Sunday, April 8, 2012

An obligation to have children?

A recent book by a philosopher, David Benatar, says that we do not believe that people have an obligation to have children.  (I haven't read the book--this is from a review in the New Yorker).  Ross Douthat wonders who this "we" is--he says that the idea that people have an obligation to have children "has been a commonplace and intuitive part of folk morality in most cultures in human history," although it has become "unfashionable ... in certain circles in the West."  I think he's right about most cultures, but was struck by the "certain circles."  That suggests that he think it remains "part of folk morality" among ordinary people in the West. 

There are not many questions on this subject--the most relevant one is from a 1991 Associated Press survey.  The question is "I'm going to read you some words or phrases people have used to describe couples married for several years who have no children.  And I'm going to ask you how well each one describes childless couples."  One of the words is "selfish."  Overall 19% said it described childless couples well and 75% did not.  Less educated and older people were more likely to agree, but even among people over 50 who did not graduate from high school, only 32% did.  Neither party preference, living in an urban area, or region of the country made much (if any) difference.  So "certain circles" appear to extend pretty widely.  At least they did in 1991--it would be interesting to see if the issue has become more politicized since then.

PS:  Slightly over half of people who were separated agreed, far more than any other marital status (the next highest was married, at 21%).  Only about 50 people in the sample were separated, but the differences were still statistically significant.  Maybe a lot of separations are because of disagreement over whether to have children? 

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