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Why Have Kids? The Ethical Debate


Charles Knowlton, a doctor who lived in western Massachusetts during the early 19th Century, was a free thinker whose big ideas about sex landed him in jail multiple times.

Elizabeth Kolbert mentions Knowlton in a piece she wrote for The New Yorker titled “The Case Against Kids: Is Procreation Immoral?” The piece challenges us to ask ourselves why we choose to have kids, and if we want to have kids, how many should we have?

So where does Knowlton come in? It’s largely thanks to him that we can even have this conversation. As Kolbert tells us, Knowlton’s shocking theories about sex landed him in trouble. Knowlton was concerned about 19th century birth rates and a projected population explosion. This, of course, was way before the pill, and well before broad public acceptance of what we now know as “birth control.”

But Knowlton was ahead of his time.

He wrote a controversial pamphlet suggesting that our “reproductive instinct” doesn’t have to result in reproduction. Here’s how he put it:

Heaven has not only given us the capacity of greater enjoyment, but the talent of devising means to prevent the evils that arise therefrom.

In other words, we can enjoy sex, and choose not to make babies. Or have sex and choose to make babies when we want.

As Kolbert tells us, Knowlton was charged with publishing obscene literature, fined $50 and sentenced to three months of hard labor.

Dr. Knowlton’s little pamphlet — and his big ideas about sex and procreation — did nothing less than change the course of history. His ideas lead directly to the ethical debate over whether or not to have children.


  • Christine Overall, author of “Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate,” chair of the department of philosophy at Queen’s University
  • Bryan Caplan, economist, author of “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think”

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  • Anonymous

    THANK YOU Christine Overall! 

  • GeeDoubleYou

    Who can afford to have a big family, these days? Two working parents’ income is needed to survive; daycare and everything else cost a fortune. Most people are not affluent enough to have the luxury of choice when it comes to having more than one or two children, at most.

    • Yobo2

      A lot of people just go ahead and have ‘em anyway. I guess they think it’ll all work out somehow. Meaning that they just don’t think about it at all.

    • Sojourner213

      Having a big family now is a status symbol. I’ve observed that in my community where high income people have four, five, or six kids.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much, Christine Overall. I’ll go get this book as soon as I can. Fresh thinking on an issue where many of us who just don’t want kids keep getting pounded by society.

  • Anonymous

    Kaltighanna, such a good point! If you can’t think of a good reason to have kids DON’T! 

  • Roy Mac

    Wow!  What a pair of superficial people!

  • Anonymous

    Roy are you calling them superficial because they don’t want to raise kids and stress about providing for them? Who are you calling superficial?

  • Cat

    The assertion was made that parental affluence has little impact on a child’s educational and economic prospects. Really? This is debatable at best, I should think. And as economic inequality grows, putting decent education and network-building further out of reach for many, it seems even more dubious.  

  • http://bemusedinthebluegrass.blogspot.com/ Kelly

    I’m curious what research Bryan Caplan found that proves quality of education has little or no impact on children’s future.  That seems in direct conflict with every piece of research I’ve ever read, not to mention what I’ve observed as a teacher in several different school districts over the years.  

    • Datch

       What makes you think that Bryan Caplan has read any research on child development or educaton at all?  After all, he claimed on the show that it’s stupid (or so his tone implied) to read to babies in utero “when they can’t even hear!”.  Um….perhaps it’s time to hit the books?

  • Guest

    Until we depopulate this planet by 4 BILLION people, we should restrict all births to ONE. Most of my friends decided not to have ANY children; therefore, their responsible nature will help population redistribution and place limitations.
    If not, then all die. That doesn’t effect me because by that time, I will be dead. Live and Learn or NOT. 

    • Anonymous

      While I agree that overburdening society with too many people should be avoided, I’d rather people come to that decision on their own. I do not want to live in a society that restricts births anymore than I want to live in a society that forces, incentivizes or brain washes people into having kids.

      • Anonymous

        I don’t like living in a society where people write “incentivizes.”

    • Guest

       Our species is approaching carrying capacity.

    • gcf

       Perhaps you ought to look at the nature of the country best known for its one-child policy before claiming that such a thing should be mandated.  If the U.S. were to invest in one area that would make a long-term difference I’d say it’s education (particularly sex education) over creating a system of reproductive enforcement.

  • Tcanni8215

    Raise your children to make a difference and maybe there won’t be environmental issues. Also, parents can and do have an impact on their children. It is just a matter of what they choose to teach them. It is up to the parents to help their children become resilient, socially just, and courageous. I have five children, by choice, with no regrets; also no nanny.

    • Guest

       I think you had too many kids. Besides that, I’d say you’re right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=536544829 Anonymous

    I am an aunt of twins, a former Big Sister of two, a music teacher to hundreds of middle and high school students (past and present) and a parent of none.  I am so glad that we’ve finally arrived at a time when people (particularly us high-consuming Westerners) are encouraged to “think it through”.  Having kids is not longer just “whatcha do.”  Those who feel strong calling to be parents should definitely go ahead and have a few, but only after giving it a lot of thought.  It is (or at least should be) the largest decision one makes in a lifetime.  We’d all be a lot better off if parenting became a rare calling as opposed to a default. Seems that it’s headed in that direction — for whatever reason (ecological, the Great Recession, etc.)

    • Guest

       I think people only need to understand and acknowledge their responsibilities and roles as stewards of the land we live on. It seems to me that because of the ecological problems we face more people might think twice about having children. I do not agree, however, that we would necessarily be better off if parenting became rare – mostly because I don’t think this would be as general a change as it would have to be to make a difference in the issues we are going to have to deal with, and we might end up heading for “Idiocracy” as the first poster mentioned. Time will tell.

  • Yobo2

    Anyone seen the movie “Idiocracy” — where the people who “think it through” are quickly outnumbered by those who just “do what comes naturally” (i.e. don’t have the brain capacity for “family planning”). Some hundreds of generations later, the human gene pool is so weighted towards NOT thinking it through, society can barely function. It’s a goofy movie, but a little scary too.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=536544829 Anonymous

      But that’s not borne out by the numbers, Yobo.  The % of women in their mid-40s (presumably the end of their reproductive years) who have not had children — either by chance or by choice — is far higher now than it was a few decades ago.  It’s approaching 20% of all women.  In the 70s and 80s, it wasn’t even 10%.

      However, that sure doesn’t make up for all of the religious fundamentalists I’ve seen in my own neighborhood(s) having 5, 10, and even more children.  

    • Datch

       Aren’t we already there?

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  • http://twitter.com/SusanNewmanPhD Susan Newman, Ph.D.

    Increasingly, more and more couples and single women are choosing a place between children and childless: The number of single child families is growing faster than any other family unit. Susan Newman, author of The Case for the Only Child and the “Singletons” blog on Psychology Today.

  • Dandavis00

    I love that folks are actually talking about this.  The bottom line for me is that no matter how well you bring up your kids, they will all be using far more resources than is sustainable.  The world needs fewer people by about half.  In the grand scheme of things, fewer people is far more pro-family than those with massive families.  Think of it this way – if I have more children now, there will be even less for those three generations hence.  I am not pro-child.  I am pro-great-great-great grandchild. I have no children by choice and encourage others to have one fewer than they had planned.  No government force, just social pressure – one fewer.  Just because we can breed ourselves to the edge of the petri dish (read:earth) doesn’t mean we should.

    Thanks for discussing such an important issue that seems to get lost in the sea of pieces concentrating on large families.

    • Bryan Fine

       “if I have more children now, there will be even less for those three generations hence.”

      Even less what? Just about everything that makes your life possible and enjoyable is created by other humans. Less future humans means less future things, not more.

  • Robin

    I really wish that public radio stations–and this one in particular– stopped putting people on the area who don’t know what they’re talking about.  How dare you put Bryan Kaplan on and let him say (in condescending tones) that there’s no point in reading to your unborn baby because “they can’t even hear!”.  Um, Mr. Kaplan….babies can hear in utero from 16-18 weeks onward. 

    Yeah, yeah, i know the point was that reading to your baby in utero won’t make him/her smarter.  First of all, how exactly do you know that that’s the rationale that all parents have for making this choice?  And more importantly, while reading to your baby in utero may not be associated with higher IQ or achievement, high emotional responsivity of parents in infancy IS associated with those things…and it is not far fetched to argue that those who clearly place such emphasis on emotional bonding with their unborn child (by reading to him/her) may be more likely to be emotionally responsive in the first years.

    Of course, A rarely leads directly to B.  But is that really the simplistic view, the all or nothing, classic authoritarian vs wildly permissive view, through which we really want to advise parents?  Not me.

    • Bryan Fine

       You could just speculate wildly while not taking the time to spell the professors name right, or you could read his book which is thoroughly researched and cites dozens of studies which support his conclusions.

      But why bother right? HE doesn’t know what he is talking about.

      • Datch

         I am indeed reading the book.  I apologize for using a K instead of a C….I admit, I am much more accustomed to Kaplan being spelled with a K, so I suppose it was just automatic. but I did make that mistake.  (though while we’re at it, “professors” should have had an apostrophe…just sayin’)

        That being said, I don’t have to read his book, or anyone else’s book, to know that children hear before birth…it’s widely known.  On the show, he (you??) said, plain and simple, that there’s no purpose to reading books to children in utero “when they can’t even hear”.  Book or no book, studies or no studies, that’s simply untrue.

  • Peter

    The world is already seriously overpopulated anymore than having one child at most is totally unethical.  Particularly an American child, which will consume so much of the world’s resources.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.allosso Dan Allosso

    For people interested in Knowlton, I’ve just completed a biography of him called An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy.  Info at http://www.freethoughthistory.com .  

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