What is family, what are strangers?

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What is family, what are strangers?

MacFarquhar profiles couple who adopted 20 children, many with special needs

by Salil Dudani on Tuesday, April 8, 2014 - 9:19am

L MacFarquharIf two people are drowning, you can only save one, and one of them is your spouse, are you permitted to save her? According to writer Larissa MacFarquhar, most people would say yes. She pushes the scenario a step further: What if it’s a choice between saving five people or your partner? Twenty people? Twenty thousand? And what if your partner is a demented serial killer on the run?

“At a certain point you will start to feel guilty,” Larissa MacFarquhar, a long-time staff writer for The New Yorker, said during her March 6 talk “What is Family, What are Strangers?” Even though you may feel more moral concern for your family than for strangers, the priority your family enjoys is not absolute if you do start to feel guilty at a certain point, MacFarquhar suggests.

MacFarquhar is “the best writer in the English language for bringing philosophical ideas to life for non-philosophers.”

MacFarquhar used this philosophical scenario to introduce Sue and Hector Badeau, two parents who weigh the interests of family against the interests of strangers quite differently than most people. Along with having two biological children, Sue and Hector adopted twenty children, many of whom were special-needs children. During her talk, MacFarquhar pushed the audience to consider the ethical considerations of the Badeaus’ family choices.

The McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society brought MacFarquhar to campus for the second time to discuss her current book project on “Extreme Morality.” Program director Professor Rob Reich introduced her as “the best writer in the English language for bringing philosophical ideas to life for non-philosophers.”

A growing family

crowded auditoriumA huge family was not the Badeaus’ original life plan. Sue and Hector were high school sweethearts who married right out of college, and they had wanted to have two children and adopt two more. Because of his own experiences with his abusive dad, Hector had a deep desire to be a good father. And Sue had wanted to adopt ever since she was twelve years old and read The Family Nobody Wanted, a book about a 1930s couple who adopted several multiracial children. Belonging to a family like that seemed “wonderful” to her.

But the Badeaus’ concern for children in need did not end after the birth of Chelsea and Isaac, and the adoption of Jose from El Salvador and Raj from India. There were the six abused teenagers from Texas, their father dead and mother absent, whom no one wanted to adopt. There were the four young siblings from New Mexico, for whom Sue and Hector felt “instant love” upon seeing their photos in an adoption newsletter. There were the severely disabled children, most of whom were expected to die within a few years.

In each case they had to decide if they could effectively parent one more.

Adoption agencies began seeking out Sue and Hector to ask them to take the children no one else would, and in each case they had to decide if they could effectively parent one more. Sue and Hector were religious people, and to them the question ultimately amounted to, "does God mean for us to adopt this child?"

There were critics outside the family, of course—people who thought Sue and Hector were driven to adopt by some unhealthy psychological compulsion, and were arrogant to think they could be good parents to so many. And although the Badeau children generally supported each adoption, sometimes they too would question the wisdom of taking in another. What did it mean to be family if anyone could join?

A calling to adopt

L MacFarquharMacFarquhar explained that, to Sue and Hector, the children whom they felt a calling to adopt were in some third category between family and stranger before they joined the family. “It was a third, intermediate category of person, morally speaking: a person whom it was their duty to help, in the same way that it would be their duty to help a wounded person right in front of them on the street,” MacFarquhar said. To Sue and Hector, these adoptions were not acts of charity—they were acts of rescue.

“It is good to give to charity, but acceptable not to; rescue, on the other hand, is a duty, immoral to avoid unless the risk is extreme,” MacFarquhar pointed out. Indeed, Sue is a “proselytizer” for adoption, both in her personal and professional life. She often talks to friends about adoption, and she works as an adoption consultant. Although the Badeaus do not believe that adopting twenty children is for everyone, they do think everyone should adopt.

Extreme morality

“What is Family, What are Strangers?” is MacFarquhar’s second talk at Stanford. Last year, she spoke about a young couple that feels morally obligated to donate all their surplus income to charity. Like Sue and Hector Badeau, Sarah and Ethan place more weight on the interests of strangers than most, they act in accordance with what they believe to an exceptional degree, and they are frequently viewed with suspicion. But with regard to children, Sarah and Ethan’s saintliness manifests itself differently from the Badeaus. After her two biological children, Sue had a tubal ligation and resolved to only adopt in the future. Meanwhile, convinced that bringing another person into the world is an irresponsible drain on resources, Sarah and Ethan grappled with the decision of whether to have a child.

There is another difference between the two couples. By methodically donating the majority of their money to charities they believe to be most impactful, Sarah and Ethan have consequences that are quite easy to see. On the other hand, the success of the family that Sue and Hector created is not easy to evaluate at a glance, as several children dealt with substance abuse, teen pregnancy, or prison time.

But MacFarquhar stressed that the children were almost certainly better off than they would have been without Sue and Hector. Many of them now have stable jobs and fulfilling lives. Most live within four blocks of Sue and Hector with their own children—effectively creating something of a three-generational village of 50-60 family members who remain closely involved in each other’s lives. They often watch over each other’s children, and they feel “very much tied together by duty in the same way Sue and Hector are to them.”


This article originally appeared in The Buzz, which is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's student-driven news portal. 

Larissa MacFarquhar
Larissa MacFarquhar

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her subjects have included John Ashbery, Edward Albee, Derek Parfit, Patricia Churchland and Paul Churchland, Richard Posner, and Noam Chomsky among many others. She is currently working on her new book, tentatively titled Extreme Morality. The book will be published by Penguin Press. Before joining The New Yorker, MacFarquhar was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review.

Salil Dudani

Salil Dudani is an undergraduate student at Stanford who writes for the Center for Ethics in Society's student writing team.