The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

The Insatiable Self and the Best Interest of Children

“What is the best interest for children is not always expressed because of the self-indulging attitude of adults.”

Richard N. Williams | November 23, 2015
| Print | Google plus Google plus linkedin share button
A young child looks dolefully out a rainy window because his parents are self indulging and have not though of their child's best interest.

During the extended discussions and debate on same-sex marriage leading up to the Obergefell decision (which was intended, it seems, to bring the discussion and debate to a close) one of the most important issues was the relative weight to be given to the perspective, desires, and preferences of adults as compared to what could be affirmed as being in the best interest of children. The “best interest of children” is, of course, something that everyone on both sides of this, or any other, issue will most certainly endorse in principle. In practice, however, it is most common to invoke and support the best interest of children when it happens to support simultaneously what is taken to be in the best interests of the adults involved. Unfortunately, when the best interest of children seems to conflict with the interests and desires of adults, the interests and desires of adults almost always prevail. Such has certainly been the case in the marriage issue.

Legally sanctioned alternative marriage arrangements include marriages between same sex couples. (Other possible arrangements are currently pending in the courts.) It is a simple fact of such arrangements that, if the adults engaged in those marriages wish to become parents, it will inevitably result in children’s being reared without a parent of the other sex in the home, and, often, without a parent of the other sex in the children’s lives at all. For some, if not most of these children, it will mean that they will not know or have close on-going relationship with at least one of their biological parents. This certainly seems like a decision that accommodates adult preferences and desires, but may not be in the best interest of children.

Even conclusions about whether parents in alternative arrangements can make good parents are framed and elaborated from the perspective of the adults involved, not the children. Objectively measured outcomes of children’s performance take no account of the subjective, perhaps unarticulated emotions and desires of children, or other consequences of fatherlessness or motherlessness which may be important to the children as they mature into adulthood.

The best interest of adults and their feelings has made it difficult to focus attention on children

Such strong focus on the best interest of adults and their feelings has made it difficult to focus attention on the best interest of children. For this reason, empirical data that indicate that important outcomes for children are enhanced when they are reared by their biological parents in intact families are often refuted or criticized based, again, on the desires and preferences of adults. Such data has even been criticized because its use would provide a basis for not validating the personal decisions of adults.

I suppose that one might be able to conceive of a universe, or perhaps even a set of unique circumstances, in which it might be construed to be in the best interest of a child that an adult – even a parent – could impose a separation of a child from his or her mother or father, and even require that some child be reared throughout life without a mother, or without a father, based solely or largely on that parent’s desire or preference for a particular sexual relationship (same-sex or opposite -sex). However, the rational mind would struggle to find the “best interest” of the child in any such decision. A generation ago, such a situation would have been called a “broken home,” and considered a real shame – especially for the children. Rather than foregrounding and validating the adults’ decisions, the cultural response would have included a call for sacrifice, constraint, and maturity “in the best interest of the child.”

The cultural milieu has shifted in recent decades, however. As Camille Williams noted in her essay, “Abortion and the Insatiable Self, “World and I, May, 1992:

In the past, our collective history of virtue and vice served as the text for instilling morality in our youth. But the old stories of serving and sacrifice that sustained our parents and grandparents have been increasingly displaced by the myth of the self-defined individual who believes that “when it comes right down to it, your first responsibility is to yourself.” (p. 546)

Williams uses the term “insatiable self” to describe the self-concept and self-understanding that have emerged and taken root in a fairly short span of time, within a generation. Such a self-concept arises when one’s own personal and individual needs, desires, and claims become the core of one’s self. The pursuit of all things essential to the self then takes on a species of primal legitimacy. No argument seems required to defend the premise that, by nature, the needs, desires, and claims for validation of creative human beings can never be filled, satisfied, or laid to rest. They are, in essence, insatiable because we can always conceive of “more,” “better,” or “stronger,” and so forth. Thus the term, “insatiable self.”

. . . after World War II arose the secular self, an inward-looking creature of needs and drives. The contemporary self, according to professor Stanley Rothman of Smith College, is propelled by “expressive individualism” coupled with a rational self-interest that has changed marriage, childbearing, and the family into “experiences in self-realization rather than duties and obligations” to be honored. (p. 549)

Obviously, in any confrontation of one insatiable self against another insatiable self, there might be reason to compromise. Hobbes and other Enlightenment thinkers noted centuries ago the advantages of social contracts. Children, however, have not yet grown into fully assertive insatiability. It takes time for our society to mold and burnish their individualist self-obsession. Sadly, therefore, in any perceived conflict between an insatiable adult self and the best interest of children, children will lose. They are unskilled in self-assertion, and often they are silent, particularly if they are already under stress, and inevitably if they are yet unborn. They often do not know what they lack, and thus what might be better. They will lose every time. Happily, in individual cases, even insatiable selves can sometimes do the right thing for children. However, at the cultural level, where most effects are widely dispersed and far-reaching across time, there seems to be very little hope for the best interest of children to prevail against the crush of the insatiable self. The notion of the best interest of children has slipped – or been driven – into the background of our cultural ethos, due in large part, perhaps, to the attitude of various contemporary feminist writers such as Germaine Greer, who, in a chapter entitled “Misery,” from her book, The Female Eunuch, concluded, among other things, that: “Bringing up children is not a real occupation, because children come up just the same, brought or not.”

A case in point presents itself in the public response to the recently announced policy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) regarding how the church will relate to the children of couples who are living in contracted same-sex relationships or same-sex marriages. The policy announcement essentially said that the Church would not baptize into the faith at the normal age of 8 years, children who were living with parents who were in same-sex marriages or relationships. The children could, upon reaching the age of majority, if they desired, be baptized, and receive all church sacraments, if they renounce the practice of same-sex sexual relationships – which are among a rather large number of sexual activities that are in conflict with fundamental church doctrine and standards, and which all faithful are expected to renounce.

Our society currently has a news cycle best measured in nanoseconds. Responses were immediate, consuming enormous amounts of band-width. The earliest and loudest responses were predictable from a culture of insatiable selves. Before the LDS Church had even had a chance to hold a press conference to explain the action, the policy was interpreted, characterized, and criticized as being punishing, demeaning, unfair, punitive, and a host of other things. The conclusion was that this policy used and abused children in order to retaliate against their adult parents whose choices, based on their personal desires and preferences, were not in harmony with church doctrine – just the latest volley in the perceived war against sexual self-determination. Those adult choices, the rights of parents, and the sovereignty of the insatiable self were the immediate focus of the responses. Insatiable selves always assume “it’s all about them.”

There was more often concern for the rights and privileges adults might value for themselves

Expressed concern for children was genuine but, along with concern that children might value baptism, there was more often concern for the rights and privileges adults might value for themselves and a concern that their children were being denied things they themselves would value for the children, presuming the children to be merely younger insatiable selves.The possibility that the LDS Church might actually be acting in the best interest of children seemed not to have occurred to the vast majority of critics. It took two attempts for the church to even get a very simple explanation into the conversation that the policy was, in fact, grounded in the best interest of the children. The church was agreeing – unilaterally – not to “proselyte” the children of same-sex couples. Baptizing them would put the children under covenant to obey and sustain the fundamental moral teachings of the church, including abstaining from all sexual activity except that between a man and a woman married to each other. Because the church tries to help its members young and old to take covenants very seriously and live up to them, leaders of the church could see immediately that church membership would put the children in a very difficult position of being actively taught, and encouraged to live and proclaim the truth of, a standard of sexual morality contrary to that practiced openly and purposefully by their own parents. This is surely an untenable position for the children. Thus, the church was acknowledging this difficulty, respecting the parents’ responsibility for the moral guidance of their children, and taking itself out from between the parents and the children, and thus taking the children out from between the parents and the church. The church was acting in the best interest of the children.

It is telling that so few could see any sort of “best interest of children” in the church’s action. Indeed, it is a testament to the ubiquity of the insatiable self that so small a volume of discourse was given to the possibility that the best interest of the children might have been a major factor in the decisions announced. It appeared very hard for people even to recognize such a “best interest” – even if they did not agree with it. Any perceptions of the best interest of children were obscured by the immediacy of the perceived threat to the unrestrained pursuit of libertarian freedom and the insatiable desire for self-fulfillment of the adult parents directly, and their children secondarily.

Any perceptions of the best interest of children were obscured

The insatiability of the contemporary adult self represents a significant challenge to our culture. It seems always to triumph in the public mind and heart over the best interest of children, and over any number of virtues that emphasize sacrifice over satiety. The insatiable self can be blind to the best interest of children in any form not obviously compatible with adult self-concern and self-indulgence. The sociologist Philip Rieff, in his 1966 book, The Triuimph of the Therapeutic, may have described most succinctly what lies at the end of the road for a society dominated by the idea that happy and healthy selves must be provided radical freedom to choose whatever they may desire. He noted the “absurdity of being freed to choose and then having no choice worth making.” It is the insatiability of the contemporary self that eschews contemplation of any morality likely to reduce radical, self-affirming choice. But this very insatiability will draw society into the absurdity Rieff has identified.

The Nobel Prize winning economist, F. A. Hayek devotes attention in two of his books, The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952), and The Road to Surfdom (1944), to the question of human freedom and how societies might desire it, promote it, and, tragically, lose it. His analysis of the structure of the process, can be applied to what is being discussed here. It is really quite simple. When self-fulfillment becomes the prime directive for individual and social practice, the social practice and policy must promote self-fulfillment even at the expense of other things. Social institutions, including governments, are tasked with maintaining individual freedom and providing for fulfillment. When self-fulfillment becomes insatiable, because no acceptable limits can ever be conceived or enjoy broad approval, complete fulfillment will require complete control of all social processes that provide and distribute those sources of self-fulfillment. Insatiable needs require complete control over production and distribution. In the end the visions of Rieff and Hayek converge: saturated selves cannot maintain freedom in either the private or public form. And the children will inherit the absurdity. This seems not in their best interests.