Should I love you as you are?

Last Saturday  I attended an interesting conference about "Reason, Theology and the Genome " organized by the McDonald centre for theology, Ethics and Public Life in Oxford.

I noticed that there was a general agreement, among speakers, about the intrinsic moral value of unconditional love of parents toward their children. Apparently parental unconditional love is a quite relevant argument against human enhancement. The argument goes, more or less, like this “we have to unconditionally love our children but  enhancing them would mean we don’t accept them for what they are”. As Sandel writes “To appreciate children as gifts is to accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition. Parental love is not contingent on the talents and attributes the child happens to have … [W]e do not choose our children”

Such a claim raises interesting questions. First of all, do parents really love their children unconditionally? And if so, is that a good thing in a moral perspective? And if it is good, are we sure it is better than “conditional” love?

 1) Do parents love their children unconditionally? To love unconditionally  can mean at least two things: (a) to  love in a priori way: someone is loved for the sake of being herself, and in despite of anything, good or bad, she will do or she is  (b) to forgive any mistake  the person would possibly  make.

 (a) I wonder if this kind of feeling expresses what parental love is, as for instance, by definition, parental love is given under the circumstance that someone is in a parent-child relationship (it doesn’t matter if for genetic or social reasons, as in adoptions). For instance, a parent might stop to love a child after finding out that she is the result of an adulterous relationship of the partner. So at least there is one condition of parental unconditional  love, that is one is actually the parent. Anyway, leaving aside this detail, I wonder if  parents love their children for what they are under any condition or if they instead try to influence their offspring so that they have good reasons for loving them (even more).  For instance parents try to shape their children teaching certain values, rules, idea, reading them certain books instead of others, pushing them to practice a sport or another, choosing a school, clothes, food and friends. Education is a strong attempt to shape, modify and influence  a child, but even if we can discuss goals and means, we all would agree that education is a good thing and an essential parental duty. Do parents who educate their children love them less than the ones who don’t educate them? I would say no, and even more, I would say that parents who put a lot of effort in the education of their kids show to care about them much more than  parents who don’t put that  effort. One could object that anyway parents love their children even if all their attempts to educate them, fail. In the Christian tradition, for instance, the parable of the Prodigal Son shows how a father is happy to welcome back his son even if he previously let him down, forgiving him for his mistakes. But also in this case, the condition is that the Prodigal Son eventually regrets and comes back home, but what if the Prodigal Son would have been  a forerunner of Charles Manson? Would his father still had loved him? Even if we suppose that parents, in general, feel unconditional love for their kids, is that feeling something as a contract one cannot rescind? I mean, couldn’t that be that if our child does something bad, or even horrible, like killing other innocent human beings, we stop loving her? At the end of the day, even god himself doesn’t forgive all the mistakes and the sins. After all that is why  the hell was created.

Now, suppose  that you can suppress in you child that variance gene that, as recent studies show, is related to higher chances to become a psychopath. Would you think that suppressing the gene would mean that you do not accept the child as she is and that your parental love is not unconditional?

If we think that parents have a right to educate their children in order to make them, let’s say,  obedient to laws, then we should think they also have a right to suppress the “psychopath gene”. In both cases, they are trying to influence their children, and it is not morally relevant if they would love them anyway, as the objection against enhancement is based on the argument that “enhancing children implies that one does not accept them for what they are”.

I think I showed that an unconditional love intended as the refusal to attempt to educate, shape and influence the offspring doesn’t bring to any relevant moral conclusion, as the relationship  parents-offspring is essentially  based on the influence parents exert on their kids.

So maybe unconditional love is  more about (b) forgiving, since, as a parent, one is more keen on forgiving (and therefore on keeping  loving) her children instead of other people. Or you are more keen on forgiving  your child even if he is selfish, lazy, arrogant and annoying but you would not accept these behaviours in other people. Or you would even forgive your child who stole your money to buy drugs, but you probably would not forgive your cousin etc.

If unconditional love is about forgiving, than the reason why parents who want to enhance their children would be bad parents, is that they would have issues with forgiving a child who did a mistake or who is not the kind of person they would like her to be.

 2) And at this point my second question about parental unconditional love comes: what is so good about it? It is not clear what would be morally good and praiseworthy about, if it was true, a kind of love that is so “blind” and unconditioned that doesn’t stop even when the other person behaves like a “monster”. We can agree that  this  kind of love is the strongest, the deepest etc but should we say it is also the most moral, the best in an ethical perspective? And  if so, why?

As moral agents we develop (hopefully) moral paradigms we use to evaluate other people, as well as our own behaviours. These moral paradigms are essential to define our moral horizon, meaning what we think is moral or not. Why should we use different moral paradigms to judge our children? If the moral paradigm is a good one, then there is no reason to reject it. If I think that killing people is a bad thing, well, it is a bad thing even if it is my child's favourite hobby. If I think that being selfish and arrogant is bad, then there is nothing (morally) intrinsically good in loving my selfish and arrogant child.

If I think that smart people are more interesting than stupid ones, then I have a reason to believe that I would prefer my daughter to be smart instead of stupid.

I don’t say that parents should not love their children in despite of what they are, of course they can and they often do that. I remember once I heard on TV the mother of a guy who had just set alight a clochard declaring “He is a good boy”.  To be sincere, my idea of a good boy is not compatible with a sadistic homicide. Moreover I don’t see anything remarkable, in a moral perspective, in forgiving and loving such a human being. I don’t see why this stubborn love should have such a moral relevance that then, trying to have a child that better fits what we define good traits, is automatically immoral.

In my understanding unconditional love is, in the best case, morally neutral, and not intrinsically good. We can love people for what they represent (our offspring) or for what they are and do (sweet, smart, generous kids). I don’t see how the argument based on unconditional parental love is supposed to be an argument against enhancement, as 1) unconditional love as the refusal to attempt to shape the offspring is not compatible with the role of parents 2) unconditional love as infinite forgiveness has no intrinsic moral value, but seems instead to be a subversion of an established moral paradigm. 





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3 Responses to Should I love you as you are?

  • Wayne says:

    I think love does have moral relevance… The classic dilemma of saving your mother or the pope illustrates something to that effect. If we save the Pope because of utilitarian justifications we seem to be monstrous individuals, precisely because we have only a superficial relationship with the Pope, but a loving relationship with our mother. Now imagine that we didn’t have a loving relationship with our mother. It seems kind of odd to save our mother, whom we don’t care about, but not the Pope who would produce far more utility to save.

    So in this scenario, love is a determining factor… But I think in most circumstances the love itself, is not morally praiseworthy or blameworthy… Its usually a superfluous quality like color or such. So the question really becomes what is it about my scenario that makes love morally relevant, and other scenarios morally irrelevant?

  • e says:

    is the Sandel quote from “The Case Against Perfection,” or something else? many thanks.

  • yes indeed


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