What’s Wrong with the World

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Making a virtue out of necessity

The human mind is so constituted that it is nearly impossible for people to admit that they are in a sub-optimal situation or that they have done something regrettable, much less wrong. So long, at least, as their physical needs are met and they are not in any obvious pain or immediate distress.

I do not know if women are more inclined this way than men, though I suspect they are. (Now there would be an interesting psychological study, if it could be devised. Much more interesting than a study on how eye movements correlate with political opinions.) I do find in myself a constant tendency to try to find something to hang on to in any situation, some way of saying, "Well, think how much worse it could be," or, "At least there's this good thing that came out of it."

In debates about public policy or private morality, this human desire to make a virtue out of necessity has another consequence: Whenever some act is already done, even if it was arguably a wrong act, if a child results from that act, we are told that we must not say that the act was wrong, on pain of making the child feel bad. The child is here now. The child is a good thing. What's done is done, water under the bridge. Don't judge, or you'll stigmatize the child.

Unfortunately, what this means is that all sorts of discussions about everything from fornication to technological reproduction don't take place, or take place only with constraint, because of a desire to make the best of things and because of a fear of hurting the feelings of the innocent.

Here is one recent manifestation of this problem: New South Wales has new legislation about to go into force that will punish overseas commercial surrogate arrangements, which are already illegal in NSW itself. In such arrangements, prospective parents who for whatever reason cannot or will not bear their own children pay a poor woman in a third-world country to bear their embryos. (I would imagine that this could also be done with other forms of assisted reproduction, including having the surrogate also provide the egg.) One such mother refers to the surrogate's pregnancy by saying, "We are currently 14 weeks pregnant with twins." Well, not exactly. You're not pregnant, ma'am.

That same woman won't be punished in any way, as she will be grandfathered under the new legislation. But she plays the "stigma" card quite blatantly:

The Smiths are safe from prosecution, because the ban will not apply to those who have already started the process.

But Kara Smith is angry her children will still live with a stigma.

"It's extremely disappointing that the Government have gone down this path," she said.

"It's sending a clear message to the hundreds of families that have had children born via surrogacy arrangements that it's wrong and immoral. And it's heartbreaking."

The nerve! Sending a message that a particular way of making babies is wrong and immoral! How dare they!

Here's a question for Mrs. Smith: Suppose that it were to turn out that the women had not, in fact, agreed voluntarily to bear the children. (This is purely hypothetical.) Suppose that the government sent a "clear message" via legislation that those arrangements were "wrong and immoral." Would that not potentially, somehow, "stigmatize" the children? Should such legislation not therefore be introduced or passed?

Rape also sometimes brings children into existence, but obviously rape should be illegal even if children born of rape are "stigmatized" (when their origins are known).

I suggest we retire the entire argument about "stigmatizing." Throughout human history children have come into existence by way of acts that are "wrong and immoral." Whether such acts should or should not also be illegal is a matter for sober public debate about the type of act in question. Yes, some children conceived in these ways are already here, but that does not obligate us to go on as we have begun. The argument from stigma is a bad argument even when it involves children, and even when it appeals to the human instinct to make a virtue out of necessity.

Comments (18)

People don't like to be told that they shouldn't do what they want to do. The argument from stigma is just a pro-choice bludgeon used to neutralize judgements about sexual morality. Which I guess was your point. Never mind.

It's sort of a variant on "do it for the children." "Hush. The thing I did brought a child into existence. You wouldn't want to make him feel bad, would you?" Like holding the child hostage.

Well, maybe this is a subset of the larger problem, that the very concept of shame has been stigmatized to the point of evanescence. Nobody is supposed to be ashamed anymore, because _shame_ and its cousin _guilt_ are supposedly unproductive mental states: to be ashamed is to be responding to some ingrained (by, one assumes, early childhood brainwashing) stimulus/response mechanism to feel bad when I tell you to feel bad about yourself, and does not achieve anything useful. Of course it has nothing to do with right and wrong, or good and evil, or conscience - those are just fictional categories anyway.

Why is it, though, that liberals don't mind making us large families feel ashamed of using up larger amounts of natural resources?

' The argument from stigma is just a pro-choice bludgeon used to neutralize judgements about sexual morality. Which I guess was your point.'

I'm not sure what the point is, Lydia can tell us, but there's an analogous line that aborting a foetus with e.g. Down syndrome is offensive to people who have Down syndrome; which doesn't quite sound like a pro-choice argument to me.

Yeah, tearing people to pieces because they have something wrong with them and you don't want more people with that disability to be born, and measuring "success" at "eliminating" that birth defect by a decrease in the number of people with that defect who were actually born (achieved by tearing some of them to pieces before they were born), is in no way an insult to the people with that disability who were actually born. Couldn't be.

To be clear: Murdering unborn Down's Syndrome babies is intrinsically evil and also happens to be an insult to born Down's children, in the same way that sending Jews to the gas ovens because they are Jews is an insult to the Jews who happen to survive. The fact that it's an insult to the survivors is, in both cases, the lesser point by far.

There is no comparison to whining about outlawing surrogacy on the grounds that it "stigmatizes" children already produced in that fashion. Nobody is being killed in the course of outlawing surrogacy, nor is anyone suggesting that anyone be killed.

Don't be deliberately dense, Overseas, and don't hijack my thread to a discussion of the morality of abortion.

Good post Lydia.

It might be a slightly different topic, but this does make me wonder how we can get a reasoned argument into the popular media. We don't use words to debate any more; we use images. We don't use arguments; we tell sentimental short stories.

(A quick illustration: note how many personal anecdotes Dawkins uses in TGD.)



I think that "shame" needs to be more than a mental state. It should also be a social status; the opposite of honour. In fact one should be able to acknowledge that one is shamed even though one does not feel any shame. Similarly one can know one is guilty without feeling any guilt. (But it is better if one recognises shame and feels ashamed).


I was just thinking about that, Graham. I suppose, me being me, that the first thing that occurred to me was the care we need to take in using personal allusions. For example, suppose that someone thinks that all adoption is wrong. (I don't actually know anyone who thinks this categorically.) For me to say (which is true), "Well, I'm adopted, and I find that offensive," would be illicit. After all, if adoption were wrong, that would mean that a wrong had been done _to_ me, not that _I_ had done wrong, in any event. Claiming mere "offendedness" would just be an attempt to shut down the discussion.

On the other hand, it's a different matter if someone says that children with genetic anomalies should be destroyed before birth. There, if I have a genetic anomaly, for me to say, "Well, I find that pretty offensive, because I have a genetic anomaly" does not seem to me illicit, because the person is proposing _actively harming_ people like me just because they are like me. It would be like a person's saying on a blog, not knowing to whom he is speaking, "Well, don't you think that we should block black people from positions of responsibility?" and having the person reply, "Well, no, I don't. I'm black." If you're proposing doing something harmful and wrong to people of a certain type, it doesn't seem at all irrelevant for someone with whom you're having the discussion to reveal that he is of that type and to see whether you are still willing to say that that harm should be done to him.

There are a lot of possible complications, though: For example, last year, I had a post on international adoptions and had a bunch of commentators who really did believe that international adoptions are wrong, that the people who engage in them are harming the children by "taking them out of their culture" and so forth. It certainly doesn't seem to me that it would be irrelevant for an international adoptee to say that he does not believe that he has been harmed, that his adoptive parents have done him great good, etc. That doesn't seem like merely trying to shut down discussion by claiming personal offense.

Thanks for the outburst, Lydia, but I was actually quoting William Luse, who 'hijacked' your thread with the 'pro-choice bludgeon' !

The analogy is between hurting the feelings of children with surrogate mothers and hurting the feelings of children with Down syndrome, and it seems perfect to me. There's just nothing 'pro-choice' about bringing a pregnancy to term with no intention of bringing up the child. This is actively encouraged by people who object to abortion.

The Beatitudes are often translated: BLESSED are the poor in spirit, the meek, etc., but a closer look at the word used, makarios, really means something closer to honorable. The idea is that some states or actions are honorable in God's sight, while others are shameful. The concept of shame, both personal and societal, was very important in New Testament Israel.

The Chicken

Bag it, Overseas. I already explained the disanalogy to you; you're just being willfully dense. The only thing I will grant is this: When we're talking about murder, it certainly is kind of feeble to argue against it by saying merely that it's insulting to Person A to murder Person B. Therefore, pro-lifers should be careful that they make it clear how they are using the "insult to people with Down's Syndrome" argument--i.e., that the insult arises from murder and from the implication that that person should have been murdered or that it is licit to murder people of that sort. Not, that is, _mere_ "insult" or "stigma."

Being rude doesn’t win an argument, Lydia, especially when we’re not having one! I've got no objection to your post. But if it’s not giving birth to whom you have no intention of bringing up, what precisely do you find objectionable about surrogacy? You seem to care about people with defects, anomalies and disabilities. You don’t want their numbers to be reduced. You just favour making it illegal for them to overcome their disabilities when it's medically possible to do so, which sounds weird; that's all.

Elton John and his "partner" just adopted a little boy. A child, therefore, has not been provided with a replacement for his mother, since neither Elton nor his partner can be mothers. Every child has a father and a mother, and thus is injured if it loses either one. A good society tries its best to replace either or both through adoption. A society that intentionally perpetuates the injury by replacing one father with two and one mother with none is cruel and stupid.

For the celebrity culture, children for aging queens is an important accessory. We are so going to hell.

But if it’s not giving birth to whom you have no intention of bringing up, what precisely do you find objectionable about surrogacy?

Well, now, Overseas, we could have an interesting discussion that begins with your asking, "Since you apparently think this law against paid surrogacy arrangements is a good law, why do you think it's a good law?"

What is annoying is your deliberate pretense that you don't know that pro-lifers regard abortion as murder, which leads to your exceedingly silly use of phrases like "giving birth," as though pro-lifers ought, in consistency, to be fine with murdering the unborn if they are opposed to surrogacy, since both involve "giving birth." You must know better than that. You must know that, whatever it is that I, ardently anti-abortion as I am, disapprove of in these surrogacy arrangements, it can't be giving birth to the child, so it is merely an irritant for you to pretend otherwise. I'm asking you to stop doing it.

You can try again to ask me what I think is wrong with these surrogacy arrangements that NSW is outlawing, _without_ the deliberately dense confusion concerning abortion and giving birth. Indeed, the question should be a much simpler one to ask without bringing in that confusion.

Tony wrote:

Why is it, though, that liberals don't mind making us large families feel ashamed of using up larger amounts of natural resources?

That points up a double standard I've never quite understood. It's OK, even mandatory, to talk about "overpopulation" (as if that were any longer a problem; but that's another problem), but somehow talk of overpopulation isn't thought to stigmatize the people who are excess population, or even to imply that there are such people. Yet we may not say that artificial procreation is wrong, for fear of stigmatizing the people it produces.

This is only speculation, but perhaps we're missing the real agenda here. The real agenda, I suspect, is to find some way, any way, to argue that natural procreation is bad and artificial procreation is good. For the former is often unpredictable and sometimes unaffordable, while the latter is always predictable and can be paid for by those who choose it. If that yields a double standard, then so much the worse for standards.

Satan must be having some good laughs.


Mike, I think you're on to something, there. We live in a very control-freakish society, particularly about procreation. (Which is pretty amusing considering the libertarian arguments that are used for practically everything from the left.)

The term "responsible" carries all this weight, and it carries the weight because it's carrying baggage. Hence, "responsible" intercourse is intercourse with a condom, "responsible" procreation is procreation with money and of only a limited number of children, and so forth. Of course, "responsible" procreation never extends to the notion of a responsibility to provide the child with a father, only the responsibility to provide the child with an ipod.

Happy new year to you and yours, Lydia!

‘I would imagine that this could also be done with other forms of assisted reproduction, including having the surrogate also provide the egg.’

If the surrogate also provides the egg, then who is she a surrogate for: Elton John or his partner? Does any ardently anti-abortion pregnant woman who goes on to have a child only to give it up for adoption become a ‘surrogate’ at some point? Do treat these questions as rhetorical; I won’t blame you for constant shifts in the conceptual terrain if you stop blaming me personally for any confusion.

That anti-abortion advocates may put forward a daft argument doesn’t mean that there are no good anti-abortion arguments, or a consistent anti-abortion position; but this cuts both ways. Financial transactions associated with adoptions before or after birth aren’t unknown, nor always illegal, and moral concerns are hardly exacerbated where the adoptive mother’s egg is involved. I agree with the qualification you made, about the children not being in the wrong: So who is, and for doing what? Being poor or a developing country national does not ipso facto absolve one of moral accountability, and there are cases where the surrogate is an adoptive mum’s close relative. With all the different scenarios, I find it hard to pinpoint what it is one might reasonably object to about surrogacy arrangements in the context of the ‘sober public debate’ you called for. It's not quite self-evident that something can’t be morally objectionable just because anti-abortionists consider abortion to be worse, or that surrogacy is worse than abortion. Some people will have to make a virtue out of necessity, and the question is whether these people ought to be the infertile.

And, sure, we’re ‘control-freakish’ about procreation like we became about germs and hand-washing post Louis Pasteur, but I see nothing particularly ‘liberal’ about an epistemic state: There are people who’ll take chances; they’ll just find it hard to pretend they aren’t. Anyway, high infant mortality rates are not associated with lacking access to a father but with lacking access to clean water and vaccines: Who’s responsible for providing that?

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