FACTS AND NORMS

A child has a complicated status: self, relative to parents, but never more than a sort of self (mother plus baby makes two). It advances self-understanding to have a good description of the relationship between parent and child, but I mean to use Aristotle’s insight to do more than describe. I will argue that the fact that my child is another self, but separate, has ramifications for the norms that govern parenthood. There are different ethical rules for how we treat another person who is entirely separate, and not self-like at all; and other rules for how we treat a person who is literally one’s self, and not separate at all. Given that my child is another self, but separate, it’s to be expected that my child is someone with respect to whom I have unique prerogatives, responsibilities, duties, and so on. This is an idea that I explore in many chapters to come.

One of the issues I will come to is custody. Having a child of your own, a child who seems like a second self, comes about on the basis of physical and psychological events. But custody is a social and legal matter. Courts must decide who counts as a legal parent, and who should have custody of a child. It can’t be a simple matter of parenthood and custody being granted to anyone who regards the child as a second self, because multiple people can have that sense and have it on good grounds. Mothers and fathers can compete for custody; biological and adoptive parents can compete. There is also the scenario in which someone comes to have that sense after a bad beginning—for example, a kidnapper who raises a child for ten years before being apprehended. It’s one thing to understand the parent-child connection in Aristotle’s terms, but another to think that connection is the whole foundation of parental rights. No, it can’t be that simple.

It’s good to see the commonalities that unite all forms of parenthood—maternal, paternal, adoptive. We want to be egalitarians about parenthood, denigrating and stigmatizing no one. But the complexities of custody force us to pay attention to differences between contenders. We’ll come to the topic of contested custody much later (in chapters 7 and 8), after we have covered much more of the ground that lies between the hope of being a parent and the actuality of a new baby coming into the world.

The fact that children come from us is central to our desire to be parents. It’s also central to many of our prerogatives and to decisions we make while raising a child. All of that will be argued for and elaborated on in coming chapters (7, 8, and 9 especially), but for now let’s back up a step, or two, or three. Characterizing a child as a second self helps us understand why anyone would want to have a child, but presuming the desire is there, should we act on it? Is it really right to bring a child into the world?

 
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