Genesis of the Individual: The True Original Sin?
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There has been much philosophical and religious discourse regarding the ideas of death and the collective origin of the humanity since the dawn of reflective thought. However, comparatively little reflection seems to have been done regarding the highly common event of the births of individual human beings. I will attempt to illustrate the seemingly unchallenged peculiarity of the phenomenon of an individual human being’s birth into this world and explore the potential ethical and metaphysical ramifications of such an event; particularly addressing the questions of how and why birth might (or might not) be considered ethical. I will demonstrate the inadequacy of pre-existing ethical systems to fulfill what ought to be considered a necessary condition to their coherence: their ability to model the phenomenon of birth.
I should begin by outlining a conception of “birth” as I speak of it here. I am not necessarily referring solely to the event of biological birth, but rather the “bringing-forth” of a new reflective conscious subject into the world (which appears to take the form of a protracted, phased process culminating in self-awareness). Since little, if anything at all, may be safely inferred about non-human consciousness, we will discuss only human births here. We are also not discussing such phenomena as “rebirth” in the spiritual sense or related ideas, but only the origination of a not-previously-encountered, unique individual being. Evidently, it is impossible to speak of one’s initial insertion into the world from a phenomenological viewpoint since few reputable persons claim the ability to pinpoint the moment they achieved self-referential consciousness, and it is an obvious misnomer to speak of such things as “pre-conscious experience.” Therefore, since we seem to know the conditions triggering the sequence that leads to birth, we may only coherently speak of it from our common experience of birth as an “objectively” observed phenomenon.
The peculiarity of a human birth becomes apparent in a simplified modeling of the human condition. If I might be forgiven for making some very broad generalizations (and presuppositions), we could imagine the world as a windowless, doorless room within which human minds abruptly appear (with no prior memory of any experience, of course). The walls would be representative of all the seemingly arbitrary conditions which we are subject to in experience (the facticity of our situation as it appears; including even our experience of attachment to physical bodies). Our sudden materialization in this room naturally subjects us to the most profound existential trauma that comes with a lack of apprehension regarding our situation. While stumbling through the dark, grasping at the walls, attempting to orient ourselves, we discovered, by some chance or power, the conditions by which “new” human beings could be brought into this room with us. Even as we choose to fulfill these conditions to bring about the later event (i.e. birth), it remains unclear whether one could more accurately liken the event to a ritual of summoning or to a “creation” more akin to the nurturing of a seed (just as death is modeled by some as a “moving on” and as a “destruction” by others).
In any case, after coming upon this power, we continued to make use of it; perhaps without often reflecting upon why we ought, or ought not, to do so (taking it for granted as “natural”). Understanding the strange and confining aspects of our situation, how might we justify the continued bringing-forth of our kind on the individual level against what is, or will become, their will? Depending on how we conceive of ethics, perhaps one’s very birth into this world constitutes a supreme ethical transgression on the part of one’s parents. It seems then that the prerequisites for any such ethical system to stand must include a reconciliation of this “original sin”.
The decision to bring a new mind into the world is unique among the moral choices we might be faced with in our lives. No other choice involves the fulfillment of an intention to create a new agent of free choice. Nor does any other involve the ontological event of impregnating the fabric of reality with an additional mind, which might be seen as roughly analogous to the addition of another variable in an already infinitely complex equation. It is of no less gravity than the creation of an entirely original and separate world.
We find many ways to rationalize our decisions to continue bringing more human minds into the world. The religious worldview of course blesses every birth with the will of the divine, while simultaneously imbuing that life with a presumed purpose. Even in the process though, responsibility for one’s birth is at least partially shifted away from the parents and toward a divine force. The scientific worldview would reduce birth to the natural process of reproduction, while still supporting it as an evolutionary necessity. Here also, responsibility is shifted to some external force (in this case nature) since ultimately the scientifically interpreted human’s only goal/purpose is to ensure the survival or the species, which is used to validate each birth regardless of whether humans in general are seen as having intelligence enough to defy their biological urge to proliferate. These are various manifestations of an alienation of the responsibility involved in the choice, which directly forms the facility of another’s existence in a far more dramatic way than most choices can.
When faced with this notion of birth as an ethical transgression, one might retort that a being which has not yet achieved reflective consciousness (or indeed, one which cannot be said to exist in any meaningful way) is not yet a rational being, and thus not worthy of moral consideration. However, this simply attempts to gloss over the fact (extenuating circumstances aside) that a parent generally takes action with the express intention to fulfill the necessary conditions to bring just such a moral agent from potentiality into actuality. Certainly, the new person will eventually come upon the realization that he/she had no choice in his/her own birth, whether coming to directly resent that fact or not. It can only be that very intent that we may examine to consider birth in ethical terms, since the event itself may only coincide with fulfillment of the conditions previously mentioned (given that they are completely arbitrary as we had posited). The difficulty lies in handling this deprivation of the most significant choice anyone will ever make: whether or not to exist in this world.
It may strike one as absurd that I have thus far attempted to label as choice that which seems contradictory (as far as we may know). We all generally acknowledge that a parent’s choice to give birth to a child is a choice on their part, but that there never could have been an involvement of the child themselves in the decision-making process. So why speak of the violation of the choice of some involved subject when that subject does not yet exist? If we understood birth as the summoning of a mind from one world to another, this would be even more directly distressing, as a moral agent would already exist to be directly violated. In such a case, we really have no business giving birth at all, and as it stands only our ignorance of such other worlds shields us from a direct and classically intelligible ethical transgression. Claiming no such knowledge, there is no ostensible difference in our experience between modeling birth as an organic (holistic) generation of being and a potential ritual of summoning. Practically, we act as though one is born into no other world before this, and perhaps never would have existed at all without the intended action of the parents (assuming the possibility of prevention, abortion). Setting aside for the moment the potential consequences of that decision by the parents, can we now understand birth as a deprivation of choice in the conventional sense? Indeed, it seems impossible without contradiction. Our abstract model of “choice”, which necessitates the exercise of conscious, reflective faculties, is seemingly insufficient for approaching this problem.
Should we simply abandon principles of choice and responsibility as our tools for approaching this ethical conundrum then? It might be simpler to take a route more concerned with consequences alone. One might say: “Well, sure we do not give new individuals a choice in birth, but if they were not born, then they could never attain happiness, or bring happiness to others!” Under such a disposition, birth is not only acceptable but encouraged if it will increase the overall happiness among all humans. However, it would certainly be a tragic injustice should a birth be justified solely by the instrumental value that newborn would have toward others. One might imagine a mother that has children only to treat them like dolls or, more commonly, a family that has many children simply to better their socioeconomic status. Once again, this would only make birth permissible by essentially ignoring the transgression against the newly arrived individual, and possibly disparaging everything that makes them a person in the first place. Therefore, in taking this approach, we must limit ourselves to considering methods that primarily serve the best interests of the person who will be born (whether the proposed goal is their happiness, their self-realization, or any such abstract end). Again, we run into a problem of deciding whether our goals become better than not being born. Does it make any more sense to appeal toward the good of a being that need not exist than the free will of that being? What use does a non-being have for such goods as happiness? Promotion of the newborn’s interests seems only a means of making amends for the initial transgression (by “making the best of the situation” so-to-speak).
Yet we cannot, without immense hypocrisy, simply take for granted the circumstances surrounding the event of our coming-into-being while claiming the slightest curiosity at the nature of our existence. Perhaps we might gain insight into the nature of this problem by consulting philosophers who may have at least touched on the issue in their meditations.
Beginning with the ancient Greeks, specifically Socrates (as relayed through Plato), birth was seen as a means of transcendence through love. Love is the ladder man climbs toward contemplation of the divine and eternal; first through seeing the good or beauty of earthly things, and eventually seeking them in progressively purer forms. As Socrates explains, having children is merely a mortal’s way of achieving immortality and is therefore an expression of their love (though the act of giving birth to profound ideas is held as superior to bringing new humans into the world) (Plato). More recently, Emmanuel Levinas articulated a somewhat similar view, but with a new child being the direct ontological product of the love between two people and a means by which they directly transcend themselves (though not transcending their own death as Plato would have it, but rather opening up a dimension of ethical time where ethical relationships are now possible) (Guenther 76).
Unfortunately, it seems these views encounter the same issue mentioned earlier: the act of giving birth seems to be motivated merely by some potential benefit of those already existing, but not necessarily for the sake of the newborn. There is only one way that such views can overcome this challenge as made apparent in another a common thread between them: a divine being/existence. Once children are born, they too may seek transcendence in their now possible relationship with the divine. For Socrates/Plato, this consists in contemplation of good and beauty; for Levinas, in the intuitive responsibility toward others, the now-possible relationships with whom expose us to an infinite gulf between, and ultimately infinity itself as an instantiation of the divine. Put plainly, birth is desirable because it allows a relationship with the divine for the parents, and potentially for the new consciousness as well. Indeed, it could be through the will of a divine being that birth is even made possible. However, if we do not allow ourselves to rely on God to explain this phenomenon ethically (as would be proper philosophical practice), we find ourselves right back where we began: unsure of how this initial ethical transgression of birth might be either justified or at least healed.
In our search for an approach to the problem which does not rely on God yet does address the interests of the newborn individual, we next turn to the prominent philosopher Martin Heidegger, who would again try to comprehend birth using a model of choice. Heidegger understands birth as a point in our personal history that we can experience anew (and repeatedly do so in our lives whenever we experience anxiety; the existential mode through which one becomes profoundly aware of their having been “thrown” into this world) (Heidegger 192). He understands birth as a “chosen inheritance”, one possible way of being among a constellation of many such ways which, like all others, is granted significance in light of the projection of one’s own death (Heidegger 443). In this way, it does indeed become possible to reinterpret one’s own birth as a positive or, at least, morally neutral event in relation to the rest of our personal history. One may be able to comprehend and cope with one’s birth in this way, but cannot undo the initial ontological event of one’s being thrown into the world, which none could sincerely claim to have any control over. Here, birth is understood as a gift that can and must be accepted, along with all its attached responsibilities (which are, in this case, crushingly burdensome). Heidegger never seems to discuss parental moral responsibility in relation to newborns. His approach allows us to partially mitigate the trauma of our own coming-in-being through reinterpretations of our own existential histories, but not to absolve our parents in any way.
Until this point, I have conspicuously avoided what might perhaps be the most ostensibly simple solution to this problem: the act of forgiveness. Cannot we simply forgive our parents for deciding our birth on our behalves? Philosophers (and for our purposes, specifically those who have also discussed the phenomena of birth at some length) seem to have generated several competing concepts of what constitutes forgiveness. Hannah Arendt understands forgiveness as a mutual recognition of the transgression in question having actually occurred as prompted by an apology and completed through a reciprocal release from moral responsibility of the apologetic individual from the consequences of their actions (d’Entreves). Applied to birth, Arendt’s idea of forgiveness would absolve parents from any unforeseen, unintended consequences of their actions (which would likely entail any suffering the newborn might endure in their lives), but not the act of giving birth itself. Levinas addresses this subject as well, offering a slightly different understanding of forgiveness as a figurative return to the past moment of the transgression, undoing it as though the event had never occurred (in an ethical sense, since no amount of rectifying sentiment can undo the event of one’s birth) (Allers 7). Importantly, Levinas does not ask us to pretend as though the event did not occur, or that the transgressor was not responsible, but instead suggests we offer him/her “a new beginning” (i.e. an open opportunity for redemption), making his notion of forgiveness preferable to Arendt’s for our purposes (Levinas 282). Forgiveness understood in this fashion could seemingly solve our problem, except that asking for forgiveness in the form of an apology is first required, and we can hardly imagine any parent sincerely apologizing to their child for having given birth to them. It strikes one’s intuition as absurd/unnecessary for such an exchange to take place. Indeed, it most commonly seems as though few parents show any guilt for giving birth (other than perhaps guilt of giving birth at a particularly poor time in the parent’s life, which is a separate issue). One cannot simply attribute this to the naïveté of the parents, since all but the most delusional should understand that giving birth to another does not equate to giving them a fulfilling life, but only the potential for such; nor can it be attributed to mere social conventions/traditions which view birth as a gift, for guilt concerning giving birth (in general), seems to have scantly appeared, if at all, in any known human spiritual traditions (a striking uniformity that is uncharacteristic of social convention in the broad sense).
The conviction that we do no wrong in the process of bringing about each new individual life has been left unchallenged, yet we remain incapable of adequately articulating our justification. Perhaps the intent to give birth can only be made coherent when understood as the decision to involve more souls (whether they are summoned or merely made to coalesce) in the endeavor to forge humanity’s undecided collective destiny; the fruit of which must then be shared with each human being (including each newborn – though this may leave it as ethically neutral at best). Our understanding of the event of birth itself is then altered from a bringing-forth to a setting-forth, where being is oriented such that it is now must comprehend itself as human; imbued not necessarily with a particular essence but fixed in fundamental relation. Even this notion is troublesome for various reasons and certainly requires a far more in-depth, multifaceted analysis than I am able to afford it within this short essay. Still, the fundamental inadequacy of existing ethical systems to make the phenomenon of birth intelligible has been exposed (in tandem with the presupposition of its intrinsic value). To find coherence, all ethical systems must necessarily meet this challenge to comprehend the genesis of the individual as self.
Allers, Christopher R. "Undoing What Has Been Done: Arendt and Levinas on Forgiveness." Inter-Diciplinary.net. Inter-Diciplinary.net, 2011.
d'Entreves, Maurizio P. "Hannah Arendt (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (fall 2008 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (Ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, 27 July 2006.
Guenther, Lisa. The Gift of the Other: Levinas and the Politics of Reproduction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 1978. Print.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Lingis, Alphonso. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991. Print.
Plato. “The Speech of Diotima”, Symposium. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Project Gutenburg. Project Gutenburg, 7 Nov. 2008.