The son of a wealthy African man fell gravely ill. The doctors in his country couldn't figure out what was wrong with him so it became necessary for the son to be sent to a richer African country for a diagnosis. The rich man had more than enough money for this course of action, nonetheless, he thought it wasn't fair for him to endure the full burden of the cost. He asked one of his daughters to take care of the expense. This daughter was in a quality job with a fine income so she could afford to help out, however, she had a lot less money than her father. When her father asked her for this favour, she agreed. He lied that he didn't have any money, as was his habit. She rationalised that the father had spent a lot of money bringing the children up and hence it was important for her to give something back.
When I first encountered the scenario above, I also thought it was kind of fair that the daughter help out with hospital bills. However, I think my initial reasoning of it being "fair" was entirely misguided. Why is this?
If we start from the view point that for every action there is a consequence, I believe it should follow that the proponent of the action needs to bear full responsibility for that action. To put it more specifically, if someone chooses to have children, then they should be prepared to live with the child that comes, they are morally obligated to look after that child in sickness and in health regardless of how old the child is. The daughter in the above example played no role whatsoever in the number of children her parents chose to have. That decision was solely made by her parents. It would logically follow therefore that having made that decision her parents would accept all the corollaries. The daughter was not in any way obligated to do anything.
This conclusion, although logical is emotionally dissatisfying. People get an emotional uplift from helping other people, it makes them feel good about themselves. Given this fact, it would follow that the daughter may feel morally obligated. As she loves her brother and as she believes the world is a better place with her brother in it, then it is likely that she would want to make at least a partial contribution to his hospital bills.
Taking a step back, what is the point of all this? I think the whole situation above made me think more deeply about reproduction in Africa and the untenable birth rates. Many Africans have many more children than they can afford because they do not expect to take full responsibility for them. The above example is a clear proof of one of Gary Becker's theories of the family “ children as investments.
Becker had three main theories concerning why people have children: consumption (people have children because they like them in themselves), production (people have children because they need them to take over the house work or the family business) and investment (people have children because they want them to look after them in their old age). Becker went further to state that because parents cannot legally bind children to take care of them, they effectively resort to manipulation by making them feel guilty or duty bound. The parent may in fact not even realise that this is what they are doing.
In conclusion, if African parents fully acknowledged that the responsibility of having a child would fall squarely at their feet, it is likely that they would have fewer offspring. Indeed, in the developed world, the existence of social benefit systems that place a good portion of the burden of reproduction on the Government, people with low aspirations for their children have more children. The more aspirational who for instance want to give their children a private education, have fewer children because they know the Government will not bear the brunt of that.
By Heather Katsonga-Woodward
I'm always thinking, debating, considering and revising my views - some of those deliberations will be shared right here.