Family, Ancestry, and Self: What Is the Moral Significance of Biological Ties?

Haslanger frames this chapter as a response to David Velleman’s claim “that it is morally wrong to bring a child into existence with the intention that the child will not have contact with one or both biological parents.” An alternative formulation of this claim would be: “Other things being equal, children should be raised by their biological parents.” (158)

Although Velleman primarily has in mind those who conceive children using anonymous donor egg or sperm, his argument has implications for those who adopt children who will not be acquainted with their biological parents.

Velleman wants to challenge what he calls “a new ideology of the family” according to which children raised away from their biological parents can still have families “in the only sense that matters, or at least in a sense that is good enough” (159).

Haslanger rejects Velleman’s view, claiming that families lacking biological ties can be just as good as those with them.

Velleman’s argument runs as follows:

P1: Acquaintance with one’s biological relatives is a basic good, because in coming to know and define themselves, most people rely on their acquaintance with people who are like them by virtue of being their biological relatives.

P2: People who adopt or create children by donor conception already know (or should know) that their children will be disadvantaged by the lack of this basic good.

C: It is morally wrong (or problematic) to adopt or create children by donor conception.

In support of P1, Velleman identifies two ways in which biological ties help us come to know and define ourselves:

  1. They provide a special kind of self-knowledge based on “intuitive and unanalyzable resemblances.” (168)
  2. They provide access to a narrative within which our actions have meaning.

Haslanger rejects P1 on multiple grounds. First, even if most people do construct their identities through biological acquaintances, it does not follow that this is a good way to define ourselves, or the only good way. She cites empirical evidence that adopted children are able to establish strong personal identities despite their lack of acquaintance with biological relatives.

Second, she questions the claim that biological relatives are essential to self-knowledge. We can learn just as much about ourselves through our encounters with friends, fictional characters, public figures, and custodial families. A focus on similarities to family members can even obscure more important aspects of our identities.

Finally, she argues that since all formulations of personal narratives are speculative, these narratives can just as readily be created independently of biological ties.

Haslanger concludes with a critique of the “natural nuclear family” and bionormativity. She argues that these dominant ideologies are not natural or inevitable, and that, like gender, they may be “implicated in structures and forms of life that are unjust” (180). She concludes that parents have an obligation to provide their children with a route to healthy identity-formation, but that this need not be the dominant route consistent with bionormativity. We may even have a moral obligation to resist the conception of the “natural nuclear family.”

Questions and Comments:

In his defense of biological ties, does Vellener limit himself by focusing on issues of personal identity? Are there other reasons why a child might benefit from being raised by his or her biological parents?

Which definition of “basic good” in figure 5.1 do you think is the most accurate or useful? How much force does Vellener’s argument lose if an acquaintance with one’s biological ties cannot be considered a “basic good?”

Can this debate be settled independently of biology, psychology, anthropology, and social science? Might these issues of healthy human development be fully empirical, as Haslanger suggests on page 164?

Finally, I had a WTF moment on page 179, where Haslanger suggests that the centrality of mother-child relations might be explained by the need of infants to breast-feed. Surely the bond between mother and child is established throughout the entire process of conception, gestation, and delivery, and rests on more than mere convenience!

15 thoughts on “Family, Ancestry, and Self: What Is the Moral Significance of Biological Ties?

  1. Timothy Patricia

    In accordance with everyone commenting above, I take issue with Velleman’s claims about the moral impermissibility of raising a child that is not biologically related to those “parents” raising the child.

    It seems pretty clear to me that by employing a common-sense morality, one can easily claim that the moral basis of the parenting lies in the well-being of the child. Put bluntly, if the child is being raised in a healthy, loving, secure environment, who cares who his or her biological parents are! There are plenty of awful parents raising their biological kids out there, and, by the same token, there exist tons of amazing, super-parents raising happy, well-adjusted children to whom they are not biologically related. Personally, addressing Velleman’s argument doesn’t seem like the most efficient usage of Haslanger’s time.

    However, invoking the Abbot and Babbot example — do we think that practically all things equal, a child has a better chance at achieving a fulfilling, full personal identity by being raised by their biological parents (Abbots), rather than by an essentially carbon copy family unit with nonbiological parents? I think not. Again, I think the well-being of the child is all that truly matters in the end.

  2. Jack George

    As Haslanger posits on p.160, Velleman’s initial “all things being equal” statement is fairly plausible.

    The problem is that the all things being equal scenario, namely of the abbots and the babbots is an illusion. All things won’t be equal, so it is very difficult to ascertain how important the ‘good’ of biology is relative to ‘safety’ or ‘health’. Indeed as Griffin and Jingyi have suggested biology might often be worth over-looking.

    Velleman’s most interesting point seems to me that having meaningful contact with one’s biological progenitors will leave a child truncated from a social good: the one of being able to mirror ones own identity in the ‘narratives’ of another who is ‘similar’. Velleman on 172 acknowledges that the “construction of identity isn’t primarily a matter of finding the fact’s about one’s past. It is a process of telling a story.”

    Here, he admits that part of the biological ‘good’ is a construct and not a reality. Yet, he still deems it important if not necessary. This raises a fascinating proposition, can some social constructs though possibly nefarious, be necessary?

    Here is an interesting recent piece on the topic of adoption:

  3. Jeremy Read

    I fully agree with what you all have said about the need to “resist the Naturalized Nuclear Family” and the seeming lack of evidence for the exclusive social “goodness” to be gained from such an arrangement. I wonder whether there might be a case for conceiving of the biological nuclear family (idealized) as a luxury, basic and perhaps even essential good. On Haslanger’s graphic (which Leo also pointed to), Luxury goods are conceived as those things which, if possible, it would be good to provide, but which have no bearing on one’s a “good” or a “minimally decent” life. Basic goods are necessary for a meaningful life, and essential good are necessary for a minimally decent life.

    It seems that there are biomedical implications to knowledge of one’s immediate genetic kin. Given current and likely future developments in medicine, advance warning based on family genetics and access to closely related genetic material can make a significant difference in one’s quality of life. Examples: breast cancer and heart disease screening, types of tissue transplants or other donor situations, awareness of addictive or depressive tendencies.
    Given the severity of these examples, wouldn’t knowledge of or access to immediate genetic kin be very important in order for some individuals to meet the requirements for even a minimally decent life?

  4. Kyle Kysela

    I am inclined to agree with Jingyi’s comment—that Vellemen’s argument sounds like it might imply eugenics, or similar undesirable value systems. In fact, I think we should take Leo’s suggestion that “we may even have a moral obligation to resist the conception of the “natural nuclear family” and run with it. I have thought, for some time now, that living a secular, democratic society like the one we aspire to requires a disavowal of biological ties. Even implying that the biological nuclear family is more natural or superior to the family created by choice helps to prop up the kinds of value systems that lead to racial violence, blood revenge, or even genocide. In the good American tradition, we like to think that the bonds we’ve forged by choice are more powerful than those of blood. There is some sort of balance to be found between racist ideologies of biological fealty or purity and the sort of collectivized secular society that Lois Lowry pictures in her novel The Giver, wherein each child is taken from its biological parents at birth and assigned to new parents in a lottery system.

    In order to achieve social justice, must we confound our biological ties, just as Haraway implores us to blur the lines of gender in her “Cyborg Manifesto”? For that matter, does adoption represent a progressive transgression of the (possibly oppressive) social category of the nuclear family?

    1. Daniel Ramirez

      I agree with everything that’s been said so far, but, just to make things interesting, might we be putting words in Velleman’s mouth? If we take the term “basic good” to refer to something that is true in every case then obviously Velleman doesn’t have much of an argument. Can we take the term “basic good” at face value and still be good social oncologists? My roommate is an adopted Korean kid who’s never met his real parents. He doesn’t speak Korean, he’s never gone to Korea, doesn’t have any close Korean friends, but we have Korean flag hung up in our room. Despite the little he knows about Korean culture, he sees himself living out his adult life in Korea.
      My roommate feels pretty troubled about the fact that his parents can’t relate to the discrimination he sometimes experiences as an Asian man living outside an Asian country. I’ve met his parents; their great people who were happy to talk about how extensive and thorough adoptions organizations are. After seeing what I’ve seen (which might not be much) I can’t help but think that Velleman is on to something.
      “P1: Acquaintance with one’s biological relatives is a basic good, because in coming to know and define themselves, most people rely on their acquaintance with people who are like them by virtue of being their biological relatives.”
      I draw meaning from my family and my siblings everyday. Would Velleman be satisfied with sibling adoptions? Should the infant’s country of origin change the way we feel about whether or not it’s okay to adopt the kid?

  5. Griffin Jones

    I strongly agree with Haslanger’s critique of Velleman’s P1 on the grounds that aquaintance with biological relatives is not necessarily a basic good or the only good way for one to construct their identity. Obviously many parents or biological relatives might create a damaging environment from which a child would be more well protected and enabled to succeed if they were removed and cared for by someone else. As Jingyi noted in her comment the language used in addressing the normative nuclear family for seems to suggest that the nuclear family is good by default. As I initially stated, this doesn’t seem true to me. Not only can biological relatives prove to be a great hindrance or danger to a child, but the normative nuclear family form of a husband and wife living together with children, which is often naturally associated with the ideal form of a healthy loving family, might itself be harmful to those raised within such a system. This family form, I think can be convincingly argued, is built on the concepts of a breadwinning husband and a care-taking mother. It is a family form strongly dependent on gender roles and behavioral norms. Haslanger suggests we might have a moral obligation to resist the construction of the natural nuclear family, and I am inclined to agree. Does the natural nuclear family have its foundations in patriarchal standards? How might we constructively resist the construction of the natural nuclear family – if at all?

  6. Gioia Pappalardo

    Haslanger made an interesting point that “even if in most societies children know of their genitor/genitrix… it doesn’t follow that they have ongoing contact with them” (178). To push this further, even if a child is living with parents, that doesn’t entail that those parents actually spend time with them. Would Velleman consider it equally as bad if, for example, a parent travels or works abroad, completely ignores the child, or relies heavily on a nanny? Would he say that people who have lifestyles like that just should not have children? For much of history, this was not exactly uncommon, especially with fathers and young children. Knowing who the parent is doesn’t seem to do the child much good unless they spend positive, quality time with the child.

    1. Gioia Pappalardo

      also, what about having a child if the parents are aware that one/both of them are gong to die before the child is an adult (they’re sick, or perhaps older)?

  7. Jingyi Wu

    1. I think Velleman’s argument sounds like the Eugenic argument, by which deformed babies are not allowed to be born because they will not enjoy being normal human beings on this planet. The core is that we have the authority to decide what is good for a baby and also what is normal.

    2. In Leo’s paper,
    “Haslanger rejects Velleman’s view, claiming that families lacking biological ties can be just as good as those with them.”
    this “just as good as” looks a bit worrisome to me. Does this imply that families with biological ties are good by default? What if families with biological ties have higher rate of violence than families without them? Shall we be a little bit more radical and claim that families without biological ties are not comparable to those with them, yet the former families too have a reason to exist?

  8. Max Riddle

    Haslanger states that lying to a child about its adoptive status is wrong, but if the child’s sense of self identity is made healthier by their belief that their adoptive parents are their biological parents, then why is this necessarily the case? Haslanger mentions that adopted children are members of a stigmatized group, but if these children can answer the questions that the nuclear family schema asks with “false” information then would they be stigmatized? If the pressure of the social schema of the nuclear family are the most problematic part of a adoptive child’s identity formation then why couldn’t “tricking” the schema work? Does this same moral judgement apply to children who are the product of gamete donation?

    Additionally, how do we make the moral judgement that an adopted child has the right to know its biological parents?

  9. Mohamed Houtti

    Also, as a reply to your last question, Leo (the WTF moment on page 179):

    I also kind of WTF’d at that part. I’m not sure that I understand completely, but I think what Haslanger is trying to do here is provide a reason for the centrality of the mother-child bond that goes beyond the biological. To say that a mother forms a bond with her child through the process of conception, gestation, and delivery, is really to say nothing more than that a mother forms a bond with her child because of their biological connection. I think Haslanger wants to claim that the ubiquitous paradigm of mothers caring for their own biological children has nothing to do with biology, but simply evolved out of (as you would say) mere convenience. I am not sure I agree with her. Actually, I don’t agree with her at all, but I’m not entirely sure if she is making such a strong statement or merely speculating.

    1. Gioia Pappalardo

      I agree, that part seemed a bit out of place to me too. While it’s true that there is some aspect of convenience, the act of feeding a child is far more than that. Feeding a child, and responding to their needs in general, creates a psychological ‘synchronicity’ between caregiver and child, and plays a huge (though not the only) role in mental development (things like empathy, ability to moderate one’s own emotions/needs, reading body language, & anxiety management). However, maybe what she’s getting at is that today, with artificial bottles and milk, anyone can take that caregiver role, while before those inventions it had to be the mother or another lactating female. And actually, the fact that anyone can take that caregiver role now does somewhat support Haslanger’s argument that biological is not always better. At least, from the articles I’ve read about it, it seems like it’s more the behavior of the caregiver that’s important, not their genetic relation.

  10. Mohamed Houtti

    “People who create children by donor conception already know—or already should know—that their children will be disadvantaged by the lack of a basic good on which most people rely in their pursuit of self-knowledge and identity formation. In coming to know and define themselves, most people rely on their acquaintance with people who are like them by virtue of being their biological relatives (“Family” 364–65).” (161-162)

    “As Velleman points out, it is very difficult to come to know oneself simply by introspection, or by watching oneself in the mirror. The best resource, he proposes, is observation of others who are importantly similar, and the best sources for such similarity are one’s biological family.” (169)

    It seems to me that the sort of needs Velleman describes could just as easily be satisfied by siblings instead of biological parents. A person’s siblings are similar “by virtue of being their biological relatives” and also provide a medium, other than introspection, by which one can observe and understand oneself. Velleman seems to think that only a child’s biological parents can fulfill these needs, but does he offer any reasoning to suggest that parents are somehow more suited to this than other close biological relatives?

    1. Jingyi Wu

      Although I don’t agree with Velleman, I think that Velleman would reply to your questions as following: 1. young child would look at grown-ups who look like them as role models. 2. unless it’s in the case of twins, the oldest sibling does undergo a period of time with no one to look up to.
      But I do wonder how much of Velleman’s argument would change in a racially homogeneous society like Japan or Eastern China, where adopted children would normally pass as biological children by appearance. What would be the “basic good” for bionormativity then? The convenience to donate blood when a family member is in danger?

Leave a Reply