Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ethics in Tangents: Part 2 - Ethicality and False sense of Obligation of Producing Children

What follows is modified and significantly expanded from one of my (long) tweets, but it contains doubts/conjectures that I have had for a long time, and which I have articulated at various places in different words.

How ethical is the decision to have a child? If it sounds weird, by it, I mean, do prospective parents really have a right to bring children to life, without seeking (the prospective children's) permission? Perhaps the elaboration sounds even weirder, but given that a hitherto unborn person cannot 'regret' not being born, but an alive person - depending on how life treats him/her - could end up very unhappy and in pain, it seems that every time parents decide to have a child, they are risking pain and unhappiness to the child despite having the option of not taking such risk. What to me makes this very tricky is that the impact of a decision taken by two (or more, in case of Indian families) people affects a totally different person!

To give an analogy:

If you are given a choice to press or not press a button, which would totally randomly give either a chocolate or a pin prick to someone else who is sound asleep (and is thus, neither experiencing pain nor pleasure), what would you do?

For me, the ethical choice would be to not press the button. It might be argued that "but then there is also a chance that the person would get the chocolate"! But remember, putting up that argument still entails taking a decision on someone else's behalf whose disposition we just do not know! How do we know such a person would prefer chocolate to avoidance of a pin prick? However, if I do not press the button, the person remains asleep, and would never regret not being able to get the chocolate he/she could have got on the pressing of button. The counterargument could be that, that by not pressing the button we are depriving the person of a chance to get a chocolate, which would also be a decision in itself. True, it would be, but usually any sort of inaction is unethical when an action is called for. E.g., if a person walking by your side suddenly feels giddy and extends his/her hand towards you (indicating a demand for assistance), then taking an action (helping) would seem more ethical than inaction (not helping). But imagine, that person is not feeling giddy. In that case, action is not called for, and your not helping (obviously) would not be unethical. I hope, I could explain how this example would apply to depriving a person of a chocolate that he is not needing/desiring by virtue of being asleep. [Of course, it needs to be assumed that he/she will remain sound asleep forever, and not complain after 'waking up'!] One of the important things I wanted to highlight alongside the original question was:

Most decisions in life have certain risk involved of their turning out wrong, but usually they directly impact the one taking that decision, and not someone else.

I would also like to point out here that dying is not the same as not taking birth. By way of living a life, we become afraid of death and also get, what I call, 'addicted' to life. E.g., to have never had a cell phone is not the same as being robbed off of one's cell phone. So, keeping this in mind, is it possible to imagine what it would be like to never have been born? If I ask you: "Would you have liked it better to never have been born?", In all honesty, I cannot answer that question. And if one is able to visualize the situation, and especially respond to it in negative, then, they are severely deluding themselves by (unknowingly) invoking the concept of 'soul'. But one thing I am certain of is: without taking birth I would have definitely never regretted not taking birth, because 'regret' is a feeling that is felt by a conscious mind, which in turn is a function of the brain and that certainly requires one to be alive in the conventional sense of the term! Now, try to answer another similar question: would you regret dying after you die? Again, if one is able to answer such a question, and especially so in affirmative, then their mind is leading them astray. But despite admitting that both the situations cannot be visualized, I do feel a tinge of fear at the prospects of not being born and of dying. This, we can call the 'fear of not existing', which I shall shorten to FNE in what follows (perhaps it contributes to our survival instinct as individuals). But again remember, to experience this fear one needs to be alive! Unborn and dead people are not going to feel it! Perhaps, the logic I am trying to illustrate is getting too circular. And perhaps, it is for the same reason we feel grateful to our parents for bringing us to life (and of course, for extending nurture despite the effort and pain it entails), because whenever we think of our parents' decision, our analysis is tinged with FNE. People feel suicidal if the pain or the effort they experience in process of living overwhelms their FNE.

That was all simply about ethicality (or lack thereof) of decision to have a child. Now, if you could understand my questions and arguments above, think of them at a larger scale - would it have been 'bad' had the human species never come into existence? Would it be 'bad' if the human species gets extinct? Respectively, "to who it would have been bad?" and "to who it would be bad?" Can the same be said about the existence of the Earth and the Universe? So, is the fact that the Universe exists something special when our FNE is factored in? Just like how we feel grateful to our parents for giving us birth because our thoughts are tinged with FNE, we feel a sense of gratefulness for the existence of our Universe (which had enabled 'our' existence in the first place). But who do we feel that gratefulness towards? God, of course! But it is important to note here that, not everyone believes that God exists. Also, it is to be noted that it is humanization of the Universe we indulge in each time we think that whatever exists needs to be created from something, and that thus it needs a creator. Of course, this assumption is unfounded!

But getting to the other arm of the analogy, death, we feel FNE with regard to the humanity as well as towards the Earth. As an example, try to examine your feelings if I say, "the Earth would be hit by a large asteroid 150 years from now, and all life would be destroyed by it". I guess, most people would feel a sense of dread. Now, make a simple calculation. Assuming, each of your successive progeny become parents at the age of 35; it means, it would be your fourth & fifth generations that would face the wrath of the asteroid. And honestly, who cares about one's great grandparents, for instance? Meaning, how many of us feel emotionally attached to our great grandparents and great great grandparents (that is four and five generation 'before' us for you). But yet, we feel a sense of dread in response to such prophecies, where those getting affected would be four or five generations removed from us. There are two possible reasons for that: one, that we cannot visualize not existing, and we always subconsciously assess things as if they would affect us (thus insinuating a soul-like eternal existence in the process); and two, that perhaps we feel for humanity and Earth, what we feel for our 'self'. Meaning, I am humanity, and I am Earth (okay, that sounds funny, but I cannot explain it better). And it is for this reason that we invest so much in future to try to save our planet from destruction, when perhaps the fact is that such 'destruction' would not affect us, nor some of the generations that immediately follow us.

In my analysis, I have obviously not considered the fact that it is not possible to consult unborn children, nor the fact that if everyone would start thinking like me, the human species could get extinct! As you might appreciate, those two concerns do not figure in the equation of ethics here. So if you are confused whether to marry or not, and then, whether to have a child or not, I hope I have been able to assure that if by your not producing children, you fear that you might be contributing to the extinction of the human species, then your fear is unfounded! ;)

I believe with this post I have crudely dealt with:

1. The ethicality of decision to have a child.
2. Why we think there needs to be a creator for the Universe to exist.
3. Why we fear for damage to and/or extinction of the human species and the Earth.

Disclaimer: I am unmarried [and if the one reading this is a woman of my age who would be ready to marry me and put up with rants as above, then she can consider this as an advertisement! ;) ], and this doubt (doubt about ethicality of having a child) does not have much to do with my own life, but I cannot get the doubt out of my mind. Of course, what I eventually conclude would influence my wanting to have a child or not, but of course that would have to be in consultation with my then spouse.


  1. So the conclusion i get is, "Don't press the button!" Adopt!

  2. first i don't think your post is weird. since i think thought along those lines, also on the number of children etc.

    but first there is no guarantee that just because we want a child we will get one, and i include the option of artificial insemination .

    and not all get addicted to life, since we have suicides.

    and the options are not pleasant unpleasant like chocolate and pin prick. its a combination of both.
    and then there is a comparision. a pin prick might be awful for some, but for others that would be mild compared to an axe affect:D

    and you r focussing on only the physical aspect instead of the spiritual hmmm soul aspect.

    unless i bring in the spiritual factor i can't argue with u more on this.

    ps : when my first born was diagnosed with TGA I had to decide if I should opt for surgery or let the child live with the condition for a few years with whatever the consequences.

  3. Incorrectly narrow analogy.
    Your button press doesn't give a random chocolate or pin-prick. Actually the button press gives you two boxes. One with a pin, one with a chocolate, marked with correct labels. Each of your subsequent actions unwraps one gift or the other, little by little. Its your parenting skills that (to an extent) decide what the kid gets.

    I'll give an analogy to your question. I want to take my girlfriend on a drive. Should I start the car or not? Oh no, if I start the car, we might fall off the cliff! Of course, we could also reach a resort!

    But is it as random as that? Its me who is going to drive us and take us to the right place. So its about "Do I want to?" and "Do I reasonably believe I can?"

    Yes possibility of accidents, break-down and even break-up is possible on the way. But that doesn't mean simply don't go.

    One doesn't stop making/buying computers just because viruses could attack them. So many good things could happen before the virus hits. You could successfully write so many blog posts before that. And of course you try your best to protect with a good anti-virus and it usually works.

    Idea is simple. If you want kid, and you think you can do a good job of parenting, go for it. Then you are fairly sure to end up giving a chocolate rather than pin-prick. If either of two things is missing, don't.

    And again statistically, most deaths are not by suicide. So people do like their life to one extent or another. So it seems chances are more of giving chocolate. But yes flavour of chocolate may differ, like the Forrest Gump's mama's proverbial box of chocolates.

    And of course you may not be able to open the box of pin/chocolate completely. You can show the person what opens what. And of course there will be chocolates/pins coming to that person from other persons. You could to an extent teach to recognize which box holds what and how to avoid pin box, seek chocolate box.

    But bottomlime. If you think you want and can, go for it and try to follow through too.


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