The repugnant conclusion

There’s a minor flap going on now about Vox’s decision not to publish a piece on the repugnant conclusion by Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö, arguing that we’re morally responsible for having more children (helpfully published by Gawker, for journalistic integrity reasons I’m sure).

I’m very interested in moral arguments for or against childbearing, or rather, in society’s engagement with these arguments. But while I disagree with assessments that the piece itself is stupid, it’s frustrating and not very interesting, and I wouldn’t have published it either.

The problem isn’t that it asks a question we’re interested in and then gives us an answer we don’t want to hear (as the accusation that it’s “upsetting” or “too anti-choice” has it), but that it asks a question we’re interested in, and then gives us a framework for answering it that is so abstracted as to be useless to most of us. That may be good philosophy, but it’s bad journalism and even worse life guidance.

I mean, we could all spend our whole lives on the third paragraph, “see[ing] to it that we do not overpopulate the planet… [by solving] pressing problems such as the one with global warming,” pack up and hike out before ever getting to philosophical questions like, “Would it really be selfish of Adam and Eve not to procreate?” or, “Wait, is total happiness the best measure? What about variance?” or, “Where’s the line between observing that it’s better to have children later and shaming teenage mothers, and why don’t philosophers care about that sort of thing?” Or demographic questions like “What would it look like to profoundly change our reproductive life histories?” or “Could low mortality hold in a highest-high fertility world?” Questions that are not without implication for Tännsjö’s position, I think.