Arendtian Natality, Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and Antinatalism

Because of my work on Hannah Arendt, I often struggle with the apparent incongruity between her account of natality and my own tendency towards antinatalism.

Natality is at the heart of Arendt’s project, a rejection of the Heideggerian obsession with mortality and being-towards-death:

“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”

While it’s true that Arendt didn’t simply mean the biological act of giving birth when she described natality, this biological fact is at the heart of her insight into the novelty and unforeseen circumstances of political action, since it introduces new selves into a world that would otherwise become increasingly familiar.

“Objectively, that is, seen from the outside and without taking into account that man is a beginning and a beginner, the chances that tomorrow will be like yesterday are always overwhelming. Not quite so overwhelming, to be sure, but very nearly so as the chances were that NO earth would ever rise out of cosmic occurrences, that NO life would develop out of inorganic processes, that NO man would emerge out of the evolution of animal life. The decisive difference between the “infinite improbabilities” on which the reality of our earthly life rests and the miraculous character inherent in those events which establish historical reality is that, in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them— men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.”

One cannot help hearing Arendt’s Jewishness in the attribution of a miraculous power of renewal and unprecendentedness to natality. This is partly a reflection of certain Jewish tropes like Tikkun Olam, which is used in an ordinary sense to indicate the “public interest” but carries a theological connotation, since it literally means to “repair of the world,” in the Manichean sense described by Isaac Luria: that the world was formed through the shattering or rupture of the divine, and it is our job to restore the divine’s unity. One gloss on this restoration is that “be fruitful and multiply” is the first command given by God, and there is a sense in Arendt that the “new ones” may include our political messiah, the actor whose words or deeds may salvage our shared world. (Luria, however, taught that this entailed a Zionist return from the Diaspora, which Arendt recognized as impossible.)

Yet part of the fundamental antinatalist objection is that giving birth is a existentially weighty act that we do on another’s behalf: we bring a new person into the world who must receive the gift of existence without a right to refuse it. Better Never to Have Been tries to captures some of the ways that this may be a harm, but I primarily worry that bringing more children into an already crowded world is a kind of trespass that Arendt noted would always be a risk in acting.

I tend to think that the decisive Arendtian question in whether we see children as a burden or a miracle seems to be that intractable attitude, amor mundi: love of the world. For Arendt, the obligations that parents have to their children come from an obligation to create and shelter a world worth loving. Unless they can create that affective attachment to the world themselves, parents have no business visiting the unloved world upon their children. But an overemphasis on infinite obligations and the world’s current problems tends to make the world seem a fundamentally unloveable thing.

What’s more, I’m not sure it would be fair to my own children to put them into a position that they would, by virtue of having come to exist, begin to consume many more resources than their fair share or what they can hope to produce, and garner all the privileges of an upper-middle-class white person’s existence. In that sense, any children of mine would be born with a major debt to work off. In the spirit of this concern, I wonder whether bringing new people into the world would be a violation of principle relayed by Thomas Jefferson’s famous discussion of intergenerational responsibilities:

Each generation has the usufruct of the earth during the period of its continuance. When it ceases to exist, the usufruct passes on to the succeeding generation, free and unencumbered, and so on, successively, from one generation to another for ever. We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country. Or the case may be likened to the ordinary one of a tenant for life, who may hypothecate the land for his debts, during the continuance of his usufruct; but at his death, the reversioner (who is also for life only) receives it exonerated from all burthen.

One possibility is that this is the strength of deontological accounts of our rights and obligations: if we start with the assumption that everyone has the right to procreate, for instance, then we need not consider the possibility that our procreative acts come at a price. But I suspect that this just begs the question: we can’t all have a right to do something if that act is not universalizable, and our current rate of population growth is unsustainable. Many women do not have the resources to prevent their own pregnancies, so my family must shoulder an extra responsibility in this regard.

I think Arendt would not like this way of approaching the problem: for her, this over-emphasis on the fear of trespass would likely stink of a kind of miserly cheapness that refuses to accept gifts or take chances because of the potential of incurring obligations or losses.

Still, Arendt is not always right about everything. Bryan Caplan’s new Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (summarized here) is an argument that takes on many of the objections to child-rearing, including this kind of altruistic pessimism. In a chapter entitled “Your Kids Are Good for You–But Are They Good for the World?” he works through several economic and environmental arguments about children. He argues that bringing new children into the world is, first, a benefit for the children themselves. Since most people are pleased by their own existence, we can assume that any children who do not commit suicide are glad to have been brought into the world. (BONUS!) Second, he points out that that the major economic objections to more children, especially the Parfit-style repugnant conclusions, ignore the role of more people in producing innovations and “growing the pie” of human happiness:

“It takes a whole planet to sustain the progress that we take for granted. You need smart, creative people to get new ideas, but they’re not enough. You also need armies of customers to turn creativity into a paying job. Creative geniuses are the most dramatic characters in the story of progress. Without a cast of billions of extras, however, the story would be less exciting. Indeed, without the extras, there would be no story to tell.”

This is somewhat inexact, but the point stands: fewer people doesn’t mean a higher GDP per capita: GDP per capita is ultimately the product of innovation, and innovation flourishes with density.

Third, we need steady population growth to sustain the current social safety net: bad things happen when countries end up with low ratios of workers to retirees, as we’re currently realizing. (When Social Security started, there were ten workers for every recipient. In fifteen years, there will be three workers per retiree.) So if you’re a progressive who believes in the welfare state, then not having kids looks more selfish, since it’ll be other peoples’ kids paying your benefits! Of course, in my earlier writing on this point, I have tended to focus on the ways in which low native population growth forces countries to embrace immigration. While that’s still true, I wonder whether I’m discounting the wrenching difficulties that immigration places on both local communities and on the immigrants themselves. This is a matter for further study especially since it’s likely to entail some cultural and human costs that Caplan’s economic analyses fail to measure.

For Caplan, the primary judgment we should make in evaluating whether a child will be a miracle or a burden is whether that child will consume fewer resources than he or she produces. He briefly considers the example of a janitor, who may make less than average salary but still produces more than he consumes. Yet Caplan doesn’t broach other kinds of potentially burdensome individuals: what if my children grew up to be bankers? 🙂

The very best thing about Caplan’s book is that he acknowledges that we can’t have all the answers. So when he takes on the environmental impact of children, he doesn’t pretend like they don’t increase your carbon footprint. He suggests that the many benefits of children are not completely outweighed by their environmental impact. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” he quips. Instead, he argues that we ought to selectively target carbon emissions (he advocates using a carbon tax if possible). This seems right: carbon emissions may well be an existential threat to our survival as a species. That doesn’t mean that we ought to preempt the threat, it means we should prevent it!

There’s something heartbreakingly calculative in this analysis, isn’t there? But just because it seem coldly rational to count up one’s obligations and deny oneself a luxury doesn’t make it wrong. Thus, just because it’s coldly rational to suggest that children will probably make the world better-off economically doesn’t make it wrong, either. Once they’re born, we’re going to treat them like a miracle in any case.


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