In Defence of Motherhood

Jean Kazez has an interesting article at Talking Philosophy, Are Kids Green?, where she discusses the ethical dilemma of having children (for an atheist). As Kazez makes clear, and this is an argument that the Chinese government has made, children are not environmentally friendly, so how do you ethically justify having children. The article is brutally honest, and Kazez rightly argues for the common sense position.

But that’s not how I read it. I think in discussions of morality there’s usually an unstated assumption that moral imperatives take priority. Either you do what you should, morally, or you hang your head in shame…you lose your right to self-respect. In the lingo of metaethics, this is the view that moral considerations are overriding.

But I think not. Morality is a very important part of what we aim for, but not all of what we aim for, and not first priority all of the time, over absolutely anything else. What can compete with morality? A variety of things, but one is the sense of having one life to live. I will do what’s critically important to me before I die, and I won’t hang my head for that.

On another meta-point, I agree with Kazez allowing common sense to take precedence here. If your philosophy is contradicting reality then this is interesting, but you must give the benefit of the doubt reality and assume the philosophy has gone wrong somewhere (at least until the reason for the paradox has become clear). I think there is a paradox here as ethics is a guide to actions and why shouldn’t ethics guide the decisions over how many children to have. The environmental logic is difficult to escape yet it is plainly barmy to conclude that it is ethically dubious for a couple to have a child. Kazez is clearly interested in grown-up real-world honest philosophy, which can’t but command respect.

The Dalai Lama also said in his recent Nottingham teachings that the growth in population needs to be addressed so it would be interesting to see what Buddhism has to say on this issue.

[I would like to make it clear that nothing depresses me more than arguments of the kind that ‘my own Buddhist/Christian/atheist framework is right and yours is wrong’. Such arguments go nowhere—none of these traditions are going away or are going to be diminished by such ‘debates’ so if we want to make the world into a better place it would be better to help each other make sense of it without the aggressive evangelizing. The following is offered in this constructive spirit.]

My understanding of Buddhism (which is limited—caveat emptor) offers a unified ethics for life, so the principles that determine how you deal with a mugger are the same as those that you use for determining whether to have a child or not: an attitude of compassion with the understanding of the interdependent nature of reality (see previous article). So any decision to have children would only be rational for a Buddhist if it were motivated by compassion.

From a Buddhist point of view the atheist narrative looks disconnected, and here I am thinking of the discontinuity of life or consciousness springing out of nowhere (though an atheist would naturally disagree). However, looking at it from a Buddhist perspective, consciousness is conserved just as mass-energy is and life doesn’t spring up from nowhere but represents a continuation. If we set aside the usual killer logical arguments (namely that it is all wishful thinking, and that we can’t all have been Cleopatra in a previous life), and consider it from abstract logical point of view, the removal of the discontinuity does iron out some awkwardness that often seen around discontinuities. I want to write properly about this (hint: it will go up my priorities if I get email or comments requesting it) but if you read through the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on Death you will note a number of philosophical problems that come with death in the materialist’s ontology, which naturally go away when you no longer have to try to explain existential death (and birth). To be sure some people have suggested that there are problems with personal identity and postmortem existence (see for example, George Graham, Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction) but I (at least) think they are more apparent than real. I draw the reader’s attention to this because it is overwhelming assumed that science, philsophy and the evidence support a materialist ontology. Actually I think just the reverse is the case.

My point is that there is an argument to be had here (which I fully intend to have, but not here) and it is by no means clear that the Buddhist ideas surrounding the continuity of consciousness are ridiculous. Nevertheless it is controversial so if you are predisposed to a materialist ontology I only ask that we agree to set aside the issues of evidence and logic for another day and consider the consequences of adopting a Buddhist hypothesis to see where it gets us with the ethics of choosing to have children.

If we accept the continuity of consciousness hypothesis then when one animal dies it makes sense that they should, after a transition period, take rebirth as another animal. Note in Buddhism there is no assumption that we will take rebirth as another human being and this is consistent with the observed facts (how else can the increase in human population be accounted for) and the scientific view that people are language-using mammals. Once you think about the consequences of this it should be fairly obvious why the huge sacrifices that a mother makes to nurture a child is one of the most beautiful and compassionate acts that we all regularly see and experience. Through this enormous sacrifice that our mothers have made (and especially a mother in the industrial world, for reasons I will come to) we have been given the opportunity to avoid the life of an earth worm or battery chicken and live a very high grade existence indeed, where we can study philosophy and religion and make use of our human intelligence to make the world a better place.

Should we really be that grateful. Look around you at the kind of existence that the average sentient being has in the environment and the numbers argument is quite compelling. Even most humans live in quite dependent subsistence situations, perpetually having to put food in their mouths to stave off death. Looking more widely, including all those insects and earth worms and so forth, it is possible to generate quite an appreciation for your position and consequent gratitude towards your dear mother (and father, and anyone else who has made sacrifices to nurture you). Those that are doing this in the industrially rich nations are providing a particularly rich and useful development opportunities for their children, which in a Buddhist context means the opportunity to develop philosophical and spiritual attributes, to refine your understanding of reality and carry out compassionate action to relieve the suffering of others.

It is not the case according to the Buddhist teachings that on our death we enter a random lottery, the state of mind on death and the way the mind has been conditioned throughout life being big factors in determining what happens next. This perhaps reinforces an intuition that humans, mammals, insects and so forth are not all equally likely to become reborn as a human being, and the Buddhist teachings suggest that this is indeed not the case. It is said that that it is incredibly difficult for a house fly to take rebirth as a human being, but much easier for a human to take rebirth as another human (but it can’t be taken for granted, of course). It is said that if you have spent your time living like an animal it may create the causes for taking rebirth as one.

In the Buddhist view, taking the opportunity to make progress in philosophy and engage in compassionate action creates imprints on the mental continuum that carry over into future lives and this is why the gift of a precious human rebirth (with the freedoms and advantages to pursue higher studies in religion and philosophy) is especially precious as it facilitates the kind of development that is truly long-term.

Yet we can’t ignore the environmental impacts of having children. If we irreversibly trash the environment then it won’t be available to future generations, so it is important to ensure that we don’t exceed the carrying capacity or endanger mother earth.

Whatever you may say about these bronze-age myths and the intellectually-retarded existential-cowards that cling to them, there might be a rationale of sorts somewhere in it that can be made to hang together. Possibly.


5 responses to “In Defence of Motherhood

  1. Perhaps you can clarify something I’m just waywardly curious about: you imply that the increase of the human population is fed by the raw stuff of other (lesser) living things, and that being reborn Human allows for greater -potential- to develop spiritual and philosophical attributes, but is it assumed–especially given problems with overpopulation–that being reborn Human is actually a step up? Couldn’t it be that, say, a friendly woodland creature might backtrack if reborn a human (into extreme poverty, war) – or is it all measured by Potential-with-a-capital-p?

  2. It is certainly possible but most humans have a considerably better deal than most animals. Pets provide some of the best counter-examples, but even an animal with a comfortable life has no prospect for really taking control of their situation and are going to be buffeted by circumstances.

    This is true of most humans too of course, but to have any shot gaining mastery over your destiny you really do have to be a human. Only they have the opportunity to master philosophy/religion. That is according to the Buddhist teachings.

  3. Chris,
    I’m glad you came down on the side of motherhood, but I don’t understand why this should be a tough decision. I really don’t get the anti-humanism of the extreme environmental movement. It’s important to take care of the environment, but most importantly so that it can take care of us. Our first moral commitment must be to ourselves. Any morality that subordinates human life to some abstraction called “the environment” is not morality at all. Worshipping the environment as a god is the worst kind of idolatry.

  4. Aha, what a fascinating comment and I can’t disagree with a single sentiment the logic is faultless. I do understand in psychological terms why people get so upset about the assault on the environment, which is not to say that I agree at all with their thought processes once they have worked themselves into angry states thinking about it. I have been meaning to (and working up to) engaging with you on your environment stance but I think you have said a great deal in your short comment.

  5. Thanks Chris. To expand on my view, I’m certainly concerned about the possible untoward effects of the buildup of CO2, but the sense of certainty with which the alarmists have invested this idea of global warming has put the public in a very irrational state within which to make decisions which may be premature and all too costly.

    You really must read The Black Swan. The climate data is mixed at best, and the climate system is certainly way more complex and subject to unseen, random affects than the world financial system which Nassim Taleb (once a bond trader) uses to demonstrate how devastatingly clueless even the best minds have been in trying to predict the markets.

    Taleb also shows how bad we are at assessing relative risks. Thirty years ago environmentalists brought the nuclear power industry to a screeching halt here in the US over the fears of nuclear meltdowns and the effects of nuclear waste. But we’re now finding how much better nuclear is from an environmental standpoint than fossil fuels. The black swan events of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island made us invest far too much weight in the risks of nuclear, and far too little in the continued use of fossil fuels.

    But anyhow, I think the best way to get to a more balanced, sustainable future is by accelerating technology development, not by cutting back. People have good intentions, but they often follow the wrong notions when trying to realize those intentions. The organic food movement is one such example of those wrong notions. Organic cultivation is less intensive than non-organic, and therefore requires that more land be in cultivation to grow the same amount of food.

    I consider myself an environmentalist, but I remain skeptical of much of what the media or the experts push as green living strategies. Often there are subtle or not so subtle agendas being camouflaged under the greenery. Consider me a skeptical environmentalist.

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