Topic: Society

"Think of the Children!": An Ethics Fallacy
(2/16/2005)

"Think of the children!" is a tried-and-true debate-stopper, but more often than not one that succeeds because of its ability to inhibit rational thought. Children routinely have to suffer the consequences of adult incompetence, recklessness, stupidity, dishonesty and irresponsibility, and if preventing that biologically-dictated result is humanity's priority, then society needs to abolish the enforcement of laws, the obligation to support one's own family, and common sense. Don't fire that lazy and intoxicated worker who has fathered more kids than he can possibly support: Think of the children! We can't send that single mother off to prison for embezzling the hospital funds: Think of the children! Don't make that former professional athlete pay the millions in back taxes he owes the IRS; he has all those illegitimate kids to support: Think of the children! Such misapplied compassion, and it is epidemic in some circles, encourages unethical adults to live their slash-and-burn lives like the bank-robber who confronts police using a nine-year-old girl as a human shield. "Shoot me, and you kill the kid! You don't want that, do you?"

No, we don't want that. But unless society sticks to principles that require adults to be responsible regarding the welfare of children in their charge, the "Think of the children!" reflex will suffocate order and justice. This is occurring in the increasingly illogical illegal immigration debate. "Think of the children!" has been used to justify significant benefits for the children of illegal immigrants, such as scholarships to state universities.

Meanwhile, the deportation of illegal immigrants who have no legitimate defense is being opposed by misty-eyed "Think of the children!" crusaders, with abundant moral support from the public policy geniuses in Hollywood. (On a recent episode of ABC's "Women's Murder Club," the heroines spent much of the hour glaring at an INS official who was hell-bent on returning an illegal and his daughter to Mexico. "What a bitch!" one of them opined. Thus do cultural values get warped by those who depend on law-breakers to clean their swimming pools and prepare their vegan brunches.)

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate running neck-and-neck with John Edwards in the race for "Oval Office Aspirant Least Fettered By Ethical Coherence," has said that he does not believe in making children suffer for the misconduct of their parents, though he recently criticized Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee for having essentially the same position. But if either Republican really believes that (and as with most of the candidates in either party, it is nearly impossible to tell what they really believe), then child services agencies under President Romney or Huckabee are going to be mighty busy, taking over the care and feeding of kids every time their parents blow the rent money on drugs and get the family evicted or Daddy gets sent to the slammer. The fact that children must reap the benefits and the detriments of parental behavior is supposed to encourage parental responsibility.

And indeed, the current trend toward making benefits available to the children of illegal immigrants is having the predictable effect by making crossing the border without authorization a responsible and even heroic act, from the point of view of the parents. Many otherwise law-abiding individuals would break the law if it conferred permanent, life-changing benefits upon their children, even if it meant hardship for themselves. It is obviously inconsistent with the goal of discouraging illegal immigration to give citizenship, education and other benefits to the children of illegal immigrants.

Imagine a society that passed legislation stating that while robbery is a crime and thieves will be punished, the children of any thief are entitled to keep 50% of whatever is stolen, while the rest of the money has to be returned to the owner. Such a law would encourage theft by parents willing to suffer the consequences of being caught in order to give their children's prospects for success a huge boost. If that analogy is too attenuated for you, here's a more direct one: imagine a law that guaranteed a burglar's children a room in the house he broke into. Ridiculous? Unjust? Wrong?

I agree. Now explain in 300 words or less why this is different in principle from laws guaranteeing citizenship, education and other social welfare to the children of people who are in the country because they violated our immigration laws.

It is difficult enough, sometimes, to decide right from wrong without government turning the basic process of obeying laws into complex ethical dilemmas. If we don't want open borders — and we don't — and can't take in every immigrant who wants to live and work in America — and we can't — and don't want to encourage non-citizens to break our laws — which we shouldn't — then we simply must not "Think of the children!" when it means turning illegal immigration, an otherwise wrongful and unethical act, into an attractive and noble sacrifice for parents who have the misfortune to live in countries that lack the opportunities the U.S. provides. The welfare of children does not trump all other values and principles. When we "think of the children," we need to think about the society they are going to grow up in as well.

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