Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

A Yezidi child who was trapped in the Sinjar mountains for days without food or water due to ISIS, arrived in the Syrian city of Haseki Aug. 10, 2014. Photo by Feriq Ferec, Anodulu Agency/Getty Images

A Yezidi child who was trapped in the Sinjar mountains (near the border of Syria and Iraq) for days without food or water due to ISIS, arrived in the Syrian city of Haseki Aug. 10, 2014. Photo by Feriq Ferec, Anodulu Agency/Getty Images


What do children mean to you? Under what conditions would you have a child, or not have a child? How should we think about children?

These questions have been on my mind lately, not just because of violence and unrest around the world, but because we need to make a decision about whether to have a third child. It might affect job opportunities and make us a little poorer, but I kind of like the idea of large family gatherings. Here are some initial thoughts. I’m struggling with them, and they are a work in progress.

As a Canadian  Gen-X’er living in a highly developed and privileged society, the majority of my friends and acquaintances think of two children as the perfect family. “My, what a large family you have!” someone said to my brother, who has but three children. While Canadians enjoy a universal child benefit (at $200 a kid), a larger family means a lower standard of living, less travel, and less programs and sports (you would be amazed what parents pay in cash and opportunity costs for their kids to play hockey). But should we think like policy analysts when it comes to our family and make our decision based on a cost-benefit analysis?

There are always countless reasons not to have a child, and I think they’re pretty revealing about how we think of life as a whole. Here are the top five, in no particular order:

1. The environment. We don’t want to degrade the planet by expanding our carbon footprint, especially North American footprints. The reason China is polluting so badly is that it needs to keep up with the pressure of providing jobs for its comrades.

2. The economy. We can’t afford to have more children. The job market, plus the fact that wages haven’t kept up with cost of living, mean that both parents have to work to “keep up with the Joneses”. It will limit my job opportunities. Would I have to buy a bigger house? Could I afford day-care? How many cars do I need?

3. Too much work. I’m done having children. They’re too much work, too stressful, and they drive me crazy. I want to be an adult once again. I want to sleep again. I want to stop thinking Samuel Jackson’s rendition of “Go the F.. to sleep” on Youtube is the funniest thing ever. Plus, we know from psychology that the first five years are crucial to development. Will I have enough time to devote to each one the more children I have? Maybe I’m too old to be having more kids.

4. It’s less fun. We won’t be able to travel to Mexico as often. Every time we have a baby we spend so much time being overweight and unattractive. Less partying.

5. Peer pressure. Will I distance myself from my friends by having more kids, be part of a slightly lower socio-economic class, and have different priorities? Will I still be driving kids to soccer games while my friends are out golfing? Will everyone think I’m destroying the planet carelessly?


Each of these has passed through my mind at some point or other. So let’s break them down a little more. In order to do that, l want to lay out a couple ways we can think about children.

A. We could think about children not just as individuals, but as what they add or detract from society as a whole. We could be consistent utilitarians and think of children from a global perspective. Will it hurt society as a whole if I have a child? This position sees the ability to have children not as a right or a gift, but as a way to benefit or harm society. We’re not thinking of our own family per se, but of every family and whether their overall pleasure is reduced by adding another child to the world. To be consistent with this principle, we’d have to agree that the Chinese one-child policy (and all its side-effects) is actually more humane than the alternative.

B. We could think of children as projects, as something that we wish to bequeath to the world. We could limit the amount of children we have in order to give each one a better education, better opportunities, and more attention. Perhaps we could live in the ‘burbs, send them to private school, and give them music lessons and tutoring if we only have two kids. We’ll be less stressed with less kids, and we know that stress is bad for kids.

C. We could think of children as beings who’s primary need is to be loved. Children are gifts, and love is a gift. Love should be seen not just in materialistic terms, like “will I be able to afford an iphone for my teenager?” but in the more phenomenological sense of care, attentiveness, and consistency. Having more kids may stress us out, but when it comes down to it, the kind of life I want to live is one where love, not abstract reasoning, is the most important thing.


OK – there are probably more ways to think about children, and more objections, but how should we reply to the objections 1-5? By now it seems fair to say that objections 1-5 have to do with various ways children detract from overall life happiness, and that reasons A,B,C are views of what would make us most happy (keeping in mind we were also children at one point).

1. The environment. I’m not sure I could live with myself knowing that I didn’t have kids because of an abstract hypothetical scenario – that having less children will somehow allow us to solve human produced global warming. Who is to say we won’t fail anyway (or have already failed), or won’t develop new technology to mitigate global warming? I’m not sure how long that smug feeling of superiority would last. Also, the utilitarian gamble, that happiness is a measure of material benefits to society as a whole, should be taken into consideration with current real world scenarios like China’s one-child policy. Can you really weigh present discomfort and misery (poverty/lack of jobs) against unknown future states of happiness (political/economic stability)? Is the family unit not really as important as political stability?

2. The economy. Psychologists know that more money at a certain threshold doesn’t equal more happiness, and that only at a certain level of poverty do people complain of a lower “happiness.” But that’s not a good enough reason to reject #2. If I have 10 kids on a single income, it’s very likely I’ll dip into the poverty zone. At some point I would have to reject reason B, the notion that my kids are a project, and that I need to optimize every possible avenue of success. This is a very difficult thing to reject, given our evolutionary inclinations to further our bloodlines. Why should the sheltering of our children stop at providing only the basics of security, health, and education? Why not provide the best possible security, health, and education?

This is a much more difficult reason to ignore, especially given that I’m an educator and always want the best education for my own children, and my students. This is why there is an underground network of public school teachers who secretly homeschool their kids.

The main argument against reason B is that seeing children as projects tends to make them into another abstract instrument that can “fail,” rather than act as an ends in themselves. If you are an evolutionary materialist, are your children a failure if they fail to reproduce? You would secretly have to believe so. But say I’m not a materialist, just a liberal arts junkie who wants to pass on the crowning glories of western civilization. Would I have failed this mission if my children decided to get MBAs instead? Are your children an investment in the future? These are all ways in which an abstract ideal overtakes the present individual.

Looking back at the original reason for not having kids – the economy, I think abstract reasoning also serves as a convenient cover for reasons 3, 4, and 5, which all have to do with pleasure. Giving my children more also allows me to have more.

3. Too much work. Children are always too much work. It’s tough to say whether anyone would have kids if they were first given a contract specifying exactly how much work they would have to do. This is a cop-out reason, unless you really couldn’t spend time with your child or care for it in a significant way. Reason 3 stems from confusing different notions of happiness – that the opposite of sacrifice is pleasure and therefore must be good, or that being 20 for the rest of your life would be good for you, and that not experiencing pain is a kind of happiness. This is the kind of week-kneed materialism that Nietzsche called “enervating.”

4. It’s less fun. Lately I’ve really just wanted to go out for once. No expensive babysitter, no negotiations with spouse, just get away from it all and enjoy life. That’s great, but not as a principle on which to base your life. One of our band teachers has a saying – “you gotta work hard to have fun.” This is just as true in a family as it is in music. The rewards of putting in the hours do not come immediately.

5. Peer pressure. This is probably the lamest, but also the most effective reason for convincing people not to have kids. In the absence of strong principles, people go with the flow, and the current flow are reasons 1, 2, 3, and 4. The strongest peer pressure comes with needing to live up to the American dream of a big house, two cars, vacations, and a great retirement package. Also, giving in to peer pressure is a kind of pleasure itself – recognition.

These last three reasons seem especially distant from reason C – that children are not abstract ideals, but ends in themselves that deserve to be loved. Having children is a way of learning how to love. Love almost always means giving up material comforts and pleasures for others.

Anyhow, I am still struggling to see how B and C go together – how we can desire the absolute best for our children (and thus need the resources to do so), and also want to live life as if love is the most important thing. Perhaps it has to do with adjusting our idea of success or comfort. Do we really need a bigger house, more cars, cellphones, smart baby monitors, a “safe” neighborhood, travel opportunities, or tons of books to be happy? Reason B can easily be reduced to material benefits that turn out not to be that necessary. Perhaps education is the one commodity that is truly invaluable because it leads to a better kind of freedom. But do you need the best school in town? Are you willing to have less kids in order to provide a better education to a few? Any thoughts?


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In our last Philosophy Cafe, we invited Dr. Arthur Schafer, head of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, to talk about whether there are moral absolutes. Schafer is a prominent commentator on ethical issues here in Canada, and  recently invited the cognitive/evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker to lecture at Winnipeg’s new Museum of Human Rights.

Always engaging and provocative, Schafer argued that as long as we had enough facts about a situation, we would steer toward the right action, or at least know what the right action is not. He gave the example of a head hunter in Papua New Guinea. Why do they insist on harvesting the soul of the opponents head, each time a new baby is born? Because they have imperfect knowledge about the fact that harvesting souls is impossible, and hence headhunting is redundant (and so terribly politically incorrect). If the headhunter knew this, they would probably (hopefully) stop headhunting. Ethics is defined by how we view harm reduction in each individual situation, based on factual knowledge.

To me this represented the liberal scientific anti-religious view of life quite admirably. We know what is good based on a utilitarian calculus of harm. The key here is that harm is always defined according to modern liberal conceptions of the individual and of rights. We can respect other cultures’ erroneous and harmful views, because they are acting in good faith without the factual correct knowledge that we have. Therefore it becomes very important to educate people in empiricism and facts, which can undermine harmful ways of thinking.

But if good ethics are based on “facts”, how do we come to knowledge of the intrinsic dignity of the individual – of human rights? I suppose that ethical facts may in the end be reduced to a kind of scientism. Do Pinker, Dawkins, and company view the idea of human rights as merely a useful meme that allows for human flourishing? Do people have responsibility and freedom to act morally, or merely the illusion of responsibility for reproductive advantage?

Since I’m currently reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” in which he extols the “meme” interpretation of culture, I couldn’t resist Roger Scruton’s article criticizing the same. Scruton is a close student of the arts and of philosophy and often says what many people lack the courage to articulate (and articulate clearly). In this New Atlantis article, he does it again:

The theory of the “meme” threatens to debunk the whole realm of high culture by making culture into a thing that survives in the human brain by its own efforts, as it were, and which has no more intrinsic significance than any other network of adaptations.

Scruton provides a sustained argument for the idea of a human person and their subjective experiences, and therefore freedom and moral responsibility.

Even if there are units of memetic information propagated from brain to brain, it is not these units that come before the mind in conscious thinking. Memes stand to ideas as genes stand to organisms: if they exist at all (and no evidence has been given by Dawkins or anyone else that they do) then their ceaseless and purposeless reproduction is of no concern to culture. Ideas, by contrast, form part of the conscious network of critical thinking. We assess them for their truth, their validity, their moral propriety, their elegance, completeness, and charm. We take them up and discard them, sometimes in the course of our search for truth and explanation, sometimes in our search for meaning and value. And both activities are essential to us. Although culture isn’t science, it is just as much a conscious activity of the critical mind. Culture — both the high culture of art and music, and the wider culture embodied in a moral and religious tradition — sorts ideas by their intrinsic qualities, helps us to feel at home in the world and to resonate to its personal significance.

Other, perhaps reactionary, critics of the meme concept have similar things to say. One such critique comes from David Bentley Hart, the orthodox theologian who wields the English language like a scimitar (“Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark”). He points out that memes are a useful metaphor in the absence of any clear understanding of how evolutionary theory might explain culture and ideas. The propagation of memes functions more like a virus, rather than a function of human consciousness, will, desire, and rational thought. Atheists like Dennett, therefore, easily sidestep the need to refute the content of ideas, particularly ones he disagrees with, such as God and religious faith.

So far, from my reading of Dennett, liberal values like human rights are arbitrarily seen to be “good” (always in quotation marks) for the simple reason that things like eugenics, radical reductionism (E.O. Wilson and company), and the concept of God, are common sensically bad. There is no argument here, only assertion backed by the scientistic metaphor of memes.

More to come on Dennett and ethics.

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Does an ethics based in evolutionary psychology rest on a naturalistic fallacy?

Thomas de Zengotita makes the case in an article entitled “Ethics and the Limits of Evolutionary Psychology”  (Spring 2013, Hedgehog Review)

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre offers a hilarious portrayal of philosopher G. E. Moore at Bloomsbury convincing his enraptured audience (it was not difficult) that their particular tastes in art and love reflected quasi-platonic values to which their exquisitely refined sensibilities gave them special access.1 While Moore’s positive claims in Principia Ethica (1903) cannot survive MacIntyre’s withering caricature, Moore’s own critique, exposing a “naturalistic fallacy” in the work of predecessors as diverse as Herbert Spencer and Immanuel Kant, holds up well. This essay will apply it to efforts by evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt to reduce the ethical dimension of human existence to the vicissitudes of natural selection and genetic programming…

After summarizing their work briefly, Zengotita lets it loose:

No matter how advanced the natural science—the naturalistic fallacy—the assumption that something is morally good because it is natural—is philosophically secure. This fallacy is exposed when any definition of good offered by an ethical naturalist is subjected to a particular linguistic test. For example, when hedonism tries to define good by claiming that “pleasure is good,” the sentence itself is obviously saying something other than “pleasure is pleasure.” The two sentences are not synonymous, therefore good and pleasure are not identical. More broadly, given the claim that “Action X is good because the genetic program that triggers it, and our approval of it, was naturally selected for,” one can still ask whether it is good to do what we are genetically inclined to do. That is, asking that question still makes sense because—even using examples favored by evolutionary psychologists—the answer would appear to be: sometimes yes (help a friend) and sometimes no (kill the “other”).

It comes down to this: we cannot find truly ethical guidance in a nature shaped by evolution. Natural selection is random—random as to the mutations that produce variation, random as to the accidents of circumstance that make one variant adaptive and another fatal. Natural selection may indeed be responsible for something like a “mother instinct” that inspires tender mammalian behaviors of which we all approve. But natural selection may also be responsible for our instinctive tendency to fear what is strange and attack what is feared, thus contributing to the pageant of slaughter that has been human history. Ethical thought must take into account what Darwinian nature has made of us, and political provision must be made for that. But nothing ethical per se—nothing good or bad or even meaningful is to be found there.

Zengotita then employs Wittgenstein to delineate understanding from explanation:

The claim is that you cannot understand what it means to be human, what it is to be human, by way of science. Neurologists of the future may map brain activity so precisely that they will someday be able to read out what a person is consciously experiencing from that map—but the map will never be conscious experience. It can help explain a conscious experience, but only a person can understand it. Nature can only be explained; humanity can be understood, and understanding is a matter of meaning.

This is sounding much like Roger Scruton on the limits of scientific method ( which isn’t surprising, given that Scruton says his greatest influences are Kant and Wittgenstein).

Scruton and Zengotita both take up a phenomenological argument for knowing right from wrong based on the concept of the embodied human person – wrongs are various degrees of violations of things that can be said to be “mine” – all the way up to embodied intentions of a religious or political group. He ends with a great quote by Wittgenstein from “The Lecture on Ethics”, 1929:

But all along the continuum, from arrangements of hearth and home to the altar that beckons the light from on high and evokes the worldhood of the world—these arrangements are “culture” in a phenomenological anthropology, sites of the ethical aspect of conscious existence, anchors of embodied minds that can never be secure. Wittgenstein sums this up for us: “if I want to fix my mind on what I mean by absolute or ethical value…I wonder at the existence of the world.”

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