People Wanted

In thusly named chapter of his book Fair Play economist and moralist Steven Landsburg has posed a number of intriguing problems. (Also see his Be Fruitful and Multiply and Who Shall Inherit the Earth?) I will attempt to solve each one in turn.

1. Landsburg asks

Do living people have any moral obligation to the trillions of potential people who will never have the opportunity to live unless we conceive them?

The answer is surely either yes or no, but either answer leads to troubling conclusions. If the answer is yes, then it seems to follow that we are morally obligated to have more children than we really want. The unconceived are like prisoners being held in a sort of limbo, unable to break through into the world of the living. If they have rights, then surely, we are required to help some of them escape. ...

But if the answer is... no, then it seems there can be no moral objection to our trashing the entire earth, to the point where there will be no future generations... If we prevent future generations from being conceived in the first place, and if the unconceived do not count as moral entities, then our crimes have no victims, so they're not true crimes.

These questions are religious in nature, hence we can reason as follows. If there is pre-existence of the soul (due allowance being made for the possibility that God is "outside" of time) and if the soul is immortal, then it is conceivable that those souls that are not Hell-bound may benefit from a stay in this world. But no religion that I know of has any rules which deal with disembodied souls that have not yet existed as human beings. Indeed, we have no knowledge of any celestial procedure by which souls are assigned to human bodies. Whatever the truth of this matter, it is highly doubtful that souls exist "in a sort of limbo, unable to break through into the world of the living." (Even if they are in limbo, who is to say that they are unhappy there?) It is true that there is a general commandment in the Bible to "be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." But it says nothing about precisely what level of human population is most pleasing to God.

If, however, souls do not exist prior to birth, then the unconceived do not exist and hence cannot be said to benefit from the gift of life. It can be argued that when a child is born (or a soul is created) its joy of being alive adds to the total, but it is not at all obvious that we ought to be concerned with the maximization of the amorphous "total happiness" in this peculiar fashion. Now I imagine that almost everyone has experienced the "horror of the void," a feeling of what it is like not to exist. Indeed, for human beings the idea of not existing is quite unpleasant. But that which does not exist is not aware of its terrible condition and the joys of being alive. Hence we do not seem to have a duty to bring things into being.

Furthermore, if the Biblical commandment is true, then we ought to keep having children. The earth is far from being subdued, and I agree that we could "use" a lot more people. If the commandment is false and God is indifferent to whether or not there are six billion people on earth or only two people, then it cannot be wrong to reduce the total population dramatically. If there is no God, then I see no moral reason not to trash the earth and thereby prevent future generations from being conceived.

2. Landsburg continues:

Surely you know couples like this: They have two children, and they're undecided about whether to have a third. They waver back and forth; they lean one way and then the other; they weigh the pros and they weigh the cons. Finally they decide to go ahead. And from the instant that third child is born, the parents love it so deeply that they'd gladly sacrifice all their assets to preserve its life.

Compare that with the way people shop for appliances or furniture or compact discs. Ordinarily, the products you hesitate over are not the ones you end up treasuring most deeply. There are exceptions of course -- sometimes that CD is surprisingly good once you get it home -- by the general rule is that if you weren't sure you wanted it, it's unlikely to be cherished. Why, then, are children so different? ...

If you've already got two kids and are wavering over a third, then you've already got a pretty good idea of what parenthood is like, and you already know that, unlike the addict who despises his addiction, you're going to treasure your attachment to your children. When you know you're going to love something that much after you've got it, how can you hesitate about getting it in the first place?

This inconsistency is due entirely to the difference between things that one creates and consumer items that one purchases. Imagine that you are building your business or writing a complicated computer program or engaging in any sort of creative activity. You may almost fall in love with your "baby." But before you start, you cannot value the object which you will be creating even if you have run other businesses and written other programs. This is because its value is inseparable from the exercise of your own creative faculties that imbue it with life.

Now consider how people adopt babies from foreign countries. They treat this task as a business endeavor: they pay quite a bit of money, inspect the "merchandise" for "defects," and so on. For these people the child is, at least temporarily, a consumer item to be bought and sold exactly like a CD. They know what they want, and they do not hesitate to get it.

Creation is difficult. And this is why people hesitate. Nine months of pregnancy, the weaning, the child's hunger for knowledge, the worrying -- it takes a toll. There are payoffs, but first one has to take the plunge.

This insight also gives us a clue as to the reason for the parent's "addiction" to his child. Not being a parent myself, I can only speculate that it is the trust that the child shows toward the parent in spite and because of the almost unlimited power which the latter has over the child. It is the fact that the child allows the parent to influence it. This is what I find so delightful whenever I play with children, e.g. those of my relatives. It is a great honor to be trusted by a kid who is not one's own. Kids seem to have a sixth sense by which they tell worthy people from those who are not worthy.

Now the more children one has, the less attention one can devote to each one and the less interaction with each child one will have, as Landsburg points out, hence the less pleasure one can derive from the child's trust and from the imprint which the parent will leave upon him. One's child is one's creation and one has to love it and work on it in order to derive the most utility from it. But love is scarce. So is time. I offer a conjecture that one of the reasons why Landgburg is reluctant to have more children may be that he is subconsciously concerned that his "addiction" to his daughter (or perhaps to his science of economics) will diminish.

3. The final paradox which we will consider is this:

Suppose you're planning to conceive a child in the near future, and you're thinking about going down to the bank to purchase some bonds as a gift to that child. There is no doubt that the trip to the bank will cause a slight shift in your schedule for the rest of the day, hence a slight shift in the moment of conception, and hence a complete change in the identity of your child (because the sperm that's out of the pack at 10:01 is unlikely to be in front of the pack at 10:02).

Now then: If you go to the bank, you will conceive child A, who is destined to be wealthy. If instead you spend all your money at the race track, you will instead conceive child B, who is destined to be poor. Moreover, you know in advance, based on the experience of virtually all parents, that no matter which child is born, that is the child you will prefer. If, twenty years after B is born, you were magically offered the opportunity to trade him for A, it's a sure bet that you wouldn't consider it. In fact, if an evil genie threatened to turn B into A, you'd pay him not to do it.

But by going to the bank instead of the racetrack, you are essentially paying for the privilege of siring the wealthy A instead of the impoverished B. This, despite the fact that you'd do practically anything to prevent B from turning into A after he's born. This seems very hard to reconcile with any economic theory of rational behavior, yet there it is.

I confess to being puzzled by the fact that Landsburg considers this to be a problem. Perhaps I do not understand the paradox. But it seems that at the moment of conception the parent faces the choice of

(an abstract child + wealth) versus (an abstract child + poverty).

Clearly, the first choice is preferable. Twenty years from now he will face a completely different choice:

(a concrete living and breathing son or daughter + poverty) versus (an abstract child + wealth).

This choice is by no means obvious. Moreover, at the moment of conception the parent is not in a position even to consider the second choice, because this living and breathing son or daughter does not yet exist.

I have no hesitation in recommending Landsburg's book to everyone. It is full of most interesting "moral niceties."

Update 2/19/2011. If we want to have children, then presumably we love them and will good to them; their happiness makes us happy. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves to care for them, not "trash the earth," etc.

July 24, 2002

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