Parenthood and effective altruism


The choice to become a parent is one of the biggest and most binding life decisions we can make. How might that decision go if you want to incorporate principles of effective altruism in the big decisions of your life? In considering the costs and attractions of parenthood, I will make the case that having children can indeed be consistent with those principles. I’ll also explain why I think the EA movement should be open to the idea of parenthood as part of an EA life.

How does parenthood fit into a life based on effective altruism?

I am not a parent myself: I have to make my estimation of the costs and some of the benefits from the data I can gather, including experiences and opinions of parents. However this decision can only be made from such a point of inexperience. Indeed, one of the reasons this is a difficult decision is that there are few realistic options for changing one’s mind after one has had a child, and for women the option is only open for a limited (but unknown) timeframe.

What are we asking?

It can be useful to consider big decisions abstractly, to determine the ideal sequence of actions to take in our life without consideration for our individual psychologies. This can make us aware of the decision space, and encourage us to cultivate helpful desires. However, when we make decisions we must consider who we are. Within the effective altruist movement we seek to ask how we as individuals can achieve the most good possible. If a proposed action would render a particular person miserable, it’s highly unlikely they will be able to stick to it. Moreover, the question of potential parenthood is usually being asked by two people whose relationship offers them mutual support. The well-being and psychological needs of both those people must factor in the analysis.

What are the costs of a child?

Estimates of the financial costs of child-raising range from the considerable to the enormous, but the figures available are not robust or free from bias. A UK insurance group has estimated £220,000 to raise a child from birth to 21[1], with childcare (£60k) and education (£70k) forming the bulk of this. The number has been criticised on a number of grounds[2] by economist Tim Harford,[3] who also a pointed out the obvious benefit to a company which sells life insurance of inflating the accepted cost of parenthood. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group made a more conservative estimate of £148,000 for a couple raising one child to the age of 18.[4] This figure is derived from their minimum income standard (or MIS[5]), which is their calculation of the minimum support needed for two adults and one child. Currently set at £468 per week, the MIS outstrips the minimum wage two people would earn in the UK, suggesting that two adults earning minimum wage would be unable to support any children. The fact that many do suggests the MIS is not actually a minimum.[6]

While meeting the needs of your child will cost a significant amount – especially paid childcare in the early years – the manner in which you do it has some flexibility. As adults, as part of an EA life, we have chosen to limit our consumption and live more simply. These simpler lives may certainly exceed a ‘minimum standard’ – they can be downright lovely. Some of the reasons for this include cultivating tastes for less expensive pleasures and recreations, as well as leveraging non-financial resources such as education, or proximity to friends and family. The same principles, I believe, can be extended to our children without deprivation.

Bryan Caplan’s excellent book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids[7] reviews the evidence from 40 years of adoption and twin studies with a frankly liberating result: barring actual deprivation or trauma, children are largely who they are going to be as a result of their genetic makeup. In long-term measures of well-being, education and employment, parental influence exerts a temporary effect which disappears when we are no longer living with our parents. So costly added extras (music lessons, coaching and tutoring, private school fees) are probably not going to change your child’s life in the long term. (However, data on the antenatal environment suggests benefit to taking iodine, but avoiding ice-storms and licorice during pregnancy.[8]) Sharing time together and finding common interests can build a good relationship and help a child develop without major costs.

Taking this information into account, I estimate that for two parents living in the UK, the cost of raising a child to independence while providing what’s needed for their health, education and wellbeing will be between £150-£200,000. If we estimate 18-21 years for them to reach such independence, this gives an approximate range of £3500-£4800 per parent per year. But we don’t ‘lose’ our children when they are no longer dependent upon us: it might be better to consider the cost as a lifetime cost, so that if you become a parent at 30 and expect to live till you are 80, the cost is more like £2000 per parent per year over one’s remaining years of life.

This considerable cost can be put into perspective with other spending decisions. The annualised lifetime cost of parenthood is less than many spend annually on a car and petrol. It is less than the cost differences at stake in deciding which city to live in, or whether to live rurally. It’s much less than the difference in wages between two potential careers. For this reason I think it is a real mistake to consider the financial costs of parenthood as being categorically different to many of the other lifestyle choices we make. It would seem irrational to choose a profession that would have significant adverse effect on your well-being for the sake of a £2000 p.a. increase in wages.

In addition to straightforward financial outlay, parenthood comes with costs of time and opportunity. Loss of flexibility and leisure mean you won’t be able to take all opportunities (like taking on extra work to make more money or advance your career). Late notice travel is unlikely to be possible. You will probably be sleep deprived for a large part of the first year or more of your child’s life, and this may impact on your work performance. The work of parenting will take time, though some of it may be outsourced at the cost of increased financial outlay.

So, this baby is going to cost you about £2000 a year and take a variable but large amount of your time, which will equate in the end to another chunk of money. For parents taking parental leave or working less than full time to provide childcare, there may be delay to career progression as well as income. Does this represent an unacceptably large sum of money and time to be compatible with the goal of maximising our impacts for the good?

I would argue it’s possible to integrate this cost into one’s personal rather than charitable budgets. When deciding if we would try to start a family, my partner Toby and I planned a ‘baby budget’: we would each contribute a portion of our income to the fund for our child’s needs. By doing this we can still meet our giving pledges, but adjust other spending patterns. In effect, we would channel money from ourselves to this other person, without reducing our commitments to give. If the costs turn out to be higher than we can absorb this way, I may reduce my giving, but am confident of still being able to give over £1,000,000 in the course of my career.

Likewise, we would plan to continue to work in our careers full time (after a period of parental leave). We envisage that our personal time budgets would change pretty dramatically. I don’t work all the hours in a day (even if it sometimes feels like it!) and neither does my partner. We spend time talking over coffee, we listen to music, we read, we walk, we hang out with friends, I knit and sometimes I watch a lot of crappy television. How might that time budget change? There would be fewer sleep-ins, and more wakeful nights. I would probably exchange bad TV for audiobooks while breastfeeding. Our walks would be shorter and slower, and will be more likely to end in a playground than a pub.

Some of this – the sleeplessness, bits of pregnancy and the process of childbirth – would not be fun. Again, I don’t think this represents a categorical difference from the sacrifices we elect to make in pursing other long term goals. In my case, I’ve worked 84 hours of night shifts in a week, a feat which requires several days to recover physically and mentally, because it was integral to training in my career. I’ve studied for hours at either end of a full time working day because I want to progress in my specialty.[9] If the payoff is worth it, I am prepared to do this too.

So what’s the gain?

First, there can be personal benefits. While parenting is work, it’s also a challenge and a discovery. To observe and take part in the growth of a human from a ball of cells to someone who can talk, think, reason and love sounds to me like a most amazing journey. I expect that parenthood will challenge me to the end of my character. I expect to learn and change and grow.

I don’t think you have to become a parent to learn these lessons, but nor do I think I’ll learn them just by working at my paid job. I might learn them from traveling widely, from climbing mountains, from learning another language, by arguing with strangers in a bar at 3am, by reading all of Derek Parfit’s works, by singing songs with friends in the backyard on a sunny afternoon. For most of us, living a life means doing a lot of things that don’t necessarily earn money or prestige. Some people might be able to work 80 hours a week, to just work and sleep and thrive on that. My observation is that even among highly motivated and talented coworkers, such people are the exception rather than the rule. If I did that I am reasonably sure I’d be burned out and unhappy within 5 years, making such a plan not merely demanding but directly self-defeating.

The desire to be a parent – to have children, either biologically or by other means – does not always arise as a clear-eyed appraisal of the potential benefits. The (faintly derisive) term ‘baby fever’ was coined to denote the intense desire for children that many people experience without being able to fully explain, and possibly in the face of their own analysis of the arguments for and against having a child. Some preliminary psychological research suggests the phenomenon has complex origins and is observable in both men and women.[10]

It is clear that the longing for children that some people experience can not be overcome by clearly viewing the obstacles to and pitfalls of parenthood. The nature of this desire can be so strong, that even when achieving parenthood seems impossible, people’s wish to become parents will drive them to extraordinary efforts. Fertility clinics treat patients prepared to endure years of waiting[11], followed by uncomfortable and invasive testing, difficult procedures and at least a 65% chance of failure[12] in an effort to become parents. If they were able to rationalise themselves out of wanting children, they would stop before exhausting every possible resource – medical, emotional and financial – in efforts to start a family that might span a decade. In the light of this reality, the rationalist suggestion I have encountered – that one guard against a desire to become a parent by pre-emptively being sterilised before the desire has arisen – seems a recipe for psychological disaster.

I don’t have the answer to the origin of the longing for children that many experience. It’s almost certainly due to a complex mixture of biological and social factors. It might even be an evolutionary trick. However, the fact remains that this desire is real and difficult to manage if unfulfilled. It can’t be simply discounted or argued away as irrational. It needs to form part of our considerations in whether or not we choose to (attempt to) become parents, because we must consider how tenable it is to sacrifice our chance to fulfil these desires

Finally we may ask whether parenthood – and the resulting person created – will benefit the wider world? This is a harder good to calculate or rely upon. The inheritance of specific character traits is difficult to predict. It’s certainly not guaranteed that your offspring will embrace all of your values throughout their lifetime. The burden of onerous parental expectations are extensively documented, and it would appear foolish to have children on the expectation they will be altruistic in the same way you are. However, your child is likely to resemble you in many important respects. By adulthood, the heritability of IQ is between 0.7 and 0.8,[13] and there is evidence from twin studies of significant heritability of complex traits like empathy.[14] This would give them a high probability of adding significant net good to the world.

For EA’s making this decision, there is a further benefit in changing how the world sees the EA life. A core message of Giving What We Can is that many people can do a significant amount of good. We are so comparatively wealthy that without significant sacrifice, we can help thousands of people. If the way we live implies that to make this difference you must sacrifice parenthood, this will drastically narrow the range of people who can consider doing the same.

How do we weigh these up?

It’s a complicated ledger.

On the one hand: the vast bulk of your leisure time for perhaps five years and a significant portion for the next 13, a less flexible work and home life, the emotional cost of knowing your heart may never be your own again, and finally your share of the financial cost of £150,000-£200,000. Two parents might be able to save 70 lives by donating this money to Against Malaria Foundation

On the other hand: we demonstrate the level of sacrifice required to make the world significantly better does not require a dramatic deviation from what most people consider ‘a normal life’; we gain all the good that might be contained in one life; two parents grow and develop and enjoy a lifetime with their child, and, for some, there is the fulfilment of a deep desire.

The nature of an individual will almost certainly play a determining role. For myself, I could theoretically cut my personal spending anyway, work more and be able to give more money, to save more lives. I could live just to work, earning to give. But I know such a life plan would be self-defeating and would not last. I’m happy donating 50% of my income over my life, but if I also chose not have a child simply to raise that amount to 55%, then that final 5% would cost me more than all the rest, to the extent I don’t believe I could continue to do so. Julia Wise writes beautifully about how it changed her outlook on life to allow herself the possibility of children,[15] and it’s a feeling that I totally understand because I’ve felt the same. I believe that by making this decision to spend my personal money and time budgets in this way, I’m deciding to meet a major psychological need and to plan a life I can continue to live in the long term. I think this decision will also benefit my future child, and I think there is a significant chance it will benefit the wider world.

Is EA “family friendly”? Why does it matter?

Within the EA movement I’ve sometimes encountered a fairly dismissive attitude to parenthood in the abstract. Sometimes the best on offer is a sort of resigned tolerance, with EA’s advocating we not “shun” people just for having children.[16] At other times I’ve seen parenthood characterised as foolish, selfish or both, to be discouraged with great zeal. I genuinely wonder where this hostility comes from. Is it simply that the hostile attitudes I’ve encountered have been expressed by people quite early in their lives? The onset of a desire to have a family may post-date one’s third decade (creating difficulties for the half of our species with a limited reproductive lifespan). Possibly it’s so prevalent because in our society women are more likely to express a desire for children than men are, and men dominate some internet EA conversations.

I hope these attitudes aren’t representative. Providing some counter evidence is that since announcing that we are expecting a baby, my husband Toby and I have both experienced a universally warm and excited response from friends and colleagues in the EA community. I’m reasonably sure – and I certainly hope – they aren’t just deciding not to shun us.

I think it’s vital that as a movement, EA enthusiastically embraces parents and potential parents. In order to spread EA values, and to build a robust movement, these values must be tenable as part of a whole life. We are not machines who can spend every waking moment working or earning money to give. We are not able to ignore our fundamental needs in order to eliminate the needs that divert us from spending every moment maximising our actions to a single goal. We need to take into account our psychological needs as we set the goals and paths for our lives.

Finally, I believe we need to recognise that to understand and engage with our complex world, we need to encompass a range of experiences and perspectives. Recent criticisms of the EA movement have raised the concern that we risk cultivating a monoculture.[17] Parenthood is only one variance we can embrace: education, gender, ethnicity are several others, as we continue to build a movement that really does strive to achieve the best it can in the world.


1] http://​​​​life-insurance/​​useful-information/​​cost-of-a-child, Accessed: 19 Jan 2014]

[2] For instance, more than £50,000 of their figure assumes parents will be pay university fees for their adult offspring (rather than take a universally available fee loan, repayable when their earnings reach a threshold which is currently set above median wage).

[3] Harford, Tim (presenter) More or Less (audio podcast) 2014, Jan 31. Retrieved from http://​​​​podcasts/​​series/​​moreorless/​​all [Accessed: 31 Mar 2014]

[4] Meikle J “Cost of raising child in UK increases to nearly £150,000” The Guardian, available at http://​​​​money/​​2013/​​aug/​​19/​​cost-raising-child-uk-increases [Accessed: 23 Jan 2014]

[5] “Minimum Income Standard” http://​​​​topic/​​mis [Accessed: 23 Jan 2014]

[6] As advocates for increased welfare support in the UK, we might expect the JRF to have some bias when deciding which costs to include as a ‘minimum’.

[7] Caplan B, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think Basic Books, 2011

[8] The Biodeterminists Guide to parenting [blog] December 12, 2012, available at http://​​​​346391.html [20 retrieved Jan 2014]

[9] Training as a doctor has also involved some even less pleasant things, but its been suggested to me that most people don’t enjoy reading about them in essays like this.

[10]Brase, GL and Brase SL, “Emotional regulation of fertility decision making: What is the nature and structure of “baby fever”?” Emotion, Vol 12(5), Oct 2012, 1141-1154.

[11] “NHS Choices: Can I get IVF treatment on the NHS” http://​​​​chq/​​Pages/​​889.aspx?CategoryID=54 [Accessed 23 January 2014]

[12] “NHS Choices: IVF” http://​​​​conditions/​​IVF/​​Pages/​​Introduction.aspx [Accessed 23 January 2014]

[13] Plomin R, Pedersen NL, Lichtenstein P, McClearn GE. Variability and stability in cognitive abilities are largely genetic later in life. Behav Genet. 1994 May;24(3):207-15. PubMed PMID: 7945151.

[14] Davis MH, Luce C, Kraus SJ. The heritability of characteristics associated with dispositional empathy. J Pers. 1994 Sep;62(3):369-91. PubMed PMID: 7965564.

[15] Wise, J. 2014. Cheerfuly. Giving Gladly, [blog] June 8, 2013, Available at: http://​​​​2013/​​06/​​cheerfully.html [Accessed: 01 Apr 2014]

[16] Tomasik, B 2012, ‘The Cost of Kids’ Essays on reducing Suffering August 4, 2012, Available at: http://​​​​cost-of-kids.html [Accessed: 02 Apr 2014]

[17] Kuhn, B “A critique of Effective Altruism” [blog] available at http://​​​​lw/​​j8n/​​a_critique_of_effective_altruism [Accessed 21 January 2014]

Thanks to Michelle Hutchinson and Toby Ord for their useful feedback on earlier drafts of this piece.