Comments on two discussions from Carolyn Ray's "Enlightenment" : part I, "The Shame of Not Having Children"

Leif Martyn

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The Shame of Not Wanting Children : The Social Stigma of Leading a Ward-Free Life
    by Carolyn Ray
    Date: 11 Jul 98 (draft)
    Copyright: Carolyn Ray

After discovering Michelle Fram-Cohen's brief essay, entitled “Why Have Children? - A Sequel to “The Shame of Not Having Children”, I realized I could not give it the context it requires without looking at Carolyn Ray's 1998 piece. As far as I can tell, Fram-Cohen responds pretty directly to three of of the arguments in "Shame" and includes her own ideas.  This sequel is examined in "Part II."

So first, some notes on the seminal work (1998), followed by more detail on the sequel (2001). The dates underline the scarcity of attention paid to the main topic, i.e. Michelle Fram-Cohen's question "Why Have Children?" Between "Of Living Death" (1968) and this pair of essays on Carolyn Ray's "Enlightenment" website, I did not find any discussion in (publicly-accessible) Objectivist-oriented online resources. I did find Ayn Rand's "Causality Versus Duty" (Objectivist, July 1970) useful, as below. However, since Fram-Cohen's re-posted essay in 2004 (on the "Atlasphere") I have not found any further discussions.

I'm only focusing on discussions of my central question, to which I hope the eventual release of Greg Salmieri's notes at OCON 2022 will add substance, and not the discussions of parenting and childrearing.  But these all begin with the implicit(?) premise, "since you've decided to have kids..." - and are, at best, workings-out of Rand's ideas on Causality Versus Duty. And there are good and articulate discussions to be had.


My overall opinion of Carolyn Ray's "The Shame of Not Wanting Children" is that it presumes a default attitude of child-free adulthood, since her intended audience is one looking for defensible reasons and a critique of common arguments intended to make a shaming judgement:

    "If you wish to remain child-free, I hope that this discussion will help you develop the strength of your convictions. If you have or want children, I hope that the discussion will help you to feel more comfortable with others' decisions to live a ward-free life."

And with this attitude, I notice that the burden of proof is placed where it belongs: on the pro-creator side, and that such an assertion of the onus of proof reminds me of arguments about theism.

In "Of Living Death", Ayn Rand identifies procreation as an "optional value":
"The capacity to procreate is merely a potential which man is not obligated to actualize. The choice to have children or not is morally optional. Nature endows man with a variety of potentials — and it is his /mind/ that must decide which capacities he chooses to exercise, according to his own hierarchy of rational goals and values...." 

Thus, the "ward-free" position is the default. Likewise, the theist assumes the burden of proof.
So how necessary, or convincing, are arguments for "a ward-free life?"

Out of Carolyn Ray's set of arguments, Michelle Fram-Cohen expressly addresses three: from the "Intellectual Arguments" she examines the idea of nurture and the idea of self-sacrifice, and from the "Moral Arguments" she examines the idea of selfishness.

I found three additional arguments noteworthy: in the "Intellectual Arguments" Ray addresses the "value" of children, and discusses the animal nature of man; in the "Moral Arguments" she discusses the relationship between a virtuous act and a virtuous individual.



    People throughout history have chosen to have children, so there must be some value in it. Otherwise, they wouldn't do it. Are you saying that these people are all wrong, that you know something they don't?

    This argument is actually rather silly and trivial in the best cases (e.g., where the cases cited are cases in which parents actually adore children); naturally, people who want children see some value in creating and living with them. It is incorrect in the worst cases (e.g., where people gave in to social pressures); in these cases, there was something at work other than a genuine valuing of children...

It was the "silly and trivial" that caught my attention, so I considered, what would happen if I made a substitution on the second sentence: instead of "they
 wouldn't do it" I said "you wouldn't be here"? I don't find that altogether silly and trivial.

    But it is natural to want to nurture something! Look at how you take care of your plants and pets — don't you think you're trying to make up for not having children?

    I nurture the plants in my garden, my pets, and the wild visitors to my property. I lavish attention on my friends. But my urge to nurture is not context-free. When I acquire plants and animals, it is not because I am filling a need to nurture something. I acquire them because I want my life to be full of plants and animals, and my response to their presence and their needs is to nurture them. The mere fact that a child is something which requires nurturing does not make them similar enough to plants and animals to make me want one.

Not much of a definition of nurture, except to compare it to "lavishing attention" on friends. The discussion of "nurture" is reserved, then, for Michelle Fram-Cohen's comments.

    Reproduction is a natural human activity, so human happiness requires reproduction.

    It is true that the nature of human beings is such that they can make babies. But it is a natural human act in virtue of the fact that humans are animals, and it is animal nature to make babies. It is amazing and wonderful, surely, but as a human function, it carries no special force, certainly not the force of necessity.

    The nature of human beings, as animals, is also that they can overpower other human beings and take their possessions or kill them. The mere fact that such action is possible to us does not mean that we must act this way, or even that we must act this way in order to be happy. There are many natural human functions which should be curbed. The random production of children without genuine interest in them is one of them.

Is this about the "force of necessity" (or simply jumping to conclusions?) or is it about the animal aspect of human nature?
If I were looking for justification of a "ward-free" life, I would not be inclined to start here. But the evocation of "animal nature" has come up before, in "Of Living Death." "It is only animals that have to adapt themselves to their physical background and to the biological functions of their bodies. Man adapts his physical background and the use of his biological faculties to himself — to his own needs and values. /That/ is his distinction from all other living species."

    All human beings need to give selflessly to someone else; children give us the opportunity to exercise selflessness.

    It is commonly believed that human beings need, whether they feel it or not, to give selflessly of themselves in order to be truly fulfilled, to feel fully human, etc. Children are seen as the recipients of character-building self-sacrifice, and people who don't want children are objectionably selfish, self-centered, uncharitable by nature, egostical, childish.

This restatement of a common argument is noteworthy principally for its omission of an examination of why it is assumed to be "self-sacrifice." Likewise, any exploration of "true fulfillment" of feeling "fully human" is omitted. But this also goes somewhat past my concern (why have a child at all?) and into the parenting aspect of procreation.



    That's an awfully selfish attitude, isn't it?

    In an episode of the television sitcom Mad About You, Jaimie is trying to hide her pregnancy from her mother so that she can surprise her; she tries to throw her off track by suggesting that she is not even sure she wants children. Her mother is appalled. She replies, "That's an awfully selfish attitude, isn't it?"

    Forgetting for the moment any special moral interpretations of the word 'selfish,' several questions arise. First, 'selfish' in the vernacular implies that someone is hurt by the selfish decision; if this is a selfish decision, whose welfare is hurt by a woman's decision not to have children? Is it Jaimie's? Obviously not. Ordinary people wouldn't call an act "selfish" if the only the actor got hurt. In order for the claim to be meaningful, we must suppose that there is a party other than the actor who is hurt by the decision. The most logical answer is that it is the potential father; perhaps he wants children, but his cruel wife refuses to give him one. But if the husband is not making this accusation, why would the mother?

I don't intend to forget "any special moral interpretations of the word 'selfish' " - in fact, that's exactly where the argument should be joined. Why wouldn't it be 'selfish' to want to have children? It seems to me that the 'vernacular' or sitcom-informed use of the term is fit only for pathological dissection, which Ray could do - but doesn't.

In her sequel, Michelle Fram-Cohen takes up the issue of self-sacrifice and selfishness, so my further comments will be reserved for that.

    It is a virtue to have children.

    People don't make this claim explicitly. It is implied. Mothers often get more respect from people than they got when they were childless. Children are expected to respect their parents, simply because they are in the general vicinity of the child. "Family man" and "Mother" are both terms that engender respect. Certainly, carrying a child can be difficult and giving birth is painful; and there are many things a sincere woman can do to make sure that her fetus gets superior nutrition and protection. But one cannot tell just by knowing that a woman is pregnant or a mother, whether this special effort has been made. In most cases the fetus is carried and born automatically as long as no one interferes. So the implication is that people are virtuous if they do not interfere with reproduction.

    But consider: If having children required a virtuous character, a lot fewer people would have them! Conception is one of the easiest things in the world to do for most people; it takes no thought, no energy, no insight, no good works, no virtue at all. Many vicious, despicable people make babies and then torture them once they arrive. You just need the animal parts in good working order and they will happen automatically. I don't know of any version of morality that considers that a virtue.

    Apparently, people confuse two types of behavior and treat them as one. On the one hand, there's making the baby, bringing it into existence. On the other, there's taking care of the child and doing it well. If someone does a great job of raising a child, he or she is worthy of praise. But there are plenty of people who make babies, keep them, and don't take care of them properly; these people should be condemned for mistreating a helpless and innocent human being.

I can't make the jump from "the implication is that people are virtuous if they do not interfere with reproduction" to "If having children required a virtuous character..."  Furthermore, if there is an implication in this statement, it is that the animal nature is not worthy of moral consideration: "it will happen automatically."

For those interested in her demolition of several other arguments intended to shame someone electing to remain (default!) "ward-free," I don't think you'll find anything surprising. I noted the selected arguments principally for the aspects that bear on the pro-creator position, and as Michelle Fram-Cohen presents her ideas, I will expand on several.

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2 hours ago, Leif Martyn said:

Furthermore, if there is an implication in this statement, it is that the animal nature is not worthy of moral consideration: "it will happen automatically."


That there is about the long and short of it: morality without reality. Rationalized morality.

There is an underlying assumption in what I skimmed over that morality and only morality causes shame. Biology is excluded and everything boils down to chosen individual value judgments. (Sorry I only skimmed. If I see something that hooks me, I will read it in more depth. Debunking this stuff doesn't do it for me, but that's just me. This stuff needs debunking and there are plenty of people who need to read the debunking, so please have at it.)

From what I have seen, this is a prime example of deducing reality from a principle rather than arriving at principles from observing reality.

This is a common error in O-Land. It's a side effect from too much certainty, or better, certainty about things one does not know, or even better, the craving for the feeling of certainty even when wrong.

btw - That common error is an indication of just how great Rand was as a fiction writer--she got people to feel rational certainty on a deep level through her fiction and many who have felt this want more without doing the work to earn it. They are addicts at root. Neurochemical junkies. Especially serotonin. I speak from experience. :) It is hard to get away from craving certainty unearned, but doable for anyone who is interested in reality.

Addiction does that. Who needs Plato's Cave as a default when a rational person gets addicted and will walk right in and stay there?

Talk about blindness on checking premises...



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3 hours ago, Leif Martyn said:

it is that the animal nature is not worthy of moral consideration: "it will happen automatically."

You might find this interesting: Nathaniel Branden once said that Rand, in regards to sex, told him that "the physical is not unimportant."

Branden's quote from A WOMEN'S SELF-ESTEEM: Struggles and Triumphs in the Search for Identity

I recall a conversation I had with her in the early years of our relationship, when she was expounding on her idea of feminine hero-worship…I asked her: “Don’t men worship women? I mean, they women they love?

“Oh, I suppose so, but that’s not how I would think of it. By ‘worship’, I mean our highest capacity for admiration, reverence, looking up. I see man as superior to woman, and…”

“Oh, Ayn”, I protested. “You don’t. You’re joking!”

“I am not joking”, she answered seriously.

“Superior in what? Intelligence? Creativity? Moral worth?”

“No, of course not. In spiritual or intellectual matters the sexes are equal. But man is bigger, stronger, faster-better able to cope with nature.”

“You mean, at a purely physical level?”

“They physical is not unimportant.” Later, I often heard her reiterate this point.


end quote



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There's that universal, utmost human value in mankind procreating, and then there's the individual: How high in *my* esteem is my having a child (ren), how much will I give up and gain and how well can I (/we) apply myself to the responsibility?

Because the biological process is "automatic"- up until birth - do so many simply 'take it as it comes', mostly doing a good to pretty poor or at times very bad job of subsequent child-raising.

The choice then, which isn't automatic, but requires understanding and forethought, self-appraisal and value-assessment, so, a rational, selfish parent. Who can conceive of a mother bringing another being to life and all that later entails, but doing do so selflessly, without a "self"? How possibly can one ¬give¬ without something to give? (physically, materially, spiritually)

But that is the case for many who rate social status, family and peer approval, etc.,  as tops, i.e., establishing their entry to motherhood in others' eyes - and/or "doing her duty" for community and human continuity. 

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It behooves me, I guess, to get that "Part II" up,  looking at Michelle Fram-Cohen's 'sequel' to Carolyn Ray's defense(s) of 'ward-free' life.

It's messy, like this, since Carolyn didn't start out to justify procreation - pretty much the opposite, actually, and as I noted somewhat  redundant (no-child is the default position) - and Michelle didn't intend to extensively critique her arguments. But anything I say now is a sort of spoiler, and it does get funnier. Well, I make it more complicated, anyway.



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