May 10, 2013 7:06 pm

The selfless gene

Does parenthood make us selfless, or merely widen the circle of our selfish interests?
The selfless gene illustration©Lucas Varela

When hunky historian Niall Ferguson blurted out his view that John Maynard Keynes did not care about the “long run” for society because he was gay and childless, he was soon hit by one of those angry web barrages that left him scrabbling to deliver an “unreserved apology”.

Responding to Keynes’s dismissal of long-term economic forecasts – “in the long run we’re all dead” – Ferguson depicted this as the kind of view one might expect from a childless man with no reason to care about the world after his demise. This view is quite popular with a certain clique of conservative thinkers and a handy slur on the economist with inconvenient ideas.

Naturally, a variety of people took against the ludicrously simplistic view and Ferguson – who has a media career to think of – soon backtracked.

But while many will see the flaw in this argument, few question its flipside, namely that parenthood makes you a better, more long-termist and selfless human being. As a parent, I’m certainly forced to think of others before myself but does my concern for my offspring make me more selfless or does it simply mean that I have widened my circle of selfish interests?

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Robert Shrimsley

Parenthood does perhaps make you consider the future but it does not necessarily make you more benevolent. Many of us, for example, can see our children may find rewarding work harder to come by. But does this inspire us into more altruistic activity to ensure a brighter future for all – or simply increase the determination to maximise the opportunities for our own dear spawn? There are many things that prove our desire to save the world but an increase in private tutors is unlikely to be among them.

Nor, in truth, can we claim to be tackling the world’s great problems by enrolling the little dears in drama classes like Perform or Stagecoach. There are many identifiable crises in the world but a shortage of Lindsay Lohans is not foremost among them. Some might, in fact, argue that we already have more Lindsay Lohans than we need. Is stocking up the supply of precocious wannabes a selfless act? Or is the fact that it cuts into one’s Sunday morning enough proof of our altruism?

One only has to spend a moment listening to parents competitively recounting their kids’ achievements to know that these are not the vanguard of the new society, unless the new society is characterised by a coffee morning in which tales of Jilly’s triumphs are parried with tales of Jack’s success. And think of the way we inflict our screaming infants on others in restaurants and dare those without kids to be irritated. But perhaps it’s us. Perhaps we are simply picking the wrong causes. Maybe if we skipped the tutor and took the spawn on demos or camped out with the Occupy Wall Street crowd we would be worthy, selfless parents.

It’s a tough one: should we be pulling for the 99 per cent or working to ensure the spawn’s place among the one?

Having kids hasn’t made me care more about the environment either. In fact I still get that frisson of irritation at being lectured on recycling by the spawn, especially as they seem to see their own roles as managerial rather than hands-on.

Don’t misunderstand this argument. I believe in giving them every advantage – I’m just not sure this makes me a better individual in the global sense. A Thatcherite would argue that it is this impulse – to do better for oneself and one’s children – which, magnified across thousands of households, powers the engine of progress. In this case there is no practical distinction in being selfish for my children and selfless for society.

But the premise of doing all you can to give your children every advantage is that it must, by definition, be an advantage over others. In an increasingly competitive landscape the better school, college or job that we want for them has to be an opportunity denied to someone else.

Ultimately, the fact that we want a better future for our children doesn’t mean we’re actually rooting for yours.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com.

Twitter @robertshrimsley

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