Friday, December 03, 2004

"I Gave You Life"

I am about to propose something that I suspect would be very unpopular were anyone actually reading this blog to find it unpopular.

I don't think having and raising children is particularly laudable. Further, I think the common wisdom that children owe something to their parents for giving them life and raising them is exactly backwards. Though children voice this argument poorly when they say, "I didn't choose to be born," there is actually a kernel of a good argument behind the poor one. Parents owe their children, not vice-versa.

My mother used to claim that people are selfish until they have children, which then forces parents to become "other-centered." And yet my mother is perhaps the most selfish person I ever met, so I sensed that there was a flaw in this argument. The flaw is in assuming that being centered on your own children is in any way not utterly selfish.

You see, behavioral psychologists have found that "altruistic" behavior, that is, behavior intended to help someone else without expecting something in return, is much more likely to happen with close genetic relatives than those not sharing genetic inheritance. That is to say, a chimpanzee is more likely to give food during a famine to its siblings and children than to its cousins, aunts, and uncles, and even less likely than that to give food to second cousins, great uncles and aunts, and so on. This is also true in humans.

This isn't an accident. This supposedly "altruistic" behavior is really a factor of trying to ensure that our genes survive to be passed on to future generations. This isn't really altruism in the pure sense of the term. While the person sacrificing for a close genetic relative may not consciously know what benefit he or she is gaining, he or she has been programmed by evolution to want to keep his or her genes in the gene pool and thus is still acting in his or her own interests.

As such, taking care of one's children, first-degree genetic relatives, is not at all unselfish or "other-centered." It is completely self-centered in that parents are trying to make sure their genetic inheritance passes on to the next generation and does not die out. They are taking care of themselves and their own legacy, for their own reasons. If one fails to take care of one's own children, one risks that his or her genetic inheritance will not continue on, and so taking care of one's children is about the parents and their own needs and desires, not about becoming "other- centered."

When parents tell a child to be grateful because they "gave [the child] life," they are taking credit for something that wasn't the actual purpose of their actions. Children are the vessel by which parents ensure that their own genetic inheritance is passed on to the next generation. Far from giving the child "a gift," the child is actually the one doing something for the parents, by becoming the vessel by which the parents' genetic inheritance is passed on.

Parents do not have any idea what their child will be like when they decide to have children. They choose to do so based on selfish reasons. When a child is born, they automatically love it, for no other reason than that it carries their genes! Parents have no idea what the child will be like yet to know if the child is someone they would otherwise love if the child did not carry their genes. They don't love the child for itself. They love the child because it has some of their genetic inheritance.

When the child develops and parents claim, "I gave you life," it is essentially a lie, because the person the child has developed into didn't exist then and the parents did not know the person who they would be giving life to. They were really creating a vessel to carry on their genes which could have ended up being any number of different people but happened to become this one. The important thing isn't specifically what the child ended up being (aside from a serial killer or something) but that the child has the parents' genes. The child could have been any number of different people and the parents would still love him or her -- as long as he or she has the parents' genes.

This is not to say that parenthood is bad, either. I am claiming that it is, essentially, morally neutral. Taking care of one's children is also not laudable just because failing to do so is bad. That's false logic. By the same logic, every time you go to the bank and do not commit the bad act of robbing it you have, by default, done something good. But protecting one's genetic inheritance rather than abandoning it to survive on its own is still doing something selfish for one's self, and thus lacks any particular moral value. (This touches on the strange idea in our society that not doing evil is equivalent to good, as in, "He was a good man. He never said a word in anger." But if he also never helped anyone, never spoke up when others were being hurt and oppressed, never did anything positive, in what sense is he good? At best, not doing evil is morally neutral).


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