Why have children when life is so hard?

Criss asked:

Why do people keep bearing children when life is so hard, ugly, and unfair?

Why to bring into existence a new life, when life is so much pain? why when anyway, most times, children bring more worries than happiness? why do parents look through ‘pink glasses’ while deciding to have children, hoping for a beautiful life for their children (and for themselves), and they don’t learn from the experience of their parents?

Why, when no-one thinks anyway that living his/ her life again (exactly the way it already was) does worth it?

I see children everywhere, new poor lives, it seems like their parents think that life is worth living. when they’re not happy anyway, why do they bring into existence a new life, that will suffer the same as they do?

It might sound depressive, but really, I rarely see people that enjoy their life and are happy they were born. most of them are only afraid to die and just go on… and keep struggling… keep suffering… and keep giving life…

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Well Criss it does seem as though you are a bit depressed and maybe seeing only the sad things in life. People have children because they have a very powerful instinct to have children. At the same time they also have a very powerful instinct to love, protect and care for their children.

Of course this doesn’t mean that all children are cared for and protected. Parents cannot protect their children against famine, disease or earthquakes but humans are not gods or saints and even if they do the best they can they may still fail.

Here is a poem from a British poet Christopher Logue. You have to try before you can succeed or fail. If you don’t try then maybe you don’t exist.

‘Be Not Too Hard’ by Christopher Logue

Be not too hard for life is short
And nothing is given to man
Be not too hard when he is sold and bought
For he must manage as best he can
Be not too hard when he gladly dies
Defending things he does not own
Be not too hard if he tells lies
And if his heart is sometimes like a stone
Be not too hard for soon he dies
Often no wiser than he began
Be not too hard for life is short
And nothing is given to man

Be not too hard for soon he dies
Often no wiser than he began
Be not too hard for life is short
And nothing is given to man
Nothing is given to man

Answer by Craig Skinner

A heartfelt plea.

And not the first. Consider:

Sophocles:

‘Never to have been born is best
But if we must see the light, the next best
Is quickly returning whence we came’

Heinrich Heine:

‘Sleep is good, death is better; but of course
The best would be never to have been born at all’

The old Jewish quip:

‘Life is terrible, it would have been better not to have been born.
Who is so lucky: not one in a hundred thousand’

Why then do we keep having children?

Explanation (how it comes about that we do this) is straightforward, justification (do we have good reasons for doing it) more problematic.

The explanation is that we are natural-born reproducers and optimists. These traits are inherited and have survival value. They are part of human nature. We are descendants of protohumans who were like this, whereas nonreproducers-cum-pessimists left no descendants. So in all societies we find unplanned and planned pregnancy, children being cherished, hopes for a better future invested in them, celebration of birth and mourning at death, rather than the reverse, and widespread overestimation of life’s quality (‘things could be worse’, ‘look on the bright side’, ‘chin up’ etc).

But can we justify having children and keeping the species going? Here are some attempts:

Religious justification:

Yes, life is a vale of tears, but it’s only a proving ground, and we (or some of us) will have a wonderful afterlife. If you believe this, no other justification is necessary.

Ethical justification:

There is an ethical necessity for good to exist, and this can only occur if there is a universe rather than absolutely nothing. Therefore, even if good must be accompanied by evil, it is better for these to exist than not to. Believing this is a bit like religious belief without gods, and without heaven to explain away evil.

Pragmatic justification:

Yes, life on Earth may well be a fluke in an unfeeling universe, it’s absurd, but let’s enjoy it if we can, and have children who can do likewise.

I don’t go, myself, for the religious or ethical justifications. I favour the pragmatic, but recognize that this may be no more than a ‘habit of the mind’, the phrase Hume uses when noting that philosophically we may be properly sceptical of the existence of the external world, of a persisting self, and of a link between cause and effect, but when we leave the study and join everyday life we all believe these things exist and act accordingly.

Note that even if it would have been better for me never to have existed, it doesn’t follow, now that I do exist, that it would be best to commit suicide. Not bringing a person into existence, and ending the life of an existing person, are two different things. A nonexistent person has no interests, no rights, no agenda, whereas an existent one has and usually has an interest in continuing to live.

In addition to the argument from the manifest suffering of most lives, there is another argument for nonexistence being better than existence, namely the Asymmetry Argument. It goes like this. Nonexistence prevents both suffering and joy. But, whereas this prevention of suffering is a good thing FULL STOP, the prevention of joy is not a bad thing because there is nobody who is deprived of it.

David Benatar’s Better Never To Have Been (OUP 2009) argues at length for existence always being a harm, procreation always wrong, failure to abort always wrong, and extinction of humanity (and other sentient life) desirable. Critics, rather than countering his arguments, mostly dismiss his conclusions as absurd, or misunderstand him as favouring mass suicide (rather than planned extinction), or misrepresent him as favouring selective abortion or euthanasia for the disabled. Although the conclusions seem grim, the book is engaging.

As for extinction, I doubt that planning for it well ever catch on, but unplanned extinction is a distinct long term possibility.

8 thoughts on “Why have children when life is so hard?

  1. Having children because you want to love and protect something is extremely selfish. Parents do not consider that these kids are going to become adults and are doomed to a 9-5 slave ship for 40-50 years, where money rules and the never ending fear of running out of it. Parents should ask themselves if having kids is the best thing for the child, not for themselves. They are forcing life upon them and life, maybe great at one point, is just a disappointing and painful pile of sloppy hard to follow nonsense.

  2. I lurk on many forums and i am struck by the vapidity of the pragmatic argument in its many guises which is the ‘go-to’ pollyanna 2.0 of our generation. The word ‘pollanna’ probbly clued u in that I am an antinatalist. Even theism comes with an risk for hell. And chanting arias in heaven all eternity? How is this enticing? Existence cannot supply meaning, because there was no need for meaning prior to it. The void is the only reality, it’s so real it doesn’t even realise itself (because realising itself would create reality, which as we know, is unreal. Or convincingly dreamlike) Look up philip mainlander, now THAT’S some redemption theology (/ontology)

  3. When you create life, you create death. Your children will eventually die; and most people have fears about death. Why put them through such turmoil? I won’t be having children of my own. Planned extinction is idealistic, at best, because the drive to reproduce is extremely strong in 99% of human beings.

  4. I agree with David Benetar’s view and won’t be having children as I think it unethical to pass on the pain to another innocent being, especially my own child. The idea of planned extinction makes me feel a sense of relief, but I do think it is unlikely as its true most people don’t reflect enough to realise the burden they are creating for themselves and their children when they have them! I don’t want to end my suffering through suicide, so I will make the best of my time on earth but I certainly won’t be passing it on to a poor child… It ends with me (and any pets I have will be neutered too so their offspring are not at risk of pain)… I really feel good about that decision!

    1. Where is the love here? Life is up and down, at times awful and at times incredible. Love is the reason to have children, so that they can experience love for themselves and be given the opportunity to pass that love on if they wish. Having children also creates purpose and enrichment. Although having suffered from severe depression at times in my life I still see life as an incredible experience not to be missed and hope to pass on what I’ve learnt often the hard way to my children. If we were happy all the time happiness wouldn’t exist. You have to have the lows to experience the incredible highs. Having children has also made me much less self absorbed because they become the most important priority in your life. It helps complete the whole person.

      1. It’s most likely that your children doesn’t need and don’t want to have love, because love is what you want, you assume that he wants love, and like this is a glorious action, your children will never have chance to chose if they want “love” or life. so you force him into this world and force your own ideology onto another human being, because you feel like it, like you own another human being. This is the worst.

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