Against anti-natalism; or: why climate change should not be a significant factor in your decision to have children

by ben.smith 1 min read26th Feb 202015 comments


This is something I see come up in EA social media spaces and I am keen to state an an argument against anti-natalism in clear, strong, and persuasive terms. Typically the anti-natalist case is presented as a way to avoid a significant impact on the climate. I think this is flawed: while the average human certainly has net-negative impact on the climate, the average human also has a net-positive impact on total human well-being, simply by existing and leading a net-positive life.

You matter: My well-being and yours, and your potential children, all have moral worth. We matter too. If your altruism completely excludes your own well-being, I would be concerned about how sustainable it is.

Your children matter: Assuming your potential children live average lives, they'll probably experience a lot more happiness than suffering and their lives will be well worth living. The impact that each individual has on the climate is dwarfed by the well-being that person experiences in their own life. These are contestable claims: there are lively arguments over the "total view" vs. the "average view", but I take a total view on this. If you take the average view, you might disagree you should take your potential childrens' well-being into account.

Your own impact on EA matters. Having children will influence your own impact within your career and life on the world. For instance, someone in a particularly impactful career might avoid having children if they think it would lead them to sacrifice making a difference in their career.

In conclusion: If you want to maximize total aggregate happiness in your decision,

- your primary concern should be yourself and your potential co-parent's happiness because that will be massively influenced by your decision - potentially either way, depending on your preferences. Managing own happiness and well-being is an important part of maximizing total aggregate well-being. Therefore, if you don't want to have kids, don't have kids - you don't need climate change to justify that decision!

- Then, as a distant second you should consider the net positive impact your children would experience through living their own lives.

- As an even more distant third priority, think about the impact that having kids would have on your own ability to have an effective career. Now, this may be a persuasive argument against having children for some people. For others, including those earning to give, or people who would simply be less happy not having children, having children might function as a positive motivator that enables you to have a more effective career than you would otherwise.

- In terms of maximizing total well-being, your kids' impact in the climate is a distant fourth relative to all those other concerns I've raised. The magnitude of their impact on the climate is likely to be much, much smaller than any of the three other factors I have raised.