Is parenthood permissible for a utilitarian, given the greater good that could be done with the resources you'll spend on it?

  • The question is loaded, as expressed, in that it assumes a greater good, but I'm not sure why someone down-voted it? Apr 29, 2014 at 14:49
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    @ChristopherE I can only guess that this Q was downvoted because Q and A were posted within 60 seconds by the same user. Also, the link provided by the A looked like self-advertising. It is also weird that the A 'corrects' the Q (given that they are by the same user). That's my guess. (I only considered downvoting something.)
    – user3164
    Apr 29, 2014 at 19:58

2 Answers 2


'Permissibility' is a poor term to use in the context of classical act utilitarianism, as this ranks actions as better or worse and would often only consider the best action as permissible. Parenthood likely does not devote resources to their optimal target, so is not the best choice in the sense, but is not bad when compared to the many other suboptimal actions people typically take.

Some other points are covered by this article:

  • The costs of parenthood are comparable to other life choices generally deemed acceptable (see source)
  • Some find abstaining from parenthood so psychologically difficult that it's self-defeating
  • There are significant benefits
  • What do you mean here by "optimal" target? Since utility functions are (at least in part) subjective, this statement seems to impose a different utility function on the person deciding to become a parent. Apr 30, 2014 at 17:16

Whether it is forbidden, required, or somewhere in between depends entirely on your cost function, especially how you view the number and quality of future lives impacting the determination of the greater good.

With certain choices (e.g. those who are here now are privileged with respect to new lives), the species may end up--if you follow it to its logical conclusion--courting extinction.

For any flavor of utilitarianism that does not risk extinction of humanity, parenthood is a good course of action for many.

(I am not aware of a systematic review of the long-term evolutionary fitness obtained by following various ethical systems. This might be nice to know, though.)

  • Many biologists would take fitness to be equal to number of children, so there are a huge number of studies, search for fertility instead of fitness.
    – Lucas
    Apr 29, 2014 at 15:54
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    @Lucas - Long-term fitness isn't really number of children; that's an approximation when everything is in steady-state. We're in an unenviable position of endangering ourselves if we have too many children too quickly (exceeding carrying capacity). So something that just treats fertility is unlikely to be relevant.
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 29, 2014 at 17:17
  • Indeed, it is short term. There is always the question of how forward looking a measure of fitness should be. The number of children measure of fitness is chosen because it's unambiguous, practical in the sense that it's something that can be measured and it is equal to Fisher's absolute fitness (give or take the window over which it is calculated).
    – Lucas
    Apr 29, 2014 at 18:02
  • @Lucas - I agree that's why it's chosen. That something is unambiguous and easy does not make it right, however. All sorts of cases exist where Fisher's absolute (or relative) fitness are not a good measure of long-term fitness, e.g. groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/timescale_prl
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 29, 2014 at 18:10
  • Yeah, they're essentially formalised as differential quantities evaluated at a specific time, and are dependant on many things. In my original comment I was only trying to indicate that social scientists say fertility where a biologist says fitness, there seems to be quite a lot of literature about the relationship between fertility and beliefs - it might not be faultless in terms of considering long-term selective pressures, but that's no different to biology.
    – Lucas
    Apr 29, 2014 at 18:39

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