Moral relativism and moral pluralism in adoption

I’ve been working on this post for months, always pushing it to the back of the line, because I am struggling to figure out what adoption means to me in the framework of moral relativism. Plus, I have a feeling it will be controversial.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, moral relativism is usually a term used against a theory or "empirical thesis [in which] there are deep and
widespread moral disagreements" and where the truth
or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to
some group of persons.

This is how it was presented to me when I complained about the IAS advertisement in this post. One commenter wrote,

"the value of human well-being comes first and foremost. But what I see
as constituting and contributing to well-being has been developed in a
particular cultural context. To me, that means we’re treading into the
murky waters of moral relativism here."

and another commenter wrote,

I think you are making a cultural judgement without all the facts. What
the ad says is your gain is not unconditional love but satisfaction of
good parenting and your love helping the child grow. Indians see things
differently to west.

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know how South Asian Indians view adoption in a cultural context, so perhaps it is possible that the ad is supposed to imply that a picture of a child cradling an adult is meant to convey that adoption is about "your [adoptive parent’s] love helping the child grow." Personally, I don’t see it that way – if that were the case, the adult would be holding the child, not the other way around. And thus, that’s the whole point. I’m looking at it from my perspective here which is relative to my experience and my beliefs.

This whole idea of the ads being justified because it hits to a core value of a specific cultural group – even if I personally found it disturbing – really got me thinking a lot about moral relativism and adoption.  Adoption is definitely one of those practices/theories that has "deep and
widespread moral disagreements" and it definitely applies as an issue where "truth
or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to
some group of persons."

In fact the whole concept of "best interests of the child" could be considered within the moral relativism framework. Not all cultures consider the best interest of the child as paramount. Our own country (United States) did not either, really, until the mid-50s.

Yet now it’s the main framework for child welfare in the United States, and these words are embedded in the language of NGO’s and UNICEF and the Hague Convention. We [?] have decided that "best interests of the child" is morally pluralistic. The problem is, who gets to decide what is in a child’s best interests, and who gets to define what those best interests are?

For me, the problematic part of relying on the "best interests" is that different people and cultures are going to have vastly different opinions and beliefs about what are "best interests." When I read articles and op/ed essays on "best interests" and transracial adoption, what is most often stated is that the "best interests" of the child [meaning an adoptive family] should supersede a same-race placement.

Why do these concepts get discussed as mutually opposing? Can it be possible for both to be considered in a child’s best interests?

I keep going back to the foundational "adjustment" studies by researchers in the 1970s up through the 1990’s and how they all found that transracial adoptees had no problems or issues in their "adjustment."

Well, if the measurement for being "well adjusted" is equated with how assimilated the child is regarding their white adoptive family (versus their same-cultural identity), then I would have to respectfully disagree with those findings. At least in the racial and cultural sense. See, it all depends on who is doing the defining.

I guess I just struggle with the belief that having to be adopted to a family that is on the other side of the world from you, and being removed from your culture, language and everything familiar to you was considered more in my "best interest" than attempts to keep me in Korea with my Korean family or adopted to a Korean family. That a "family" and keeping me connected to my culture was and still is considered mutually exclusive.

I question who gets to decide what is morally relativistic in adoption, and what is not.

In my experience – as the subject of this debate, the person who bears the weight of everyone else who has more power on my literal and figurative body – I have been the one whom others decided what was in my "best interests." Does this mean that I don’t appreciate all that I have as a result of my adoption experience? Of course not. But even I can not honestly say with any certainty that I am "better off" than if I’d stayed in Korea. It depends on what "better off" means. Yes, I have an education, opportunities, a family that loves me here. But it was also a very painful and difficult life in many ways. And both the good and the bad were a direct result of my adoption.

Had I been in an orphanage in Korea for the remainder of my life, there is no guarantee my life would have been miserable. Perhaps it would have been by American standards, but that is moral relativism at work. It’s likely it would have been no picnic in the park either — I’m not looking at the possible "what-ifs" through rose colored glasses. I can not say I wish I hadn’t been adopted. I’m just tired of everyone deciding for me that I am better off, especially when they choose to look at adoption through the framework of moral pluralism.

Maybe I’d just be more comfortable if we all just acknowledged that there is no universal in adoption – every aspect of adoption is morally relativistic. It all goes back to who has the power and privilege to define.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

9 thoughts

  1. Wow. Not controversial to me!
    Darn, and I haven’t even finished translating the China Connections piece yet (hang in there, it’s coming).

  2. I’m the first commenter quoted above, and I really appreciate the time and thought you’ve put into your response. I’m particularly appreciative because I know that when I think about issues in the context of moral relativism/pluralism, I usually find myself thinking myself dizzy (hence the reference to “murky waters”). To me it’s like a philosophical moebius strip.
    I don’t see anything even remotely controversial in what you’ve said here. The fact is that the question of who gets to define the best interests of the child IS decided by those who hold the power, in every culture. And in every society in which adoption takes place, adoptees have had virtually no say regarding what is in adoptees’ best interests. I’m immediately reminded of the quote you’ve posted on your website (which I love) by June Jordan: “There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference.”
    My original comment was specifically in reference to the reactions people were having to those ads (myself included) and my shifting perceptions of them as I attempted to look through the cultural lenses I was most familiar with (my own, and that of what I have learned from my Indian family). But a critical perception that I didn’t shift to as I was reacting to the ads was to attempt to take on the cultural lens of the adoptee (which now gets me thinking about the possible reactions of domestic adoptees living in India when they saw those ads).
    Your posts always make me think, even if I don’t always have the opportunity to comment. Thanks once again.

  3. I don’t think this is controversial, either, and I’m a (prospective) adoptive parent. I believe that the primary goal should be to keep a child with his/her family of birth. Barring that, then in the community. Barring that, then with another family in his/her country. And if and only if none of those options are possible, then international adoption with very careful oversight might be considered. Some agencies appeal to prospective parents by making it sound like children who are not adopted are doomed to a miserable life, but I just don’t see how they can say that. And it seems to be relative to US standards. I think a lot of adoptive parents soothe their fears by telling themselves they are doing what is in the child’s best interest, but the truth is there is no way of knowing that adoption is in the best interest of the child. And I’m certain that sometimes it isn’t. We think in our case it might be, but we don’t know that for sure. And we feel like we owe it to ourselves and our kids to acknowledge that part of our choice is based on our western perspective. That it’s all relative. And that our children may or may not be pleased with the result.
    The ads reminded me that there’s often this notion of “saving” a child involved in adoption, but of course adopted children should not be treated like lucky little charity cases. So some resources teach adoptive parents to say things like, “No, we are the lucky ones,” to insensitive people. And so the ads reminded me of this simplistic response parents are trained to say that doesn’t begin to address the complicated nature of these relationships. And I guess that’s what bothers me about the ads. They visually put the children in some kind of servant role and oversimplify the relationships and issues involved. I also have problems with adoption ads because it often seems like the children are treated as commodities. But the point that it is all a matter of perspective made me reconsider. I, too, would like to hear what people from India think of the ads. Maybe they do read them differently.

  4. Also, I’d just like to ad that I LOVE this blog. I read it regularly, and I greatly appreciate your efforts. I have learned a lot here and have recommended it to everyone who expresses an interest in adoption.

  5. Not controversial to me either. And like Psychobabbler, I weighed in defending the Indian ads, as long as they work for their context.
    My father was adopted in Japan. I do know that a few other war orphans from his era were adopted to the United States. His life in Japan wasn’t easy but it’s pretty much impossible for me to imagine it any other way. He’s very unique but also very much a product of his environment.

  6. I think an added complication here is that the “interest” of the prospective adopter is to become a parent. (And whether parenthood, or a particular route to parenthood, is the “best” interest of that person is yet another question.) I think this interest is so strong for many prospective adopters that it clouds their moral judgment – even (I guess you’d say) their relativistic moral judgment. I think this often does not occur consciously, because to acknowledge putting one’s own interest over a child’s interest would be awful to acknowledge.
    And, of course, as you say adults have more power than children. And Americans have more power than people in many other countries.
    I found the Indian ads creepy. But then, I also find Anne Geddes creepy.

  7. When I approached becoming an adoptive parent some six years or so ago, I didn’t think about it in terms of my right to be anyone’s parent.
    What I thought I was doing was deciding to pick up where someone else left off. I didn’t want to pass judgment on them as to why they didn’t, nor did I realize I would be passing judgment on myself for doing what I was about to do.
    I’ve always seen parenthood as a responsibility, not a form of reproducing myself or my culture for that matter.
    I guess I avoided it in moral terms, and now I question that.
    My blood relatives and culture most certainly dropped the ball where my childhood was concerned. And I feel a drag on me and always have because of it. But I fought to become more than that. So that who I am became more my decisions and not those of the many people that failed me.
    I keep getting back to that because I have no choice. Just as I don’t where my children are concerned.
    Anyway, that useless information aside, how do you convey this where it can make a difference? Prospective adoptive parents don’t seem to be getting enough of this discussion/debate/etc.
    At least least they might question what it is they think they are doing, and ponder if it really is in the best interests of the children.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this post. It is very interesting to see this topic through the argument of moral relativism. I’ve found that for the most part in the West we take for granted that prioritizing our concepts of what is good for a child in another country really reflects the power that we have in being able to do that.

  9. There’s a great NYTimes article on S Korea’s aim to increase domestic adoption and curb international adoption, and — as you might guess — the well-being of children is brought up repeatedly. (I hope to see Jae Ran comment on this article in a separate post! Here’s the link:
    Here’s a great paragraph:
    The government’s goal has received much media attention and popular support here. But adoption agencies and some adoptive parents and experts say the government’s new policies are concerned less with the children’s welfare than with saving face. Increasing the age gap and allowing singles to adopt have lowered the standards for domestic adoptions in a way that could be detrimental to the children, they say, even as the government has created unnecessary obstacles to foreign ones.
    These critics’ responses to S Korea’s plan raise the question: Is it better for a child to be adopted by a single-parent (or by older parents) in his/her native country or to be adopted internationally? To me, a moral relativist says that different answers to this question are equally valid, or equally true, because there are no objective facts about what’s in a person’s best interests.
    The problem with relativism is that it quashes debate/dialogue. Differences are *in principle* irresolvable. But while differences may be very hard to resolve, especially where there are different interests at stake, it doesn’t seem plausible that they are in principle irresolvable; and while the facts on certain matters may be very hard to find out about, that doesn’t meant that there just simply aren’t any facts on those matters.
    Frankly I think the single-parent/older parent counter-argument is flimsy, and for several of the reasons Jae Ran often discusses. But I don’t think that’s just one of many equally valid perspectives on the matter. I think it’s the right perspective. I can say that, and still want to hear opposing viewpoints, in the interest of coming to a better understanding of the issue.

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