Monday, February 8, 2016

Augustine on the Order of Caring

[F]irst, that a man should harm no one, and second, that he should do good to all, so far as he can.  In the first place, therefore, he must care for his own household; for the order of nature and of human society itself gives him readier access to them, and greater opportunity of caring for them." City of God 19.14
I agree with Augustine.  There is an order of caring.  One is to care about one's neighbors' children, but one is to care for them only if one's own children are appropriately cared about and cared for.  But in addition to having readier access and opportunity, one's children belong to one's family. My children belong to me as their father--not in the sense of property ownership but as a gift ultimately from God. God has given my wife and I the responsibility to care for these gifts.

Suppose I don't think of my children as a gift from God.  It might be natural, then, to think of them as wholly the creation of my wife and me.  Is there a non-theistic reason--beyond prudential reasons--for not selling my children after they were born?

I'm unsure, but the only plausible reason I can see at the moment is that the baby becomes attached to the mother and might undergo stress from maternal detachment (perhaps some additional stress too from no longer hearing the voice of the father). But if one were to run a utility calculus, and the mother and father did not want the child and felt burdened by it or by poor finances, it's hard to see why selling one's small children is unjustified.


  1. One would also have to factor in the wider cultural costs arising from treating human beings - even young babies - as disposable assets or liabilities.

  2. But if there's nothing wrong with treating THIS one as a disposable asset, and the collective is comprised of the total of each, then it's hard to see why it would be impermissible.

    If you think there is an argument against the practice if it were widespread I would be interested in hearing it. I haven't thought about this much.

  3. I haven't thought about it much either, but would turn it around. What's wrong in treating THIS one as a disposable asset is that we don't treat anyone else as one, and there are no good grounds for making an exception in the case of babies.

  4. In the case of a 2 year old, teenager, etc. selling your child would truly be traumatic for them. But, like I said, unless there's significant attachment in the womb, selling to an adoption family would surely be much less traumatic. And suppose there is little to no trauma, or that the trauma of the biological parents would be just as much if they had to raise a child without finances and happened not to care about the child. It's hard to see what the non-theistic justification would be such that they have a responsibility to keep the child and not sell him or her.

  5. I'm not too familiar with the details of the theistic proscription, but wouldn't a gift from God also be ours to sell? The same as one's talents?

    I think a secular society which allowed the sale of newborns would be sending a message that all people are potential commodities, even if they are not actually for sale. Such a society would have to have *something* which raised human life above its usefulness or desirability (although I guess that your asking the question is a challenge for secularists to say what that thing is.) Maybe that's why secularists (in my country at least) prefer to fetishise the state rather than the market in this respect. I don't believe in God, but your point has genuinely unsettled me...

  6. It seems to me that we should think of our children, not merely as products that we've created, but as gifts. But then there's the following argument for God's existence:
    1. If the secular story is true then each child is wholly the creation of his parents.
    2. If 1, then children should be thought of as creations of the parents and not as gifts.
    3. But children should not be thought of as wholly creations of their parents.
    4. Thus the secular story is false.
    Instead, we should think that children really are gifts and are not wholly the production of their parents. On a standard Christian story, God is responsible for the soul or immaterial part of the human.

    But as you note, just because one has a gift doesn't ground one's responsibility not to sell it. That's why I add separately that I think God has given me a responsibility to raise my children. My reasons here are purely theological and not philosophical; any philosophical argument for that claim would be an argument more generally for the truth of Christianity, reliability of the Scriptures, etc.

    Speaking for my own society, the sale of infants is legally permitted. Some couples which can't have children, gay couples, etc. and pay a surrogate to be artificially inseminated and can acquire legal custody for monetary return. And I can't think of any non-theological reasons why this would be impermissible, accept, as I noted, if a case could be made that there would be significant harm to the child.

    Perhaps there is a such case to me made against the a WIDESPREAD societal practice. From what I've read, adopted kids tend to fair less well on general on the standard types of things that a secular society counts as constituting well being (intelligence, happiness, health, fitness, etc.) So there might be reasons why the practice should be limited. But where a case could be made that the adopted parents are equally or more well off financially, psychologically, etc. it's hard to think of a reason--besides my one grounded in what I take to be the truth of Christianity (perhaps Muslims etc. have similar theological grounds)--which would prohibit the practice entirely or for the most part.

    One might try a Kantian route grounded in autonomy. But infants aren't autonomous. One might try libertarian argument based on self-ownership. But I think all self-ownership arguments fail insofar as I only have a reason respect your rights as the owner of yourself/your body, if I already have a reason to respect you. Thus I think self-ownership arguments have to either appeal to theistic reasons or Kantian ones. Plus, it's hard to see why you aren't owned by your parents if they are wholly responsible for creating least until you are autonomous.

  7. Lots of typos above. Hopefully it's intelligible.