Philosopher L. A. Paul and sociologist Kieran Healy write:
Choosing to have a child involves a leap of faith, not a carefully calibrated rational choice. When surprising results surface about the dissatisfaction many parents experience, telling yourself that you knew it wouldn’t be that way for you is simply a rationalization. The same is true if you tell yourself you know you’re happier not being a parent. The standard story of parenthood says it’s a deeply fulfilling event that is like nothing else you’ve ever experienced, and that you should carefully weigh what it will be like before choosing to do it. But in reality you can’t have it both ways.
I disagree that you can’t have it both ways, for three reasons:
1. Many potential parents do have an idea of what it will be like to be a parent, having participated in child care as an older sibling, aunt, or uncle.
2. The decision of whether to have a child occurs many times: the decision of whether to have a second child, a third child, etc. All these decisions after the first child are directly informed.
3. Finally, and with most direct relevance to Paul and Healy, even though you can’t know how it will feel after you have the baby, you can generalize from others’ experiences. People are similar to each other in many ways, and you can learn a lot about future outcomes by observing older people (or by reading research such as that popularized by Kahneman, regarding predicted vs. actual future happiness). Thus, I think it’s perfectly rational to aim to have (or not have) a child, with the decision a more-or-less rational calculation based on extrapolation from the experiences of older people, similar to oneself, who’ve faced the same decision earlier in their lives.
All three of the above points are pretty obvious so I assume that Paul and Healy have thought about them, but I didn’t see these issues mentioned in their blog post or the linked article. So I’m raising them here. And here is as good a place as any to emphasize that I’m not trying to “debate” or “debunk” Paul and Healy but rather to integrate their ideas with other things I know about.
Humans: Rational animals or irrational computers?
I’m sensitive to this particular issue because I see Paul and Healy’s article as taking what might be considered a generally “humanistic” position that there are limits to the value of rational calculation. But to me, as a statistician, there’s nothing particularly humanistic about disparaging rationality. Rational thinking is, to me, a key part of what makes us human.
To put it another way, it used to be that humans were defined as the rational animal. Nowadays it almost seems the opposite, that we are defined as irrational computers. When the baseline is dogs, cats, monkeys, etc., we indeed look rational (even after accounting for the fact that animals behave rationally in many situations). We don’t (always) act on instinct, we make plans, etc. When we are compared to computers, the story is very different, of course. But we’re not computers, we’re animals [I apologize to Rick Santorum and any other creationist readers of this blog], so I think our (imperfect) rational thought and behavior is nothing to shy away from. Indeed, even Paul and Healy, when denying that we can be rational in setting childbirth aims, do acknowledge that people are following thought process that have the form of rational reasoning, they’re just claiming that the inputs to this reasoning are empty of real content.
The aim (not decision) to have a child
I write “aim” to have a child rather than “decide,” because many people who want children, can’t have them, and many other people who don’t want children end up with them anyway. So you can’t quite “choose to have a child.” In statistics jargon, this is all an intent-to-treat analysis.