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Is having your own biological kids instead of adopting morally wrong? It appears

Is having your own biological kids instead of adopting morally wrong? It appears that it is to me because it seems that the world reveals that there are many hungry children out there that need to be adopted, ergo, there is less harm if you adopt. What are counters to my argument, and what is the stance of the academic community on this issue if there is one?

Funny you should ask -- there's a doctoral dissertation now being written on exactly this question (I am marginally involved in its supervision). The student essentially argues for the conclusion you suggest, claiming that, in the world as it is, those who decide to have children at all ought to adopt rather than conceive. Adoption confers a huge benefit on a child who would otherwise grow up under conditions of institutionalization and deprivation (for example, in an ophanage in Cambodia or Niger). And adoption does not take away a benefit from anyone: the person one would have conceived will simply never exist.

There's no stance of the academic community on this issue, yet. Time will tell whether the student's view will be widely accepted or rejected. It's bound to stimulate discussion if only because most affluent people believe that they have every right -- not just legally, but also morally -- to conceive if they wish.

The student's thesis might be opposed on behalf of the people who, if her prescription is followed, will not be born. But this opposition strikes me as unpromising. Perhaps it is good that more people can enjoy life rather than fewer. But one must surely balance this against the negative effects that additional people have on the quality of life of the present and future generations. All things considered, I don't think we have moral reason to inflate the human population from the present 7 billion to 8 or 10. And it seems entirely permissible, then, to refrain from conceiving -- no matter whether you then adopt a child or not.

The student's thesis might also be opposed on behalf of people who really want to have their (biologially) own child. So abstractly stated, this desire may seem a bit self-indulgent. But it may become more understandable with context. For example, a couple may think of their child as a celebration of their love for each other, with each wanting their child physically to resemble -- not so much oneself, but -- the partner one loves. Or think of a very musical family caring deeply about having a child that shares their gifts and devotion (the horror of Mozart junior turning out to be tone-deaf). To be sure, conception does not guarantee that one's child will share the great musical talents of the parents -- but it surely substantially improves the odds over adoption. And ditto, of course, for other heritable traits such as athleticism, beauty, height, mathematical ability, and so on.

Many parents facing the choice may also be worried about the time their potential adopted child would already have spent outside their care: about the nutritional deficits this child may have suffered, with consequently diminished development of brain and body; about traumatic experiences the child may have encountered, possibly resulting in excessive distrust and other anti-social tendencies; and so on. These worries could be addressed, at least in large part, by improving the current child care and adoption systems. But in the world as it is, they are real worries that lend moral weight to a reluctance to adopt.

This suggests a further objection to the student's thesis. Suppose that, leaving moral considerations aside, a couple honestly ranks the three options as follows: (B) having our biologially own child, (N) having no child at all, (A) having an adopted child. In this case, the student's thesis (if you will have a child at all, then it ought to be an adopted one) may seem to lose its grip. These parents will have a child only if it is biologially their own. By having such a child, they are not withholding the benefit of adoption from any existing child because, even if they had refrained from conceiving, they would not have adopted anyway. It's hard to see, then, why we should follow the student in holding that (N) is morally permissible but (B) is not. This tension could be resolved by weakening the student's thesis to saying: Those who do not have a genuine preference for (N) over (A) ought to adopt a child. Or the tension could also be resolved by strengthening the student's thesis to saying: All couples, even those who prefer (N) to (B), ought to adopt a child.

As you requested, I have given you some counters to what you, like my student, believe. But these counters must, of course, be balanced against the huge benefit that adoption would typically confer on a child in great need. All things considered, many of us may really have strong moral reasons to adopt in preference to conceiving a child of our own.

It seems like our society hold a number of bigoted beliefs about children. Even

It seems like our society hold a number of bigoted beliefs about children. Even on this website a philosopher made the claim that children have poor impulse control and that they tend to think the world revolves around them. I don't know if there is any good evidence to support such a claim but I have my doubts. Perhaps that is a good description of most adults as well. Have any philosophers addressed the pervasive prejudice against children?

One of our graduate students at Brown, Jed Silverstein, is writing a dissertation concerned with issues in this vicinity, so I asked him if he'd like to answer this question. Here is what he had to say:

"In recent times, political philosophers such as Susan Okin, Eamonn Callan, and Rob Reich have shown persistent interest in the philosophical significance of children. However, their interest in children generally focuses on the legal and political relationship between the state and the family in a liberal democratic society, and less on the moral status of children within the home. Other philosophers such as Gareth Matthews (sadly, recently deceased) directly explore the moral status of children, and question the prevailing doctrines of developmental psychologists such as Piaget. The upshot of Matthew's view -- sometimes known as child liberationism -- is that society systematically denigrates children on the unwarranted grounds that they are morally and cognitively deficient.

"An important consideration to keep in mind when exploring philosophical questions regarding the moral and political status of children is that the conceptual tools of the philosopher are not appropriate to adjudicating disputes about empirical propositions. Whether children have poor impulse control or are particularly self-involved is most profitably examined within the confines of social science. Nevertheless, the philosopher has a critical role to play in making clear the logical relations between empirical propositions and the moral and legal rights of children -- in essence, the philosopher lays the conceptual framework that can guide social scientific research and explain the significance of its findings."

Thanks, Jed!

On the ethics of hypocritical compliments:

On the ethics of hypocritical compliments: Every person has people in his life that exhibit a special and interesting form of "two-facedness." Say, for example, that you're a teenager and your parent is always telling you to stop reading on the couch and mow the lawn, wash the dishes, do manual work outside, do more community service, play more sports, etc. Then you get a reward from a teacher or a high grade, and that parent is the first one to compliment you for it. However, you well know that the reward is the product of all of those moments reading on the couch, and had you spent that time instead on a sports field, you would not have received the award. In this case, is it more ethical for the strict parent in such a situation to stick to her guns and not compliment her son, acknowledging that she still would have preferred him do the manual labor in place of all that time studying (honest consistency in message), or for the parent to heartily compliment the student and act hypocritically?

I suspect that the parent would not agree with the assumption that the only way for the teenager to achieve high grades was to skip chores and read on the couch.

I live with my husband and his mother. My mother in law seems to have issues

I live with my husband and his mother. My mother in law seems to have issues with me; she picks fights and tries to manipulate my husband into treating me like dirt just the way she does. She is more than just a meddler. She seems to have strange episodes that might qualify as a mental problem such as depression. My husband always takes her side and goes crazy on me saying that his number one responsibility is to his mother. My question is what is the morally acceptable thing here? Does my mother-in law deserve more of my husband's 'respect' than I do? It seems that he thinks I should never say ill about her even when she's clearly in the wrong.

What a difficult situation! You may be dealing with a matter that involves different cultural traditions. If, for example, you and your family's background is Confusian there may be a primacy of hnor due to parentss, but if you are in Jewish or Chrisitian context then, while honor is due to parents, your primary loyalty is to the marriage partner (Genesis 2:24 institutes marriage as a matter of of a man and by implication, a woman leaving father and mother and father and "becoming one"). But setting aside cultural or religious expectiations, I think most people would understand the vow that established your marriage as promising always to love and respect each other. Sometimes this vow includes a line about "foresaking all others" which suggests the primacy and exclusively important nature of the marriage bond. In light of that, I find it difficult to believe that respect and love would lead to the kind of reproachful behavior you are describing.

It would be interesting (but probably most unwise and dangerous and messy) if you and your husband were to be in a house if only for a weekend with one of your parents in which you all acted out the kind of behavior you have been subject to!

We often deride others by referring to them as childish. Why is this an insult?

We often deride others by referring to them as childish. Why is this an insult? What's so bad about being a child? The only major disadvantages of being a child I can think of are physiological and intellectual, and yet when we say someone is acting childish, we usually don't mean they can't perform complex reasoning or that they haven't reached the peak of their physical prowess. So how are we to understand accusations of childishness as insults?

Children have poor impulse control. They often think the world revolves around them. In general they have difficulty managing their feelings and often end up in meltdown or, worse, in violence. These emotional aspects of childishness are much of what we have in mind when we say that adults are acting childishly. And our main goal is not to insult people but to remind them that in the process of growing up they (should) have learned skills that they should be using now.

Why is philosophy not taught in high school?

Why is philosophy not taught in high school? I have heard some arguments against it, but they all seem pretty poor such as: "parents would not like their children questioning their views". It seems like philosophy has a lot to give in a high school setting, at the very least classes like Critical Thinking would give students tools for assessing arguments. I could understand if most people went on to college, but many don't and it seems like some of the skills which philosophy bestows could greatly benefit our society. I really don't see why professional philosophy has not ventured down this route. I would be very thankful for any insight on this topic. Thanks, William P.

As others have noted, some schools do offer classes in philosophy. And with the current budget cuts going on, philosophy is not the only subject that is being ignored. Philosophically speaking we should also come to grips with the arguments of the likes of Aristotle and Plato who contended that the study of philosophy is not for children or teenagers but should instead be taken up at about 40!

Who owns children? One of your philosophers wrote that Locke said a father has

Who owns children? One of your philosophers wrote that Locke said a father has too much control over his children. I feel that the federal government has too much control over what a father can or cannot do to his children.

Perhaps we could start with a related question: who owns you? The answer, I'd think, is "No one." You aren't property. You may have obligations and responsibilities to others, but part of the way we think about persons is that they aren't property and shouldn't be treated as such. That suggests that children aren't property either. They have more limited rights and responsibilities than adults do, but they don't belong to anyone in the way that, say, a painting might belong to me.

Suppose I own a valuable painting by some important artist -- Cezanne, for the sake of an example. Then though it would be a wasteful and bizarre thing for me to do, I am entitled to do most anything with that Cezanne -- including burning it or using it as a tablecloth. That goes with it's being property. But suppose I have a child. The word "have" here doesn't mean "own." For present purposes, it might best be thought of as meaning "am responsible for," and not just biologically. The child is entitled to be cared for, and to have its interests looked out for. The fact that I am the biological parent doesn't entitle me, for example, to turn the child into my slave. And the fact that the child isn't yet old enough to take care of itself doesn't change that. But since I am not entitled to make the child my slave, and since it would be so clearly harmful to the child to do that, it's hard to see the objection to the government intervening if I try. To repeat the basic point, the child is not my property; I don't own the child.

So we can sum up what we've said so far this way: perhaps (though it's a whole different topic) the government interferes too much when it comes to what people do with what they own -- with their property. But even if that's true, it doesn't get us far on the matter of governments interfering with what parents do to their children.

That said, this doesn't end the matter. Most of us think parents should have a lot of liberty in deciding how to raise their children. This isn't because parents own the children, but because many decisions about how to raise children go back to differences in values that we think a democracy ought to respect. If I want my children to attend a religious school, for example, then (so long as the school isn't abusive) most of us think the government should allow that.

There's room to argue about what the limits should be. Most of us probably think that unless the parent is doing clear harm to the child, the government should keep its distance. But however we sort through the cases, being clear on the idea that no one owns children is a good place to start.

Do children have duties towards their parents? If they do, do these arise as a

Do children have duties towards their parents? If they do, do these arise as a result of the parents' efforts on the child's behalf, or are they in some way structurally required, regardless of the parents' "performance"?

Great questions that have vexed many philosophers who have reflected on parenthood and debts of gratitude. Some philosophers (perhaps most famously John Locke) worked historically to limit the control of parents over children. Locke opposed what may be called patriarchalism and a tradition, that goes back at least to Roman times, that a parent (especially a father) could, by virtue of being a parent, exercise tremendous power (in ancient times this included the power of life and death) over the child. This seems to have been built on what you are calling a structual component (you created the child, therefore you have power over him or her) and this could back up claims on the child to demonstrate family loyalty. Behind Plato's dialogue the Euthyphro there is a hint that Socrates himself may have thought that a child should honor his father. (In the dialogue, Socrates challenges a man intent on prosecuting his father.) In any case, I suggest that there may be a prima facie debt of gratitude stemming from the structure of the parent-child relationship, though I also suggest this needs to be hedged in two ways. First, as Locke argued, parents are not the absolute creators of their children. For Locke, as a theist, he thought God is the creator of all, but even if you are not a theist the general point seems reasonable. Human parents can't claim to have created their children ex nihilo (from nothing)! But second, I suspect most of us would conclude that a parent can fail to live up to being a parent. In the case of serious abuse, we might even think that a father or mother has ceased to function as a parent. For example, to use a grotesque example, if a father claims to sexually love his daughter or son, would we say he is demonstrating fatherly love? I think most of us would not. So, I suggest that a parents' performance can undermine any claim a parent might have on a child.

At least two more vexing matters are in the offing: arguments that build on debts of gratitude can be stretched when a good is conferred involuntarily. Children do not (as many of them point out at some point) ask to be born. It is one thing to voluntarily accept a good (say, listening to National Public Radio, here in the USA), and then have a prima facie obligation of gratitude (to help pay for the radio broadcasts, for example), but it is another matter when a good that was not accepted freely. This may not be insurmountable. After all, the gift of life is providing the very basis upon which a person can make any voluntary action at all. Perhaps in the case of such a foundational gift, most of us who are glad to be alive are naturally led to being glad and therefore being grateful that we were born!

Second, if we grant that in the case of good parents, their children do have duties for their parents, how far do these duties extend? I suspect that the way to answer this question would take us into a conversation about love and the good. In a healthy family, there is (or at least I hope there is) love between parent and child and love is best viewed (I suggest) as desiring the good of the beloved. So, if a child loves a parent, she or he will desire the good or flourishing of the parent, and vice versa. This love would then inform just how much one party would desire or request of the other. Presumably, in this terrain, we are entering into deeply personal relations when a philosophical panelist should know when to stop writing!

Religious indoctrination involves very profound moral, emotional, and political

Religious indoctrination involves very profound moral, emotional, and political implications which are beyond the grasp of young children. Isn't it wrong to indoctrinate a child into a religious belief before they can knowledgeably consent to the implications of that belief system?

This is a profound and difficult philosophical question. I have toyed with the idea that it is wrong to teach children anything normative in the areas of politics and religion - at least they won't know enough to spoil dinner table conversation when they grow up. Seriously, I am not sure what the answer is, but I think that I would want to take my stand on a distinction between teaching by indoctrination and teaching by example. It is difficult to see that there could be an objection to people raising their children in a context in which the faith of the parents is evident. (But what happens when the child is to copy the parent in the recitation of the Nicene Creed? - "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible . . ."?) And when it comes to explicit religious instruction, things can get sticky. As long as the transmission of the faith is restricted to example and reason, though, I think it is acceptable. When the method of transmission is authority and indoctrination, it is not, as I see it. Something destructive enters the picture.

Why is the notion of a child having sex with an adult considered so profoundly

Why is the notion of a child having sex with an adult considered so profoundly offensive? It is widely believed that sex with a child is psychologically harmful to the child. However, why should that be? Is it the act itself that is psychologically harmful to the child or the belief that they (the child) have participated in something psychologically harmful which psychologically harmful to the child? Some people have claimed that when a child participates in a sexual act that they lose their "innocence." Yet I do not perceive any direct connection between innocence and sexuality. It is possible to express ones sexuality in ways that are disrespectful and even sadistic, for instance a person might feel deeply insulted if they allowed a person to have access to intimate parts of their body only to discover that that person had no respect for them as a person. The complexities and dangers of sexuality are one reason that it seems to be no less prudent to restrict the sexual activity of children than it...

Not only is it possible that pedophilia is in general not judged philosophically; as it is with virtually everything it is a near certainty. That, however, doesn't make the judgment incorrect. I can't speak to the reasons that pedophilia is thought to be harmful psychologically, but philosophically the issue is one of consent. That children should be initiated into and involved in a set of practices (i.e. sex) with such profound emotional, social, political, and moral implications without their consent is what offends philosophically. What determines when someone is able to give consent to sexual interaction, what criteria ought to be employed to determine when consent is properly given, etc., are interesting and difficult philosophical issues. I don't however think the aesthetic line of thought you pursue will prove terribly useful in this regard or in underwriting moral judgments about pedophilia, as what is thought to be disgusting pedophilia today was not so in the past--for example, in ancient Greece, in the Middle East, in Europe, etc. And, of course, even today there is likely to be little uniformity among individuals about this sort of aesthetic. Most of us, myself included, would find mutually consensual sex with, among, or between specific individuals disgusting aesthetically but perfectly acceptable in a moral sense. Consent is the issue and properly so.