n 1984, the philosopher Derek Parfit introduced the concept of the “repugnant conclusion” in his book Reasons and Persons. This concept goes something like this: If the total collective amount of human happiness is all that matters, then putting more and more people on the planet—theoretically packing the place to a sweaty, crowded, miserable standing room only—would ultimately produce the greatest ethical good.
This prescription, of course, would make every individual life nasty, brutish, and short. No matter, the repugnant conclusion contends: Nine hundred billion tiny slivers of human happiness, after all, would fill the cosmic joy bucket much higher than a mere six billion medium-sized chunks. This idea is obviously absurd, which was Parfit’s point; the achievement of maximum happiness would cause maximum grief. Parfit was taking the philosophy of utilitarianism to its most extreme conclusion in order to make clear its fundamental weakness.
Thirty-one years after Reasons and Persons, a different philosopher has taken utilitarianism to extreme ends again—but she fails to recognize the absurdity. In One Child: Do We Have a Right To More?—the answer, of course, is a resounding no—Bowdoin professor Sarah Conly argues that the planet faces extreme, man-made peril, perhaps even environmental apocalypse. To save the earth, we must stop our wanton and careless overproduction of human life.
“The worst-case scenario is cataclysmic climate change,” Conly writes, “resulting in death and destruction, and condemning those unfortunate enough to be born after us to lives that will be much worse than our own.” The health of humanity is not the book’s central operative metric. Rather, environmental health—the fabled steady state of an innocent, benevolent Planet Earth, which is being corrupted by the “parasites” that dwell upon it—is.
Thus, we come to Conly’s mutated version of Parfit’s repugnant conclusion: Human beings only have a right to a “minimally decent life” and, as a corollary, a right to having only one child. Having multiple children “might give one great joy,” Conly writes, but it “is not something you have a right to…any more than you have a right to a particularly agreeable child, or one who gets into Harvard or is an Olympic athlete. It’s more like my desire to fly to Europe first class, or for a Jaguar XK140.”
Since One Child is presented as a work of philosophy, one might wonder how this conclusion logically came to be. Wonder all you like; over the course of reading One Child, you will never find out. Having plural children, Conly argues, “is not so basic an interest as the interest in sustenance, or health, or social connections.” Having one child, she writes, serves all the potential purposes of procreating in the first place: equality (“being treated as just as worthy as others to reproduce”), creating a family life (albeit without siblings, which she equates to “expensive toys”), and the simple, caveman-like duty of passing along one’s genes.
If your one allotted child dies, Conly blithely notes, you can certainly have another one; the answer is less clear, unfortunately, if your child is disabled or as ‘good as dead.’
Over the course of reading One Child, just when you’re about to laugh, cry, or head for the liquor cabinet over some nonsensical passage with a wildly derailed logical train, Conly is right there, jumping to her conclusion: “I’ve already argued, though, that we don’t have a right to have more than one child.” But why is that? “A family of two parents and a child makes it possible for us to do all the things we like to do with children.” Well, no, not really. “If there’s a vital interest in having children, it can be adequately met by one child.” (One reads this with an involuntary shudder once we learn that Sarah Conly herself has more than one child; how might her second feel about this observation?)
Children, in this view, are tools; they are ours to own and manipulate, and exist solely for our gratification. This distressing outlook— a sort of raw materialism as applied to human life—flows throughout the book. If your one allotted child dies, Conly blithely notes, you can certainly have another one; the answer is less clear, unfortunately, if your child is disabled or as “good as dead.” When it comes to the question of those who fall in between—“children who are so disappointing that they really don’t count as meeting a basic interest in parenting” or “where the child is so much a failure on all counts that it hardly counts as having a child”—Conly throws up her hands. Don’t worry. Perhaps that’s in the next book.
Beyond this, at the heart of One Child, there’s a genuine befuddlement as to what people are actually for. Conly highlights some brief ambivalence as to whether the human race should continue at all, but finally declares that it’s “more rational” to “improve individual human lives, and make our lives less costly to other species, rather than giving up on humans entirely.” Humanity should continue, she generously concedes, but it’s quite obvious that she has no idea why.
Understanding why would require deep thoughts, and deep thoughts have no place here, except in the many offbeat lines—“One thing that is always true is that the future isn’t here yet”; “Pain is bad”—that bear striking resemblance to the old Saturday Night Live bumper called “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey.” Instead, One Child centers upon the illusion of control, and around what Friedrich Hayek, inspired by a passage from Adam Smith, called the fatal conceit: that strange, history-defying confidence that enlightened bureaucrats can successfully micromanage and control every aspect of the world around us.
Thus, in the enclosed world of One Child, we can design a “steady-state economy” that is “prosperous without growth.” We can eliminate the oppressive cultural forces that encourage sex-selective abortions. We can brush off the catastrophic failures of both Thomas Malthus’s and Paul Ehrlich’s legendary doom-shucking: “We know more and have better science.” Most important, we can use gentle “nudge”-like state sanctions—subsidized sterilizations, revoked driving licenses, or progressively issued fines—to limit child-bearing, all without falling into tyranny.
“You don’t have to be the Dalai Lama to perceive that the endless pursuit of status and novelty will lead to restlessness and stress rather than happiness,” Conly writes in one of many passages scolding society for striving above a “minimally decent life.” There’s certainly some truth there. However, you also don’t have to be the Dalai Lama to realize that some of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century came from using top-down, one-size-fits-all government force in an attempt to realize dystopian—marketed as utopian, of course—views.
Let’s be charitable: No one ever said it was easy to figure out the meaning of life. Unfortunately for One Child, that meaning is obviously not appointing all-powerful, faceless bureaucrats to micromanage one of the most joyful, intimate, and meaningful experiences of human life. With that said, One Child does offer one unique, if unintended, insight: Some people, it seems, will never learn.