necessity and tout this as a positive feature of the discipline!)  Therefore it's the ideal field to be simulated by computer.
Philtalk.exe produces intelligible text in response to ethereal questions such as "Why is there anything at all rather than nothing," but is totally unable to deal with mundane but factual issues such as "Why is there anything at all preventing Steve George from accessing Philosophy Talk podcasts?"
Here's the question again outside of quotes so the program hopefully will recognize it as coming from a human being rather than as just a text string: What is preventing me from accessing podcasts?
Maybe this will put philtalk.exe into an infinite loop or make it crash, so the compsci student running the show will see the question and provide the easy answer.
- Steve George

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, May 1, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Or, maybe it's just finals.

Or, maybe it's just finals.

Lysander Paine's picture

Lysander Paine

Tuesday, May 10, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I think it might be prudent

I think it might be prudent to recall that not all vices are crimes. Yes, some people make poor decisions and have children when they aren't in a financially stable position, but through communities and families, often these children still live full lives.  I feel like an acceptance of the morality of authoritarian policies has been completely taken for granted here.  Gary M Washburn is completely right about there being an issue with low birthrates in our cradle-to-grave social net society, as a larger retired population requires a larger workforce to provide the expected benefits.  Most of the western world has a birthrate of 1-2 children per woman during her child-bearing years.  This suggests economic development (mainly urbanization coupled with lower child mortality rates) leads naturally to a lower birthrate.  People less often have 8 children in an attempt to supplement labour on their family farm and hedge against the death of one or more of their offspring.  Honestly, I find this discussion frightening, and a little bit repulsive.

apek's picture


Wednesday, May 25, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

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Zzalkind's picture


Thursday, January 17, 2019 -- 10:37 PM

This has been up for my

This has been up for my partner night big time. We have two children and are extremely hesitant about a third. We fall under the category of people conscerned about the environment and other people in our actions. The problem is that us radical leftist are not having children. We are the only couple in our peer group who have had children. Many of them, our peers, say they don’t want to bring children into this world. I grew up in central Arizona surrounded by born-again Christians. I am also Jewish and my aunt who is ultra orthodox has 10 children because “God says that you should multiply like the stars in the sky. “. Where does it land us if the only people who are raising children are not concerned about environmental and social consequences of their actions. Wouldn’t it be better to populate the coming world with responsible conscientious people? So there are a lot of people out there having a lot of children and teaching them that the end times are coming and the environmental consequences of their actions don’t matter. Or simply having a lot of children right because why not, or out of your responsibility, we’re out of ignorance. Wouldn’t it be better if those of us who are concerned about the environment and conscientious our planet bring as many children into the world as possible?

Per Fagereng's picture

Per Fagereng

Thursday, January 17, 2019 -- 10:40 PM

Since rich people use up more

Since rich people use up more resources than poor people, maybe we should prevent or discourage the rich from procreating.