Ethics and the Favored Son

It is time to talk about one of the ethical issues that has apparently driven Dan Rather nuts, and caused the Democrats to lose all sense of reality. The Ethics Scoreboard will frame it this way:

Is it wrong for parents to use their connections, networks and influence to help their children? And if they do, is it wrong for the children to accept such help?

Recently the media and the Democrats have been obsessed with the “favored son” issue, taking the position that there is something profoundly unjust and heinous about the elder Bush pulling strings to help George the Younger succeed. First, they act as if there is something dark and aberrational in the process, and second, they appear to be flabbergasted that the rest of the country isn’t recoiling in horror and condemnation over it.

This is, to say the least, peculiar, especially because it is a good bet that most of the critics gladly accepted parental assistance on the way to their own successful careers.

Ethical values evolve because experience through the centuries demonstrates that certain behaviors strengthen society while other behaviors do not. Among the values that evolved very early in the history of mankind, not to mention the annals of zoology, is that parents have a duty to provide and care for, teach, and help their children, that they have a higher duty to their own offspring than they do to everyone else’s, and that the bonds that closely tie parent and child should continue long after the child is grown.

While there are certainly parents who take a contrarian approach, most set out to do everything they can to make life’s road less bumpy for their sons and daughters, especially at the beginning of the journey. My father, who was not wealthy, powerful or especially well-connected, helped me by making it easier for me to get into a prestigious college, paying for my tuition to both college and graduate school, and using his personal credit so I could buy my first house. That is a lot. Almost certainly, I took a place in that college that, without my dad’s assistance, would have been filled by another deserving student. The fact that I graduated from law school without huge loans to repay gave me freedom in my career choices that other graduates less fortunate than I never had. Without my dad’s assistance, the wonderful house my wife, child and Jack Russell terrier live in would be making another family happy, not ours. Is this wrong? Am I a partner to injustice? Am I a bad and corrupt person because I accepted the loving boost that my father offered me? Do we want to discourage parents from helping their children?

Thos who say “yes” are insisting on an ethical standard that not only doesn’t exist, but that is profoundly unnatural. I suppose that there are arguments to be made for a utopian world in which no individual has any advantages over another, and where networks, alliances and friendships confer no advantages at all; it isn’t a world that I would especially like to live in, but as they used to say at that law school that I unethically let my father send me to, “reasonable people may disagree.” But nevertheless, this isn’t the world that exists or is ever likely to exist, and ethics become irrelevant when they are based on abstract concepts divorced from life experience. Certainly, I admire any child (and there are some) who reject parental assistance in a belief that anything not earned is not worthy. “No, dad, I don’t want to take over your business; take applications and choose the best qualified candidate.” “No, dad, don’t give me an entrée to that company run by your old college roommate. I’ll just submit my name like anyone else.”

“No, dad, don’t use your contacts to get me into the National Guard. I’ll just go to Viet Nam and get my brains shot out in a war I don’t understand.”

Any of these is ethical behavior, but they also represent an extraordinarily high standard of ethical of ethical behavior. Criticism of anyone who accepts help from a parent attempts to make anything deviating from the highest ethical ideal the equivalent of an unethical act.

But accepting help from a parent is not wrong. Offering help to a child is not wrong, and favoring the fate of one’s own child above those of strangers is programmed into the species. That programming holds families together; it makes families more than just a group that happen to end up under the same roof.

Ideology can lead us down some strange roads. In their admirable quest to reduce inequities in society, some Democrats are coming close to advocating a principle that is patently illogical and unfair: those of means should not use their assets to help their children, but those with fewer means should. Forgotten in such a formula is one of the core tenets of American enterprise: you work hard to succeed so your children can get a head start on their own journey to success.

I suspect that the appeal of this ethic is one reason why the American public isn’t repelled by the likelihood that President Bush was given many advantages through his father’s connections.

There is an ethical obligation that comes with privilege, but it is not an obligation to reject a parent’s assistance. The obligation is to make the most of one’s special opportunities, and like the Kennedys and the Rockefellers, to name just two of many, turn one’s advantages into a productive life and perhaps even public service. George W. Bush, like George Washington, John Quincy Adams, the Harrisons, the Roosevelts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and his father, accepted the benefits provided by his family’s wealth, power and influence and became President of the United States.

Obligation fulfilled.

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