Is it OK to Adopt Kids and Perform Social Experiments On Them?

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 28, 2011 5:05 pm

Ethics has a bizarre blind spot around parents and children. For no justifiable reason that I can discern, we deem it perfectly tolerable for a parent to decide unilaterally to raise their child genderless or under the Tiger Mother or laissez-faire method of parenting, but horror at the idea of someone “testing” one of these parental styles on a child. Recall, there is no test to become a parent, no minimum qualification or form of licensing. In fact, if you are so irresponsible as to unintentionally have a child you do not want and cannot support, you have more of a right (and obligation) to rear that child than a stranger with the means and desire to give that child a better life.

We erroneously connect the ability to reproduce with the ability to rear in our social norms and in our laws. As adoption, IVF, sperm/egg donation and surrogate mothers along with new family structures challenge the concept that the person who provides the gametes or womb is also the person who will teach the child to ride a bicycle, we need to investigate the impact of perpetuating the idea that there is a link between reproducing and rearing.

I would like to test this reproduce-rearing correlation with a thought experiment. The details of the thought experiment appear below the fold, but the conclusion is as follows: it would be ethically permissible for a scientist to adopt a large group of children and then perform specific, non-harmful, nature-vs-nurture social experiments on those children. My idea comes from an interview by Charles Q. Choi at Too Hard for Science? with Steven Pinker about just such an experiment:

There is one morally repugnant line of thought Pinker strenuously objects to that could resolve this question. “Basically, every nature-nurture debate could be settled for good if we could raise a group of children in a closed environment of our own design, they way we do with animals,” he says. . .

“The biological basis of sex differences could be tested by dressing babies identically, hiding their sex from the people they interact with, and treating them identically, or better still, dividing them into four groups — boys treated as boys, boys treated as girls, girls treated as girls, girls treated as boys,” he notes. . .

“There’s no end to the ethical horrors that could be raised by this exercise,” Pinker says.

“In the sex-difference experiment, could we emasculate the boys at different ages, including in utero, and do sham operations on the girls as a control?” Pinker asks. “In the language experiment, could we ‘sacrifice’ the children at various ages, to use the common euphemism in animal research, and dissect their brains?”

“This is a line of thought that is morally corrosive even in the contemplation, so your thought experiments can go only so far,” he says.

So let’s test the limits of Pinker’s last line. Ethics is rife with and wrought by horrific thought experiments designed to out our biases and assumptions. And I intend to use a thought experiment to expose our bias that reproductive capacity equals rearing capacity. That is, merely because you can have a kid doesn’t mean you should be allowed to decide how to raise it. Using three scenarios, I’ll prove that a team of scientists adopting a large group of children with the dual intent of raising happy and healthy children while also conducting non-surgical or invasive sociological experiments would be ethically permissible.

The immediate objection against social experimentation on children is that the children would be used as mere means, as objects upon which theories can be tested. That claim is false. Unlike Pinker, I believe you can draw a distinction between the “closed environment” and “sacrificial” kind of experimentation in which, for example, a child is killed and dissected to determine the impact of language on brain formation and social experimentation. “Sacrificial” experimentation shows no concern or respect for the child as a human being and would meet the conditions necessary to be described as being used as “mere means” as Kant intends it. But “sacrificial” experimentation is a gross and barbaric example. Pinker also cites examples of surgical genital alteration and in utero experimentation. These are unacceptable forms of experimentation on a child because, again, the child is treated as mere means and would suffer as a result of the experimentation. I argue that if and only if the experiments to not cause physical damage or severe suffering to the child and that the child is raised in a nurturing, safe, and supportive environment, then it would be acceptable to conduct nature-vs-nurture experiments on children.

To defend my case, I ask you to consider the following three scenarios. We start with the least controversial, which I call the 100 Family Scenario:

  1. In a community, there are 100 couples of equal income and education level, each with one biological child. Half the families have a boy, half a girl.
  2. In this community, a third of families attempt to raise their children with current gender norms (i.e. boys play in pants with trucks, girls in dresses with dolls), a third attempt to reverse their child’s gender norms (i.e. boys in dresses with dolls, girls in pants with trucks), and a third attempt to raise their children to be neutral (boys and girls wear the same outfits and play with similar toys). The children all live in nurturing, safe, and supportive households.
  3. There is no coordination among the families, these numbers are statistical happenstance. Furthermore, by coincidence the families are all vigilant about journaling, recording, and filming unbiased observations and data about their children as they grow up.
  4. After 20 years, a team of sociologists collects this data and, upon analysis, uses it to publish a paper about the impact of nurturing environment on gender expression and sexual preferences.

We have no outright ethical problems with this scenario. The data collection and child distribution are all happenstance. No one would find a fault in any one of the above steps. It is true that this isn’t a “closed environment” the way Pinker described, but that would also be an incredibly harsh way to raise a child, raising all sorts of concerns about tainting the data. A controlled approximation of similar life-style among many families acts as a superior variable control than a highly unnatural, closed, laboratory environment.

Now let’s combine steps three and four, in the 100 Sociologist Biological Family Scenario:

  1. In a community, there are 100 couples of equal income and education level and within each couple in the community there is at least one parent who is a sociologist. Each family has one biological child. Half the families have a boy, half a girl.
  2. In this community, a third of families attempt to raise their children with current gender norms (i.e. boys play in pants with trucks, girls in dresses with dolls), a third attempt to reverse their child’s gender norms (i.e. boys in dresses with dolls, girls in pants with trucks), and a third attempt to raise their children to be neutral (boys and girls wear the same outfits and play with similar toys). The children all live in nurturing, safe, and supportive households.
  3. There is no coordination among the families, these numbers are statistical happenstance. The sociologist parents are all vigilant about journaling, recording, and filming unbiased observations and data about their children as they grow up.
  4. After 20 years, these sociologists coordinate, collect the data and, upon analysis, use it to publish a paper about the impact of nurturing environment on gender expression and sexual preferences.

Again, there seems to be no major ethical breach in how the data was collected or how the children were raised. Having parents who are sociologists is not an ethical violation. Now consider the final scenario, which I call the 100 Sociologist Adopted Family Scenario:

  1. A group of sociologists who wish to start families coordinate to conduct a 20 year study in which they will collect data about children they raise and, upon analysis, use it to publish a paper about the impact of nurturing environment on gender expression and sexual preferences.
  2. The sociologists form a community, there are 100 couples of equal income and education level and within each couple in the community there is at least one parent who is a sociologist. Each family has one legally adopted child. The community coordinates to ensure that half the families adopt a boy, half a girl.
  3. In this community, a third of families attempt to raise their children with current gender norms (i.e. boys play in pants with trucks, girls in dresses with dolls), a third attempt to reverse their child’s gender norms (i.e. boys in dresses with dolls, girls in pants with trucks), and a third attempt to raise their children to be neutral (boys and girls wear the same outfits and play with similar toys). The children all live in nurturing, safe, and supportive households.
  4. There is coordination among the families, the divisions among the children are the result of planning and adherence to scientific standards. The sociologist parents are all vigilant about journaling, recording, and filming unbiased observations and data about their children as they grow up.
  5. After 20 years, these sociologists coordinate, collect the data and, upon analysis, use it to publish a paper about the impact of nurturing environment on gender expression and sexual preferences.

My argument here is not that the final scenario is ethically permissible or impermissible, but to show there is no difference between the scenarios. The intent to study the children does not impact their quality of life, how they grow up, or whether or not a paper is published about their rearing. Though the children are a means to studying the nature-vs-nature debate, that is not the sole or primary purpose of the sociologist families adopting their respective children. The parents wish to start families and also wish to study gender norms. The parents in the first scenario have as much parental sovereignty as the parents in the last. Thus, there are no relevant ethical differences between the first and the third scenarios. We only perceive a difference because the children are adopted, which is no basis for a relevant ethical difference. Therefore, if it is morally permissible for parents to independently decide how to raise their children in regards to gender, it should be morally permissible for a team of scientists to conduct a rigorous experiment with their own adopted children on the impact of rearing on gender and sexual preferences.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog, Pop Bioethics, and on facebook and twitter.

Image of a happy family with a “cloned” child (thank you photoshop) by madnzany under cc license via Flickr Creative Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Philosophy, Psychology

Comments (18)

  1. Nonsense. In a controlled experiment, the parents would be discouraged from changing their minds as they realized the child was unhappy with the way they were being raised. We have an experiment like this, and the result was a miserable life for the child, ending in suicide. (David Reimer.) Either you’re trolling or are clueless about the ethics of human experimentation.
    The coordination itself is wrong because of the pressure it puts on the parents to continue with the experiment. Remember the Milgram experiment?
    Hopefully, the abortion agencies would catch on that the adoptive parents had something other in mind than just raising children they would love and take care of however they thought best, and prevent this.

  2. Vebyast

    I can smell the “slippery slope” arguments already, so let’s bring it up quickly and painlessly: it would be an interesting study simply to find out where the slippery slope becomes unethical. Put together a DAG of a few dozen or hundred of these scenarios, describing trivial steps from “parents raising children” all the way down to “utter abomination”, give various total orders of the DAG to people as surveys, and see where societies draw the line and why.

  3. Look at it this way: wouldn’t you be opposed to a cult doing this? Why does being a group of scientists make it any better?

  4. Kyle Munkittrick

    @Doug: Why does a cult make a difference? If you’re implying that the behavior is irrational and endangers the children, then that deviates from my proposed scenarios and I would rule it unethical. But the scenarios posit safe, nurturing environments.

    Now let’s explore my cluelessness. David Reimer was surgically altered. What was my caveat? No physical surgery.

    The Milgram experiment is another issue, but the concept of authority here is interesting. Let’s presume that in the first scenario, parents are acting based on what they see as appropriate social norms, which act as a kind of amoebic authority. Why is the authority of social norms saying that gender education X is the way a parent should be any different than the authority of the collusion of the scientists. You don’t address why scenario 1 is different than scenario 3.

    Now check this out: I’ll argue scenario 3 is MORE moral because 1) the parents are adopting children who would have otherwise been in foster care and 2) due to ethics experimentation regulations, parents would cease their iteration of the experiment if it was seen to be causing “severe suffering” – huh, I seem to recall mentioning that somewhere… – whereas most parents simply see parental sovereignty as unlimited license to harass and pressure their children into whatever form they see fit.

    My point with this whole experiment is to out the fantasy that biological parents should be treated with any sort of optimism or bias towards being GOOD parents. There is no difference between selecting a child’s gender rearing for the purpose of an experiment and selecting it based on one’s particular social ideals.

    @Vebyast: Slippery slope arguments are not real arguments and they insult those involved in the debate. They assume that we are too simple or too lazy to distinguish between different stages of behavior. Just as I drew a distinction between David Reimer and my thought experiment, we can determine which experiments would and would not be ethical by evaluation and reason.

  5. ruthdemitroff

    Canada’s famous case was the Dionne Quintuplets born in 1934. At 4 months the quintuplets were removed from their parents’ home and raised in the Dufoe Hospital and Nursery – Dr. Dufoe being the physician who delivered them. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionne_quintuplets
    In 1998, the 3 surviving sisters received a financial settlement from the Ontario government compensating them for being exploited.

  6. ” There is no difference between selecting a child’s gender rearing for the purpose of an experiment and selecting it based on one’s particular social ideals.”

    All right, leave aside the rest (I think the Reimer case and your proposed experiment are more similar than you do) and I’ll address this main point. Raising a child with your particular social ideals means that one has a strong belief in the rightness of those ideals. So as a parent, you are raising your child in a way you strongly believe to be right.
    In the case of an experiment, you aren’t trying to do right by the child. Your goal isn’t the well-being of the child. Your goal is something else (scientific knowledge) and you are using the child’s life to acheive that goal. They write dystopian young adult fiction about that kind of thing.
    I agree that parents sometimes have bizarre ideals and sometimes do a terrible job raising their children. Your experimenters would fall into that category.

    • Kyle Munkittrick

      Doug, you imply a kind of deontological failure as the difference between scenario 1 and 3. In terms of pure consequentialism, there is no difference, but what I need is a reason for why the motivation for selecting a particular parenting method is ethically relevant.

      If a parent chooses to raise a child in way x because of Catholicism, is that different in a relevant way from scenario 3? I don’t believe it is.

  7. TR

    Doug concluded “I agree that parents sometimes have bizarre idals and sometimes do a terrible job raising their children.”

    Got empirical proof for that, Doug?

    It’s my observation as a parent that no single parenting style is “right” and that, regardless of your expertise or intent, the kids will grow up to be what THEY want. Was it in “Freakonomics II” where they crunched the research numbers and concluded that at least 50% of the outcomes of child-raising are unrelated to parenting?

    Long ago, I read somewhere that all parents make mistakes and almost every kid grows up to be OK anyway.

    You insist that this experiment would be conducted with no concern for the well-being of the child. I’d counter that most parents who have children do so for reasons other than the well-being of the child. Unwed teen mothers often report that they became pregnant because they wanted the babies to love them–that’s not a concern for the child, is it? What about all of the unwanted pregnancies?

    The world is more chaotic and less understood than the tidy paradise you posit.

  8. Mo

    The inherent issue here is what the parents believe vs. what the parents say they believe in case #3. If parents only treat the children in a gender-neutral way, for example, but do not treat others in a gender-neutral way, then that will affect the way children sense gender. So, if the 1/3 of parents who attempt to reverse gender or be gender-neutral do not genuinely believe in those ideals (and I think I would be hard-pressed to find that many couples who genuinely believe that a biological boy should be raised as a girl), then there will be inherent inconsistencies in the way the parents deal with gender. This would ultimately mean that the children would more likely be very confused. Moreover, as a biological boy or girl being raised as the opposite, how do parents deal with the inevitable physical differences?

    While I recognize that your article is more about the ethics of doing so, I think that these fundamental questions and whether they would cause “severe suffering” need to be answered before you could fully consider the ethics of case #3.

    More importantly, I think that having a sociologist parent in any of these scenarios actually makes the experiment useless. These parents cannot maintain both the analytical eye and the parental eye and do either effectively. Additionally, their sociologist work and their thoughts/beliefs on the outcomes would color the experiment too greatly, I believe.

  9. randi rubin

    How does any of this take into consideration, right or wrong, the parental styles of behavior, dress, profession, etc on the development of the children’s self-concept? will the same percentage of parents fit the criteria for cross-dressing, etc? I think we have more significant things to study relative to the issues of nature vs nurture and the community of adoption!
    This does feel cult-like and I’d be amazed who might fund such an approach to learning!

  10. TR– any cases of parents convicted for abuse or neglect would serve to make that point.

  11. Vicky

    @ Doug
    “Hopefully, the abortion agencies would catch on that the adoptive parents had something other in mind than just raising children they would love and take care of however they thought best, and prevent this.”

    I’d like to know what the abortion agencies have to do with anything?

    Just to throw my two cents in, whilst I don’t necessarily agree with the experiment, I do agree that none of the scenarios are inherently more ethical or unethical than the other. I’d probably be more happy with the third scenario as the sociologists may be more rigorous about sticking to the ethical principals and, I think at least, would be *more* likely to stop the experiment if they thought it was harming the child in any way.

  12. AJKamper

    I would say that the problem is one of sincerity. That is, a parent should parent how they actually feel would be the rest way to raise a child. Without doing so, the child is inevitably a “means”–and in that situation, you will never get a situation that is sincerely safe and supportive. Either the kids will be moved lockstep into a way of living without a good reason, or else the experiment will break down, as Mo said, because the parents will place their ideal method above the science and give up on it.

    In short, sincere belief in how a child should be raised is the best protection we have for making sure that the child’s welfare is actually being protected. It’s imperfect, but so is everything.

  13. Question for Kyle. You say:

    It is true that this isn’t a “closed environment” the way Pinker described, but that would also be an incredibly harsh way to raise a child, raising all sorts of concerns about tainting the data. A controlled approximation of similar life-style among many families acts as a superior variable control than a highly unnatural, closed, laboratory environment.

    Well, a part of the more natural family upbringing would require that the children interact with the outside world and that outside world can have very, very strict gender roles, especially in very religious communities. An IRB member might argue that being exposed to unjust and bigoted harassment for not acting their gender is a psychological risk to a child and would at best taint the experiment over the long term, or at worst, end up terminating the child’s participation. Unless you shelter those kids from everyday life, you’re always going to have those social attitudes to take into account. And this is just face to face interaction. What about the gender roles portrayed on TV day in, day out?

    It may be more human and make more sense to use historical data from different societies to see how much gender roles can be swayed by nurture, data in which we find that roles of men and women were different based on the societies in question and they can be quite successfully manipulated in times of need or by choice. History is filled with examples of routine gender-bending.

    • Kyle Munkittrick

      Great question. I thought about this one a couple times while writing. My conclusion was ultimately that sociologists want to study people in the cultures they are studying, not atomized and isolated people. Thus, the study would be of the influence parents had on children in relation to the rest of society. Would social norms quash counter-cultural parents? Did parents really have any influence? To answer these questions, you need an “open” environment. Thus, the idea of a closed environment is actually counter productive for sociologists.

      I agree on the social history point, but my goal isn’t to solve the nurture-nature question, but in part to expose the strangeness of having an ethical problem with planned experimentation but no ethical problem with random parental choice that would have precisely similar consequences.

  14. Hephaestus

    All parenting is a social experiment. Unless you are completely indifferent to your children to the point of psychopathy, you’re attempting to turn them into functioning members of society. Your definitions of functioning and society can and probably do differ from mine, but the intent is the same. Since there is no set of actions that will reliably produce this result, the entire child rearing activity is a long series of experiments.

    You want your child to be able to play well with others, so you introduce him to other children his age. If he tries to take a toy from another child, you attempt to teach him consequences by removing something that he cares about.

    You want your child to be a successful student, so you praise her when she does her homework. When she gets good grades, you reward her success by taking her out to a concert that she wanted to see.

    When the results are good, you continue along the same line. When they are not, you discontinue that approach and try something new. If you have more than one child, you even get to replicate the experiment (usually with different results).

  15. Paul

    The first link is a kindergarten in Sweden called Egalia (“Equal”) that is enacting a policy of enforced gender neutrality. Gender specific terms “him” “her, “boys” “girls” are banned. Children are called “friend” instead. Clothing/colours/etc are intentionally uniform, all traces of “sexual stereotyping” are deliberately eliminated.

    A question for those who have objected to Kyle’s proposed experiments as unethical: Is the Swedish kindergarten unethical? Is it unethical if someone studies the kids that pass through this kindergarten? Is it unethical if they find a non-participating kindergarten in a similar socioeconomic area to use as a control? Is it unethical if they create a control kindergarten?

    Or is it unethical to introduce a system like Egalia without any attempt at setting up a metric of measure, a control group, and independent analysis?

    I mean if you’re going to introduce it anyway, couldn’t you at least check if what you are doing is harmful? How many trendy social policies (and I’m not limiting “trendy” to the Left) have been introduced on an entire society without any attempt to actually see if they do what they claimed first? Why is that “ethical”, but any attempt to test them first “unethical”?

  16. stop do exprements on kids.if any one wants to more email me @ abwolfcom5@gmail.com

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