Is It Moral to Have Children?


My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

The question is strange but not crazy: Should we have children? Are there cases when we shouldn’t?

Judaism and common sense agree that generally we should and sometimes we shouldn’t.

But there are bigger issues involved. In her book The Risk of a Lifetime: How, When, and Why Procreation May Be Permissible, philosopher Rivka Weinberg seems to over-think all of them.

The essence of her argument is that life can be pretty darned awful, and we should not impose that risk on an unsuspecting would-be child without sufficient moral justification. Two things can justify it:

  • Correct motivation: You should have “the desire to engage in the parent-child relationship as a parent.” She argues that you can’t do it to benefit the child because the child doesn’t yet exist, and you may not do it to benefit society because that treats the child as a means to something else.
  • Reasonable risk: Having children “is permissible when the risk you impose [on the child] would not be irrational for you to accept as a condition of your own birth.” This is a fancy re-statement of Rabbi Hillel’s advice: “If you wouldn’t want it done to you, then don’t do it to anybody else.” Philosopher John Rawls made a similar argument more generally in his classic book A Theory of Justice.

I don’t mean to make light of Weinberg’s arguments. They’re totally legitimate from a philosophical point of view. Anything we do should be justifiable in principle, even if we rarely get challenged to justify it. However, it would not occur to most people that activities in which we have engaged since the dawn of the species require justification, unless some obvious harm is involved.

The big-picture answer to Weinberg’s concern involves trees, forests, and what it means to believe in God, if you do.

Which is real, the trees or the forest? Most people today unconsciously think that only the trees are real. The forest is just something we made up.

Likewise, contemporary attitudes enshrine the individual person’s desires and welfare above all else, even above biological reality. As a result, the idea of having children to benefit nation, society, or family seems vaguely suspect, perhaps even fascist.

But in fact forests do exist, albeit not in the same way as individual trees. So do nations, societies, peoples, and families have an existence beyond that of their individual members. It’s just as reasonable to consider the welfare of society or the Jewish people as to consider the welfare of an individual not-yet-conceived child who might have a pleasant life or a difficult one. And valuing the welfare of the child as an individual is entirely consistent with also valuing the contributions he or she might make to society.

But what about God? Where does He come into the equation?

Well, if you’re an Orthodox believer, it’s pretty straightforward: “To sire children is to fulfill a mitzvah, the Biblical commandment ‘Be fertile and increase.’ … to avoid having children is to negate a Divine commandment.” (To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life)

If you’re not an Orthodox believer, it’s a little more complicated but not impossibly so. What does it mean to say that you believe in God, if God is a Being utterly transcendent and incomprehensible?

Believing in the existence of dogs or houses is easy: You can see them and understand them. If you say “I believe in the existence of houses,” it’s perfectly clear what you mean. But believing in God isn’t like that. You can’t see God and you can’t understand Him. If believing in God means anything, it means that you believe the universe is moral and that good is more powerful than evil.

A moral universe means that the chance of a child’s life being good or bad is not 50-50: It’s more likely to be good (in some way) than to be bad. Under normal circumstances, not having children more probably deprives them of goodness than subjects them to evil.

Of course, circumstances aren’t always normal: Even the Bible has God warning Jeremiah not to have children because of the dire fate they would suffer (Jeremiah 16:1-4). If you’re in a war zone or would pass on a hereditary disorder, you have to think seriously about the risks for your child.

But in circumstances that are more benign, having children is not only moral but is a blessing: to them, to you, to the Jewish people, and to the God who loves them.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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3 Responses to Is It Moral to Have Children?

  1. Seems like academics prioritize wordcount over anything else.

    1] If forcing something on someone is immoral, forcing life on someone is immoral.

    2] Your child will influence others, those people will influence others. And your children can have children of their own, which perpetuate this cycle. All this occurring, you decided to have occur. That is a gargantuan quantity of influence that a parent just decided they were qualified to cause.

    3] The majority of humanity’s problems are of our own creation. Adding more people to the problem is throwing gas on a fire.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Hi, Louis — Thanks for some genuinely interesting and thoughtful points, even though I disagree with them.

      First, it is not always immoral to force something on someone, but only when forcing something on an adult that he has a right to refuse. That condition does not apply here.

      Second, I agree about the influence. However, I am not sure that “decision” is the right way to describe a natural process that occurs unless we take affirmative steps to prevent it. The question of who is qualified to be a parent is a tough one, and since I don’t know of a better way to assess parental qualifications than what we already know (as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough”), I’d just leave things as they are.

      Third, many human problems are of our own creation, but so (with God’s guidance) are all of the solutions. Gas itself is neutral.


  2. 1] I promote indentured servitude, so I agree there. However, I do not agree that forcing life on a person is acceptable just because they can’t consent.

    2] I didn’t say a child raised to be a productive member of society is allowed to be born. Though there nevertheless needs to be a system to determine how to raise children – since it will take many, many generations before society realizes they aren’t allowed to play dice with lives.

    3] Come on buddy, I’m trying to talk to you here. If you want to launch into a religious debate, I’d just link you to my blog. I find it rude, but so do I find making my type out what already is.


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