Mining the Meaning of Mine in Bryan Caplan’s Modest Proposal

Bryan Caplan is one of my favorite authors, and I particularly enjoy his writing on family economics. I’ve started working my way through the archives of his content where I’ve already re-discovered one of my favorite articles of all time.

Despite my admiration for his work, and even though I found that particular post inspiring, I actually think that the argument he constructs is so bizarre that it’s not even wrong.

If I weren’t such a fan and pre-disposed to be as charitable as possible, and if you pushed me to summarize his message in only four words, I might submit something like this:

However, I really do appreciate Caplan, so instead, I’ll just say I follow him as far as he goes, but stopping at absolution of regret doesn’t go far enough. Rather than “I regret nothing,” the wisdom I draw from his insight that “I love [my children] greatly simply because they exist and they’re mine” is that unconditional love has nothing to do with me. Here’s the argument:

  • I love my children unconditionally. That is what it means to say “I love [them] simply because they exist.” The “and they’re mine” bit might at first sound like a condition, but I’ll explain why it isn’t, so just hold that thought.
  • The feeling of love I have toward my children is the best feeling I know. I would not exchange this feeling for any other.
  • Not only would I not trade the experience of love, I would not trade anything connected with the experience, which, as Caplan notes, includes the kids themselves. Because I know that I would refuse any offer to swap them, I know that I love the exact children I have.
  • One way to interpret this would be to follow Caplan and note that if anything about your kids changed they would no longer be the exact same children, and given that you wouldn’t want to change anything about them, you shouldn’t want to change anything that could change them: hence, no regrets.
  • OK, that’s all logical; it’s just too shallow. A little more imagination can lead you to the realization that not only is your love impervious to the desire for change, it is actually impervious to the reality of change.
  • While you might not want to change anything about your children, the truth is that they, like all of us, are literally changing all the time.
  • So go ahead, imagine (or maybe just see) that your children are slightly (or even massively) different. And if your kids are going to change, do you imagine that you will be standing apart, the unmoved mover? Clearly not. How does the hypothetical new you feel about your imaginary offspring? Do you imagine that you love them any less? I don’t.
  • Nothing in their past, nor anything in my past; no thought of what they might or might not do in the future–none of it–would lessen my love for them. How could this be?
  • When I probe deeper to find out why I feel this way, I arrive at the “because…they’re mine” bit. What does it mean to say that they are mine? They are not mine because I own them. You don’t own your kids. Full-stop. It may sound strange, but this was actually one of the first insights I had when I started staying at home with them full-time. Instead, to say that they are mine is to assert that no one can understand who or what I am without including my kids in the picture. They are mine because they are an integral part of me.
  • This is why “mine” is not an overlooked condition potentially spoiling the experience of unconditional love. It is merely a point of entry. It doesn’t matter who they are. It doesn’t even matter who I am. We’ve already established that we could all be entirely different people, yet the love would be just as profound. What matters is not personal identity; it is the fact that the experience is shared.
  • The power of the shared experience comes from the sharing and from the experience. For there to be sharing, there must be people. For there to be experience, those people must be conscious.
  • Consciousness does not depend on personal identity. You are as conscious as I am even though we are different people with different life histories having led to brains that are configured in different ways.
  • The recognition of this common spark of humanity in an experience is where the sharing comes from. It is easier to appreciate in a family setting. It is what makes my children, my children. Yet it is also possible to experience in different settings. It is what makes my friends, my friends, or my neighbors, my neighbors.
  • I don’t know if there is any limit to how far this view can be taken. I think the possibility to expand it to the entire sentient universe is the gist of the buddhist concept of metta. I will confess that I have not experienced it first-hand. However, I make metta meditation a regular part of my mediation practice, and I can attest that there is a positive-reinforcement effect that kicks in to support the attitude of lovingkindness as you develop a view of the independence of shared experience from the idea of the permanence or importance of a personal identity.
  • Finally, I want to come back to link-up with Caplan. Even if I think he was off the reservation in his discussion of regret, he returned from the wilderness bearing genuine wisdom: “What I’m really saying is that if you love your children just because they’re the ones you got, you have a special reason to be happy every day.”

He’s right, and what’s more, if you follow me, you can go even further, progressing from what you might call his “special theory of happiness” to my “general theory.” Let go of the “self” and embrace the “sharing.”

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