Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It Selfish for a Gay Couple to Have Kids via Surrogacy?”
My husband and I are gay and are exploring the possibility of having children using an egg donor and a surrogate mother. Sometimes when we mention this in conversation, people ask us, in a chiding tone, Why don’t you adopt? They often then argue that with so many children in need of good homes, it would be ethically superior for us to adopt, instead of spending a small fortune so we can have children to whom we are genetically tied. In addition, there are ethical issues related to paying women for their eggs or paying women to carry our children as surrogates. Are we acting unethically — or at the least selfishly or self-indulgently — in pursuing biological children instead of adopting orphans who could benefit from what (we like to think) would be a good home? David Lat, New York
My response: Am I missing the relevance of being same-sex? Everyone who has kids can adopt.
Am I missing the relevance of paying a donor or surrogate? Are you working with consenting adults?
All this talk of ethical superiority substitutes opinions on abstract philosophical for noticing that you’re considering doing what many others do already and that there is no absolute measure of ethics that everyone can agree with.
Whatever your questions, mainstream society seems to accept donating eggs and surrogate pregnancies.
If people tell you orphans need parents, you could suggest that they adopt them. If they decline, then you might suggest that your reasons are as valid to you as theirs are to them.
If you feel strongly about it, you can adopt orphans too.
The New York Times response:
Anybody who is contemplating having a baby, by whatever means, could be adopting a child instead. If those who chide you include people who have biological children themselves, you might want to point this out. Come to think of it, your friends who don’t have children are also free, if they meet the legal requirements, to adopt. Every child awaiting adoption is someone who could benefit from parental volunteers. There is no good reason to pick on you.
The path you have chosen, it’s true, mixes commerce and reproduction through egg donation and surrogacy. But while acquiring an egg and then working with a surrogate mother are transactions with ethical risks, they can each be conducted in morally permissible ways. The main concerns I would have are avoiding exploitation — so you need to make sure that the donor and the surrogate are acting freely and are fairly compensated — and taking care that your understanding with the surrogate mother is clearly laid out in advance. But any responsible agency that assists you in this should cover these bases.
Wanting a biological connection with your child is pretty normal: We evolved to pass on our genes, after all, even if we’re free to give Mother Nature the side-eye. There are also things you can more likely do for children to whom you’re biologically related — notably, on the organ-donor front. So while it would be terrific if you adopted, it’s no more incumbent on you than it is on any other potential parents.
I’ve worked as an educator and administrator in public schools for over a decade. During this time, I have served as a character witness and written letters on behalf of students who have been arrested. In certain cases, these students have been charged with violent offenses. I often found myself in heated arguments with a loved one over these acts of advocacy, specifically because court proceedings typically take place during the day, which requires me to have someone cover my duties at school. I feel that this advocacy is justified because I am an adult who has invested deeply in the development of the children and knows who they are outside of their offenses. Is it ethical for school staff members to offer their time and efforts to support students charged with violent crimes? Name Withheld
My response: “is justified” and “ethical” are opinions. You’re doing these things, so you consider them justified and ethical. If others disagree, then they disagree.
Many people like the taste of coffee. I don’t. If I say coffee doesn’t taste good, it means I don’t think it tastes good. There is no absolute measure of taste. Likewise, there is no absolute measure of ethics. Even if everyone on the planet agrees on something being ethical, that’s only agreement, not absolute proof. Someone could change their mind. A newborn could develop a different idea. Society might change.
The New York Times response:
You’re presumably talking about helping the courts to understand the social and educational contexts of students accused of crimes. You’re permitted to testify when the courts find this information relevant in deciding what to do with young offenders. In doing so, you’re helping the courts make what are often very difficult decisions. As long as your advocacy is truthful, it can be a valuable contribution. Asking colleagues to cover for you when you’re doing a public service would seem entirely acceptable; they have good reason to support what you’re doing — and because of that, you should be willing to cover for others when they do the same.
Let me address an issue you haven’t raised: The fact that a student on whose behalf you speak could receive a lighter sentence may upset his or her victims or their families. If the court is doing its job properly, however, the sentence is lighter only because its decision would have otherwise been based on a less complete picture. There is, of course, a question of fairness here, because many young offenders don’t have the advantage of a teacher willing to speak up for them. But you wouldn’t contribute to the overall justice of the situation by denying helpful information in one case on the grounds that it’s unavailable in many others. If you want to help with that problem, you might try to persuade your union to develop ethical guidelines for conducting this form of advocacy.
I am the director of a student’s research for his master’s degree and his eventual thesis. When I accepted him as a student, I was impressed by his intelligence, but I have come to know him as a conniving person who easily lies to get his way. He has no problem manipulating people who don’t know him, and I have come to dislike him because of the way he uses his intelligence. My question is how to respond to his eventual requests for recommendations. He hasn´t written his thesis yet and busies himself with many other activities, but I know that he will eventually produce a document. I do not want to give this individual a good recommendation. Denying him will probably create an enemy for life, and that can be a difficulty given the culture of the South American country where I live. What should I do or say to him when it comes time to respond to his request? Do I have some obligation to recommend him, looking for any good points I can speak to? Name Withheld, Bogotá, Colombia
My response: Talk to him about it. If you don’t know how to make that conversation productive, improve your social skills. Your approach of reinforcing your feelings of superiority combined with a passive aggressive appeal to authority doesn’t seem that productive.
Your questions suggest you haven’t thought of many approaches and you seem to want to passively wait for his request. You can act actively instead of reactively. Instead of asking if you have obligations, you can create more options.
Periodically I read about people who hated each other reconciling and forming mutually rewarding relationships.
They’re human like you. You can learn from them when you aren’t dwelling in abstract concepts of obligation.
The New York Times response:
Here in the United States, you’re certainly free to tell a student you won’t write a recommendation for him, or to say that you don’t think a recommendation from you would be helpful if you did. Indeed, if you’re sure that it will be unhelpful, I think you have a duty to say so. But I don’t know what the conventions are in your country; you seem to be worried that this sort of frankness might create a dangerous enemy. Maybe you have reason to doubt that your recommendation would be kept in confidence.
That may justify care and caution; it doesn’t justify mendacity. You should write a letter that your student could see without feeling you betrayed him and that you could write without feeling you betrayed yourself. Accurately describe his intellectual skills and achievements. But you don’t need to say anything at all about his character. Readers will surely make their own inferences; they know that what you don’t say is just as important as what you do. If it’s conventional where you live to say something positive about a person’s character, your silence can be expected to prompt a negative inference. Even if it doesn’t, you won’t have said anything to support a positive inference.
Here’s a test you might put to yourself: Suppose someone employs your student after reading your recommendation and then discovers the faults you describe. The employer rereads your letter. Will he or she have cause to feel misled?
Once a week, I volunteer at a nonprofit organization, answering a distress line. As a token of its appreciation, the organization provides volunteers with two subway tickets for each day they volunteer. I do not use these tickets because I get to the organization by walking. Instead, I use the tickets to get to another volunteer job that is farther away and that does not provide volunteers with subway tickets. Am I obliged to use the tickets for their implicit purpose of getting me to and from the volunteer job? Name Withheld
My response: What is wrong with our educational system that it graduates people unable to interact in the most basic ways with people around them? Or whatever educational system this person emerged from?
I’ve written at length, for example in “Another problem with traditional education: Employers are disappointed by traditionally educated students,” about how lectures and just teaching facts doesn’t help people learn their values or how to act on them.
This person’s question illustrates a big failure of our educational system, in my opinion. It also reinforces in me why I created my online course to give people experiences to raise awareness of their values, what values are, what emotions are, how to interact with others, how to take responsibility for their behavior, and so on.
I suspect that our educational system, instead of having this person struggle with their decisions, values, and interactions with others, told them what to do, what was important, how to interact with others, and so on so much that they emerged from it believing others had to resolve even the most basic questions about interactions with others.
Then again, this person may not have graduated yet. They may be in school. If so, ask an adult.
The New York Times response:
If someone gives you a benefit to be used for a particular purpose, you owe it to that person to ask if you can use it for another. Suppose you’re in college, and your rich uncle gives you money to pay for the expensive new textbooks your syllabus requires. Instead, you buy cheap used editions and put the rest of the money to another use. Maybe you’re buying booze. Maybe you’re donating to the Betty Ford Center. Either way, this isn’t what your uncle had in mind; you’ve broken an implicit agreement.
So ask a responsible person at the organization that gives you the subway tickets. I doubt your conduct will cause concern; you may well be told that the tickets are for the organization’s volunteers to use as they please. All the same: Ask. (And by the way, thanks for doing all this volunteer work!)
Read my weekly newsletter
Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.