Why Have Kids? The Ethical Debate 25:42

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Charles Knowlton, a doctor who lived in western Massachusetts during the early 19th Century, was a free thinker whose big ideas about sex landed him in jail multiple times.

Elizabeth Kolbert mentions Knowlton in a piece she wrote for The New Yorker titled "The Case Against Kids: Is Procreation Immoral?" The piece challenges us to ask ourselves why we choose to have kids, and if we want to have kids, how many should we have?

So where does Knowlton come in? It's largely thanks to him that we can even have this conversation. As Kolbert tells us, Knowlton's shocking theories about sex landed him in trouble. Knowlton was concerned about 19th century birth rates and a projected population explosion. This, of course, was way before the pill, and well before broad public acceptance of what we now know as "birth control."

But Knowlton was ahead of his time.

He wrote a controversial pamphlet suggesting that our "reproductive instinct" doesn't have to result in reproduction. Here's how he put it:

Heaven has not only given us the capacity of greater enjoyment, but the talent of devising means to prevent the evils that arise therefrom.

In other words, we can enjoy sex, and choose not to make babies. Or have sex and choose to make babies when we want.

As Kolbert tells us, Knowlton was charged with publishing obscene literature, fined $50 and sentenced to three months of hard labor.

Dr. Knowlton's little pamphlet — and his big ideas about sex and procreation — did nothing less than change the course of history. His ideas lead directly to the ethical debate over whether or not to have children.


  • Christine Overall, author of "Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate," chair of the department of philosophy at Queen's University
  • Bryan Caplan, economist, author of "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think"

This segment aired on April 18, 2012.