Friday, February 29, 2008

Is "Acceptingness" A Parental Virtue?

I just read two interesting articles by Rosalind McDougall on parental virtue and reproduction. The first is "Parental Virtue: A New Way of Thinking About the Morality of Reproductive Actions" in Bioethics Vol21(4), 2007 and "Acting Parentally: An Argument Against Sex Selection" in Journal of Medical Ethics 31, 2005.

These papers are of particular interest to me as I have argued (here) that a virtue ethics approach to reproduction can view some pre-natal interventions (like genetic enhancement) as not only morally permissible, but as *morally required*. One of the distinctive features of McDougall’s approach, which I think explains the somewhat different conclusions we arrive at, concerns what she calls the virtue of "acceptingness". She argues that it is an intrinsic feature of a child that his or her characteristics will be, to some extent, unpredictable. And "this fact renders acceptingness a parental character trait conducive to the flourishing of the child and thus a parental virtue" (PV, 185).

This is an interesting way to think of parental virtue, and I thought I would offer some of my initial thoughts about it here.

Let’s begin with the claim that it is an intrinsic feature of a child that their characteristics will be, to some extent, unpredictable. I think a lot hinges on the issue of “to some extent”. I am willing to grant this. But at the same time I think the notion of acceptingness threatens the concern for flourishing which, as McDougall acknowledges, is the cornerstone of the virtue ethics account of reproduction.

Take height. The precise height your child will reach in adulthood is somewhat unpredictable. No prenatal genetic test will give you a precise estimate of height. Environmental factors like the diet the child consumes is vital for their height. However, the genes the child inherits do impact the likelihood that the child will, with proper nourishment, fall between a certain min and max height.

Consider now cancer. The precise likelihood that your child will die of cancer before reaching the age 60 is somewhat unpredictable. No prenatal genetic test will give you a precise estimate of all cancer risk. Environmental factors like lifestyle, smoking, stress, etc. are important risk-factors for complex diseases like cancer. However, the genes the child inherits do impact the likelihood that the child will, even with proper nourishment and lifestyle, fall below or above the average risk for developing certain cancers.

Consider now intelligence. The precise IQ your child will attain during adulthood is somewhat unpredictable. No prenatal genetic test will give you a precise estimate of potential for intelligence. Environmental factors like parental care, education, diet, exercise, etc. are vital for a complex phenotype like intelligence. However, the genes the child inherits do impact the likelihood that the child will, even with a loving home, decent education, etc, fall below or above the average IQ.

Okay, so I can appreciate how invoking the notion of acceptingness as a virtue would dissuade parents from pursuing prenatal interventions that promised to deliver predictable traits that simply are not predictable. For example, if a parent believed that there was a gene for artistic expression and wanted a child with that gene so they could become the next Picasso. But it seems to me that such scenarios can be ruled out of hand by simply saying that virtuous parents would not make procreative decisions that were based on bogus assumptions about genetic determinism. So a virtuous parent would not undergo PGD to screen for the artistic embryo, or subject a fetus to a prenatal artistic enhancement, because these things would not be achievable (so virtuous parents are not stupid). Furthermore, planning the specifics of your child’s life like this would compromise a child's right to an open future. And thus a parent compromises a child’s opportunity for flourishing by having some specific lifeplan in mind (e.g. “You are going to be a great artist!"). But I don’t think we need to classify “acceptingness” as a parental virtue in order to get us to that conclusion.

Furthermore, I think the notion of acceptingness threatens genuine parental virtue (and the flourishing of one’s offspring). Part of the difficulty that I have with the notion of “accepting” a child’s characteristics is that it overlooks the central function virtuous parents are to play in their children’s lives: to help their children flourish. A child is not born with a set of “characteristics”, rather these characteristics evolve over the course of a child’s development, through adolescence and continue to develop for the rest of a person’s life. No one ever reaches a stage where this process stops, and one then has a fixed, stagnate list of characteristics.

For example, when one’s child is aged 3 they will have particular characteristics in terms of their intelligence, sociability, etc. But a virtuous parent will hope these characteristics develop, and they will play an active role in ensuring this occurs. So by the time the child reaches age 13 they have a different set of characteristics that they did not (and probably could not) possess at age 3 (reading, writing, riding a bike, etc.). And so on.

So even though a child’s characteristics are unpredictable, a virtuous parent will seek to pursue environmental interventions that reduce the likelihood of certain characteristics becoming part of their child. For example: traits like being stunted, malnourished, illiterate, impaired, etc. And they will seek to increase the likelihood that their children will come to acquire other characteristics. Namely, those that a flourishing agent possesses (e.g. friendship, health, practical reason, etc.).

I guess I remain puzzled as to why the notion of acceptingness would be construed as a trait of a virtuous parent. I can see some of the attraction, in the sense that it shows us why the “control freak” parent acts contrary to virtue. But I don’t think it is hard to see their shortcomings. Such parents impair their child’s opportunity for flourishing by enforcing a particular, detailed future on them- thus stifling a child’s individuality and imagination. But I believe a virtuous parent will play a proactive role in shaping the phenotypes of their children so that they can achieve eudaimonia. And the notion of “acceptingness” seems to run counter to what I take to be integral to virtuous parenting.

Let me conclude then by tying this up with the issue of intervening in the genotype of one’s offspring (e.g. through prenatal therapy or enhancement). Because a child’s opportunity for flourishing will be profoundly impacted by both their genes and their environment, virtuous parents should not rule out of hand the duty to intervene in either. A prenatal intervention to remedy a single-gene disease like CF, or an intervention that seeks to reduce the life-expected risk of cancer, are virtuous actions. Similarly, parents that take reasonable steps to ensure their children are physically active and don’t “hangout with the wrong crowd” are virtuous. In all these cases the parents, assuming the means pursued are not risky, ineffective or too intrusive, are acting virtuous. They are taking reasonable steps to increase the likelihood that their children will live flourishing lives. And this proactive attitude is warranted because these children are *their children*.

While I agree that there is a sense in which acceptingness can be virtuous, I don’t think it makes sense to call it a parental virtue. Primarily because a child is constantly developing and thus there is nothing that a parent can really be said to accept (other than the fact that traits are somewhat unpredictable). Sure virtuous parents will recognize the individuality of their children, even their limitations (e.g. “He’ll never be a soccer star!”), but that doesn’t mean they accept the traits their children happen to have at any given age as things beyond parental concern and involvement. Virtuous parents are a positive, formative influence on their children’s lives.