One particular phrase relating to a study that came out last spring continues to pop up online: moral outrage. The study, “Parenthood as a Moral Imperative? Moral Outrage and the Stigmatization of Voluntarily Childfree Women and Men” has a finding that not having children by choice “inspires moral outrage in others.” While the study’s author Leslie Ashburn-Nardo acknowledges “mean levels of moral outrage were small overall” and it can be argued that the media have overblown this finding, it’s worth asking why people can feel morally outraged by the childfree. Here are two big reasons why.
Seeing not reproducing as morally wrong stems from mindsets that have been hammered into human minds for centuries. For many generations humans have been taught that we have a moral duty to reproduce as a way to contribute to and grow human society. Pushing pronatalist beliefs that create reproductive obligation goes back as far as Roman times when ruler Caesar Augustus put forth the Augustan Laws which rewarded people who had many children and penalized those who did not. These laws and those that have followed for hundreds of years have promoted the value that reproducing fulfills our responsibility to ensure survival of our society.
From as far back as BC times, religious institutions have instilled the idea that it is morally wrong if we don’t reproduce as well. The belief that we have a duty to God to “be fruitful and multiply” still holds strong today in religious circles. Religious institutions have a vested interest in promoting a moral obligation to reproduce. It continues to ensure a growing population of members, which fosters the growth of religious institutions’ power.
An Outdated Mindset
Today, do we need to push the idea that we should reproduce to ensure our survival and feel morally outraged when someone doesn’t? In the world’s current state of overpopulation, I think not. Do we have an obligation to help religious institutions grow their power? I also think not, especially given the costs society and our world face with a net gain of one new human every 15 seconds in the U.S. alone. (Check out the U.S. Census Bureau’s U.S. and World Population Clock: http://www.census.gov/popclock)
Today’s Moral Duty
It’s more than time to dump a mindset of moral outrage as it relates to procreative duty, and adopt one that reflects the realities of today. Such a mindset would promote making reproductive decisions that put one’s obligation to the planet and those already on it first. We owe it to the generations of people already here and those in the future (and all other beings on the planet other than human beings) to do what we can to mitigate population and natural resource problems that exist today. We have a moral obligation – a moral responsibility to leave future generations as healthy a planet as possible.
And the most powerful thing people can do is reduce their reproduction. As scholar and philosopher Travis Rieder promotes, we need to enter a time of serious discussion of procreative ethics. Society should deeply digest his moral arguments against having children. In his piece, “Science proves kids are bad for Earth. Morality suggests we stop having them,” Rieder contends no “tidy answer” currently exists “to the challenging questions of procreative ethics. But that does not mean we’re off the moral hook.”
Hardly. Our moral responsibility to lessen the suffering of people and the world’s natural environment has never been greater. When we take this moral duty seriously, and have no children or limit the number we do have, it also reflects the greatest of humanitarian acts and loyalty to the future of today’s world.