Parentage is a very important profession, but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interest of the children.
– George Bernard Shaw, Everybody’s Political What’s What?
Philosophy, its oldest practitioners proclaimed, begins in wonder. Yet the wonder often directed at it appears with a furrowed brow and a patronising frown, a finger tapping against a chin. What is it good for, how will impact on my life? This question seems to dog the pursuits of philosophers sometimes above their colleagues in other disciplines: my physicists friends are rarely asked how ‘their’ black holes could affect the average citizen (aside from destroying you before annihilating you?); my film and art friends rarely focus on the use of film or theatre in a world filled with suffering (perhaps highlighting a powerful portrayal of that suffering so we actually do something about it?). And so we could go on. No doubt there are also some single sentences to counter the claim made at philosophers, but others have done this before; I wish to show something immediate for me. The reader wanting an answer need only search for them from those who are professionals, perhaps starting with Bertrand Russell’s famous final chapter, ‘The Value of Philosophy’, in The Problems of Philosophy (a very boring work aside from its clarity and this final defence), and the first chapters of Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (two mostly opposed books on the subject of moral philosophy).
As I said, instead of answering the question directly, I wish to provide a personal demonstration: Philosophy has thoroughly annihilated my children – or rather, stopped me harbouring any thoughts of creating children. It has ceased any joy, wonder, amazement from being created in little human beings with my eyes, hair or smile; it has severed any form of biological paternal ‘duty’. Philosophy grabbed hold of procreation stemming from me and thoroughly buried it beneath reasonable argument. I present to you one of many tombstones of axiomatic acceptance in my life.
How did philosophy do this?
Let us consider the overall consideration more broadly. An important part of philosophy is to shove axioms into a stretched, contorted mirror. The reflection casts the creature in a new light, forcing us who are reflecting on the axiom to reassess how it came to its original structure, which we held for so long. Topics we take for granted today were assumed ‘natural’, ‘part of tradition’, or ‘as it’s always been’: the lower place of women, slavery, the existence of gods, the power of priests. Nowadays the better sex, in modern democracies, is to some degree equal; slavery was justified and abolished thanks to people able to quote-mine from the Bible, and who were and are moved because of the need to emancipate our fellow humans from the shackles of barbarism and servility; priests were dislocated from the state-body, as demonstrated by the hard fight of the Founding Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, and the Enlightenment project as a whole. And we all know the demolishing of god’s stilts made of nonsense that held him above all forms of criticism.
The point being: all this is a central task of philosophy, itself, or what might be considered critical engagement with the world; our history fighting for rights and liberties has been one of overturning generally accepted axioms that took root in various places in our lives (cf: A.C. Grayling, Toward the Light). Now our collective lives are perhaps better. To diminish the sphere to myself, overturning certain axioms resulted in reconsidering the entire basis of parenthood. For many people, overturning axioms is like overturning furniture in an occupied room; we don’t do it because things have their place, as it’s always been, as our parents did it, etc. We must not mistake stability for morality: just because it’s always been this way does not mean it should be. Just so with some of the brief examples I sketched above. Parenthood is an accepted part of our society. What I want to offer is that, whilst parenthood is essential and I think ethical, creating children is not.
The world is filled with orphaned children, who through neglect or disease or war, have lost their biological parents. Most of us are aware of the incredible work done by various organisations and individuals, religious and secular, to help these estranged orphans. The idea of the orphan has indeed turned into a cliché, used to bolster empathic feelings. The helplessness of children is magnified by the property of orphans lacking biological parents.
Africa is a place desperately in need of reconsideration from this level. The amount of children, orphaned because of AIDS (and indeed not discounting the 5,000 HIV-Positive babies born every month) , is staggering: at the current estimate it is estimated at around 15 million . In Africa, surveying the countries Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, 15% of all children under the age 15 have lost parents, either one or both, and more than 20% of these 15-year old children are orphans. In South Africa, there is an estimated 2.3 million AIDS-orphans. These AIDS-orphans are significantly less likely to gain an education , are more likely to be involved in further health risks and themselves be victims of violence. UNAIDS has shown consistently, too, that 40% of countries with an AIDS pandemic do not have national policies involving these orphans, due to a number of factors, including the sheer volume of orphans.
Many people look on this with sympathetic sighs and throw up their hands: What can we do? Perhaps we can donate, perhaps we can volunteer at orphanages, shelters, and so on. But, I think an answer is needed that is more permanent, moral and protective of these children: Stop creating children, start raising them.
Why create beings to look after, when all around the world, like Africa, there are places packed to the ceilings with cries and outstretched hands and tears of those without paternal love? No doubt people genuinely want an outlet for their own parental feelings, of love, compassion, caring.
Friends or lovers, for example, cannot of course be the vessels into which we pour these feelings. French Renaissance writer François Rabelais said something similar, noting our different feelings when it came to children: ‘A child is not a vase to be filled, but a fire to be lit.’ What’s needed for our specific parental feelings is of course something 'smaller', something growing, a being who we can help shape to be a better people than we are, whose mistakes we can more easily solve having experienced some ourselves. This is a very human need – explicable in various capacities, no doubt most powerfully through evolution – but it remains ethical. Ethical because it involves primarily reducing the suffering of another being, one who is dependent on us in nearly every way. But here is the most important question of all: do beings like this exist already or do we have to create them?
The descriptive answer is obvious: there are beings that already exist who need our love, caring and attention, who need that parental duty aimed at them. I have highlighted them above. The mistake people make is, when considering the previous paragraph’s outline of beings to love, they assume these beings must be created. That is, these beings must be biologically related to us in order to receive the love and attention we wish to show. But this is a non-sequituur: why do they have to be biologically-related, or have 'our genes', in order for us to convey this love?
We also face problems of overpopulation in many areas of the globe, if not on the globe itself. Why do we need to create more people? I have not read any good defence or reason for us to create people, especially when this is compounded by the fact that there already exist beings requiring love and attention; love and attention many of us are giving to beings not yet born.
Non-existent beings do not experience joy or suffering, they do not lose out or gain. Non-existent beings, by definition, do not exist. To not have children is not to kill children; killing is taking away the existence of a living thing, but these beings are neither living nor existing. What is killed is the idea of having children and what is birthed is the ethical obligation we have to look after those who need that love and attention so many of us are willing to suffer for by undergoing expensive fertility-treatments, hours in labour, stillbirths, and therapy instead of simply taking stock of our fellow creatures and acknowledging an open gap so long ignored, so long passed over, for the selfish reason to create miniature images of ourselves.
For most couples, every child you create to love means another child you pass over for love. We do not care about these others because they are not made from our genes – we might consider it a kind of prejudice based on genes: genecism (pronounced jin-NEH-sism). Ignore the neologism if you wish, but consider prospective parents who spend hours, months or years and ludicrous amounts of money on fertility treatments, yet ignore the plight of children all over the world who need basic housing, health and nutrition. Children without parents but needing parents. How about taking all that money you would use on fertility treatments and giving it to a child who does exist, or perhaps investing in an adoption agency to acquire a child who is already on this planet? (To many, this seems the classical utilitarian failure: it asks too much. This does not apply in this instance, since it is actually asking for something less demanding. You will still have a child, but not one that has come about through struggle, time, therapy and failure.) Every time I pass a parent knowing they have created a child, I see nothing but double-standards, prejudice, and immorality. On what basis are we ignoring the plight of those who need our help? Why do we continue to create people, when there are people who need our attention?
There are a number of responses I have encountered.
If we all started adopting, there would not be any new children and the human race would die out.
Firstly, not everyone would qualify for adoption policies. Ironically, it is adoptive parents who face sometimes more hardships to qualify as parents, not those turning themselves into baby-factories. Any of us, if our required organs functioned ‘correctly’, could become parents; the question then is whether we should be or whether we can be. This is a deeper issue, not one I am going to explore here. Secondly, as the astronomer Sir Marin Rees has eloquently highlighted, the creatures watching the death of our sun in a few billion years will not be us. But we need not even think that far: According to some estimates, there will be no biological life on the planet in 500 million years. The point being, the human ‘race’ – such an ugly word – will not be here forever. We are part of the natural world, we have arisen through natural means, and we will continue to adapt to our environment. The great Jerry Coyne has answered in the affirmative that we are still evolving, for example, meaning this species will adapt to the point where we will no longer be defined as homo Sapiens.
The human race therefore, as it is now, will die out one way or another. Whether it is destroyed through warfare, disease, heavenly bodies, or changed via adaptation that gave rise to us in the first place, our species will almost beyond all doubt cease to exist. This will happen anyway. As we face it now, we have questions about how we deal with suffering and what we can do to alleviate that suffering. (I am ignoring science-porn examples of freezing ourselves, curing death, etc.)
This does not answer my claim, nor does it explain something even more fundamental. What is so special about our species that we ought to keep it going? When I read John Wyndham’s sci-fi classic The Day of the Triffids, about a post-apocalyptic world in which most people are blinded and everyone is hunted by giant, man-eating plants, I was struck by one of the first points of focus for the survivors: continuing the human ‘race’. It disgusted me because the central committee decreed that women would now have to submit to the awful lecherousness of men inserting themselves into these women, out of some sense of anthropocentric ‘duty’. The race must continue!
But why? It is so automatic in assumptions there are even horrid jokes about: ‘If I was the last man and you were the last women, would you sleep with me?’ – as if being the Anti-Adam and Anti-Eve means you have some duty to continue the species. No you don’t. We are not special. There is no cosmic purpose to us being here, nor is there some cosmic purpose we are fulfilling by continuing to exist or making horrid laws chaining women’s organs to the desires of men for more humans. The worst part of course is that this is not as fictional as we would like to believe: women are treated this way, sometimes even in modern Western democracies. Sometimes they also treat themselves this way, which seems to ignite the idiocy completely: the human species must continue, so I will have bagfuls of children.
This is perhaps the most fundamental reason people, I think, will continue to create children. Making people seems to push the horizon of death or at least complete non-existence further back. I will return to this point shortly.
How about I have one child of my own and one adopted child?
I call this fence-sitting: either be proud of not wanting to adopt, ignoring the plight of the desperate, or adopt. This argument has been made by so many people at me (as opposed ‘to’ me) that it needs to be answered. I am not sure why people find this answer appealing, other than emotionally it seems to satisfy the claims I posed as well as their own: It satisfies the charge that it is irrational to create a being to love when there are beings who need that love; and it satisfies the need to procreate for completely egocentric and bad selfish reasons. But it does not answer my charge from before: every child you create to love means another child you pass over for love (for many of us). Nor does it answer my other charge that we must start focusing on those who do exist who can benefit from care and attention, instead of creating beings to receive it.
The ‘fence-sitter’ response does not work because, even if you have that one biological child and an adopted one, you have removed a spot which could be filled with a child needing a home, love, and a parental guide. The fact that you already have an adopted child seems is at first glance an indication you are a capable potential parent for adoption agencies. You have taken that spot away from an existing being and given it to one who you brought into existence (maybe after extensive fertility-treatments, for example?).
I want my line to pass on. That way I will be immortal. I do not want my genes to die out with me.
This is the most obvious bad selfish reason, but at least it is honest. It is, however, flagrantly stupid and self-centred. It is prejudiced against those who are not your kin, the claim of genecism I posed before. Genecism says ‘I am only going to care about those who are related to me’ or 'only those of close genetic relation are worthy of my moral concern'. This is of course nonsense: even descriptively, we do care about those who are not genetically closely related to us, like friends, adopted children, patients, etc. To say that we will only care about children who are related to us is to throw away our abilities to forge long, wonderful, love-filled relationships with those not related to us; it is to be prejudiced. This is a nonsense claim and, along with all prejudice, irrational, stupid and bigoted. It makes no more sense than racist or misogynist claims. I do not think people explicitly make this claim, but it is told through their actions of discounting the moral worth of non-related children who do exist for related children who they would rather bring into existence.
Death is the great subject. To me, it is central to all problems and conflicts, lying like a snake in the long-grass of politics and philosophy, in the waters of power and corruption, and in the mud of daily existence. We must grow-up, realise we will die, that no one will remember us at some point. Most of us will be forgotten in decades or centuries; few make it as ‘legends’ – whether for good or ill. You might take offence that Hitler will be remembered longer than you, but just think of what he did to get there. Better to be sand in the landscape of human remembrance than volcanoes.
Genetics only takes us so far. We now accept that nurture influences sometimes as much as nature – the field of epigenetics is proving fantastically wondrous in these kinds of implications, for example. The point being, how we raise our children matters (sometimes) more than how much of our genes is inside them. Adopted children can testify to the feelings of love and devotion they reciprocated to their now deceased adoptive parents. Here, these people do live on in the minds and love of their adopted children, as they do in friends and close associates. What is so essential that we need to continue to exist solely in our genes?
It is ludicrous. We are not confined to the whims of our genes (using contraceptives for example destroys the chain of genetic servility). This argument, even if expressed, can be shown to be selfish and stupid; but it can also be overcome by simply observing the impact people have on others as they live.
Sure, we can’t all be a Thomas Jefferson but many can settle for being good parents or at least good people. Those who think ‘That’s not good enough!’ have their work cut out for them; nor is turning farmer of your seed solving the problem. In fact, that would heighten the problem and show up your selfishness, bigotry, idiocy and immorality.
People believe that by continuing their genetic line, they somehow achieve a sense of immortality. I have never understood what this means: surely, if immortality was wanted, it would apply to who we are as individual persons, not aspects of our genetic make-up? We might as well cut-off a finger-nail and preserve it. At least that way we know it will be around for longer, because who knows how long our descendants will live – long enough to continue the line or die before they can produce children? I simply see no reason to have parts of myself continue after I am dead. My eyes are not so beautiful they must be in another little person, nor my walk, smile, and so on. Who really cares about my physical continuation as opposed to the tributaries of actions aimed at helping the world? If you want some lasting legacy, leave it in the shape of aiding sentient species – human and non-human. Leave it in aiding in the environment, in creating wondrous works of art: music, literature or painting. Leave it inscribed into how you treated others, how you looked after the children you helped out of their poverty-stricken environment to treat them like human beings deserving not only of love but respect. Leave your legacy etched into the fabric of the world, shaping it so it more easily bends to the suffering of others, more easily creates gateways of autonomy.
Laziness begets the denial of these. Apathy means just spreading your immortality in an unimpressive, unhelpful and perhaps damaging way: creating offspring. The world is open to you making an impact on those who need it. If you want to leave a legacy, look to the world not to your genes. This is how philosophical thinking or at least critical engagement impacted my life directly, affectively and forever denying me the ‘luxury’ of breeding for the sake of selfishness.
UPDATE October 2010
Mr Nick Smyth has penned a well-written, albeit unconvincing reply to me (Smyth has corresponded with me personally, which a far better expression of his counter-arguments. I hope he will publish his thoughts.).
I have responded to Mr Smyth and recurring criticisms, too.
Some excellent resources on adoption can simply be Googled. But I do recommend:
1. The website for Adoptive Families – 'Adoptive Families, the award-winning national adoption magazine, is the leading adoption information source for families before, during, and after adoption.'
2. Andrew John Dutton 'How Adoption Works'
3. HowStuffWorks on Adoption – I know it is from a US-bent but still highly informative.
Please let me know if these resources are fraudulent or suspicious.
Case, Anne, Christina Paxson, and Joseph Ableidinger. “Orphans in Africa: Parental Death, Poverty, and School Enrollment.” Demography 41, no. 3 (August 2004): 483-508.
Cluver, Lucie, Frances Gardner, and Don Operario. “Psychological distress amongst AIDS-orphaned children in urban South Africa.” Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry 48, no. 8 (August 2007): 755-763.
Johnson, R. W. South Africa's Brave New World: the Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid. London: Penguin Books, 2010.
Kürzinger, M L, J Pagnier, J G Kahn, R Hampshire, T Wakabi, and T D V Dye. “Education status among orphans and non-orphans in communities affected by AIDS in Tanzania.” AIDS Care 20, no. 6 (July 2008): 726-732.