A small observation about the value of having kids

post by kbog · 2020-01-19T02:37:59.391Z · EA · GW · 7 comments

One thing that doesn't seem to be entered into people's conversations about the value of having kids is value of information.

There a common thought that Effective Altruists can, through careful, good parenting, impart positive values and competence to their descendants. However, it is highly uncertain how well this will actually go. And given the large differences in cost-effectiveness from top causes to secondary ones, and from Effective Altruism to other social movements, it is pretty important to know how likely our kids are to remain faithful to Effective Altruist principles. Yes there is existing evidence on parent-child transmission of other social movements and religions, but who knows how well it will generalize.

Answering this question within 2-3 decades would provide significant value to future Effective Altruists about whether they should have kids.

Of course, the importance of this consideration depends greatly on the expected size of the EA movement in the future.


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comment by Kit · 2020-01-19T11:01:12.101Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For the record, I wouldn't describe having children to 'impart positive values and competence to their descendants' as a 'common thought' in effective altruism, at least any time recently.

I've been involved in the community in London for three years and in Berkeley for a year, and don't recall ever having an in-person conversation about having children to promote values etc. I've seen it discussed maybe twice on the internet over those years.


Additionally: This seems like an ok state of affairs to me. Having children is a huge commitment (a significant fraction of a life's work). Having children is also a major part of many people's life goals (worth the huge commitment). Compared to those factors, it seems kind of implausible even in the best case that the effects you mention would be decisive.

Then: If one can determine a priori that these effects will rarely affect the decision of whether to have children, the value of information as discussed in this piece is small.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2020-01-19T19:06:54.882Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There a common thought that Effective Altruists can, through careful, good parenting, impart positive values and competence to their descendants.

I'm pretty interested in this topic. Can you say more about the best available evidence for this, and best guesses as to how to go about doing it? For example are there books you can recommend?

Replies from: Linch, kbog
comment by Linch · 2020-01-20T02:44:39.447Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

N=1, but I enjoyed reading the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill.

comment by kbog · 2020-01-19T19:22:45.518Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

No idea, it's just something that I've heard EAs say when they're talking about having kids

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-01-19T03:02:15.768Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe this could be a small discussion within EA, but I'd worry people will be or will feel judged on whether or not they have kids, and that would make EA very unwelcoming. There's also the question of how demanding EA should be in the first place.

Even if my own (weak, uncertain) position turned out to be better, I wouldn't want people to feel judged for acting against it.

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2020-01-19T03:08:29.028Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Are you talking about the general conversations about whether EAs should have kids, or are you talking about the point I'm making right here?

Either way, I'm confident we are all perfectly capable of discussing right and wrong action on such issues while steering clear of moralistic judging, just as we have generally done on other issues such as diet and donations.

comment by markus_over · 2020-01-24T16:35:38.422Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Most EAs I know are not planning to have children as far as I know (which I admit is not very far - to most I haven't explicitly spoken about the topic). Even if they did, it seems like a really slow and expensive way to build a movement. It may be one factor among others for EAs considering to build a family, but I doubt it is decisive for a considerable number of individuals.

If we simplify the possible outcome to two scenarios, a) children raised by EAs will overwhelmingly become EAs themselves, or b) this effect is much weaker and very few children will share the same values, I'd argue the value of information appears to be low.

Firstly, it seems highly unlikely to me that having children is anywhere near the most effective thing an EA can do. It is of course fine to make that plan for other, personal reasons, but I doubt many EAs get to the conclusion "the best use of my time on this planet in my pursuit to make this world a better place is to raise my own altruistic children". Growing the movement can certainly be done quicker without first growing your own little humans.

So given that assumption, the a) scenario, i.e. the "positive" outcome, could actually turn out harmful in a sense as it might convince a few additional EAs to have children that otherwise wouldn't. Scenario b) on the other hand would be the opposite and possibly keep a few EAs from having children that without that evidence would have done so. In both cases it seems we're better off simply assuming the children we have will not turn into EAs, as opposed to spending decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars on an experiment conducted in order to gain some value of information.

This line of argumentation of course only works if you agree with my assumption that having children is a very ineffective way to grow a movement though.