Sunday, May 22, 2011

Guilty as Charged, Thanks

For the moment, I will accept for the sake of argument that I am selfish for being childfree. I admit that I do have self-interested, self-centered, self-defined reasons for choosing to be childfree, and I can see that perhaps “selfish” is an appropriate word to describe my decision. Let’s go with that label for the moment. Let’s see where that takes us.

When judging the morality of particular actions, one important issue is the question of social harm. How much does a selfish decision negatively affect other people? I can imagine some arguments that my not having children could be bad for society, but I’m having a hard time agreeing with the assumptions behind that point of view. I suppose society needs a supply of new people to continue to exist, assuming that the continued large number of people in the world should be maintained. I suppose you could say I owe it to future generations to reproduce, but then again if I don’t reproduce then my descendants don’t exist in the first place.

The other side of the harm issue is the question of “lesser harm,” which happens when you do something harmful that prevents even worse things from happening. Because I think I’m the best judge of what my future self would be like, I can imagine that my being a parent would not be in the best interest of my own child. I can anticipate that my children might just as easily make the world a worse place as make the world a better place. I’m convinced, selfishly or not, that many people would be better off if I were to be childfree.

Let’s assume my selfishness really is completely narcissistic, and I truly am out only to do things that I enjoy, no matter what the effects on others. Objectively, we would have to agree that that kind of person would be a horrible parent. Given the behavior of many parents I have had the pleasure to observe over the decades, I have come to the conclusion that having children is no guarantee that a person will stop being selfish. So, the more selfish I appear to be, the better reason I have to be childfree.

Parenthood is not a cure for narcissism. Parenthood just helps narcissism find new victims.

Furthermore, the selfish behavior of individuals is not always a bad thing for others. There are plenty of good things that happen when people pursue their own self-interest. (I’m not making a plug for free market capitalism here, though I would note that most of the evangelically pronatalist are perfectly comfortable with the idea of private economic self-interest powering society.) I donate clothes and household items to the local Goodwill store, where I also shop for bargains. I donate things and shop there largely for selfish reasons: I want more closet space, I don’t want to spend time setting up a garage sale, I would have to pay for garbage pick-up, and I prefer to buy things at the lowest price possible. All of those are terribly self-centered reasons. The result? This charity gets free stuff to sell and then gets revenue from selling items to me. The greedier I am with bargains, the more money Goodwill makes. My reproductive selfishness may be working the same way. Even if my decision is bad, let’s remember that often good comes from bad.

What does it say about being childed if childfree people are considered selfish? Presumably, that means that being without children comes with many benefits. It suggests that having children comes with many sacrifices and many disadvantages. It implies that childfree people are enjoying an unfair amount of fun or free time or money or any number of positive things in life.

In fact, if choosing not to have children is a horribly selfish act, that means that having children is a major sacrifice that childfree people are not making. We are choosing NOT to take on the horrible challenges that come with children. We are choosing a life of enjoyment, limiting something that would make our lives needlessly difficult.

Now, of course, if having children is the greatest joy in the world, and if I’m going to regret being childfree later in life, then ultimately my decision is going to hurt me most of all. I am consciously choosing something that could make me profoundly unhappy, forgoing the chance at the greatest joy possible, and doing that with eyes wide open. It’s like a kind of self-denial, really. I mean, if I’m choosing to miss out on such wonderfulness, you could hardly say that I’m selfish.

You can’t have it both ways. If being childfree is selfish, that must mean that having kids is not enjoyable. If having kids is the greatest joy in the world, then I’m not actually selfish for giving up the chance. If childrearing is the most rewarding job in the world, then I have consciously chosen a lesser option. How greedy and selfish can I be if I’m shooting for second place while everyone else is going for first place?

I see one good objection to my position here. A person can make a decision out of selfish motives, thinking that the result will be fun, only to discover that the choice made his life worse. Possibly this is what I have done, choosing to be childfree for selfish reasons, only to realize at some future date that it made my life worse. If that happens, I can’t claim I wasn’t selfish before just because I’m suffering now. Suffering in the present does not excuse the fact that I was selfish before – there is no retroactive selflessness, reading the effect back into the motivation. Being selfish now could make me miserable later. This is all too true.

Therefore, by all rights, I can say the same thing about being a parent. Just because parenthood costs you so much today does not mean that you chose to have kids for unselfish reasons. Perhaps you had them for selfish reasons and now you have regrets. Perhaps that is why my childfree reasoning seem so selfish. If you were to choose again between parenthood and childfreedom, your informed choice today would make childfreedom look much more enjoyable.

So, I think I'll embrace the "selfish label." It reminds me that I'm making the right choice.