Some of the hard decisions are widely discussed; children in distress make good news articles, and everyone likes to criticize other people's parenting decisions. Some hard decisions are obscure. Here are a few, by way of illustration:
- Autism: how should it be treated? Should it be treated? Are the deficits associated with autism outweighed by the benefits? Are the harms of treatment made up for by the benefits? This problem is even more difficult if you think about it not from your own likely scientifically savvy perspective, but from the perspective of an ordinary, scientifically illiterate parent. I am pretty hard on parents, but I maintain that it is almost certainly not sadism that motivates parents to do things like give their autistic children bleach enemas to try to cure them. It is, rather, misplaced hope and poor decision making - which highlights the importance of good decision making, and the seriousness of the decision and its consequences.
- Circumcision and other forms of genital mutilation: is removing a part of a child's body appropriate in order to maintain tribal affiliation? If you, like me, think genital mutilation is always wrong, consider the fact that millions of parents still do it. Why do you think they do it? Again, sadism is the wrong answer. What benefits are the parents seeing that, to them, outweigh the cost?
- Deafness: should deaf children be surgically altered to "fix" them? Should they be taught lip reading, sign language, or both? Parents must choose whether to immerse the child fully in the deaf community with full language acquisition, risking less engagement with the hearing community, or attempt to engage the child in the hearing community, risking poor language acquisition.
- Divorce: what should be the parenting arrangement following a divorce? Should the child spend large amounts of time with each parent, splitting himself between two homes and lives, or have a primary parent and visit the other? (Prior to this, another hard decision may be whether to divorce in the first place.)
- Parenting style: is authoritarian parenting worth the direct harm to the child and the risks to his future? Is relaxed, laissez-faire parenting appropriate? Both have benefits, but the risks of both may be grave.
- Religion: what about the child's "spiritual" well-being and/or his mortal soul? Are the harms of religion worth the benefits?
The above list represents a tiny slice of the total space of hard parenting decisions. Almost everyone agrees that these decisions are grave matters with extremely serious consequences. It's a rare person who experiences no strong feelings when thinking about these matters.
The "curiosity of reasoning" I want to point out is this: despite the massive space of hard parenting decisions that everyone has strong feelings about, the decision to create a child is treated as trivial. The meta-decision - what might be expressed as the sum of all the subordinate hard decisions, or at least to have some relation to the space of hard parenting decisions - is uncritically treated as a wash.
Isn't it strange we should be so cavalier about flipping the switch that turns on all of these decisions, when we treat each sub-decision as grave and serious? Are not the consequences of the meta-decision worth at least as much consideration as a single one of the hard parenting decisions that will arise if the child is created?
That's my main point. I have another, related point concerning what Bryan Caplan has called "free disposal." His argument is that the decision to create a child is not that grave or serious, because (a) the child can always choose to commit suicide (tall buildings and all), but (b) hardly anyone does.
This line of logic seems to convince folks in regard to existence (flipping the overall switch). But think about it in relation to any of the hard parenting decisions I've mentioned here. If it is an argument that creating a child is not a grave matter, shouldn't it also be an argument that doing anything to a child that doesn't frequently result in suicide is not a grave matter? It sounds very strange, for instance, to argue that circumcision is not a grave matter because few victims of circumcision choose to commit suicide, yet suicide is easy. It sounds oddly callous to argue that giving children bleach enemas is not that serious because few victims commit suicide, and they could easily do so.
Is there a reason that the argument has force when applied to the gravity of the creation question, but not to the gravity of other hard parenting dilemmas?