Tuesday, January 08, 2008

"Selfishness" and Parenting, Part I

There are topics or arguments that come up in my classes so often that I have to struggle to treat each conversation with the attention and patience it deserves. There are two claims or arguments that I hear that I think are just based on confusions. I simply cannot believe that people really mean what they are saying, except that they think they do.

The first is that claim that everyone is selfish.

Now the reason that the claim is compelling is that there is one interpretation under which it is true. The problem is that under that interpretation it is just not very interesting. It depends on how you define "selfish."

The definition of "selfish" that makes the claim obviously true is "doing what you want." In that case to say that every person or every action is selfish because the person is doing what he or she, in some sense, wants to do, may be true. Sadly, this is just equivalent to saying that every action has a motivation, which isn't all that interesting. Yes, people who throw themselves in front of bullets and people who use other people as shields from bullets are both doing what they wanted to do. To say that they are both selfish though doesn't make sense.

There are other ways of defining "selfish." You could mean "acting without regard to the needs and desires of others." Under that definition, many actions would be considered selfish, but not all of them. We could define it as "knowingly and callously sacrificing needs of others in order to realize your own desires." Now "selfish" means something that is clearly morally bad, and fortunately, not something that everyone is constantly doing. There is another way the word gets defined that makes it a morally good thing, but also not universal, as some sort of healthy self-regard.

I'm not going to tell you how to define the word. I am going to claim that any interesting definition will not cover all actions.

So...some of us, including me, have been wondering about motivations for foster care. What I want to do is get at that very personal sense of "I must" that some of us experience when we realize we can do care. This post is not about that, though. What has come up in the comments and in some other posts has to do with whether some or all parents start out with selfish motivations, and whether that is bad.

I think that most of us desire certain kinds of relationships. We want friends, and life partners, and good colleagues, and some of us want children. Aristotle thinks we should want them. He thinks our lives cannot be complete and we cannot be fully happy without them. We need people to share our joys, and comfort us in our sorrows. We want to have children for similar reasons.

And we want to have healthy children. Wanting a healthy baby when you are pregnant is so socially acceptable that we feel comfortable expressing the desire in response to the question, "Do you want a boy or a girl?" "I don't care -- I just want the baby to be healthy."

I was pregnant twice. During those pregnancies I did everything I could to have a healthy baby. The first time around I particularly worried about whether my baby was going to have one of the various illnesses in my family tree. I had asthma as an infant. Would my baby? I sure hoped not. On one hand I knew that if I did have a baby with asthma I would cope. On the other hand, if the doctor told me that there was something I could do to help prevent asthma in my baby, I would do it.

At some point the focus of the desire shifted. Instead of wanting a healthy baby, I started thinking about the baby that I was carrying and wanting for him (so it turned out to be) to be healthy. My concern at some point stopped being just about what I wanted to deal with, but what sort of life I wanted for his sake. In either case, doing what I could to have a healthy baby required sacrifice on my part. The second time around I developed diabetes (the kind that goes away after the baby is born), and keeping us both healthy required a LOT of sacrifices. Not wanting to take insulin, I maintained a demanding feeding and exercise schedule that I never would have maintained if I was diabetic and not pregnant. (Not that I wouldn't take care of myself, but if offered a choice between that sort of regimen and something more relaxed that included medication, I would take the second option.)

All that seems normal to me, and not selfish in any negative sense of the word. I did not really think about the possibility that my child might have a disability that greatly disrupt my life-plans. I didn't think about what I would do if my child had a medical condition that was not treatable, or required treatment I could not afford. I did not think about how I would finish graduate school or keep my job if my child's illness prevented me from sleeping or doing the work that I had to do. If it crossed my mind at all it would have just been to think I would deal with any issues when they came up.

So, what I want to suggest, is that what changes in adoption and foster care is not that the desire for healthy children is unethical, but that many of the means for realizing that desire are. The desire also becomes unrealistic. You can minimize some risks by adopting newborns, but the risks will probably still be higher and less predictable than if you got pregnant. Those of you who have researched or lived in this world would know far better than I. I do know that as you consider older children more of those risks will have manifested, so you are more likely to know what you are going to have to deal with.

And that is what agencies usually ask us to do: consider what we are able to deal with. I've argued before that you can't really know that until you've tried, but we can often have some idea. That question, and the honest answers to them, is not selfish in any sort of negative way, but it does demand careful self-regard. We have to think about ourselves in order to decide what we can do. The question is not selfish in that we are thinking about the needs of others.

So...I am detecting a temptation to want to ramble.

What I want to say is that the decision to parent is and should be partly about our own desires and needs. That is true for foster parents as much as anyone else. But there is something else...a perversion of this healthy attitude that is very troubling.

I think another philosopher, Immanuel Kant, can help us out here. Kant said many things, but one of the things he is famous for us saying that morality demands that we treat every person, including ourselves, as an "end" and not a "means only." (I paraphrase, of course). Kant said that we are all "ends in ourselves" because we can create our own ends or goals. I exist for myself and my goals, I don't exist for you.

Now of course we have to treat other people as means to our goals. We could not get anything done if we didn't. Sometimes I need to get my hair cut. I have to find someone who will act as a means to that goal. There is nothing wrong with that. If however I start treating the hairdresser as though all she is is a hairdresser -- someone who exists so that my goals my be reached and has no goals of her own, then I am treating her unethically. I'm treating myself unethically if I think of myself merely as a means to others. If I allow myself to be defined by my children's needs and goals, I am not treating myself with the respect I deserve.

And sometimes parents do this to their children. They start out with perfectly normal, healthy desires to be parents, for all the ordinary self-involved reasons. They want a baby. They want to be part of a child growing up. They forget though that the child will be person with his or her own set of desires and goals, that the child will not exist for the parent.

We can do that to our biological children. Lots of people do.

Do adoptive parents do it more often? Well, not the ones that I know.

Do foster parents do do it? Certainly, not the ones who keep doing care. These kids are so needy, so demanding, no one could maintain the illusion that the kids exist to satisfy our needs.

The attitude of some prospective adoptive parents, and I don't think it is most of them, is not, I think one of selfishness or a failure to remember that the child they parent will be a separate person from them. I think the issue is one of entitlement.

But that is another post.


  1. This is exactly what I was trying to get at in my comment a few days ago...but you said it much better than I ever could.

  2. I think the means ONLY distinction might be what I'm trying to put a finger on.

    I do think, unfortunately, that there are some people who do care, who adopt, because they want to be a parent, any way, any how. Period. I don't think they ever make the jump to making it about the kid as you describe.

    I also think there are people who are more motivated by the children in care - motivated to help them. But I get VERY suspicious when someone claims it's only about the kids. I don't think anyone is that altruistic. But maybe I'm just too skeptical.

    And the main reason I object to the idea of "saving" children is that I think it places an undeniable need for those same kids to be grateful - they should be lucky to be saved, be grateful to their parents for rescuing them.

    But they won't (usually) and that turns into a crappy situation for everyone.

    And now I'm rambling. Sorry.

  3. alas, that was a great post. i bet you're great in the classroom with your students!


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