Awhile ago, I wrote piece on how Epicureans should raise children. Robert has made his own contributions on the subject, which can be read here. Today, I thought I would address something altogether more fundamental: whether Epicureans should be having children at all.
From what I can gather from my research, Epicurus disapproved of marriage and therefore having children, apart from in exceptional circumstances for certain people. Marriage and having children were said to cause unnecessary pain and anxiety, though there was no blanket prohibition. But since Epicurus’ views on the matter are vague, somewhat utilitarian (like much of Epicurean ethics) and not well-known, I think it’s fair to reassess the moral worth of having children in the modern age.
The first thing to mention is that no one has a duty to have children, contrary to what many religious teachers claim. Anyone who tries to shame those who don’t or can’t have children, as Andrea Leadsom did to Theresa May during the 2016 Conservative leadership contest, is guilty of a terrible prejudice. There is nothing wrong with sex without the intention to procreate. People who don’t have children should not be treated any differently by the taxman, the welfare state or wider society.
Secondly, parents have a responsibility to give their children a decent upbringing. In the developed world, this means spending sufficient time educating them (schools do not teach everything), giving them a balanced and interesting diet, enriching their cultural faculties (appreciation for music, drama etc), and being reasonably generous towards them. If you are too poor or busy to give your children a proper life, it is irresponsible to have children anyway, on the basis that it’s your right to and that the state should pick up the tab. The right-wing British press is full of stories of people having children to claim welfare. And while many of these stories are sensationalised, they do contain an element of truth.
The environmental impact of a rising population is impossible to ignore. Climate change isn’t the result of overpopulation per se, but it doesn’t help when per capita consumption and carbon emissions are so high. For this reason, I would advise against having high numbers of children, even if you can afford it. Although we’re making progress in ecological policies like recycling and renewable energy, the rate of progress cannot yet offset the consequences of a rapidly rising and increasingly healthy population.
However, there are a few arguments in favour of having children. Of course, raising children is stressful. But it can also bring immense joy and happiness. Children can be good company during your working years, and can look after you in old age. On balance, Epicurus’ hedonism could easily justify having children, particularly if their absence if causing you pain and loneliness.
Children can also improve one’s morality and human qualities. Raising them teaches kindness, generosity, humility, selflessness, patience, etc. In a world filled with an inordinate amount of violence and suffering, children teach us the value of innocence, and that often ignorance is bliss. We should always aim for our children to be better people than ourselves.
Finally, I hope the secular liberals who read Epicurus Today have a decent number of children. Worldwide, the religious conservatives are outbreeding the socially liberal and the non-religious. So despite high numbers of people raised in religious families de-converting, particularly in the West, the world as a whole is getting more religious. As a secular liberal myself, I find this trend very worrying. In Israel, higher birthrates amongst ultra-Orthodox Jews is pushing the country to the right and making peace less likely. I would very much like that trend to be reversed.
Overall, I don’t think that having children is inherently un-Epicurean. If done well, having a small number of children can be a wonderful thing. I would only advise that like all good utilitarians, you consider the consequences for yourself, your country and the planet before you become a parent.