frgavin on February 13th, 2012
On the ties that bind
Published on February 12, 2012 by Michael W. Austin in Ethics for Everyone

Shulamith Firestone, in her book The Dialectic of Sex, makes the claim that the biological family is inherently unjust, and offers a vision of the future in which women can be freed from the tyranny of reproductive biology. In place of the biological family, Firestone discusses the formation of households in which a group of approximately 10 people sign a contract for the length of time needed to help children mature in a stable home. When the contract is up, it can be renewed, modified, some can opt out while others can opt in, or the household can simply be disbanded. In the long run, Firestone envisions “free sexuality” in such households. This would mean the end of many sexual taboos, including sex between adults and children.I think that there is obviously much in this that is deeply misguided as well as immoral. However, I want to focus on just one issue related to the above discussion. What sort of value, if any, do biological ties have for the parent-child relationship?

I do not think that biology is the most important aspect of the foundation of the family. Some argue that the biological tie is essential to parenthood. But surely adoptive parents and step-parents have the same rights and obligations as biological parents. Or consider the case of Kimberly Mays. Ernest and Regina Twigg discovered that their daughter Arlena had heart disease at the age of 9, and in the process of treatment it came to light that Arlena was not in fact the biological offspring of the Twiggs. Instead, she was the biological child of Robert and Barbara Mays, who had been raising Kimberly as their child for the past 9 years. Unfortunately, Kimberly and Arlena had been accidentally switched in the hospital nursery. If biology is essential to parenthood, then it would follow that for the Mays, their relationship with Kimberly should have less value upon this unfortunate discovery, and that they should feel and be less committed to her. But this does not follow, which tells us at least that biology is not essential for parenthood. What is more important is the actual relationship that parents have with their children, whether or not there are biological ties.

However, there is something to be said about the value of biology in the parent-child relationship. In the past, I’ve been much more skeptical that it had much if any value, but a paper by contemporary philosopher J. David Velleman has led me to reconsider my views. Velleman’s argument can be summed up as follows:

  1. Parents have an obligation to foster identity-formation in their children.
  2. Knowing one’s biological parents yields self-knowledge that has significant and irreplaceable value with respect to such identity-formation. Therefore,
  3. It is immoral to intentionally create children that will not know both of their biological parents.

There is much to consider and criticize in this argument. However, what it does reveal is that there is some value to the biological ties between parents and their children. As Velleman puts it:

“When people deny the importance of biological ties, I wonder how they can read world literature with any comprehension…What do they think is the dramatic engine of the Oedipus story? When the adoptive grandson of Pharoah says, ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land,’ do they take him to be speaking merely as an Egyptian in the land of Midian? How can they understand the colloquy between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader? Surely, the revelation ‘I am your father’ should strike them as a bit of dramatic stupidity-a remark to be answered, ‘So what?'”[1]

In my view, Velleman is onto something. There are many adoptive children who never seek nor do they have the desire to seek out their biological parents. However, others do, and many of them describe the need to know their biological parents as deep and unrelenting. So what we are left with is a tension when we consider the value of biology for the parent-child relationship. Whatever the future of the family holds, we need to give proper weight to the needs and interests of all children.

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[1] J. David Velleman, “Family History,” Philosophical Papers 34 (2005): 369.

The above is drawn from my book, Wise Stewards.

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