Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

The Death of Mama Bear: Parental Duty, Favoritism & Morality

Mama or Papa Bear is a role that every good parent adopts.  You’ve seen it or you’ve done it.  When a child is in need of a scarce resource or is being mistreated, a wave of righteous indignation and courage washes over even the most docile of people as Mama Bear awakes from her slumber.   In the animal kingdom, a good mother Bear will rise up on her hind legs, show her teeth and flash her claws as if to say, “Threaten my young and prepare for defeat.”  Humans aren’t much different.

Mama Bear is one of the noblest roles in the play of life.  In fact, many might consider failing in this role to be immoral.  Parents possess a unique set of duties towards their children, including an obligation to selflessly defend, provide, love and nurture them.

A problem arises when Mama Bear’s reach extends beyond her own cubs.  The claws of a defensive parent can pierce, sink into and rip apart their adversaries.  This imposition upon others, even to the parent’s own detriment, is for the perceived good of their young, but at what cost to society?

Sometimes, a parent’s defensive actions are valid.  But, at other times, it is questionable as to whom is the real victim.  For instance, consider a parent who lashes out a teacher who assigned a poor, yet deserved, grade to a student.  But, what if Mama and Papa Bear could become more rational and, thereby, better understand the validity of the threats at hand?  Perhaps, then, parents, their young and the world they inhabit would benefit.

Due to technological advances in the field of neuroscience, it is currently popular within the scientific community to assert that humans, like bears, lack free-will.  This means that the human conscious experience is purely chemical- a complete product of biological mechanisms.  I disagree and believe that, while the hand of nature possesses primary power over human behavior, our unique and enigmatic consciousness enables humans to be contemplative.

The question remains, through which mechanism can consciousness accomplish this feat?  By exploring the relationship between conscious free-will and our biological constraints, perhaps we can come to better understand and put to death the Mama Bear mentality.  But then again, perhaps the death of Mama Bear would lead to the death of humankind.

Biological Favoritism

Mama and Papa Bear is a curious role, as it could lead a peaceable person to murder or a good citizen to commit a crime.  It can also empower an exhausted parent to overcome their thoughts of child abandonment and fulfill their parental duty to care for their young.  Demanding, yet sweet, pudgy faces beckon parents to serve and love them above all else.  The paradox of Mama Bear enables good and bad to coexist within one loving, parental figure.

Mama Bear is the evolutionary product of our quest to reproduce, for in reproduction our genes survive, even past the point of our death. The passing on our genes is one of mankind’s primary objectives (conscious or not).  It seems only fitting that parents should be willing to do whatever it takes to protect their little packets of DNA, embodied as children.  In the animal kingdom, survival is king.

Survival, throughout human history, has been dependent upon group belonging.  Humans have evolved to thrive in groups, for within these groups comes protection, provision and, ultimately, life.  We still favor group loyalty and cling to others that look, act, smell, think and speak like ourselves.  We fervently favor our group (e.g. school, team, political party, community, race, religion, country), because we are biased towards ourselves and our genes.

In this way, helping others can actually be cleverly disguised selfishness.   We love ourselves, and everything that reflects us.  This principle extends into our families, as our families are an extension of ourselves; and, at the pinnacle of the family is our offspring, for whom we are willing to bend our moral sensibilities to help, love and protect them at any cost.

Children as Charity

Children are worthy objects of our undying love and benevolence.  We see our children as the ultimate object of charity, because of the deep love and empathy that they elicit from us.  But is it morally right to pour all our resources into our own children, forsaking all others and the world in the process?  The primal, gut reaction of Mama Bear screams “yes”, but take a moment to reflect further.  Is there a moral and empirical ceiling to how much care and resources any one child can, or should, benefit from?

Economist, professor and author, Bryan Caplan, uses twin studies to argue in his book, Selfish Reasons to Have more Children, that if you belong to the middle-class and above, your children generally have what they need to survive and thrive.  For these kids, nurture is important, but not as important as we hope and think.  Accordingly, the Mandarin classes, private schooling and baby flash cards are all a lost investment.  He supports the idea that, like economic investments, parenting investments are subject to the law of diminishing marginal returns.

But, parents invest more into their children than just financial resources.  If you are reading this article, you are likely also sitting on a wealth of human capital.  Human parenting capital can be seen in the ability to be patience, creative, dedicated and loving as well as to discipline, teach and provide opportunities for your children.  How much of these scarce resources does it take for a child to benefit a great deal, little or not at all?

Good parents see their children as one-in-a-million, deserving of every opportunity and worthy of unending mercy despite their failures.  When a parent is on the playground, the other kid is the perpetrator and their child is the victim. When they stand on the soccer field, their child is owed a chance to play and win, while the other kids can sit on the bench or lose.  Mama Bear wouldn’t have it any other way.

Parents, we are hopelessly biased in favor of our own children and I won’t pretend to be above the Mama Bear mentality.  Last week, I escorted my children to a play-based museum, crowded with children on a field trip from an inner-city school.  The school children’s chaperones did not actively engaged with them and the students explored the museum without supervision, guided by impulse and curiosity.   Mama Bear growled  within me as I watched others shove my children, take their toys and cut in front of them in line.  The look of disappointment and frustration on my children’s faces elicited my deepest empathy.

My gut response was to let Mama Bear take over.  The rude children did not belong to our group, they were harming my young and I did not feel empathy towards them.  Instead, I felt resentment and annoyance.  I wanted to remove the threat to my children.  But somewhere between Mama Bear and the other children, my rational side urged me to deliberate.   Let’s explore how that occurred.

Mama Bear’s Death at the Museum

Earlier in the week I had read a New Yorker article, “The Baby in the Well,” by psychologist and professor, Paul Bloom.  In it, Bloom defended the idea that human empathy is biased and can lead us astray in moral deliberation and that “empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future”.  He further supports this remedy in his article, “The War on Reason” (which appeared in The Atlantic), that “our capacity for reason…reigns over all”.

While I support Bloom’s premise that humans can wrongly allow biological impulses to influence our morality, I questioned Bloom’s remedy of rational deliberation.  Can reason override our intuition and put Mama Bear to death?  The pull of the intellect seems so much less powerful than emotion and instinct.

Author and prominent contemporary psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, also sees the weight of emotional pull in moral deliberation.   Haidt developed a social intuitionist approach to morality as a result of dissatisfaction with his predecessor, Lawrence Kohlberg, whose six stages of moral reasoning were too cerebral and overlooked emotional sway and bias.  In Kohlberg’s construct, the sixth moral stage, called Universal Ethical Principles, was the highest level of moral attainment.

In a longitudinal study, only 10% of participants reached Kohlberg’s fifth stage and the sixth stage was never observed.  Haidt’s dissatisfaction with Kohlberg’s bleak theory lead him to discover that in most cases, moral reasoning is less intellectual and more emotional.  In fact, most people rely on gut response and than post hoc justifications.

Normally, I would have behaved at the museum as Haidt predicted, allowing my anger towards the misbehaving school children to justify my defense of my young.  Mama Bear’s claws were out and ready to defend her cubs.  But I took a moment to reconsider, thanks to Bloom.

Instead of only empathizing with my children’s frustration and mistreatment, I felt empathy for the inner-city children, who most likely do not have regular access to a safe, stimulating place to play.  While their parents likely struggle to make ends meet, my children have more than they need.

The learning and play experiences at the museum were a scarce resource.  I could either hoard those experiences for my privileged children, who may marginally benefit from them, or I could enable the disadvantaged children, who would likely benefit greatly, to enjoy more playtime at the museum.  Through rational deliberation, the choice was made clear.  We left the museum and decided to return another day.

Practicality, Please

Despite the fact that I can deliberate and choose to relinquish my children’s spot in a museum, will I take a step further and give up the clothing on their backs or the food from their mouths?  Should I?  The world just might be doomed and the human condition left without remedy, because when I am brutally honest my generosity is limited.  Mama Bear’s growls can be muzzled, but when backed into a corner, she will attack.

Parental duty is good, but can it be moral to allow another child to suffer harm on account of your child’s happiness?  This is morally gray area, but I argue that killing Mama Bear will kill our young and the whole of mankind.  The protective parent plays a critical role in the survival and development of our species and s/he should not be completely destroyed.  Instead, let’s seek to temper Mama Bear, as pragmatism begs that we strike a balance.

We know that Bloom’s argument, that reason reigns over instinct, closely resembles Kohlberg’s unattainable sixth stage of moral reasoning, but does that render his argument meaningless?   Bloom admits in his book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, that he (like the rest of us) is still bound to apply biased empathy.  He offers the example of him walking by a homeless man without stopping to offer help, whereas if the man were a family member (think a child in our case) he would certainly stop and offer aid.

Accounting for our biases towards the familiar (family, children and group) when rationally deliberating can help us to make better moral decisions and improve the world, but rationality is regrettably far from being supreme at this point of human moral evolution.  Intellect can discipline our minds to learn to empathize counter-intuitively at times, but Mama Bear’s emotions and survivalist nature remain as the most powerful force in most of our deliberations.

We are a product of our biology and paradoxically capable of rational thought.  As semi-free agents, shall we cower to Mama Bear?  Fear is, after all, the most powerful human motivator as it overrides selfishness with selfishness. (For instance, “I choose what is good, because I fear bad consequences.”) But, I proved to myself in the museum that conscious deliberation could overcome even the most profound innate bias- Mama Bear.  If intellect can override parental duty and loyalty, perhaps it is powerful enough to override less persuasive biases too.

Most of us do care about others and as a result we support charity and try to live good lives.  But Bloom urges us to apply generosity of spirit and resources past the point of what comes naturally and comfortably, like the philosopher Peter Singer.  Ideally, these arguments would spur us to donate a significant portion of our income and live on much less, but pragmatism begs us to stay grounded.  Since most of us are still climbing Kohlberg’s impossible moral ladder, let’s start small and work our way up.

As for this Mama Bear? My parental duty will still trump my utilitarian sensibilities, but I will be more willing to yield to rational deliberation and seek to take small strides towards serving all the world’s children, instead of just my own.

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