The moral and ethical problems of childbirth.

I am not saying that anyone who gives birth to a child is immoral or unethical, but I am saying that there is a profound tension between moral goals, or ethical goals, and having children.

First, the moral aspect. It is a sad fact of life that many babies are born dead, deformed, mentally impaired, and so on. It is a fact that most children are abused by their parents or siblings (be it psychologically, verbally, physically or sexually) and that such abuse can inflict profound trauma. It is also a fact that many people lead unhappy lives and end up killing themselves. It is also a fact that many people lead happy and fulfilling lives, and although we obviously hope that all people do, we know it’s simply not possible.

Accepting all these facts, how can we then justify the grave moral implications of having a child? How can we justify bringing into this world a new human life which may end up to be a source of great suffering?

It seems to me that by having children, people are saying “this world is good enough for my children.” But by saying that, they are making a decision for that other human being, not for themselves. And herein lies the linchpin of my moral argument: in making children, we are no longer only assuming risks for ourselves, we are in fact delegating it to other human beings. If someone replies by saying “of course there’s a risk of any human life coming out bad, but risks are a part of life,” I would reply “yes, and you are allowed to take as much risk as you want, but you are not allowed to arbitrarily and dictatorially decide how much risks others should assume.”

The breeder might also sidestep the issue completely by claiming that he bears no personal responsibility for his child’s possible deformities, mental problems, sufferings, or future desire towards suicide. But this seems like a rather dubious argument, if only because the birth of the child is, with absolute certainty, a distal cause of all those things. If the child had not been born, he would not have suffered. In the same way, the lack of ability of most parents to raise children adequately is a distal cause of many different traumas and ailments in adults.

To clarify, here is an example. Suppose an adult is hit by a car and dies in horrible suffering (something that happens regularly, no doubt). Are the parents’ methods responsible for his suffering? No, that can’t be (unless, I suppose, they taught him never to look both ways before crossing the street). So in this particular case I would not put a direct blame on the parents. But I would blame them distally for giving birth to a human life which could end in horrible suffering.

I consider this to be a grave moral problem. Whether any given individual does end up well or not, we need to justify our risk-taking made on the back of that individual.

On to the ethical problem. Assume (as Anarchists do) that the burden of proof for the validity of a hierarchical structure is on the believer in that structure. Given this, how can we validate parenting as a hierarchical structure?

The standard example trotted out by pro-breeding Anarchists at this juncture is that of a baby crawling onto a street with heavy traffic. On this, we all agree: it is entirely justifiable for the parent to take his baby off the street so the baby doesn’t get killed. No disagreement on that point (although my objection here would be that it is not at all necessary for the saviour to be a parent, making the example completely irrelevant to parenting as an exclusive claim on the child).

However, this example completely sidesteps the problem by taking a specific behaviour as a standard of the whole system. It is not “whether it is justifiable for a parent to get his baby out of the way of a crowded street” that is in question, but “is parenting justified as a hierarchy.”

So the question arises, how is a hierarchy justified? As Anarchists, we reject utilitarian arguments for hierarchies. The justification for pulling the child off the street is as such: it is necessary because the child would die if we didn’t do it. But saving lives is not a sufficient justification. Police departments save lives but also ruin and destroy many others. Fire departments save lives, but their basis for existence (taxation) is coercive and undesirable.

I think it is fair to declare the following two principles to be sufficient and necessary for the justification of a hierarchy:

1. It is necessary for human survival/development or social survival/development.
2. There is no alternative possible.

So that if having a fire department was found to be the only possible solution to life-threatening fires, we would find it justifiable (while not necessarily desirable) to maintain them, despite the coercion involved.

The position that, in today’s society, parenting is necessary for human survival and development is uncontroversial. But is there any alternative possible?

Forms of communal child-raising have been tried by small groups, but their success is iffy at best, mainly because the aberrations people received in their own childhood are stimulated easily when they become parents themselves. They have been indoctrinated to believe that children must be totally controlled, and surrendering the child-raising function to a community means that they can’t have or ensure total control over the children, indeed leaving the children “too much freedom” by having them be watched by others who have less desire to control these children which are, of course, not theirs. So it seems that, at least for now, we are at an impasse.

Thus there can be legitimate reasons to consider parenting to be a legitimate form of hierarchy. But its acceptance is, at the very least, problematic, and validating widespread oppression of children in the name of a social aberration represents something that Anarchists should try to shy away from, I think.

The standard objection always remains “we just need better parenting methods.” Anarchists seem to have a double-standard, insofar as they wouldn’t even give this objection a hearing if it was about any other hierarchy, but they give it a lot of credit when it’s about parenting, probably because they believe parenting is necessary (in the same way that statists want to “reform” government because they believe government is morally necessary).

Personally, I don’t think we can afford to give legitimacy to a system that gives rise to so much abuse and coercion, and that itself makes it harder to bring about a society where the individual can desire to actually be free (and join our movement, even) without bumping into his own aberration and neuroses. Even if most Anarchists believe that parenting is necessary, they should at least not be supporting it. It may be tactically inconvenient, but insofar as any Anarchist movement goes, we obviously have to look at the long run more than anything else. And in the long run, fighting against the multiple facets of child abuse will get us much farther than fighting for it, no matter how popular it is.

5 thoughts on “The moral and ethical problems of childbirth.

  1. David Gendron September 30, 2009 at 14:33

    Great post Franc!

    “I am not saying that anyone who gives birth to a child is immoral or unethical”

    But I think this is the case for Anarchists who give birth to a child!

  2. alleee October 1, 2009 at 14:12

    The moment a kid is born, it’s fucked, in that he’s born into a prison not of his own choice.

    Makes that billboard “I’m a child, not a choice” look even worse,

  3. filrabat February 19, 2011 at 13:15

    Hey Francois,

    Great post! Check out antinatalism.net if your looking for a friendly board to discuss your on. Also, the website linked onto my name goes very much in-depth about this. It’s long and detailed, but not overloaded with philosophical jargon.

    • Francois Tremblay February 19, 2011 at 16:26

      You are that guy. I’ve known of your existence for a while, although I didn’t know you had a blog. Excellent! Although I didn’t find any forum there. You definitely should start a forum.

  4. […] You can read more about it in my entry Why parenting is invalid and in the second half of my entry The moral and ethical problems of childbirth. This argument, at best, will only appeal to the values of an extremely small minority, so I admit […]

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