Sunday, February 24, 2013

Can Parenthood Be A Rational Choice?

I just read "What Mary can't expect when she's expecting," by L.A. Paul.  H/T to Brian Leiter, who says Paul's analysis is "smart" and "rings true."  I beg to differ.  I don't think Paul makes a convincing, or even valid, case for her conclusion. (See my more recent post, here, for a more focused, semi-formal discussion of why Paul's argument might be invalid.)

The paper is a philosophical analysis of whether or not the decision to have children is rational.  According to Paul, it isn't--at least, not as the decision is commonly made.

In Paul's model, for a choice to be rational, it must involve the evaluation of consequences in a logical space of limited, well-defined possibilities.  For the matter in question, Paul is only considering the consequences for the parents-to-be:  If the decision to have children is a rational one, says Paul, then it is based on a cost-benefit analysis in terms of the consequences for the people making the decision.

This leads to my first objection:  Isn't it common to take the well-being of other people into consideration?  At least some parents consider other people, and not just themselves, when deciding whether or not to have children.  For example, having children does not just make you a parent; it also makes your parents grandparents.  It also brings new people into the world, thereby potentially increasing the overall level of happiness in the world.  Why does Paul ignore these aspects of the decision-making process?

Paul limits the analysis in another curious way:  The relevant consequences are limited to the phenomenal character of the experience of having children.  Paul claims that the standard approach to deciding whether or not one is to become a parent is, first and foremost, to make assumptions about the phenomenal qualities uniquely associated with parenthood.  Appealing to Frank Jackson's knowledge argument, Paul then argues that those unique phenomenal qualities cannot be known beforehand, and so those assumptions cannot be reliable.  Parents-to-be are thus deluding themselves if they think they have any idea of what it will be like for them to be parents.  And if their decision is based on a delusion, it cannot be rational.

I'm sure a good many mothers and fathers will agree that having children is a transformative experience.  However, it's not clear that parenthood has unique phenomenal properties.  It might for some people, but not for others.  Furthermore, when people make the decision to have children, they might talk about "what it will be like," but it's not obvious that they are referring to phenomenal qualities.  They could be talking about other things, like how difficult life will be, how their work and social lives will be affected, how their health and well-being will be affected, and so on.  These are the common issues that are discussed by parents-to-be, and they are not what philosophers of mind mean by the phrase "what it is like."  Therefore, I don't think Paul has keyed in on how people generally approach parenthood.

In any case, it's unfortunate that Paul does not recognize any of the well-known objections to Jackson's knowledge argument.  Frank Jackson has changed his own mind about it, and philosophers widely disagree about what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from it.  Still, for those who are sympathetic to Paul's extreme claim, they might not need more reason to believe it:  It might just seem obvious to some people that you cannot rationally evaluate what it is like to have children unless you have had children.  In that case, it might seem logical to conclude that you cannot rationally decide to have children in the first place--if your decision only takes into consideration what it is like to have children, of course.

Perhaps parenting has some absolutely unique phenomenal character.  I grant that there is strong evidence that it is a psychologically transformative experience.  But there are sharable accounts of those transformations and these can rationally be considered.  All Paul has motivated is the claim that a deliberation about whether or not to have children may not include all of the relevant information that one might like to have at their disposal.  That is a far cry from what Paul actually claims to have shown:  that the decision itself is completely irrational.

I think most people will agree that, while they might not have been able to predict everything about what parenthood is like, their decision was not completely uninformed.  Parents-to-be live in a world full of parents and therefore gain information from parents about how being a parent affects their lives.  Paul does not say this kind of information is irrelevant.  In fact, she appeals to scientific studies of how parenthood affects well-being, arguing that many parents-to-be make assumptions which are challenged by those studies.  (Footnote:  Paul makes this topic appear less controversial than it is.  A recent study, "In Defense Of Parenting," offers a different perspective on the issue.)

The fact that Paul recognizes the relevance of scientific studies makes her appeal to the knowledge argument inconsistent.  If the knowledge argument is valid and applicable to parenthood, then nothing anybody says could be relevant to one's understanding of what it is like to be a parent.  Yet, Paul accepts reports and studies which inform non-parents about the relevant psychological character of parents.  If parents-to-be can be informed about the relevant costs and benefits of parenthood, then Paul's argument falls apart.

Paul tries to overcome this problem as follows:

If a person were to make a choice whether or not to have a child based solely on the objective chance of being in a “good” class, making one’s choice this way strikes us as deeply wrong. Imagine Anne, who has never wanted children, deciding to have a child simply because she knows the objective distribution of the members of our four classes. To choose this way is bizarre.  So even if we know the relative sizes of our four classes, we find ourselves in a dilemma: make the choice rationally, based only on the objective chance of ending up in a class of value-maximizers, and ignoring what you personally think about whether you want to have a child, or do not make the choice rationally, instead taking into account your own beliefs and projections about the character of your future phenomenal states.
The idea is that we can either objectively evaluate our chances of ending up happy with our parenting decision or not, but (says Paul) if we approach it that way, we must ignore our personal beliefs and desires.  Conversely, if we go by our personal beliefs and desires, we must ignore our objective chances of ending up happy with our decision.  Neither option is appealing to Paul.

This is a false dilemma.  It's not that we can either try to maximize happiness or think about our personal desires.  People can think about how to maximize happiness while taking their personal needs and desires into account.    People grow up and enter adulthood learning all sorts of facts about parenthood and facts about themselves, and they consider both sorts when making the decision whether or not to have children.  So I don't see Paul squarely addressing the situation.

Even if you disagree with me so far, there's another reason to doubt Paul's conclusion.  Remember Socrates, who drank the hemlock instead of choosing exile?  Socrates reasoned that death, as an unknown, might be better than exile, which is known to be terrible.  Similarly, a parent-to-be might reason that parenthood, while an unknown quantity, might be better than a life without children.  I suspect a number of parents-to-be might think this way:  They might (based on their phenomenal experience of life without children, or other facts) judge that a life without children would be so terrible that the risk of having children is rationally justified.  They are not under the delusion that they know more than they do.  They take the risk, believing that they would forever regret not taking it.  That looks like a rational decision to me, and plausibly reflects the way a lot of people think about the issue.

Check out these follow up posts:


(I made some substantive changes to this post at 10:10 pm GMT, February 24, 2013.)