David Velleman on Family History

by Harry on September 5, 2006

David Velleman has a riveting paper on his website called Family History (via an independently interesting post about the influence of genes on identity formation). The paper is an extended argument for the wrongness of having a child by an anonymous donor (including by an anonymous surrogate mothers). The argument goes something like this (sorry David, I’m trying to be terse): children have an extremely powerful interest in knowing who their genetic forebears were, because that knowledge plays a vital role in their identity formation (not, interestingly, because it plays the more mundane role of giving you information about your probabilities with respect to health prospects, etc). People who deliberately have children via anonymous donors thus deliberately have children for whom a vital interest cannot be met. So they do a wrong. He does not explicitly call for the prohibition of anonymous donation of various kinds (and rightly not; establishing that some behaviour is wrong falls short of establishing that it is appropriate to prohibit it), and it is not clear what the public policy consequences are of his argument. He dispatches various objections rather well – you should read the whole thing. But I’m interested here in the central premise – that having acquaintance with one’s biological forbears plays a vital role in identity formation and maintenance.

What evidence does Velleman marshall for this claim? It seems to me that he has 2 main reasons for believing it.

First is his own, very nicely told story, of how his own identity and sense of the meaning of his life is shaped by the stories he and his family tell themselves about his great grandparents. His great grandparents fled Russia for London in the late 19th century, and moved, soon after his grandfather’s birth, to the US. His great grandmother was illiterate, as evidenced by her failure to sign her name on various official documents. His sense of who he is derives in part from reflection on them, their actions, and the distance he has come from his grandmother’s illiteracy. Here’s a nice summary:

I’m inclined to think that a knowledge of one’s origins is especially important to identity formation because it is important to the telling of one’s life-story, which necessarily encodes one’s appreciation of meaning in the events of one’s life (375)

My family history provides an even broader context [than my own life] in which large stretches of my life can take on meaning, as the trajectory of my entire education and career takes on meaning in relation to the story of my ancestors…

Adoptees can certainly find meaningful roles for themselves in the stories of their adoptive families. Even so, they seem to have the sense of not knowing important stories about themselves , and of therefore missing some meaning implicit in their lives, unless and until they know their biological origins (375-6)

Second, he points out that numerous adoptive children and children conceived via anonymous donation, put a great deal of energy and time into seeking their unknown biological parents. Such knowledge is declared as a right in various human rights documents and seems to be something that many people without it feel they need (see his footnote 1 on p.359)

I think its hard to challenge Velleman’s claim that knowledge of one’s genetic forebears has some role in identity formation. But how important is that role?

His argument for its importance is normative, not empirical, but he does use some empirical data for purposes of suggestion, and one thought of mine was to be curious about how people really experience things. I’m not adopted, I knew all 4 of my grandparents reasonably well, and was very close to one of them; she told me much of the family history on my paternal side. I’m well aware of the maternal side as well – and certainly I tell stories to myself and had them told to me about the meaning of my life. A striking example – when I was (wrongly, by the way) convicted of attacking a police officer during the miners strike in 1985, I was sent a card by my Great Uncle Dewi (whom I do not know well), with a cheque covering the amount of the fine, and a short note saying how proud he was and my great grandfather (whom I never knew) would have been of me. He’d been told of the conviction by my grandmother who, when she heard about it, declared, “Well, that’s what the police have always been like, isn’t it?” and promptly called her brother to engage in some Hyacinth Bucket-like boasting. Would he have sent the same note had I been adopted, and would it have meant the same thing to me? I’m all-but-certain that the answers to those questions are both “yes”, but that could easily be because he and I are both tempted by the ideology of the irrelevance to meaning of blood ties. Velleman’s evidence concerns people for whom learning their biological origins are clearly very important. But he does not give any account of what percentage of adoptees engage in such a search, or how many non-adoptees are profoundly dissatisfied with their own parents’s failures to provide a sense of meaning.

Velleman mentions two aspects to the benefit of knowing who one’s ancestors are. One is that it enables you to fit the story of your life within a particular kind of meaningful narrative, which I’ve discussed. The other is that knowing actual people who resemble you in various ways helps you to makes sense of yourself, to know yourself better, as it were. Reflection on the traits they share with you (and those they don’t) helps you construct your identity. Again, this seems right, but it is only one part of the process of identity formation, and even those who know their genetic parents and other ancestors frequently resort to reflection on the lives and traits of non-family members (and, not infrequently, fictional characters!) in order to construct their identities. Again, my own case: there are few photos of anyone prior to my grandparents, and we have a dispersed family on both sides, so I have not much opportunity to notice family resemblances with extended family members. It seems to me, reflecting on my coming of age for example, that I made (and still do make) a good deal of use of resemblances with and differences from people who were not my genetic relations – I learned a great deal about both who I was and what was possible for me from friends and the parents of friends, for example.

Reflection on one’s own experience is insufficient to establish the real importance of acquaintance with one’s genetic ancestors, but it is inevitable, and hearing other people’s reflections would be very useful. Take that as an invitation. I’m especially interested to hear if there are adoptive children who have no or little interest in their biological parents, and why that it.

Velleman’s deeper project is to criticise what he regards as an ideological view that simply wanting a child is sufficient grounds to be able to have one (he uses “ideological” perjoratively here – a less perjorative term would be “libertarian”); the redefinition of the family to mean “whatever arrangement the adult seeking to procreate has created for the child”. I think he’s right that there are people who hold that view, and that it is wrong, because arrangements vary in how good they are for children, and that we should try to promote arrangements that are better for, over those that are worse for, children. So, we agree on that. A full account of the interests of children will elaborate their physical, cognitive, moral, and emotional developmental interests, and a good family policy (or a family ethos) will aim to promote arrangements that promote those interests. But, without wanting to fall into the fatalism or libertarianism that Velleman rightly rejects, it seems to me that there are numerous such interests, and that not knowing who one’s genetic ancestors will, for most children, be a relatively small defect if their other interests are well met. Remember that many children who are parented by their genetic parents do not have some of their other interests well met at all.

So, I’m sympathetic with the broader project, and I agree that knowing one’s living genetic forebears and who one’s dead genetic forebears were is valuable, but I’m not convinced that it is valuable enough that it is wrong (as opposed to “less than ideal”) deliberately to conceive a child who will lack such knowledge. Regardless, it’s a fascinating paper; the philosophers should read it, and the rest of you should give it a try (not least so you can tell me what you think!)

{ 1 trackback }

Family history « Cyberslacker
09.07.06 at 12:47 am



bob mcmanus 09.05.06 at 7:20 am

Aye, and I can trace one side to Loch Eirne in Roscommon circe 1820, and the other to 1680 New Jersey (although one pretentious family member claims the Mayflower). Peasants and dirt farmers all.

I am utterly indifferent to any and all preceding my grandparents. Ok, 1/64 Potowatami, always fun to claim Native-American blood. I simply don’t get this. Were I to have a President (or axe-murderer) as a distant something-uncle, what has this to do with me?


chris y 09.05.06 at 7:41 am

I am not adoptive, but I have no way of ever knowing anything about my paternal great grandfather or his family and circumstances, because his name simply did not appear on my grandfather’s birth certificate. My grandfather was registered in his mother’s name and was given his step-father’s when she married a different man three years after his birth.

And do we feel downhearted? I do not think we do. My parents did a great job dragging me up, but as far as I can see they made it up as they went along, with no reference to tradition or genetics.


robert the red 09.05.06 at 7:52 am

Even granting the argument in toto, saying “wrong” is too strong, unless one is willing to state that many many other things are more wrong. Allowing children in modern society to grow up functionally illiterate, ill-nourished, ignorant of history, geography, reasoning, numbers, …. Instead of wrong, “sub-optimal” is the strongest adjective I could endorse here. One of my grandfathers married late, and was 85 when I was born and I never knew him. Was this “wrong” of him, since I never had a chance to make this connection? Just as “wrong” as the issues discussed herein, I think — which is to say, not wrong, but things could have been better.


Rich 09.05.06 at 7:53 am

I’m especially interested to hear if there are adoptive children who have no or little interest in their biological parents, and why that it.

My family is always an interesting case study, as my younger sister (now 30) was adopted, while I was not. She has expressed no interest in finding her biological ancestors. It is not hard to understand why. Hers was an international adoption (at a time when they were much rarer), from a relatively impoverished country, and there’s a good chance that whatever could be discovered would not be “good”.

In addition, my parents joined a sort of “support group” for international adopters from that county afterwards, and found that there were only 3 or 4 identical (verbatim) “family histories”. While it was possible that there was a particular run of “pregnant secretaries widowed when their soldier husbands died in battle” that year, we’re guessing not.

My cousins are also adopted and, while not international, are relevatively certain that their genetic parents were not members of the same religion that they are now active members of (following their conversion as infants). To the extent that they have constructed their own cultural and religious history, stretching back thousands of years, there may be simply no “hole” left to be filled.

I am guessing that as international adoptions have become more common, the cost-benefit of a return to China/Russia/Guatamala/wherever will dampen the desires of a larger percentage to pursue their inalienable rights.


Matt 09.05.06 at 8:15 am

I must say that I’m totally indifferent to the question of _genetic_ heritage and think it’s pretty clearly a form of bad faith in Sartre’s sense of the idea to think that it’s important in the way Velleman seems to think. My parents are (for other reasons) strongly intereted in geneology and so have traced the family lines back a long way. I can think of nothing less interesting. Why should _I_ care about those people? To my mind this is all a mistake very similar to the one made by nationalists (also a form of bad faith, I think- Simone Keller form BU has a great paper on it in Ethics a while back). At the very least it seems to take something that’s of interest _to Velleman_ and try to claim that it _should_ be of interet to everyone without sufficient ground. I’d go further and say that it should not be of any speical interest to anyone and that what interet it has should be as a sort of hobby, no more special than stamp collecting.


Doormat 09.05.06 at 8:29 am

Erm, this is strictly off-topic, and maybe utterly boring, but the font on CT has been doing weird things lately, at least using my copy of Firefox. For this post, the main text and the text in the sidebars is all rendered in a slightly ugly way (to my eye, it looks like the font size has changed, but then spacing hasn’t). If I look at some of the other recent posts, then I see the usual, IMHO quite nice, sans serif font. If I look at all the posts (i.e. default view when surfing to https://www.crookedtimber.org, then all is fine until this post appears). I saw this happen on another post recenetly as well.

\end{boring rant}


ingrid robeyns 09.05.06 at 8:31 am

Suppose we would all agree that knowing one’s ancestors would be a valuable thing. Still, that would be only one among many interests of the child, as Harry rightly points out. Moreover, the interests of the child need to be weighted against other people’s interests in deciding whether or not deliberatively conceiving a child who will not know part of his biological ancestors is wrong. For example, people may not have a right to have a child, but surely wanting to raise children is something that needs to be taken into account as a legitimate interest (under normal circumstances).

Suppose a lesbian couple is in a stable and happy relationship, and they are longing very deeply for a child. What should they do? Not have a child, and mourn this absence all there lives? Or have a child from the sperm donated by a friend on the understanding that he will play no role at all, or only a limited role in the child’s life, running the risk that this man will suddenly change his mind after the child is born (understandably, since contemplating a human being is something else as feeling, touching, seeing, experiencing a human being) — with all the social and personal tragedies that are possible? Or should they be looking for an anonymous donor, in which case the child will not know part of his biological ancestors, but will be raised in a peaceful family? One could concstruct similar arguments for single women who are approaching their mid-thirthies and have to choose between single motherhood or a bad heterosexual relationship. I think these are not easy questions, but livng with your blood-relatives seems to me only one (and a minor) relevant concern to look at such dilemmas.


Ken C. 09.05.06 at 8:38 am

My grandmother was in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), and was quite pleased that her ancestor was a sargeant in that war, where the ancestors of the other members of her chapter was only privates. I don’t think it reflects on me one way or another. My grandfather (her husband) was in the KKK. I don’t view that as something I need to feel guilty about, or view as part of myself. My ancestors, to the small extent that I know, were mostly from the British Isles. I don’t find that, in itself, to be a source of pride, shame, or identity. About half my ancestors were female. Should I then be outraged, on my own behalf, over the subjugation they endured? My mother’s grandchildren have Russian Jewish, or Japanese/Armenian, or Irish, or German ancestors, from their parents who aren’t my siblings. I still think they have a common identity.


bi 09.05.06 at 8:39 am

Doormat: Seems that Harry was using HTML editor that was inserting bogus font change tags — do a “View” “Page Source” and you can see them.


Martin James 09.05.06 at 9:10 am

His thesis is incredibly biologically naive and amounts to little more than a clan fetish.

The amount we have in common genetically with people who aren’t close relatives is tremendous.

If he is using family genetics biologically shouldn’t he quantify the effect on identity?

How much worse off in terms of identity are those that don’t know who their father is, or a grandfather or or are mistaken as to the true identity or a parent?

The selectivity in these family identity stories is also trivial. How does one quantify the relative contribution to the identity of descendents based on the identities of ancestors? Class, occupation, religion, disease, nation of origin, political orientation, disease profile, number of children, etc.

If biological descendents selectively choose their identity stories from the myriad facts about their ancestors, what harm to those that don’t know to pick identity as they see fit.

But I admit that what bothers me emotionally is not just the biological absurdity of the argument, its that it violates my American mythos. I mythos that didn’t come to me biologically, but through words and stories shared across all people.

All men are created equal and “blood” doesn’t matter to identity or otherwise. He’s recommending a return to a tribal past.

Its identity nepotism and its wrong.

Furthermore, I’m sure his great grandmother would agree with me.


cw 09.05.06 at 9:14 am

I, and my three siblings, were adopted. Add to that my two parents, and you have a house of full of six completely different people. We had a common life together and adopted my parents history and culture, but it was the commonality you find in the classroom or the workplace. I think all of us felt this.

I eventually found my birth mother and two half-siblings and extended family. There was definitely a feeling of finding my people. Just the physical similarites were comforting somehow. It definitely explained something to me about who I was and where I came from. it explained something to me about myself.

Would this have been the case if I had fit better with my adopted family, or had needed to fit better? I don’t know. I do know that finding one half of my birth family WAS important in forming an identity that made sense.


Clayton 09.05.06 at 9:14 am

As someone who was adopted I can say that I don’t care to know much about my biological parents unless it has to do with baldness, history of mental illness, or vast sums of wealth to be inherited by that darling boy given up for adoption nearly thirty years ago. Therefore, Velleman is wrong.

On a more serious note, I’m not certain that knowledge of genetic forebears plays all that important role in the formation of identity. But even setting that aside, I’m also not sure that establishing that such knowledge is valuable entails that it is wrongful (prima facie or all things considered) to fail to provide a child with that knowledge. Having that knowledge might be beneficial, but why think that this is a benefit to which the child is entitled? It would also have been a great benefit to receive financial support from biological parents during the lean years of grad school, but just as I don’t think that my biological parents would have needed any justification at all for failing to offer, I feel the same way about the sort of information Velleman seems interested in. If no justification is needed for not sharing, that makes it seem like sharing is supererogatory.


Daniel 09.05.06 at 9:16 am

The HTML editor responsible for the funny tags is the one built into the new WordPress front end; this happened to me and it is the devil’s own job to get rid of them. I suspect that if you use a Mac or Linux or something then it is all hunky dory, but if you write the post in Word then it does this weird fonts thing. I suppose that is the price we have to pay for using such an obscure and little-known operating system and word processor.

I also don’t find this convincing.

1) I think Matt is right that this looks like the elevation of a particular hobby to an essential of life. You might as well say it’s an absolute necessity for every child to have a weblog (shudder).

2) I am not at all clear on what’s meant by:

arrangements vary in how good they are for children, and that we should try to promote arrangements that are better for, over those that are worse for, children

It looks like “Evidence based medicine” to me. I think that there’s decent reason to think that “arrangements vary in how good they are for children” isn’t a well-formed statement of social science – that the reified term “arrangements” can’t be unpacked in a way that doesn’t reduce the content of the sentence to “some kids do better than others”.

I’m reminded of the Austrian rejection of classical economics which turned on exactly the possibility or otherwise of moving between subjective and objective assessments in this way.

3) I can’t get away from the Derek Parfit point that the relevant standard is surely “will X make the child so miserable that he sincerely regrets having been born”? The answer here is clearly “no”, and I agree with the commenters above who implicitly think you’d need a “yes” answer before you started saying that someone had done “a wrong”.


Matt 09.05.06 at 9:17 am

To go further, Harry, the story about your great uncle and great grandfather was charming, but would it have been any _less_ charming if you had been adopted? It certainly doesn’t seem likely to me. But if not, then why care at all about the genetic relationship? It just seems quite silly to me.


Daniel 09.05.06 at 9:21 am

by the way, if Velleman establishes this conclusion, then troublemakers like me will certainly be jumping on the bandwagon to say that we now have an argument which proves that Pakistani immigrants to the UK should not have children because those children will necessarily be confused and unable to create a coherent story which reconciles their genetic, religious and national heritages[1]. And furthermore, anyone making this argument is AFAICS going to have a lot easier time putting together sociological and empirical support for it.

[1] I think that this argument might run Donohue & Levitt (2000) close in the “most catholically offensive argument in social sciences ever” stakes.


Steve LaBonne 09.05.06 at 9:24 am

On a more serious note, I’m not certain that knowledge of genetic forebears plays all that important role in the formation of identity.

It seems probable to me that it does so if and only if the people around you keep making a big deal of it. So isn’t there a sense in which Velleman is actually adding to the problem that he (excessively IMHO) decries?


Ray 09.05.06 at 9:25 am

How is it possible for a thread on genealogy to have gotten this far without
And so, I checked all the registered historical facts
And I was shocked into shame to discover
How I’m the 18th pale descendant
Of some old queen or other
Oh, has the world changed, or have I changed?
Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?


tony 09.05.06 at 9:36 am

What’s all this about ‘identity formation’? Lots of things play important roles in terms of ‘identity formation’. Liking music, for example. Of having an aversion to sport. All this seems very wishy-washy to me, frankly. And anyway, what’s so great about forming an identity based on the imagined lives of one’s genetic ancestors? Is this necessarily a good thing? Not necessarily.

Say you found out that the anonymously donated sperm which fertilized yur mother’s ovum turned out to be the sperm of some psychotic murderer! Would it be better to know?


engels 09.05.06 at 9:38 am

First point, it probably detracts from the analytical purity of Harry’s post but someone has to state the obvious, that Velleman’s argument is all about Gay marriage.

Second point, the idea that one’s identity is (necessarily?) bound up with what Velleman calls one’s “biological past” seems to me an attack on a pretty generally accepted form of liberalism.

Third point, in my browser (Firefox) the font sizes are all over the place. For example, right now the links on the side bar and the comments are in a bigger font than the post.


The Continental Op 09.05.06 at 9:39 am

There’s a great big fly in Velleman’s ointment (OK, that’s kind of a yucky metaphor, but having already typed it, I’ll stick with it). Nobody really knows for sure what their genetic relationship is to their ancestors. Families have their secrets. If Velleman were to learn that his great grandmother was impregnated by a Cossak before she fled Russia with her husband, what would his response be? I suppose he might revise the narrative he’s constructed of his family history. But would his basic sense of identity — and identification with his great grandfather — be shaken? Would he feel deprived because he had been in the dark about his true genetic makeup? I doubt it.


engels 09.05.06 at 9:59 am

To make another crude unanalytical point, the idea that everyone ought to care mightily about their biological pedigree (sorry, “history”) seems like an effort to claim universality as a value for something which is really just a badge of dominant social classes.


entlord 09.05.06 at 10:00 am

Adoption proves how silly the whole argument is since my adopted daughter is no less dear to me than my biological daughter who is no less dear to me than my stepdaughter. They are all my children and whatever baggage I bring with me (like a grandfather who was orphaned at 9 and left to fend for himself had a great impact upon me growing up)is theirs equally.
The argument about “blood relationships” smacks of Nazis and Social Darwinism and eugenics and other silly things. No one can possibly know all his family secrets past three or so generations. The family that raised you (if any) is your family, no matter the romantic urge to really be a lost Russian prince or princess.


chris y 09.05.06 at 10:01 am

And I was shocked into shame to discover
How I’m the 18th pale descendant
Of some old queen or other

continental op – Your point is a good one. If your sense of identity is so fragile that it can be shattered by some alteration to the historical narrative in the distant past, I think you’ve got worse issues than an excessive interest in genealogy.

In my own case, there was a family story that my grandfather was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Marlborough. My father and I regard(ed) this as wildly unlikely and completely unimportant if true. But suppose it could be demonstrated, what earthly difference would it make to anybody? It would entitle nobody to anything they don’t presently have, nor would it deprive anybody of anything they do have. Who cares?


C.J.Colucci 09.05.06 at 10:02 am

To me, this is one of those questions, like surrogate childbearing, where what the rule is is far less important than that everyone know what the rules are before getting into the situation. The uncertainty and confusion of the current regime probably cause more pain and heartache than any conceivable rule — within a broad range of reasonableness — would.


kate 09.05.06 at 10:22 am

I post only because I am an adopted child who always knew I was adopted and only found out the circumstances (it was a family adoption) at the age of 30 while about to viva for the ph.d. and just before my wedding. I find that my adoption was always part of my narrative. Discovering my biological mother and half-sisters added to my self-narrative. Not know who my biological father is, is a dent in that narrative. All things being equal, I’d like that knowledge. How much I am willing to sacrifice for it, now that is an on-going question. But I think there is something about how children do take the facts around them to construct who and why they are. I was always told of a woman who loved me enough to give me up, of foster parents who loved me and didn’t want me to leave and well, adopted parents who desperately wanted a child. Of course, I also used to tell people I was put in a cardboard box and sailed across the Atlantic and harboured fantasies of being related to the British Royal Family (finding out half the actual equation has killed that one). It will also depend on how much of an acceptable narrative that those who have donation can provide.


Z 09.05.06 at 10:28 am

I would think knowing your genetic relatives is often an important part of identity formation, and in particular I am not at all surprised by the number of adopted children that try to find their biological ancestors. However, I would tend to attribute this longing more to psychologically irrational desires than to anything reasoned and valid. In fact, I think Velleman is right to say that fitting one’s life in a coherent narrative is an important psychological need but that he verges on mysticism when he says that only your biological relatives can provide this narrative.
In my personal case, I had for a few years a longing to meet my grand-father, who had abandoned my father, but came to realize that what I really wanted was what Velleman described: the ability to fit in a narrative. That metting my grand-father could have helped me building my personality was an illusion, I now think in retrospect (illusion in the freudian sense, it could have been true but I believed it only because I wanted to believe it).

Should people preferably be given opportunities to pursue irrational longings? In my opinion yes (and I thus am in favor of those law allowing adopted children to find their biological parents). It is however certainly not a very high priority. Generally speaking, I tend to be very skeptical of the idea that moral choices can be derived from discussions of arbitrary or irrational principles.

As a side note, I would briefly remark that who your “most important” biological relatives are thought to be varies widely among cultures. A Tunisian would think it extremely cruel to deprive a child from knowing his cousins, while the very concept of cousin is quite alien to (traditional) Japanese minds. Velleman implicitly has a vertical conception of family, without (AFAICS in the article) trying to justify it. Another arbitrary choice, unless I am mistaken.


David Velleman 09.05.06 at 10:29 am

The comments thus far have focused primarily on knowledge of one’s extended genealogy, which is not the main focus of my paper. (I see no evidence that any of the commenters has read the paper, by the way.) The focus of my paper is the value of being raised by one’s biological parents — or, more broadly, by one’s kin.

To say that a child resembles its parents not only physically but also in significant psychological respects is not “biologically naive” (pace Martin James, #10): it is well documented by research, some of which I summarize in the blog posting to which Harry has linked. The absence of such resemblance to adoptive parents is frequently noted by adoptees as contributing to a sense of rootlessness or incompleteness. That’s why the experience described by cw (#11) is not at all uncommon among adoptees. Of course, it is not absolutely universal: not all adoptees go in search of their birth parents, especially not if they know in advance that finding them would be impossible. But research shows that about half of adoptees do search for their birth parents, and many of them report (to quote cw) that “finding one half of my birth family WAS important in forming an identity that made sense”.

Note how many of these comments rely on wishful thinking. The “American mythos” requires us to think that our biological past is irrelevant to our identities (Martin James again, #10). To deny this is to “attack a pretty generally accepted form of liberalism” (engels, #19). And so on. These comments say, in effect, “Velleman is wrong because, if he were right, I would have to rethink some of my assumptions.”

Finally, some minor points:

–No, my paper is not all about gay marriage (engels, #19). It does have implications for gay marriage, but these implications are not what motivate the paper.

–Derek Parfit’s definition of a “life worth living” (daniel, #13) cannot be used to make decisions about procreation, for reasons that I explain in my paper.

–Many of the comments about creating disadvantaged children are also answered in the paper.


engels 09.05.06 at 10:31 am

Reflection on one’s own experience is insufficient to establish the real importance of acquaintance with one’s genetic ancestors

Well, I’m glad we are all agreed on that.

I agree that knowing one’s living genetic forebears and who one’s dead genetic forebears were is valuable, but I’m not convinced that it is valuable enough that it is wrong (as opposed to “less than ideal”) deliberately to conceive a child who will lack such knowledge.

I also think that having her own pony is valuable to a child. But I’m not convinced that not being able to afford a pony means that it is morally wrong to conceive a child. What do readers think?


jonm 09.05.06 at 10:33 am

Engels is exactly right that this is about gay marriage. Velleman made the connection a while back in a Left2Right post that expressed an opposition gay marriage.

A prejudice against gay marriage is really the only explanation for why a smart man like Velleman would spend so much time developing such a faulty philosophical argument. It’s really a particularly egregious example of armchair philosophizing — mistaking one’s own pleasure in hearing stories about long-dead ancestors for a universal desire.


engels 09.05.06 at 10:37 am

David – I wouldn’t presume to second guess your motivations but the two issues are very tightly connected in my view and I thought someone ought to note this.


Rob St. Amant 09.05.06 at 10:38 am

I’m not a philosopher, but I found Velleman’s arguments not very compelling: a series of personal anecdotes mixed in with some intuition pumps that just didn’t work very well. I haven’t read his paper in detail, but I’ll raise a couple of points anyway:

When Velleman writes that “it is immoral to create children with the intention that they be alienated from their biological relatives,” the end of his sentence “–for example, by donor conception” seems far too broad. I don’t know if this solution is suggested, but it seems to me that you can get around the “immorality” simply by not telling the child about his biological background and letting him assume he shares the same biological history as the parents. It’s arguably a lie by omission, but is it worse than all the hypothetical problems the child may suffer otherwise?

Velleman also asks how we can understand the stories of Telemachus, Moses, and even Luke Skywalker if we deny the importance of biological ties. “I am your father.” “So what?” But there’s a difference between understanding and personal experience. I can understand Romeo and Juliet even if I’m not part of a family at war with another and if my lover has never killed herself, thinking I was dead. I imagine that there are people who have never been deeply in love who can still make sense of the play. If someone denies the importance of biological ties, that doesn’t mean they’re ignoring the importance that society places on biological ties.


Sebastian Holsclaw 09.05.06 at 10:39 am

As far identity formation goes, I have an interesting non-adoptive (at least in the classic sense) story. My Grandma Kimi and Grandpa Yosh are Japanese. In person it is rather obvious that all or nearly all of my genetic heritage is Dutch and German. It turns out that my Japanese grandparents couldn’t have children. It was culturally important for them to have grandchildren. They liked my parents, so they ‘adopted’ me and later my siblings as they came along. This had a number of interesting effects on my identity. Since I didn’t understand the biological facts about propagation in my first twelve years or so, I didn’t see anything odd about having 6 grandparents–two being of what most people would say is an obviously different ‘race’. This combined with my parents’ group of friends and acquaintances to help make me completely oblivous to the idea of distinguishing people by race. I really and truly see Grandma Kimi as part of my family. In fact, I’m pretty sure that she was much more influential than either of my actual grandmothers.

I suppose this kind of story could be dismissed as merely attesting to other influences without detracting from the idea of the identity forming influence of genetic forebearers. But I’m not convinced. It strikes me that the genetic link is much more important for knowing about predispositions to disease or perhaps familial quirks in brain chemistry (hyper-activity or depression for instance). Identity formation is different from that.

Do people often desire to know about their ‘real’ parents? Yes. Is that desire so important that it should rule policy considerations about other things? I’m not convinced.


harry b 09.05.06 at 10:40 am

Some of the commenters are definitely imputing something that is not in the paper or in my report of it — the idea that mere knowledge of one’s forebears in some sense gives one a pedigree. That’s not what Velleman is saying at all, or implying — his point is that it gives one resources for self-reflection that are otherwise unavailable, and are very important. Read the paper…

My question was about how important they are, because how important they are makes the claim that a wrong is being done more or less plausible (the more important they are the more plausible it is that a wrong is being done). Like some of the commenters (eg ingrid) I think children have many interests — and suspect that this is just one, so it is not enough to make an “all things considered” judgement. I’m also sympathetic with the idea (raised by z and hinted at by others) that cultural context may make some interest more or less important. I suspect Velleman disagrees, but his argument needn’t hinge on him disagreeing; it can be wrong do deprive children of the ability to meet certian interests even when those interests are “merely” culturally constructed.

I see now that composing the whole post within the program overcomes the typeface problem. I’ll try composing in other programmes.


engels 09.05.06 at 10:43 am

Do people often desire to know about their ‘real’ parents? Yes.

Is this desire rational, justified, or helpful to them? I’m not sure. Does banging on about it increase its prevalence? Almost certainly.


Daniel 09.05.06 at 11:00 am

David: I think that Derek Parfit’s criterion of whether a person’s life is worth living to them is precisely intended to address the question of whether you can do a wrong to somebody by bringing them into existence, and the way in which you address this question in your paper really does, to my eye at least, strongly resemble a line of argument which appears to me to be decisively refuted in the relevant part of “Reasons and Persons”.

Furthermore, the “argument from triviality” isn’t dependent on our taking the paper to refer to extended genealogy.

The absence of such resemblance to adoptive parents is frequently noted by adoptees as contributing to a sense of rootlessness or incompleteness.

“Rootlessness and incompleteness”? As I noted above, this is also experienced by children of immigrants, with social and psychological consequences which are definite and measurable and not dependent on personal anecdotes and just-so stories.

It really looks as if you are arguing that it is a significant wrong to bring children into the world who have a sense of rootlessness and incompleteness, which is surely bad news for the Jewish community if true (Have a look at a Woody Allen film sometime if you want a sense of rootlessness and incompleteness). The response here is not “Velleman is wrong because, if he were right, I would have to rethink some of my assumptions” but “Velleman appears to be attempting to overturn deep-seated and important liberal principles by appeal to the arguable claim that in this case they result in a really quite nebulous and trivial-looking harm.”


engels 09.05.06 at 11:09 am

Ok, Harry, I’m still sceptical but I will try and read David’s paper. But a couple more points before doing so.

It seems to me there are lots of advantages which might give people the resources for increased self-reflection, or serve other humanistic goals for them, for example, being able to appreciate literature or history. I’m not at all convinced that caring about your family’s geneology is one of them. But supposing it is, it seems to me a huge leap to suppose that it is wrong to conceive children if one if not in a position to afford them such advantages.

Outside of our own countries the situation is more stark. Children are born all the time to people who are unable to provide for needs which we consider basic and essential, for example, education. Is it Velleman’s argument that all these people do wrong when, in knowledge of this, they deliberately conceive and have children?


cw 09.05.06 at 11:19 am

I can say for sure that knowing one half of my birth family was important to helping me form an identity that made sense. The family I was raised in (see my post #11 above) created a confusion in my identity in that I did not resemble anyone in my family physically, intellectually, or psychologically. That was weird. Where were people who were like me? Having my own child only confirms the reality of genetic connection for me. I see myself in her and she sees herself in me and her mother in lots and lots of way, and Ithink that that is a good thing. You know who you are, where you come from, where you belong.I look at my wife’s family and I see connections going back through the generations. Who she is makes sense in the context of who her faimly is. Even if my birth parents had turned out to be unpleasant, meeting them still would have helped me understand my origin which helps explain who I am. I don’t know if you can really feel this point unless you go through the experince.

So I think, for sure, it is better to know your birth family. (Adoptees have a significantly high rate of depression and suicide, which may or may not be attributable to the alienation issue). I don’t think it’s a life or death thing, but I do think it is important, and if I were king I would pass a law requiring sperm and egg doners to make themselves available to their offspring and that adoptions be open. I strongly believe that this would be valuable to the children. They probably won’t die for the lack of it (although there are those depression and suicide statistics) but kids don’t die (directly) from, say, fetal alchohol sysndrom either, and we do our best to limit that.


cw 09.05.06 at 11:27 am

“Outside of our own countries the situation is more stark. Children are born all the time to people who are unable to provide for needs which we consider basic and essential, for example, education. Is it Velleman’s argument that all these people do wrong when, in knowledge of this, they deliberately conceive and have children?”

This happens in our country all the time. 14 year old girls, drug addicts, homeless people, etc… all deliberately have children and the consequences are really really tragic, both for the kids and for society that has to deal with them. These people definitely do wrong in having kids they are totally unprepared to raise. The prisons are full of these kids.


A. 09.05.06 at 11:28 am

Evidence that adoptees at some point search for their birth parents is not evidence that adoptees have a “deep and unrelenting need” for this information. Velleman takes the higher number of 50% (which refers to those who at some point search) and pretends that it refers to those who feel a deep need. But there is no evidence in the paper that most adoptees who search do so out of “deep need” rather than curiosity, or need for knowledge about their medical histories.


Martin James 09.05.06 at 11:30 am

David V,

It was only after reflecting on your paper and on my assumptions that I was revolted.

As for world literature, how about raising children as suggested in Plato’s Republic?

Or the Gospel of Matthew, where it speaks about who one’s neighbor (or parents) really are?

I’m surprised he didn’t mention this from Joyce’s version of Ulysses

I’m the queerest young fellow that ever was heard.
My mother’s a Jew; my father’s a Bird
With Joseph the Joiner I cannot agree
So ‘Here’s to Disciples and Calvary.’

Taking Vellemans logic to the extreme, the most inbred can make the most sense of their lives.


engels 09.05.06 at 11:39 am

I’ve no that that is your opinion, cw, but are you prepared to extend that judgement to billions of people worldwide? As far as I can see, going on off on one about how drug addicts are to blame for their situation would be quite irrelevant here.


engels 09.05.06 at 11:45 am

Also, is it possible that there might be a stigma attached – for morally unjustified reasons – to people who know who their biological parents are, and that this means that adoptees who have been able to shed this frowned-upon status are very likely to regale us with tales of how they became “one of us”, whereas those who have been less fortunate – in the terms set by the prevailing culture – are more likely to remain silent?


engels 09.05.06 at 11:48 am

Correction: …for people who do not know who their biological parents are…


luc 09.05.06 at 11:57 am

[T]he redefinition of the family to mean “whatever arrangement the adult seeking to procreate has created for the child”. I think he’s right that there are people who hold that view, and that it is wrong, because arrangements vary in how good they are for children, and that we should try to promote arrangements that are better for, over those that are worse for, children.

I’m not a libertarian by far. But this expresses clearly what I find wrong with these arguments.

Refusing to call a arrangement “family” because it might not be optimal, or isn’t traditional, is, in my view, counterproductive and wrong.

Would you say to that child when it enters school, you don’t have a family? Call it a family, and everyone should be happy. That is in the interest of the child.

Tradition serves mostly the traditionalists, not the children that fall outside of that tradition.
They are stuck with the social condemnation of having been born outside wedlock, having gay parents, and now we’re supposed to think that their (grand)parents are less meaningfull when they have the wrong genes.

It has always been too hard to have it both ways, of condemning the parents and sparing the children. If you judge parents for X their children are going to suffer, despite the fact that that might not be the intention.

The solution is simply to accept the parents moral choices, even if they are not optimal according to your views.


engels 09.05.06 at 11:58 am

And of course, cw, it couldn’t possibly be the the fact that your country allows there to be thousands of homeless people in the first place, but only the fact that they are fucking, which is causing the problem.


cw 09.05.06 at 12:04 pm

…”are you prepared to extend that judgement to billions of people worldwide?”

I don’t know much about other cultures.Not enough to really say. But as for our culture, it seems pretty obvious to me that–in general–if you are 14 year old, you should wait until you can be a competant parent before having a child. And I never said anything about blaming anyone, I just said to deliberatly have a child you can not competantly raise, is wrong. Whether people can accurately judge their competence as parents or not, is another issue.

And about the second point, I don’t kow of any stigma at all attching to not knowing who your biological parents are. That doesn’t make any sense at all. I think you should just consider that there may be significant value in knowing your biological parent(s). There was for me. I would still be here is either case, but I am better off for knowing my birth mother and her family. I mean, human beings live by story. We construct our story out of tiny glimpses of reality and call it a world. it’s difficult to construct a satisfying personal story if there is a big chunk of information missing. Knowing my birth mother makes my personal story make better sense. I know better who I am becasue I have more information.


roger 09.05.06 at 12:05 pm

Velleman’s reply in comment 33 refers us to this paragraph in his post, setting up his argument:

“The most recent literature reviews of research on twins, adopted children, and pairs of biologically related and unrelated family members tend to show that differences between individuals in cognitive ability, personality, and social attitudes are significantly determined by genetic inheritance, with heritability measures in the neighborhood of 50%; heritability of differences in “psychological interests” runs at roughly 35%.”

However, I think this uses the heritability measure in precisely the way we are warned not to use it. Gary Marcus comments on this reductionist use of heritability in The Birth of the Mind:

“Heritability scores have an air of authority, but they are easily misunderstood. For example, it is tempting to interpret a heritability score of 60 percent on IQ tests as showing that “60 percent of intelligence comes from heredity.” Although twin studies do suggest that IQ has a heritability that is not far from 60 percent, that does not mean that 60 percent of your intelligence comes from your genes. In fact, the heritability measure doesn’t say what percentage of any trait comes from your genes.”

As Marcus explains, these percentages concern the variation in some trait. Using the example of tree height, Marcus writes: what enters into the statistic is not the height of the average tree, but the difference between them. … In humans, heritability only looks at differences that in the grand perspective of life on earth are tiny: whether Jimmy has a bigger vocabulary than Johnny, or whether Janey is better with a wrench than Susan.”

Such differences, I’d point out, are also going to come into play in changes in class position and education. Vellamen’s point, logically extended, would pinpoint social mobility as an identity shattering evil. But this use of the identity narrative as a template for virtue begs the question of why we are supposed to think that the adoptive person’s quest, say, for his or her biological parents is supposed to indicate some fatal lack, rather than a new permutation in the identity narrative itself. Perhaps our identity shouldn’t be sealed by our childhood – in fact, I’d say that does much greater harm in America, where youth seems to be the perpetual and impossible goal of middle age.


engels 09.05.06 at 12:11 pm

And I never said anything about blaming anyone, I just said to deliberatly have a child you can not competantly raise, is wrong.

So, cw, if I may request that you address the point I actually made, billions of people in the world are in such a position, it seems, because they are unable to guarantee their offspring such basic goods as education. Are you saying that they do wrong when they have children? (I don’t think one needs to be an expert on other countries cultures in order to venture an opinion on this.)


cw 09.05.06 at 12:14 pm

luc and engles

I knew it was going to go this way. You are reading all kinds of things into my post. I’m not judging anybody. I’m not saying homeless people shouldn’t fuck, or that gay people shouldn’t have children or that there is only one kind of family. I’m saying that if you know you are not going to be able to give your child the basic requirements: food, shelter, nurturing, then you should hold off.

But go ahead, give me the treatment. Vent your frustrations on me. I’ll be your whipping boy. I’m a team player.


engels 09.05.06 at 12:18 pm

I’m saying that if you know you are not going to be able to give your child the basic requirements: food, shelter, nurturing, then you should hold off.

But go ahead, give me the treatment. Vent your frustrations on me. I’ll be your whipping boy. I’m a team player.

You clearly are a “team player”. But please answer my question: do you believe that a large part of the developing world should “hold off” from having kids?


cw 09.05.06 at 12:20 pm

Sorry luc,

I think I misread your comments as directed at mine.


leederick 09.05.06 at 12:21 pm

“Children are born all the time to people who are unable to provide for needs which we consider basic and essential, for example, education. Is it Velleman’s argument that all these people do wrong when, in knowledge of this, they deliberately conceive and have children?”

Interestingly though, this is different from the donor situation in that these parents wouldn’t wish that their children were homeless, or poor, or lacked education, or whatever. They have children who suffer these things, but don’t bring these things upon their children, and would meet these interests if they could.

The whole point of anonymous donation is that the child is being created so that it lacks a connection with its forebears, because people desire this to be the case. You’re not just deliberately conceiving in the knowledge that the child will have an interest that cannot be met, you’re conceiving while causing them to have an interest that cannot be met. The irony – as Velleman points out – is that this is done because a parent desires a biological connection to a child, but at the same time denies the child exactly that connection to one parent.


cw 09.05.06 at 12:25 pm

I did answer it. I said I don’t know. Conditions in the developing world are different.


engels 09.05.06 at 12:31 pm

Cw – I saw you making a general moral claim and I pointed you to the implications of that claim. Your “answer” seems to me to be an evasion, but I’d rather leave this as I would rather address Velleman’s more reasonable defenders.


harry b 09.05.06 at 12:34 pm

I’m applying my usual rule of being a pretty hands-off moderator, but I would ask people to be polite to each other (I know, I know, its the blogs, the internet, etc, but I’m trying to optimise the environment for us actually learning).

So, that said, I’m with cw on thinking that if you cannot supply a child with what it needs in order to have reasonable propsects for living a reasonably good life, you should indeed hold off. In the light of that engels’s question is a tough one. But we can say this (at least, I and engels would both say this, and I bet cw would too) — the fact that many people are in a situation in which they cannot meet some of the basic needs of any children they might have gives us a very powerful reason to alter that situation if we can. In the case of the American “underclass” I think that this is not as hard as it’s often made out to be — similarly in the case of the developing world — and wealthy westerners have a very strong reason to bear more of the burden of the redistirbution than they currently do, and I feel no embarrassment condemning them for that (even though I don’t know exactly how much they should do; its just way more than most of them do).

I strongly agree with luc that a child-rearing situation does not have to be optimal to be justified (and to count as a family). But I don’t think (and don’t know whether luc does) that therefore anything goes, or that condemnation is inappropriate. I would not blanketly condemn divorce, for example, but some divorces (and some individual parental behaviours that lead to divorces) are bad for the kids involved, and a culture of no comment on divorce certainly prompts some such divorces at the expense of children’s interests. Having a kid does not require you top optimise its chances at any cost to yourself, but it does (morally) require you to make some sacrifices (including some pretty good ones) for its benefit. Just to reiterate, I’m not blanketly condemning divorce, but I can’t believe that there is a reader over 40 here who hasn’t encountered at least one divorce in which they suspect strongly that the children would have been substantially better off without it and the parents could have lived with it, even if you are not willing to blame both parents for the situation.


cw 09.05.06 at 12:35 pm



engels 09.05.06 at 12:55 pm

Harry – Is it your view then that, with the world as it is today, most people in developing countries should “hold off” from having kids? Not just people whose kids’ lives are likely to be unbearably miserable, but those who, on the balance of probabilities, are not likely to have access to goods which a middle class American would consider to be basic, such as proper education? (Children, for example, like Brazil’s current president.)

I honestly do not find this claim at all plausible and have to say that from the point of view of my own learning I see more utility in arguing with people like Leederick, who appears to be trying to distinguish the two cases.

Cw – Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude.


Katya 09.05.06 at 1:13 pm

As an adopted child who has never had any deep desire to find my biological parents, I’m a little perplexed by the idea that I am somehow disadvantaged in forming my identity, or in any other way, to be honest. My adoptive parents loved me, cared for me in an exemplary manner, and, quite frankly, forgot that I was adopted. My identity includes the fact of my adoption, which has given me a great sense of the contingencies in life. Maybe meeting my biological parents would “fill in the gaps,” but quite frankly, I don’t feel there are any, and maybe meeting them would just unsettle me more. I mean, if you’re adopted and feel alienated, you can point to the adoption as the reason. What happens if you aren’t adopted and there are feelings of alienation and gaps? Sometimes I’m curious, but have never felt impelled, let alone motivated enough to do anything about it. I’m not a big fan of open adoption, actually, because closed adoptions create a sense of finality–your parents are your parents and nothing will come along and upset that. It’s easy to know who your real parents are, rather than trying to balance adoptive parents and biological parents and try to make sense of that.


engels 09.05.06 at 1:30 pm

Also, Harry, even if we can not reach agreement on this, or alternatively, supposing for the sake of argument that the Leederick is right and the two cases are different, I have also made a weaker argument, which is all, I think, that is needed.

Knowing who your (immediate) ancestors are surely can not be a basic good like access to education. Although in my personal opinion it isn’t worth very much at all, it would seem plausible perhaps to argue that it has a comparable value, in terms of ability to self-reflect or a humanistic conception of flourishing, to things like a knowledge of history or literature. Many parents are unable to honestly expect that their children will acquire such goods. Some might intend that they not do so. Is it wrong for them to have children?


Maynard Handley 09.05.06 at 1:33 pm

I’d like to criticize not just the “genes make the identity” claim above, but the very claim that there’s somehow some deep important need to establish an “identity” based on one’s relations. I spent plenty of time with three of my grandparents and never felt any particular need to learn anything about them beyond the fact that there were not especially nice people.
Did they immigrate from England to South Africa or were they born there? How old were they when they married? Did the 1st or 2nd world wars affect them? What did they think of Sharpeville, Rivonia, and the rise of apartheid? Don’t know, don’t care. They’re dead now so I can no longer ask them. I could ask my parents and they’d probably have something to say but, to repeat, don’t know, don’t care.

So you say, that’s just one data point, one anecdote. Sure, and when Velleman produces data that’s more solid than a story from his life, that might be a real criticism.


Tom Hurka 09.05.06 at 1:37 pm

Re international adoption:

Anne Tyler’s latest (and characteristically lovely) novel Digging to America is about two American families, one WASP and the other Iranian-American, who adopt baby girls from Korea. The WASP family, though not the Iranian-American one, try to maintain their daughter’s links to her Korean heritage by retaining her Korean name, dressing her in Korean clothes on special occasions, etc. But over the course of the novel she rebels against that, saying she hates Korean clothes, wants to be called “Jo,” etc., i.e. wants to be just as American as the Iranian family have made their daughter.

Nothing philosophical follows from this; it’s just a nice literary treatment of the issue (as well as of multiculturalism more generally).


Chris Bertram 09.05.06 at 1:51 pm

engels wrote:

_Is it your view then that, with the world as it is today, most people in developing countries should “hold off” from having kids? Not just people whose kids’ lives are likely to be unbearably miserable, but those who, on the balance of probabilities, are not likely to have access to goods which a middle class American would consider to be basic, such as proper education?_

Isn’t your reference to middle-class Americans there needlessly polemical? I’m guessing that Harry might want to invoke some threshold level of capability the achievement of which will be fairly sensitive to the way your society is set up. To flourish in American you probably do need access to an education (given that your peers and competitors will have it), but I take it that if you were growing up in some other time or place the resources necessary for achieving threshold functioning would be less and different.


cw 09.05.06 at 2:03 pm


Thank you for apologising.

I have thought about it and here is my attempt at an answer to your question. First, we are presupposing that I can do anything about other people having children. This is a intellectual exercise. So, I am presuming now that I have the power to say who can and can’t have children (This is not a power I would entrust with anyone but myself).

If we are just talking about poverty, lack of education, society-wide nutritional standards, some inequality between the sexes but nothing too horrendous, I say–as king of procreation–if you believe you have a reasonable chance of raising that child to be happy and successful according to that cultures terms, then go ahead.

But if you don’t have a reasonable chance to provide food or shelter or the ability or temperment or training to raise children as they are rasied in that culture, then say wait until conditions change.

And if your culture has horredous child-rearing practices, such as virtual slavery for females, then I say no, change your culture.

I assert that there are basic, universal human rights and if parents cannot reasonably guarantee these for their children then they shouldn’t have children until they can.

This, of course, also presupposes that people have the ability to realistically assess their potential as parents. Not easy to do. The urge to procreate is strong. So are social expectations. There is also the lack of birth control. I believe many women in the developing world would like to have fewer children but have no birth control.


nihil obstet 09.05.06 at 2:38 pm

Ah, me, the most fascinating object of contemplation on the planet! What makes me, me? My biological parents? Maybe cosmic forces at the time of my birth (get that horoscope!) Maybe unresolved frustrations (find that psychoanalyst!) Maybe evolution (get my DNA analysis from the National Geographic Family of Man Project!)

I’m convinced that we’re all susceptible to some lure of knowledge or its facsimile that allows us to think about ourselves, either for genuine self-examination or for the innocent joy of indulging harmless narcissism.

I worry about the urge to propose sweeping moralizations on very weak hypotheses of rather minor differences between people, that even if true for some, may not apply to all.


harry b 09.05.06 at 2:42 pm

engels — chris bertram anticipates my response to the first point (knowing pretty well what i think about these things, I can see!). I guess I want to trun the tables a bit: suppose you have full control over whether and when to have a kid, and you and you have very good reason to believe that the prospects the kid would face are very poor indeed. Would you at least think that it is worse to do it than to have a child in other circumstances where you have reason to believe it will have good prospect? I think that people can have valuable lives in poor societies. But I also think that we can reaosnably say that there are circumstances in which it is wrong to have children, and we do not have to be laissez faire about this.

I think I agree with your second argument — it’s what I suggest in the post. I’d go further –even if it is a basic good like education it still might not be wrong to have kids knwoing they’ll be deprived of it, as long as they get enough of other goods. But I’m not sure, and that’s why I wanted to elicit discussion.

Which brings me to Maynard Hanley’s point, which is really about methodology in normative philosophy. One of the things I like about Velleman’s paper is precisely that he reflects on his own experiences and life, and offers conclusions based on that. When we are trying to work out the content of basic human interests in a way that is meanignful for deciding what we should and shouldn’t do in practice I think we have to resort to this — its a case where anecdote, and even fiction (thanks for the tip, tom hurka), really is data, of a certain kind. But we are heavily reliant on other people whose experiences are quite different responding to, criticising, and reflecting on, our reasoning and conclusions, in order to avoid being trapped in a realm of idiosyncratic reasons. That is, as I say, why I don’t have confidence in my own response to Velleman’s piece absent a discussion with others in which they reflect on their experience (and his and mine, etc). That’s perhaps why I jumped in to ask people to be more polite — not so much because I want people to avoid hurting feelings but because it makes it easier to reflect carefully (or rather easier for me — and I put a fair bit of work into the post, which is why I feel entitled to make these demands!).


engels 09.05.06 at 2:51 pm

Isn’t your reference to middle-class Americans there needlessly polemical?

Yes, ok, it was. Although I am to blame for introducing this topic I have to say I feel now that the other argument I gave probably has more traction on Harry’s original topic but FWIW –

The argument now seems to be that it is the duty of parents in the developing world to provide their children with food, shelter and other minimal resources (ie. “food, shelter and nurturing” according to CW’s original comment) whereas in America the bar is to be set much higher. I would be more sympathetic to this view if it were made out in terms of providing different levels of resources in order to achieve the same adequate evels of functioning but less so if it were constructed in the terms of CW’s last comment

happy and successful according to that cultures terms

which, to me, smacks of relativism. But I would remain sceptical that the argument could be successfully made that knowing one’s immediate ancestry would fit into the American system in the same place that “food, shelter and nurturing” fits into the African one. And I still feel that the claim that over a billion people who are currently living in absolute poverty are doing wrong by having children, strikes me as entirely implausible, even if, as I anticipate it might be, it were softened by calling it “blameless wrongdoing”.

Also, is it not possible that there was time in our ancestors’ past when they were unable to provide the minimum level of resources required to flourish, even in, what are to us, the pitiful terms of that time? Was it wrong of them to have children (and perhaps by doing so to allow the continuance of the human race?)

But as I said above, although this is an interesting topic, I can see there are problems in making it relevant to Velleman’s view, so the other argument is the one which I would stand by.


Patrick 09.05.06 at 3:02 pm

I suppose I don’t get the reasoning. Even if knowledge about one’s biological parents contributes to identity formation for those who have it, why would lack of that knowledge count as a harm? Its not like adopted children grow up without identities. Whatever experiences you have, those are the experiences that will contribute to the formation of your identity.


Martin James 09.05.06 at 3:16 pm


I guess he’s saying that its not enough to have preferences and habits and desires and skills, one needs to know that your ancestors had similar characteristics in order to understand them and make them part of your identity.

Its not enough for life to be a cosmic joke, it has to be an INSIDE joke to make life fulfiling.


abb1 09.05.06 at 4:21 pm

Not only this concept of ‘genetic forebears’ is useless and harmful, but the whole institution of ‘family’ seems rather unhealthy.


Ray 09.05.06 at 4:24 pm

I don’t think arguments about children born in poverty work as responses to Velleman, because they’re not parallel cases. Poor people do not choose to have poor children, they choose to have children, and poor children are the only ones available. Velleman is talking about couples who can choose whether or not their children will know their genetic parents – both options are equally open to them. If we agree that, for some children at least, knowing their genetic parents is beneficial, then the choice appears to be a simple one between choosing to have kids with a possible benefit or choosing to have kids without that benefit.
But although access to one’s genetic forebears may benefit some adopted(/surrogate/donated sperm) children, it’s not the only possible benefit. Being a member of a clearly defined family may also be beneficial – specifically, being a member of a family where two people have clear legal rights as parents, and there are no other adults who can assert parental rights and start custody battles. If the child of a sperm donor knows their (genetic) father, then the donor must also know his child, which may casue trouble. It may not, of course – everyone could end up in one big happy family. Just as some adopted children can and do live happily without any desire to seek out their birth parents. But there is a potential harm there, which balances the potential harm that Velleman identified.

Also, even if there was no possible harm to the children in this situation, we agree there’s a definite cost to the parents, right? Do we insist that parents must pay any price to avoid every possible harm to their children? A second’s thought shows that no, we don’t. We weigh up the potential harm to the child with the potential cost to the parent, and though we tilt the scales in favour of the children, we don’t insist that their benefit is most important in every situation. Not every penny has to be spent on the kids, not every hour has to be spent with the kids, for you to be a good parent.

So is there some potential harm to children if they are raised without knowing their genetic forebears? Yes, for some kids. But there are also some kids who would be harmed if they kew who their forebears were. And there are plenty of kids who would be better off in some ways if their parents did not act according to their selfish interests, but most parents are cut some slack.


Uncle Kvetch 09.05.06 at 4:34 pm

How odd to chance upon this thread after having just read Josh Marshall’s loving tribute to his just-deceased father…a tribute made all the more poignant and powerful (IMHO) by the fact that it’s only towards the very end that he reveals that his father was not, in fact, related to him by “blood”:

Since he died though I’ve realized how much he shaped me, perhaps much more, how the main guideposts of my life were ones he put in place. How much I was, in a word, his son. And that is, paradoxically, all the more precious to me since we shared not a drop of blood between us.

My biological parents were divorced soon after I was born. I don’t know just how old I was when my mother started dating Alan. But I know that he was there at my first birthday party. And I have no memory of anything before him.

Our love for each other transcended biology.

I can’t help finding this germane to the present discussion.


Uncle Kvetch 09.05.06 at 4:35 pm

Sorry, there should have been 3 blockquoted paragraphs there, not just 1.

The preview window is tricksy, yes.


Ken C. 09.05.06 at 4:39 pm

Velleman remarks (#27) that his paper, despite its lengthy inclusion of his extended family history, is not about genealogical knowledge; it is rather about the importance of biological ties, and the consideration of whether they are “genuinely meaningful”.

He suggests that biological relatives allow me to compare myself with someone “like me”, whose qualities and life stories I can compare and contrast with my own. Left unanswered is why genetic resemblance is the relevant way in which relatives are “like me”. Is it more important to me that Grandpa has a nose shaped like mine, or that he was a kind, honest person whose character I might emulate? Is it his hair color, or is it his curiousity about the natural world, that should matter more to me?

When comparing and contrasting myself and my children with my relatives, some resemblances may be due to genes and history, and others may be simply coincidental, and I notice them because I’m looking for them. If I sneeze just like Aunt Edna, that might be a deep family connection, but then it might not. If I’m just like my mother (she’s never satisfied), that might be genes, but it might be my upbringing by her.

Many of Velleman’s points simply assume his outlook. Donor children must have the status of “stranger in a strange land”; it must be hard to meet a man and not know that he’s not your father; one’s life story takes on meaning in relation to the life stories of one’s ancestors. Yes, these are all telling, if you already believe that biological ties are important.ol

Velleman may find meaning and satisfaction in his family ties, but he hasn’t made a convincing case that lack of the biological version of such ties is a disadvantage.


derrida derider 09.05.06 at 4:57 pm

What a load of old cobblers. No-one knows their family or genetic history with any certainty at all – as they say, it’s a wise man who knows his own father (let alone his more remote ancestry).
And the fact that the writer constructed part of his own identity from his family legends does not mean either that the legends were true or that having such legends is necessary for others to form their identity. And what about people who use extended family legends to construct an identity which posits their superiority to others’ ancestry?

Really, really shoddy argument.


socratic_me 09.05.06 at 5:19 pm

As a HS teacher, I deal with a lot of kids who are trying to form coherent identities. My anecdotal evidence to throw into the fray is that I hear a lot more complaints about biological parents who interfere with a kids life by trying to form bonds the child honestly doesn’t have or want than about kids who would feel complete if they could only know their biological parents. It seems like pretty weak evidence to base a theory, but if anecdotes are all we are looking for, count me in.


engels 09.05.06 at 5:25 pm

Would you at least think that it is worse to do it than to have a child in other circumstances where you have reason to believe it will have good prospect?

Yes, but saying that one course of action is worse than another one is not to say it is wrong. I also do not disagree with claim that having a child can be wrong in some circumstances but I think we disagree about just what those circumstances are. I don’t see where I suggested otherwise.

I think I agree with your second argument—it’s what I suggest in the post. I’d go further—even if it is a basic good like education it still might not be wrong to have kids knwoing they’ll be deprived of it, as long as they get enough of other goods. But I’m not sure, and that’s why I wanted to elicit discussion.

I thought you were trying to elicit a discussion about whether David was right so that’s why I offered my arguments against his view.

I should have read your post more carefully, as at the end your enthusiastic 1500-word exposition of David’s views you state, in your laudably measured and diplomatic way, that you disagree with him, and you do give similar, if not, I think, identical, reasons to mine. (So nice to know that we all agree about everything as usual.)


The Continental Op 09.05.06 at 5:40 pm

Harry wrote:
I would not blanketly condemn divorce, for example, but some divorces (and some individual parental behaviours that lead to divorces) are bad for the kids involved […. ] I can’t believe that there is a reader over 40 here who hasn’t encountered at least one divorce in which they suspect strongly that the children would have been substantially better off without it and the parents could have lived with it, even if you are not willing to blame both parents for the situation.

All undoubtedly true. But isn’t it also true that there are some marriages (and some individual parental behaviors within those marriages) that are bad for the kids involved? Don’t most of us (regardless of age) know of at least one such marriage? Think about marriages in which there is domestic violence, just to take what seems an obvious example.

Since we’re all getting anecdotal here, I’ll cite the example of my wife and her sister, who absolutely believe that they were better off for the fact that their mom divorced their alcoholic dad (who, I hasten to note, was never violent, and isn’t even a bad guy, but was totally irresponsible as a parent).


harry b 09.05.06 at 5:53 pm

Response to #77: yes, absolutely, and that’s one reason we shouldn’t prohibit divorce. Two points.

1) My observation was only supposed to count against a laissez faire position on marriage/divorce (and relationships in general), and support the idea that it is legitimate to condemn some of the choices people make in that regard.

2) On divorce specifically, legal regimes and social norms affect who marries, who stays married, and who divorces. The perfect legal/social norms would lead only those who will have marriages that are good enough for resultant kids to get married or, failing that, will lead those whose marriages are good for kids not to divorce, and those whose marriages are bad for kids to divorce. Of course, we cannot achieve such a regime, but it is a helpful way to think about divorce/marriage. My sense (which is based on judgment from observation and a fair reading of the social science, and is therefore pretty tentative and up for revision) is that the culture of the contemporary US is very close to laissez faire, and excessively tilted toward divorce. The culture of early 20th century UK was the reverse. Both are condemnable (if I’m right) for different reasons.


Michael M. 09.05.06 at 6:04 pm

I’m with Katya (#58). My experience is identical, as are my feelings about finding my biological relations. Of my birth mother, I know her name and that she was unmarried and 18yo when I was born (in 1962, in semi-rural England). Of whomever impregnated her, I know nothing. But I’ve never felt the urge to try to find out more. I will say that being born in England and raised elsewhere (in America, by American parents) probably had some bearing on me being something of an Anglophile. That’s about as far as it goes in influencing my sense of my own identity, aside from having two passports and a birth certificate bearing a name no one ever called me.

OTOH, my cousin’s son, whom she gave up for adoption when he was born in 1968, got in touch with her three years ago, because he felt much as CW described (#11). Like my birth mother, she was unmarried and 18yo at the time.

What I find interesting about the situation is that we all feel like we’re part of the same family. I find myself feeling related to my cousin’s son despite his recent appearance (and I didn’t even know he existed until three years ago), and my cousin — in fact, my entire extended family — has never treated me as any less a part of the family because I was adopted. I can understand his curiosity about what I think of as “my” family, embrace him as being a part of it, simply because of his biological link to people I grew up loving. At the same time, I feel no less a part of the family despite the lack of that biological link.

Doesn’t this suggest that people are more adaptable to circumstance than public policy often gives them credit for? Doesn’t it suggest that “the redefinition of the family to mean ‘whatever arrangement the adult seeking to procreate has created for the child'” isn’t, in fact, a redefinition at all, but pretty much the way it has always been? As another comment noted, we have only ever had the assurances of our families that they are our families at all — none of us witnessed our own conceptions, let alone the conceptions of our ancestors. To my mind, the only thing that is immoral is the idea that you should tell people how to make their reproductive choices. Any of us could, and very likely does, have lords and serfs, masters and slaves, even drug-addicts and lawyers (oh, the horror!) somewhere in our lineage. Saying that any of these “shouldn’t” have had children because of their circumstances at the time is nonsensical — we wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t. How do you know that your future daughter-in-law — and thus, grandchildren & great-grandchildren — won’t be here because someone told an infertile couple about the wrongness of using an anonymous surrogate to conceive?


vynette 09.05.06 at 6:48 pm

I am adopted. I never discovered that fact until I was twenty-six years old, and then by accident. Being of a curious nature, I immediately set about finding my bioligical parents, not because I wanted or needed to form any relationship with them but because I felt I’d been suddenly cut off from history, from any connection to the world that existed before I was born. Isolated.

As this is an American website, I thought this tale may be interesting to readers.

I was born in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. In case you are wondering…about sixty miles from Beerwah, home of Australia Zoo and our late and greatly lamented ‘Stevo’.

My biological mother (whom I have since found) was also born in Brisbane. I therefore know my ancestry on my maternal side. Not so on my father’s side.

When the United States came to our aid in fighting the Japanese during World War 2, there were many US servicemen stationed in Brisbane. My biological father is one of those US servicemen. He returned to the US before I was born.

I know nothing about him except his name. I have tried to find him by making enquiries in the US although he’s most likely dead by now. The interesting part is that I would really like to know, not for myself, but so my children can pass the information on to their children, and so on.

Hope this is relevant to the conversation.


Georgiana 09.05.06 at 7:00 pm

I think the question asked might be recast as how central is a sense of belonging to a shared family history important to one’s sense of self. Is biology necessary or is it simply the commonest form, as it is the default connection?

Per the comments just raised about adoption and belonging I would describe the flip situation. As it happens in my circle of family, friends and acquaintances, many have had a parent, kindly described as difficult. Or have just been different enough from everyone else to have felt most like an outsider among their closest relatives. As a result, many believe, strongly, that families are whom one chooses (friends, partners, some relatives), not those with whom one shares blood necessarily, a belief that has only been strengthened, interestingly, when (grand)children have arrived. It is often the moment at which choosing family is stated as the most precious of gifts, because blood ties are so much a matter of chance.

I happen to have been raised by parents who strongly believed in treating their biological children as choices, and in seeing a necessity in earning our affection and trust. They also created a family narrative out of our lives and their own (so we were creating the narrative as we grew and our sense of family is in many ways tied to the shared experiences). One result? We all remain close, but I have no particular interest in forebears whom I never met. Quite honestly, other people’s family histories often interest me more.

While none of these anecdotes include adopted children, and so cannot absolutely clarify the question of narrative as requiring biological underpinings, it does suggest that the attitude toward and the quality of ties may be far more important to one’s sense of identity than whether they are blood ties.

Which makes me think that while knowing one’s biological family may be optimal, being denied that opportunity is misguided but probably does not rise to the level of inflicting serious harm. Or, perhaps more accurately, the extent to which biological ties are important to one’s own sense of identity, the more harm one would see in denying that to another.


minerva 09.05.06 at 10:44 pm

I’m sure someone said this before but–don’t we have to show that the wrong is a deep one? That it would be better to not exist than to have such a question unanswered.

I know someone whose parents did not choose to get pregnant and weren’t very good parents and she is very miserable now. So I guess they harmed her. So it seems we could say in many ways–whenever we could anticipate something bad might happen to a child we are bringing into the world, some deficit they might encounter (poverty or a history of mental illness, etc., etc.) we are wrong to give birth to them. So would it be morally better if everyone who anticipated their child might have some difficulty decided not to have said child?

I have to read the paper obviously.


Danny Yee 09.06.06 at 1:46 am

One of my grandfathers wasn’t biologically my grandfather – he wasn’t my mother’s biological father. But he’s the grandparent I feel I have the strongest continuity with – he was also a “sub-scholarly” bibliophile – and I’m interested in his history and the cultural milieux which formed him.

So I think Velleman’s argument is just confused. Children have a biological (medical) interest in knowing who their biological parents are; they have a cultural interest in understanding the traditions in which they were raised and the background of the parents who raised them.

It would make no sense for someone to claim they had a right to a blood sample or genetic analysis of an adoptive parent; why does it make any sense to claim a cultural inheritance from a purely biological parent?


H. E. 09.06.06 at 1:57 am

Sen’s had a lot to say recently, in Identity and Violence and elsewhere about the folly of privileging membership in religious/ethnic groups as fundamental features of identity. Some people identify strongly with these groups, others don’t. Different people form their identities around different properties and affiliations–occupation, hobby, religion, old school tie; being left-handed, being a Mac user or, at least temporarily, being on the Atkins diet.

What’s really disturbing is the idea that identifying with blood kin, and by extension one’s racial or ethnic group, is a norm–that you’re not “authentic” or are somehow self-hating or “in denial” if you don’t. That’s currently a very popular and IMHO very oppressive doctrine. I can imagine how miserable it must be to be, e.g. an international adoptee, an American kid whose well-meaning parents try to connect to the ancestral culture or a black American under pressure to identify with African “roots.”

To me the big identity, because I’m a pompous ass, is the culture tree–Greece, Rome, Western Europe, England, America and the sense of kinship with all English-speaking people regardless of race. Rather like the Hellenistic idea–you speak Greek, you’re in; you don’t, then even if you look like us you’re just a ba-ba-arian of unintelligible speech.

I had a quasi-mystical experience in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. The crypt is the old church, archaic, crude, underneath the later medieval church. I had the sense that this was where the peoples of the British Isles were grafted into the culture tree that had its roots in Greece and, I suppose further back in Egypt and Mesopotamia–that it was there that we acquired our ancestors, that very place. It was like going back to Baltimore and showing my kid the house where we lived when he was a baby and the hospital where he was born which, he said, gave him chills.

I don’t feel much interest in my family tree or much real connection. Maybe I’m not a geneology hobbiest because I’m a history buff. Conversely, I wonder whether the fad for geneology and identity politics isn’t a consequence of a loss of that sense of history. Sorry to be a pompous ass again, but I think the real threat to identity isn’t disconnection with blood kin, ancestry or ethnicity, but the disconnect with cultural history. It isn’t a matter of not knowing history but of not knowing it indexically, seeing it from a point of view: Alexander got to India and discovered another high culture, but it wasn’t my culture; the Chinese were doing a heck of a lot better than we were in, say, 1000 A.D. Pushing ancestry and “roots” deprives people of that sense of history and identity.


engels 09.06.06 at 2:25 am

I have just read through thirty pages of distilled Velleman and I’m left with the feeling that Harry Brighouse has certainly committed some kind of moral wrong in promising me that the experience would be “riveting”. I can also report that my “cherished liberal assumptions” are, pace David Velleman, entirely intact. In the first part, Velleman does self-indulgent. In the second, Velleman does polemical. In short order, Velleman does mystical and Velleman does obscure. What Velleman doesn’t do, as far as I can see, is provide any clear or rigorous argument for his prima facie ridiculous statement that knowing the original excretor of the sperm and egg from which one has grown is a “basic human good”. That claim still strikes me as entirely ridiculous. It represents, as commenters on his own site have noted, a “horrifying, irrational attachment to the origins of one’s DNA”.

First of all we are treated to a long and egotistical section about Velleman’s own family history. So far so boring.

This is followed by a series of chilling warnings about a “vast social experiment” “designing” children in accordance with a sinister “new ideology of the family”, which is definitely the most entertaining part of the essay, but which seems unlikely to convince many philosophers, or indeed anyone who doesn’t regularly listen to Rush Limbaugh. He later goes on to say, sarcastically, that he wants to address the “enlightened” in their own “rationalistic” terms. Velleman notes that this kind of puff is “polemical” and that it will probably offend his readers. Well, it didn’t offend me but I did think it was terribly clichéd.

In the next section, Velleman boosts his nice guy credentials, by reassuring us that although he thinks that large numbers of normal, happy children should never have been born, this does not mean that we shouldn’t celebrate their birthdays. Also in this section, Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance is made to groan under the weight of Velleman’s inferences and much is made here of the alleged ineffable nature of family resemblance relations. This controversial assumption is then deployed to set up a further quasi-mystical claim, that I would know my doppelgänger by his family resemblance to me. It’s hard to know what to make of any of this, but as far as I can tell it seems to imply that someone who has never known his biological family would not be able to recognise his doppelgänger. This, at least, is a testable prediction and it is surely false.

Velleman then ups the ante and throws a few more taunts at us benighted “rationalists” who can not appreciate the central ethical importance of DNA-fetishism. He charges that, in addition to being incapable of self-reflection, we are unable to “read world literature with any comprehension”. Telemachus, Oedipus, and, wait for it, Luke Skywalker are entirely beyond our ken.

How can they even understand the colloquy between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker? Surely, the revelation ‘I am your father’ should strike them as a bit of dramatic stupidity-a remark to be answered ‘So what?’

This is silliness of the first order. Can it count for nothing with Velleman that Star Wars takes place in a fictional world? Can rationalists like me fully and innocently relate to George Lucas’s vision of a manichean struggle between Jedis and the Dark Side in a galaxy far, far away? Perhaps, but perhaps not, or at least not when we have our rational faculties switched on. Does any of this have any implications for serious moral decisions in the real world? Not by the forest moons of Endor!

For the general tone of the following intermezzo you can do no better than this little cadenza

First comes love, then comes marriage, and then comes the proverbial baby carriage. Well, it’s not such a ridiculous way of doing things, is it?

– which Velleman intones approximately halfway through it, without apparent irony.

After a few more pages in which Velleman tries and fails to solve Parfit’s ‘non-identity problem’ there is an invocation of the currently fashionable ‘narrative theory of self-identity’. This kind of thing is all well and good, but nowhere does Velleman successfully demonstrate the relevance of brute genetic facts to the stories about ourselves and our families which we spin and which are held to define who we are. After this, Velleman is unable to resist a few more pages of autobiographical wittering before signing off with a final blast of pseudo-profundity about his “forbears”.

Look, I’m not one of the familial libertarians, despised by Velleman and Brighouse, who believe that “All You Need is Love” (Velleman’s characterisation) and that anything goes in terms of intimate relationships. I think that people can do wrong to those they love and that parents can harm their children in all sorts of horrible ways. I just don’t think that raising a child in ignorance of its biological parents is one of them, and David Velleman’s essay has not given me any reason to change my mind.


dsquared 09.06.06 at 3:44 am

I am getting more and more sceptical of the idea that the fact that lots of people do something is evidence that it is a profound human need. Something like 50% of the UK population bought a Rubik’s cube.


reuben 09.06.06 at 5:49 am

Something like 50% of the UK population bought a Rubik’s cube.

And when my adoptive father solved his, I felt nothing… nothing, I tell you.

If only I could know that, somewhere, my biological father had a Rubik’s Cube just like mine, then I could feel a sense of purpose and meaning in this cruel world.


abb1 09.06.06 at 6:02 am

Hey, you should check: perhaps Rubik himself is your biological father. Imagine the excitement.


reuben 09.06.06 at 6:18 am

Imagine the excitement

Perhaps this excitement can make up for the confusion and lack of dramatic gravitas that so many stunted, non-biological children suffer when watching that “I am your father” scene in Star Wars.


Uncle Kvetch 09.06.06 at 6:35 am

My heartfelt thanks to engels, for saving me scads of valuable time.


leederick 09.06.06 at 7:25 am

If some of you are right and biological relationships aren’t important, then surely using anonymous donors to enable someone to have a biological child is just pointless and these people’s desire for a biological child is downright misguided.

Can you really have it both ways? Can you kick the stool out from under people’s claim to have an interest in knowing their biological forebears without also kicking the stool out from under people’s claim to have an interest in knowing their biological descendants?

I can’t help but think that as a defence for the use of anonymous donors that line of reasoning is self-defeating.


dsquared 09.06.06 at 7:43 am

Can you kick the stool out from under people’s claim to have an interest in knowing their biological forebears without also kicking the stool out from under people’s claim to have an interest in knowing their biological descendants?

I think we’re maintaining the quite defensible looking view that the interest in knowing who one’s biological parents are is of a different order to the interest in having a biological child. Time’s arrow points in the direction from parent to child, and you don’t have to be Richard Dawkins to think that there is a biological reason why people care more about their children than their parents.


Michael Kremer 09.06.06 at 7:49 am

I don’t have a strong opinion on all of this. The issues strike me as quite complex.

But on Velleman’s side, it might be worth taking a look at the following blogs (and others like them):

A woman who was conceived through sperm donation and whose sensibilities on this are very close to Velleman’s (in fact she links to his article):


Another woman, this one born of a surrogate mother, again not very happy about it:


And this one from a man who was conceived through sperm donation:


As soon as you find one of these blogs they lead you to others… This is a limited and self-selected sample, I know. Nonetheless, it can give you a clear sense of how the interests of the child might (emphasis on “might”) look to the child, not necessarily as a child, but later in life — when balancing the interests of the child and of would-be parents as Ingrid Roybens suggests above. One theme in these blogs is that the experience of having children of their own (biological children conceived naturally) has led these people as adults to see their own lives in a different light. They now see their own childhoods as lacking in a very significant good, and say that they would never choose to be involved in donor conception, surrogacy, etc — on either end of the transaction.

Food for thought, at least.


Michael Kremer 09.06.06 at 7:52 am

dsquared: Your last posted while mine was being composed. You speak of the “quite defensible looking view that the interest in knowing who one’s biological parents are is of a different order to the interest in having a biological child.” It is this view that the blog authors to which I linked above reject.


Ray 09.06.06 at 8:29 am

Equally, you can probably find some people somewhere who feel their lives were ruined when their biological father/sperm donor/surrogate mother turned up on their doorstep and wanted to be “part of their life”.


magistra 09.06.06 at 9:04 am

I want to make two points about the experience of adopted children. One is that a lot of current adoption reunion stories are from an era where being adopted was regarded as shameful. I was adopted as a baby in 1965; my adoptive parents were told that I would not be able to trace my parents and that this was best for me (the law was changed subsequently). Although I was told early on I was adopted, it was also made clear that this was something I should not let other people know, not something to be discussed within the family etc. The dynamics within a family where such matters can be discussed openly may be very different, but such secrecy about ones origins can itself damage family relations. The percentage figures about adopted people searching for birth parents may well be increased by the resulting problems.

The second point is that I traced my birth father as an adult and did feel more complete and connected as a result (however ‘psychologically irrational’ such a feeling may be). (I felt, however, far less connection to my birth mother). My brother, also adopted, has no wish to trace his birth parents, so the feeling is by no means universal. But I resent being told by those who were raised by their birth parents that I shouldn’t have felt connected to my birth relatives in that way or that I’m therefore some kind of atavistic bloodline worshipper.

From my personal experience I therefore think that choosing to have a child where there is no chance of them being able to trace their biological parents (i.e. permanently anonymous donations) is a detriment to them, because it is taking away a choice from them as adults to investigate that family. It is the selfishness of a parent saying that they know better what is right for their child than the child can ever do. When children grow up they may well not want to exercise that choice to investigate their past, but it is wrong deliberately to deny them the chance to do that.


dsquared 09.06.06 at 10:08 am

Michael; but if we played the game of you linking to those blogs while I linked to blogs written by people who were unhappy about their inability to have a baby, what odds do you think I’d be able to give you? I think, nine to one, at least.


reuben 09.06.06 at 10:14 am

Re 98: Don’t have refs to hand, but haven’t happiness studies found that couples who are childless by choice are just as happy on aggregate as couples with children, but that people who want children and can’t have them are far less happy than either group?


Thomas 09.06.06 at 10:32 am

Perhaps taking the question out of the “family” dynamic would clarify:

If the IVF lab screws up and implants Couple A’s embryo into one member of Couple B and implants Couple B’s embryo into one member of Couple A, and thereby deprives the two children of relationships with their biological parents, has the lab harmed the children? (Of course the lab has failed the parents, but that’s a separate question.) Assume that Couple A and Couple B are equally good parents, and that there are no complicating ethnic/religious/genetic issues–the couples are essentially matched. Assume that the embryos chosen would otherwise have been destroyed, if that’s necessary to avoid talking about Parfit. Is there a harm here, or has the lab simply done something less than ideal from the perspective of the child?


Michael Kremer 09.06.06 at 10:53 am

dsquared: I don’t mean to be playing a game, and I’m not counting up points or taking sides in some sort of betting game or utilitarian calculus.

As I said before I find this issue very complex. I do think it’s worth listening to all the voices we can in thinking about this. I don’t think it’s easy to decide on the question of which values are most important without doing at least some of this kind of work. Perhaps the blogs I linked to don’t speak to anything in you. I can only say that as an adult raised by his own biological parents and raising his own biological children, I do have sympathy with the losses felt both by those who don’t have children and those who don’t know their parents. This is why the issue is complex for me.

I posted the links because they seemed to me to represent a viewpoint that was relevant to the discussion and had so far been relatively neglected. (Others above have posted about the experience of adoption, but no one posted about the experience of being conceived through egg or sperm donor, surrogate motherhood, etc., as far as I can tell.)

I said “food for thought” and meant just that — worth bringing into the conversation. (Which I have joined just as it ended.)


patrick 09.06.06 at 12:24 pm

I don’t get this Luke Skywalker thing.

Luke was a kid who never knew his father, except through a few vague statements by Obi wan Kenobi to the effect that his father was killed by Darth Vader. Then, he meets Darth Vader, and finds out that his worst enemy is, in fact, his father.

Why would a kid need to know his biological father to understand this? If the assumption that one needs to have similar family relationships to those of fictional characters in order to understand those fictional character’s drama is correct, shouldn’t it be the opposite? Luke didn’t know his biological father. Then he did, and was horrified by what he found.

If Velleman is correct, I should be unable to relate to Luke because I’ve always known my biological father, whereas a kid who was adopted or conceived by artificial insemination should have no difficulty grasping Luke’s plight.

If we’re going to make up stupid Theory claims about interpreting Star Wars, can we at least make sure our theory and our examples are consistent?


leederick 09.06.06 at 1:01 pm

“I think we’re maintaining the quite defensible looking view that the interest in knowing who one’s biological parents are is of a different order to the interest in having a biological child…”

But isn’t that irrelevant? You could have a biological child with or without anonymous donation. So even if one interest is of a different order to the other, I can’t see why that should matter, since they’re not opposed.


dsquared 09.06.06 at 1:55 pm

You could have a biological child with or without anonymous donation

I could (I’ve got two). But as I understand it, there are plenty of people who cannot, in that it would not be possible to run sperm banks as they if they did not guarantee donor anonymity.


donorconceived 09.06.06 at 2:35 pm

Sperm banks and donor insemination can and does exist without anonymity. This is a viable and available option. Sweden, Victoria State, New Zealand, the Sperm Bank of California all have identifiable sperm providers.

According to an article from the Daily Mail titled “Anonymity law change blamed for chronic sperm donor shortage”…..

“The HFEA which regulates British fertility clinics, said yesterday they believe any lack of donors is more likely to be down to a shift in the demographic of donors.”

“Spokeswoman Vishnee Sauntoo said: ‘It’s no longer medical students in their early 20s that donate, it’s now people who are in their late 30s and early 40s who have completed their families and want to help other people. Clinics need to tap into this. They need to take responsibility in terms of recruiting and look at the best ways to do that, most clinics are now sharing information on the best way to recruit.” Read more here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=398300&in_page_id=1770&ito=1490


djw 09.06.06 at 2:58 pm

Lots of good criticisms here, and I have to agree with engels that this paper falls well short of riveting. The fact that the belief that this biological connection matters in some profound way, we should remember, cuts both ways in a way that Velleman and his ilk seem to utterly fail to appreciate. Before I got over our societies obsession with blood, biology, and identity, back in my teenage days, my biological connection to my father was a source of much consternation for me–he’s a lousy person and I liked to think I wasn’t, but feared otherwise–and I would have been nothing short of delighted to learn that I had no biological connection to him. Given the non-trivial portion of the population who aren’t good people, this side of the coin should hardly be dismissed. Constructing an identity from a biological blank slate may not be ideal, but it’s a big improvement for some of us.


Colin Danby 09.06.06 at 3:24 pm

I’d suggest reading this against David Schneider’s _American Kinship_. What DV is picking up on is an ideology of blood, of descent. Ideologies are powerful, and that’s certainly enough to explain people’s energy looking for genealogy. The result is a culturally-circular argument.


engels 09.06.06 at 3:24 pm

Sperm banks and donor insemination can and does exist without anonymity…

According to an article from the Daily Mail titled “Anonymity law change blamed for chronic sperm donor shortage”…..

Um, the Daily Mail article says that the UK sperm bank system is becoming unworkable now that anonymity is no longer guaranteed. I’m always very sympathetic to the idea that the Daily Mail is wrong, but isn’t it a bit odd to introduce them as evidence against the story which they are reporting?


donorconceived 09.06.06 at 3:58 pm

The Daily Mail article touches on all sides, including the reason why donor anonymity has been outlawed in the UK, why there is a “shortage” and what can be done about it. I mentioned the article because it addresses dsquared’s comment that it would not be possible to run sperm banks if they did not guarantee donor anonymity.
Which is not true.


leederick 09.06.06 at 5:43 pm

You know, if in order to operate sperm banks really need to induce people into fatherhood who wouldn’t otherwise do it, by offering them cash and shielding them from the consequences of it, then perhaps it would be best if it were not possible to run them.


wbb 09.06.06 at 11:26 pm

It has also been made law in Victoria, Australia that sperm may not be donated anonymously. Anybody who has witnessed the exertions that people go thru to discover genetic parents will not be amazed by this change in the law. There is a lot of absolutist over-reach in this thread about the unimportance of biology. We might be the risen ape, but we ain’t risen as far as some like to imagine.


Ray 09.07.06 at 3:02 am

110 – why? It doesn’t matter if the men providing sperm would not make good fathers, that’s not a fault that’s going to show up in their DNA.


Bruce Baugh 09.07.06 at 5:01 am

I don’t see that anyone has brought up the concern that immediately occurred to me. If I skipped it, my apologies.

Now, first of all, among my adopted friends, some genuinely do lead better lives now that they’ve discovered their biological heritage. This is a real gain for them, as for some posters here, and I hope that nothing that follows sounds like I’m denying it. If there were no positive concerns on this side of the balance, it would all be much easier.

Out of every thousand children, some number are adopted and benefit from the connection, in small or large ways. I don’t want to get into assessing the strengths of different people’s happiness. (Some number don’t benefit or suffer much, and some find their lives complicated unpleasantly.) But some number are also abused physically and sexually by their biological relatives.

Does Velleman address this?


leederick 09.07.06 at 5:25 am

Ray, my worry isn’t that the men providing sperm would not make good fathers. My worry is that reproductive decisions like these are pretty weighty ones, and people who wouldn’t make them otherwise are doing it because they’re offered various inducements. But perhaps people shouldn’t make these kind of decisions for themselves under the influence of those sorts of considerations.


Ray 09.07.06 at 6:53 am

I think you’re begging the question by describing anonymous donation as a weighty decision. If you donate with the clear understanding that there will never be any contact between you and any children that may result, how much weight should be attached to the decision to donate?


Thomas 09.07.06 at 7:48 am

ray, isn’t it a weighty decision for the reasons described in no. 93?

Or is that sort of hand-waving only permitted in justifying, not questioning, the practice purportedly being examined?


Ray 09.07.06 at 8:19 am

I don’t think that argument applies to anonymous donation. People who donate in those circumstances are declaring upfront that they are not interested in knowing who their biological descendants are. (Or at least their descendants from this act, they may have others they are interested in.) Just as some people on this thread have disavowed interest in their ancestors, they have disavowed interest in their descendants. This is about particular people in particular circumstances, the interests of ‘people in general’ aren’t relevant.

If you have separated “giving sperm” from “having children”, as these people clearly have, why is giving sperm a weighty decision? Would it be a weighty decision to give sperm that you know will never be used?

Leederick’s argument is that anonymous donators are shielded from the consequences of their decision(110), but that it is a weighty decision (115). If something has no consequences for you, or for anybody you know, how weighty a decision is it?


Ray 09.07.06 at 8:23 am

(should note – the decision has no consequences for you, and the consequences for other people are not bad. This isn’t a case of dropping a bomb on a foreign country, more like leaving a wallet full of money on a street corner. The people who use the donated sperm are obviously glad it exists, and I have a hard time believing that most children of anonymously donated sperm would rather not have been born)


Martin James 09.07.06 at 9:55 am

Although, I wouldn’t deny an urge to know one’s ancestors, it does seem a little strange that homo sapiens asa species has a relatively weak ability to know who their blood relatives are.

Other than family resemblance, the ability just doesn’t seem to be there. No unique smell, sound, taste, touch factor seems to be genetically imprinted that is anywhere near uniquely identifiable.

Biology apparently is more about “Love the one you’re with”


Thomas 09.07.06 at 10:28 am

ray, that doesn’t sound persuasive to me at all–it looks, as I suggested before, entirely ad hoc. Something like this: biology doesn’t matter at all, and it’s retrograde, foolish and antiliberal to suggest it does, but of course biology does matter to parents, but only to some–not to donors. There apparently is a biologically based reason for people to care about their children, but that biologically based reason is entirely absent if someone signs the right forms.


Ray 09.07.06 at 4:10 pm

I don’t think it’s entirely ad hoc to argue that sperm donors who choose to donate anonymously, on the basis that they will not be notified about children born from their sperm, and those children will not be told the name of the donor, have demonstrated pretty conclusively that they do not have parental feelings in those circumstances. (Circumstances which are biologically extremely unusual, and which have only arisen in the last few decades)
I don’t see why this behaviour is so hard to understand either. Since this thread is full of anecdotal evidence, you won’t mind me pointing out that I am a father, and have a very strong interest in my children. If I was to become a sperm donor (and the thought has come up, for reasons I won’t go into), it would only be on the condition of absolute anonymity. Complete ignorance, and no relationship at all, would be easier to deal with than some sort of parenthood at a distance.

(Incidentally, I haven’t argued that “biology doesn’t matter at all, and it’s retrograde, foolish and antiliberal to suggest it does”. My position is that biology does not over-ride all other considerations.)


Ruth 09.08.06 at 1:48 am

A few points: for those who are arguing that the “need to have biologically related children” is the only factor in donor insemination, I will refer you to the fact that in more and more states in the US, non-heterosexual couples are being legally ruled unfit to adopt. At all. So, say you’re a lesbian couple in Florida, and you desperately want kids. Do you invite a man in to father your child, with the knowledge that for whatever reason he could possibly sue for custody later on, and likely *win* in a system where there is already legal precedent ruling that you are de facto an unfit parent? Or do you use an anonymous sperm donor?

Re adoption and general questions of biological identity, I can relate several personal anecdotes. My (adopted) brother and sister are from Korea. My brother was 6, my sister 3, when they came to live with us. Assimilation into US culture was more difficult for my brother for a number of reasons, including, I think, that the experience itself of coming over was very traumatic for him. He’s been very angry about it and a lot of other things, and moved to Seattle (we grew up in the Midwest) to be in a place where he ‘blended in’ as Asian more.

My sister never had any of those issues, though, and pretty much I think considered the Cosby Show to be her main role model. She was much more affected by the fact that we lived in a wealthy school district but that we were poor to the point of relying on food stamps for several years. She got married to a white midwestern man, has 4 kids, and lives in Wisconsin.

A few years ago, my brother went to Korea and found his birth family. Including some surprises: we were all told that he and my sis were orphans, but in fact their mother is still alive. Also, they have another sister that they never knew about. The experience was huge for my brother for about 4 months, when he seemed genuinely happy and transformed. But there are language and culture barriers, and I think that more and more his experience with his Korean family made him feel how American he is. He hasn’t communicated with them at all in years, and has pretty much reverted to being angry. Talking with him now, he has no interest in that part of his family anymore.

Also, as an aside, his calling them his ‘real’ family was very hurtful to my mom, who after all did raise and love and support him (enough to go with him to Korea, and pay for their trip, and help find his family). I think many adoptive families do live with the worry that at some point they’ll be negated in this way.

As far as my sis was concerned, she had no interest in any of it. Her attitude is “they didn’t want me; I don’t want them.” She has never considered herself Korean or even Korean American– she’s American, and is more closely bonded with my folks than I am, to be honest.

My husband was raised by his biological parents, in the same house which they still live in. And he’s always felt like a freak in his family. They are very active, whereas he’s more intellectual; they aren’t abstract thinkers, whereas he specializes in theoretical work; they are liberal and atheist, and he’s religious and Republican (though not a Bush fan). They have almost no contact and he’s spent most of his life wishing to have nothing to do with them.

And I am disabled, with a heritable disability that my father’s side of the family has had for a long time (though covered it up in odd ways– my mom had no idea that it was a ‘feature’ of my dad’s genetic makeup when she married him). I don’t know that she’d have married him (or had kids with him at least) anyway, but I certainly do not regret the circumstances or fact of my birth and life. I’ll go as far as to venture that my folks don’t, either.

All of this is to say that human endeavors and relationships are complex, and when we begin to decide that because X Y or Z seem hard from the outside (or even from the inside), X Y or Z should be *condemned*, we’d better know very well what we’re talking about. I don’t think Velleman’s argument even begins to pass this test, and begs a lot of very troubling questions.


JanieM 09.08.06 at 5:51 pm

Ruth — wonderful post, especially the last paragraph. I was hoping to respond to this topic but haven’t had time even to begin reading Velleman, much less all the comments. You’ve given a concise summary of my most central concern….thank you.

Comments on this entry are closed.