Culture Editor Ilina Jha reviews Begetting by Mara van der Lugt, praising the book’s aims and clear, accessible writing style

Written by Ilina Jha
Images by Ilina Jha

If you’re looking for philosophical answers to that age-old question – should I have children? – then Begetting: What Does It Mean to Create a Child? by Mara van der Lugt might just be the next book to add to your TBR. Forthcoming from Princeton University Press on 30th April 2024, Begetting lays out the moral concerns that lie behind procreating and suggests the questions we need to ask ourselves about having children beyond mere questions of want.

In societies and situations where we have the luxury (to a certain extent) of choice, we tend to ask each other the following question: ‘do you want to have kids?’ But van der Lugt’s overarching argument in Begetting is that asking this question is not enough. The question of desire may be sufficient when the question is resolved around such material things as ‘do I want to live in London?’ or ‘do I want to get a coffee this morning?’ or ‘do I want to buy the new Natalie Haynes book?’ (to which the answer is always yes). But in the case of having children, the creation of a whole new being is involved – a being who, as van der Lugt astutely observes, cannot consent or be consulted in its creation. Therefore, she argues, we must ask ourselves deeper philosophical questions – and the aim of Begetting is to outline some of the questions we should be asking, and why.

Begetting lays out the moral concerns that lie behind procreating and suggests the questions we need to ask ourselves about having children beyond mere questions of want

In Begetting, van der Lugt does not seek to provide a definitive answer of whether you should or should not beget; rather, she aims to lay out relevant philosophical and moral information and arguments to help readers be as informed as possible when answering the question for themselves. van der Lugt states in the very first chapter that she believes ‘there are two questions in life that every person needs to answer for themselves. One is the question of religion. The other is the question of begetting’ (p. 1). The book itself explains why she believes the latter question to be so important; however, I would have liked to read a quick explanation of why she believes that ‘the question of religion’ is one of the two essential questions of life to be answered. And I’d also like her help with answering it, because it’s a question I’ve been dodging my entire life.

The first part of Begetting explains the arguments of antinatalists – those who argue that begetting is immoral. van der Lugt does not do this to convince anyone to become an antinatalist, but rather to outline the philosophy behind the idea so that readers can understand why people come to such conclusions. As she says of antinatalists: ‘whether or not they have the right answers, they ask the right questions – and that in itself is a great good’ (p. 10). Such questions – do we have the right to create beings who cannot consent to their creation? And can we justify creating a being who may suffer greatly (for example, from a debilitating and painful disease, or from being a victim of war or famine)? – are imperative for thinking about whether to have children, and also to challenge the idea that having children is a good thing by default. van der Lugt breaks down various societal narratives about having children in the third section of Begetting, such as the ‘Romantic Narrative’ – the narrative that tells people not to worry about the practical difficulties associated with having children, because ‘everything will be okay once the child is born’ (p. 127) – and the ‘Biological Narrative’ – when women say they don’t want children, only for people to respond: “wait until the biological clock starts ticking.”

A more sustained philosophical discussion of adopting was sorely lacking from the book

van der Lugt’s focus on explaining a lot of reasons against begetting is mainly because the cultural narrative(s) in favour of having children are so strong, meaning we need to be presented with the counter-arguments more strongly to be able to give them any thought. But this is not to say that having children is presented as bad; more, that van der Lugt wants to move away from having children as a good thing by default. For those who do wish to become parents, van der Lugt advocates for changing the language around having children – instead of the language of ‘wanting’ or being ‘entitled’ to have children, she suggests that we need to move toward ‘a concept of fragility and accountability: of being entrusted with, being responsible for’ (p. 209).

Begetting is a highly thought-provoking and informative read

Begetting is overall very well-structured and well-written. van der Lugt makes the philosophical concepts of the book clear and accessible to all readers – you certainly do not need to be a philosophy student to understand this book. Unfortunately, van der Lugt refers to autism as a disorder, which is obviously upsetting for neurodivergent readers. Plus, she claims that adopting isn’t necessarily the get-out-of-jail-free card (in the sense that one might fulfil the desire to be a parent and not themselves beget another person) that it seems to be, but she doesn’t explain what these moral problems are and why they are problems. Indeed, I feel that a more sustained philosophical discussion of adopting was sorely lacking from the book.

However, Begetting is a highly thought-provoking and informative read overall. I think it is a must-read for anyone, whether you have been angling to be a parent your whole life, are certain that you want no contact with the little snot-nosed terrors, or are still sitting on the fence.

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