Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Nurturing Chain

Retaking the quest for "godless ethics," I am confronted on the morning of Father's Day with the Mosaic commandment to "Honour thy father and thy mother, that thou mayest be longlived." Why and whatever for?

Perhaps this is the problem with starting with the Mosaic decalogue. All the Judaeo-Christian sources I can lay my hands on begin with the presupposition that it must be done because God ordered it. To honor parents is to honor God: God made us, with our parents participation.

Now let's say that one is skeptical that there ever was a god, least of all at the time one's life began. What then? What is the purpose of this very widely held notion?

I write this at a time at which I stand to gain as a net beneficiary: I am a father and my parents are dead. Yet why should my sons live under ethical compulsion to honor me?

As with many of the other ancient commands, I find myself thinking of the economic, social and practical reasons such an encomium would have been cast in the form of a universal norm. The first to come to mind is that until Social Security, and the various forms of old age support in Europe and Japan, becoming old was a tragedy.

Do note that Social Security is not a forced savings plan: it is an intergenerational transfer from the working age generations to the one beyond that age.

So the idea that God, the all-purpose source of everything someone would, without bothering to rhyme or reason, wish to impose on another, declared that parents should be "honored" -- includes caring for them in old age -- makes some economic sense. To me. But why would it make sense to my sons?

The idea, I suppose, is the whole notion of parenthood as godlike. You give life. You clean diapers. You feed and clothe and house and educate for half a lifetime. In your prime years. Then they let go and that's it.

"Al olor de la flor se le olvida la flor" (the scent of the flower forgets the flower), sang Catalonian composer-singer Joan Manuel Serrat in the 1970s, in a song addressed to his girlfriend's mother.

Of course, there's another rendering of the story. You have sexual urges and, in love or in lust, you copulate. With no effort, often without the slightest intention, a sperm and an ovum (discovered only in the 19th century!) make a microscopic meeting in a flood of intermingled fluids. A new life begins.

Discovery of the life is greeted with chagrin or joy depending on the copulators' intent (see above). The actual life involves a lot of work that was not bargained for; the baby has a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to spew out excrement, tears and the most annoying noises in the universe.

But there are rewards. What parent does not revel in the moment this creature suddenly ... smiles! The love of one's children and the love of one's parents is clearly a matter of brain chemicals to ensure the nurturing of young humans.

Is that practical good an ethical good? I'd start to answer from the universal imperative to survive, enunciated three years ago here, which runs as follows:

All behavior that enhances my survival is good and desirable, whatever detracts from it is bad and to be avoided. My survival is linked to the survival of all humanity.

Seen from that perspective, the Mosaic principle, based on the idea of human survival rather than a god, needs to be amplified to apply to all who are in the nurturing chain.

We need to honor parents, grandparents and children, but also cousins and uncles and aunts, and also greengrocers and farmers, cobblers and tailors, and carpenters and masons. We need, indeed, to honor the other species of plants and animals that sustain us, the rocks and waters that shelter and refresh us.

We are children of the universe, its stewards, and in a biological relay race, we are also its mother and, yes, its father. Happy Father's Day everyone!
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