Do what your parents say?

Should you feel compelled to pay any heed to what your parents want in your adult choices? I used to say a definite ‘no’. My mother said I should do whatever I liked, and I vowed to ignore her. From a preference utilitarian perspective, I guess that virtually all aspects of a person’s lifestyle make much more difference to a given person than to their parents. If you feel a sense of obligation in return for your parents giving you life, why? You made no agreement, your parents took their chances in full knowledge you might grow up to be anyone.

However what if fewer parents do take their chances with a greater risk of children being less satisfactory to them? The biggest effect of taking your parents’ preferences into account more could be via increasing the perception that children are worth having to other parents. It may be a small effect, but the value of life is high.

I’m not sure how much of a difference expected agreeableness of childen makes to people’s choices to have them. At first it may seem negligible. Most people seem to like their children a lot regardless of what they do. However if a person were guaranteed that their child would grow up to be exactly the opposite of what they admire, I would be surprised if there were no effect, so I must expect some gradient. I haven’t seen any data on this except my mother’s (joking?) claim that she would’ve aborted me had she thought I would be an economist. I’m not about to give up economics, but I do visit sometimes, and I painted the new living room and helped with my grandmother’s gardening since getting here this time. See how great descendent are? I would be interested if anyone has better data.

16 responses to “Do what your parents say?

  1. The only thing that I’ve noticed (strictly anecdotal evidence, though) that makes parents happy or unhappy about their adult children is whether those children maintain a relationship with the parents.

    It seems completely irrelevant whether adult children do what their parents hoped they would do, whether they ask for or follow their parents advice, whether the parents approve the choices children make for themselves.

    The one and only thing that is important is the weekly phone call, the yearly visit, an email every now and then, a postcard, etc.. Sincere interest in maintaining the connection to parents’ life – however infrequent are the actual deeds – counts for a lot more than being exactly what and who parents wanted their children to be back when they had those children, or what they want now.

  2. Jane is right, it is cheaper for you to contact your parents regularly than to change your lifestyle. And remember the general rule of all relationship questions: it is all about *them*. What your parents most want is for you to admire and respect *them.* Your regular contact is only one signal of that – you can also signal it in other cheaper ways. Sure following in your parents profession might signal you think their profession valuable, but you can probably signal that in other ways lots cheaper if you don’t actually want to do their profession.

  3. I had better speak up against this notion that we should want more births because “the value of life is high”. The creation of a human life is a radical and completely unnecessary gamble taken on behalf of someone else. If a person cares about life and wishes to affirm it, they should focus on those who are already living.

    • ‘Radical’ – what do you mean?
      ‘Completely unnecessary’ – well I wouldn’t go around promoting necessary things.
      ‘Gamble’ – is there something wrong with that?
      ‘On behalf of someone else’ – so what? As that person doesn’t exist, if you don’t make their gambles for them, they are stuck betting on non-existence. While that may be a sure thing, it not a good thing relative to the expected life they could have as far as I can see.
      So what’s the problem?

      • Let’s consider what’s actually at stake in a decision like this. A particular life shall exist, or it shall not exist.

        First I’d like you to imagine an average, ordinary life – whatever that means to you. Visualize, form a representation of, the complete course of a typical life. Presumably this life is good enough for you to say that it is better for it to have existed than for it not to have existed.

        Now imagine that life modified so the person gets halfway through it and then gets burned to death in an accident. Or imagine them lingering on for several weeks in horrible pain in the burns ward before finally dying.

        You would be considered a cruel god, I think, if you were to deliberately choose that possibility as the one to make actual.

        But what if you randomly select which possible lives will be actualized, in such a way that 999 of them are like the ‘average life’, and then every thousandth one consists of a person burned to death? Is this a humane process of creation, is it something to approve? Because of course that is roughly what happens when people choose to have children. Or at least this is an aspect of it.

        • So you are saying that while the average is high enough, we should be quite risk averse and the variance is too high?

          If I recall, you think the fact that people generally don’t want to die isn’t relevant because they are delusional about when they should?

          If I had the choice now to continue living with a 1/1000 chance of the pain of dying of burns for sure I would. In the near certainty of plenty of pain from migraines I don’t want to kill myself. Do you think I should?

          • “So you are saying that while the average is high enough, we should be quite risk averse and the variance is too high?”

            No, I’m just assuming that you think the average life is good enough to be worth creating.

            “If I recall, you think the fact that people generally don’t want to die isn’t relevant because they are delusional about when they should?”

            No, that’s not the issue. It’s rather hard to say precisely how bad things have to get before a person ought to give up on life. What I am objecting to is the creation of life, not the continuation of life.

  4. Continuation: trying to stay alive in a desert. Creation: deliberately stranding someone there.

    • Not analogous, as stranding someone comes with the assumption that had you not, they would be somewhere else. If you mean deliberately stranding someone there when they will alternatively be killed, I still don’t see a morally relevant difference.

      • Analogies don’t have to be exact. The salient feature is that when you create a life, you are choosing to introduce a conscious being into a hazardous environment.

        I wonder if this desert analogy can be expanded into a genuine microcosm for ethical discussion. I’m thinking that the desert contains oases, mirages, and magic wands. You can be happy at an oasis, but it always dries up eventually. A mirage will draw you in across the desert by presenting the appearance of an oasis, but there’s nothing actually there. If you spend long enough in the desert, you die of thirst. And a magic wand allows you to create a new person in the middle of the desert. The ethical question is: when, if ever, should someone in this situation wave the magic wand and create a new person?

        • Relevantly analogous if the alternative to stranding them in the desert is for them to die. In which case I would strand them in the desert on the same occasions that I wouldn’t kill them once they were there. Would you do differently?

          • But the alternative here is not that someone ends up in the desert or dies, it is that they end up in the desert or never existed in the first place.

            Surely there are limits to your belief that possible lives ought to be actual. There must be some awful existences which you would definitely not want to bring into being. So a rational discussion about when it’s right to create life should try to consider where the boundary between lives not worth creating and lives worth creating would lie. And it also has to acknowledge the fact that in the real world, when a human life is created, there are enormous uncertainties about how it’s going to turn out. A rational ethics of life creation, as well as considering the boundary issue (worth creating / not worth creating), has to deal somehow with the uncertain outcome of actual acts of creation.

            • You seem to be skirting my original question, or I am being unclear. How is there a moral difference between not existing when you have never existed, and not existing when you have? Whether it is sandy or not seems beside the point.

              Yes there are limits to my belief that possible lives should be actual, the same ones as there are to my belief that existing lives should continue as far as I know, so there need not be a separate discussion for bringing beings into existence unless you convince me to treat them differently.

              It doesn’t matter how uncertain it is if the average outcome is positive. I think it is.

  5. mitchell porter

    Perhaps we can at least agree that judging life as a whole is a difficult thing. The forms of human experience are diverse and often hidden, people go through life with wildly different values and expectations (different to each other, and often different to themselves over time), and modern times keep introducing new factors. It is also rare for anyone to make a big difference anyway, and difficult to foresee the detailed consequences of taking a stand on an abstract principle. Combined with the near impossibility of even being able to see the big picture accurately (and how can you judge it without seeing it accurately?), this might lead a person to think that it’s not even worth making the effort, that one may as well only think locally as well as acting locally. But I suppose, if a person has the opportunity and the inclination, it’s worth really trying to judge the whole sometimes… just in case you do come up with something.

    I know how I arrived at my antinatalist views. I started out expecting a better future, then I realized I would have to work for it, then I realized that whether or not it ever came, people were meanwhile continuing to create new generations, in a world lying somewhere between imperfect and bad, and maybe I should have an opinion about whether that is a wise or a desirable thing to do. I think it is unwise; that there generally ought to be something better you can do. But the exact way to pose this idea, and to advocate it, is unclear to me. There are many different ways to spin it, different possible emphases, different ways it might enter into combination with other considerations, and each of these variations (from subtly discouraging the act, to strident gloom) may lead to a different outcome when taken seriously as a guide to action.

    I have a lot more doubt than you about the average life being positive, even without taking into consideration the view that various exotic dooms loom over the human race in the near future. There is a lot of unhappiness in the rich world (many of whom aren’t so rich anyway), and a lot of old-fashioned suffering in the poor world. Many people live in hope rather than in happiness, I believe, and many others don’t even live in hope. Most people spend a large fraction of their lives lassoed to a task or a functional role which it pays to perform because it assists or appears to assist the collective survival of human beings, but do not necessarily derive any actual satisfaction from performing the task itself. People have to deal with the physical decline of their bodies as they age, the turmoil of having complex desires, and with living in a world where the worst things that happen get broadcast to everyone. It is a rare thing for the situation to even be set out systematically like this, and still rarer that anyone feels energized having done so. So it’s really not hard to describe the world in ways which emphasize its grimness.

    You want to know why I draw a distinction between continuing a life and creating a life. I find it hard to pin this down. There are some similarities and some big differences. If we compare continuing your life versus creating a new life, one of the big differences is that you won’t personally be living the new life you create, so you don’t get to experience anything that goes wrong, they do. If it is about judging whether some other person’s life is still worth living, versus whether that life as a whole should have been created in the first place, again these decisions take place in very different circumstances. The judgment about whether a life was worth living takes place after it has happened. The judgment about whether a life is worth continuing takes place in the midst of events. The judgment about whether to create a life has to be made before anything happens, and in a position of total ignorance about what will happen. All these differences are so many and so diverse I don’t even know how to sum them up.

    The one place where I admit there’s similarity is with regard to hazard. I have said one of the bad things about creating life, one of the reasons not to do so, is the hazard of being alive (like that made-up 1-in-1000 chance of being burned to death). Yet here I am alive, subject to the same hazard, and I decide to keep living. I think there’s an issue there. Though I also think it does make a moral difference to be deciding for oneself to endure hazard, versus to be deciding for someone else that they will be placed in that situation.

  6. The first comment by Jane seems to be spot on.

    I’ve done a few major things that my parents disapprove of. They’ve given me advice to ‘rectify’ what I have done ‘wrong’ but I have chosen not to accept that advice.

    I guess I’ve got a decent relationship with them due to still in regular contact with them.

    However- I sometimes do feel an obligation to follow their advice. Why? It’s mostly due to an urge not to hurt their feelings. Why should I care? Not sure!

    I don’t think a child’s agreeableness has too much of an effect on the decision to conceive. By the time children disagree on major issues, it’s too late :).
    I guess having a child is more about spreading your genes – and hoping they do the same. Parents’ advice is probably aimed at helping the child be sucessful and able to procreate ( trying to put oneself in parents’ shoes).

    Does he advice from your parents, in one way or another, have anything to do with your percieved future success/status and chance to reproduce?


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