For most of us, our children are the source of our gravest moral obligations, deepest moral dilemmas and greatest moral triumphs.
But the moral intuitions of childrearing aren't well articulated by the liberal scheme, or any other philosophical scheme for that matter. There is an obvious reason for this, childrearing has been women's work, philosophy, psychology, theology and politics have belonged to men.
The liberal Enlightenment philosophy that underpins Democratic politics is rooted in intuitions about good and harm, autonomy and reciprocity, individuality and universality. Each individual person deserves to pursue happiness and avert harm, and by cooperating reciprocally we can maximize the good of everyone—the basic idea of the social contract. But individualist, universalist and contractual moral systems, whether they are libertarian or socialist, utilitarian or Kantian, just don't get it about raising kids.
Childrearing isn't individualistic. It doesn't feel like just another moral relation to another person—a neighbor, a fellow citizen, even a friend. When you take on the care of children, you create a moral unit that is larger than you are. As a result there is nothing morally or rationally incoherent in the fact that caregivers regularly, indeed necessarily, sacrifice their own happiness and autonomy for the happiness and autonomy of their children.
The good of the baby simply becomes your own good. Childrearing is particular, not universalist. One of the everyday but astonishing facts of life is that while we choose our friends and our mates, we don't choose our children. Even when we adopt a baby, we don't know how that baby will turn out. And even the most basic features of what a baby is like are beyond our control, a situation that becomes vivid for the parents of children with disabilities.
And yet, with some tragic exceptions, when we care for a child we love that child , not other children or children in general. And we have a moral relation to that child that we don't have to other children.
Sometimes we love the neediest babies most of all. Sarah Palin's baby is such a powerful image for many women because caring for a Down syndrome child exemplifies the paradox of all childrearing—I love my children in particular, it doesn't matter what they're like or what they do, I'd sacrifice my own happiness for theirs. Childrearing also isn't contractual or reciprocal. We may vaguely expect that our children may one day take care of us. But every sane parent appreciates the fundamental and necessary asymmetry of caregiving.
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Even with mates, and certainly with friends, we expect a certain reciprocity. The neediest of our intimates give us something in return. But every child is needier than the most intolerably demanding friend or lover. These moral intuitions have their roots in our evolutionary history. Human beings have a longer period of protected immaturity, a longer childhood, than any other species, and human children demand an exceptional amount of parental investment. As a species, we reap great benefits from this arrangement—in fact, it's the secret of our evolutionary success.
The period of protected immaturity allows us to learn flexibly about a wide range of environments, before we actually have to act on them. It depends on the especially profound and protracted commitments of human caregiving. But I'd argue that our moral intuitions about childrearing are right independently of their evolutionary origins.
It really is a good thing that we care for children in the way we do. Empirically, there is sociological evidence that childrearing is especially problematic and challenging for working—class Americans, particularly in the areas that are most likely to vote Republican. Economic insecurity, divorce, the mobility that puts grandmothers and aunts on the other side of the country, all make it difficult for families to thrive.
That itself is a reason why "family values" loom so large for these voters. But middle and upper-class blue state voters also share the intuition that childrearing is special, although they can afford to treat the morality of caregiving as a private matter separate from politics. Of course, subsidies to new parents, family leave, good early childhood education, fewer working hours with higher pay and more flexibility, are much more likely to actually help parents than abstinence education, abortion restrictions, or gay marriage bans.
Some politicians have started to realize this—red states like Georgia and Arkansas have been leaders in creating early childhood programs. It's particularly ironic that contraception and abortion which look inimical to childrearing, may empirically actually allow for more thriving, caring and intimate families, and that the drive for gay marriage is motivated in part by the desire of many gay couples to raise children.
But politics is about articulating ideals as much as about formulating policies. The philosophical framework of liberalism makes it hard for Democrats to articulate the intuitions that most people share. Caring for a particular, individual baby, even a "special needs" baby, and being part of a particular, individual family, even a complex, messy family, are intrinsic human goods. Politics should help people achieve them successfully. All human babies are specially needy and all human families are complex and messy, and nobody could ever make a good argument that you love your kids and your relatives because they maximize your utilities.
Democrats use the language of universal entitlement, when they talk about state-supported preschool or childcare, or the language of individual autonomy, when they talk about choice or contraception, or the language of investment, when they talk about the long-term benefits of healthy and well-educated children. But none of these ways of talking about children really capture our everyday intuitions.
Of course, there isn't a good alternative conservative language for these intuitions either. The Republican language of traditional religion also doesn't get it, which is why the celebration of Sarah Palin's unwed daughter's pregnancy seemed so paradoxical. One way we might try to bridge this gap between intuition, philosophy and policy is by appealing to the fact that human childrearing extends far beyond biological mothers.
Psychologically, there is strong evidence that we love the children we care for, not just the ones we bear. As the ethologist Sarah Hrdy points out, when animals make big parental investments they spread the load. In socially monogamous species, including many birds and a few mammals, fathers as well as mothers invest in caregiving, and fathers make this investment even when babies aren't their genetic offspring. In other species, including lemurs, dolphins and elephants, there are alloparents—animals who help take care of the babies of others.
Humans make particularly great parental investments, they are socially though not sexually monagamous no species is sexually monogamous, not even swans , and they rely on alloparents. Sarah Palin quite literally presented a picture of a group of committed caregivers, husbands, siblings, boyfriends and grandmothers—a group larger than a mother but smaller than a state. Philosophers and political thinkers could try to articulate an ethics of childrearing that takes off from this sense of a widening circle of parental responsibility and care—an ethics that would capture the particularity of mother love, but extend it to include an entire community or even a country.
The articulation of moral intuitions in liberal Enlightenment philosophy was one of the greatest human intellectual achievements. Not all everyday moral intuitions survive that sort of philosophical scrutiny. I'll bet that if we just counted up the most frequent moral intuition across cultures and historical periods the winner would be that the way other people have sex is wrong closely followed by the intuition that the way we have sex ourselves is wrong.
In the case of the moral intuitions of disgust that Haidt studies, the best philosophical policy would be to just persuade people to get rid of them.
I'd say the same about lots of intuitions about hierarchy and purity. But raising children really is one of the most morally profound human activities, and it would benefit us all, Democrat and Republican, if we could find a philosophical and political way to talk about it. As a political scientist, I see the question "Why do people vote Republican? Haidt and other commenters have focused on the choice between a Republican and a Democrat. But this choice misses half the question. When someone votes Republican, the first question they must ask themselves is "Should I vote at all?
And it is that choice to vote or not that says something deep about political competition and group behavior. The choice to vote or not hinges in part on our perception of the effectiveness of the activity. Will voting matter? To know this, we need to imagine what happens in a world where we vote and what happens in a world where we do not, and then compare those two worlds. Thinking about the world this way may seem like an impossible task because there are so many possible outcomes.
Obama could beat McCain by 3 million votes. Or he could beat him by 2,, or he could lose to McCain by 1,, Or… there are literally millions of possible outcomes. Of course, there is actually only one circumstance in which an individual vote matters. And that is when we expect an exact tie.
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To see why this is true, ask yourself what would you do if you could look into a crystal ball and see that Obama would win the election by 3 million votes. What effect would your vote have on the outcome? Absolutely none. You could either change the margin to 2,, or to 3,,, but either way Obama still wins. Notice that the same reasoning is true even for very close elections. No doubt some citizens of Florida felt regret about not voting in when they learned that George W.
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