Is it immoral to have children?

In “The Im­moral­ity of Hav­ing Chil­dren” (2013, pdf) Rachels pre­sents the “Famine Relief Ar­gu­ment against Hav­ing Chil­dren”:

Con­ceiv­ing and rais­ing a child costs hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars; that money would be far bet­ter spent on famine re­lief; there­fore, con­ceiv­ing and rais­ing chil­dren is im­moral.

They pre­sent this as a spe­cial case of Peter Singer’s ar­gu­ment from Famine, Affluence, and Mo­ral­ity (1972), which is why they haven’t called it some­thing more rea­son­able like the “Op­por­tu­nity Cost Ar­gu­ment”.

[Note: the use of “Famine Relief” here is in refer­ence to Peter Singer’s 1972 ex­am­ple, but famine re­lief is not where your money does the most good. Treat the ar­gu­ment as “that money would be far bet­ter spent on GiveWell’s top char­i­ties” or what­ever or­ga­ni­za­tion you think is most effec­tive.]

It’s true that hav­ing and rais­ing a child is very ex­pen­sive. They use an es­ti­mate of $227k for the di­rect ex­pen­di­ture through age 18 while not­ing that col­lege [1] and time costs could make this much higher. Let’s use a higher es­ti­mate of $500k to ac­count for these. Con­sid­ered over twenty years, that’s $25k/​year or $2k/​month. This puts it at the top of the range of ex­penses, next to hous­ing. It’s also true that this money can do a lot of good when spent on effec­tive char­i­ties. At GiveWell’s cur­rent best es­ti­mate of $2.3k this is enough money to save nearly one life per month. [2]

But per­haps we shouldn’t be think­ing of this money as an ex­pense at all, and in­stead more as an in­vest­ment? Could hav­ing kids be a con­tender for the most effec­tive char­ity? That is, could hav­ing and rais­ing kids be one of the most effec­tive things you could do with your time and money?

For ex­am­ple you could con­vince your kid to be un­usu­ally gen­er­ous, donat­ing far more than they cost to raise. Ex­cept that it’s much cheaper to con­vince other peo­ple’s kids to be gen­er­ous, and our in­fluence on the adult be­hav­ior of our chil­dren is not that big. Alter­na­tively, if you’re un­usu­ally smart, by hav­ing kids you could help make there be more smart peo­ple in the fu­ture. But how many more gen­er­a­tions will pass be­fore we learn enough about the ge­net­ics of in­tel­li­gence to make this as­pect of parental ge­net­ics ir­rele­vant? Rachels con­sid­ers the idea that your hav­ing chil­dren might greatly benefit the world, and rightly finds it in­suffi­cient. While your child may do a lot of good, for the ex­pense there are much bet­ter op­tions. Hav­ing kids is not a con­tender for the most effec­tive char­ity, or even very close.

Hav­ing kids is a spe­cial case of spend­ing your time and money in ways that make you happy. A moral sys­tem for hu­man be­ings needs to al­low some amount of this. It’s like work­ing for $56k at a job you en­joy in­stead of get­ting $72k at a job you like less. [3] Or spend­ing your free time read­ing in­stead of work­ing ex­tra hours build­ing up a con­sult­ing busi­ness. Keep­ing in mind both the cost and that on av­er­age peo­ple don’t seem to be hap­pier par­ent­ing, if hav­ing kids is what would make you most happy for the ex­pense in time and money then it seems jus­tified.

(This is how Ju­lia and I thought of it when de­cid­ing whether we should have kids.)

I also posted this on my blog.


[1] Col­lege is cur­rently in a huge state of flux. Ad­ver­tised costs are ris­ing far faster than in­fla­tion as col­leges re­al­ize they can get away with near perfect price dis­crim­i­na­tion in the form of “ei­ther pay the ex­tremely high sticker price or give us all your fi­nan­cial data so we can de­ter­mine ex­actly how much you can af­ford.” At the same time on­line courses and mixed mod­els are get­ting to where they can provide much of the value of tra­di­tional lec­ture courses, and in some ways do bet­ter. I have very lit­tle idea what to bud­get for col­lege for a kid born now; likely costs range from “free” to “all you have”.

[2] Rachels uses a much lower num­ber:

Givewell.org, which as­sesses char­i­ties, es­ti­mates that a life is saved for ev­ery $205 spent on ex­pand­ing im­mu­niza­tion cov­er­age for chil­dren in Africa Sub-Sa­haran—ap­par­ently one of the most cost-effec­tive pro­jects. See L. Bren­zel et al. 2006, p. 401

Their Bren­zel cita­tion is to the Vac­cine-Preventable Diseases sec­tion of the DCP2. The $205 num­ber is “Es­ti­mated cost per death averted for the Tra­di­tional Im­mu­niza­tion Pro­gram in Sub-Sa­haran Africa and South Asia” in table 20.5.

[3] This is a $16k differ­ence, which comes from tak­ing $500k over 20 years and di­vid­ing by two for the two par­ents, and then adding some for taxes. Though the earn­ings differ­ence is likely to last more like 40 years.