Molding, Beholding, Procreating

More on controlling the traits of children, before they're born.  Michael Sandel disapproves of enhancing children prenatally on grounds that he believes this manifests an attitude that's pernicious--constantly seeking mastery instead of being "open to the unbidden."  Selective parents mold their children instead of beholding them, he says.  I wonder about these contrasts.  How much "openness to the unbidden" does the natural, non-selective parent really have? It is not as if we get awarded just any child, through a lottery. If we willingly received newborns by some random method of distribution, you could say parents were truly open to the unbidden.  But no, the low-tech parent accepts the child who comes from her own and her spouse's body.  She is willing to "behold" her offspring not out of an attitude of openness, but because that child is actually half hers and half her partner's.  Parents take the step to adoption very reluctantly, and only after years of "trying" and intervention, because (I suspect) "ours" has such enormous significance to them.  That doesn't sound like "openness to the unbidden" to me!

It's also questionable whether people who pursue enhancement generally do so in order to have "mastery" or for the sake of "molding" their children.  These are typically people who were not able to conceive naturally.   Some are using donor eggs or donor sperm, so cannot have the usual control over who their offspring will be.  It's under those conditions that prospective parents start to care about getting sperm from tall guys with high SAT scores and eggs from beautiful women (yes, the gendered stuff is a reality--look at sperm and egg donation websites!).  I suspect the feeling is "If we couldn't have the most perfect baby, ours, then we'll accept second best--a baby with stellar traits!"  People using their own sperm and eggs at an infertility clinic may be tempted to enhance as well, but I think, again, the psychology of this needs to be examined. These are people who have far less power over the future than usual--they're plopping down vast sums of money with no guarantee of winding up with any child at all, let alone a perfect child.  All sorts of things are out of their control. If they want to tinker with embryonic DNA, it probably isn't because they have any special desire to mold or master their children, but because of the precarious position they're in.

So--people who procreate naturally aren't so terribly open to the unbidden--they're just prepared to see any offspring of theirs as good enough. In fact, as perfect--which is what people say all the time about their newborn children.  "She's perfect!  He's perfect!"   And people who procreate with technical assistance are contending with special uncertainties and pressures, so aren't unusually desirous of mastery and control.  So much for Sandel's character analysis, at least in the real world!

But now we need a thought experiment.  Suppose there were someone who could reproduce naturally, but chose IVF in order to enhance embryos?  Imagine for their second child, Kim and Kanye decide to go that route, just to be sure little South West (get it?) will have every possible advantage in life.  Suppose, for example, they implant the new Gratitude Gene (sold for a million dollars a pop by a Cambridge biotech business in the year 2016), because positive psychologists say grateful people are happier.  Is there anything at all bad about giving up the thought "Any child of ours has got to be perfect!" and taking technical steps to make a child a little better off?

In my opinion, there is something bad about it.  The thought that our child is bound to be perfect, and not in need of improvement, is a salutary thought.  It's a strengthener of love and commitment.  It's not worth weakening that sentiment for small gains. It's a different matter if Kim and Kanye have been to a genetic counselor and have discovered their offspring stand a 50% of having some serious, life-limiting abnormality.  In that case, it makes sense to screen embryos.  But no, in the situation I'm imagining, little South's parents will have an attitudinal problem that probably won't be offset by South's extra gratitude.  Enhancing messes with salutary parental prejudice--the thought that our child, just by virtue of being ours, is perfect, or at least perfectly loveable.  In a world where people standardly made kids in laboratories, using all the latest ingredients, that sentiment would be lost.  Our kids wouldn't simply come from us, so feel like second selves (as Aristotle describes children).  They'd be our products, creating a different set of feelings and expectations.  So:  ugh, but not for Sandel's reasons.  I don't see that natural parents are "open to the unbidden" or that high tech parents are guilty of "molding, not beholding."


Prenatal Control over Sexual Orientation

Two signs that I am a masochist: I regularly listen to Mike Huckabee on the radio, just to see what those folks are up to.  And I'm currently reading the book Ethics, Sexual Orientation, and Choices about Children, by Timothy F. Murphy.  The book comes to the defense of people who would want to control their children's sexual orientation before birth, if that became possible.  Murphy doesn't just accept this as a choice that shouldn't be interfered with, he thinks the choice would make quite a lot of sense; and he doesn't just think it would make sense, but he's actively championing this choice. Not because he's anti-gay, he says (in fact, quite possibly he's gay himself) but because ... I don't know why!

In the first chapter, Murphy embraces what Joel Feinberg calls a "right to an open future."  The idea is that we are entitled to have many options in the future, and parents shouldn't foreclose their adult children being able to make autonomous choices among them upon majority.  That could be a problem for prenatally controlling sexual orientation, but no, says Murphy it isn't.  Prenatally controlling sexual orientation is no more a problem than postnatally influencing a child's religion by taking her to church or synagogue.  Both narrow the future possibilities.  If you take your kid to a synagogue, you can be pretty sure she won't be a Hindu as an adult, and if you ingest a "must be straight" elixer before your baby's born, you can be sure she won't be a lesbian. He thinks there's no difference.

Well, I do think there's a difference. The difference is not in the amount of narrowing of future possibilities but in the role the parents are playing.   When you have children, they share the life you're already living.  You don't have to remodel your life to give your child either the ideal upbringing or the maximum number of future possibilities.  As long as your life is not overly restrictive and you let your child head for the exits on various matters, the sharing of your life is not pernicious.  It's another thing to transmit desired traits in a manufacturing mode, specifying X, Y, and Z as the features of your future child.  Living a certain life together is one thing, but being the implanter of your child's choices and beliefs is another.  Nobody wants to feel that their core choices and beliefs were fixed in advance, especially by parents -- folks who are going to seem pretty omnipotent for some years to come. 

Does it make it better if parents screen embryos pre-implantation, instead of modifying a fetus mid-gestation?  Murphy seems to think it's especially benign to screen embryos for homosexuality, professing to see no downside for the child who winds up being born with a "straight" guarantee (or your money back!). But no--the child selected for his sexual orientation is stuck having to think:  "But for being heterosexual, I would never have been born!" It sounds to me like a burden to think your sex orientation is so existentially pivotal, and so important in your parents' eyes. 

Why does Murphy think it makes pretty good sense for parents to want to avoid having gay children? I haven't read enough of the book yet to say, but it appears he has respect for wanting grandchildren, wanting kids who aren't discriminated against, and the like.  The thing is, thoughts like that tend to be camouflage for less seemly emotions.  People (especially of a certain generation) have deep seated angst about homosexuality.  Someone taking prenatal drugs and selecting embryos to avoid having a gay or lesbian child is most likely in the grip of such angst--it's not really about the grandchildren and discrimination.  It's odd (really odd) that Murphy has gone to so much effort (he's written a lot about this topic) to be their champions. 


Religious Exemptions

I had no idea there were so many religious exemptions permitting parents to withhold legally required healthcare from their children.  Must read-- here and here.



One of the topics in my book on parenthood (well, manuscript, so far) is circumcision--should we or shouldn't we?   To my mind, people circumcise for the same sort of reason they clip the tails off of some breeds of dogs.  Says a Jack Russell breeder: "Every Jack Russell Terrier must have its tail docked and dew claws removed at an early age. Three to five days of age seems to be the best time-frame depending on size and vigor of the pups."  A docked tail is an aesthetic norm associated with that breed.  Likewise (I submit!), foreskin-docking became part of the aesthetic norm for the male human.  How that came about is a long story, involving many different factors, but no matter:  by the middle of the 20th century a boy with a foreskin was like a Jack Russell with a tail.  You had to circumcise as quickly as possible to make the boy look like boys are supposed to look.

Over time, this started to seem pretty weird to people. The aesthetic norm didn't change, but they started to think it was cruel to treat baby boys this way.  So people wanted to supplement the aesthetic norm with defenses of circumcision that point to benefits to the child.  We thus get social defenses: circumcision will make a boy feel more comfortable in a society where most boys are circumcised.  More recently, there's the rationale that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV-AIDS in certain populations (very unlike our own). So--we are to believe that circumcision is actually good for the child, like later vaccinations are good for the child.

The problem with the analogy with vaccination is that vaccinations take nothing away from a child, but circumcision does.  It takes away the foreskin, which is densely packed with nerve endings (and plays other sexual roles as well).  This loss is discounted by defenders of circumcision, because there aren't scientific studies proving that circumcised men are worse off than uncircumcised men.  But the Jack Russell analogy gives us something to think about in that regard.

Dogs have tails--so I have read--because tails improve balance and allow a dog to communicate his or her emotions to other dogs or humans.  With that in mind, it stands to reason that a dog loses a little bit of well-being as a result of tail-docking.  Surely nobody would become skeptical of that just because no study has corroborated it.  No study has corroborated it, and probably none could corroborate it, because the difference is too subtle and there are too many confounding variables.  People who want to dock dog tails are surely fooling themselves if say "no study has shown any cost to dogs." Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (at least in this case).

I submit we can know without a corroborating study that foreskin removal very probably does slightly reduce male well-being. "Less nerve endings, less sensation." It just makes sense!  Removing a baby's foreskin to slightly lower the risk of later disease is like giving a baby burning eye-drops to slightly lower the risk of later glaucoma, at the cost of permanently reducing the vividness of colors by -- who knows? -- 1%.  Or giving the baby a painful tongue injection that slightly lowers the risk of tongue cancer, at the cost of reducing taste vividness by some small amount.  I can't imagine parents accepting those trade-offs.  

So why do parents accept the circumcision trade-off?  Jack Russells.  Aesthetic norms.  That sort of thing, I think, plus a great worry parents have about boys fitting in.  After all, Jack Russells don't care if they look like Jack Russells, but boys do want to look like normal boys.  I wonder, though, whether parents are overly anxious about that.  Parents have a lot of worries about boys conforming or not conforming--possibly to the detriment of boys and the adult men they turn into.

Bottom line: I'm against both docking tails and docking foreskins, but it's a curious issue.  All wrongs are not, of course, equal. Some are big, some are small, and these strike me as small wrongs.  It's curious when we are adamantly opposed to a small wrong.  It forces you to wonder where the depth of opposition comes from.  In the case of circumcision I think it's fairly clear.  We are super-protective toward newborn infants.  It's an affront to that protectiveness to imagine a helpless baby boy being strapped down and "docked"--making him just a tad less perfect than he was to begin with, but more consistent with social norms.  The affront is one thing, but the cost to the boy (surely small, in the long run) is another.  I know some very happy docked Jack Russell terriers.


Dear Student

This Daily Campus editorial is getting attention all over the place. I suspect what's really going on is not so much misogyny and victim-blaming (as a change.org petition says) but sloppy thinking and bad writing.  Comments below.

"At the beginning of this school year, SMU students noticed a large number of alleged sexual assaults on campus, but is the blame being placed in the right place? Of course the perpetrators are the ones responsible for the crimes, but to solve the problem they can’t be the only ones taking blame."
Blame. Is that really the word you're looking for?  "Blame" connotes fault, responsibility, moral error.  Do rape victims really share moral responsibility with rapists?  I bet what you really have in mind is prevention and risk reduction.   Is your point really about blame or about people taking unnecessary risks? If so, say so!
"What is the common theme in the majority of sexual assault or rape cases on college campuses? Alcohol abuse.

According to a research study conducted by the Sarah Lawrence College, 50 percent of sexual assaults on and around college campuses are associated with alcohol use."
"Theme"?  No, real events in the world don't have themes.  "Factor"--that's the word you're looking for!
"Although it sounds harsh to place any blame on the victims of these incidents, if the media continues to place all the blame on the perpetrator, young college women will never learn that there is a way to help prevent these kinds of acts."
Is "blame" the word you're look for? I bet it isn't.  You wouldn't really want to see rape victims confess to any responsibility, would you? Then don't use the word "blame."
"The best way for women to prevent these assaults from happening to them is to never drink so much that they cannot control themselves or remember what happened the next day. If women quit putting themselves in situations where they appear vulnerable, it will be much less likely for men to try and take advantage of them.

But, it seems trying to tell college students not to drink too much is a very difficult message to get across when there isn’t a concrete reason why they should."
You tell women not to drink too much to avoid being victims.  Why don't you also tell men not to drink too much to avoid being perpetrators? 
"If the media would focus more attention on the fact that the majority of the women who are sexually assaulted are intoxicated, as opposed to stating and restating how horrible the perpetrator is, then maybe young women would start to listen."
Where'd you get this statistic?  It certainly doesn't follow from the Sarah Lawrence statistic you cited above.
"Over the summer, four Vanderbilt University football stars were accused of rape. The four men went to jail and were all over the news for months. The victim of the crime informed police and her friends that she was too intoxicated to remember the incident, so all of the details were found through a video camera in a Vanderbilt dorm where the incident occurred.

The news has not reported once that the victim was too intoxicated, but solely concentrates on the details of the perpetrators.

The details on the offenders should not be omitted, but how are young women supposed to learn from the incident when they don’t know the details?"
If the news never once reported that the victim was intoxicated, then how do you know it?
"Obviously the media doesn’t want to come off as insensitive by revealing details of the case that would make it seem they were placing any blame on the victim. But, in order to prevent future victims, viewers need to know the other side of things.
There's that word again.  The victim is not to blame.  Imagine you're robbed and didn't notice the perpetrator because you were plugged into your Ipod. Are you to blame for the fact that you were robbed? Surely you wouldn't think so.  You might have been able to avoid being robbed by taking more precautions, but it's not a question of blame.
"If the media begins to draw attention to the details of the sexual assault or rape victim it is hoped that young women will learn from the case, and there will be less sexual assault cases to report.

If college women decide they still don’t want to give up over drinking, hopefully they will at least come up with a game plan with their friends to prevent getting themselves into a vulnerable situation.

I am not promoting less sympathy for victims of these incidents or less media coverage of the perpetrators, because the victims are deserving of sympathy and the offenders deserve to have their faces on the news. But I think everyone, especially victims of these crimes, can agree that preventing future victims of sexual assault and rape is of upmost importance.

So media, please help prevent future victims of sexual assault and rape by reporting the other side of these cases, and young women, please wake up and realize that the majority of these incidents happen when the victims are intoxicated."
Not only are their critical thinking problems throughout this essay, but there are also writing problems.  "Preventing future victims of sexual assault and rape is of upmost importance."  You prevent crimes, not victims.  Not "upmost," "utmost"!


Having an Identity

Reading around in the philosophical literature about self and identity, it strikes me that one topic is very often left out.  The literature deals with quantitative identity, as in the relation between teenage me and adult me that makes "us" one and the same.  There's plenty of literature about the self--in the sense of my mind, in totality.  There's also literature about the self in the sense of personality--clusters of traits like introversion, openness to new things, etc..   But what about identity in the sense of a relatively small set of core characteristics that go into "who I am" (as the folk are wont to say)?

This is the sense of "identity" relevant to the subtitle of Andrew Solomon's book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.  What are we searching for?  Knowing who we are -- in some sense.  The idea seems to be that healthy, normal people can give an answer to the question  "Who am I?"   Beyond just having whole personalities, which is inevitable, it's thought to be important and wholesome to be able to say "This is who I am--I'm X, Y, and Z."  Solomon says the people discussed in his book have "horizontal" identities.  Being Irish, because your parents are Irish, would be a vertical identity.  Being deaf or autistic (for example) is having a horizontal identity, because you don't derive that identity from your parents. 

What are my X, Y, and Z?  Let's see--maybe this is a reasonable test.  You have a randomly selected pen pal or e-pal, and know nothing about each other. What information do you need to share so that you know who you're talking to?  The folk theory about identity is that for each person, there is an answer to that question.  Our  identities are built up out of things like our gender, occupation, or even where we live.  (Some Texans are identity-Texans!) Inspired by the chapter of Solomon's book on transgender, I've been reading around about that topic (I very much enjoyed She's Not There, by Jennifer Finney Boylan).  Gender, to me, seems like part of the background. I'm female, but don't think much about being female.  I wouldn't really have thought it was part of my identity, but maybe it is--it's just a part of my identity that I don't focus on much. Does my invisible interlocutor need to know my gender, so we know each other?  Maybe so.  I'm a vegetarian, but not an identity-vegetarian.  My interlocutor doesn't need to know that about me, to know who I am.  Being Jewish--maybe.  Being an atheist--maybe not.  Being a mother of two children--probably.  Being a philosopher--very probably.

A Buddhist-Stoic element of the folk theory about identity is that we shouldn't put too many features  on such a list, since doing so would make us vulnerable to the proverbial "identity crisis"--if I lose my job, and that's part of my identity, I shall have to run into the night screaming, because I no longer can say who I am. We need to put the right kinds of things on the list--not my job, but my love of the subject I teach, for example.  Some disability activists offer another type of advice--we actually shouldn't think of a disability or difference as identity-making, contrary to Solomon's subtitle. Why regard yourself or someone else as a deeply different kind of person, solely on the basis of a disability?  Turning disabilities into identities is at the root of some kinds of segregation and discrimination. 

Being more tough-minded about all this, you have to wonder:  why should any of my characteristics define who I am?  Maybe--in fact, probably-- there's no definition of who I am, in this sense, no traits, attitudes, beliefs, and so on, that make me who I am.  Maybe "identity" and "who I am" talk is folk psychology at its least salvageable.  At the risk of using the word "maybe" too many times in one post, I have to say: maybe.