Each society has an ideal birth rate, or at least a ballpark ideal. Some societies should shrink, some could grow a little, some ought to remain about the same size that they are right now. Collectively, at least, we should aim to reproduce at the ideal rate for our own society. But what does this mean for each individual or couple? That’s much harder to say.
It’s too crude to say that each family’s birth rate should be the same as the ideal collective birth rate. After all, collectively a society is only aiming at an average, and that can be achieved equally well whether every couple has the same number of children or there is a lot of variation. A better first-pass answer is that individuals shouldn’t knowingly contribute to making the collective birth rate depart from the ideal. If you know the actual collective birth rate is under the ideal, you should have a child (assuming you will be reasonably good at nurturing and providing for the child). If you know the actual birth rate is above the ideal, you should cut back, and not have a child you might have wanted to have. The Reproductive Idealist—as I will call someone with this view—says, further, that these are straightforward moral “shoulds.” It’s right to help your society attain its ideal birth rate and wrong to hamper that goal by having too many or too few children.
It all sounds pretty simple and irrefutable, but, for reasons I will explain, Reproductive Idealism is implausible.
Suppose Carlos and Maria live in Mexico and would like to have their first child. They know that their society’s ideal birth rate is 2.1 per woman, though its actual birthrate is three per woman. They would be helping their society attain its ideal if they changed their plans, and they would be hampering attainment of the ideal if they went ahead and had even one child. So according to Reproductive Idealism, they would be wrong to have a child.
Perhaps you will agree with me that it’s very odd to think that this couple is wrong to have one child. There’s a certain logic to saying they’re wrong, but something’s amiss with that verdict. The deepest reason why we can’t condemn having one child, whatever the local collective birthrate, relates back to one of the reasons why people want to have children in the first place. One thing procreation achieves for parents is "ersatz survival”—it’s a way of recreating oneself, so that after death, your life continues. Not literally your life, but close enough so that mortality becomes far more bearable. Through reproduction, we project ourselves farther into the future. Of course, people don’t decide to have a child with thoughts of survival looming large; these are amorphous ideas at the back of people’s minds. But if they are there at all, they can be appealed to in a defense of procreation.
Because of the connection between reproduction and survival, the right to reproduce has strong ties to other rights of selfpreservation. Suppose your life is threatened in some slow-moving way that allows you time for research and reflection. Perhaps you have a small melanoma on your leg that you can either have treated before it spreads, or not have treated. You rummage through population statistics and worry about future generations. It would be better in the grand scheme of things, you conclude, to make your exit.
Your treatment is going to use up lots of resources. Yes, you’ll be missed, but they’ll get over it, and there are too many people in the world and too few resources. Really, you think, you ought to forego the cure the doctors are offering you. It’s the only environmentally responsible thing to do.
No, surely not! Your right to self-preservation isn’t absolute (you can’t kill other people to keep yourself alive, for example), but it does allow you to take the cure, and set aside the omniscient, hyperobjective perspective you’re trying to adopt. And so it is with reproduction. It’s a means of survival too—or at least, a sort of quasisurvival that transcends the boundaries between one person and another. If we’re entitled to live out our own natural lifespans, then perhaps we’re also entitled to make use of our innate capacity to live on into the future, in the person of our children and our children’s children.
It’s important not to go the whole distance here, and assert that my children are literally part of myself, as there lurks the problematic notion that children don’t have their own rights, and aren’t entitled to any protection at all from their parents. But if we state the idea with the proper care, it’s true: just as I am entitled to live out my own lifespan, I am entitled to an even longer vector into the future, through my descendants.
It only begins to make sense to condemn childbearing as flat-out wrong in the most extreme scenarios. Imagine a grotesquely overcrowded world in which every extra child puts a strain on already scarce resources. You might reasonably think people really ought to voluntarily avoid reproduction in this setting. If there are vastly too many people or vastly too few, it might begin to make sense to say that people really do have an obligation to have or not to have a child.
But we are not in that situation, not yet. Green anti-natalists may insist we really are, if we extrapolate from current reproduction rates to the state of the world in one hundred years. To refuse to do so, they may think, is to discriminate against future people. But no—the fact that problems lie far in the future makes a moral difference, and not because future people matter less. It makes a difference whenever and to the extent that there is significant uncertainty about what the future holds. We are not obligated to reproduce now as if we were already in the dire situation predicted by some futurologists.