St. Augustine famously said that he understood what time was until someone asked him: “What is time?” Then he was baffled. The question “Why have children?”—the title of a new book by Queen’s University Philosopher Christine Overall—works similarly. Most of us presume we know why until asked, and then we may find ourselves at a loss for a good answer. Well, this is a culture that puts everything up for grabs, and what seems self-evident one day is called into question the next. That is not necessarily bad. It is the philosopher’s job, after all, to remind us, as Socrates would, that the unexamined life is not worth living.
It is to Christine Overall’s credit that, amidst a plethora of new books on childbearing and childrearing, she asks the fundamental question of why one would choose to have children in the first place. Her analysis operates within today’s reigning ethical framework of autonomy, individual rights, duties and obligations, benefits and harms. She applies that orientation to the current debates on why or why not to have children and how many to have. (Disclosure: My wife and I had five children...way too many by Overall’s standards!) Her positions fall squarely in the secular, liberal tradition—prochoice, pro-IVF (cautiously), feminist, and environmentally conscious—yet she retains an even-handed and commonsensical approach throughout, presenting complex arguments in clear and readable prose.
Why Have Children? makes quick work (rightly so in my mind) of utilitarian arguments for having children—from the more prosaic economic or psychological rationales, which promise benefits for parents, to the more exotic instances of “savior siblings,” where one child is conceived to save another. Overall forcefully points out the moral error of making childbearing a means to someone else’s ends. She also rejects the notion that an appeal to duty or obligation—whether to family, state, or religion—might serve as a reason for having kids. Most people today would be inclined to agree with her refutations of these so-called deontological arguments. Yet I found this section more problematic. To claim, for example, that rights are “grounded in general human interest” dangerously levels down the meaning of rights. To argue that childbearing is not intrinsically worthwhile because having more children does not make you better muddles the meaning of an intrinsically worthwhile act. And to claim that there can be no “gift of life,” since there is no child yet to identify with it, does not allow for the possibility of bringing new life into the world as an actual moral choice. Finally, Overall’s brief critiques of religious arguments, limited to variations of the divine command theory (reproduce!) or Pascal’s wager (why not?), come across as tendentious.
Above and beyond individual arguments, a reader must address the book’s underlying ethical framework. The author’s thesis, restated throughout the work, is that it is easier to justify the choice not to have children than to justify the choice to have them. That makes some sense if we think of the clueless ways couples sometimes procreate. But it leaves you wondering. Isn’t something amiss here? Overall’s framework works quite well as long as the issue is one of justice and rights—as with, for instance, the injustice of forcing women to become childbearing machines. But if we confront the more interpersonal issues of procreation, most of us, I dare say, don’t turn first to the language of rights. Reading, for instance, that “one must have a willing, informed, competent, and autonomous reproductive partner” makes having children sound like a joint investment in hedge funds.
By not beginning with couples’ moral experience, Overall’s argument puts the cart before the horse. The choice a couple makes to start and raise a family, like the one to share a life together, is, at its best, a mutual one whose moral character is grounded in mutual love. Many considerations go into that decision, and that is why good practical wisdom is needed (a virtue barely mentioned in this book). Amid these considerations, notions of autonomy, rights and duties, benefits and harms hardly find themselves front and center. To Overall, the choice to have children is rational; but her conception of reason is an attenuated one. Not until the last chapter does she consider relationship reasons for having children, and even here her approach centers on the autonomous decision to establish a relationship with a child. She seems to forget that the heart too has its reasons.
To argue that love seeks progeny is difficult for a culture that has so fully separated the act of lovemaking from its natural expression in a child. A couple’s love does not always lead to children, but the fact that “love is a babe,” as Shakespeare puts it, makes for a good place to start. In this context, Overall ridicules the notion of unconditional love for one’s children; but she confuses what is an admittedly demanding standard with the fact that we cannot always live up to it. She thinks it is an illusion because parents sometimes have to correct their children.
One of the most moving passages in the book is the story of the author’s uncle Jack, born with serious cognitive impairments, but lovingly cared for by her family. His life is a cautionary tale against those who argue for the perfect baby and points to the preciousness of each new life. An ethic that started with such care—an example of unconditional love if ever there was one—would open up the whole meaning of having children in a richer and more expansive way. But that would be a very different book from the one Overall chose to write. If you are looking for a very clear and competent philosophical account of the contemporary debates about childbearing, this book can be of assistance. If you are looking for insight into the age-old mystery of the procreative act, however, you need to look elsewhere—back in time, perhaps.
Augustine’s puzzlement about time sparked some of his more creative thoughts on human beings and the mystery of birth. A great thinker in our era, Hannah Arendt—who was Jewish, secular, and childless—picked up and developed two of Augustine’s themes. Unlike death, which ends a person’s world, having children is an act of amor mundi, one that expresses trust in and love for a world that will outlive us. It is a humble act, a hedge against our endemic narcissism. Such an act, at its best, recognizes our finitude; it allows us to create and then to let go. For Augustine and for Arendt, each new birth brings a unique human being into the world and starts a story never told before. In doing so, birth represents the miracle of something new. Initium ut esset, creatus est homo: “So that there might be a beginning, humans are created.”