The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on personal responsibility and climate change.
I have always loved babies and children. I babysat throughout high school and college, and do so even now as a full-time engineer. My fiancé was drawn to me because of how much he appreciated my talent with and love for children. We have many little nieces, nephews and cousins whom we love but don’t get to see often. We also have always been clear with each other that we would try to have biological children soon after getting married.
That being said, my fiancé and I, who are both Generation Z, care deeply about the planet and painfully watch as scientists predict that the earth will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the 2030s. Is it selfish to have children knowing full well that they will have to deal with a lower quality of life thanks to the climate crisis and its many cascading effects, like increased natural disasters, food shortages, greater societal inequity and unrest?
We realize that a child’s very existence adds to our carbon footprint, but as parents we would do our best to foster an environmentally friendly household and try to teach our children how to navigate life sustainably. My fiancé says that because we are privileged as two working engineers in the United States, we can provide enough financial support to keep our children from feeling the brunt of the damage from climate change. Is it OK to use this privilege? — April
From the Ethicist:
Here are two questions that we often ask about an action. First, what difference would it make? Second, what would happen if everyone did it? Both raise important considerations, but they can point in opposite directions. The first question asks us to assess the specific consequences of an act. The second question asks us (as Kant would say) to “universalize the maxim” — to determine whether the rule guiding your action is one that everyone should follow. (I won’t get into the philosophers’ debates about how these maxims are to be specified.) Suppose someone pockets a ChapStick from Walgreens and asks: What difference does it make? One answer is that if everyone were to shoplift at their pleasure, the retail system would break down.
There’s no such clash in answering those questions when it comes to your having at least one child. The marginal effect of adding a few humans to a planet of about eight billion people is negligible. (A recent paper, by a group of environmental and economic researchers, projects that by the end of the century, the world population could be smaller than it is today — though that’s just one model.) And if everybody stopped having babies, the effect would be not to help humanity but to end it.
I’m not one of those people who will encourage you to imagine you’ll give birth to a child who devises a solution to the climate crisis. (What are the odds?) Still, it’s realistic to think that children who are raised with a sense of responsibility could — in personal and collective ways — be part of the solution, ensuring human survival on a livable planet by promoting adaptation, resilience and mitigation.
Probably the key question to ask is whether you can give your offspring a good prospect of a decent life. The climate crisis figures here not because your children will contribute to it but because they may suffer from it. It sounds as if you’ve already made the judgment that your kids would be all right, supplied with the necessary resources. That is, as you recognize, a privilege in our world. But the right response is not to reduce the number of children who have that privilege but to work — together — toward a situation in which every other child on the planet does, too.
Last week’s question was from a reader who had cut off contact with their father after enduring an awful relationship with him for years. They asked: “I have found myself wondering what I will do and feel when my elderly father passes. I don’t even know who would arrange his funeral, etc. Ethically speaking, what do I owe to a parent whom I have no contact with, do not respect and never want to see again?”
In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Some people hold that the bare fact that someone was your biological parent means you owe them something. You do, after all, owe them your existence. … I’ll grant that there’s an argument for your taking care of your father’s funeral, perhaps in recognition of the role he played in your life, and perhaps as a minimal act of gratitude for your existence. He doesn’t have much call on you beyond that.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
Yes, there is an argument that taking care of an estranged parent’s funeral is a minimal act of gratitude for one’s existence. Doing so may even provide some closure. However, doing so could be harmful to one’s mental health, especially in cases of PTSD. A child’s needs far outweigh gratitude for having been born. — Cathy K
I paid for and arranged my estranged mother’s funeral. It was painful, but it provided closure I didn’t realize I needed. Also, it made me proud that I could be better than her and do something kind. Funerals are for the living. What can you live with? — Ashley
As a licensed funeral director for the past 28 years in my state (Wisconsin) you are the next of kin and therefore, the person whom the funeral home will work with to make your father’s funeral arrangements. If you don’t want to do that — and I can empathize with your feelings of not wanting to — do your father the favor of explaining that to him so he can fill out the necessary paperwork to have someone else perform those duties. — David
We do not owe gratitude for being born to parents who did not meet our emotional and other needs — needs they had an ethical obligation to fulfill. Adult children should stop being made to feel guilty about something they had no control over. Kudos to the letter writer for moving on and seeing her father for who he was. — Jul
To ask the question “What should I do?” in this instance acknowledges the existence of a lingering feeling of some sort of obligation. See it is an opportunity to close out these painful memories. Any benefit from participation or planning of a funeral for an abusive, absent or just plain awful parent will accrue to you and not the decedent. Simply put, you do it for yourself. — Richard
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