Should effective altruists have children?
by effective altruists having children, it can improve their well-being, help to ensure the continuation of the effective altruism movement, speed up human development, and create more happiness in the world
if effective altruists chose not to have children, they can use more of their time, money and effort to have a greater impact, they would not be constrained by obligations to their children, and they can minimize humanity’s future resource consumption on the planet
adopting children is a way for effective altruists to still improve their lives and the lives of others (especially the lives of the adopted children) with a smaller investment and less impact on the planet, compared to having their own children
Yes (reasons for effective altruists having children)
One of the main reasons that people often cite for having children is they want to experience the joy of parenthood and the happiness that it can bring. There are some studies which suggest this is true, including one that found that over time, parents are becoming happier compared to non-parents and that the happiness of non-parents is, in absolute terms, decreasing . Conversely, there are other studies which found that non-parents are generally happier than parents .
However, another study found that the happiness of parents depends greatly on the country (and more specifically, the child social support programs in place which can reduce the burden of raising children) . In particular, the United States has a notable gap in the happiness of parents versus non parents (with parents reporting lower happiness), whereas Portugal has a net positive association with parenthood (meaning parents are happier than non-parents) .
In addition, parenthood has been shown to lead to higher well-being and mental health in people aged 50 and older, which may be due to the support (financially, physically, and socially) that they receive from their children later in life . This would explain why parents generally live longer than non-parents . Also, some parents state that having children gives them a sense of fulfillment and/or meaning in their lives .
According to Bryan Caplan in his book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, which cites 40 years of studies, the traits which children will develop are more likely to be the genetic traits inherited from their parents as opposed to traits developed through the behavioral environment of their upbringing . Therefore, children of effective altruists, which would have some of their parents’ genes, would possibly have some of the “altruistic genes″ that effective altruists likely have, obtained either from their parents or that they developed otherwise.
By “altruistic genes”, I am referring to traits which lead one to behave in a manner that acts selflessly and for the greater good of others, which some researchers have found to exist in variations of the COMT gene . The processes of how “altruistic genes” are developed and carry on between generations are described in more detail by Peter Singer in his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress .
If effective altruists have children, then there is a greater likelihood that more future humans will have “altruistic genes” (assuming the children of effective altruists and their descendants continue to have children to pass on their genes). If “altruistic genes” are considered beneficial to humanity, then it would be better for effective altruists to have children to ensure that the effective altruism movement carries on.
By having children, this adds to the human population. This addition would, in theory, help contribute to the development and well-being of humanity since as the human population has increased so has human development and quality of life in addition to a decrease of suffering. This is based on the theory that more people means more ideation and thus more technological developments (which can either be good or bad for humanity, although, human well-being trends have generally improved over time along with population and technological advancements ).
Assuming that the children of effective altruists also aim to maximize the most good they can do (or at least aim to do so to some extent) as a result of either the passage of “altruistic genes” or via an “altruistic” upbringing, then the children of effective altruists would on average contribute more (possibly significantly more) than the children of others. By effective altruists having children, it could potentially speed up the growth of human development and lead to an overall improvement in human well-being.
Since most effective altruists live in developed countries, it is likely that their offspring would live fairly happy lives (relative to the average person on Earth). In terms of total happiness and net happiness (total happiness minus total suffering), the addition of one (or more) fairly happy lives would increase the human species’ total happiness and net happiness, but it would be an almost negligible amount given the sheer number of humans there currently are in the world.
No (reasons against effective altruists having children)
If an effective altruist does not have children, then they would not feel obliged in any way to prioritize the needs of their children over the needs of others. As such, they would be able to give a greater moral consideration to others.
Having children can be a massive undertaking financially, physically, and mentally. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average cost of raising a child to adulthood in the U.S. is $233,610 . Also, a study found that non-parents have 1-3 hours more free time per day than parents . By not having children, effective altruists could use the money, time, resources, and effort they might have otherwise spent on their children towards creating more good in the world.
For instance, the $233,610 that they could have spent on one child could instead be donated to the Against Malaria Foundation, and could save about 138 lives (based on GiveWell’s estimate that a $1,690 donation to the Against Malaria Foundation leads to an outcome as good as saving a life ). This comparison can be viewed such that bringing one child of your own into the world is equivalent to creating as much good as saving 138 children.
Another burden to having children is that they could act as a deterrent towards making higher impact decisions. For example, if relocating was required for an effective altruist to have a higher impact career, having children may be a major reason which holds them back as their children may have ties to their current location (i.e. friends, community, environment, etc.), which the effective altruist parent may be hesitant to disrupt.
However, it could be argued that, for some, focusing more on one’s career and earning to give by sacrificing the satisfaction from raising children could lead to burnout. On the other hand, raising children can also be quite stressful and exhausting, thus preventing one from being as productive in their career, compared to if they did not have children.
In addition to the significant time and money savings to effective altruists who don’t have children (which can be used more effectively to create more good), there is also a reduction in overall consumption from humanity on the planet. Counterfactually speaking, there would be less people compared to a world where effective altruists didn’t have children. Therefore, more of the world’s resources could be allocated to the current human population (of which a vast majority receive a very small portion).
This is especially prominent since most effective altruists live in developed countries, where the average person consumes substantially more resources than the average person in developing countries (according to the Global Footprint Network, the average American consumes 6.75 times as many resources as the average Indian ). Another way to view this is that all the food that the child of an effective altruist would have consumed, had they been born, could instead be given to the rest of the world. Also, fewer farmed animals (who generally live very poor lives) would need to be raised, which would prevent needless animal suffering.
Furthermore, the effect of not having children compounds between each generation (assuming that the hypothetical descendants of effective altruists would continue to procreate), thereby leaving an even greater amount of resources for future generations. The logic behind the reduced consumption from not having children is clearly illustrated in a paper by Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas, which found that having one fewer child is the single most effective lifestyle choice an individual can take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions .
They estimate that a person can reduce their emissions by 23.7–117.7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year by having one fewer child  (however, the Founders Pledge reassessed this figure and suggests the actual value is closer to 4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year ). For comparison, switching to eating a plant-based diet (which is another highly effective lifestyle change) can reduce one’s emissions by 0.3-1.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year .
Adoption? (Should effective altruists adopt instead of having their own children?)
There is a third and often overlooked option and that is adoption. For effective altruists who still desire the pleasure of having children, adoption provides an alternative to raising their own child, but it also has pros and cons.
Firstly, adoptive parents experience the happiness (and suffering) involved in raising a child, including the improved well-being later in life and longer life expectancy from being a parent, as noted earlier. If effective altruist parents provide an “altruistic” upbringing, it is possible for their adopted children to develop some “altruistic” traits, thus resulting in them creating more good in the world, compared to if they had not had an “altruistic” upbringing (which would likely have happened in a foster home or orphanage).
However, as noted earlier, the behavioral environment of a child’s upbringing is less likely to influence the eventual traits developed by the child compared to the traits they inherited from their genetic parents . Therefore, the impact of providing an “altruistic” upbringing is probably quite small.
In terms of the time, effort, and monetary investment to parents, adoption is less of an investment compared to having their own children as they only have to raise them from the age at which the children are adopted, instead of from birth. Depending on the age of the adopted children, this can be a significantly lower investment, especially since the infant years are quite stressful, time-consuming, and expensive.
Although, it could be argued that adopted children can be more difficult to raise since they are more likely to have some form of disability (6% of children in adoptive placements in the U.S. have a disability , compared to 4.6% of other children ).
Even though it does cost money to adopt a child, some expenses associated with raising an adopted child are tax deductible . However, adoption is still a substantial investment compared to not having children at all.
In terms of resource consumption, effective altruists choosing to adopt a child instead of having their own, in theory, saves the resources that their hypothetical child would have consumed. Therefore, adopting does not cause any further strain on the Earth’s resources or reduce each person’s share of the resources since the adopted child would still consume resources, regardless whether they had been adopted or not. Although, they may consume more resources by living with a family than if they had not been adopted (especially if they are adopted from a developing country).
One of the most notable benefits of adoption is the improved life of the adopted children. In particular, they wouldn’t live in a foster home or orphanage with a limited potential for growth and development. A study on the health and well-being of children adopted from foster care found the following three conclusions: “adoption from foster care is associated with socioeconomic advantages for children, these advantages do not translate into better well-being outcomes, and children adopted from foster care cost the public less than children in foster care” .
Also, the Chapin Hall Midwest Study found that “foster youth are 14 times more likely not to complete college than the general population” and “the unemployment rate among foster care alumni was 47%” . The results of the 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents indicated that 39% of foster care children have moderate or severe health problems compared to 21% for adopted children . According to the Way Home Adoption, “youth who are adopted out of the foster care system and into permanent homes are: 50% less likely to be delinquent or arrested, 32% less likely to be incarcerated, and 50% more successful in academic progression” .
Furthermore, based on data from the U.S. Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children, Youth and Families, there are nearly twice as many children waiting for adoption as those who get adopted . This means that the impact of an effective altruist adopting a child is not replaceable, since they would not be replacing the impact from someone else, if they had not chosen to adopt.
Effective altruists who are considering having children should ask themselves if the potential of their child to greatly improve the world is worth the cost to themselves and others. In addition, they should ask themselves if it is morally right to bring another living being into this world which is approaching its population limit given the constrained amount of resources, thereby depriving current and future generations of the finite resources available and diminishing their potential. Lastly, effective altruists who are not well off and may struggle to adequately provide for their children should ask themselves if it is ethical for them to have children if there is a good chance that their children will live poor lives.
In the end, the choice to have children, to not have children, or to adopt is a personal choice (although, often made with a partner) and should be based on what you (and your partner) value. This post is not meant to persuade you to choose either of these options, but is instead intended to make you think critically about the ethical, physical, financial, and emotional considerations of having you own children and adopting children including the impact it will have on you, the child, the rest of humanity, and the planet, in both the short and long term.
Other posts on this topic
Impact tracking note: I was encouraged to make a post on the EA Forum after attending the “How you can make an impact on the EA Forum” seminar run by Aaron Gertler at the EA Student Summit.
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