Moral Totalitarianism: A Reply to Tauriq Moosa on Adoption

by Nicholas Smyth

As Nietzsche constantly reminds us, morality owes a great deal, including its own existence, to the fact that it is not obeyed. It can seem to achieve closure on its own absolute kind of value only because the space in which it operates has been created, historically, socially and psychologically, by kinds of impulse that it rejects.

—Bernard Williams

Ist2_3873679-mother-and-child-logo Tauriq Moosa is a person I usually agree with, which is why I was surprised to discover how much I disagreed with Tauriq's recent article, “How Philosophy Killed My Children and Why it Should Kill Yours, Too“. Doubtless, the breezy, polemic piece was meant to provoke rather than permanently convince, but I think that it is nonetheless quite definitely wrong. I also think an examination of why it is wrong can illuminate some very interesting, possibly disturbing things about the way certain people want us to view our actions and choices.

I take Moosa's argument to be quite simple. Human society depends vitally on procreation and on parenting. Without these, we literally have no future. Procreation is a given: children inevitably spring up all over the world for reasons that most of us understand quite well. Parenting involves the love and care of children. It does not necessarily involve the love and care of one's biological children. Given that countless needy orphans exist all over the world, a well-off person in the industrialized world is acting selfishly by having their own children. They ought to just adopt the less fortunate children.

Now, one might engage critically with this argument on several factual or practical fronts. Yet, what is most troubling about it is its uncritical acceptance of a certain form of ethical reasoning, one where our choices are evaluated from a “zoomed out” or objective perspective, one that ignores how and why individual people actually make these kinds of decisions. We see this ideology–that is what it is–at work in the idea that a child is an object into which love and care must be poured. Since young, unsocialized children are all morally interchangeable, there is no important difference between biological procreation and adoption. Potential parents are therefore morally obligated to choose the option which is better for the world in general: adoption.

To bring out the absurdity of this position, let us begin by imagining a young woman who has decided to have a child. We can imagine that she has committed, with her partner, to conceive via an act of love, to carry the zygote-fetus-child to to term, to endure the life-changing pain of labour, and to emerge from this experience holding a baby in her arms that she has quite literally grown. And we, (falsely) flying the banner of “philosophy”, are now informing her that she might just as well adopt a newborn infant from an orphanage in Africa, that there is no relevant difference in her doing so. For after all, the only important thing is that a child, any child, must be loved and cared for.

Well, from the woman's perspective, this will seem quite absurd. She is being asked to believe that the act of love, nine months of growth, and eventual childbirth are all quite irrelevant to the meaning and justification of her decision. Surely our not-so-hypothetical woman may respond by saying that she does not wish to love or care for a child, she wishes to love and care for her child. Otherwise she is just running a small kindergarten for free.

What makes for this special relationship at which she is aiming? For some, adoption is itself a special choice, an act of commitment that creates a unique sort of bond. More power to them. For others, many of whom are importantly female, the act of conception and the processes of pregnancy and childbirth create a parent-child relation that cannot be replaced without a significant loss. There is no human relation even remotely comparable to it.

Moosa's “philosophy”, it turns out, is utterly unable to make sense of the importance of this particular kind of relation between parent and child, because it has already “zoomed out” to the big picture and decided that procreation and parenting in general are all that matters, and that any other considerations must therefore be irrational, or worse, “selfish”.

(By the way, I hope that keen feminist ears are paying very close attention here to the deployment of ideology in ways which denigrate certain experiences and perspectives particular to women.)

What ought to disturb us about Moosa's argument is that at no point does he attempt to address or engage with the reasons parents actually have for wanting to have a child they can call their own. Instead, the world in general is to be improved, even if the perspectives of those who actually have to make the improvements are steamrolled, denigrated, or rendered senseless. For this reason, I think the label “moral totalitarianism”, with all its negative political and historical associations, is entirely appropriate.

Now, let's finish by imagining a strange person wandering into a hospital nursery and randomly switching the similar-looking infants around. What's wrong with this? After all, so long as existent children receive love and care, what does it matter who they are, and what does it matter which particular historical relationship they happen to share with which particular adult?

I leave this conclusion, and all of its ridiculousness, as an invitation for the reader to reflect on the troubling ways in which we are expected, today, to view our choices and our lives.