Elizabeth Cripps – If having children is bad for the environment, what should parents do about it?

PTRG: 4 April 2018

Maternity Mark in Japan

Summary of the paper:

One’s decision to have children, or to become a parent, has negative environmental impact.  The birthing of children results in an increase in the global population, and ultimately in additional ecological burdens.  Admitting this, Liz asks: Do individuals, at least in the affluent class, have a moral duty to attempt to mitigate the environmental impact of having children/ becoming a parent?  Her answer is that they do.  But Liz also argues that this does not mean individuals have a duty to have no (biological) child or not to become a (biological) parent.

Typically, the argument for the duty to have no child takes the following steps:

‘P1. As affluent individuals, we have an individual moral duty to keep our own carbon footprint as low as reasonably possible’; ‘P2. Having a child will, for most of us, cause an increase in carbon emissions greater than anything else we do in our individual lives’; therefore, ‘Conclusion: We have an individual moral duty not to have children’.

However, P1 and P2 do not automatically lead to Conclusion.  Conclusion holds if the following implicit premise is accepted: ‘IP1: Procreation and overconsumption are morally equivalent’.

To demonstrate that Conclusion in this argument does not necessarily hold, Liz argues that IP1 cannot be defended against at least the following line of objection.  There are valuable and non-substitutable elements in having biological children or becoming a biological parent (i.e. procreation) which overconsumption does not have.  Such elements include ‘the experienced bond of pregnancy and breastfeeding, the awareness of the genetic link and tracing of family traits and resemblances, [and] the sense of immortality’.  So, the opportunity to have biological children, or to become a biological parent, can be seen either as a fundamental human interest or as an activity integral to one’s plan of life or conception of the good.  Meanwhile, overconsumption cannot be seen as either of these.  Therefore, procreation and overconsumption are not morally equivalent.  In short, IP1 does not hold.  And neither does Conclusion.

Based on this objection, Liz argues that individuals are entitled to retain the opportunity to have biological children or to become a biological parent.  But Liz also argues that there is a moral duty which individuals should consider when enjoying that opportunity: the negative duty not to contribute to ecological unsustainability.  In the context of procreation, this duty means the duty to mitigate the environmental impact of having children/ becoming a parent.  One can both enjoy the opportunity to have children and fulfil the duty to mitigate the environmental impact of having children, by doing three things: (a) having a small family, (b) raising children to become ecologically conscious citizens, and (c) ensuring a political situation which makes it possible and less costly for children to pursue sustainable (e.g. carbon neutral) lifestyles.

Duty (b) may face a challenge: raising children to have a particular conception of the good (e.g. a particular moral view about ecological unsustainability) may be incompatible with children’s capacity of autonomy (the power to create and live by one’s own conception of the good).  Liz’s response to this challenge is that one can avoid such a problem by taking an appropriate approach to education.  If a parent attempted to make her child unquestionably accept a particular moral view, then the child’s autonomy would be undermined.  Meanwhile, if the child were encouraged, through dialogue with the parent, to reflect upon the view in question, then the child’s capacity of autonomy would be enhanced.  Education through dialogue would cultivate children’s rational capacity to think, revise one’s views, and critically engage with various perspectives.

Finally, Liz addresses an objection to her moderate view – the view that, even if individuals are entitled to have children, they also have a moral duty to attempt to mitigate the environmental impact of having children.  The objection is that, while the birthing of children increases ecological disbenefits, it also brings benefits that offset those disbenefits.  There are two kinds of benefit that the birthing of children may bring.  First, supposing that those children will enjoy a decent life, the birthing of those children increases the level of aggregate human happiness (utility).  Second, the birthing of children brings social benefits, creating a new generation of the workforce that supports parents’ well-being in the future (e.g. doctors, nurses, care workers, pension-payers, etc.).  Liz gives three responses.  First, what morally matters in her argument is not a pure utilitarian consideration; other considerations (e.g. a deontological one) matter as well.  Second, even if the birthing of children brings social benefits, it can still be argued that individuals are both entitled to give birth to children who will benefit them in the future and required to compensate for the negative impact the birthing has upon the global environment.  And third, based on some empirical evidence, one can question the assumption that having children brings a positive social contribution that will offset the ecological disbenefits of having children.


Our discussion covered interesting questions including, but not limited to, the following.  Could we not devise alternative institutions which would no longer require us to make large individual ecological footprints?  If we could, is there any substitutability between the small-family duty and the institutional-change duty?  (Would the performance of the latter duty make the performance of the former duty redundant?)  In which activity does a person have a fundamental human interest, ‘procreation’ or ‘parenting’?  Is a person’s emotional drive for having a biological child a socially constructed one, or a biological one?  (Does a person want a biological child because people around him/her have biological children?  Or is it because a person has the biological capacity to procreate?)  If we are concerned about the environmental impact of procreation and consequent population growth, should we not discuss procreation and population growth in underdeveloped societies, where the population is actually growing, and not only those in affluent societies?  Liz’s answers to these questions were clear and convincing.  The paper will be a thought-provoking contribution to the relevant debate.


Written by Yuki Iwaki



Elizabeth Cripps is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh and Associate Director of the Just World Institute.  She has written widely on climate change ethics and justice, population justice, and parental duties.  She is the author of Climate Change and the Moral Agent: Individual Duties in an Interdependent World (Oxford University Press: 2013).