The Ethics of Fatherhood: On Rights, Responsibilities, and Abortion

Fresno Bee, June 19, 2022

Since this is Father’s Day weekend and our country is expecting a U.S. Supreme Court decision about abortion, let’s consider how the ethics of fatherhood connects to the ethics of abortion. Abortion is a matter of women’s rights. But as they say, it takes two to tango.

The Roe v. Wade decision briefly mentioned the ancient idea that abortion violated a “father’s right to his offspring.” In the old days, husbands and fathers controlled the reproductive lives of their wives and daughters. But Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to decide for herself, within limits, about terminating a pregnancy. Subsequent decisions, such as Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, clarified that when there was a conflict between mother and father about abortion, the mother’s right should prevail.

And yet, fathers may want a say in the matter. There are two very different ways this might occur. Some fathers may want the mother to keep the child. Other fathers may want the mother to abort.

This last kind of case has led some men to seek a so-called “financial abortion.” The idea here is that if a mother remains pregnant against the father’s wishes, he should not have to pay child support. So far, there is no legal basis for financial abortion. Instead, if paternity is established, fathers are liable for child support.

I suspect that if more men understood the obligation of child support, they would be more responsible about birth control. If you dance without protection, you may have to pay the piper.

This points us toward the importance of responsibility. It is not only the woman who is responsible for avoiding pregnancy. She didn’t dance alone. And when a child is born, both parents are responsible to care for the child.

Responsibilities are different from rights. Discussions of rights are typically about what we are free to do without interference. If you have a right to dance, you are free to dance with whomever you want, without the government preventing you. The right to an abortion is similar, as a kind of freedom from interference. Rights give us permissions, while responsibility gives us duties.

Responsibilities are harder to enforce. You are free to tango. But no one can force you to dance well. Nor can anyone force you to use protection when you dance. That area of responsibility is left up to the dancers.

Ethical men behave well before, during, and after the tango. They are respectful of the women they dance with. They are not selfish or cruel when they dance. And after the dance is over, they take responsibility for the outcome.

Of course, in our libertarian society, you are free, within limits, to be a bad father. “Dead beat dads” and abusive fathers can be punished. But apart from those extreme cases, there is no legal obligation to be a good dad.

And what do good dads do? Well, they love their children. This means that they are responsible and caring, compassionate and supportive. This lovingkindness extends throughout a child’s life.

One way that paternal love unfolds is through a kind of identification. Paternal love is like the Golden Rule but more intimate. We love our children as ourselves because they remain a part of us. A father’s love is both selfish and selfless. There is no room in paternal love for jealousy, resentment, or cruelty.

Good fathers also respect the autonomy of their children. A father does not own his children. They will transcend him. Good fathers do not impose or command. Rather, they encourage and support, knowing that when the child becomes herself, she will leave him behind.

Again, the metaphor of dancing comes to mind. Dance is responsive. It involves structure. But it also includes freedom. A dance without freedom is a slogging march. But dance without structure is merely a spasm of movement. Somewhere in the middle there is beauty, grace, and joy.

Let’s not forget the importance of paternal love and responsibility as we think about the ethics of abortion in the coming weeks. We have a right to dance. But we also have a responsibility to dance well. And somewhere in all of this, we ought to seek transcendence, joy, and love.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article262610487.html#storylink=cpy

How much carnage is enough?

Fresno Bee, June 5, 2022

Social policy involves managing risks. But we, the people, are not good at this. We fear some things that are unlikely, while ignoring other very real dangers. In some cases, our fears are irrational. In other cases, our fearlessness is rash and uninformed.

Our track record is not reassuring. Over 1 million people in the U.S. have now died of COVID-19. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 234,000 of the deaths that occurred since vaccines became available could have been prevented by vaccination. But some people are more afraid of the vaccine than the disease.

This makes you wonder whether we will make wise choices with regard to gun violence. The schoolroom massacre in Uvalde, Texas was horrifying. One event like this seems to be too many. The good news is that most schools remain safe. Mass school shootings remain rare. An analysis published in Scientific American reports that since 1966, there have been 13 mass school shootings (with four or more victims). But the carnage is horrific, with 146 people killed.

And many more people die in “ordinary” gun violence and from firearm suicide. The Pew Center reports that in 2020 — the most recent year of complete data — more than 45,000 people were killed by guns. More than half of those deaths (about 24,000) were from suicide.

These numbers are appalling. But how do they compare with other risks? One point of comparison is drug overdose deaths. The National Institutes of Health reports that in 2020, nearly 92,000 people died from drug overdoses. This is another appalling number.

We might also consider traffic fatalities. The California Department of Transportation reports that in 2020, nearly 39,000 people died in car crashes. This means that in 2020, more people died from guns than from car crashes. But more people died from drug overdoses than from car crashes and gun violence combined.

So how do we compare these depressing apples and oranges? Well, the benefits of cars are obvious. We need them to get to work. But are guns such an obvious necessity? Some view them as necessary for self-defense. Others enjoy shooting as a fun hobby. And a few believe that an armed populace prevents the slippery slope toward authoritarianism. Are those supposed benefits worth the annual bloodbath? What level of carnage is acceptable?

Some ask whether any of this is acceptable. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, announced the ambitious goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero. Buttigieg said, “We cannot and must not accept that these fatalities are somehow an inevitable part of life in America.” What if we had a similar goal of zero deaths with regard to COVID-19, drug overdoses, or gun deaths? This seems impossible. But that all depends on what we are willing to trade off and what we accept as inevitable.

Imagine what we’d need to do to eliminate automotive fatalities. We’d need safer cars, better roads, and more enforcement. Drivers would need better training. We’d need to eliminate drinking and driving, as well as cell phone distraction. And we might have to change the speed and size of our vehicles.

A similar comprehensive agenda would be needed to reduce gun violence and drug overdose death. Are we willing to make those kinds of changes? Or are we willing to tolerate all of this misery and death?

Some gun control measures seem blatantly obvious. One step would be to coordinate gun ownership with the legal drinking age, as it is in California. The Scientific American analysis indicates that the average age of mass school shooters is 18. The Uvalde murderer bought his weapon legally after he turned 18. It makes little sense for 18-year-olds to be able to purchase assault weapons, as they can in Texas, when they are not old enough to buy beer or cigarettes.

But even that modest proposal is controversial in a world out of whack. I am frankly not very hopeful that we’ll do much to reduce any of this American carnage. Our nation is too polarized. And we are not good at managing risk. But if we are going to move in the right direction, we’ll need to keep asking how much blood and how many tears we are willing to accept.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article262100462.html#storylink=cpy

Work Hard and Do Well

Work

Fresno Bee, May 22, 2022

Find good work and do it well. That’s useful advice for graduates. Work is an important part of life. This does not mean that you should toil like a slave. But you should avoid the fantasy of living without working.

As with most things, moderation is crucial. Drudgery is dehumanizing. So too is idleness. Our lifelong task is to engage in meaningful activity. We do that by building, learning, and creating.

Our culture confuses us about this. On the one hand, the overachievers brag about how busy they are. They boast of their exhaustion and gloat about their stamina. These folks spin their wheels, making the rest of us feel lazy and incompetent.

On the other hand, the underachievers prefer the sofa to the treadmill. These are the folks who dream of a life of loafing. Some clever slackers manage to make malingering a way of life. Their indolence makes the rest of us wonder why we bother.

Each extreme undermines our humanity. The rat race turns human beings into rodents. And the lazy loafers are called couch potatoes. A good life is lived in the middle, with enough work to provide us with purpose and enough leisure to provide enjoyment.

Inequality can cause us to misunderstand the value of work. The fortunate few live luxurious lives without breaking a sweat. The eager beavers dream of joining that elite. But most will slave away, feeling that the golden ring is just out of reach. Meanwhile, those at the bottom live a precarious existence. There are a few safety nets. But a crisis or emergency can create a vicious spiral that ends in despair.

In the background is advertising that tell us that wealth is about luck rather than labor. Billboards promote casinos. Online betting is common. And every convenience store sells lottery tickets. Casino fantasies fuel the stock market, cryptocurrency, and NFTs (non-fungible tokens). This is a world where wealth is disconnected from work. The recent decline of stocks and the collapse of crypto reminds us that bubbles burst.

The housing crisis reveals a similar problem. The affluent own vacation homes, while the unhoused sleep on the streets. The value of a house is not determined by its usefulness in providing shelter. Rather, it is determined by a market based on borrowed money.

The credit industry loves this, of course. Debt becomes a way of life. And interest payments chain us to the treadmill.

A further problem is the fantasy of “the dream job.” In reality, there is no such thing. Some jobs are better than others. But the grass is always greener somewhere else. It is wiser to stop dreaming. Put down roots and bloom where you’re planted. Unfulfilled desire breeds resentment.

In a way, the animals have it easier. The bee makes its honey without asking questions. The bird builds its nest without complaint. But we compare our lives to others. We want sweeter honey and a bigger nest. And we are quick to complain.

But complaining does not produce happiness. This is a central idea of ancient Stoicism. Everyone has a job to do. Take pride in doing your duty. This is not always pleasant. Rather, the happiness of work comes from a sense of achievement.

The Stoics said that the only bad jobs are those that exploit and degrade humanity. Prostitution comes to mind as an example. Good work, on the other hand, helps us develop our human capacities.

Artists and scientists can easily find meaning in their work. But so too can gardeners, plumbers, and accountants. You don’t have to win the Nobel Prize to live a good life. You only have to contribute to the common good. At the end of the day, you want to be proud of your work. And at the end of your career, you want to be able to say that I did my job and left the world better for my efforts.

The quality of our lives is not determined by how much we earn or what we own. Happiness is not produced by running on the treadmill. Nor does it come from loafing on the couch. Rather, happiness is created when we find good work and do it well.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article261627322.html#storylink=cpy

Mother’s Love: The Heart of Ethics

Fresno Bee, May 8, 2022

Motherly love is different from other kinds of love. Brotherly love is connected to the Golden Rule. It tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Maternal love is stronger and more intimate. It focuses on the unique personality of those we love.

Fraternal love is about reciprocity. It asks us to respect each other’s rights. But maternal love is deeper and more intimate. It is not always reciprocated. It is not about equality. Rather, it is concerned with the concrete needs of the one who is loved.

The language of brotherhood is common in ethics and politics. The French Revolution celebrated liberty, equality and fraternity. The UN Declaration of Human Rights says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.”

The language used here is gendered. Perhaps we should also say that there should be a spirit of sisterhood. Some go so far as to talk about “pregnant persons” instead of mothers.

But on Mother’s Day, we celebrate the spirit of motherly love. Motherly love is oriented toward the well-being of each particular child. Rather than treating all children the same, maternal love focuses on the uniqueness of each child.

Motherly love is emotionally stronger than brotherly love. It is also less egalitarian. Brothers are supposed to treat one another fairly and equally. But mothers love their children in a way that is biased and partial.

Mothers have special relationships with their own children that they simply do not have with other children. Of course, that special relationship works both ways. Most of us are biased when it comes to our own mothers. Toddlers seek their mother’s arms for comfort. And adult children give special care to their mothers.

I wrote about motherly love in a blog post last year on Mother’s Day. A friend suggested that this seems a bit sexist and old-fashioned. To say that motherly love is partial and biased may imply that mothers are ethically flawed.

But this only makes sense if we believe ethics is only about impartiality and equality. Motherly love is as important as brotherly love. Brotherly love gives us equality and respect. But motherly love gives us comfort, care and belonging. Each kind of love is needed.

The impartiality of fraternal love responds to inequality and intolerance. But a mother’s personal love helps us thrive in a world that is cold and indifferent. It is sexist to say that maternal love is inferior. The remedy is to understand that motherly love is important and that brotherly love is not the whole of ethics.

The Golden Rule of fraternal love remains a guide for morality. But what if we also said that we should learn to love other people as mothers love their children? That seems to be the heart of an ethic of compassion, to learn to care for others as our mothers cared for us.

And what about fatherly love? Well, our culture imagines a father’s love as that of a strict and dispassionate disciplinarian. Paternal love is the equality and impartiality of brotherly love taken to a higher level. The image of “God the Father” often portrays Him as loving us despite our failures, while reminding us that we need to straighten up and fly right.

But mothers don’t love us despite our failures. They love us because of our flaws, since it is our flaws that make us unique and special. Motherly love is focused on the personality of the one loved, while fatherly and brotherly love emphasizes the abstract personhood behind the personality.

We have to be careful in thinking this through. This gendered language includes stereotypes that can be hurtful and divisive. The truth is that men can love like mothers. And women can be dispassionate and impartial. We all have the capacity for each kind of love.

On Mother’s Day we celebrate motherly love. Let’s reflect on what our mothers taught us about love—and thank them for those lessons.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article261144842.html#storylink=cpy

Tyranny from Plato to Trump

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my new book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump: Fools, Sycophants, and Citizens.

The book offers insight into the perennial problem of tyranny. Tyrants seek to grab power. They are supported by sycophants. And cheered on by fools. This is a political problem as well as a social and spiritual problem. There are tyrants in our families and in our businesses. There is also a tyrannical tendency in our souls. The same is true of the tendency to suck up to the powerful. And each of us can behave moronically, more interested in amusement than ethics or truth.

The cure is spiritual and political. We benefit from self-examination. And we need social and political guardrails that prevent tyrants from consolidating power.