The decision to have children is about whether you believe they will enrich your life, whether you would like to spend your time rearing children, and whether you believe your children will have good lives.
Nevertheless, there are occasional instrumentalist arguments about whether EAs should have children given our unique goals and ethical commitments. As Linch comments on this helpful post:
The strongest reason to have children is because you or your partner would personally be happier or more productive if you had children. The second strongest reason is if you think childrearing is actually the most cost-effective thing for you to do on the margin because of the effects of the children themselves, but at least for me, on the current margin, the burden of proof should be against.
I believe this sort of thinking, while reasonable and well-intentioned, is too short-sighted. Perhaps it is individually rational but irrational for EAs as a group and movement.
This has been addressed in other places before (Abby Hoskin’s comment, David Manheim’s comment). I also don’t necessarily think there are compelling EA motivations to have children if you have never been interested in having children, rather that if you are interested in having children the reasons not to do so are far less clear-cut than is commonly suggested. So with those caveats, here are some tentative but plausible additional reasons why it might be good to have children:
Object-level worries about depopulation
It seems possible that world population will decline in absolute terms in this century, possibly as early as 2070. If that happens, we may see the end of economic growth. This could cause us to be stuck in a time of perils, with virtually no means of escape. After all, with a small population (and good ideas being harder to find), it will be incredibly hard to push the technological frontier. Leopold Aschenbrenner writes about these possibilities in his GPI report, Existential Risk and Growth and they are discussed further in Will MacAskill’s forthcoming, What We Owe the Future.
Obviously the likelihood of this scenario depends on a number of factors and assumptions, including AI timelines. But if this scenario seems plausible to you, increasing fertility becomes an important moral priority and having children is likely to be a precondition for effective advocacy.
EA community health and growth
More specific to EA: As a number of people had pointed out in the past, if not having children became an implicit requirement to be a “good” member of the EA community, it would be detrimental to community growth-Many talented people would find the prospect of giving up having children unappealing, if not repellant. Not only that, it could significantly detract from the general soft power or cultural influence of EA if we became known as “the people who think they are too important/busy to have children.”
But the contrapositive is similarly powerful: If EAs were known for having high-functioning, responsible families, this may have the benefit of growing the community. It seems to be a key way that religions (Mormonism is an obvious example) attract members.
While shared environment effects are typically very small across the board, there are two areas where they are quite strong: Religion and politics.
Without indulging the, “Is EA a religion debate,” it seems likely that there would be a similar transfer of values given the role EA plays in the lives of people it inspires. In fact, it may have inter-generational advantages over traditional religions, as it has liberal social values that typically become cruxes between parents and children regarding religion. If EA is generally “ahead of the curve” on moral progress, it might be much easier to instill in one’s children than traditional religions.
This may be especially important if future people are able to do more good than we are right now. It seems plausible that people in the future will have a greater ability to do good than we do now: Perhaps we will discover a new important existential risk, or perhaps a new route to make a radically better world. In a broad longtermist framework such as this, high performing children instilled with good values will be incredibly important.
There’s also compelling expected value arguments to be made here: Even if there’s a small chance your child becomes a top EA, their career could justify a substantial loss of productivity in yours over 5-10 years. It would be interesting to do further estimates along these lines. (Some might argue here that you could spend the same amount of time doing EA community expansion, but it seems likely that children raised with EA values might play a different role in the community than even, say, high schoolers who you convinced to join EA).
Many highly productive people have had children, and often those children are highly productive
Elon Musk has seven children. Albert Einstein had three children. Richard Lovel Edwarth, the Anglo-Irish inventor, had 22. Charles Darwin had ten. Darwin (and also Edwarth) had great families, with many children that went on to do highly important things. From Astral Codex Ten:
Charles' son Sir George Darwin, an astronomer, became president of the Royal Astronomical Society and another Royal Society fellow. Charles' other son Leonard Darwin, became a major in the army, a Member of Parliament, President of the Royal Geography Society, and a mentor and patron to Ronald Fisher, another pioneer of modern statistics. Charles' grandson Charles Galton Darwin invented the Darwin-Fowler method in statistics, the Darwin Curve in diffraction physics, Darwin drift in fluid dynamics, and was the director of the UK's National Physical Laboratory (and vaguely involved in the Manhattan Project).
This is not to say that these people were good parents, that they didn’t have extensive help, or that they didn’t heavily rely on their spouses to do deeply unequal child rearing. But it should be surprising that if we were one of the only groups in history working so productively that we should eschew child rearing entirely.
Many highly productive EAs are having children
It should be further strong evidence that many of the most productive and successful EAs have children, often multiple. Some who have been named or identified themselves in these discussions before include Toby Ord, Julia Wise, and Peter Singer. Nick Beckstead, CEO of FTX Future Fund, has child, as well as leaders of four other top EA organizations. Hilary Greaves has six kids and runs Global Priorities Institute. David Manheim has four children and is head of biosecurity policy at Guarding Against Pandemics, among many other things. There are plenty of other examples which need not be named for obvious privacy reasons. But clearly one can be highly productive with children.
Moreover, on a social level, this clearly proves that you can “have kids as an EA” and also that many in the community will be extremely supportive of you if you do. EA organizations typically have good maternity policies, and these should be strengthened further to give women flexibility and support around child care to avoid penalizing their earnings.
Parenting efficiently and economies of scale
Different EAs (and indeed parents in general) have taken different strategies to maintaining productivity while raising kids. EAs seem generally receptive to resources like Emily Oster’s books, Brian Caplan’s book, or Scott Alexander’s Biodeterminist Guide (and its sequel), which all suggest to varying degrees that a significant amount of the toil of parenting can be forgone with near-zero cost. Also, there are anecdotal accounts of people becoming more productive after having children, as it can enforce a structure on your day: “I have to finish my work now rather than procrastinate it into the evening, as I have to cook for my kids and put them to bed later.”
Nevertheless, even if needless toil is avoided and some productivity gained, there are inevitably some tradeoffs between productivity, time, and money. Some EAs accept a temporary productivity loss to raise and spend time with their children. Some EAs have hired extensive childcare and household help.
But what could we do if there were more EA children? Probably some very exciting things! Maybe EA organizations in hubs could share daycares or child care services (“Baby Lightcone”?). EAs often have creative ideas around education, and it would be very exciting to see experiments in these areas. Could an EA prep school eventually be on the table? The point is that with more children (and due investment) the productivity hit to individuals may be reduced, and EA children might be better off too.
The big picture
(Lower epistemic status) There is something very profound, symbolically and intrinsically, in the way that having children connects you to the future. As Julia Wise wrote in a recent post
Once I had children, I had a gut-level feeling that it was extremely important that they have long and healthy lives.
Kids give us skin in the game. They give our actions weight. They suggest that you are someone who actually believe in the possibility of a better future, that you believe there is something deep and meaningful about life, that you aren't just obsessed with optimizing in a way disconnected from humanity. If it seems like something that would add meaning to your life and work, why not go for it?
I totally agree with your points on: movements that frown upon having children will repel top talent, and you can have kids and still be an über effective altruist.
I disagree with the idea that having kids makes people care more about the future. I deeply respect Julia Wise, and maybe this is true for her and other people, but I have found being a parent hasn't really lengthened my philanthropic time horizons. I would change my mind on this if anybody has studied changes in altruistic behaviors before/after people became parents, but after having a child I've actually found myself more open to hyper short-termist altruism that I never would have considered pre-having children. (E.g., adopting a child makes more sense to me now. )
I also disagree on the Bryan Caplan stuff on how you can be a good parent with less effort than current USA norms dictate. Like, if you have an infant that needs to eat every 2 hours, 24 hours a day, for 3 months, there's no way to slack on that. You can hire somebody to do it for you, you can live near helpful family, or you can be a deadbeat parent. But somebody has to do this intense amount of labor or the child will die. Things definitely get easier once kids get older, and you can just choose to let your kid read all day after school instead of driving them around to a million extracurricular activities, but Bryan's focus on this being the "norm" that you can easily ignore reveals more about the social class of people he feels peer pressure from than what children actually normally do. I still think it's great to have kids, even though it's a lot of work. I just don't like people acting like it's not a lot of work.
I think one of the main reasons EA people are underrating having kids is because they almost never interact with children? At least in graduate school, very few people have children. I'm the only student in my department with a child. I get the sense that many EAs live in similar age segregated environments. I would encourage more people to babysit their young relatives if they have the opportunity, just so they can see how fun it is :)
My gut-level feelings about the future changed, but it's not at all surprising to me that other parents like Abby had a different experience. I didn't mean to make a claim about what other people's experience was.
I agree with Abby that it's a mistake to read Caplan as meaning that parenting won't be hard. It will definitely be hard, especially in the early years. It just doesn't have to be quite as hard as current upper-middle-class US norms would have you think.
Just a comment to say that I'm totally fine with people discussing the costs and benefits of having children with regards to doing good, but it doesn't match my value system. In my value system, people are intrinsically valuable in a way that's not good to put a number on. I like EA because I still think we can put a number on different approaches to helping people, though.
I think conversations like this also make me uncomfortable because I try to keep clear boundaries between the part of my life I live for others and the part of my life I live for my family, friends, and self. Reproduction is firmly in the latter category! Not everyone has this boundary, so sometimes it can feel like they assume I don't have this boundary either.
I wanted to comment because I think it's important that people who read the Forum know there are EAs with lots of different values and not everyone is comfortable with cost-benefit analysis about everything.
I find these arguments intellectually interesting to a degree.
But like you, my aesthetic preference is just that people who personally feel like having kids should have kids, and those who personally don't feel like having kids shouldn't.
If we followed that dollar-store rule of thumb I expect things would go roughly as well as they can, all things considered.
I don't disagree with the object level points but I think they are weaker in effect size than the points I made in my comment. Curious what do you think the effect size is, relative to object- (or meta-) level EA work?
Taking a step back, I think people often have great personal reasons to have or not have children. We should accept this as a community, and simultaneously be able to have a frank assessment of the impact of different life choices, while acknowledging that as a community, it's unreasonable to expect people to sacrifice all of their personal goals for the sake of the cause.
We clearly agree on your first point (and sorry, I don't mean to single your comment out too much as a foil, it just came to mind as a recent example of the discourse).
I thought about making some back of the envelope EV calculations to this point but it sort of lives or dies on certain assumptions and I didn't want to make it just an argument about those. But it's conceivable to me that, for the median EA, raising a child (and trying to instill EA values) would be the most cost effective use of that marginal time. That might be crazy, but I'd like to see different people's numbers on it.
Again, these are all tentative, but I think my main point in this post is there is something of a collective action problem, where it is more high value (and lower cost) if a lot of EAs to have kids than it is the most cost effective thing for any individual EA having children.
My guess is that having children is far less cost-effective at getting more EAs than university community building, because of far greater reach with the same time and resources from the latter, and not far worse individual counterfactuals. To elaborate on the last point, it's true that someone who's never born would not become an EA anyway, but if someone isn't interested in EA by the time they leave university, it's not overwhelmingly likely that if they'd have become an EA through university community building, then they would have gotten into EA eventually anyway (and that the gap in time to becoming an EA is small enough in expectation).
A potentially relevant crux here is what you think the discount rate is for EA work (like how much do you value work or donations now vs one year later), from intuition, theory or empiricism. My impression is that some people who look at this think it is >10% (at least in the longtermism and meta spaces).
Paraphrasing Caplan without doublechecking his sources: the shared environmental effects on politics and religion are on political and religious labels, not necessarily on actions. So your kid might also call themselves a Christian, but does not actually go to church that much.
I agree we shouldn't discourage EAs from having kids too much for some of the reasons you mention, but I am not sure who you are arguing against? I think anti-kid sentiment used to be stronger in the early days of EA but I have not seen it around in years.
Wanting to justify having children with a low chance that they are going to have a large impact later seems like a bad idea to me. It might hurt your relationship with them or worse, cause mental health issues. Have children if you want them, don't have any if you don't.
As Abby has said, I don't think a significant part of parenting toil can actually be foregone. To be fair, I don't think Scott or Bryan Caplan actually claims that it can be! Caplan argues against ferrying your kids to lots of different after-school activities. But frankly, I don't know any parent who does this in the first place.
I am not able to comment on how having children has impacted my aspirations or productivity, as I had my first child before I encountered EA (or finished school, for that matter).
Sorry, you're right about Bryan Caplan making a more nuanced argument than what I suggested! But I just found his whole thing about how you can have more time if you don't drive your kid around to activities is basically inapplicable to early childhood. My partner and I easily spent 40 hours a week on childcare related stuff and the only places my kid goes to are daycare and the park. Young children just need a lot of attention! I found all his arguments about how to save time basically only apply to older kids who can read and amuse themselves, which sounds great, but is currently useless advice.
Sorry, I didn't want to imply Caplan was making a more nuanced argument than you suggested! I do think he makes a much more nuanced argument than the OP suggests however.
I think this is not only false, but also none of the authors claim this.
I believe Abby's take on this, but I don't think it's a misrepresentation of Caplan's position (though maybe an unnuanced one), unless we're really just coming down on the meaning of "significant amount." I would say saving 10% of parenting time is "a significant amount."
I think those low hanging fruits, if they are there at all, are probably there for 8-15 year olds, give or take.
Ah, when you said 'significant amount' I assumed you meant a lot more. 10% of the total does not seem like much to me.
Makes sense, glad to clarify
I think having kids is widely seen as changing your perspective on what’s important, maybe toward a narrower moral circles (towards your kids and away from others) This could be a cost to consider? E.g.,
https://twitter.com/made_in_cosmos/status/1381511741520089089?s=21&t=oT7Vy0k53ElFXMyK67BPyg for example
Thanks for sharing, this was helpful. As a meta point, it would be great for me if I had a way to help crowdfund some rigorous work (e.g., reviews, adversarial debates etc) exploring the arguments for and against EAs having children. I am increasingly on the fence.
The change in my views is largely driven by emerging beliefs that i) people having EA traits (e.g., being logical, compassionate and impartial) is perhaps most strongly linked to their genetics (see behavioural genetics etc) and ii) that funding EAs to have kids is going to be very hard to do at scale (for various coordination and PR reasons). I'd love someone to explore those and all the other arguments in more detail. Ideally a few people, some who want/have kids, and some who don't.
I'm writing about this kind of thing on my blog: https://juliawise.net/category/children-and-parenting/ I'm hoping to do some interviews with EAs about their choice to have or not have children and what led them there. I'd be excited to see more work here by others, too!
Mormonism is an obvious example of a religion that people join because Mormons have well-functioning families? I'm skeptical that's a main reason for the growth of Mormonism compared to their high birthrate or their amount of missionary effort.
Yes! I would love to see more experimentation in this area, e.g. EA home/micro/un-schooling pods.
I am not excited. In my experience it is common for parents of young children to have a lot of ideas on this they are keen to implement but dial back on this as their kids get older. Implementing such ideas is a lot of work! You are not able to pursue a full-time career while fully homeschooling your kids. You would forfeit all the benefits of them growing bigger and needing you less. Also, my experience is that most parents realise that outdoing the traditional school system or alternatives with homeschooling is a much higher bar than they thought. This was definitely true for me. (My oldest is ~12.)
Yes, I'm well aware that homeschooling is an immense amount of work -- especially if doing it as an individual household. That's a big part of why I'd be so excited to see more experimentation with "pods" or small clusters of (educationally aligned) households. This might involve group homeschooling (which would still be significant work on the part of the parents, but would see non-trivial efficiency gains over each family going solo). Or it might involve "micro-schools", where they hire teachers to do the bulk of the work, in an informal/alternative setting with tiny class sizes that allow for genuinely individualized learning. (My wife has actually looked a fair bit into the logistics of such an idea. I could probably share some details in a future post if there was interest.) Or there might be other possibilities I haven't considered, that could secure many of the benefits of "fully homeschooling" with less of the costs.
Anyway, I'm glad that the traditional school system is working out well enough for you and "most parents" that you know. But it's not for everyone, and it would be really helpful for those of us who are committed to alternative education to have more and better options. (Even if you, personally, are no longer interested in those options.)
I think some of the ethics depends on the extent to which you believe we are at a "hinge of history". The effects of children on innovation are not just that your child specifically might invent something. It's also that younger societies tend to more innovative (culturally, politically, and technically). So if there are lots of young people at once the culture might be more dynamic, open to new ideas, and encouraging of risk taking. Ross Douthat lays out this argument in "the decadent society". Having kids now skews the demographic curve younger for a long but obviously finite time. So if you think it's more important that we have a lot of innovation this century rather than later on, I think that points in favor of having kids, but if you don't then maybe it matters less as far as innovation goes.
Of course I am not in the business of convincing people who don't want kids to have them or vice versa.
The economic risks of depopulation are overstated. Most value is generated by machines and a small group of people that invent those machines.
While "fewer people means fewer new ideas" is theoretically true, in the current world a very small fraction of the population are given the opportunities to be at the forefront of new idea generation because of inadequate nurturing, resources, education. If the population halved and we tripled the proportion of people who were able to attain the levels of education and training necessary to innovate, we would have more total innovation.
Concern about fertility is a red herring if the next Einstein can't go to school because she has a neglected tropical disease.
Liked 'the big picture' bit, the tone change makes this.
I do feel though that this and other posts are less focussed on one of the key aspects beyond the effect on parents and the instrumental value of kids when they're grown up, namely the inherent value of a new, independent consciousness. Whether that's a positive experience of the world is a huge consideration, which you do mention; personally I would err on the side of optimism given human progress.
I'm also concerned around valuing children based on their chance of having a big impact when adult. This puts a lot of pressure on parents and potentially children for an outcome that is distant and largely out of their control, could encourage thinking of kids in terms of 'successes' and 'failures' rather than rounded people (with a high bar for 'success'), and could be counter-productive in enabling thriving.
My personal experience is that I did a lot of intellectualising about why I shouldn't have children when I wasn't ready for them, and when I was ready didn't need any particular reasoned justification. Make of that what you will...
It doesn't seem surprising at all to me -- for example, I have a hard time thinking of any historical community that has not separated child-rearing duties by gender. I mean, I'm sure there's one out there, but it's probably vanishingly rare. The present seems very unusual in that regard.