The One and the Many

When must I contribute to group efforts?

Parenthood makes us ask hard questions at every turn. Even something as simple as getting in the car raises questions: Must we put a child in a car seat every single time we go for a drive? Do older children have to wear seat belts? When should a child move to the front passenger seat, despite the back seat being safer?

These are all questions about how parents should treat their own kids. But parenthood also draws us into the wider world—the preschool, the playground, the public school, the community. We soon encounter groups of parents as well as larger groups who act collectively to create benefits that couldn’t be generated one parent- child pair at a time. When do we have to join in on these collective ventures?

In the first sections of this chapter we’ll think about some less serious variations on this theme, which will later help us with a much more serious issue: the ethics of vaccination.


Little children are adorably innocent and guileless on stage, and fun to watch, whether talented or untalented. Parents come to a talent show primarily to see their own children perform, but this is not to be a private performance, like you could enjoy at home. You are there to see your child perform in front of an audience. That’s supposed to give your child a chance to overcome stage fright and receive acclaim beyond what you could provide. The learning experience depends on there being a crowd watching, not just a few relatives. The parents benefit too, because they not only see their child performing, but get the gratification of seeing their child applauded. Plus, a bit less nobly, they get the chance to see how their child is doing compared to other children. This can actually be enlightening, whether the child compares favorably or unfavorably.

Anyhow, for a talent show to provide all the usual benefits, there does have to be an audience, and there’s often a hitch. Some parents stay only until their child has finished performing, which may be very early in the show. At one of the first shows my husband and I attended as parents, this was understandable. It was the middle of a Dallas summer, and the air conditioning at the recreation center had broken. The first kids performed in front of a packed audience, and the last kids performed in front of hardly anyone. But I noticed this phenomenon at all the talent shows we attended over the years. Because of early departers, audiences gradually dwindle. The room is packed at the beginning and thinly populated at the end. Families of later performers serve as the audience for early performers, but families of early performers don’t serve as the audience for late performers.

Is it wrong of the early performers’ families to leave so early? I think so, but why? The simplest explanation would be that the early departers cause unnecessary harm to the later performers and their families. The late-performing children can see that the audience is dwindling. These children have their feelings hurt, and they also receive less of what performing in front of an audience offers: less acclaim, less experience dealing with stage fright. The late performers don’t get an equal benefit from participation in the talent show. The parents of late performers also get fewer of the usual gratifications—it’s less enjoyable to see your child applauded by ten people than by a hundred.

All that’s true, but I doubt the simple explanation is the whole explanation, because it evaporates when the initial audience size is very large and an early departure is very early. If there are five hundred people in the audience and my child is the first performer, there will be no impact on anyone if we leave before the second performance—nobody will notice. And yet it still seems like there’s something amiss with leaving. It’s bad, even though it’s not as bad as leaving later in the show, when there are fewer people left in the audience and every departure is obvious.

The badness has to do not only with impact but also with fairness. We might say this: you watched my child, the first performer, perform. Don’t I now owe it to you to reciprocate, watching your child perform? I can’t discharge my debt without staying until the very end and watching every child whose family watched my child. There’s something to this fairness account, but it sounds a little too individualistic and transactional. Does each parent really do a favor directly to me, when they watch my child perform, putting me in their personal debt? Is it the same as when people set up babysitting deals—the couple who babysit Friday night being owed babysitting

Saturday night? The ethics of being part of an audience don’t strike me that way. It’s more that, back when you signed up your child to perform, you agreed to contribute to the audience, knowing that an audience is integral to a talent show. You then reneged on that agreement. You broke an implicit promise.

Perhaps most aptly, we should also say this: If you leave early, you and your child receive a benefit from the one hundred or five hundred people sitting in the audience at the outset, but don’t pay for it in the way needed—by staying to the end and contributing to the audience yourself. You are thus not so much in debt to particular audience members but a "free rider” within the system as a whole. You’re like someone who gets on a train without paying the fare. The fare evader should pay not because she’s personally indebted to the paying passengers, but because it’s generally unfair for some to pay and others to ride for free. For the same sort of reason, you should make your contribution to the talent show audience, instead of walking out and thus receiving the benefits ofyour child having a large audience for free.

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