Is it ethical to have more children? Top philosopher's surprising response

This article is part of the Yahoo sustainability series ‘Fact or Myth?’

With 7.9 billion humans polluting the planet, are there too many of us already?

That’s the question many young people are asking themselves as they consider whether or not to have children.

With the United Nations estimating we’re going to hit 9.7 billion people by 2050, we turned to one of the world's best known living philosophers, Professor Peter Singer to help us better understand the issue.

Left - A burning hill. Right - Two young people in bed. The man has his head in his hands, the woman is looking at her phone.
Some young people are questioning whether it is ethical to have children. Source: Getty

When it comes to having children the Princeton University Professor of Bioethics concedes that the answer is “complicated".

Unless the world drastically changes, they will consume fossil fuels, possibly eat meat and have a significant impact on the environment, particularly those born in affluent countries.

“That is a reason for saying I won’t have children, or maybe I’ll limit the number of children that I have to replicability levels,” Professor Singer told Yahoo News.

Not having children could do more damage than good

For many the decision is black and white and the argument ends here, but Professor Singer, a father himself, is “troubled” by the idea of not having children on ethical grounds.

He is the founder of the charity A Life You Can Save which combats poverty, and the author of over 20 books on ethics and philosophy, and has thought deeply about the question.

His concern centres around how the next generation will be raised if those concerned about climate change don’t reproduce.

“You’re then going to leave the planet be populated by to people who have not thought ethically, and have not decided to avoid having children for the benefit of the planet,” he said.

“Whether you think that your child will inherit some ethical nature from you genetically, or if you think it’s the education and cultural upbringing and the values you will impart to your child… either way it’s not going to be a better world if all the people who are serious ethical thinkers and concerned about the future decide not to have children.

“I would not encourage people to avoid having children all together, I might encourage them to avoid having large families, but I do think people who think about the future should be thinking about… who is going to inherit the Earth after us, and will they also also look after it.”

Is climate change making the world too unstable to have children?

The other concern many young people are pondering is whether it is ethical to bring children into a world that is increasingly destabilised by climate change.

Left - Two seals, one with its head caught in a net. Right - A destroyed forest.
With the planet already in crisis, Professor Singer believes ethical thinkers should consider having children to help guide the future. Source: Getty

To answer this, Professor Singer looks back in history to the state of the world when he was a child, noting “the world has been unsafe for a long time”.

“I was brought into a world that had just relatively recently seen nuclear bombs dropped on civilian populations,” he said.

“I worried as a child about the possibility of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, that was pretty scary.

“So you could say that my parents shouldn’t have had me, but personally I’m glad that they did."

He argues that it’s justifiable to take some risks and hope that the world will continue to be stable enough for the next generation to have good lives.

There isn’t an argument not to have children in order to benefit them, he believes.

“(That’s) a bit of a paradox, since you can’t be benefiting someone who’ll never exist”.

Buy some of Peter Singer's incredible books here:

The Life You Can Save: How To Do Your Part To End World Poverty

Photo: Amazon
Photo: Amazon

Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter

Photo: Amazon
Photo: Amazon

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