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Is It Unethical to Have Children?


Marat
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Anyone over the age of 20 knows that life can be horrible. The one thing we fear most -- death -- is what is most certain to happen, and everything we do in life is overshadowed by that awareness. From an early age on we start to experience a gradual slide into death as we decay before our own eyes in the process of aging; a dead 20-year-old who has been lying in the sun for three days looks better than a living 80-year-old, so the mask of death is something we have to wear even in life. Human existence is not only burdened by grief, frustration, injury, disease, and conflict, but also, our awareness augments the power of every evil by anticipating it, ruminating over it, remembering it, and regretting it.

 

And this is just speaking of the average fate. For a child born with spina bifida, polycystic kidney disease, progeria, and the like, life can be pure torture. Since we suffer from an irrational, instinctive drive to continue living just for its own sake, no matter how hideous life becomes, sensibly escaping life by suicide is often not an option where it should be, and in any hospital at any given time there are countless patients clinging to a life which simply tortures them, but too paralyzed by an irrational instinct to live at any cost to be able to escape. Add to this other especially unfortunate lives, such as those in dire poverty, marred by drug addiction, oppressed by imprisonment, burdened by psychosis, tormented by loneliness, and we have to admit that human existence can be truly terrible.

 

But as future parents we have to acknowledge that we owe the very highest fiduciary duty of care to our future children, if any. It is widely accepted that parents must do everything possible to avoid harming their own offspring. Given that duty, how can we have children and thus impose life on our future offspring -- without being able to consult them first to know if they want to bear the risks of a potentially horrible existence? They may lose out on some happiness if they are never born, but our fiduciary duty to them is not to harm them, and they can't be harmed if they don't exist. It also won't do to say that they can always rescue themselves from an especially horrible life by suicide, since instinct often prohibits people from electing that option, even if they want.

 

A further problem which arises when people have children is that the need to turn suddenly from self-development and personal growth to guiding the development and growth of infants tends to stall the parents' personal development, so that they never become any more mature. So not only do they risk injuring their children by imposing life on them, but they also risk warping their own development.

 

Add to this the problems of overpopulation on the environment, greenhouse gas emissions, etc., and it seems that the duty to be safe and not risk the dire unhappiness of future children born into a tragic fate is an overriding motivation to remain childless.

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Well I'm not going to get any points for this answer but Yes, having more than 2 kids per couple or one kid per person is highly unethical. There are far too many people on the planet now, having more kids than it takes to simply replace your self is wrong IMHO... not so sure about being totally childless because of worrying about what might happen to them in the future, we all take that risk, life it's self is a risk, but if you feel that way then go for it or um don't go for it or maybe just use birth control. :unsure:

Edited by Moontanman
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Having children is probably ultimately a totally irrational choice involving multiple high risks. Still, people do it all the time and the outcome is only as bad as the child's life turns out. Yes, life is never devoid of suffering and never will be, but does that make it not worth living? That is a question that each individual can answer for themselves. Those who believe the suffering of life outweighs its joys will choose not to have children and possibly to end their own lives. Those who believe that suffering cannot eclipse the immutable joys of living probably would choose to continue living and reproduce the opportunity by having children.

 

edit: the irony is that even the poorest, most oppressed people choose to have kids and will tell you that life is worth living despite all the oppression, poverty, discrimination, etc. so what does that say about the human condition?

Edited by lemur
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While it would certainly be legitimate for you to choose for yourself to bear the risks that your life might turn out to be terrible, but to take the gamble on existing anyway because you believed that it was more likely to turn out to be a tolerable or even a good experience, but the ethical dimension changes when you are making that decision for someone else, especially for someone to whom you owe, by both law and culture, the highest duty of care to protect them from harm, your children.

 

If you are a lawyer with a fiduciary obligation to a client, say managing funds held for him in a trust, you violate your fiduciary duty if you take the trust money and stake it all on a 50-50 bet because you feel lucky and would have made that bet for yourself with your own assets. A fiduciary obligation, that is, a high duty of care exercised for someone who depends on your protection, prevents you from taking risks for them which are in any way dangerous. So imposing existence on future children who may turn out to find their life an intolerable burden which the irrational instinct to live traps them into continuing violates your trusteeship duty, unless it is a very safe bet. However, as I suggested in the OP, it seems that it is not. So it would seem to follow that people are ethically obligated not to have children.

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Couples can have just one child and the growth rate goes down. It should really depend on who is fit for parenthood. If everybody just stopped having children, mankind would go extinct. Who are you proposing to carry the torch?

Edited by Realitycheck
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While it would certainly be legitimate for you to choose for yourself to bear the risks that your life might turn out to be terrible, but to take the gamble on existing anyway because you believed that it was more likely to turn out to be a tolerable or even a good experience, but the ethical dimension changes when you are making that decision for someone else, especially for someone to whom you owe, by both law and culture, the highest duty of care to protect them from harm, your children.

 

If you are a lawyer with a fiduciary obligation to a client, say managing funds held for him in a trust, you violate your fiduciary duty if you take the trust money and stake it all on a 50-50 bet because you feel lucky and would have made that bet for yourself with your own assets. A fiduciary obligation, that is, a high duty of care exercised for someone who depends on your protection, prevents you from taking risks for them which are in any way dangerous. So imposing existence on future children who may turn out to find their life an intolerable burden which the irrational instinct to live traps them into continuing violates your trusteeship duty, unless it is a very safe bet. However, as I suggested in the OP, it seems that it is not. So it would seem to follow that people are ethically obligated not to have children.

It just depends on whether you consider suffering loss or not. For non-existent children to lose something by being born into suffering, you have to assume that non-existence is something you can lose. Otherwise you might look at suffering as a means of gaining the potential for relief or relative joys amid the suffering. In many ways, the problem for many modern people living with excellent health care and welfare guarantees is that they have been sensitized to such a degree to any form of loss that their lives can be very painful because of just the little minor traumas that many other people globally consider mere everyday struggles to overcome. Likewise, these people have often developed a practically level response to relative luxuries because they've become such a common everyday experience. Just think, for example, how available things like refined sugar, chocolate, coffee, etc. have become since the advent of colonialism whereas these things might only be reserved for elite classes in earlier centuries. Anyway, the point is that joy and suffering are relative in many ways and the human experience relies on juxtaposition to some extent - so to think of life's suffering as purely loss to be avoided ignores the fact that it may be an inevitable condition for having positive experiences that provide relief. The best measure, though imo, is to ask someone who is suffering if they would prevent someone else from being born into their situation. My guess is that in most cases, people would not say that their suffering makes their life a complete waste. Nevertheless, positive life experience may also be a product of struggling to overcome suffering, so it also makes sense that people criticize and struggle against suffering, even to the extent that you suggest preventing it by preventing life itself. It's almost as though what you're saying is that life's joy is so great that it is worth preventing life to protect, but that is obviously self-undermining.

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Though of course, if you never exist in the first place you are never confronted with the difficult question of evaluating whether your life has sufficient meaning to outweigh the variety of horrors all existence is exposed to.

 

An interesting related question is whether you can have a duty to protect from harm a child who is not yet born, since this is a non-existent entity, and as such cannot be defined as having interests, rights, or even as being your child rather than just any potential person. The answer seems to be that we generally recognize a duty to future generations of humans who are not yet born, in the sense that we feel obligated not to burden them with an excessive national debt or to impose on them the damage we have profited by inflicting on the environment. So from this it follows that there can be a moral duty to people as yet non-existent.

 

Even if human fate were equally balanced between pleasures and horrors (and I don't see how it can be, since death, the ultimate horror, is certain, while no comparable pleasures are as certain), then life would still seem a net displeasure, given that we are instinctively primed to focus on threats and pains more than we are primed to emphasize pleasures by our selective attention.

 

Another problem for most people when they approach an assessment of the positive versus negative aspects of life is that society quite deliberately disguises the full intensity of the horrors people suffer, so it presents a false, propagandistic, sanitized, Disney-World image of what the balance between pleasures and displeasures really is. There are more novels and films about romance than about cancer; it is simply presupposed without much serious analysis that suicide is always just a symptom of mental illness rather than a rational choice in a hideous existence; more attention is paid to weddings than funerals; and polite society talks about successful careers but not about disease, despair, and death.

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But with out pain, oppresion and death is life enjoyable at all? The point of a gamble is the risk factor that makes winnig that jackpot all so good. Just like having a child is a gamble and nothing is certin but death that is correct, IMO thats the fire beneath someone to live their life and push on. The child may be born with illness etc but the wonders of life and highs it offers, nothing compares. that's what makes humans human. So in all fairness is it worse to deprive your unborn children the shot at living a life better than we can? Or the chance to fall in love and everything the world has to offer. I side with we must keep the chain going to ensure existance and we were hardwired from the annaki that way. ((couldnt help myselfe))):D

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While the presence of evil in contrast to good no doubt adds something to the experience of good, I'm not sure that evil passes the cost-benefit test, especially given our human predisposition to concentrate more on what goes wrong than on what goes right. Even though the contrast with potential evil might increase the intensity of our experience of the good by say 10%, that evil itself has a negative impact much greater than 10% of the good we experience. The endorphins would be present in our experience of happy things to give us pleasure even if there were nothing negative to throw them into greater relief, so I'm not really sure we can find an excuse for evil.

 

Evil also often has the effect of negating our chances of doing anything creative to overcome it, so the enjoyment of the challenge is frequently missing from the experience of misfortune. People who become unemployed often cannot find a new job, so instead of life giving them a challenge and thus an opportunity for creative response, it simply buries them in an empty existence from which they cannot escape. Challenges themselves can lead to failure and thus further misfortunes even where there is an option for creative response to them, so a challenge cannot really compensate for what goes wrong.

 

You see enough images of young hemodialysis patients screaming so loudly that the window panes rattle when their new fistula is needled for the first time to connect them to the dialysis machine, or whimpering like beaten dogs and begging the nurses to stop since they would rather die than endure the pain, all the while knowing that that pain will be repeated three times a week for the rest of their lives (barring a transplant, which is becoming an increasingly rare luxury), and you just shrink back from the indescribable horror of life and wish that no human had ever lived.

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Marat - In my opinion you are over concerned with inevitable death and the trials and tribulations of leading a typical life. You seem blind to the pleasures and joys that are "the other side of the coin". I am in my 70's and not in good health so I'm probably in my last decade of life. I'm not looking forward to the day I die but I do not live in fear of that day. I am glad that I was born and have been fortunate enough to live a normal life (whatever that is!). I have experienced the joys associated with marriage, children, freindship, travel, work where I feel I have been useful and have the satifaction of knowing that I shall be missed when I've gone. I've experienced loss of family and friends over the years, been ill and in pain sometimes and my life is pretty limited right now - but I have never doubted that life has been a gift and would not have missed it for anything! I hope and expect that as life develops for them my children, grandchildren, great granchildren and also you will find life is a great adventure and well worth a bit of suffering now and then.

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An interesting related question is whether you can have a duty to protect from harm a child who is not yet born, since this is a non-existent entity, and as such cannot be defined as having interests, rights, or even as being your child rather than just any potential person. The answer seems to be that we generally recognize a duty to future generations of humans who are not yet born, in the sense that we feel obligated not to burden them with an excessive national debt or to impose on them the damage we have profited by inflicting on the environment. So from this it follows that there can be a moral duty to people as yet non-existent.

What happens is that people come to think of themselves as children of their parents, and they think about what they would do in their parents' shoes, so to speak. Then, when you have children it is like getting the chance to test your own parenting theories in practice. So you're not looking at it as a risk-analysis of things coming out good or bad - more you're looking at it in terms of whether you think you can provide good conditions and opportunities and deal with problems effectively. It's an active orientation toward what you can do and how rather than a passive orientation toward something you deem beyond your influence.

 

Another problem for most people when they approach an assessment of the positive versus negative aspects of life is that society quite deliberately disguises the full intensity of the horrors people suffer, so it presents a false, propagandistic, sanitized, Disney-World image of what the balance between pleasures and displeasures really is. There are more novels and films about romance than about cancer; it is simply presupposed without much serious analysis that suicide is always just a symptom of mental illness rather than a rational choice in a hideous existence; more attention is paid to weddings than funerals; and polite society talks about successful careers but not about disease, despair, and death.

I have noticed a pattern with people who argue for suicide that they are usually bent on promoting it until they get the person they're arguing with to validate it. I think this has something to do with the sense of completion that comes with death and the Freudian death-drive. This might be relevant with regards to the recent jubilation regarding bin Laden's death, since it may fulfill a sense of completion to a war on terror proclaimed to be eternal. I don't know why people have trouble dealing with non-terminating, semi-controllable things but termination seems to be a general approach to negativity that can get very popular very easily. The problem with it is that if you start destroying everything that is bad, how long will it be until you discover something sufficiently good to exempt it from destruction? What amount of suffering is low enough to legitimate life?

 

 

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Tony McC: While you might find your own life satisfactory despite some misfortunes, the problem in having children is that you are making a decision to run a huge risk for people you are ethically obliged to protect but whom you cannot ask for permission to commit them to the choice to be born. For yourself you might say that you would be willing to live even if you had only a 50% chance to have a decent rather than a wreteched existence, but can you legitimately take that gamble for someone whom it is your duty to protect?

 

Think of the situation as though you were a lawyer in charge of administering a trust fund for a minor. Normally such funds are invested only in the most secure assets, like treasury bills, since this is considered to be what is required by your fiduciary duty toward a helpless person you must protect and who cannot be consulted in the management of his own assets. You would be disbarred if you risked those funds at Monte Carlo, even if your gambling was successful, since ethics requires that you act conservatively to protect the child.

 

But when you choose to force life onto a child, what are the odds that the child won't prefer being dead given how hideous his life turns out to be, but he cannot manage to summon the courage to commit suicide, so his existence drags on in a frightful state of perpetual horror, perhaps existing paralyzed and blind on a bed in a hospital for his entire life. If the odds that the child will enjoy life rather than hate it are 60% to 40%, is that sufficient to permit you ethically to bring that child into existence without consulting it first to get its permission? What if the odds of a good life sink to 50%, or 40%? Where do you draw the line? Doesn't your ethical duty to be conservative in making decisions for a child under your trusteeship require you never to plunge the child into the extremely dangerous risk of having to live?

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Tony McC: While you might find your own life satisfactory despite some misfortunes, the problem in having children is that you are making a decision to run a huge risk for people you are ethically obliged to protect but whom you cannot ask for permission to commit them to the choice to be born. For yourself you might say that you would be willing to live even if you had only a 50% chance to have a decent rather than a wreteched existence, but can you legitimately take that gamble for someone whom it is your duty to protect?

 

Think of the situation as though you were a lawyer in charge of administering a trust fund for a minor. Normally such funds are invested only in the most secure assets, like treasury bills, since this is considered to be what is required by your fiduciary duty toward a helpless person you must protect and who cannot be consulted in the management of his own assets. You would be disbarred if you risked those funds at Monte Carlo, even if your gambling was successful, since ethics requires that you act conservatively to protect the child.

 

But when you choose to force life onto a child, what are the odds that the child won't prefer being dead given how hideous his life turns out to be, but he cannot manage to summon the courage to commit suicide, so his existence drags on in a frightful state of perpetual horror, perhaps existing paralyzed and blind on a bed in a hospital for his entire life. If the odds that the child will enjoy life rather than hate it are 60% to 40%, is that sufficient to permit you ethically to bring that child into existence without consulting it first to get its permission? What if the odds of a good life sink to 50%, or 40%? Where do you draw the line? Doesn't your ethical duty to be conservative in making decisions for a child under your trusteeship require you never to plunge the child into the extremely dangerous risk of having to live?

By your logic, when would there ever be sufficient security to warrant having a child? You could argue that certain welfare-state governments provide enough social security to minimize risks but there are tremendous amounts of misery among the beneficiaries of the best levels of social security. So if there is never adequate risk-control to warrant having children, what basis would there be to ever do so? All a potential parent can do is maximize their ability to mitigate the risks and then choose whether they want to brave them or not. There is no authority that a parent has to answer to for the choice to have children. The matter can be discussed, but why would anyone besides a human individual be able to claim authority over an individual's choice to have children? Could you claim that forced abortions/sterilizations are more ethical than taking the risks of having children? In that case could you legitimately systematically sterilize all humans everywhere?

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Marat: Firstly let me say that if your post reflects thoughts,or a situation, concerning your personal circumstances then the last thing I would want to be is unsympathetic.

However the fact is (IMO) that the vast majority of people in the developed world do manage to live purposeful lives, even those with disabilities. Obviously life may be a burden for some from birth but there are not many people to whom this applies (as a percentage of all births).

It is a fact that as we age we slowly become infirm but, speaking as a senior citizen,I haven't really been aware that I have been decaying before my own eyes! That expression paints a picture that I don't really recognise. I really do hope that I look better than a young corpse who has been lying in the sun for three days!

So - to have a child or not,that is the question. There is a chance, albeit quite small, that the child will be born handicapped in some way. There is a chance that the child will wish it had never been born. The best that the child can hope for is a purposeful life followed by death and this is what most children can expect. I am saying that what most children can expect is worth having.

All life is a gamble and some times you just have to go with the odds. Every time I drive my car I may be killed or injured. Every time I go down a flight of stairs I may slip and break my neck. I used to like gliding and on one occasion collided with power cables getting into a field - but I carried on gliding. I have had two children who may have wished they had never been born. In each of these cases the odds were in my favour and I don't think so much that I have been lucky, more that I have not been extraordinarily unlucky.

Life goes on!

 

A further problem which arises when people have children is that the need to turn suddenly from self-development and personal growth to guiding the development and growth of infants tends to stall the parents' personal development, so that they never become any more mature. So not only do they risk injuring their children by imposing life on them, but they also risk warping their own development.

 

I feel having and raising a child requires quite a lot of self-development. It developes the individual's maturity in many ways. Perhaps the biggest step in maturity is the acceptance that there is another life more important than your own. Perhaps only a parent would understand that.

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You raise a good point that since many people seem willing to risk severe harms to themselves for the sake of adding a little adventure or excitement to their lives, the fact that people are willing to increase their risks of tragedy just to gain a little more life intensity suggests that most would accept the dangers of living for the value of the experience.

 

Another point worth considering is that since most people seem to be happy, it seems that the risk-benefit analysis of forcing life on someone else is very much in favor of going ahead with the risk.

 

Finally, there is Kant's saying, that "your life does not have to be happy in order to have value." Perhaps the true goal of human existence is to realize some sort of value which has nothing to do with making yourself happy, so the fact that living creates an enormous risk of misery is not a good reason for declining to live in the first place, which would surrender the opportunity to achieve something of great spiritual, moral, or intellectual value, even if in the course of a life of suffering.

 

The real problems begin when you realize that you are not making this decision for yourself but for someone else, who may not approve of your own risk-benefit assessment, but who will have to pay the price for that risk if it turns out badly. If you feel that there is a 60% chance that life will be happy for your future children and only a 40% chance that they will find their lives so miserable that they would rather be dead, but they are also trapped in life because they lack the courage to kill themselves, is that enough to go ahead and impose the risk on them? What about 50%-50%? Since all these estimates about the likelihood of children having a tragic life, about the tolerance of future children for misfortune, about their own assessment of the costs and value of life, etc. are purely intuitive, do we ever have sufficient certainty about the gamble we are taking for someone else to justify our plunging them into the consequences of that gamble without being able to get their permission first?

 

It's apparent that I'm not a parent.

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Firstly it seems that quantifying the risk that the unborn child has of being pleased to be born seems to be important to you. This is something I must admit I have never given much thought to (except feeling relieved when each of my chidren, grandchildren and great grandchildren were born without handicap).

In an attempt to put numbers to the situation I have discovered this web site - http://www.disabledinaction.org/census_stats.html

It seems 12% of the American population have a severe disabilty. This seems to cover a wide range of conditions such as deafness, blindness, loss of limbs and mental problems. Many of these people (IMO) will be able to make a life that will be so satifactory that they would not entertain thoughts of suicide.

Perhaps more relevant to your post is "Number of people age 6 and older who need personal assistance with one or more activities of daily living (such as taking a bath or shower) or instrumental activities of daily living (such as using the telephone). This group amounts to 4 percent of people in this age category."

Again many of this 4% (IMO) will have useful, worthwhile lives which they would not wish to give up willingly.

I think these numbers are smaller than you thought and so perhaps you will think the risks involved are acceptable.

Secondly, when a partner has been found and other couples are having children the desire to build a family of one's own kicks in. This desire is instinctive and very strong. At such a time you just go ahead with hope in your heart.

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Thanks for the interesting statistics. Though one problem with the quantification of the issue is that while most people's happiness with life may be worth, say, a +1000 on something like Bentham's felicific calculus of pleasure units, the unhappiness with life among the severely disabled, hideously disfigured, and horribly and incurably ill may be - 10,000,000 on the same scale, so just a few of them outweigh the many normals, thus changing the risk-benefit analysis in having children. There are also other situations where people have tragic lives, since they may become drug addicted or alcohol dependent, may ruin all their relationships with an uncontrollable temper, may be severely neurotic or psychotic beyond the effective action of medications, or may have staked everything on winning someone's affection, becoming a great pianist, getting into Princeton, or ensuring German victory in World War II, and never recovered when these ambitions failed.

 

Unfortunately, most people never think seriously about the pluses and minuses of having children, and because it is a natural and socially endorsed thing to do, potential parents often seem uncritically to imagine that no further ethical questions can be raised against their choice. In my day job I see patients with polycystic kidney disease, which carries a 50% risk of passing onto the children a truly horrible, debilitating, and terrifying illness which cannot be prevented or cured, and which ensures early death. Nonetheless, potential parents who know that they carry this gene often cheerily announce that they have decided they will have children anyway since they "like to see the glass half full rather than half empty." Somehow it doesn't occur to them that their children may not view the choice that way, and their children's feelings cast a shadow over the parents' choice.

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Marat, you keep talking about the misery of life as being an end in itself. But isn't misery tied to the urge to progress and grow that is inherent in life? Then you would probably say that the fact that progress and growth never reaches completion that that only adds to the torture, but couldn't you also say that the impossibility of reaching completion of growth and progress provides the possibility of endless possibilities for further trajectories? So by having children, you are just providing access to the possibility of indefinite progress and innovation. Yes, you could argue that destruction and harm are also the result of progress and innovation, but they also result from stagnation and resistance to foreseen change. I think you must be frustrated with the impossibility of controlling negative outcomes in an absolute way, so maybe your argumentation against having children serves as a means of controlling for "unborn others" what for you and all living people escapes absolute control. Sorry if this sounds like I'm psychoanalyzing you - but it's just interesting that your logic in this thread continues to treat life itself as something to be withheld out of ethical concerns for those who could be ethically protected from it. I think this may express to a tee the underlying logic of Freud's death drive; i.e. the desire to repress and control life as opposed to desiring it (libido). It's not a pathological drive, but I think it is usually poorly expressed, if at all, since doing so can be taboo.

Edited by lemur
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It is interesting to try to clarify Lemur's issue by putting it starkly: Suppose we would be fairly certain that by continuing to propagade new life, generation after generation, this would cause an overall progress in the human condition to greater moral value, enlightenment, and happiness. However, the price for this would be that each individual life devoted to this process would inevitably suffer from the human condition, which necessarily involves the certainty of what we most fear, which is death. Since the persistence of the human ego depends on a supporting biological state of organization, but the general trend of physical nature is entropy, humans desire and depend on an order which is constantly being threatened, undermined, and eventually destroyed by the disorder of death. So human existence is primed to be bad. It takes years of training to make a good surgeon who can successfully treat a serious knife wound, but a minute of rage by an idiot with a knife can make an incision in someone which no surgeon can treat. This imbalance of the world towards things humans don't life, toward misfortune, and many other things like this, are the result of entropy, which governs the universe.

 

But on the other hand, we pay this price with no assurance that it will be worth it, since we have no guarantee of the opening premise of this speculation, which is that the world-historical evolution of humanity will be towards the light rather than further into darkness, will be true. So the terrible investment, with all its human misery, may be ultimately for nothing.

 

Perhaps the best thing we can do, the one most assured of achieving at least something positive in sparing people misery, is to have no children.

 

As I commented before, it's apparent I'm not a parent. (How could anyone miss that pun?)

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  • 4 months later...
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But with out pain, oppresion and death is life enjoyable at all?

Agreed. To know joy and happiness you need to know pain and sorrow. I think the good moments make the trials and hardships worth it.

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