Living with the consequences  

I have never thought that what the world really needed was another Paul Buckingham.  I have always thought that one was more than enough.  I am conscious, though, that I am in a minority when it comes to being (or not) family-orientated. Although families aren’t generally as big as they were, there is still a desire to produce a Mini-me or two. From my rather selfish point of view, that is a good thing as, hopefully, when I am exceedingly old there will be younger people around who will be able to look after me – for a fee of course.

Although a family in the UK tends on average to have just under two children, there are of course exceptions. The super-rich seem to have numerous children, rather like the potentates of old. And then of course, at the other end of the income scale, there is the perception that people on benefits have lots of children. This appears to be such a problem that the Universal Credit System will not make any additional payment to parents in respect of a 3rd or subsequent child born from now on.

The system in general is designed to ‘encourage’ people to take responsibility for their actions, and living within your means entails limiting your family’s size to match up with your income. After all, the state would argue that even someone on the UK median income, not in receipt of benefits, would be hard pressed to support 3 or more children.  And so there is no reason to think that the State should put parents in a better position in this respect simply because they are on benefits. If they choose to have more children, then they have to live with the consequences of their actions.

Which all sounds fine, except that the people living with the consequences are not only the parents, but also the children – who are not responsible for the actions of their parents, whether actions based on lack of care or, in some cases, religious beliefs.

Responsibility for your actions is an important concept. An example which came to light the other day was that of a couple where the man had been born with a genetic defect.  It meant that his head was badly malformed. The reason for this was that his mother had worked in a factory producing Teflon coated saucepans where the exposure to the chemicals involved was not properly controlled.  He is now married and they are expecting a child.  It will have a 50% chance of inheriting the same defect as the father. He prays that this will not happen.

But should we have sympathy for him and his wife, or just for the child? If as seems likely, he knew why he had been born with this deformity, why should we have sympathy for someone who may have brought into the world a child who will then have to undergo operations to try to put things right? Even if he didn’t know for sure, surely he and his wife should have presumed the worst? Should he and she not be condemned for this lack of care?

As we discover more genetic markers for illnesses and conditions which disadvantage children, there will be more and more parents who will have to face up to the dilemma of whether or not to beget rather than adopt, or avoid parenthood altogether, granted the probability of causing suffering to their naturally born children, not to mention the expense to the state in dealing with the outcome.

Of course, it would be possible to carry out genetic testing at a very early stage in the development of a group of candidate embryos prior to implantation in order to find one which was free of the defect in question, but that in itself would entail considerable cost. The cost of running a complete DNA profile on the parents on the other hand is now only a few hundred pounds. In time to come, its interpretation will be carried out automatically and also at low cost. Clearly very few parents would wish their disabled child had never been born, but if in fact it had not been born, then would they really be hoping for such a child to be born into their family or to come into the world at all?

Responsibility for our actions relates not just to disability, however. We live with a wide variety of risks, from the perils of getting out of bed, to choking on our food or driving a car. There are philosophers who have been trying to find a rational basis for what should be our attitude to those harmed through a risk which could have been diminished or avoided altogether. The number of words printed about it and the number of citations in learned papers is quite staggering.

An example is given of someone who, in a thunderstorm fails to lie down on the ground in order to make himself less of a target for the lightening and is injured (not killed?) as a result. If we cannot altogether avoid risk, then the suggestion is that we should take reasonable steps to avoid damage from risk. Debate surrounds how to categorise these ‘reasonable steps’ or whether this is indeed the way to look at it.
Keith Hyams of the Department of Politics and International Studies at Warwick University indeed suggests that there is no logical basis for giving support to those disadvantaged by the making of choices entailing the risk of disadvantage. They should be held fully responsible for their decisions unless they were coerced into making them. Of course he may be right, although the 29 pages of argument and endless footnotes leading to this conclusion left me somewhat exhausted. And unconvinced that such an approach has any relevance outside the hallowed walls of Academe.

I am a simple lawyer, but it seems to me obvious that in the absence of a contract between us to help each other out, then there is indeed no enforceable obligation to do so. The fact is, however, that we act as if there were. We have an emotional urge to help others which, at a conscious level, we justify on the basis that we too may one day need help. As it is an emotion, and not by any means an exclusively human emotion, it must be an evolutionary adaptation – and a very useful one for our survival in a world beset with risk. As long as we take reasonable care in how we act, then others will tend to be sympathetic to us when something unfortunate happens. They will be less sympathetic if we have been really stupid. If we are reckless, then the sympathy will likely dry up altogether. But I have to admit that my analysis is a bit short to be published as a thesis.

Although the lightening example is rather silly, a more interesting question is that of continuing to live in an earthquake zone or next to a volcano. Here in the Midlands, we are very unlikely to suffer the fate of Pompeii or Herculaneum. But there are densely populated areas around volcanoes - like Naples. As no-one can be sure when Vesuvius will next have a major Pompeiian-style eruption, surely the entire area should be evacuated. But to close down an entire city? Overnight, all property would become unsaleable if the area were made a no-go zone. Finding homes and work opportunities for everyone elsewhere would in practice be impossible within anything like a reasonable time-scale. But what it means is that the cost (in all senses) in the event of possible mass death has to be weighed against the immense cost of anticipating a possible major eruption within a foreseeable future - which may simply not happen. And so we make decisions by closing our eyes to risk where we don’t really have the means to guard against it.

Of course anyone with the means to do so, would be well-advised to leave now in any event.  Which reminds us of the (possibly apocryphal) account of what happened so long ago. It is said that the wiser, wealthier people left Pompeii when the first signs of volcanic activity started, leaving poorer people to stay and so allowing lowlifes to move in and ultimately face the wrath of the Mountain King. And so now, as then, whatever the demographic turned out to be, if the eruption came, the thousands of people killed would not need to be resettled.  It would I suppose be a saving for the State, and also produce an outcome which corresponded with Mr Hyams’ conclusion that we should live with – or die by - our choices.

Paul Buckingham

January 2019

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