Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Patriarchy, the Gynocracy, and Other Comforting Myths of Struggle

This post was very sweetly nominated for the 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize. I think Karl Smith's Pessimist Manifesto articulates the same philosophical points more generally and better.



Conspiracy theories are comforting. They posit an enemy - "bad guys" who are responsible for the mess we're in - and they give us a group to imagine we're struggling against, allowing us to be the "good guys."

Patriarchy is, of course, real - in the Sudan, in Afghanistan, and for tens of thousands of years of human history. "Males dominate public/political realm" is on D.E. Brown's list of human universals; it characterizes every human society that has ever been studied. Contrary to the wishes of wiccans and the like, there never have been any female-dominated societies.

In the modern West, however, almost all legal barriers to gender equality have been removed - as well as many practical ones (e.g., birth control, abortion, and the information economy). So why aren't all our problem solved? Why do men still commit the vast majority of lethal violence? Why do men still "dominate the public/political realm"? Why aren't there as many female math professors as male math professors? Why are female leading actors still mostly young and beautiful?

The comforting conspiracy theory is that all this is from socialization. Boys and girls are somehow influenced, from a young age, to take on the gender roles that they do. If we "good guys" could only change this socialization, then all the problems attributed to patriarchy would vanish.

But only an evolution denier could hold such a position (and, indeed, many feminists are evolutionary psychology deniers). A species with (historic and present) effective polygyny as high as ours is never going to achieve gender equality in anything but a legal sense.

And gynocracy, of course, is real, too - at least recently, in the West. While there are few situations in which the law prefers men over women, there are many situations in which the law protects (and sometimes "protects") women at the expense of men's interests. Here are a few:

  • By United States federal law, baby girls may not have their genitals mutilated, but baby boys may.

  • The near-universal prohibition on prostitution primarily affects men's interests, because men are nearly the sole consumers of sexual services of both male and female prostitutes (fantasies like the television show Hung notwithstanding). A male who is unwilling or unable to enter a mutual sexual output contract has few legal options for obtaining sexual services - certainly a very important part of human happiness.

  • For a female, consent to sex does not equal consent to have and support a child. For a male, it does. A man may be forced to support a child he did not wish to have merely because he is the genetic parent.

  • On the other hand, for a female, being the genetic parent is enough to establish parental rights to the child. A male must often demonstrate more than genetic paternity - e.g., a relationship with the child or attempt to support the child - in order to have parental rights recognized at law.

The above examples of what might be termed "gynocracy" are wrong, and should be rectified. But will all the problems between men and women disappear if only we get the right legal system in place? If it didn't work for women, why would we expect it to work for men? Or for any other oppressed group?

Evil exists. But there is no "enemy" except ourselves. Evolution has created organisms that compete with each other - intrasexually as well as intersexually. Our organism has developed the concepts of "good" and "evil," "fairness and "cheating," that help us live in large groups and compete successfully. But all the "good" and "fairness" in the world does not guarantee human happiness. In fact, it is human suffering that is guaranteed.

Conceiving of problems as struggles between us and our enemies is problematic because it gives false hope - hope that one can "win" the struggle. If only the right people were in charge, we think, things would be alright.

But the hope is a false one. Problems such as those between men and women are deep, systemic, and insoluble. They are part of our nature and will always exist. If we perpetuate our species, we perpetuate the problems. There will never be a time when "it was all worth it" - when we can look back on our previous struggles and pat ourselves on the back.

As we perpetuate our species, we do so on the backs of the suffering. And always shall.

On the curious proposition that women are as violent as men in relationships, see also my Demonic Males and Attack Heifers: On the Sex Ratio of Marital Violence.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Your Children Might Be Evil - Even If You're Not

Parents generally have a great deal of expectations regarding their children, and one of the biggest expectations is that the children will be similar to the parents: similarly intelligent, happy, attractive, etc.

Parents also expect that their children will grow up to be good people; it's all about how you raise them, right?

Not necessarily.

A New York Times article by Richard Friedman, "Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds," describes the nightmare of raising kids who are just morally bad people - even if the parents, and the parents' other children, are fine.
. . . there is little, if anything, in peer-reviewed journals about the paradox of good parents with toxic children.

Another patient told me about his son, now 35, who despite his many advantages was short-tempered and rude to his parents — refusing to return their phone calls and e-mail, even when his mother was gravely ill.

"We have racked our brains trying to figure why our son treats us this way," he told me. "We don’t know what we did to deserve this."

Apparently very little, as far as I could tell.

Very little . . . except force him out of the womb and into the world, necessarily against his will.

Parents make the choice to reproduce, and deserve what they get. Problem is, the children - bad people or not - do not.

Friedman concludes:

For better or worse, parents have limited power to influence their children. That is why they should not be so fast to take all the blame — or credit — for everything that their children become.

I think parents are very much to blame for the suffering of their children - and for the suffering their children cause others. Denying responsibility for making the very serious decision to reproduce is incredibly immature.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Life Is Addictive

An advertising designer is working on a campaign for a cigarette company.

Designer: Maybe we shouldn't do this campaign. It's clearly geared to lure nonsmokers into trying cigarettes. I've smoked for ten years, and I wish I'd never started. I smell like an ash tray and I can't walk up a flight of stairs without wheezing. Maybe we should bid on an anti-smoking PSA campaign instead.

Boss: You're a hypocrite. If you really thought smoking was so bad, you'd quit. Obviously, you think smoking is great. Now go out there and convince more people to start!

Makes perfect sense to me.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Parental Parasitism

How parents use their children - and use their children to use society.



The similarities between a fetus and a parasite are striking enough that the metaphor is fairly common. (See, for example, Adrienne Zurub's The Parasitic Nature of Pregnancy.)

However, as horrifying as the reality of pregnancy can be, it is much more disturbing to ponder the extent to which parents act parasitically with regard to their children.

Babies as a Retirement Plan

One of the most common reasons people give for having children is to have someone to take care of them in their old age. There are really two important questions here: first, is it realistic? And second, is it fair?

The dream that most parents assume will come true for their children is tri-fold:

  1. The parents will have the financial means to support the child without relying on public assistance.
  2. Once raised, the child will support himself for his lifetime without relying on his parents or public assistance.
  3. The child will be financially successful and altruistic enough to voluntarily support the parents in the parents' old age.

The first assumption is far from guaranteed. The second is shaky. And the third is downright hilarious.

Your Children Won't Take Care of You

Raising children is expensive. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that the average cost of rearing a child, adjusted for 2009 dollars - not counting college - is $160,410 for the lowest income families (less than $56,670 annually), $222,360 for middle-income ($56,670 to $98,120 annual income) and $369,360 for the highest earners (over $98,120 annually). That's far in excess of the 2009 average retirement savings for the 55-64 age group of $69,127. If parents really are concerned with how they will live in their old age, wouldn't they be better advised to avoid reproducing and stash those hundreds of thousands in their retirement funds? It's certainly a much more secure investment. An "investment" in children often has a negative return, as I will explain below.

In addition, a 2009 Pew survey found that 11% of people aged 25-34 had moved back in with a parent because of the recession. Far from supporting their parents, an enormous proportion of adults end up relying on their parents far past the age of majority.

Another problem: those children who are going to happily support you in your old age are probably going to have children of their own. You will be competing with your grandchildren for your children's resources - and who do you think is going to win?

Even breeding advocate Bryan Caplan recognizes that children don't feel the same solicitude toward their parents that parents feel toward their children:

An old saying tells us that "One parent can care for five children, but five children cannot care for one parent." It could happen to you.

There are strong evolutionary biological reasons why this should be so. From the perspective of inclusive fitness, an adult child is much more valuable to a parent than a parent is to an adult child. I quote Daly & Wilson's Homicide (pages 99-100) at length on this point:

Parent and child are equally related to each other, but it does not follow that each should have evolved to be equally concerned for the other's welfare . . . . [A] parent's valuation of an offspring is theoretically expected to increase over time, at least until the latter's maturity. The fact that reproductive value varies over time means that mutual valuations between individuals are similarly unstable. From A's point of view, B's value as a potential vehicle of A's fitness is the product of B's relatedness (r) to A times B's reproductive value (RV), i.e. (rAB × RVB). From B's perspective, A's value is the product of the same coefficient of relatedness times A's reproductive value (rAB × RVA). If A's reproductive value exceeds B's, and the two are close kin, it follows that B may be more willing to incur costs - risk to own life, for example - on behalf of A than vice versa . . . .

By virtue of greater reproductive value, an offspring will typically be more valuable to its aging parent than vice versa . . . . [Such] interindividual valuations constitute one determinant of the probability that dangerous tactics will be employed when two people find themselves in conflict. In particular we would expect the individual less valued to be more at risk. An obvious prediction, then, is that offspring will kill their parents more often than the reverse. However, we must immediately exclude young children from this proposition, mainly because their relative defenselessness makes them much more likely to be victims than offenders regardless of any relationship with the adult involved, and also because the parent's reproductive value may well still exceed the child's at this stage.

In fact, between adults, killings of parents by offspring are vastly more common than the reverse. In a sample of Canadian homicides from 1974 to 1983, 91 adult sons killed their fathers and 45 killed their mothers; only 20 fathers killed their sons, and only one mother killed her adult son. Seven daughters killed their fathers and twelve killed their mothers; just five fathers killed their daughters, and just three mothers killed their adult daughters.

Your children will probably not murder you, but the data illustrate the degree to which children are more valuable to parents than parents are to children. They won't kill you, but they probably won't exhibit inordinate amounts of filial piety in the form of voluntary cash transfers, either.

Children are People, Not Investments

But even though having children is a poor financial decision, it is also unfair to expect children to financially support their parents. Parents and children do not properly have a relationship of reciprocity, although it is common to suggest that they should. The title of an article in the Daily Mail illustrates this mistaken "reciprocity" view:

Children should be forced to care for parents and grandparents to repay them for 'free' childcare, says lawyer

Why is this completely wrong-headed? Raising children - time, food, toys, diapers, irritation - is a gift to the child, not half of a contract. Parents are properly regarded as volunteers - that is, those who provide a service without a reasonable expectation of compensation. The homeless guy who washes your windshield without your consent is in the same situation - and the guilt you feel if you don't "tip" him does not reflect ethical reality. He did you a favor - perhaps you appreciate it, perhaps you don't - but you certainly did not agree to pay him for it. In order to make it fair to enforce a contract, the law requires that you actually willingly exchange something. You can't give someone a gift and then turn around and expect him to pay for it, hence the legal maxim "equity will not assist the volunteer." That is, equity (fairness) does not require that a volunteer be compensated.

When we expect our children to be our maids, caretakers, and sugar daddies in our old age, we are, in a sense, ordering them to follow a particular life path: one that allows for a great deal of discretionary income and time. What if a child does not want a high-powered, money-making career? What if he or she wants to support himself as a musician, artist, clergy member, or worker for a nonprofit organization? Shouldn't this be the child's choice? It's bad enough to bring a child into our troubled world, necessarily without his consent. It's adding insult to injury to saddle him with the responsibility to support parents who were too lazy to plan for retirement themselves, and preferred to push the responsibility off on him.

Babies as Hostages

Parents expect, by and large, to be able to use their children as caretakers in their old age. But more importantly, parents use their children's helplessness to extort resources from others.

Imagine two people are trapped in a mine with only enough oxygen to keep one of them alive until help arrives. They are both thirty years old; the only difference is that one has small children, and the other has no children. Which one should get the oxygen?

Most people would opt to save the parent. But it is important to realize that the parent has no intrinsically greater claim to life: his children merely have a claim to their provider and caretaker. In this sense, having children is a great deal like taking hostages. Resources are provided to the hostage-taker not because of his own moral claims, but because of the moral claims of his innocent hostages. Unfortunately, this creates an incentive to take hostages. The parent-child relationship allows for a similar parasitism.

In large societies, assistance is provided to children because of their helplessness that also "just happens" to benefit their parents. Welfare, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit are just a few ways that society attempts to transfer wealth to suffering children, but also ends up transferring wealth to parents whose decision to reproduce was irresponsible. Even child support provided by non-custodial parents fits this model: the money is purportedly for the benefit of the helpless child, but it is paid directly to the custodial parent, and improves her welfare as well as that of the child.

How Parents Use Their Children to Parasitize Society

I wish here to analyze a real-life example. On July 11, NPR aired a story about the possible extension of unemployment benefits, and interviewed in detail a woman named Debra Rousey.

Until November 2009, Rousey was a bank manager. She has been unable to find a job since then, and gets $355 a week in unemployment benefits. The text version of the piece characterizes her as "a single mom supporting her 17-year-old son, her 25-year-old daughter and two young grandchildren." But while these folks all live with her, it's misleading to say that she is "supporting" her children and grandchildren. In fact, (1) she is receiving child support from her former husband for her 17-year-old son; and (2) her daughter (who does not work) receives food stamps for her two small children, and the family lives on those. (The audio, but not the print, version of the article contains these details.) She is considering applying for welfare. The story notes that "Rousey was able to pay June's rent with help from her former in-laws, but she still has to come up with money for July. [Emphasis mine.]"

In Rousey's words:

"Twenty years ago, when I was a single mother I was on food stamps and Medicaid," she says. "I feel like I have come so far, making the income I was making, getting the degrees that I got, and to go back to public assistance is like taking three steps backwards."

Rousey, who seems articulate, kind, and well-intentioned, is a poster child for how the three-fold parental ideal described above can go astray. Her situation illustrates how parents use their children's ethical claim on society, and on the other parent, to benefit themselves. If she did not have a minor son, she would not be receiving money from her former husband, and it is unlikely that her "former in-laws" would be helping her out with rent. If her daughter did not have small children, she would not be eligible for food stamps.

This is a reality that few consider when making the decision to reproduce - if, indeed, they conceive of it as a decision at all.

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