11/16/2012 01:08 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Is Having Children Ethical?

In her New York Times piece "Think Before You Breed," philosophy professor Christine Overall argues that we need to think more about the ethical implications of having children. Thanks to the availability and efficacy of birth control, having children is no longer a biological inevitability, but a deliberate choice. And choices, especially those that involve human life, need ethical justification.

In other words, "oops!" doesn't get you off the hook. Nor, it seems, does the common-sense argument that we shouldn't over-think our decision to have kids, because having children is just one of those morally complex, often painful, yet nevertheless celebrated expressions of our humanity that probably can't be explained in rational terms.

Overall disputes the logic of many ordinary arguments for having children. Procreation, in addition to not being a natural necessity, can't be justified as a divine commandment; it's not "clear that God places such a high value on [preserving our] genetic heritage." Nor is it a moral obligation. Children don't deserve to be conceived because non-existent people have no rights.

Most important, however, is Overall's assertion that having children cannot be justified in terms of happiness. "The sheer unpredictability of children, the limits on our capacities as parents, and the instability of social conditions make it unwise to take for granted that our progeny will have good lives."

This last argument is a philosophical firecracker. By definition, ethical decisions aren't supposed to result in harm. But when you bring a child into the world, you are consciously exposing another person to the inevitable suffering that comes with being human. You cannot, therefore, talk about the ethics of having children without confronting the question of whether it's right to expose a child to such pain. A strict rationalist might conclude that it's better not to breed at all. Overall suggests as much, stating that the "individual who chooses childlessness takes the ethically less risky path."

However, Overall, an enthusiastic parent herself, doesn't dwell on this disturbing conclusion. Rather, the takeaway message of her article seems to be merely that we must make the most of what is, ethically speaking, a complicated business with few absolute answers.

It's not surprising, therefore, that she ends on a positive note. "In choosing to become a parent, one seeks to create a relationship, and, uniquely, one also seeks to create the person with whom one has the relationship." This means that parents' central ethical concern should be forming "a supportive, life-enhancing and close relationship with each of their offspring."

To Overall's credit, this is a reasonable strategy for raising not-that-screwed-up kids. But it's hardly profound. Trying to have a better relationship with your kid is hard work, but it doesn't necessarily require wrestling with the dark ethical dilemmas that Overall points to. What's more, if being an engaged parent is the primary goal, it's hard to see what advantage the rigorous intellectual analysis Overall champions would have over the supposedly irrational arguments she earlier chastises.

Are parents who have large families because they believe it is a divine commandment or because they take pride in their family heritage any less capable of creating "life-enhancing relationships" with their children than, say, educated professionals who wait until there are financially stable before having their requisite population-growth-neutral two offspring?

In fact, the former group of parents may have the advantage -- they're less likely to be paralyzed with guilt for having knowingly condemned their children to a lifetime of suffering.

It's too bad Overall's article sputters out like it does. Still, it does teach us something. The holes in her argument suggest that having children is just one of those morally complex, often painful, yet nevertheless celebrated, expression of our humanity that probably can't -- and shouldn't -- be explained in rational terms.