Thursday, January 03, 2008

My Repsonse to the Paradox

If you read the entire post about the philosophical paradox of benevolence, congratulations. If you commented on it THANK YOU. is what I think as a foster parent and as a human being. I don't know that I can adequately defend it as a philosopher, but I think I am going to try, although perhaps not here. Here I will just explain.

I think the paradox rests upon the fact that the obligation is set up as the giving of money. I think that matters because so many people can give money. In other words, everybody can, so no one has to. That's not a philosophical principle, but it does seem to be a belief, perhaps a true belief, that many of us have. If someone needs help, we are more likely to respond if we perceive ourselves to be the only one who can, or if we perceive ourselves to be somehow uniquely qualified.

When I talk to people about foster care I tend to get two responses. People outside of care say, "I could never do that." When I ask people who do care why they do, they tend to struggle for an answer. In the end they end up saying something like, "Well, we could do it, so we thought we should."

I think there is something very important there, and it is difficult to state precisely. While philosophers say, "ought implies can" (which, again, just means that if you really can't do something, then are not morally obligated to do it), I think that in some sense it is true that "can implies ought." In other words, sometimes realizing you can do a thing is a reason to conclude that you should do a thing.

I'm going to use my own case. When Carl first told us that he was being moved and probably wouldn't see us again, I spent the entire church service thinking, "We could take him." All sorts of things ran through my mind. Andrew and Brian would probably be willing to share a room for two years; we would have to do some work on one bedroom, but people from the church would donate labor if it was for Carl; we all liked him; so far as I knew he didn't have any "issues" that I couldn't deal with. I knew nothing about foster care, but I liked this kid and could imagine myself parenting him.

And I knew that we would be good for Carl in a way that few, if any, families could. He knew us. He was a regular babysitter and the boys adored him. It would be easier for him to move in with us than with some other family. We were in the same school district, and we went to the church where he had attached to so many people.

I could just see it as a possible future. The more possible it seemed, the more I felt that I should do it. That it was possible for me, created a sense of obligation. We are motivated to do things in different ways. Some things we just want to do. Some things we think we should do. And I think that more we believe we are uniquely qualified to do something, perhaps because no one else is there to do it, the more we tend to feel obliged to do it.

I would like to figure out a way to defend that philosophically, but that is not a project for the blog. I see a paper called "Can implies Ought" that is potentially worth writing.


  1. Yondalla,

    I didn't comment yet, mainly because I am still chewing on it all.

    I loved Ayn Rand when I read it in college, but I think I've flushed it all, and now I have to put re-reading The Fountainhead on my list of things to do.

    Our first adoption was motivated almost purely by self-interest. Suddenly I wanted a second child, but I wanted my kids to be close in age, and since the first one was 8 already, it seemed like a good solution.

    When I visited Haiti for the first time, I was bowled over by the staggering poverty, and by the orphanages filled with children who needed... everything. Particularly the special needs kids, who had absolutely no future ahead of them. In a country where there is no medical care, no CPS, no WIC, no government-mandated (or provided) education, and just overwhelming unemployment, illiteracy, etc, etc.. I'm having a hard time saying what I want to say, but... once you see it, you HAVE to do SOMETHING about it... and if you can see it and go on about your normal life and do nothing, then, really, shame on you!

    I hate when people say stupid stuff like, "oh, I could NEVER do what you're doing!" Like what? Parent? That's not to deny that transracial, transcultural, older-child, special needs adoption doesn't have its unique challenges (and suck the marrow from my bones some days..) but if I came home from Haiti and did nothing, I couldn't look at myself in the mirror and I SURE wouldn't want to meet my Maker if I turned a blind eye.

    BTW, check this out, will you? Do you know anyone who might be able to help out?


  2. Cathy8:51 PM

    There are many ways to help and do what you can. I have always seen all my years in mental health, taking care of the adults society had thrown away as 'doing my bit' for lack of a better way to put it. Those years sucked me dry, when I walked a way I had nothing left to give. I can sit in an office and listen, I can be a school counselor, I think I can run a House at a Boarding School. What I can't do is take on the broken in any kind of personal way anymore. I don't think there is anything wrong with this, I really think that it is very important that we know and admit when we are done. Not that I'm saying you are and won't admit it, but I am. I didn't realize just how done I was until I started thinking about all this. Corey, I'm sorry, I could see it and be greatly moved. I would give financial support. I might be able to help out professonally, but that is all I could do. Good luck on the paper Yondalla, I'd like to read it if you get it done.

  3. Cathy,

    Please don't take offense! I don't mean that everyone should adopt a houseful of children... I don't even believe that adoption is the answer to poverty... it's a bandaid solution, at best, and only helps a teeny tiny group of kids (and causes lots of problems too).

    I do believe that we have an obligation to help those that are less fortunate than us... and there are lots of people that need help and many, many venues for doing so. I never meant to imply that people who don't adopt aren't doing their part to make the world a better place, and if I did, I'm truly sorry.


  4. Corey,
    Did someone say something to you to indicate that they had? Did I?

    I'm sorry if I did. I find it difficult to think clearly about international adoption and I do try to avoid doing so. So perhaps it is my silence that you interpreted as offense?

    None was intended, I assure you.

  5. Blogger lost my really long comment and I can't replicate it. I'm sorry, but I did respond. :( Something about thinking we should because we not only can but would be really good at it too.


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