We didn’t ask to be born. What do we do now?
Our political ideologies fail us as soon as we start to exist. Our ideas about the relationship between individuals and society implicitly rely on those individuals being adults, capable of making reasoned decisions. They gloss over the first two decades of our lives, and ignore a key, strange feature of existence: none of us chose to be here in the first place.
From the moment of our conception we’re parasites. Year after year we’re supported by other people, for no reason greater than their sense of obligation, with no explicit demands made on us in return. We may not be permitted to break most of society’s rules — even though we never agreed to them — but we have very few duties demanded of us. Is it right that we must follow these rules we didn’t create? Is it right that people must support us without getting anything in return? Do we owe them anything for this support, even though we never asked for it?
What we’ve been given
In a sense, we owe everything to our parents. If it weren’t for them we wouldn’t exist at all, so everything — good or bad — that we’ve experienced is because of them. We also owe a great deal to the communities we belong to. Our town or city created the social environment where we were raised, educated, and socialized. All the real-life friends we’ve made and mentors we’ve had are due to our community.
We owe much to our nation, as well. If we were lucky enough to live in a relatively stable, peaceful society, it’s because we happened to be born in the right place. If we were very lucky, we were born somewhere where we were cared for until we reached adulthood (or even longer), received a free education, were guaranteed some rights, and eventually gained some degree of political power. That’s a huge advantage compared to the less fortunate around the world or, especially, compared to our ancestors, who received none of those things.
It’s almost inconceivable how much we owe past generations of humans. Jean-Jacques Rousseau — and his intellectual descendants — liked to imagine prehistoric humanity as “noble savages” who lived in peace with nature and each other. We now know this to be completely incorrect. Humanity had to constantly fight for survival against heartless nature (just like every other animal) and was perfectly happy to murder and enslave each other. We now live in extreme peace, prosperity, and leisure compared to our ancestors, and it’s because of their efforts.
Do we owe anything in exchange?
We didn’t ask for any of this, though. Even if we had, we were in no position to be making deals. In legal terms, we lacked “capacity” to make contracts. What do you owe to people who’ve helped you so much when you could never promise anything in return? It’s not an easy question to answer. Most philosophies don’t even try.
Take the classical liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith. This has probably been the most influential philosophy shaping modern Western governments. Liberals believed that government was necessary to keep people from a war of all-against-all, or, at least, to defend their natural rights. These thinkers were mostly concerned with limits on the state’s power, though. They thought humans existed as individuals first and then the state was created to serve and protect those individuals.
Classical liberals saw humans as having absolute ownership of our own bodies, and by extension having absolute ownership over the products of our own labor. These products are created by the time we invest in making them, so in essence they’re part of our lives, therefore just as much our property as our arms and legs.
This is no help to understanding the problem of existence. We’re created by the labor of our parents (literally, for our mothers) so by liberal reasoning we’re our parents’ property. Everything we created would be their property, by extension, like we were a factory or livestock that they owned. As property, we would owe nothing to anyone, because property can’t be indebted. All that would change when we became adults, when we would instantly transmute from being property to being an independent adult who’s implicitly consented to a social contract.
Over the last 150 years society has moved away from the classical liberal view. Now children are considered something more than property, more than pets even, but less than independent adults. That feels right to us, but it’s logically difficult. Liberalism was a very rational philosophy. We’ve added duties and privileges to it without complete logical justification (though some thinkers, such as John Rawls, have tried). In part, that’s because it’s hard to rationally define our sense of debt, obligations, and gratitude. It’s also hard to have a consistent philosophy about existence and childhood.
Existence as a plane crash
We can clarify our thinking about existence with an analogy. Imagine you were taking a flight above the Pacific and your plane went down. The crash nearly killed you but your battered body made it to the shore. A local tribe saved you from the brink of death and nursed you back to health over months. At first you were delirious and incapacitated, but as you healed you learned how to fit in with the natives. You learned their language and how they hunt and forage.
What do you owe the natives? You never asked for their help. In fact, you couldn’t stop them from keeping you alive. They forced this new tribal life on you without your consent. In your new life you’ll face pain and hardship that you could have avoided by simply dying in the crash. You’ll be expected to act in ways you don’t understand or agree with.
On the other hand, they saved you from non-existence. They sacrificed a great deal to take care of you, only hoping that you would join them and be a part of their society. Would it be fair to ignore all that because there was no written contract or explicit consent? Even if you don’t like joining their rituals and observing their taboos, they’ve given you a remarkable opportunity to join them instead of simply ceasing to exist.
It’s not possible to really “prove” that we owe anyone anything. We don’t have pre-natal contracts to refer to. Still, I hope I’ve made a compelling argument that we do have unspoken and untallied debts. Even if you’re convinced, though, I haven’t told you exactly what we owe or how we can repay it.
I don’t think there is an answer to that question. Someone who saw life as being entirely about material wealth could, in theory, total up the amount of money spent gestating and raising him — by his parents and by the government — then adjust it for a reasonable interest rate and think of that number as his debt. Very few of us have such a reductive view of life, though, which makes things more complicated. Even our imaginary Scrooge would run into problems with the second issue: how do we repay the debt? If you choose to repay governments it’s as easy as cutting them a check for services rendered, assuming they haven’t been overthrown and replaced. Repaying your loved ones and your community is harder, especially after they’re deceased. Let your sense of gratitude be your guide.