by Zoë Pollock
Elizabeth Kolbert reviews a series of books on the question:
Consider the claim that having a child benefits the child. This might seem self-evident. After all, a child deprived, through some Knowltonian means, of coming into existence, loses everything. She can never experience any of the pleasures life has to offer—eating ice cream, say, or riding a bike, or, for the more forward-thinking parents among us, having sex. [Christine Overall, author of “Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate”] rejects this argument on two grounds. First of all, nonexistent people have no moral standing. (There are an infinite number of nonexistent people out there, and you don’t notice them complaining, do you?) Second, once you accept that you should have a baby in order to increase the world’s total happiness, how do you know when to stop?
Let’s say one kid eating ice cream represents x amount of added pleasure. In that case, two kids eating ice cream represents 2x, four kids 4x, and so on. The family with eight kids could perhaps afford to buy ice cream only half as often as the one with four. Still, provided the parents were able to throw in a bag of M&M’s, they (or, at least, the world) would fare better, total-happiness-wise, with the larger brood.
[I]f you’ve conceded that the future has a moral claim on us, then you’ve implicitly conceded that there’s a moral case for someone, somewhere having children — and indeed quite a lot of someones, since the prospect of a world with fewer and fewer children is easily as dystopic as any Paul Ehrlich fever dream. And once you’ve conceded that much, it’s not a particularly long leap to suggesting that our hypothetical A’s — “young, healthy, and rich,” with a lot to offer to their hypothetical offspring — are pretty good candidates to accept the obligation.