Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What is Special about Genetic Paternity?

This post is a follow-up to Child Support for Unwanted Children is Wrong.

I am trying to find arguments why it might be morally just to force a genetic father to pay child support, even if he did not wish to conceive a child.

The closest thing to an argument I have come across in support of this proposition is this: What matters is not the rights of the parents, but the best interests of the child. The focus should be on what is best for the child, who after all did not choose to be conceived or born; and it is in the child's interest to have a legal father responsible for her well-being, at least financially.

This argument has some validity; perhaps the focus should be on what is best for the child, and the rights of adults should come second. But we still have no account of why genetic paternity matters.

If we performed a "best interests of the child" analysis when assigning a child a legal father, we would have to look at many things besides genetic paternity. Perhaps the wealthiest candidate should be chosen, or perhaps the one best equipped to be a father. This would very often be someone other than the genetic father of the child.

If consent to sex is all that is required to forcibly assign paternity, why not inquire into which of the mother's former sex partners would be the best father for the child, and assign him the burden? This would be better for the child than always assigning this burden to the genetic father. Better yet, we could force all former sex partners of the mother to share in the financial support of the child, which would certainly be better for the child than having just one (potentially deadbeat) father. But why stop there? Unless we have an account of why consent to sex equals consent to birth, we should really expand the circle of potential fathers to include everyone. (And why limit it to males?) Why should genetic fathers pay child support, and not the public in general or a "father" chosen by the best-interests-of-the-child lottery - regardless of whether he had sex with mom?

In forcibly assigning child support to someone against his will, why does genetic paternity matter at all?


  1. There is an article by David Velleman entitled "The Gift of Life" (Philosophy & Public Affairs 36/3, pp. 245 - 266) that contains some arguments about why genitic paternity matters. But it's not in connection with child support, and even if his arguments go through (which I'm not convinced of), it would not follow from them that child support should be tied to genetic paternity.

    The answer to the (rethorical) question you posed will obviously have to be a (evolutionary?) psychological elaboration of this: because people are ridiculously obsessed with ancestry.

  2. Will get ahold of it. Velleman takes awesomely weird shots at stuff!

    And yes - there's no particular reason we should care about ancestry. It's purely evolved, unconnected with analytical ethics. Just a preference most people seem to have. So why should it be accorded any specialness? This is just another example of the majority imposing their fucked-up preferences on the rest of us, who get no benefit from it.

  3. wow. one can only expose himself to the thoughts of a woman for so long before the inevitable forehead-smacking moment.

    and here it is.

    1. Argument by forehead smacking!

    2. (Actually surprised a misogynist would take issue with this argument, as all the other people making it are Men's Rights dudes...theories?)

    3. Great way to deal with "misogynists": make them pay for the bastard spawn of another man.

      Men not wanting to be saddled with another man's progeny is a pretty basic part of human psychology.

      Of mammal mating strategies, even.

    4. Ah that makes more sense. This is an argument that genetic paternity simpliciter is a stupid reason to give someone responsibility for a child (without consent of the father, which as I explain above, is not implied by sex). It is not an argument that there are other, better reasons for forcing people to support children they didn't want or agree to support. My politics is the fewer kids, the better, and letting those who choose to breed offload the costs on others operates as a subsidy for breeding.

      My point is that those other options are no more absurd than the current system.

      Many people are nature's bitch and think winning at life means reproducing maximally; I am not in favor of letting those people force their values on us. Forcing people to support unwanted children assumes everybody somehow benefits from having genetic children, enough to make it unjust enrichment to have spawn wandering around (spawn they didn't want or consent to) and not pay.

      The linked essay (child support is wrong) might put the argument in context better.

    5. And I use the term "misogynist" descriptively, not pejoratively. I just want everybody to be cranky for the right reasons.

  4. Maybe if the man does not want to have the child, he should just have to pay her the amount it would cost for her to have an abortion. If she decides not to have an abortion, then he should not have to pay any child support. Do you think that would work?

    I would say that if the man goes this route, he should not have any custody rights or any other rights to see the child.

  5. Unprotected coitus implies consent to parenthood. Protected coitus implies consent to the risk of parenthood. With the exception of rape, everyone can refrain from having coitus, especially unprotected coitus.

    Child support is the child's financial compensation for the needs and risks inflicted on them by their parents. The parents predictably and intentionally created those needs - or at least the respective probability that they arise, inherent in the act of coitus, protected or unprotected. The same is, of course, true for sperm donations.

    The child's right to be compensated for the non-consensual imposition of needs and risks by their parents cannot be negated by the father's consent to abortion, since the child cannot agree to those terms. And unless we want the law to have the right to force women to abort (which is politically unrealistic), the only way for the father to prevent the infliction of needs and risks on the child is refraining from having coitus or donating sperm.

    Now this may all sound very harsh because most people have sex on a regular basis, but desire for coitus is not an excuse to deprive other people of their rights - in this case the child's right to be compensated for the non-consensual infliction of the consequences of that decision. Even if it was the mother who lied about taking the pill and then refused abortion, it is still the father's co-responsibility to pay for the consequences of his decision to have sex with that woman. That's a free choice with predictable probabilistic risks for the potential child, and if those risks materialize, it's the father's co-responsibility to compensate the child for them.

  6. If consent to sex is all that is required to forcibly assign paternity, why not inquire into which of the mother's former sex partners would be the best father for the child, and assign him the burden? ... Better yet, we could force all former sex partners of the mother to share in the financial support of the child, which would certainly be better for the child than having just one (potentially deadbeat) father. But why stop there?

    As outlined above, child support is the children's compensation for the needs and risks inflicted on them without consent by their parents. In having coitus, the parents consent to this compensation, or at least the risk of this compensation - the probability of which is influenced by factors such as use of protection, frequency and timing of coitus, total length of the sexual relationship etc. All of these factors are influenced by the mother and, of course, potential father of future children. Therefore it would be unjust to share the obligation for compensation equally among all former sex partners of the mother. For instance, why should a one-night-stand using protection, possibly with a vasectomy, who is not the genetic father, share equal obligation of compensation as the man who had unprotected coitus with the mother for three years and then ends up being the actual biological father? The probability of parenthood is influenced by the choices of the potential parents, therefore the probability that a potential child have needs and risks of suffering is influenced by those choices. By making these choices, the potential fathers consent to the probabilistic risks of child support, i.e. compensation obligation for the harm probabilistically inflicted on their potential children.

    As for deadbeat fathers, social security systems meet some of the children's needs if their parents fail to meet their obligations. This is necessary to prevent harm for the child, but it is actually a blackmail situation, which should be accepted by the public only grudgingly in order to prevent the greater harm for the child. It's like putting someone helpless and non-consenting on top of a mountain and then telling other people they have to rescue them, while you are broke and can't pay for the costs. I actually see this as a behavior worthy of social and legal punishment, but alas, this is also politically unrealistic.

  7. Thank you for the reply. That does make sense, but I understand Sister Y's argument as well that there is an asymmetry between the choice the female has and the male has in regards to bringing the child into existence. Although I guess someone could also argue that if a male is really serious about avoiding having children he can have a vasectomy, or just avoid intercourse all together. I can see both sides of this.

    1. I agree there is an asymmetry due to the fact that forcing an abortion is incompatible with the bodily autonomy of the woman. However, this asymmetry is well-known to the male when he makes his decision to have coitus with that woman anyway.


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