Answering Some Objections About the Golden Rule

[update:  added an additional objection I had forgotten regarding allegedly misrepresenting the text.]

Judging from the feedback, I think my latest piece at The Federalist about how the Golden Rule means having kids is the most universally reviled thing I’ve written thus far. Given some of the things I’ve written in the past, that’s a little surprising. But what can I say? If that’s the high water mark now, I’ll just have to keep trying harder to surpass it.

In any case, I will, as usual, respond to the most common objections:

This article is dumb. Having kids is for suckers because it will make you unhappy. I’m not going to burden myself with a bunch of little brats.

This would be the bull’s-eye on the target audience. Thank you for proving my point about selfishness.

But life doesn’t always go according to plan! Having children doesn’t always work out.

The article is specifically about people who plan not to have kids.

You pulled a sleight-of-hand on the Golden Rule by changing “what you want done to you” into “what was done to you.”

No sleight-of-hand here.  As long as you actually want your parents to love you and want to be alive (which is 99% of us), then “want” is still there.  The only change is removing the hypothetical–from what you would want to what you do want.  That doesn’t remove the force of the Golden Rule–it just heightens it because its harder to make any pretense of what you would have done unto you.

So how many kids do you need in order to be moral?

This was the “But he, desiring to justify himself, said ‘And who is my neighbor?” objection of the bunch.

It’s a fundamentally irrelevant question. It’s like being told you’re supposed to help the poor, and then asking how much money you need to give to charity in order to be moral. Does it have to be $100 or is $99.99 enough? Or should it be a percentage of your income? But do you take that percentage before or after taxes? Can you deduct your medical expenses first? How do you count capital gains and losses?

Doesn’t matter.

Whether it’s sacrificing your wealth for the sake of the poor or sacrificing your lifestyle for the sake of your family, the point is not coming up with some flowchart you can use to declare yourself righteous. That’s what the Pharisees did. The point is learning to be generous with what you’ve been given and doing unto others what you would have others do unto you.

Learn to be generous with your life first, and then you’ll figure out how many children to have.

The Golden Rule is only about how we treat people in the here and now. It cannot apply to people who don’t exist.

This is a very artificial restriction to place on the Golden Rule–it’s certainly not a limit that Jesus places on it. Why shouldn’t the Golden Rule encompass posterity?

Consider some unrelated examples: If I would not want to be saddled with trillions of dollars of government debt passed on to me by earlier generations, then neither should I saddle future generations who do not yet exist with such debt. If I would not want to receive a world irrevocably damaged by pollution, then neither should I pollute the world now lest future generations that do not yet exist inherit such problems. If fiscal or environmental policy number among your concerns, then either of those would be entirely sensible applications of the Golden Rule despite their beneficiaries not yet existing.

In the same way, if I like to live, then I should play my part in providing future generations with life. Caring for the future is work for today–even when the beneficiaries do not yet exist. As the old saying goes, civilization depends on men planting trees in whose shade they themselves will never live to sit.

People should never have children out of obligation because they’ll be bad parents. Children deserve to be wanted, so you should only have children if you want them.

This is a particularly odd objection. Prior to the advent of modern contraception, children were obligatory for basically everyone who had sex. But odd or not, this was by far the most common complaint. Amazing how quickly a ubiquitous obligation can become absolutely unthinkable.

The error in this line of thought comes from a failure to understand how our desires are shaped. Consider: Do you bathe regularly purely out of obligation, or do actually prefer being clean? I, for one, very much prefer being clean. But as a child, I had to be obligated to bathe because I didn’t know any better. Do you become educated out of obligation, or do you actually prefer being knowledgeable? I very much prefer gaining knowledge. But as a child, I had to be obligated to learn because I didn’t know any better.

Many of the best things in life are such that we would never learn to appreciate them if our parents never obligated us to participate. The wise imposition of obligation is one of the most important ways we learn as we grow up. Parents know that better than anyone. If so many people hadn’t stopped embracing the challenge of parenthood, their thinking wouldn’t be so impoverished on this point. They have, in certain respects, never finished growing up. They don’t know any better.  But learning that your desires developed out of selfish attitudes is one of the first steps to cultivating better desires.

But what about the children of parents who don’t want them? Am I worried about people reading my piece and consequently deciding to have unwanted children? Not at all. The only people who are ever going to pay attention to what I wrote in the first place are those who aspire to be better–to move beyond their own selfishness. I have no doubts about such people learning to love their children and becoming good parents. It’s only the people who retain their commitment to making excuses that would continue by trying to excuse their decision to be a bad parent. Those, in contrast, are precisely the ones who will continue to squander their inheritance of love on themselves regardless of anything I have to say.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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6 Responses to Answering Some Objections About the Golden Rule

  1. scott says:

    I think one of the main problems you hit around is that we are (by and large) all pro-choice, even today’s Christians. The main question we ask is, as one of your commenters got at it, “Do we want children?” This was the pro-choice motto from a while back, “Every child a wanted child.” The scriptures put no such qualification on it.

    This is not to say we are required to have the maximum amount of children physically possible, but let’s start with a different question, “Can we have another child?” I think if the conversation starts that way, you will soon move to comparisons of what you might be giving up. Is another miraculous, God-made individual in the world worth more than a trip to Disney World? a newer car? the sacrifice of some sleep?

    On the other hand, that question may be answered with physical or emotional problems that would prohibit another child. Fine. But that is, in my opinion, a better way to get at being open to more children. [The problem of whether you have enough money, I have found to be pretty much bogus. The Israelites (and those before them) were pretty much living at 3rd-world levels. We, on the other hand, live in the richest country at the richest time in history.]

    As to “what does it mean to multiply?” could we all agree that “multiply” usually means that the number goes up instead of down? — otherwise, we call it division. (Granted, there are hard cases.) If Adam and Eve had one child, how does that work itself out? If they had two, what’s that look like? If they have 3+, now we are in business.

    • Matt says:

      Great way of looking at it, Scott. On this topic and others, “What can we do?” is generally a much healthier question than “how little can we get away with doing?”

  2. Jerry says:

    1. I love your work. It looks like a lot of your analysis turns on converting many variations of thought into yes/no, right/wrong, etc. This makes finding the edges easy and when found, exposes the middle as, well mostly stupid.
    2. I, like most, want your answer to reflect what I want and, if I don’t, reject it (fight as the first reaction). I gave up because I agreed with you. (so much for fightintg).
    3. Keep nailing them up on the door!

  3. Stephanie says:

    This was such a good read, along with your other post. Thank you so much for taking the time to put these arguments out there in the world. Confirmed much of what God is showing us in our own marriage, and is simply beautiful, godly logic.

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