Are parents morally responsible for their children?

No one sets out to create the next Adam Lanza, but when kids go bad, it's their parents who often answer for them


Published June 23, 2013 3:00PM (EDT)

Adam Lanza        (AP)
Adam Lanza (AP)

This piece originally appeared on Nautilus.


I didn’t choose to have a child. Not if “choosing” means something rational—weighing pros and cons, coming to a conclusion. I tried that process but ran away from it because, even though I wanted a child, it seemed to me that creating a whole new person was such an enormity that no one could rationally decide to do such a thing. There is so much at stake, and so little certainty about the outcome. A child that I conceived might be happy, but he might be miserable beyond endurance. The child might bring happiness to others, or he might ruin people’s lives. It seemed to me that creating life was an act of astonishing hubris because it made me responsible, maybe morally responsible, for huge consequences. For most of our species’ history, we were spared that decision because procreation was not (for the most part) a choice, but merely something that happened to us. It was a biological destiny. We escaped that destiny when science gave us control over our fertility. But I wasn’t equal to the freedom that science gave me. Fearful of such an immense decision amid such uncertainty, I allowed myself to drift into parenthood instead of choosing it. I let other people’s expectations, the sheer normality of having children, construct a new, sociological destiny for me to replace the biological one and protect me from what seemed an impossible choice.

I was right to be concerned about my children’s uncertain future and unpredictable impact on the world. But was I right that the decision to create life was possibly blameworthy if things turned out badly? Here’s a line of thought that could have reassured me: Whether what I do is morally right or wrong doesn’t depend on the good or bad outcomes of my actions, because these outcomes are influenced by factors beyond my control. It depends instead on my intentions at the time of acting. However risky my actions might be in every other respect, I never face moral risk because I’m only answerable for my intentions and not for how things happen by chance to turn out. As an object of moral judgment, I am immune to misfortune, utterly secure in the face of uncertainty.

So, imagine someone who decides to have a child and sets about parenthood with the best intentions—to bring up the child as well as possible, to make the child happy and a source of happiness in others. Imagine that these are real intentions, not just wishes but a determined conscientious commitment. And imagine that the child grows up to do as Adam Lanza did: He walks into an elementary school one day and shoots dead a score of small children and the adults who try to protect them.

Whatever else the parent forfeits as a result of this atrocity, surely she or he is secure against blame? Wouldn’t we feel compassion for such a person and offer consolation by saying, “Your intentions were good. You cannot blame yourself for such a turn of events.” Isn’t that a certainty amid uncertainty that lessens the sense of enormous hubris that we might feel when we consider parenthood?

Disturbingly, it is a certainty that evaporates under examination. Because the fact is that, despite the emphasis we place on good intentions, we do routinely pass moral judgment on ourselves and others for outcomes that were not intended, not foreseen, and influenced by factors beyond our control. Philosophers call this “moral luck,” by which they mean that the judgment we deserve often depends not only on our intentions, but on how our actions happen to turn out.

This moral vulnerability to luck is pervasive, because nothing at all that we do as parents is fully under our control. Some people, for instance, have to do their parenting in very challenging circumstances. The parent of a child of difficult temperament, in a country whose gun laws make it easy for the mentally ill to obtain lethal weapons, is more likely than another parent to find him or herself morally implicated in murder. The essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” drew an enormous readership online and gave voice to the anxiety felt by parents who fear their emotionally troubled kids could become violent.

We are also vulnerable to chance in our own personalities—the good and bad traits we happen to possess, which of course affects our parenting. We have only a limited control over our characters; for some people, being a dedicated, attentive, engaged parent is just easier. That doesn’t make it wrong to praise them. It means that they are lucky enough to earn praise for good actions that come naturally to them. Others are unlucky enough to be blamed for deficits they did not choose. Of course, we can do battle with our shortcomings, and we can admire people who are good despite themselves, by a constant effort of will. But even this effort of will is something that some people are lucky enough to find easier than others. When it comes to our guilt or innocence as parents, we are at the mercy of chance.

This effect emerges in the attitudes displayed by and towards some parents caught up in notorious atrocities. When the mother of the alleged kidnapper and rapist Ariel Castro asks, “May those young ladies forgive me,” she seems to acknowledge some sense of moral responsibility for events over which she apparently had no knowledge or control. And we understand her sense of responsibility because, in her shoes, we would feel it too. We have compassion for this woman precisely because we accept the naturalness, the inevitability, of her self-reproach. Even when we reassure the parents of wrongdoers that they are not to blame, we do expect them—require them—to feel guilt, to need such reassurance. We would probably look askance at these parents if they claimed their good intentions as parents meant they had no moral entanglement in the crime.

Susan Klebold, mother of the Columbine killer Dylan Klebold, speaks of being “widely viewed as a perpetrator or at least an accomplice since I was the person who had raised a ‘monster.’” She cites a survey in which 83 percent of respondents believed that the parents’ failure to teach proper values played a significant part in the Columbine killings. Klebold at times had similar thoughts herself: “We perceived his actions to be our failure. I tried to identify a pivotal event in his upbringing that could account for his anger. Had I been too strict? Not strict enough? Had I pushed too hard, or not hard enough?” And though we have no reason to doubt that Klebold did do her best to raise Dylan, she likely has plenty of moments to look back on with regret. Even the most well-intentioned parents are sometimes too tired, distracted, ill-informed, or even just plain lazy to model good behavior, say the right things, or listen to their children attentively enough to understand the thoughts they are struggling with. If their children do not go on to commit terrible crimes, these ordinary parental lapses would be forgotten, rather than becoming the antecedents of horror. The Klebolds could have gotten lucky: A thousand chance events might have deflected their son from performing such a heinous act. But as things turned out, they were tragically unlucky: A vast matrix of causes led Dylan Klebold to commit this crime, and one or more of his parents’ ordinary parenting failures are likely to be somewhere in that matrix. The awful truth is that the degree to which we are blamed for relatively minor wrongdoings often depends not on the wrongdoings themselves, but on chance outcomes they may have contributed to.

For example, look at a recent speedboating accident in Britain, apparently caused by negligence. A family was thrown from their boat, which then plowed into them, killing the father and one daughter, and severely injuring the mother and one other child. The deaths and injuries might have been avoided if the boat’s driver had used a “kill cord,” a standard safety feature designed to cut the boat’s engine as soon as the driver falls overboard. It is quite common for people to fail to use these kill cords properly, but most of them are lucky and nothing tragic happens. On this occasion, they were unlucky. The fact that it was a chance event that led to the family being thrown from the boat does not protect the driver from being somewhat morally accountable for two deaths and for the life-changing disabilities of two of the survivors. One natural response to this story is to feel deep compassion for whoever was driving. We hope that it was the deceased father and not the surviving mother, so that she is spared from a lifetime of self-reproach. This compassion, as much as any harshness felt toward the driver, shows that we accept that a relatively small wrongdoing, combined with a stroke of terrible luck, can generate terrible guilt.

Similar thinking appeared around a recent case in the National Hockey League, where a hard but unexceptional and arguably legal hit led to a player landing face-down on the ice, losing consciousness, and breaking his face in several places. For many observers, the grievousness of the injury meant that the perpetrator had to be blamed, even if he hadn’t done anything especially wrong. “The consequences of the hit, to many, somehow had to matter,” wrote one journalist. “This is about [the injured player]’s injuries, they understood—somehow, ultimately—not just about the rules.”

Isn’t it the same when a host of chance events come together to make one imperfectly-parented child a killer and another imperfectly-parented child a well-adjusted adult? When deciding whether to have children, many people think about what mark their child might leave on the world. But they might not consider that they will have limited control over their children’s behavior, yet could very well share the guilt for anything those children do wrong. If we decide to have a child knowing that we are certain to be imperfect parents, we are a little like a person who decides to drive a speedboat without the kill cord in place. We rely on good luck to save us from terrible blame.

The exposure to moral luck seems paradoxical because we are also drawn to the opposite idea—that we can only be held accountable for our intentions, which are under our special control in a way that nothing else is. We are pulled both ways.

Recent research on the brain suggests there are deep roots to the troubling tensions in our moral judgments. Two researchers, Fiery Cushman at Brown University and Liane Young at Boston College, have found evidence that our fractured moral thinking results from the existence within us of two competing psychological processes: an “outcomes-based” process, which assesses individuals solely on the grounds of the causal part they play in the production of harm; and a “mental-states” process, which is concerned with intention and foresight, and withholds blame from individuals for harm that they could not reasonably have foreseen. These systems generate contradictory outputs when individuals cause harm unintentionally.

Neuroscientists have not yet completed mapping the brain regions that give rise to these processes, but Cushman and Young’s research reveals that activation of the right temporoparietal junction is involved with assessing other people’s mental states; the more this part of the brain is activated during moral judgment, the less we tend to blame people for the unintended outcomes of their actions. Disruption to the right temporoparietal junction (and also to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) affects the judgment of intentional, but not unintentional, harm. This suggests there are two distinct neurological processes involved. During the judgment of unintentional harm, brain regions associated with cognitive conflict and cognitive control light up, as the brain works to reconcile the outputs of both the outcomes-based and the mental-states processes. Questionnaires presented to hundreds of adults, in which they are asked to pass judgment on people in hypothetical scenarios, confirm the existence of this conflict. These studies also show that judgments about punishment are heavily dependent on outcomes, rather than intentions. This may account for some of the tension we feel when we consider, say, two drunk drivers, one of whom gets home without causing an accident and the other of whom kills a child. We acknowledge a sense in which both drivers are morally equal, but we also feel it right to punish the killer more severely. This seems to be because our thoughts about punishment are strongly influenced by the outcomes-based psychological process. Cushman speculates that we have a basic instinct to punish bad outcomes arising from a period in our evolutionary history when we were not able to communicate intention reliably, and the best way to encourage pro-social behavior was to punish harm and reward benefit, whether accidental or not.

Is there any comfort to be gained from learning that our conflicting moral responses have this underpinning in the brain—particularly from the suggestion that our harsher, more punitive responses might be anachronistic, a hangover from past evolutionary times? Not as much as we might hope for. The moral quandaries we face aren’t dissolved when we find their neurological and evolutionary basis any more than our appreciation of art is undermined by the neurological and evolutionary basis of our perception of depth and color. But the knowledge that we are influenced by these competing psychological processes supports the somewhat comforting philosophical idea that we will never find an entirely coherent, tidy, systematic view of our moral responsibility. We see that it is problematic, unfair, even tragic, to burden people with responsibility for outcomes beyond their control. But equally it would, in the words of philosopher Bernard Williams, “be a kind of insanity” never to experience sentiments like Ariel Castro’s mother—never to feel a need for forgiveness, a need to atone, a sense of being at fault—when our otherwise blameless actions (like giving birth to a child), or our nearly blameless actions (like parenting a child imperfectly) cause unforeseen disaster for others. Rather than attempting to reason ourselves into coherence, we should embark on the more modest task of reflecting on the actual experiences that are the stuff of our moral life so that we can see our untidy morality in all of its contradictory richness. Since we can neither eliminate our responsibility for chance outcomes, nor find clear criteria for when we should accept blame, we ought to shift our focus and ask how we can live with parenthood’s painful uncertainty. What obligations does it place on us? What consolation can we seek?

Some answers emerge from Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, an account of one mother’s rage, defiance, and honest self-examination in the face of the enormous exposure to blame that parenthood entails. The title of the book—published in 2003 and given renewed relevance after the tragedy in Newtown—refers to Kevin, a troubled child who eventually goes on a killing spree at his school. His mother, Eva, feels tyrannized by this distant, unforeseeable culmination of her and her husband’s decision to have a child. She constantly revisits this decision, constantly works at piecing together some true and acceptable account of what has befallen her. She asks herself endlessly whether her son was just naturally difficult to a degree that made it impossible for her to parent him successfully, or whether he was in fact an ordinary child, driven to badness by her cool and reluctant parenting. And she asks this question without sparing herself, fully aware of the temptations of protective self-deceit.

Eva’s struggle sometimes makes it seem like the effort to judge the morality of our actions is pointless: Our dual-process brains commit us both to accepting and to rejecting our responsibility for events outside our control. And if we are as vulnerable to blame for unlucky outcomes of our actions as we seem to be, no rational investigation will let us pinpoint the extent of our wrongdoing. Just as we can never anticipate all the rippling bad outcomes for which we might find ourselves liable, so too can we never, in retrospect, trace the exact nature of our causal contribution to them. Four hundred pages of honest self-interrogation are not enough for Eva to work out her part in the causal matrix that led to her son’s crime. It seems that only omniscience could achieve that.

Since reason shows itself to be of limited use, why not embrace its opposite? Kevin’s mother feels drawn to various sorts of irrationality in response to her unlucky throw of the dice in becoming a parent. She sometimes abandons her rational project of working out what is or is not her fault in favor of irrationally taking total responsibility, “gulping down blame with a powerful thirst.” Because “it’s simplifying… It imposes order on slag.” Many other people misperceive bad luck as punishment, and doing so is a major component of religious belief. In Western religion, a plague, a flood, or a shipwreck can be a punishment for sin. In Eastern religions there is the concept of karma. For a lot of believers, this feature of religion is a source of the constructive acceptance of misfortune. The notion that our ill luck is somehow deserved can make it possible to face it dutifully, and with some sort of serenity.

But it is too pessimistic to call irrationality a good thing. Rather than abandoning reason, Eva’s achievement in the end is to remain committed to it, to stick with the task of understanding what has befallen her, and simply to abandon the hope that she will ever complete that task. She eventually realizes that there is little to be gained from the construction of inevitably faulty interpretations of events. Her limited knowledge and our conflicted moral concepts make a settled interpretation impossible. At the end of the book she asks Kevin why he did what he did. “‘I used to think I knew,’ he said glumly. ‘Now I’m not so sure.’” That deconstruction of a false certainty, she thinks, is progress: We start to understand matters aright only when we find them unfathomable. Some of the neurological research into moral luck offers the same kind of progress. It looks at a philosophical dilemma and, rather than resolving it, finds roots of it in the brain. Its achievement is to understand unfathomability—to map our bewilderment rather than cure it.

The surrender to uncertainty that Eva shares with her son at that moment marks the start of her reconciliation with him and with parenthood itself. It is not irrationality but rather an embrace of reason’s limits that is her comfort. That is something like the stance of religion, too, whose concept of faith can be seen not as an abandonment of reason, but an acknowledgement that there is a point where questions and answers come to an end. Perhaps we have reached some secular version of that acknowledgement when we set aside a thousand unanswerable doubts and take the biggest gamble of our lives—creating a human life.

Claire Creffield is a former Prize Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, who lives in the northeast of England. She works as a freelance editor in academic publishing and occasionally blogs at Talking Philosophy.


Claire Creffield is a former Prize Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, who lives in the northeast of England. She works as a freelance editor in academic publishing and occasionally blogs at Talking Philosophy.


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