Biological Malleability and the Majesty of Parental Trust

At birth, human beings are among the most vulnerable of living creatures. We enter the world without any idea whatsoever who we are. And it is equally the case that have no view at all with respect to how to live. We do not know what we need; and we do not know what we should avoid. There is a straightforward sense in which the biological configuration of human beings at birth is utterly vapid. It is only through social interaction that each and every human being comes to have a sense of who she or his is. And the feral child (namely, a child who has very little experience with a human being) is a most poignant indication of the truth of the preceding sentence.

To be sure, it is appropriate to hold that there are very few feral children. But the fact that feral children are very rare does not in any way whatsoever defeat the extraordinary importance of parental love, since it is a character feature of the feral child that the child has no sense of who she or her is. Indeed, the feral child does not have the psychological development that enables the feral child to grasp the ever so profound and sublime significance between being a human being and being an animal.
Alas, a most poignant truth is that an individual’s grasp that she or he is a human being does not at all entail that the individual also has a secure sense of moral worth.

Without a doubt, children who are raised by (human) parents clearly grasp the difference between being a human being and being a non-human being. Yet, profoundly grasping that difference does not at all entail having a deep and secure sense of moral worth. And it is with regard to having a deep and secure sense of moral worth that the way in which (human) parents raise their children makes all the difference in the world. More precisely, sustained parental love makes all the difference in the world.
With regard to the claims of the preceding paragraph, there is the reality that some children experience a phenomenal measure of moral luck. For instance, while a child’s actual parents may be quite unsatisfactory in their displaying parental love to a given child of theirs, it may turn out that the child experience truly phenomenal and profound affirmation from a different member of the family, such as an uncle or an aunt or a grandparent.

From an evolutionary perspective, the point of the preceding paragraph is absolutely fascinating. For it is very, very clear that it is the affirmation that counts the most—and not that the affirmation is provided by the biological parents. That is why an adopted child can flourish mightily if the child is wonderfully raised by the adults who marvelously love that child although it is as obvious as the night follows the day that child is not a biological offspring of the parents who are raising her or him.
If one believes in evolution, then the fact that human beings are sufficiently malleable that what matters most is that they are marvelously valued during their upbringing—and not that the valuing has to come from the biological parents—is surely a most fascinating aspect of the evolutionary configuration of human beings. Indeed, there is very profound respect in which profound abiding affirmation trumps biological ties. Alas, from the standpoint of human survival at its very best, there can be no doubt about it: Genuine affirmation mightily affirmation trumps biological ties as such.
Alas, one of the most significant forms of moral luck (to use a term that was introduced by the Bernard Williams (1929-2003) is precisely the fact that human beings are biologically configured to be ever so affirmed by majestic and sustained parental love even though such love does not come from the biological parents. That reality is a most majestic moral reality with respect to the biological configuration of human beings.

If a child has wonderful parents who are ever so affirming in just the right ways, then that child is the beneficiary of considerable moral luck. And if a child has parents who are hardly affirming of the child, but there is a family member or even a neighbor who is ever so affirming of the child as she or he grows up, then that child is also the beneficiary of considerable moral luck.
One of the ever so sublime truth that I have learnt from teaching is that there are numerous cases of the second category—far more than I had ever supposed. Alas, the most profound truth that I have come to appreciate is that what matters most is that human beings grow up the beneficiary of sustained love from a wonderful adult and it is not at all necessary that the sustained love flows from the child’s biological parents. This psychological malleability on the part of human beings is none other than a most majestic moral gift.

© 2016 Laurence Thomas

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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One Response to Biological Malleability and the Majesty of Parental Trust

  1. Jeff Valentine says:

    I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for this post. I read it as I was holding my newborn (and early) son, Everett. I was just finishing telling him that he might not have two nickels to rub together to try to start a fire, but he’s got two parents who love him, and that’s a lot more than a lot of babies have.

    Thanks so much for what you do!

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