What do we have reason to be uncertain about?

by on August 14, 2006 at 6:55 am in Philosophy | Permalink

I can understand not wanting kids.  I can understand wanting kids.  What I cannot understand is not knowing whether you want kids.  Having kids and not having kids are not alike.  Not even close.  The choices are not remotely equivalent.  How do you answer the question with “Eh. You know, whichever.” How do you not know?

Here is more explanation, and here is a follow-up post, both from my current favorite theorist of rational choice.  From another direction, the newly unattached Jacqueline Passey is unsure where to live, yet she is sure about not wanting children.

I find it easier to be certain when comparing two similar items or courses of action.  I am sure that I prefer the Beatles to The Rolling Stones.  Both are British popular music groups from roughly the same period of time.  It is tougher to rank Charlie Parker relative to Dvorak.  I reluctantly opt for Parker.

Some uncertainty about children may stem from the difference between ex ante and ex post preferences.  You’re very happy having the kid when he or she comes but you did not care about that particular kid "in advance."  Some of the "uncertainty" therefore is faux; it represents a confusion about which perspective to report. 

Then there is the margin.  How many kids should you have?  I doubt if anyone is, ex ante, certain about this, although a few people may pretend to be ("Three is the number for me.").  But one extra kid is a huge, huge difference at the margin, especially if you are moving from one kid to two (or so I hear).  So it must be allowed that we can be uncertain about very drastic changes in our lives.

Most fundamentally, are indeed many people uncertain about having kids?  How might we define such uncertainty?  Surely we cannot trust our self-deceiving subjects to report their true intentions.  Medical issues and "finding a mate" issues aside, for most of us isn’t it "in the cards" whether we will have kids, no matter how much we hem and haw in advance?  (What is the function of the feigned uncertainty?  Does it make the later decision "easier to live with" if we first pretend to put up a fight?  Do we create an illusion of autonomy to feel in control?)  Would small changes in our lives lead to big changes in the outcome here?  I wonder.

What is personal uncertainty anyway?

Most of all, I am uncertain what we have reason to be uncertain about.

1 Dave Johnston August 14, 2006 at 8:27 am

It would be more interesting to know whether a single person or a couple is asked to respond to the question. Whether a couple wants to have kids or not should be generally evident by the time they get married, and their combined expectations and desires would factor greatly into such a decision.

As a single male, my preference is unknown to the extent that if I were forced to go it alone I would not have children but I am undecided because of the very fact that there is the other viewpoint and combined lifestyle involved. Therefore, whether I am a father when I die is highly influenced by whether my mate desires children or not (or is also indifferent and we come to some mutual decision that we otherwise could not).

Even though the choices are very different, they are not zero-sum nor is one inherently bad. For someone who is single, weighing the pros and cons of parenthood is wasted exercise since a whole other view will be involved that you cannot know in advance. Therefore, aside from the extreme choices, it is most logical that a single person would be indifferent toward the decision (or at least non-committal to their choice.) A couple is more likely to be committal, but if their personal circumstances do not allow for a child in the immediate future, desired or not, then the value analysis may not occur and both indifferent viewpoints would probably remain.

2 Brent Buckner August 14, 2006 at 8:53 am

You have _Stumbling on Happiness_ as a recommended book, and yet still quote someone someone asking, “How do you _not know_?”

That’s an entertaining diversity of viewpoints.

3 joan August 14, 2006 at 9:48 am

If you are young you may not want kids now, but you do not know what you will want 5 or 10 or even 20 years in the future.

4 dsquared August 14, 2006 at 11:11 am

being blind is nothing like being deaf – which is worse? The idea that someone might be uncertain about a choice when they have no first hand information about what the alternative is like ought not to amaze anyone.

5 bbartlog August 14, 2006 at 11:41 am

‘whether I am a father when I die is highly influenced by whether my mate desires children or not’

Speaking as someone who really did/does want children (and has two, with a third soon to arrive), I can say that a lot of people would find your reasoning backward – you’re basically asserting that the relationship is primary, and that maintaining it may involve compromises in the quantity of children. I think a lot of people will operate on the assumption that children are the primary value, and that compromises can be made in the quality of the relationship in order to achieve that goal.

6 rmark August 14, 2006 at 11:45 am

6 cats = 1 child

7 yoyo August 14, 2006 at 1:17 pm

I have to agree with D^2

i think i want kids, but my confidence in how accurate my assesment that my life would improve by becoming a father is quite low. i’ve spent some time ‘pretending’ – working with other people’s kids. but its really just a shot in the dark, and lots of trust in other people’s stories, and matching that up with what i think i’m like.

8 Richard Bellamy August 14, 2006 at 2:18 pm

During the 2000 primaries, I had many friends tell me that they were going to support either “outsider” candidate Bill Bradley or “outsider” candidate John McCain, but they weren’t sure which one.

It seemed to me that deciding to support Bradley-or-McCain rather than Gore-or-Bush might be hard, but once you made that first choice, distinguishing Bradley and McCain would be very easy. I still can’t figure out what reason they had to be uncertain about it.

9 Dave Johnston August 14, 2006 at 2:49 pm

bbartlog: My reasoning is only “backwards” for those who feel that being a parent is the most important value in their life; such people would not answer “I don’t know” when asked whether they would wish to have children. That said, deciding to raise a child without first recognizing whether one is financially/emotionally/physically capable (either alone or with a partner) would seem “backwards” to me; both for the welfare of the child and for my personal well being. Your retort lends credence toward Donald’s statement as well, which I agree with.

Alex: I also agree with dsquared; I only put forth examples of the kinds of information that is lacking (at least when assuming that having a child involves two people). However, saying a lack of experience is a factor is not logical since the question itself can only be answered by one without experience; experience is a control/assumed.

Megan: Your value system ranks having children as a high priority. To understand someone like myself you have to accept that the alternative is acceptable; that having a child is not an end in itself. Yes, I can make a solid guess at this moment in time, but that guess will change once I find a mate and evaluate whether our values, beliefs and circumstances will allow us to bring a child “safely” into this world. Because having a child is not an ultimate goal that I work toward (compromising when necessary to accomplish it), but is instead a possible path I may choose to travel once available, it makes more sense to communicate this as “I don’t know” as opposed to stating my preference of the moment.

10 nelsonal August 14, 2006 at 3:30 pm

I agree with others that most likely lack of stated preference is used as a matter of political expediency. Many guys (and some women) who may prefer to have no kids find that the question is used as a screen by others for selfishness (or to enter a discussion of an increased committment), so it is much easier to simply state, “I don’t know.” and change the subject, rather than “No, I’d rather not.”

11 rmark August 14, 2006 at 4:38 pm

My future wife and I used the classic decision tree – she said “I’m pregnant”.

12 Megan August 14, 2006 at 5:59 pm

I’ve read and believed that people are happiest when they realize their preferences about having kids. I think the rankings, from happiest to least happy went:

don’t want kids, don’t have them
want kids, have them
don’t want kids, have them
want kids, don’t have them

This probably shows up most in people with strong preferences. I think not having kids would drop me into the last category. People who could be happy with or without kids probably justify whichever they end up with.

13 Peter August 14, 2006 at 6:03 pm

Back when I was growing up in the early 1970’s some of my schoolmates were from families of up to ten children. Sort of a tail-end-of-the-Baby Boom deal. From what I gathered – which was of course from a child’s perspective, the parents may have thought differently – the impact of one more child was pretty small if the family already was a big one.
A prior commentor has noted that if the impact of the first child is 1.0, the second child is 1.4, the third 1.7 and the fourth 2.2. Based on my childhood experiences, I would guess that the impacts drop very sharply after the fourth child. Which makes sense; what really can be the difference whether you have eight or nine children?
Of course this was the way things were 35 years ago. I’ve no idea if today’s situation is the same, though obviously it arises much less often.

14 Jeff August 14, 2006 at 8:23 pm

I think the tipping point is two kids versus three (and we have 3). As one of my friends long ago said, with two kids, you can defend one-on-one. Once you have the third, you have to go to a zone defense.

15 David Culbertson August 14, 2006 at 8:54 pm

I have two boys, their impact on my life has been immensely positive. We were married for five years before taking the plunge. We always knew we wanted children, but the prospect of actually having children seemed frightening until we realized there never truly is a “right time” for children, or just about anything for that matter. Life will always be chaotic and a bit risky.

I must confess – I don’t think anyone truly can become an adult until they have children. It makes your world much more complex, and forces you to become selfless and accept responsbility for small lives. (At the same time, this does not mean everyone who has children is an adult.)

As for the possibility of future children – As described by Jeff, my wife and I have decided that “one-on-one” is the best defense.

16 anonymous August 14, 2006 at 10:50 pm

—How do you answer the question with “Eh. You know, whichever.† How do you not know?

But these two are not even vaguely similar–the answer “whichever” is Nothing Whatsoever like not knowing. “whichever” means you weighed the preferred outcomes by your metric and they came out even. Not knowing means you haven’t figured out which metric to use.

That’s a perfectly reasonable state when young in life. What do you yet know about what you will value? will you value money? career? ambition? romantic love? ever changing possibilities? stability? Most young people only start to answer these questions by experiencing some of the above and then making choices based on how they’ve enjoyed/disliked the outcomes.

re: not knowing: it’s real. It goes away as they become more certain of their life’s outcome. For most of them, as life’s options limit, they find traditional choices aren’t-so-bad afterall. If you aren’t going to be the Best rockstar, or the highest paid figure skater, or a Nobel prize winner, normal wants like home ownership, marriage, and children seem pleasant, seem enjoyable, etc. So you have started to figure out which metric you are living by afterall.

17 Linda August 15, 2006 at 8:30 am

“I must confess – I don’t think anyone truly can become an adult until they have children. It makes your world much more complex, and forces you to become selfless and accept responsbility for small lives.”

It’s statements like this that make people who don’t want to have kids prefer to appear ambivalent, as observed in previous posts.

I’ve been married for over 10 years, no kids. Was genuinely ambivalent, then found out we couldn’t have them. In this intensely child-centered day and age the latter situation seems to be more socially acceptable than the former. I find this implicit lack of respect for others’ choices depressing. And I do consider myself an adult.

18 Dave Johnston August 15, 2006 at 12:35 pm

Jens: While I would agree that “some things are rational choice, some are just hardwired” it is not true that the same wiring pattern exists in everyone. Society places tremendous pressure on those that are “wired” different than the majority, even if their wiring in no way affects the lives of the majority. You also make it sound as if a rational person cannot overcome their wiring.

Now, I accept that people are hardwired (or raised) with certain tendencies, but although I feel that they CAN rationally overcome their tendencies they should not HAVE to.

What really matters when you ask a question and cannot comprehend the response is how you react to your incomprehension. Do you ask yourself: how can they not agree with my viewpoint; or do you ask more questions to understand what values, assumptions and environmental factors are different?

In the end it is OK to agree to disagree, and in fact this result is much more preferable to the alternative (doing everything in your power to get consensus). While at the scale of interpersonal relations this is not generally a big issue, at the societal level (government policy and special interest groups) those that insist on using policy to enforce consensus are more likely to suggest unnecessary burden and restriction on personal freedoms.

19 Tracy W August 17, 2006 at 8:08 pm

Megan asked Seriously, couldn’t you make a solid guess? Haven’t you spent a weekend with kids and noticed how different it is from a weekend without kids? You have no preference whatsoever between noisy, fun, constant demands on your attention and setting your own agenda?

Well, it’s not just that isn’t it? My parents have gotten to spend lots of weekends without kids, since we’ve all grown up, but they’re still living very different lives from non-parents. One example, when I had been travelling overseas and stopped off at my parents’ house for a week on returning, and was telling stories about my adventures and my Dad went white. Here I was, obviously safe and sound, and yet the thought of his adult daughter being in danger was enough to scare him in a way it has never scared any of my friends to whom I have told that story.

On the other side, how proud my parents were of our graduations, and other achievements.

These are things you just don’t experience by borrowing kids for a weekend.

20 levan September 12, 2006 at 3:39 am

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