Nadia Asparouhova

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Cultivating agency

I didn’t always know that I wanted to have kids. I wasn’t against it, necessarily – for awhile, there were just more reasons in the “why not” column than the “why”: uncertainty about whether I’d be a good parent, fear of losing my identity, a lack of maternal instinct. Those reasons gradually faded away as I grew older and got to know myself better.

I imagine this is not an unusual experience. Some people knew they wanted to have kids their entire lives; they were raised with big families, or traditionalist values, or otherwise found it to be perfectly natural and obvious. For others, it takes a little more time to conquer your messes and realize that if you can figure out how to get yourself together, you can probably figure out how to be a parent, too.

All that is to say: as excited as I am to have kids now, I still understand and respect others’ decisions to not have children. I’m intrigued by the philosophical arguments for antinatalism, such as those made by Sarah Perry in Every Cradle is a Grave. As far as I can tell, these arguments are a personal exercise in morality: for example, the idea that it is unethical to bring a human into the world without their consent, or that a child might experience extreme suffering in their lifetime, or cause extreme suffering to others. These questions have been asked for literally thousands of years, and are a useful inquiry into the purpose of man and civilization, if only to reaffirm one’s faith in procreation.

But today, there is a newer strain of antinatalism weaving its way into the conversation. Unlike these deliberate ethical inquiries, this newer version of antinatalism appears to be a byproduct of social movements, a deeply encoded worldview that perhaps children are not worth having. It is not a decision being weighed against one’s personal moral code, but passively transmitted through a widely-held set of social beliefs.

Antinatalism as a byproduct of social movements

The climate crisis is probably the most prominent example of a social movement whose natural conclusions have led people to not want to have children. One survey of roughly 600 American adults between 27 to 45 found that while 60% of respondents were “very” or “extremely” concerned about the carbon footprint of having children, their bigger concern (cited by 96.5% of respondents) was their children’s well-being in a “climate-changed world.” [1] In the words of one 31-year old respondent: “I dearly want to be a mother, but climate change is accelerating so quickly, and creating such horror already, that bringing a child into this mess is something I can’t do.”

But the climate crisis isn’t the only social movement with antinatalist externalities. Effective altruism (EA) and AGI (artificial general intelligence)/x-risk – social movements which attract overlapping groups of people, but are distinct – also have implications for society that lead to antinatalism.

None of these movements are explicitly antinatalist. Some parts of EA, for example, are even pronatalist. Will MacAskill, a founder of effective altruism, believes that children have the potential to “innovate” and be “moral changemakers” (though he personally does not plan to have children). The longtermism branch of EA, which is focused on improving our long-term future, can be understood as pronatalist, though it is not explicitly, nor uniformly, so. MacAskill affirms this position in his most recent book about longtermism, What We Owe the Future.

On the other hand, among adherents to we might call “classical EA,” the value of having children has been frequently debated. EA derives its philosophy from utilitarianism, and some argue that children are not “cost-effective”: that the time and money spent on raising children could be better spent on reducing suffering in the world. In “The Cost of Kids”, Brian Tomasik states that while “there might be utilitarian benefits from having a kid…I wouldn’t count on it,” suggesting that one could become a sperm or egg donor, or spend their time “inspir[ing] some of the billions of other young people in the world” instead of raising children. Liz Kaye notes that some EAs “point out the very low likelihood that any given potential child…would do more good than that same amount [of money] going towards the Against Malaria Foundation to save dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of lives.”

Among those who are preoccupied by the risks presented by AGI or other global catastrophes, there is a belief that because humanity will be seriously threatened in the next few decades, we need to be primarily concerned with saving ourselves now, instead of having children, who will suffer immensely if they are brought into this world. For example, one anonymous poster explains that “as a 23 year old man living in the UK…the probability that I die [in the next 30 years] due to AI x-risk is 41%,” and that AGI is strongly incompatible with longtermism. With those odds, it’s understandable why one would not plan to have children.

Critiquing antinatalism

Even though I’ve previously felt unsure about having kids on a personal level, I’ve never thought that having kids is bad for humanity on a societal level. I’ve never bought the argument that the world is so terrible that I shouldn’t bring kids into it. I genuinely struggle to understand what people mean when I hear this.

Antinatalism, as a byproduct of collectively-held social beliefs, feels deeply wrong to me somehow, like it fails a basic test of humanity. At a surface level, there’s the simple, lazy critique, which is: we are all currently alive on this good green earth because our ancestors decided to suck it up and have kids. QED.

The pronatalist argument is pretty straightforward. I’d call this the default worldview for people who don’t spend their time overthinking things out loud on the internet: Have kids because you’re human, and that’s what you do. Have kids, because you want to extend your legacy. Have kids, because you don’t want to be lonely later in life.

But something about this position, as a counterargument to antinatalism, feels not quite complete to me, because it operates on the wrong level of granularity. Relying on individualist rhetoric to counteract social values seems like an ineffective way to change people’s minds, because our behaviors and attitudes shift dramatically when operating in individual versus collective contexts.

Social movements, and the values they transmit, are clearly capable of trumping our “natural” instincts, in both directions. Fertility rates have dipped below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman in many developed countries, including in the United States, where, as of 2019, it is 1.71. According to one 2020 survey, 1 in 4 childless adults cite climate change as a major or minor reason for not wanting to have children. On the opposite end, Abrahamic religions have successfully compelled millions of people to have children for centuries.

There are many personal reasons that influence people’s decisions to have children, ranging from “I want to prioritize my life’s work” and “I am not stable enough to care for another human” on the antinatalism side, to “Commitment overrides all personal doubts” and “It feels good to live for something bigger than yourself” on the pronatalist side.

But none of those arguments help us understand our shared, collective reasons for having, or not having, children. We’ve seen that there are antinatalist arguments being made on the basis of social values, as previously argued. Can we articulate a pronatalist response to these arguments that’s made at the societal level, as well?

What leads a social movement to antinatalism?

Using climate, EA, and AGI/x-risk as examples to work from, I tried to think about what makes them different from social movements that are explicitly pronatalist, such as retvrn (a form of primitivism) or the New Right.

It’s tempting to say that the difference is optimism versus pessimism, but I don’t think that’s quite right. The New Right, for example, seems like a fundamentally pessimistic social movement to me. Both JD Vance and Blake Masters are running for Senate on a platform of “America in decline,” suggesting that a return to traditional values will help restore American prosperity. From Masters’ campaign website: “America is in decline and the world is a dangerous place….At home, we see an unholy alliance between Big Government, Big Tech and Big Business, who collude to wreak havoc on our economy, destroy our border, impose their radically liberal ideology on our culture, and censor any dissent.”

Nor does it seem right to say that the difference in antinatalist versus pronatalist social movements is a focus on individual over collective well-being (ex. the idea that people are less religious or disconnected from their communities, so they don’t see the value of having kids). EA is strongly oriented towards the collective, asking how “to do the most good” across the entire population; it is from the basis of collective well-being that some EAs argue that we shouldn’t be having children.

We can observe, however, that these social movements share the position that having children is either a drain on civilization’s resources, or that they will be victims in a global struggle for survival. In both cases, children are portrayed as a cost, rather than an asset. If we prod a bit at the underlying assumptions here, I find that a major difference in anti- versus pronatalist social movements is a belief in the lack of personal agency. In other words: do people believe that we have the ability to solve, or at least influence, the world’s biggest challenges? [2]

The importance of teaching agency

If “grit” – the desire to persevere when faced with a challenge, popularized by psychologist Angela Duckworth – has been the human trait du jour of the last fifteen-odd years, I suspect that “agency” – a belief in one’s ability to influence their circumstances – could be the defining trait of the next generation.

Despite our devices becoming easier to use over the last few decades, technical proficiency appears to be more widely dispersed across younger populations, as opposed to older generations, where it is viewed as a specialized skill reserved for a small percentage of the population. However, I’d guess that young programmers typically know less about the inner workings of their devices than older programmers. Younger generations didn’t become “more technical”, per se – if anything, they’re probably less technically literate overall. It’s programming itself that became easier, because there are now so many tools and layers of abstraction available that make coding a much more trivial practice than before.

There’s a separate essay to be written about whether the “dumbing down” of coding is good or bad, about whether we are slowly locking ourselves out of the technology that humans built, because nobody understands what’s going on under the hood anymore. But for the purposes of this conversation, I want to highlight how the value of coding isn’t really about teaching programming skills. It’s about teaching agency.

The world doesn’t happen to us; it is shaped by us. More people now have access to simple tools that allow them to “program,” or modify, the world around them. Teaching kids that the world is programmable – whether it’s through actual coding, games like Roblox and Minecraft, encouraging them to ask for what they want, or even white-hat social engineering – is a critical skill that prepares them to tackle the social challenges of the future.

If Gen X and Millennials grew up with a “digital divide,” perhaps Gen Z will face an “agentic divide”: those who believe they have the power to change their circumstances, versus those who do not. And this belief in personal agency appears to be a critical difference between social movements that have pronatalist versus antinatalist outcomes.

If you believe that the world is shaped by your and others’ actions, then the climate crisis or other global catastrophic risk don’t look quite so scary: they’re an opportunity to do something meaningful. If you believe that the world’s problems are solved by people, then having children doesn’t seem like a waste of resources; it seems, in fact, like the most good you could do in the world.

The opposite of agency is learned helplessness. If people believe that we can’t do very much to stop the world’s problems, it’s unsurprising that they’d be terrified to bring children into the world. But this seems like a mental trap that we can, and should, teach people to resist falling into. As Clare Coffey writes in “Failure to Cope ‘Under Capitalism”: “[A]n imperfect struggle to live well and love a world badly in need of repair is better than staying still because things are terrible.”

If our social attitudes towards agency are as important as they seem, we should measure its prevalance in the general population, then find ways to track it over time. I grew up in the heady halcyon days of globalism, where celebrities sang “We Are the World” [3] and Whitney Houston proclaimed that “I believe the children are our future.” I see very little of that rhetoric in our cultural artifacts today. It’s not quite pessimism that’s creeping into our consciousness like a cold bony hand, but rather the insidious belief that we are helpless to do anything to change the state of the world.

Ryan McEntush notes that Israel “bucks the global trend” with a fertility rate of 2.9, which he speculates could be attributed to a cultural belief in “asabiyyah…the cohesive force that bonds a people, grown stronger by harsh conditions.” Can other societies find ways to impart a high shared sense of agency among their people, as well?

There will always be valid personal reasons for not having children. Simply put, not everyone wants to have kids, and that’s fine. But I refuse to accept that we should embrace societal norms around not having children.

When I examine my personal motives for having children, there is certainly a world in which I wouldn’t have had children at all. My decision was strongly influenced by personal growth, finding the right partner, and having financial security. I don’t subscribe to the biological argument that humans must be naturally disposed towards having children, and there is a lot of work to be done elsewhere to ensure that more people are personally able to have children, if they want them.

But I do still have, let’s call it, collectivist reasons why I think having kids is good: because seeding the next generation of capable minds is humanity’s only hope for survival and flourishing. And if that’s something others don’t believe, it seems like there is also work to be done to understand why they feel that way, and try to change it.

My sense is that those with a strong sense of personal agency don’t always realize that not everyone shares this position. Instead of responding to antinatalist arguments with thinly-cloaked shaming and appeals to the “natural” self, I think it’d be more effective to respond by teaching people a sense of personal agency. If more people believe they can control their environment and be the change they want to see in the world, I hope they’d be inspired to raise the next generation: not as victims, but as the heroes of our future.

Thanks to Anna-Sofia Lesiv and Danny Crichton for a conversation that helped me finally gel this topic together.

Notes

  1. Note that this study uses snowball (i.e. non-random) sampling, and is mostly interesting for its qualitative insights, as well as the relative difference between motivations given by respondents (which is why I’ve cited it here). I would not consider these figures to be statistically representative of the general population. 

  2. We could probably further qualify this belief in agency based on whether a social movement prioritizes present versus future agency: will humanity’s major social problems be addressed in our lifetimes, or by future generations? This helps explain why, for example, those concerned by AGI risk might be high-present agency, but low-future agency, or oddities like the longevity movement leading, in my view, to antinatalist outcomes (because it maximizes present agency at the expense of future agents). 

  3. When you’re down and out, there seems no hope at all / But if you just believe there’s no way we can fall / Let us realize / That a change can only come / When we stand together as one…