Making Room In the Inn: Why the Modern World Needs the Needy

by Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D


This speech was presented at the Capital University School of Law, Columbus, OH on April 27, 2007, at the invitation of the Federalist Society. It is based on an article originally published in Wealth, Poverty and Human Destiny, David Schindler and Doug Bandow, editors (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003).

Publisher & Date

Ruth Institute Blog, April 7, 2007


The self-sufficient, autonomous individual is at the heart of modern America’s understanding of itself. Democratic political institutions depend on the free and informed participation of the citizens. The free market relies upon contracts and exchanges among independent and equal participants. Modern culture celebrates the individual, both as the basic and the ultimate, unit of society.

However, some people are legitimately dependent on others. Children are profoundly, if temporarily, dependent on their parents. The elderly and the sick are dependent on others. The seriously disabled, and the mentally ill are permanently dependent.

The modern world has had a tendency to marginalize the needy. This is both unwise and unnecessary. Defenders of the free society can incorporate the needy into their vision of a society of free and responsible individuals. We do this by facing the fact of dependency, and the need for community as squarely as we face the fact of self-interest and the need for autonomy. If we insist that the free person needs only self-interest and self-sufficiency without solidarity, we will marginalize the needy, and dehumanize ourselves.

I maintain that we are afraid to look too closely at dependent people because they remind us how much our own consciousness is a contingent, and not a necessary fact. The rational faculty is a gift that allows us to think and to choose. This gift of rationality makes our freedom and autonomy possible. But it is a mistake to view our rationality as the source of our value or dignity as persons. I propose in this paper to take a sober-minded look at the vulnerability of our autonomy and rationality. I hope to show that opening this question will ultimately strengthen, not weaken the overall case for a free society.


There are and always will be, people who are dependent upon others, through no fault of their own. Human beings are born as helpless babies, and our species has a long period of dependency. Infant dependency is inherent in the human situation. In fact, we can say that dependency is the one truly universal human experience, since everyone begins life with infancy.

When we become ill, we are dependent upon healthy people to take care of our needs in various ways. As we age, we need the assistance of others. Some futurists might imagine that the steady march of technology will eliminate this problem of dependence. I think this belief is naive. While technology has certainly lengthened the useful life of most people, technology can not entirely banish the needs of the sick or the elderly for assistance from others. The very complexity of modern medical care means that an incapacitated individual needs the help of other people, simply to take advantage of the technology.

Pharmaceutical regimes can be exceedingly complex. AIDS patients need sophistication and diligence to take their complicated combinations of pills correctly. Many elderly people need help in managing their life-enhancing medications. Chemotherapy, while life-extending, is exhausting and debilitating. The cancer patient who must face this treatment completely alone is at a serious disadvantage compared to a person rich in relatives. Even accessing health care in the first place can be a daunting experience. A healthy and robust person can become overwhelmed navigating the bureaucratic maze of HMO’s, insurance companies and government services. An isolated sick person will certainly have a difficult time obtaining the services he needs.

Virtually everyone has periods of partial or complete dependency. Some people however, are more permanently or seriously dependent. They come into the world with mental or physical impairments that render them permanently dependent upon others to some degree or other. Other people fall victim to accidents, strokes or illnesses that leave them partially or completely disabled. Mentally ill people, sufferers from Alzheimer’s disease, people who have had an injury to the brain; these are people who may have may have begun their lives with every prospect of living an independent life.

Thus, the problem of the legitimately dependent can not be finessed or argued away. There is quite literally no possible reconstruction of the social, economic and political system that will eliminate the helplessness of infancy. The experience of illness and old age, while not universal, are certainly widespread enough that we can say that this kind of temporary or partial dependency is legitimate and unavoidable. The only way to eliminate the powerlessness of illness and old age would be to execute people at the first sign of infirmity.

This ubiquity of unavoidable helplessness points to the possibility that dependency is not peripheral to the social order, but is somehow central to it. We modern Americans take understandable pride in our self-sufficiency. Our jealous guarding of our political and financial independence keeps us both free and prosperous. We have created for ourselves an uplifting vision of free and equal adults making trades among themselves. But it is not the whole story about the human condition. We need to find a way to incorporate our experience of neediness into the more general vision of free and responsible people.


I maintain that modern America marginalizes the needy. We use three major methods of distancing ourselves from the needy, and the intellectual and ideological problem that they pose for us. First, we define them out of existence. We change the terms of discussion so that those who are apparently dependent are really just as autonomous as everyone else. Second, we commercialize their care, to keep them at arm’s length. We pay other people to take care of them, so we don’t have to look too closely. Finally, we have developed elaborate justifications for ending the lives of those who are dependent upon us. In other words, if all else fails, we kill them.

1. Redefining the needy into autonomy.

Our reinterpretation of childhood offers a dramatic illustration of how we have redefined our terms so that people aren’t really needy, but autonomous. We have steadily lowered the age at which children are permitted to do a larger and larger number of things. Children are entitled to “free expression” in the form of clothing and writings inside public schools. Children are permitted to procure medical advice and care for themselves, so they can have access to contraception and abortion without the knowledge or guidance of their parents.

We have also largely given up the efforts to shape children’s behavior and preferences, evidently believing that children’s impulses are basically sound. Many opinion-makers have convinced themselves that children are naturally moral creatures who are ruined by the adults who attempt to civilize them. The child’s authentic self will emerge if only adults leave it unfettered. Children should not be introduced to norms of behavior and collective knowledge bound up in customs of long-usage. Rather than being initiated into culture, children should be protected from it.

We have come to believe that children are competent to handle the disruption that adult behavior inflicts on them. If the parents are unhappy, children will be able to handle their divorce. The parents are not tough enough to handle the disappointments in their marriage, but the children are resilient enough to handle the disruption of a divorce.

It is as if we have literally applied the idea of the “noble savage” to childhood. As a matter of plainly observable fact, children are not noble savages, whose most pressing need is to be left alone. A left-alone infant will die. Children need guidance and instruction, if they are ever to be able to use the freedom that our society ultimately wants them to have as adults.

Children are not the only group of people whom we have redefined into autonomy. We have come to treat the mentally ill as though they were equipped to use the Bill of Rights, and as though their decisions were rational. Numerous observers have come to the conclusion, for instance, that many of the people described as “homeless” are actually mentally ill people who have been “deinstitutionalized.”

Ideas from both the Left and the Right sides of the political spectrum conspired in this process of redefining the mentally ill. From the Right, people such as Thomas Szasz stress individual responsibility and autonomy. Szasz argues that debilitating mental illness is a myth, comparable to witchcraft. There are only “problems in living.” Szasz believes that everyone should be held accountable for their actions, and not be excused based on an invented claim of mental illness.

From the Left, Communist-turned-anarchist-turned-deconstructionist Michel Foucalt “boldly equated sanity and madness,” claiming that the concept of sanity is socially constructed. Indeed, the insane are often the most sane of all, since they at least recognize the insanity of our culture for what it is. “Radical therapists” took this one step further. These radical therapists believe that through a transformation of the capitalist system, all those who currently appear to be mentally ill will become healthy, functioning members of the utopian society.

Even parts of mainstream psychiatry were unable to grasp fully the importance of severe mental illness. Freudians saw mental illness and mental health as a continuum, with most people having some degree of mental impairment. It is significant that the doctors who held this view had psychotherapy practices treating neurotic middle class patients. The average psychotherpist seldom encountered schizophrenics, manic-depressives or autistics. These chronically ill people could seldom hold even minimal jobs, and certainly could not afford to pay for expensive psychotherapeutic treatments. These people were most likely to be hospitalized in state hospitals, tended by public health psychiatrists, who were not the high prestige members of their profession.

These three disparate groups, the libertarian Right, the anti-capitalist Left, and segments of the psychiatric community itself, have something in common. They all see the mentally ill person as a special case of the ordinary person, and avoid the problems posed by the more seriously impaired mentally ill person.

This ideological cocktail draws a mask over the true condition of the mentally ill person’s impairment. Damage to the brain can impair a person’s ability to think, and choose. Each of these ideologies allows us to avoid seeing the reality of this disability. We redefine the mentally ill and their behavior as being another branch of normality, rather than face the fact that they are seriously disabled.

Our system of civil liberties assumes that people have the ability to reason. Some of the mentally ill potentially have the use of the rational faculties, but only if they take appropriate medication. Yet mental health law has evolved to the point that no one can compel them to take medication, or to commit them to any kind of institutional care. The legal system offers seriously mentally ill people the right to live on the street, but not the right to treatment. The families of the seriously mentally ill have the right to take care of their loved ones in their own home, but they have no power to keep the person in the home and off the street. As a result, the home becomes a mental institution, staffed by untrained family members who never receive training, assistance or even a day off.

Some self-styled advocates of the homeless chide the American public for lacking the generosity necessary to care for the homeless adequately. I honestly do not believe that stinginess is the problem here. I think the problem is that we would prefer not to look too closely at the problem of mental illness. According to recent estimates, about a third of the chronically homeless population have either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness.) Describing the issue as “homelessness,” suggests that the primary issue is a material problem of adequate housing. If only we could find a place for these impoverished people to live, if only the neighborhoods would be more welcoming, if only the government would commit more resources, the problem of homelessness would be solved.

But the neighborhoods don’t complain about poor people without shelter. They complain about people wandering the streets muttering to themselves, urinating in public places, eating out of garbage cans, starting inexplicable fights or leaving trash and filth where ever they go. The people in the neighborhoods can see that the mentally ill inhabit a different reality. They need something more profound than housing. There is nothing compassionate or respectful about letting people roam the streets, with their needs for human solidarity unmet.

Anyone of us could get a bump on the head that would leave us without the use of our rational faculty. Any of us could have a stroke, or contract Alzheimer’s disease. We would then need the kind of help that some of the seriously mentally ill or brain-damaged people need. Most people prefer not to linger over this fact. Indeed, some people will state categorically that they would rather be dead rather than brain damaged.

2. Commercializing dependent care.

Our second avoidance strategy is that we pay people to take care of the dependent rather than do it ourselves. This keeps the issue of dependency at arm’s length, so we don’t have to deal with it directly. This strategy illustrates something important: Contrary to the complaints of some on the Left, Americans are prepared to pay to take care of the needy. In some cases, we would prefer to pay, rather than to give the care ourselves. It is the needy themselves that we fear. But we do not fear the needy because they are the “Other,” the scapegoat that societies invent to create social cohesion among the “Included” members of society. Modern Americans fear the needy because they present the interior tension between our official ideology of independent individualism, and the reality of temporary or permanent dependence.

The welfare state provides a highly visible and pervasive example of this avoidance strategy. Advocates claimed that state funding would regularize and systematize the care of the poor. In the process, however, it removed the care of dependent people from the messy, personal realm and moved it into the sanitized, bureaucratic realm. One of the key impacts of the bureaucratization of poor relief has been to remove the face to face contact between the poor and the donor. The donor has become an impersonal taxpayer, rather than a real person. The recipient has become a client of state agencies, not a neighbor in need.

Advocates of an expansive welfare state viewed this as an advantage. No more would the stuffy church ladies demean the poor with arrogant offers of help, accompanied by sneers of disdain for their behavior. The poor could preserve their dignity, if they received their entitlement from a government office, who would ask only a minimal number of antiseptic questions.

Large numbers of people acquiesced in the transformation from social charity to public charity. The encounter with the needy is one that many, if not most, people would prefer to avoid. Paying someone else to do it allows the donor to feel that they have done their duty, while avoiding the direct encounter with the poor.

In a somewhat different way, the trend toward paid child care has contributed to keeping dependent people at arm’s length. Paid child care has moved children out of the home and into the care of paid strangers. The public arguments in favor of this shift have been two: first, mothers need to work because of economic necessity, and second, women are entitled to work because their personal dignity requires it. The opponents of this shift have argued both that these needs for daycare are exaggerated, and that day care is harmful to children in various ways. Neither side has paid particular attention to the point that I want to make: turning child care into a business shields the parents and society more generally from confronting the full scope of their child’s dependence.

Care of children becomes one more commodity, another household expense. The reality that infants are helpless is much less immediate if you only have to face it for part of the time. Caring for a newborn around the clock shows us just how profound our initial helplessness is.

Paying people to take care of children transforms the relationship between parent and child in a variety of ways. The parent becomes a consumer of childcare services. The parents conceptualize their role as selecting the most suitable providers of services, where “suitable” can take on many possible meanings. Hymowitz reports, for instance, that some parents try to locate people who can provide proper intellectual stimulation to the baby’s developing brain. The baby can be left with anyone, as long as the baby is stimulated according to the parents’ instructions.

Even if parents have perfectly reasonable understanding of “suitable”, the transformation from parent to consumer has subtle consequences. The primary business of parenthood is not economic, but relational. The parents’ irreplaceable job is building a relationship with their children. But you can’t pay someone to have a relationship with you. How much less can you pay somebody to have a relationship with a third party, namely, your child?

Every one of these disadvantages of paid care stems from the same source: a personal relationship has become commercialized. Much of the argument between the Left and the Libertarian Right has focused on whether government should finance daycare. Libertarians argue that the market can provide all the childcare people really want and need. This argument, however, concedes too much to the statist, corporatist mentality. Government-provided child care also uses the market, because the government pays people to take care of the kids. From my perspective, the difference between market and government child care is not as great as the difference between personal care by a family member and impersonal care provided by someone who is paid.

Similarly, the care of the dependent elderly has been commercialized and moved out of the family. Many people will tell say, “I don’t want to be a burden to my children.” Of course, no one wants to be a burden to anyone at all. On the other hand, no one wants to go through their final illness and death all alone,when the time comes. It is difficult for a person to face their own descent into helplessness and ultimate demise. It is difficult for their loved ones to face it as well. But we are better off if we do face it, because it is a fact.

Taking care of the routine needs of an incapacitated person’s body is a demanding, sometimes disagreeable activity. Often, an infirm or elderly person’s needs can be so great that they need round the clock care. A family may very well want to hire help, just to assure that everyone in the family receives good care.

But this approach to hired help is quite different from simply passing the person off to paid care providers. In one case, the person is still embedded within the family’s nexus of love and care. In the other case, the family creates distance between itself and its infirm member. We try to tell ourselves that we can’t give them good enough care, and that they will be better off in some kind of facility. And sometimes, that is the truth. But often, part of heart is our unwilling to be engaged with the dependent person. Not to put to fine a point on it, sometimes, we get freaked out by the person’s infirmity.

3. We kill dependent people.

The care of the dependent elderly brings up a final way that we distance ourselves from people who cannot take care of themselves: we kill them. Two prevalent attitudes combine to make this legalized killing seem justified. First, the logic of dependence and independence means that the dependent appear to be of no value. Second, our Anglo-American emphasis on legal rights and obligations obscures the other kinds of duties and relationships we might want to have in a really good society.

This combination of ideas lies behind the impulse for the taking of innocent life in many forms. The independent have no legal or moral obligations to the dependent. The dependent have no intrinsic value. No one has an obligation to take care of an infirm elderly person, to assist him, to alleviate his pain, and help to make his life seem worthwhile.

Similarly, the child in the womb is dependent on his mother. She is not obligated to take care of him. He can’t take care of himself. He has no intrinsic value. Therefore, the child must die, if his mother wishes it.

Even our attitudes toward disabilities reflect this combination of views. Many people see nothing wrong with pre-natal screening for serious disabilities, accompanied by aborting any fetuses with detected abnormalities. But this doesn’t solve the problem of the dependent. It simply removes the problem from view. The philosophy underlying this strategy is that the solution to the disabled person’s problem is to end his life before it begins. Killing is a solution.


Both the critics and defenders of capitalism have done a disservice to the poor by reducing the problems of the needy to economic problems. The critics of capitalism are mistaken if they believe that there is some potential reform of the economy that will eliminate the problem of dependency. And the defenders of capitalism have been mistaken in accepting these terms for the debate. No matter how the economic system were structured and restructured, some people will still be dependent upon others. Transferring money to the profoundly dependent does not address their need for human relationships and personal care.

Curiously enough, many of the Left’s preferred solutions to social problems amount to replacing an interdependent human relationship with an impersonal bureaucratic relationship. For instance, many on the Left argue that mothers could be independent of men, if only the state provided a generous enough safety net for single mothers. But this policy doesn’t end the dependence of the mother and her child. It only transfers their dependence to the state. Instead of being interdependent with a husband and father who provides an actual human relationship, the life-style Left proposes that women and children be dependent on the state.

Similarly, many of the radical therapists seem to think that mental illness will disappear if only the legal and economic system could be reformed enough. Whatever else might be true of a particular sick person, they will certainly need the assistance of other people. Giving a seriously sick person the right to live on the street, and do what they want, denies their need for human solidarity. In fact, many of the legal innovations surrounding mental illness have made it all but impossible for families to take reasonable care of their loved ones at home. They can’t make them stay home. They can’t make them take medication. The mentally ill person ends up cycling between the street for ordinary times, the emergency room for acute episodes, and jail for petty crimes. “Mental Illness History Comes Full Circle, Macon Telegraph, January 28, 2002, (

In this respect, dependent people do challenge the American ethos of individualism. The presence of dependent people threatens the underlying contractual structure of American life. A person who can not take care of himself is not part of the economic system. Is there a place for such a person within the society based on a market order? If a person is unable to participate in the governing and choosing process of democracy, is he somehow a rebuke to the system itself?

This is why conservative and libertarian calls for an expanded charitable sector are unlikely to be successful taken by themselves. Unless we are willing to challenge this utilitarian view of the needy, we aren’t likely to get many volunteers to help them. We need to expand our vision of the free society beyond the nexus of exchange. Without this expansion of vision, our appeals for an increase in the private charitable sector have a hollow sound to many people.

It is true that our free society depends on individual choice and responsibility. The economic and legal system rest on the assumption that people have the capacity, and indeed the right, to make independent choices for themselves. This system of free enterprise, constitutionally limited government and culturally sanctioned individualism works reasonably well for most people most of the time. We have a system with higher standards of living, and greater amounts of personal freedom than any system that has ever existed.

We often defend this system because it upholds the dignity of each individual person. Tacit in that defense, is the unspoken claim that a person’s dignity depends upon their ability to think, to choose, and to make and keep commitments. But this tacit defense is not quite good enough. This tacit defense of human freedom cannot take account of situations in which recognizably human creatures are unable to choose and behave rationally.

Some people redefine “human” in order to avoid this difficulty. Only creatures that are capable of moral choice and rational thought are fully human. Therefore, humans without these capacities do not have the same sets of rights as others, and in some theories, they have no rights at all. But this redefinition is inherently dangerous, since anyone could be at least temporarily, unable to take care of himself, and unable to think.

The solution is not to turn away from the problem of dependency, but rather to confront it directly and embrace it. This direct facing of the problem will allow us to see both that our understanding of our free society needs to be modified, and that the problem of caring for the dependent is solvable within it.


We should face the issue of dependency because it is simply a fact. Facing reality has always been one of the strong suits of the philosophy of freedom. Advocates of the free market understood that it was a fool’s errand to abolish private property and reorganize the entire economy as if it were one big happy family. When socialists tried to eliminate the instinct for self-interest and self-preservation by destroying economic incentives, it was free market economists who pointed out that this vision was doomed. Economics has been successful as a science because it is based on something true: people are self-interested, and respond to incentives in a systematic and predictable way. This is also the reason that free societies work reasonably well

But this is not the only truth about human nature. It is equally true that we are dependent, all of us, some of the time, (during infancy) and some of us, (the disabled and the elderly) all of the time. The fact of dependency creates an unavoidable need for human solidarity, and interdependence.

It is also true that we have a desire to contribute to others, and to something good that extends beyond ourselves. This desire is as much a part of the human condition as the self-interested impulse that economists spend so much time talking about. Indeed, we might suppose that the desire to contribute is the basis for belief in various socialist projects, however poorly conceived. We will not lose the advantages of individual motivation and effort, a crucial part of the case for the free society, by acknowledging these facts.

An ethic of caring for the dependent is realistic in that it is based on these enduring facts about the human condition. We can not reasonably expect to ever abolish human dependency. Nor can we expect that people will stop caring about their infirm or dependent relatives. Nor finally, can we assume that family members will never need some assistance from the wider community.

We come into the world as helpless babies. We leave the world as a helpless dying person. It doesn’t make much sense to ignore the issue of dependency during the entire period of our lives in between. But this in turn points us to the fact that we need other people. To put it simply, we need love.


The radical alternative to both impersonal bureaucracy and atomistic individualism is the law of the gift. This approach begins with the person in quite a different situation from the autonomous, choosing self. Instead of an initial presumption that each individual is a rational agent endowed with rights and a presumption of freedom, start with the idea that each human life is a gift. Our own life is a gift to us; the lives of others are gifts to them, and ultimately, to us. Likewise, our capacities, including our capacity for rational thought and choice, are gifts to us.

We lose none of the advantages of the legal rights and obligations perspective. Our lives, talents and capacities are still “ours” and can be understood in the familiar property rights sense. No one else has the right to take our lives or exploit our talents. Each person owns themselves and their endowments in much the same way as in the private property image of the self. I have no more right to help myself to other people’s gifts than I would to help myself to their real or moveable property.

The gift perspective also preserves the universality principle that is so important to the Western philosophical and legal tradition. Not only am I a gift to myself, so is every other person a gift to him or herself. There is still a powerful egalitarian impulse in the gift approach. Although we may differ in our gifts and talents, each one of us is still a gift as much as any other. We can not sensibly view one person as a solution and another as a problem. There is a level at which no one really has reasonable bragging rights. I didn’t create my intellect, my health or my family background, any more than I created my own life. The gift perspective helps us to see that each of these talents and endowments was entrusted to us, and are not fundamentally, of our own making or creation.

Thus, the gift perspective maintains crucial important features of our Western system of legal rights and obligations, while providing several unique advantages. First, viewing the person as a gift helps us to have a more realistic understanding of human dependency. We can more easily see that our crucial talents and abilities are contingent, not necessary, facts. I am an intelligent person. I need not have been, and I need not remain so. I am a healthy person, but I need not have been, nor am I guaranteed to continue to be healthy. I have the ability to help others. But I may not always have that ability, and indeed, I may one day be in need of the assistance of other people. We can, I think, more easily embrace our own periodic dependency on others. And we can more easily see that we need not reject the dependency of other people.

The second advantage of viewing the human person as a gift is that this perspective inspires an attitude of gratitude. It is harder to go through life feeling cheated, if one continually reminds oneself that one’s entire life is a gift that need not have been given. The modern obsession with “fairness” quite often takes the form of self-pity. “I could have achieved as much as so and so, if only I had had his advantages in life.” “I could really make something of myself, if only the world were more fair, so that I could have had an equal chance.” If we remember that our lives, our talents, our relatives, are not of our own making, we are less apt to feel sorry for ourselves.

This suggests yet another advantage of the gift perspective. Seeing people as a gift provides us with an antidote to the extreme forms of competitiveness that sometimes mar human relationships. Competition can be constructive as an accountability mechanism in economics. But competition can be destructive in human relationships. We can spend our time and psychic energy comparing ourselves with others, even in situations that are not really commensurable. If I regard myself as better than the other person, I walk around feeling superior and smug. If I regard myself as worse than the other person; I walk around feeling inadequate and bad about myself. Neither smug superiority nor dejected inferiority are generally reasonable attitudes.

But if I see my life as a gift to me, the question of who is better than whom becomes much less troubling. After all, I didn’t earn my life. Neither did the other person earn his. Our relative talents and abilities are a reflection of what we were given, more than of our intrinsic merits. We can focus more upon what we choose to do and not do with what we have been given, rather than worrying about who has more or less. What we choose to do and not do is the essence of our moral blameworthiness or praiseworthiness in any case. Some part of what we have was simply given to us, and has nothing to do with our deserts. Reminding myself that my life is a gift has a way of short-circuiting that entire destructive line of interpersonal comparisons.

In addition to these advantages to the change in perspective, there is a surprising change in how we see the radically dependent person. I can see other people, not only as gifts to themselves, but also as gifts to me. This gives us a perspective from which to appreciate the helpless.

How can I see that person as a gift? We can get a glimpse of an answer by looking at how people ordinarily respond to a newborn baby. It is always amazing to see a room full of people watching a tiny sleeping baby, as if it were the most fascinating creature in the world. An economist might subsume this question as a category of capital investment: we value the potential for life and productivity that a newborn child represents. A sociobiologist might say that we are hard-wired to feel drawn to the infant’s neediness because the survival of our own genes depends upon it. I must say, these sound more like rationalizations than real reasons. And even if completely true from some grand evolutionary perspective, these accounts do not tell us very much about how we ought to evaluate our own attraction to the newborn, and whether and to what extent we ought to cultivate this feeling.

The newborn baby draws out our ability to care for another person in a more intense way that we have perhaps ever experienced before. The fact that the baby is counting on me in a radical way forces me to look inside myself to find the resources to meet his needs. I find out how much I can give, how much sleep deprivation I can stand, how much love I am truly capable of. I do not maximize an existing, known utility function. I discover that my happiness can be enhanced in ways that I had never known existed.

The babies also point us to the deeper realities of human existence: our vulnerability, fragility and ultimate demise. We need our parents for our very survival. We can’t really do anything for them, except be cute, smile and make them laugh. Infancy is the realm of the pure gift. It is possible that a mother nursing a newborn baby is performing a complicated calculation that her action will result in a secure old age for herself. Possible, but not likely. More likely, she is entering into the world of pure love. She nurses the baby because her body cries out to nurse. The baby is certainly not involved with a convoluted series of exchanges with his parents. Our parents make the First Move in our game of life. We come to trust that the world is a safe place, fit for our existence, and that we ourselves deserve to live.

For the mind steeped in utilitarianism, the natural question to ask is, “of what use are the infirm, the mentally ill and the old?” These people allow me to enter into the world of trust, the world of gift. They can be a gift to me, precisely because I have to be the visible giver. The helpless person invites us to enter into the realm of unconditional love, a realm that we all need to inhabit at least some of the time.

The utilitarian can avoid the comparable question about the baby because the infant can be subsumed as a species of capital theory: a baby is useful because it will grow up to become a productive member of society. But I suggest that the answer we give to the question about the unproductive adult will have ramifications for our treatment of children.


I had the opportunity to find this out for myself in the last couple of years. I have had a couple of “special needs” people right under my own roof, my son and my mother-in-law.

I have written about my adopted son before. My husband and I adopted him from a Romanian orphanage at the age of two and a half years old. He had a variety of problems and challenges, resulting from those years in an orphanage. Those were warehouse years for him, years outside the world of love and interpersonal connection.

We wondered whether he would ever learn to love anyone, or attach to anyone. We were pretty sure he was making progress along those lines, but we had the opportunity to find out just how much progress when my husband’s mother became seriously ill. Nico was twelve years old by this time.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer, at about the same time that we (finally) realized that she had Alzheimer’s. Her judgement, her memory and her ability to take care of herself were deteriorating rapidly, at exactly the time that her illness made her even more needy. We told ourselves that we wanted to honor her independence as long as possible. That was only part of the truth. We also did not really want to admit that the mind of this wonderful person was fading away before our eyes.

It finally became apparent that she needed to move in with our family. As we looked around the house, the most suitable room for her was Nico’s bedroom. It was the closest to our bedroom, and close to a bathroom. We would have to reorganize the house, and move him into a more public room than he was used to.

We told him that Grandma really needed to live with us, and into his room in particular. Naturally, he resisted this idea, as any twelve year old boy might. He asked if there was someplace else she could live. I told him that the realistic alternative for her was a nursing home. He asked the obvious question, “what’s a nursing home?” I told him (in a truly inspired moment of motherhood) “a nursing home is an orphanage for old people.”

He paused long enough for his eyes to grow wide, about a heart beat, I’d guess. Then he said, “no way.” He gave Grandma his room, cheerfully, without any further hint of complaining.

Our son and daughter got to help take care of Grandma during those last six months of her life. She was a lovely, delightful person, easy to take care of. I made a game of it for the kids. I would summon them by clapping my hands and calling, “Elves, I need some elves. Grandma needs a tissue,” or whatever it was she needed. The kids would come running, tumbling over themselves to be the first one to bring Grandma whatever it was. She never failed to laugh at this, and the kids never failed to be pleased with themselves.

Grandma took a turn for the worse while Nico and I were away on a trip to Switzerland and Washington D.C. My husband called us to tell us that she could no longer swallow, and to be prepared for the worst. When we got home, it was unusually hot and humid, and the family was keeping wet towels around Grandma’s neck, and trying to feed her ice chips to suck on. Nico went right to her room, and began talking to her about our trip. She couldn’t say much, but she smiled at him. I stayed with her, and watched as the kids went outside to play together. Nico showed his sister his favorite souvenirs, a noisy cow horn from Switzerland, and a kazoo in the shape of a duck’s beak from “D.C. Ducks.”

These kids just happened to play and make their noises right outside Grandma’s window, where she could see them. She was happy just to watch them and listen to their noise. They just happened to bring their board game into Grandma’s room and play at the foot of her bed. I didn’t tell them to do it. They didn’t talk about what they were doing. But it was obvious: they wanted to be near Grandma because it would make her happy to see them there. Our nine-year-old daughter is naturally empathetic: was it her idea? If it was, Nico surely didn’t object. Anyhow, the two of them intuited that it was good for them to be near a dying woman whom they loved.

It might seem that they were doing her a service, and that she got all the benefits in this situation. She plainly took pleasure just in being close to these children. She didn’t look very good, in fact, her appearance was a bit alarming. She was dying, she couldn’t do anything for herself. What was she ever going to do for them?

Here is what she gave them. They got to know that they were of value to her, simply by being there. They didn’t have to do anything to be important to her and to be loved by her. They got to have the experience of being valued simply because they exist. That is as close to unconditional love as a person can get this side of heaven.

Surely, this experience of unconditional love is crucial for the foundation of a healthy personality, and sense of self-worth. Certainly, that is how a mother wants her children to feel. What could I have done that could convey that message any more powerfully than their grandmother did on her deathbed?

This is ultimately the contribution of the dependent to the rest of us: they teach us how to love, and be loved.


Our free society depends on individual choice and responsibility. The economic and legal system rest on the assumption that people have the capacity, and indeed the right, to make independent choices for themselves. Around this legal and economic system, we have created a culture that celebrates the individual, glorifies autonomy, and reveres personal choice. This system of free enterprise, constitutionally limited government and culturally sanctioned individualism works reasonably well for most people most of the time. We have a society with higher standards of living, and greater amounts of personal freedom than any system that has ever existed.

The vision of the free society must be humanized. We can do this in part by facing the reality of human dependence, along with the reality of human autonomy. We can build up a free society by embracing those who are legitimately dependent on us. We can take personal care of our own children, so they know they are loved and that the world is worth being part of and contributing to. We can take care of the disabled so that we have the opportunity to take a vacation from the world of exchange and live in the world of the gift at least some of the time. We can take care of the elderly and help them to know that they are loved, and that their lives have meaning and value. Surely this is a project worthy of a great and prosperous nation.

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