Is there a duty to adopt?

Back on the front page, since there's more discussion today--
Occasionally I've heard people write/say that there's a duty to adopt children, rather than procreate.  I take it this is supposed to be a duty just for people who want children.  Considering that there are existing children in need of parents, and considering that the world is already overpopulated, it's wrong to make new children--or so they say. 

To think about this, I think it's going to help to go a bit hypothetical, because the real world situation is too complex, and some of the facts are in dispute. For example, the point about over-population is disputable.  The total world population is too great, but some regional birth-rates are too low.  People aren't replacing themselves, making for long-term problems with funding social programs for the elderly.  The other complexity is that although there are lots of children in institutions--Scott Simon says there are a million in Chinese orphanages--there are quotas and red-tape.  So there's a limit to how many people can actually fulfill their desire to be parents by adopting.

So here's the hypothetical situation. Pretend there's no population problem, and pretend there are plenty of children in need of adoption. In fact, there's an orphanage in your neighborhood.  You want to be a parent. Must you adopt, rather than create a new child in that situation

My vote is No.  The main reason is because I think being a parent to a child is having a very intimate relationship with that child, and I am reluctant to think intimacy can be morally obligatory.  Imagine the issue is not adopting children but "going out".  Dave, the guy you like, has lots of brains and beauty, and a bubbly personality too!    So if you drop Dave, he'll be fine.  Dudley, on the other hand, has no brains or beauty, and he's very dull.  You're his only chance.  Must you go out with Dudley? No, of course not.  Even if doing so would maximize utility, as the utilitarians say, you may go out with Dave.

When I subjected my husband and son to this argument, they viciously attacked me, pointing out that children are in need of adoptive parents in a much more serious way than Dudley is in need of a date. Yes, yes, yes, of course.  But the point is that it is odd to think of any intimate behavior as morally obligatory. I grant that kids need a home much more than Dudley needs a kiss, but intimacies are involved in both cases, and I can't imagine intimacies being obligatory except in the most dire situation.

Now, you may say--what's so intimate about parenthood?  But I hope not, because a lot is intimate about parenthood.  And the intimacy of it is probably crucial--it's closely connected to the commitment people feel to their kids.  It can't be my duty to enter into that intimate relationship with just any child, based on the child's need.  In fact, I just may not be able to feel the right things for any child but my own.  This may be narcissistic of me, but so be it--that might be the fact of the matter.

All that being said, I can imagine obligatory intimacies in very, very dire situations.  The end of the world is nigh; you and Dudley are among the last remaining men and women.  You don't care for Dudley, but then, there will be no more people if you don't have a "date."  (Dave, as it turns out, was rendered infertile by the catastrophe that wiped out most of the human race.)  Or:  in that very dire situation, an abandoned child needs you (and there's no one around but you).   Don't you have to become his parent?

So: "no obligatory intimacies" is not an absolute rule, but it does seem at least roughly, and in ordinary situations, correct.


elkly said...

Such an interesting post! I may be misreading your argument, but it seems to me like your argument rests on the assumption that a person can only develop the requisite intimate relationship with a natural child, and that a person cannot be required to develop an intimate relationship with a child who is not of their own makeup. But this in turn seems to depend on a somewhat essentializing assumption that there is some innate connection between a natural parent-child relationship which cannot exist between an adopted child and its parent.
I see 2 potential problems with these assumptions: 1) parents have meaningfully intimate relationships with their adopted children all the time, and 2) there is a chance that natural parents will not necessarily "feel the right things"- even for their own children

My partner and I are talking about starting a family in the next few years and we discuss this issue often. He thinks we should adopt because there are already so many children who need good homes. I'm on the fence. like you I think there is (or may be) something special about a natural parent-child relationship, but I am reticent to say it is innate and cannot. At the end of the day I think I just want to experience pregnancy and I really want a little version of my partner running around. I've also always been interested in Levinas' view of parent-child relationships and how we have children partly to defy death by re-plicating ourselves through our children...

Jean Kazez said...

Elkly, Thank you for your comment. I really didn't mean to say we can't develop an intimate relationship with an adopted child. In fact, I'm reading two books about the adoption experience right now, just to understand it better. One is by Scott Simon, who adopted two Chinese little girls. This book alone makes it very clear that intimacy, love, commitment, etc., are all possible with an adopted children.

But maybe not for everyone? I can imagine someone just not liking the idea of an intimate relationship with a stranger's biological child. I don't know why sharing genes makes a difference, but it wouldn't be surprising if it does.

On the other hand, it might be that when you do decide to adopt, you get into some sort of receptive frame of mind, and somehow things happen like they do when you get pregnant, and the baby you wind up with does look utterly delightful and gorgeous in your eyes. So maybe it all works out--and I don't think that would have been impossible for me, by the way.

But it seems very odd to say that a person simply has to get into that sort of close, physical relationship with the child who most needs a parent, and that it's not just up to us who we relate to in that intimate way and who we don't.

Spencer said...

You seem to be drawing a distinction between "just any child" and "my child." Obviously, children aren't like pets, so a duty to develop an intimate relationship with one child rather than another can't be based on, say, cuteness. So I assume the only possible relevant difference between a duty to enter into an intimate relationship with one child rather than another is that one has a certain genetic relation to the parent.

So for you, it seems that:

A child being genetically related to a person can ground a duty for that person to enter into an intimate parental relationship with him or her.

But this seems no less plausible (in fact, *less* plausible) than the following (which you reject):

A child needing the care of a person can ground a duty for that person to enter into an intimate parental relationship with him or her.

Jean Kazez said...

I wouldn't say genes really enter into it. If you bear a child yourself (and not because you were raped), that causal connection puts you in a position of responsibility for the child. Bringing a kid home from an orphanage, after signing papers, does the same thing--you're responsible.

The question is whether a person *must* do these things that create responsibility. Must they go to the orphanage, and likewise, must they get pregnant? The answer's the same in both cases--no, except in extremely unusual and dire cases. Why not? Because these things are intimate (like sex and marriage) -- "no obligatory intimacy" (as I put it).

That's what I argued, nothing about genes grounding our responsibility to our kids.

ʭɼʝɮɔɺʆɲʎʁʬɳɫɚʅɶʬʧʎɲ said...

This is like Singer's "shallow pond" case for adoption. I'd like to know what he thinks, but I suspect he'd say that we do have an obligation.

In addition I think adoption can be a win-win case (instead of a win-lose situation as in the pond).

Your arguments rests completely on your moral intuitions, and in these kind of cases, they can be very misleading. We've developed our "intuitions" in small tribes, and they're not ready for a truly global world.

Jean Kazez said...

What I am thinking is that a "shallow pond" argument can show that you must do all sorts of things for other people, but not "intimate" things--they're in a special category. You might have a duty to donate money and time to the orphanage, but it's another matter to have to love one of the babies--that's what's involved in adopting.

I agree, the way I've made the argument is too much a matter of intuitions. I'm trying to figure out how to make this more convincing. But by the way--the shallow pond argument is just intuitive too.

Wayne said...

Speaking for the ugly unattractive guys, I think women need to live up to their obligations to date us and make the world a better place. :)

But seriously, I think there is something to the argument that we have to adopt. Maybe we don't have an obligation to form an intimate bond with anyone. But that goes with parenting. Not all parents create an intimate bond with their children, regardless of whether they want it or not.

But regardless of whether we have that intimacy, we have an obligation to care for our children the best we can. If my wife and I had a baby, and we simply just didn't love it, for whatever reason. We clearly should still care for him/her.

Back to the dating scenario. I could have an obligation for dating X for all sorts of reasons. I promised a friend to give X a try. I don't have an obligation to be intimate with this person, or to form a intimate relationship. But I do have an obligation to buy dinner and engage in some chitchat.

Adopting parents don't have to form the intimate relationship (although ideally they should just like ideally, a date would begin creating an intimate relationship). They just need provide for the care of a child.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm...to make the argument a bit more sharply: nobody has to help people in developing countries by marrying them, so how could we have to help people by adopting them? The two things are different only in degree, not in kind. Marrying and adopting are not at all like giving money, which is what Singer constantly focuses on in his arguments. It's interesting that his focus is like that--it's an implicit recognition that there's a "sphere of the personal" that's somehow beyond obligation.

By the way, I'm sort of stealing this whole line of thought from the book Future People, by Tim Mulgan, thought what he says there is much more subtle and technical.

s. wallerstein said...

Perhaps the analogy to dating is not so good.

A date, even one which ends intimately, lasts less than 24 hours.

Raising a child, adopted or not, requires a commitment of time, money and energy for at least 18 years and many times for longer.

Caring for a child is perhaps the most challenging and creative task that most people will face in their lives.

There seems to be no way that one can care for a child without a huge degree of intimacy, even if that intimacy can unfortunately take on perverse dimensions.

Unless one lives in a mansion with servants, one is going to be intimate with a small child in one's home: changing diapers, attending to his or her crying spells, feeding him or her, giving a bottle, sharing small spaces like bathrooms, dinner tables, etc.

I agree with Jean that if there is a duty towards orphan children it is to donate money, when possible, for their care.

I don't see any reason to adopt children if one does not want to. Adopted children have a tendency to be very different than their parents, for obvious genetic reasons and that is a factor that one should take into account before adopting.

Differences in characters, personality types, intelligence
make life more interesting to be sure, but I'm not certain that most people want to or are obliged to live with them for 18 or 21 years.

Jean Kazez said...

I brought up dating to make a point about intimacy, not to draw an "all things considered" analogy with adopting.

Anyway, if you're right that a date is easier and more trivial, that wouldn't hurt the argument--it just means what I said about dating carries over "a fortiori" to adopting.