Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Adoption and moral motives in Larissa MacFarquhar's New Yorker profile of the Badeaus

The Badeau family. (newyorker.com)
Larissa MacFarquhar's essay on Hector and Sue Badeau, a Philadelphia couple with a family of twenty-two children, twenty of whom were adopted, attracted a lot of attention when it was published in the August 3rd issue of the New Yorker. MacFarquhar is one of my favorite journalists, so I was excited to see her brush on the topic of adoption. She has been working on a book about "extreme ethics—about "people who have a very demanding sense of moral duty and live their lives accordingly," as she articulated her project in a 2013 interview for the Boston Review.

But what I liked most about MacFarquhar's profile of the Badeaus, and what I think it gets most right about the spirit of the most successful adoptions I have known, is the repeated insistence of both Hector and Sue that they were not acting out of a particularly demanding sense of moral duty at all. Indeed, in their own words, duty had very little to do with it. Instead, what created this sense of compulsion to adopt their children was, on their account, love. About adopting four siblings at a point when they already had five children and three foster children, the Badeaus say:
HECTOR: It’s hard to explain. It was like instant love.
SUE: It was as if they already were our kids, but they were somehow not with us and we had to go get them.
The Badeaus talk at length about the role of Christianity in shaping their beliefs and actions, and of praying for guidance. MacFarquhar, in her characteristic use of free indirect speech to render her subjects' thoughts, ascribes to them the belief that God intended them to adopt certain children, and the conviction that "they were doing God's work." But at no point do the Badeaus say that they felt obligated by their faith to adopt. MacFarquhar interprets their motivations as a kind of altruism fueled not by duty, but rather emotion:
To many people, the love of a parent for his child should be urgent, primal, beneath thought. That love should come from longing; from a selfish clutching for happiness, not from an altruistic promise to help. It was not just that altruism was not enough; altruism seemed antithetical to what a parent’s love should be. A parent might sacrifice himself for a child, but because he was driven to do it, not out of duty. The love of a parent must be selfish or it was worthless. 
To Sue and Hector, self-sacrifice came easily. To live a moral life in the usual way, resisting temptation and embracing righteous difficulty, was not hard. But they knew that what was required of them was more complicated than asceticism. To sacrifice pleasure for duty’s sake was to get everything wrong. To fulfill their parental promise they must feel delight; they must take pleasure in their children or their efforts would be useless.
While I think that MacFarquhar's understanding of the Badeaus is admiring, and admirable in its own right, I find it is slightly at odds with their own words. They claim that they were acting out of a kind of "urgent, primal [love] beneath thought": it was not their choice; it was more emotional than deliberative; it would have caused them pain not to adopt, in a way that is, MacFarquhar and the ethicists might say (without blame), "selfish." The pleasure is there at the inception of the relationship, and—ideally—grows throughout, just as with any kind of parenthood.

People adopt on many different motivations, and there are parents who are moved to adopt out of a desire to do good in the world: a sense, at least in part, of moral duty. However, in my experience, this is actually somewhat uncommon. To the contrary, the adoptive parents whom I have known generally say that they adopted because they loved a child "on first sight," or because—in the words of Queen and Jefferson Airplane—needed or wanted somebody to love, and proceeded to do so. The heart overflows and fixes on an object without conscious choice. Altruism may be involved, but only as a secondary motivation; to describe it as philanthropy or charity is at odds with the lived experience of most adoptive families.

I and my parents have found that when many people who are not in adoptive families talk about adoption—particularly international adoptions from unstable countries or backgrounds, and especially of children with special developmental demands—they tend to do so in terms of charity, benevolence, and good deeds. My parents say that when they adopted me, people often made approving remarks like: "Look at what you're doing for that child!" They didn't know what to say in response, because for them charity was not the motivation; if anything, in their account, I was doing something for them.

(You may want to stop reading here if you're bored by ethics and its jargon.) In reading the profile of the Badeau family, I was struck by how far Hector and Sue's motivations seemed from the consequentialist motives that one might be tempted to ascribe to them. They don't describe their lives as an attempt to create happiness for the children whom they adopt, nor to encourage further action on the right motives for themselves. To be sure, as MacFarquhar tells it, potential effects on their family's overall happiness were factor in their decisions to adopt:
If they decided not to adopt a child—and there were many whom they did not adopt—it was because they felt that they could not be good parents to him for some reason, or because they worried that bringing him in would make everybody’s life worse. This was another way in which their mission was complicated: they wanted to help as many children as they could, but if they tried to help too many then they would do harm; and there was nobody to tell them where to draw that line.
But the feature of the situation that motivated their decision in the first place was not potential increases to happiness of the family, nor does it sound as though it was a final ratifying factor in those decisions. Two of the Badeau siblings describe the kind of conversation they had: 
TRICIA: We got to a point where we were, like, All right, Dad and Mom, you’ve got to stop adopting. Some of us got tired of it, we felt like we were helping taking care of everybody. I would feel bad because I would think to myself, How would I feel if they didn’t want to adopt me because they thought we had too many kids. But I would still feel like, that’s enough.  
ISAAC: You can only stretch yourself so thin. We’d ask them, Are you sure this is something that you want to do, and they said it was something they needed to do, that if they didn’t help this boy then nobody was going to. And that’s not something they felt they could live with, I guess.
"Something they needed to do": a kind of compulsion, not a rational calculation. And though the potential for increased happiness matters—"if they didn't help this boy then nobody was going to"—that reason is couched in terms of the facts of being particular people, with their status as separate persons taken into account. General increases in welfare take a backseat in their motivational set to their particular ability to care for this particular boy: not to save all such boys in general, or with a sense that one could swap a similar boy for this one (Wayne, born with fetal-alcohol syndrome) without fundamentally altering the situation. 

Yet at the same time, the Badeaus' motives seem different from the purely moral motivations that Kant describes in his ethical theory. Kant would describe the kind of love on which the Badeaus act as being at least in part "pathological"—by which he does not mean "diseased," but rather "emotion-based" (from Greek pathos, which can mean either "suffering" or "emotion"). While positive, acts inspired just by pathological love are, on Kant's account, not of intrinsic moral worth: only an act inspired by a rational recognition of an action's necessity with the force of law can have such worth. It has been pointed out by Kant scholars that Kant need not mean that no act motivated by pathological love can be moral—just that they must also be motivated by reason in order to have distinctively moral worth. The Badeaus would have to act on something like the motive expressed in the sentence, "Anyone in our situation, seeing a child like Wayne, would have felt compelled to act as we did and adopt him." But, on their account, that was not their primary motive. Instead, it was because they were themselves, constituted to feel the feelings that they had, directed at this particular boy. Now, I am open to the possibility that their acts were not of special moral worth in Kant's theory: Kant, I think, would not find conceiving and loving a biological child of distinctively moral worth, either. But then the puzzle is why, and whether, we should find the story of the Badeaus morally praiseworthy. Kant may deny that it is; this returns us to the problem that many readers have with Kant and his prima facie denial that emotional motivations have moral worth.  

Adoption poses a good puzzle for our modern ethical theories because the reasons that those theories suggest for why adopting a child is good seem so far from the motives that actual parents usually have to adopt. Indeed, beyond this, we might have cause to be disturbed by any parents who cite the reasons predicted by modern ethical theories—obedience to rational self-compulsion, increase in the general welfare, or improvement of their own dispositions—as their motives to adopt children. Not all adoptions driven by love are happy, to be sure. But an adoption motivated primarily by something other than love, even in the form of one's desire to have a child to love, seems especially disturbing.

Perhaps this is why some people find international adoption a suspicious kind of do-gooderism. There is a large body of commentary, ranging from the tabloidish to the intelligent, that worries about this, frequently in the form of attributing a "white savior complex" to adoptive parents. These objections usually conjure up a kind of phantom Angelina Jolie figure (one whom I suspect is not much like the real Angelina Jolie, motivationally speaking), who enters the world of neglected children with great wealth and power, convinced of her own capacity to do good, and snatches them out of cultural context into an alien country primarily so that she can revel in self-approval. (Again, I suspect that the real Angelina Jolie feels quite differently about her children.) The Badeaus encountered a version of this criticism:
Around this time, articles began to appear about the family in newspapers, and they began to win prizes; with this attention came criticism. Some people thought they were saints; but others thought they were publicity-seekers, or weirdos, or had some kind of psychological disorder. Some thought they were addicted to acquiring kids to fill some need, the way others were addicted to shopping. Some thought that they were presumptuous, to imagine that they could be good parents to so many. Even the people who thought they were saints couldn’t understand why they did it. 
But the case of the Badeaus seems to be an example of the exact opposite: people who, far from wanting to revel in the approval of others or themselves, are quite hard on themselves for falling short of their own expectations, and seem motivated less by their own desire to do good than their own emotional compulsions—namely, love. In Dickens's Bleak House, the character Mrs. Jellyby engages in frenetic advocacy for charity and missionary work in Africa—the Victorian analogue of NGOs and relief aid—to the complete neglect of her own offspring, who run around her household untamed, uncared for, and largely unloved. The Badeaus seem to be the opposite of Mrs. Jellyby—if anything, too loving and concerned with the people before them—rather than her modern-day successors.


[Postscript: I suspect that Kantian theory comes closer to the mark than utilitarian theory in the end. It would be better to have a theory that predicts that adoption is of no special moral worth in comparison with other ways of having or enlarging a family. Kant's thought also seems to say that actions based on the emotions that would lead you to have and raise children in general have no distinctively moral worth, which many people are understandably disturbed by; but I suspect they take him (wrongly, I think) to mean that having children has no worth at all, which is not what he claims. He just claims that raising children does not have distinctively moral worth. This at first seems wrong. But one can, after all, raise one's children in morally repugnant ways: we would not say that someone who raises children, perhaps with great love, but primarily out of a motive to pass on her genes, is acting in a distinctively moral way. In contrast, at first glance the utilitarian conclusion—that adoption is as good as the happiness it creates—seems to get the act all wrong, for the reason that it offers no reason why we should find it disconcerting for parents to adopt on the motive of that conclusion. I think many adoptive parents would say that there is in fact no distinctively moral reason for their love, nor would they want their parenthood to be primarily a matter of moral action; and so Kant's theory seems to offer a better explanation of the features of the situation.]

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