Adoption, Having Children, and Secondary Moral Obligations

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Russell Moore has a nice post about how, although there's generally a moral mandate upon Christians to adopt, there are plenty of people who ought not to be the ones to fulfill that mandate [ht: Justin Taylor]. In particular, certain kinds of issues tend to come up with adoptions that most people, because of the reasons they're interested in adopting are not well prepared for and do not have the commitment to see those problems through, which leaves kids twice orphaned in too many cases.

I think this is a nice example of what I've elsewhere called a secondary moral obligation, an obligation you incur because you fail at a prior moral obligation. You ought not to have the attitude toward children that you see them as fulfilling your needs, but if you do then it's immoral to adopt, even if it's generally a moral mandate to adopt when such immoral attitudes are not present (and they shouldn't be present) and when there aren't other extenuating circumstances making it a less good idea to adopt (whatever those might be, and I'm open to their being lots of them).

What Moore does not mention is that the same is true of having children naturally. If you have the attitude that children are to meet your needs, then you shouldn't have children, even if (and I know not all Christians agree on this) it's Christian teaching that we ought to seek to have children or at least be very open to it (as many believe it is; whether it is is irrelevant to my point here, but assume it is for the sake of argument). My suspicion is that many new parents who were seeking to have children were doing so for completely selfish reasons. It strikes me as a thoroughly immoral reason to want to have children, and it seems to me that it's just as immoral to go ahead and have children if your desire is for them to fulfill your needs. That's so even if there is a moral mandate upon Christians to seek to have children, as many Christians do believe.

What makes this a nice case of a secondary moral obligation is that you have two obligations that conflict, one of which only appears if you violate the other one. It's wrong to have this selfish kid-possessing attitude, and those who have it ought not to have children. But you ought to seek to have children (on the premise I've been assuming, at least for the sake of argument). There's no inconsistency in such a position, despite the initial surface-level appearance of two contrary obligations. You do have an obligation to seek to have children (at least certain people do, anyway, on this view), and you do have an obligation not to want children for the wrong reasons, but if you do have the wrong reasons for wanting children then you simply ought not to have children, even if that means failing in the first obligation. It's worse to seek to meet the first obligation but violate the second than it is to fail the first because you're meeting the second.

But it becomes a fairly messy question if children come along anyway unintentionally when someone has this attitude. The original obligation still remains in such a case, and you simply ought not to have this attitude, even though most people do before they have children. Once they appear, you ought not to rid yourself of them unless your situation is so bad that they'll have a much better home without you than with you (and this selfish desire isn't usually so bad as to generate that situation; other conditions need to be met for that). I would argue that someone with the selfish attitude toward children does conceive a child, they ought (barring other considerations) to raise that child and to remove that selfish attitude. But that's compatible with thinking they ought not to seek to have children until they can rid themselves of that attitude, especially when it comes to great expense as with adoption.

[cross-posted at Parableman]

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