Tentative Reasons You Might Be Underrating Having Kids

The decision to have children is about whether you believe they will enrich your life, whether you would like to spend your time rearing children, and whether you believe your children will have good lives.

Nevertheless, there are occasional instrumentalist arguments about whether EAs should have children given our unique goals and ethical commitments. As Linch comments on this helpful post:

The strongest reason to have children is because you or your partner would personally be happier or more productive if you had children. The second strongest reason is if you think childrearing is actually the most cost-effective thing for you to do on the margin because of the effects of the children themselves, but at least for me, on the current margin, the burden of proof should be against.

I believe this sort of thinking, while reasonable and well-intentioned, is too short-sighted. Perhaps it is individually rational but irrational for EAs as a group and movement.

This has been addressed in other places before (Abby Hoskin’s comment, David Manheim’s comment). I also don’t necessarily think there are compelling EA motivations to have children if you have never been interested in having children, rather that if you are interested in having children the reasons not to do so are far less clear-cut than is commonly suggested. So with those caveats, here are some tentative but plausible additional reasons why it might be good to have children:

Object-level worries about depopulation

It seems possible that world population will decline in absolute terms in this century, possibly as early as 2070. If that happens, we may see the end of economic growth. This could cause us to be stuck in a time of perils, with virtually no means of escape. After all, with a small population (and good ideas being harder to find), it will be incredibly hard to push the technological frontier. Leopold Aschenbrenner writes about these possibilities in his GPI report, Existential Risk and Growth and they are discussed further in Will MacAskill’s forthcoming, What We Owe the Future.

Obviously the likelihood of this scenario depends on a number of factors and assumptions, including AI timelines. But if this scenario seems plausible to you, increasing fertility becomes an important moral priority and having children is likely to be a precondition for effective advocacy.

EA community health and growth

More specific to EA: As a number of people had pointed out in the past, if not having children became an implicit requirement to be a “good” member of the EA community, it would be detrimental to community growth-Many talented people would find the prospect of giving up having children unappealing, if not repellant. Not only that, it could significantly detract from the general soft power or cultural influence of EA if we became known as “the people who think they are too important/​busy to have children.”

But the contrapositive is similarly powerful: If EAs were known for having high-functioning, responsible families, this may have the benefit of growing the community. It seems to be a key way that religions (Mormonism is an obvious example) attract members.

Values Propagation

While shared environment effects are typically very small across the board, there are two areas where they are quite strong: Religion and politics.

Without indulging the, “Is EA a religion debate,” it seems likely that there would be a similar transfer of values given the role EA plays in the lives of people it inspires. In fact, it may have inter-generational advantages over traditional religions, as it has liberal social values that typically become cruxes between parents and children regarding religion. If EA is generally “ahead of the curve” on moral progress, it might be much easier to instill in one’s children than traditional religions.

This may be especially important if future people are able to do more good than we are right now. It seems plausible that people in the future will have a greater ability to do good than we do now: Perhaps we will discover a new important existential risk, or perhaps a new route to make a radically better world. In a broad longtermist framework such as this, high performing children instilled with good values will be incredibly important.

There’s also compelling expected value arguments to be made here: Even if there’s a small chance your child becomes a top EA, their career could justify a substantial loss of productivity in yours over 5-10 years. It would be interesting to do further estimates along these lines. (Some might argue here that you could spend the same amount of time doing EA community expansion, but it seems likely that children raised with EA values might play a different role in the community than even, say, high schoolers who you convinced to join EA).

Many highly productive people have had children, and often those children are highly productive

Elon Musk has seven children. Albert Einstein had three children. Richard Lovel Edwarth, the Anglo-Irish inventor, had 22. Charles Darwin had ten. Darwin (and also Edwarth) had great families, with many children that went on to do highly important things. From Astral Codex Ten:

Charles’ son Sir George Darwin, an astronomer, became president of the Royal Astronomical Society and another Royal Society fellow. Charles’ other son Leonard Darwin, became a major in the army, a Member of Parliament, President of the Royal Geography Society, and a mentor and patron to Ronald Fisher, another pioneer of modern statistics. Charles’ grandson Charles Galton Darwin invented the Darwin-Fowler method in statistics, the Darwin Curve in diffraction physics, Darwin drift in fluid dynamics, and was the director of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (and vaguely involved in the Manhattan Project).

This is not to say that these people were good parents, that they didn’t have extensive help, or that they didn’t heavily rely on their spouses to do deeply unequal child rearing. But it should be surprising that if we were one of the only groups in history working so productively that we should eschew child rearing entirely.

Many highly productive EAs are having children

It should be further strong evidence that many of the most productive and successful EAs have children, often multiple. Some who have been named or identified themselves in these discussions before include Toby Ord, Julia Wise, and Peter Singer. Nick Beckstead, CEO of FTX Future Fund, has child, as well as leaders of four other top EA organizations. Hilary Greaves has six kids and runs Global Priorities Institute. David Manheim has four children and is head of biosecurity policy at Guarding Against Pandemics, among many other things. There are plenty of other examples which need not be named for obvious privacy reasons. But clearly one can be highly productive with children.

Moreover, on a social level, this clearly proves that you can “have kids as an EA” and also that many in the community will be extremely supportive of you if you do. EA organizations typically have good maternity policies, and these should be strengthened further to give women flexibility and support around child care to avoid penalizing their earnings.

Parenting efficiently and economies of scale

Different EAs (and indeed parents in general) have taken different strategies to maintaining productivity while raising kids. EAs seem generally receptive to resources like Emily Oster’s books, Brian Caplan’s book, or Scott Alexander’s Biodeterminist Guide (and its sequel), which all suggest to varying degrees that a significant amount of the toil of parenting can be forgone with near-zero cost. Also, there are anecdotal accounts of people becoming more productive after having children, as it can enforce a structure on your day: “I have to finish my work now rather than procrastinate it into the evening, as I have to cook for my kids and put them to bed later.”

Nevertheless, even if needless toil is avoided and some productivity gained, there are inevitably some tradeoffs between productivity, time, and money. Some EAs accept a temporary productivity loss to raise and spend time with their children. Some EAs have hired extensive childcare and household help.

But what could we do if there were more EA children? Probably some very exciting things! Maybe EA organizations in hubs could share daycares or child care services (“Baby Lightcone”?). EAs often have creative ideas around education, and it would be very exciting to see experiments in these areas. Could an EA prep school eventually be on the table? The point is that with more children (and due investment) the productivity hit to individuals may be reduced, and EA children might be better off too.

The big picture

(Lower epistemic status) There is something very profound, symbolically and intrinsically, in the way that having children connects you to the future. As Julia Wise wrote in a recent post

Once I had children, I had a gut-level feeling that it was extremely important that they have long and healthy lives.

Kids give us skin in the game. They give our actions weight. They suggest that you are someone who actually believe in the possibility of a better future, that you believe there is something deep and meaningful about life, that you aren’t just obsessed with optimizing in a way disconnected from humanity. If it seems like something that would add meaning to your life and work, why not go for it?