Everyday Economics

Who Shall Inherit the Earth?

Our obligation to the unborn.

Surely you’ve known couples like this: They have two children, and are undecided about having a third. They lean one way and then the other; they weigh the pros and cons; and finally, they decide to go ahead. Then 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. Generally speaking, if you know you’re going to treasure something, you don’t hesitate to buy it. By contrast, the CDs you waver over, though sometimes surprisingly good, are often unsurprisingly forgettable–and on average unlikely to be cherished. Why, then, are children so different?

One of my colleagues maintains that there’s no real inconsistency here. He says it’s wrong to think of a baby as the equivalent of a microwave oven; instead, you should think of it as the equivalent of an addictive drug. People hesitate about whether to try heroin, but once they try it, they become addicted and can’t give it up. Likewise with babies.

But that, I think, is a very bad analogy, because heroin addicts tend to be people who believed at the outset that they could escape addiction. Perhaps that’s because they’re foolish, or perhaps it’s because they’re high-stakes gamblers, but that is what they were thinking. (Why else would we hear so many addicts recounting their experiences with the phrase “if only I had known …”?) That’s not true of parents. Parents know in advance, and with near certainty, that they will be addicted to their children. They choose their addiction with eyes wide open, just like a customer choosing a microwave oven.

M oreover–and here is the key difference between parents and heroin addicts–parents know in advance, with near certainty, that they won’t want to break their addiction. 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?

But as the parent of an only child, I can verify that people do behave that way. I know that my unconceived children would be my most valuable “possessions” if I brought them to fruition, yet I’ve chosen to leave them unconceived.

Iam inclined to conclude that nobody–including me–has a coherent way of thinking about how to make decisions that appropriately reflect emotional and moral attachments to people who are not yet born. The resulting confusion makes it almost impossible to resolve important questions of public policy.

For example, the following question seems to me to be of both supreme importance and supreme difficulty: 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 obliged 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.

(In an earlier Slate column, “Be Fruitful and Multiply,” I argued that we should reproduce more quickly because it would improve living standards for existing people. Here I am raising the entirely separate question of whether we should reproduce more quickly in order to give life to potential people.)

But if the answer is “no”–if we have no obligations to those imprisoned souls–then it seems there can be no moral objection to our trashing Earth, to the point where there will be no future generations. (That’s not to say that we’d necessarily want to trash Earth; we might have selfish reasons for preserving it. I mean to say only that if we ever did want to trash Earth, it would be morally permissible.) If we prevent future generations from being conceived in the first place, and if the unconceived don’t count as moral entities, then our crimes have no victims, so they’re not true crimes.

So if the unconceived have rights, we should massively subsidize population growth; and if they don’t have rights, we should feel free to destroy Earth. Either conclusion is disturbing, but what’s most disturbing of all is that if we reject one, it seems we are forced to accept the other. Perhaps there’s a third way, and that’s just to admit that we’re incapable of being logically rigorous about issues involving the unconceived.

Ted Baxter, the anchorman on The Mary Tyler MooreShow, planned to have six children in the hopes that one of them would grow up to be a creative genius who could solve the population problem. Right now, I’d settle for a creative genius who could teach us how to think about the population problem. I hope the next generation is large enough to include that person.