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Babies vs Sophisters, Economists, and Calculators
Your thoughts on how we justify the worth of a child
Welcome to a recent influx of new readers! Today, I’m sharing a roundup of your comments about the radical vulnerability of babies, and what it suggests about how we should respond to weakness and need in adults. Other Feminisms has essays from me on Mondays, and reader roundups on Thursdays.
Last week, I shared a little from The Meaning of Birth, a dialogue between a Catholic priest and an atheist on what we can learn from the fact everyone begins life as a baby, utterly dependent on others.
Martha had a fruitful back and forth in the comments, which ended with this thought:
I think something you and I might both be getting at is that saying, “helping babies/families is good because...” creates a weird immoral twist in and of itself. People aren't worth helping “because” of some good they could do us or someone else—people are worth helping because they are people.
That’s as may be, but it’s a terrible argument for anyone who is actually religious to make. The reason to belong to a church is because the church’s claims are true. If that’s not the core reason, you can always be displaced by the Rotary club, or a friendly cult, or anything else that turns out to do a better job satisfying these criteria.
Similarly, we can’t credibly argue that babies are worthwhile because of their actuarial impact on social security or because of the effect they have on their parents’ Likert-scale happiness ratings. If babies aren’t worthwhile in themselves, their worth can always be displaced by a new taxing scheme or some other source of happiness.
I’ve always liked Helen Andrews’s “Bloodless Moralism” on this point:
I came across this startling sentence in a platform brochure about mental health policy: “The financial cost to Australia of mental illness in young people aged 12 to 25 was $10.6 billion in 2009, approximately 70 percent of which is productivity lost due to lower employment, absenteeism, and premature death.” There are only two things to be said about that $10.6 billion figure: as an attempt at numerical accuracy, it is useless; as an attempt to demonstrate that youth mental illness is a bad thing, it is superfluous.
Vikki offered a response to my question “What do you make of the claim that the unearned love a baby receives is our bulwark against despair?”
One thought is it's great because the scriptures tell us that we "bring nothing to the table" but our own need in our relationship with God. Nothing but our own sins—a cost to him. A newborn is an approximation of that—a human who is utterly unable to give us anything but need. (and those needs often trouble us greatly.) Yet often we are happy to do something for them.
Haley chimed in:
Cultural and economic issues aside, that's why (on average) Christians have more children. We can make wise choices about family, but in the end we aren't after the most seamless, streamlined, most controlled life there is. We don't despair of life. It's worth inviting children into, because they are signs of hope and the goodness of the life we've been gifted.
I think Haley is right here. Christians have room to be imprudent by worldly measures, because we believe that we aren’t limited to only our own resources and efforts. I’ve heard a number of stories of mendicant orders who said “Yes” to a need of their community without the financial means to support it, and then received an unsolicited donation for exactly the amount needed.
Understandably, parents don’t take the same risks, because they’re not just putting themselves on the line. But being a parent requires a certain level of comfort with risk (I write, eyeing my daughter’s learning tower warily).
Another piece I frequently return to is Tristyn Bloom’s “The Surprising Ingredient To Creating A Pro-Life Culture.” Her essay was originally a talk given at the Vita et Veritas conference, and fits naturally alongside The Meaning of Birth.
We have this enslavement to our own ideas of respectability, our own ideas of our life plan, our commitments, our existing duties such that something as radically changing as a new life doesn’t fit in with those existing duties. To accept that life would be the irresponsible choice […]
These little apocalypses in our lives, whether they come in the form of an unplanned pregnancy or some other risk that we are called to take in the course of our lives, reveal the insignificance of all these other forces that we are shielding ourselves with—their fragility, their utter shallow importance in the grand scheme of things—but also the incredible, radical, bigness of life all around us.
It’s not bad to be prudent, to make plans, etc. But we need to hold them loosely, both because we can’t guarantee their success, and because we don’t want them to become a wall, shutting out the in-breaking of grace and the blessing we could receive from people we wouldn’t choose.