Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Foster Care and Moral Obligation

[note: I accidentally published an earlier version of this upon which a couple of people commented. I apologize to those of you who commented on something that no longer exists.]

I just wrote a post about my response to hearing people who don't have any personal experience in foster care, telling other people that they should become parents through foster care.

I have a series of posts in draft form about foster care/ foster-adoption and moral obligation that I want to write. Some of them are pretty academic. Some have more to do with personal experience and are likely to be more interesting. This post is probably the most philosophical in the narrow, and worst, way. If you can make yourself read it, I really and truly would love your responses to it. I'm not asking you to respond as philosophers. I want to ask you to respond as people who care about kids.

So, this is a post on the philosophical paradox regarding benevolence, or any notion of duty beyond obligation.

Allow me to explain...

Philosophers have a difficult time with some sorts of moral obligations. The ones that arise out of any sort of contract are easy. When I walk into class as a teacher I have accepted a contract to behave in a certain way to these students. I should behave in those ways simply because I have in some sense promised to do so.

And some philosophers have conceded that we have moral obligations to people with whom we have no contract, particularly family members. There is far less agreement though about WHY we have such obligations. Do we owe our parents anything? Is what we owe them contingent upon whether and how they cared for us? I know I feel that I should care for my mother, who cared for me, if she were to get sick. As for my father, who did not care for me, well, I can't see myself leaving him on the streets. When I imagine possible scenarios I imagine figuring out ways to arrange for care he needed. I also cannot imagine letting him live in my home, as I can my mother.

Philosophers agree that we have obligations to our children, but again a lot of them want to analyze that as a sort of contract. Given that I did not surrender my children for adoption, but instead took them home, I now have an obligation to care for them. Once I have accepted a foster child into my home, I have obligations to that child. Many philosophers would like it to be that simple. And it is not just philosophers, we all want obligation to be connected to free choices. One person should not have to carry on the family business simply because it is expected of him or her. When our siblings seem to need us at least part of us wants to respond, "I didn't ask to have a sister."

And there seems to be something right about that. There is something wrong with the idea that we can incur obligations without having made some sort of commitment. When I society tells some group of people that they have an obligation to do a certain work simply because they are that group of people, we call it oppression.

But when we imagine a world in which everyone only does for others what contractual morality demands, we come up with a pretty cold world. Ayn Rand argues for such a world as the only just world. Rand argues that altruism is bad. I had a class one year decide to right to the Objectivist Society that supports her principles and ask how they thought the perfect society would deal with various forms of dependency: old age, disability, and disease. The class found the answer to be unsatisfactory. Individuals should save money, or buy insurance, or in some way contract for their care. If they didn't, it wasn't the responsibility of the rest of us to take care of them. The side-stepped the issue of the people who really couldn't care for themselves.

Carl enjoyed reading Ayn Rand. For a while he loved it. He kept asking me what I thought and I started out just telling him that I did not agree with her. I said that I disagreed that we had no obligations to people who could not reciprocate. He defended the position. Finally I asked him what his life would have been life in a Randian society. What would happen to a 14-year-old boy whose mother had died? He was somewhat stricken and said, "I would be selling my ass on the street."

The children who are or should be in foster care present the greatest challenge to contractual ethics. Of course, we can say that once the state has taken them away from their parents, the state has assumed responsibility and now is obligated to ensure their care. But what about the kids who are not yet in care? What about the kids who are being severely abused and neglected (I will let you draw the line wherever you think it should be drawn), is anybody obligated to do anything about it? I know some of us are mandated reporters, but I mean morally. Is anyone morally obligated, and if so, then who? And why them?

Here is the way that philosophers tend to set up the dilemma. Let's say that in our town of 100,000 adults there are 100 kids who have been orphaned by a natural disaster. By some fluke that only happens in philosophical thought experiments, none of them have other relatives who can care for them. Let's imagine that the children could be cared for with $1000 each. Of course that is an absurdly low number, but it makes the math easy. You can redo the problem substituting you own more plausible number. Do we, the non-related adults, have any obligation to help them? If we say yes, then how does that obligation get distributed among us? Perhaps each of us has an equal obligation for their care. In that case we each need to contribute 1/1000 of the cost of caring for one orphan or $1.

But what if many people simply refuse to participate? What if only 10,000 of us do? If we know that going in, are we each obligated to contribute $10? If so, that means the failure of others to satisfy their moral obligations increased mine. But maybe we accept that. $10 is not that much for most of us, so we give it.

But what if only one person cares? If we thought that the failure of others increased our obligation, what happens when the number of people who care decreases further? Is that one person morally obligated to contribute $100,000?

Surely not, most of us would say. It would be nice for them to do so, but they are not morally obligated. it is going above and beyond the call of duty. (For those of you who like to increase your vocabulary, that is called "supererogatory." "An action which is praiseworthy and is more than one is required to do is super-eh-rog-atory.)

So for philosophers this is quite a paradox. If we start with the assumption (which would need to be defended) that everyone was obligated to contribute $1, but deny that one person is obligated to contribute $100,000, then does that mean that that one person only had an obligation to give $1? There are 100 orphans, but if the one person who cares gives someone $1 to care for them, would it be morally acceptable for them to hand over $1 and walk away? Is that person really any more morally praiseworthy than the person who said, "They are not my children. I won't give anything." They don't seem to be, and yet in one way of thinking one has satisfied a moral obligation that the other has not.

One generally accepted philosophical principle is "ought implies can" which means that something can only be an obligation if you are able to do it, or conversely, if you really cannot do something, you are not morally obligated to do it. Though there is debate about exactly what this means*, it does seem right that if you really couldn't do something, you should be punished or otherwise held responsible for not doing it.

That may be our reason for denying that one person should give $100,000. So perhaps we solve the problem by saying that each person is responsible for giving what they are able. It is highly unlikely that in a community of 100,000 adults that only 1 will be willing to help. Surely at least 1,000 of us will want to do something. If we divide the obligation among all of us, we each need to contribute $100. We may agree that not all of us can contribute that much, so we agree to contribute more. A few people can only give $10; any of us can contribute $200; three of us can contribute $1000. We all do what we can, and hopefully it is enough.

That seems more sensible, but troubling. Certain we often find ourselves in those sorts of situations. I have, on occasion, contributed an amount to a cause based in part upon my assessment of the need and my prediction of how many people are likely to contribute. Roland and I contribute regularly to a small group that reaches out to GLBT students in religious schools. They don't spend a lot of time or money raising funds. They bought several versions of ex gay dot com so that when you type that in you go to them. (Careful if you try it though. They didn't get all of them. Some ways of spelling it will take you to gay pr*n sites. I'll save you the embarrassment. If you want to check them out, they're here). Roland and I give money to a couple of different organizations, but we decided a long time ago to support the small ones whom we perceive to need the money more than the big national charities everyone knows about. (BTW, we are happy with our current commitments and not interested in being solicited for other organizations!)

My desire to add that last parenthetical remark is an indicator of the problem with this solution. Doing as much as we can, really, seems to be far more than we should be required to do. I spend money on many things I could do without. Should I? I give to some charities, but in all honesty I don't make any sacrifices in my life style to do so. I give only a fraction of what I could. It is some small comfort to know that I am not alone. Peter Singer who is the philosopher most famous for arguing that we should give all we can, has admitted in interviewers that by his own argument he should be giving away about 40% of his income and yet he only gives 20%. (Okay...I don't give anything like that number...)

The point though is that philosophically it would be nice to be clear about what our moral obligations are. Starting with the assumption that we as a community had an obligation to those 100 hypothetical orphans, leads us to a paradox. Given that many people will not respond, we seem to have no reasonable solution As we imagine more and more people not fulfilling their part of the obligation, either the obligation becomes so heavy as to no longer be something that can be considered a moral obligation, or the resulting effort is so small as to be a complete inadequate response to the original problem.

I told you it was a paradox.

If our original assumption, that the community had a responsibility to the orphans, was the problem. Perhaps we should say, as I believe Ayn Rand would have to do, that we don't have any moral responsibility for them. We could make a deal with them, offer to take care of them now if they agreed to pay us back later. Of course if the orphans are very young they won't be able to agree to such a contract.

The other option is to not worry too much about it. They are not an obligation, after all. Perhaps some of the orphans will be cared for by people who want to be parents. That would be nice for those particular orphans. Of course, the ones left behind weren't owed anything. No one had any obligation to them. And as for the people who care for the orphans, they are not owed anything either. They wanted to do it. They chose it, like some people choose to take up rock climbing. The rest of us have no obligation to help them pay for their hobby.

****Most of this post is my attempt to explain a paradox that I read in a certain body of literature. It is a line of reasoning I am trying to figure out how to reply to. What you read is not an expression of my own views. So please -- discuss among yourselves. Tell me what you think. Be honest, and don't worry about hurting my feelings. I'll even turn anonymous commenting back on it. Do be polite to each other though.****

* There is some healthy debate about this. Harry Frankfurt has argued against it with examples in which someone fails to call 911, but it turns out that the phone lines were down so even if they had tried, they couldn't have done it. In this case he has said that they still ought to have called. Others have argued that what they ought to have done was TRY to make the call, and that was certainly within their abilities.


  1. I think often about fostering. I have it on my list of things to look into. I have no desire to adopt but all the desire in the world to do whatever I can for a child who needs a home and some care. A very dear friend of mine spent years in the foster care system (and it was not positive) and she really made me think about what I could do and how I could help.

  2. It is important. We desperately need foster parents. I just never want to be the one who encouraged someone into the crumminess of dealing with the system. I am pretty brutally honest when I am asked about it. I have had a couple of people I know go into foster care after talking to me (among many other things) and both have said they were glad I told them ahead of time how it would be. They definitely don't warn you in training.

  3. I think one problem is that promotion efforts can backfire. If you tell someone how great fostering/foster-to-adopt is and they take the first steps and call up and are so shocked they can't clear the first bureaucratic hurdles, they will go around and tell all their friends and family, "I tried to but I couldn't, they don't want me, it is totally hopeless". That just adds to the general negative perception (which also contains some reality of course).

    The most effective thing at getting me to stay on the path has been meeting people, in real life, who had done it before and gave realistic advice about what they went through and what they got out of it.

    I think it's important to try and make people see a more child-focused view. But there has to be a selfish angle as well. If there's too much accompanying focus on self-abnegation, that produces rapid burnout, giving up/dropping out, and then everyone is back where they started or worse...

    Overall I don't think things will get much better until the system focuses on reform, retention and federal standards... emphasizing recruitment first is like putting the cart before the horse.

  4. Hmmm.. I'll start off with a ready admission that much of the philosophical framing is over my head because I am sadly ignorant of the basics of philosophy (definitions, standards of proof, etc).

    But, this sounds at least somewhat similar to an argument I have with a libertarian friend of mine regarding the role of government and its responsibility (or lack thereof) for children who are abused, abandoned and neglected. Mark's argument is that the intervention of government in child welfare creates a massive, red-tape filled machine that complicates the process, making it more difficult and expensive than necessary. He contends that, left to their own devices, individual members of individual communities would step up to care for such children.

    I argue that government has to be involved to ensure that these kids are taken care of. And now, finally, for the way this relates to your entry - I guess that means I don't believe we are all obligated to care for them, or that if we are, we won't all fulfill that obligation, right?

  5. Suz, there are definitely other ways you can help out if you do not want to be a foster or adoptive parent. Here are a few ideas:

    * Be a respite provider (short periods of time under your control, somewhat, depending) or babysitter (my MIL could only use certain sitters because her foster kids were medically fragile. the list was pretty small. One lady, however, did it so much that she's become another sister in the family. In fact, DH talks with her far more often than his legal sisters!)

    * Donate to groups that work with foster children (one I particularly like is Little Wishes which grants wishes like art lessons and bikes to kids in foster care in the St Louis area, (all out of wishes from the holiday season, more should appear soon). There's another one out that that matches mentors with kids who have aged out of foster care as well as sending them periodic care packages (esp kids in college w/o families).

    * contact your local fostering agency and ask to be put in touch with someone you could help out. I happened through something else to get in touch with a SW and she said she would pass my name on to the chair of the local foster parents organization. Haven't heard back yet, but at least I've said I'd help out or donate stuff or whatever.

  6. Anonymous2:10 PM

    I've actually always liked the idea of, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." In your example, this would mean all the children's needs being met by the varying contributions of community members (some give $1, some give $1000, etc.)

    The problem of course is whether people want to give, and how much they think they are able to contribute.

    Personally I think we are morally obligated to give what we can while also meeting our own needs and those of our own dependents. But because we can't, in our world, give to everything, every needy child or organization, we have to, as you do, choose a few with the hope that others will choose the ones we don't.


  7. I have struggled a lot, on a personal level, with many ideas similar to these. What are my moral obligations, and how can I carry them out? Furthermore, how can I know when I have carried them out sufficiently? I find that last question particularly thorny - like you say, it is often possible to give more. Where's the line? This is one place where I find the traditional position of religious communities (tithing) a useful rule of thumb. 10% for financial giving is reasonable, and gives me a way to give without get caught up in a cycle of "but I could do more."

    I have no answers, really, but a lot of interest in the questions...

  8. Anonymous6:34 PM

    Wow. I guess perhaps I shouldn’t even respond, as based on the previous comments, I may be reading your post in a much wider context. What I consider a moral obligation, my neighbor may view as a ridiculous notion. We can dictate societal laws, which are typically based on the beliefs of the majority. In reading your post, I had a tendency to read myself into circles. The issue is, as far as I can see, that we can not dictate (nor should we) a “societal” sense of moral obligation. You may have a personal moral obligation which dictates that you avoid all animal products. I can respect that, and at the same time be relieved that I don’t have to live within the confines of your moral obligation. (I do love a juicy steak.) As I see it, in a free society, while we may and should have laws dictated by the majority (often based on the morality of the majority), we can not have a “societal” sense of moral obligation, as my morals are mine and mine alone. And so are yours. As it should be. We just need to heed the laws of society.
    As a side note, in an attempt to get back to the fostering theme, ideally, in MY world, we would all help those less fortunate, those unable to help themselves, in whatever capacity we are able. Your skill set and patience level may make you an ideal foster parent. My finances may make me the ideal person to donate money to help support the foster children. Ideally you would care for the children and I would subsidize the costs you incur in doing so. We don’t live in a perfect world. If we did, there would be no need for your foster parenting or my money. I suppose ideally none of this would be an issue.
    Kath B.

  9. Kath,

    I disagree with much of what you say, and I don't know that I can explain it very well in the amount of time I am willing to spend right now.

    The position that you are trying to defend is very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to defend consistently. You say that morals should be our own and that we need to heed the laws of society. You do not seem to think either of those just happen to your personal beliefs. You seem to think that we really should follow the laws determined by the majority.

    I think that we need to have moral discussions about right and wrong, and those conversations only make sense if we agree that there is such a thing.

    That is all I have to say about that right now.

  10. Your post makes me think of the old starfish story.

    It's not possible to save them all, but it makes a world of difference to those who are thrown back into the ocean.

    As for the morality of this issue, this is a really tough question, and there are really no good answers.

  11. One of my all-time favorite quotes: "I would not sacrifice a single hair on my head to save the entire world."
    I firmly believe that "moral obligations" lead people astray. Further, I believe that no one should ever do anything out of a sense of obligation. I try assiduously not to let myself feel obligated to do anything.
    When I go to school and teach my kids, imagine the benefit they get from my being there "because I have to." Now imagine the benefit they get from my being there because I love to be there.
    The more that obligation is formalized and institutionalized, the more hollow and meaningless it becomes. The more that people are required to do good, the less good they really do.
    "That's the government's responsibility."
    "I pay my taxes."
    "They put money in the cup so that they don't have to look."
    I believe that by trusting people and by treating them as I feel like treating them, I have done enough. My sister fosters a child who is, for lack of better terminology, badly damaged. She takes in FIV-positive cats. She rescues dogs that would otherwise be put down. She blows I-don't-want-to-know-how-much money on bird seed every month feeding wild birds.

    Why does she bother to feed wild birds?
    If it was just to enjoy their feathers or their song, she would take in the feeders when she didn't want to look out the windows. I believe that she feeds the birds because she enjoys benefiting them. The sense of satisfaction she derives from providing for them is more valuable to her than the money and effort spent.
    She fosters a child because she wants to.
    I say dispense with obligations and let people do what they want.

  12. To the poster identified as "---",

    You would like the philosopher Nell Noddings, and probably Hume as well.

    Hume said that reason is and ought to be a slave of the passions, meaning that our passions, our desires, are the only thing that can give us direction. Reason's only job is to help us to do them. He believed also that as social beings we have passions of benevolence.

    Noddings says our best selves are our caring selves, the ones in which we do things because we care about each other. Ethical caring, which she thinks is not as good but must sometimes be resorted to, is when we model our behavior on our caring selves. -- Like when you don't feel like teaching and you think about what you are like when you want to be there.

    I think all this is important, and I am glad you reminded me of it.

    It works only if everyone in the mix is a pretty decent person. It doesn't to me seem enough to get us to a just society because sometimes people do have desires to do bad things, and sometimes people don't want to do the things they should -- like care for their children.

    Aristotle combines the ideas in an interesting way. He says a truly virutous person's passions have been trained so that the desire the right sort of things...and that such a person is acting from the resulting character, doing what he or she wants to do. Non-virtuous and viscious people also act from desires, but they are desires that do not come from a virtuous character.

    And Aristotle knows that is circular. He has a discussion which in not convincing to everyone for why that is so.

  13. Yondalla, your point sounds like what I remember learning about Kant, especially his categorical imperative - one's theory must account not just for those who are virtuous but must be something that can be willed equally for all, those who are virtuous as well as those who aren't.


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