The roots of civil society
by Hunter Baker
It appears to me that one of the least appreciated models for social action is the act of parenting. Most of us are perfectly happy to claim that the family is the centerpiece of society, and so on, but seldom do social scientists and policy makers really try to consider how family relationships might be useful in understanding how to motivate and encourage positive social, economic, and political change.
The central dynamic of which I am thinking here is that of self-sacrifice. It is truly astonishing to think how unselfish the average successful parent must be, despite all the blandishments and enticements to the contrary. First of all, there is the simple act of childbirth, in which a woman undergoes a heroic and often risky process of bringing new life into the world. This inexplicably courageous act follows nine months of increasing physical discomfort and limitations on the woman's physical and mental activities. And although it was possible in previous eras to suggest that pregnancy and childbirth were just the necessary way of things, that is certainly not true today. Effective contraceptives are widely and readily available, and even most churches condone their use. Hence, today's women go through pregnancy and childbirth largely by choice.
In that light, this perfectly common and ordinary activity ought actually to be a most amazing thing, a great wonder. The very commonness of it, in fact, makes it even more wonderful--and more meaningful as a component of human life. To risk one's life and health for the express purpose of taking on the responsibility for a completely helpless human being--this is an undeniably altruistic act, and it is something that millions of women do every year in this country alone. Certainly, there have been times when society was perhaps a bit too sentimental about motherhood and mothers, but it is nonetheless important to understand precisely what women's willingness to undergo pregnancy and childbirth says about humans and human nature: self-sacrifice is at the center of it.
Of course, one can argue that the prospective mother is simply taking a calculated risk and paying a price of a little pain for what she expects to be a far greater and long-lasting pleasure: that of motherhood. Only a person who has never had children could ever believe such nonsense. Children cost their parents an amazing amount of time, money, physical toll, and worry. To any normal parent, children are well worth the sacrifice, but these things are a great loss nonetheless. By any strictly utilitarian analysis, having children is a perfectly insane thing to do.
People have also tried to explain away the mystery of parenting by characterizing it as a response to social conditioning, arguing that most people have children simply because they are told repeatedly that it is what they are supposed to do if they wish to be seen as decent, normal members of society. This is the idea that some radical feminists have offered, and it certainly has a bit of truth to it. People do want to conform to social mores if it does not require too much effort; that is, if the rewards of conforming are at least comparable to the negative consequences of not doing so.
The facts, however, contradict this theory as an explanation for parenting today. After all, being childless is now perfectly normal in the United States, and in fact it is the couples who have more than two or three children who are looked down on. Married couples with no children have a terrific economic situation if both persons work, as is the norm in such cases--and wealth is, of course, always good for one's social status. In addition, a good many people worry about overpopulation, and even though that is no longer a threat in this nation, as our birth rate is in fact below replacement level, it means that any presumed advantages in social status for those who choose to have children will be far from universal. Hence, social conditioning is at best a wash in parenting decisions today.
As an economic and social matter, parenting is definitely a bad choice. In the past, it is true, one's progeny were supposedly seen as potential economic assets, but today they clearly are huge liabilities. Just look at college tuition rates if you have any doubt.
Genetics, of course, plays a part in the urge to have children. As sociobiologists have noted, animals have genetically bred instincts that impel them not only to reproduce but also to engage in activities that may not benefit themselves directly but still increase the overall survival rate of the species. Sociobiologists and other scientists have attempted to explain various human behaviors through analogous arguments, and it is certainly true that there are genetically based impulses that are very hard to resist--such as the urges to breathe and to eat. But one can satisfy the genetic impulse to reproduce without reproducing, as noted earlier. Is there, then, a genetic craving in human beings that specifically impels us to have children, to see a little child in our future and just have to have it? Perhaps to some degree, but as is evident by changing rates of childbirth, it is highly resistible.
The point of all of this, of course, is that there is something inherent in human beings that impels us toward altruistic behavior. Certainly we are largely selfish in nature, and some people even go so far as to take pleasure in witnessing others' suffering. (Indeed, we all do so on occasion, though most of us feel terribly guilty afterward.) Despite this core of immutable separateness from the rest of nature, however, each of us also feels in some ways impelled toward unselfishly doing good toward other people and toward the natural world in general.
Parenting is a very obvious effect of this impulse. Before a couple has children, it is common to imagine what they will look like and what they will do, to see them in one's mind as growing, thriving, and enjoying life. This impulse is entirely unselfish, the tautological arguments of clever philosophers notwithstanding. The only good such a thought does the person who acts on it or even imagines doing so is that of providing a sense of satisfaction. Yes, that is a return one gets for the contemplation of such an altruistic act, and it is a great benefit one obtains as a result of the hard work of parenting, but the fact is, it is only satisfying because it is unselfish. If it were a truly selfish impulse, we would make the necessary calculations and not have children and not imagine how wonderful they would be. But we do have them. There is only one word for what is behind this, and it is love. We bring children into the world for the same reason we do many of the things we d for love.
It is simply natural for human beings to love. We love one another, we love animals, we love nature, we love all kinds of things, and we act on that love, often in direct opposition to our clear material interests. The fact that we also hate and do evil does not alter this reality one bit. Human beings love, spontaneously and urgently.
This fact is a thorn in the side of those who wish to explain all things strictly by recourse to material phenomena. There is no evident source of love in the cosmos if dumb matter is all there is. Yet love is all around us. Those who believe in a Creator, on the other hand, have a perfectly coherent explanation. Love exists in the creation because it is an essential element of the Creator, and this entire creation is in fact a direct outcome of that love. (We'll save the theological problem of the existence of evil for another time.)
Regardless of how we explain it, or whether we even try to, love is an essential part of human nature and is central to the human condition. Once we understand that, altruistic behavior begins to make sense, even the powerfully counterintuitive choice to be a parent in the twenty-first century. Love is why people have children, why they band together to help their less successful neighbors, why they try to preserve nature, why they try to create and spread economic prosperity, why they protect the innocent, why they pursue criminals, why they fight wars, and why they offer their religious faith as a comfort and aid to the despondent and rejected.
The point is, we do not need governments to make us love one another. In fact, governments cannot do that, and most of their efforts in that regard seem to have the very opposite effect. Without any urging from governments, however, people all around are us trying to help their neighbors overcome hunger, homelessness, substance abuse, harmful sexual behaviors, street violence, child and spousal abuse, and all the other manifold ills to which the flesh is heir. They are banding together in little platoons--as the politician and philosopher Edmund Burke called them--of churches, community groups, school boards, neighborhood watch groups, economic development teams, soup kitchens, and countless other organizations that make up civil society, the voluntary associations that are central to a healthy society.
What these good people need most, as Pastor Jay Height of the Shepherd Community in Indianapolis notes in this issue, "is for government to remove the barriers that prevent or delay them from helping--barriers like misunderstood or misapplied court decisions, arbitrary and anachronistic rules, policies that protect the needy from being proselytized as well as being helped." There is a role for government in the great job of helping the needy, but the real work can and must always be done by the little platoons. Fortunately, there is more than enough altruism in this world to do the job.