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George Bernard Shaw: Children Are Slaves

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On the whole, whatever our theory or no theory may be, our practice is to treat the child as the property of its immediate physical parents, and to allow them to do what they like with it as far as it will let them. It has no rights and no liberties: in short, its condition is that which adults recognize as the most miserable and dangerous politically possible for themselves: namely, the condition of slavery. For its alleviation we trust to the natural affection of the parties, and to public opinion. A father cannot for his own credit let his son go in rags. Also, in a very large section of the population, parents finally become dependent on their children. Thus there are checks on child slavery which do not exist, or are less powerful, in the case of manual and industrial slavery. Sensationally bad cases fall into two classes, which are really the same class: namely, the children whose parents are excessively addicted to the sensual luxury of petting children, and the children whose parents are excessively addicted to the sensual luxury of physically torturing them. There is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which has effectually made an end of our belief that mothers are any more to be trusted than stepmothers, or fathers than slave-drivers. And there is a growing body of law designed to prevent parents from using their children ruthlessly to make money for the household. Such legislation has always been furiously resisted by the parents, even when the horrors of factory slavery were at their worst; and the extension of such legislation at present would be impossible if it were not that the parents affected by it cannot control a majority of votes in Parliament. In domestic life a great deal of service is done by children, the girls acting as nursemaids and general servants, and the lads as errand boys. In the country both boys and girls do a substantial share of farm labor. This is why it is necessary to coerce poor parents to send their children to school, though in the relatively small class which keeps plenty of servants it is impossible to induce parents to keep their children at home instead of paying schoolmasters to take them off their hands.

It appears then that the bond of affection between parents and children does not save children from the slavery that denial of rights involves in adult political relations. It sometimes intensifies it, sometimes mitigates it; but on the whole children and parents confront one another as two classes in which all the political power is on one side; and the results are not at all unlike what they would be if there were no immediate consanguinity between them, and one were white and the other black, or one enfranchised and the other disenfranchised, or one ranked as gentle and the other simple. Not that Nature counts for nothing in the case and political rights for everything. But a denial of political rights, and the resultant delivery of one class into the mastery of another, affects their relations so extensively and profoundly that it is impossible to ascertain what the real natural relations of the two classes are until this political relation is abolished.

— George Bernard Shaw, A Treatise on Parents and Children (Emphasis mine.)


Written by Sister Y

January 6, 2011 at 7:22 pm

On the Moral Effect of the Bright Side of Things

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I have a question: is there any act, other than reproduction, that is widely perceived to be morally innocent, and that satisfies the following conditions?

  1. The actor knowingly inflicts serious harm on another
  2. who does not consent to the harm;
  3. the act does not prevent a more serious harm;
  4. the actor does not act in response to a wrong committed by the victim or others;
  5. and the harm is perceived to be justified by intrinsic or concurrently provided benefits. (I.e., the victim is asked to “look on the bright side.”)

The only examples I can think of involve questionable authoritarian treatment of children by their parents, which I think falls into the same category as reproduction – widely considered morally innocent, but actually quite sinister when considered in a broader context. (Also, generally parents justify their authoritarian treatment of children in terms of harm avoidance, rather than provision of a pure benefit.)

Written by Sister Y

October 13, 2010 at 5:14 pm

The Mundane Horrors of Childhood

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It is an understatement to say that parents are shocked when their child commits suicide. To the extent that parents think about it at all, they generally assume that they do some good to their children when they bring them into the world. Everyone wants to live – right? What could possibly possess a child to take his own life?

But many children do take their own lives. In recent news cycles, the suicides of Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, and Phoebe Prince have received a great deal of attention, especially because they were complicated by bullying of the victims in their schools. News reports tend to feature the parents claiming they reported the bullying to school officials, but school officials didn’t do anything, or didn’t do enough, to stop it.

I think that the suffering of even a normal childhood is much more serious than is generally acknowledged. I do not think child suicides are particularly surprising; what is surprising is their relative rarity. The question is not why some children commit suicide, but why most children are able to endure the mundane horrors of childhood.

The blame the parents of suicides place on those who “caused” the suicide of the child belies the parents’ own responsibility for bringing a child into the world who suffered so much that he could not bear it anymore. The parents took a gamble with an innocent child’s life, and it did not pay. It is too bad that the children, and not just the parents, are the ones who must suffer for the parents’ mistakes.

It is not that I think the parents of suicides deserve the pain of loss; parents, just like non-parents, were forcibly brought into the world through no choice of their own, and deserve suffering no more than any one of us. It is that their own pain and the pain of their children is a plainly foreseeable consequence of reproduction. And we are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions.

Written by Sister Y

September 29, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Parental Parasitism

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How parents use their children – and use their children to use society.

The similarities between a fetus and a parasite are striking enough that the metaphor is fairly common. (See, for example, Adrienne Zurub’s The Parasitic Nature of Pregnancy.)

However, as horrifying as the reality of pregnancy can be, it is much more disturbing to ponder the extent to which parents act parasitically with regard to their children.

Babies as a Retirement Plan

One of the most common reasons people give for having children is to have someone to take care of them in their old age. There are really two important questions here: first, is it realistic? And second, is it fair?

The dream that most parents assume will come true for their children is tri-fold:

  1. The parents will have the financial means to support the child without relying on public assistance.
  2. Once raised, the child will support himself for his lifetime without relying on his parents or public assistance.
  3. The child will be financially successful and altruistic enough to voluntarily support the parents in the parents’ old age.

The first assumption is far from guaranteed. The second is shaky. And the third is downright hilarious.

Your Children Won’t Take Care of You

Raising children is expensive. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that the average cost of rearing a child, adjusted for 2009 dollars – not counting college – is $160,410 for the lowest income families (less than $56,670 annually), $222,360 for middle-income ($56,670 to $98,120 annual income) and $369,360 for the highest earners (over $98,120 annually). That’s far in excess of the 2009 average retirement savings for the 55-64 age group of $69,127. If parents really are concerned with how they will live in their old age, wouldn’t they be better advised to avoid reproducing and stash those hundreds of thousands in their retirement funds? It’s certainly a much more secure investment. An “investment” in children often has a negative return, as I will explain below.

In addition, a 2009 Pew survey found that 11% of people aged 25-34 had moved back in with a parent because of the recession. Far from supporting their parents, an enormous proportion of adults end up relying on their parents far past the age of majority.

Another problem: those children who are going to happily support you in your old age are probably going to have children of their own. You will be competing with your grandchildren for your children’s resources – and who do you think is going to win?

Even breeding advocate Bryan Caplan recognizes that children don’t feel the same solicitude toward their parents that parents feel toward their children:

An old saying tells us that “One parent can care for five children, but five children cannot care for one parent.” It could happen to you.

There are strong evolutionary biological reasons why this should be so. From the perspective of inclusive fitness, an adult child is much more valuable to a parent than a parent is to an adult child. I quote Daly & Wilson’s Homicide (pages 99-100) at length on this point:

Parent and child are equally related to each other, but it does not follow that each should have evolved to be equally concerned for the other’s welfare . . . . [A] parent’s valuation of an offspring is theoretically expected to increase over time, at least until the latter’s maturity. The fact that reproductive value varies over time means that mutual valuations between individuals are similarly unstable. From A’s point of view, B’s value as a potential vehicle of A’s fitness is the product of B’s relatedness (r) to A times B’s reproductive value (RV), i.e. (rAB × RVB). From B’s perspective, A’s value is the product of the same coefficient of relatedness times A’s reproductive value (rAB × RVA). If A’s reproductive value exceeds B’s, and the two are close kin, it follows that B may be more willing to incur costs – risk to own life, for example – on behalf of A than vice versa . . . .

By virtue of greater reproductive value, an offspring will typically be more valuable to its aging parent than vice versa . . . . [Such] interindividual valuations constitute one determinant of the probability that dangerous tactics will be employed when two people find themselves in conflict. In particular we would expect the individual less valued to be more at risk. An obvious prediction, then, is that offspring will kill their parents more often than the reverse. However, we must immediately exclude young children from this proposition, mainly because their relative defenselessness makes them much more likely to be victims than offenders regardless of any relationship with the adult involved, and also because the parent’s reproductive value may well still exceed the child’s at this stage.

In fact, between adults, killings of parents by offspring are vastly more common than the reverse. In a sample of Canadian homicides from 1974 to 1983, 91 adult sons killed their fathers and 45 killed their mothers; only 20 fathers killed their sons, and only one mother killed her adult son. Seven daughters killed their fathers and twelve killed their mothers; just five fathers killed their daughters, and just three mothers killed their adult daughters.

Your children will probably not murder you, but the data illustrate the degree to which children are more valuable to parents than parents are to children. They won’t kill you, but they probably won’t exhibit inordinate amounts of filial piety in the form of voluntary cash transfers, either.

Children are People, Not Investments

But even though having children is a poor financial decision, it is also unfair to expect children to financially support their parents. Parents and children do not properly have a relationship of reciprocity, although it is common to suggest that they should. The title of an article in the Daily Mail illustrates this mistaken “reciprocity” view:

Children should be forced to care for parents and grandparents to repay them for ‘free’ childcare, says lawyer

Why is this completely wrong-headed? Raising children – time, food, toys, diapers, irritation – is a gift to the child, not half of a contract. Parents are properly regarded as volunteers – that is, those who provide a service without a reasonable expectation of compensation. The homeless guy who washes your windshield without your consent is in the same situation – and the guilt you feel if you don’t “tip” him does not reflect ethical reality. He did you a favor – perhaps you appreciate it, perhaps you don’t – but you certainly did not agree to pay him for it. In order to make it fair to enforce a contract, the law requires that you actually willingly exchange something. You can’t give someone a gift and then turn around and expect him to pay for it, hence the legal maxim “equity will not assist the volunteer.” That is, equity (fairness) does not require that a volunteer be compensated.

When we expect our children to be our maids, caretakers, and sugar daddies in our old age, we are, in a sense, ordering them to follow a particular life path: one that allows for a great deal of discretionary income and time. What if a child does not want a high-powered, money-making career? What if he or she wants to support himself as a musician, artist, clergy member, or worker for a nonprofit organization? Shouldn’t this be the child’s choice? It’s bad enough to bring a child into our troubled world, necessarily without his consent. It’s adding insult to injury to saddle him with the responsibility to support parents who were too lazy to plan for retirement themselves, and preferred to push the responsibility off on him.

Babies as Hostages

Parents expect, by and large, to be able to use their children as caretakers in their old age. But more importantly, parents use their children’s helplessness to extort resources from others.

Imagine two people are trapped in a mine with only enough oxygen to keep one of them alive until help arrives. They are both thirty years old; the only difference is that one has small children, and the other has no children. Which one should get the oxygen?

Most people would opt to save the parent. But it is important to realize that the parent has no intrinsically greater claim to life: his children merely have a claim to their provider and caretaker. In this sense, having children is a great deal like taking hostages. Resources are provided to the hostage-taker not because of his own moral claims, but because of the moral claims of his innocent hostages. Unfortunately, this creates an incentive to take hostages. The parent-child relationship allows for a similar parasitism.

In large societies, assistance is provided to children because of their helplessness that also “just happens” to benefit their parents. Welfare, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit are just a few ways that society attempts to transfer wealth to suffering children, but also ends up transferring wealth to parents whose decision to reproduce was irresponsible. Even child support provided by non-custodial parents fits this model: the money is purportedly for the benefit of the helpless child, but it is paid directly to the custodial parent, and improves her welfare as well as that of the child.

How Parents Use Their Children to Parasitize Society

I wish here to analyze a real-life example. On July 11, NPR aired a story about the possible extension of unemployment benefits, and interviewed in detail a woman named Debra Rousey.

Until November 2009, Rousey was a bank manager. She has been unable to find a job since then, and gets $355 a week in unemployment benefits. The text version of the piece characterizes her as “a single mom supporting her 17-year-old son, her 25-year-old daughter and two young grandchildren.” But while these folks all live with her, it’s misleading to say that she is “supporting” her children and grandchildren. In fact, (1) she is receiving child support from her former husband for her 17-year-old son; and (2) her daughter (who does not work) receives food stamps for her two small children, and the family lives on those. (The audio, but not the print, version of the article contains these details.) She is considering applying for welfare. The story notes that “Rousey was able to pay June’s rent with help from her former in-laws, but she still has to come up with money for July. [Emphasis mine.]”

In Rousey’s words:

“Twenty years ago, when I was a single mother I was on food stamps and Medicaid,” she says. “I feel like I have come so far, making the income I was making, getting the degrees that I got, and to go back to public assistance is like taking three steps backwards.”

Rousey, who seems articulate, kind, and well-intentioned, is a poster child for how the three-fold parental ideal described above can go astray. Her situation illustrates how parents use their children’s ethical claim on society, and on the other parent, to benefit themselves. If she did not have a minor son, she would not be receiving money from her former husband, and it is unlikely that her “former in-laws” would be helping her out with rent. If her daughter did not have small children, she would not be eligible for food stamps.

This is a reality that few consider when making the decision to reproduce – if, indeed, they conceive of it as a decision at all.

Written by Sister Y

July 16, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Children of Earth: What Children are For, and How We May Use Them

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(Apparently it is polite to note that this article contains “spoilers,” or revelations about the plot of the works discussed, in this case Children of Earth, the third season of a BBC Doctor Who spin-off called Torchwood.)

An alien race known as the 456 comes to earth and demands 10% of earth’s children – or they will destroy the human race.

What do they want with the children? A child previously abducted by the 456 is shown partially dismembered and physically attached to an alien’s body, puppet-like. The child feels no pain and will never die; his eyes gaze out with a vacant, vaguely pleading expression. Why do the aliens do this? The human children produce chemicals that the aliens find pleasurable.

The situation is one of raw horror. A person of normal empathetic capabilities will find it absolutely horrifying for a child to be used in this way – cut up and attached to an alien to live forever as his drug factory. In the television show, a government worker who is informed his children will be among the 10% sacrificed to the alien overlords kills his children (and himself) rather than hand them over to this fate. Many of us might share this reaction.

What if, however, instead of kidnapping existing children, the alien could breed its own human children (in vats, say) for this purpose? Would that be wrong? The answer to this question gives us insight into the morality of creating children under normal circumstances.

One objection to the 456 creating children to use as drug factories is that although the children will not “feel pain,” they will suffer a horrible, endless existence. But horrible by whose standards? If the 456 does not create the children, they won’t exist at all. Isn’t a painless, eternal existence as the appendage of an alien better than none at all? Can we even compare the two? What standard could we use to decide whether a proposed existence is “too horrible”?

A second objection is that it contemplates using children for very selfish reasons. “Child-as-drug-factory” is about as selfish as you can get in terms of motivation for creating a child. But are ordinary human motivations any less selfish? We do not ordinarily inquire into motives for creating children. Should we?

The proponent of procreation must explain, I think, why it is wrong for the 456 to create children to use as chemical factories, but not wrong for ordinary humans to have babies for such motives as personal enjoyment and a feeling of immortality.

See also The Austrian Basement and Beyond for a similar thought experiment.

Written by Sister Y

June 28, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Take My Ten Kids – Please.

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The biggest shock to public officials came last week, when a single father walked into an Omaha hospital and surrendered nine of his 10 children, ages 1 to 17, saying that his wife had died and he could no longer cope with the burden of raising them.

(From a New York Times article on parents abandoning older children pursuant to a law designed to prevent “dumpster babies.”)

Frequent abandonment of older children, considered by some to be an abuse of the Nebraska safe surrender law, is just another piece of evidence that children and their parents often have radically different interests. The most you can say about procreation is that it might, under very special conditions, be altruistic (unless David Benatar is right). Even heathen evolutionary biologists tell us that parents have a strong genetic predisposition to behave altruistically toward their children, once those children are born.

But, in practice, it is more complicated than that. Parents and children have somewhat overlapping, but largely opposed, evolutionary interests. Parenting is often far from altruistic. Parents abandon their difficult children. Parents maim, kill, and rape their children. In jurisdictions that allow it, they sell their children. Under conditions of starvation, they eat their children.

Are we really sure that parents, in general, have their children’s best interests at heart?

Written by Sister Y

October 2, 2008 at 9:35 pm

Three Meditations on the Sweetness of Life

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From The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History, by David Hackett Fischer:

Then, inconceivably, torrential rains came again in 1316. The grain crop failed a third year in a row. Europe began to experience the worst famine in its history. When other sources of food ran out, people began to eat one another. Peasant families consumed the bodies of the dead. Corpses were dug up from their burying grounds and eaten. In jail the convicts ceased to be fed; we are told that starving inmates “ferociously attacked new prisoners and devoured them half alive.” Condemned criminals were cut down from the gallows, butchered, and eaten. Parents killed their children for food, and children murdered their parents.

From Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, by Jasper Becker:

There are enough reports from different parts of the country to make it clear that the practice of cannibalism was not restricted to any one region, class or nationality. Peasants not only ate the flesh of the dead, they also sold it, and they killed and ate children, both their own and those of others. Given the dimensions of the famine, it is quite conceivable that cannibalism was practised on a scale unprecedented in the history of the twentieth century.

From the report of the United States Congress Commission on the Ukrainian Famine, reported in Becker, above:

Very frequent is the phenomenon of hallucination in which people see their children only as animals, kill them and eat them. Later, some, having recuperated with proper food, do not remember wanting to eat their children and deny even being able to think of such a thing. The phenomenon in question is the result of a lack of vitamins and would prove to be a very interesting study, alas one which is banned even from consideration from a scientific point of view.

Written by Sister Y

May 30, 2008 at 6:10 am