When our first daughter was born, we gave her the name Lena. We’re Bosnians, yet this is not a typical Bosnian name. Wikipedia says it is seen in Hindi, Hebrew and Swedish. But, we’re not typical Bosnians, either. We live in New York City and feel more cosmopolitan than ethnic.
Still, when choosing the name, my wife and I took special care not to come up with one that will be strikingly different from the Bosnian baby-naming standard. After all, we didn’t want Lena’s grandparents and family back in Bosnia break their tongues pronouncing their granddaughter’s name. I liked “Hypatia”, for example, but my wife vetoed it before I even managed to mention the famed beauty and wit of the Alexandrian philosopher whom I admired so much. I can only imagine how my mother would pronounce it while speaking to her over Skype.
But, we also didn’t want to give her a traditional Bosnian name that her future classmates in America will have trouble pronouncing, or use as a regular poking tool. Although we both liked “Iskra”, an ancient Slavic name, which means ‘a sparkle’, we gave up on it because of its wall of consonants, impervious to English speakers. She is cursed enough with a surname that will definitely twist some tongues and make the DMV clerks stutter when they call her to pick up her first driving license. She will probably not want to have the experience repeated in Starbucks too.
The question of naming our children goes beyond wild coffee shop scenarios and imagined Instagram feeds with funny misnomer examples. It extends to the terrains of law and moral philosophy, where both ethics of parenthood and statutory law try to provide guidance about the morally proper ways to raise children. Names do much more than reveal cultural identities and interests of parents; they also bequeath symbolic value to kids, and by doing so can increase or decrease their future symbolic and cultural worth. Therefore, the question is serious and requires careful thought. So, how should we name our children? Should governments establish any limits in how we do so?
Strangely (or maybe not), there are few works of legal, and almost no works of philosophical literature about this topic. I tried to correct that by publishing recently a study in which I examined this issue from a philosophical prism. Here is the summary of my examination and argument.
Most Americans today opt for names derived from the western cultural tradition. In 2014, “Sophie”, “Olivia” and “Emma” were the most popular names for baby girls, while “Jackson”, “Aiden” and “Liam” for baby boys. We have also recently witnessed interesting aberrations to this standard, from celebrity ones such as Kim Kardashian’s and Kanye West’s son named “North West”, to a New Jersey Nazi couple’s plan to name their baby Eva Braun, in honor of Hitler’s notorious lover.
Despite popularity of traditional names, Americans have also had a certain propensity to choose odd names for their children. According to a recent book, some of the most outrageous examples include “Dracula”, “Freak Skull”, “Toilet”, “Typhus”, “Cholera”, “Leper”, “Cash Whoredom”, “Hugh Jass”, Al Coholic”, “Post Office”, “Ghoul Nipple” and similar. Similarly, a recent article in The George Washington Law Review mentions the case of a person called “States Rights”, who, curiously enough, died during the Civil War fighting for the Confederate side.
American law hasn’t remained idle in the face of the folk’s creativity in child naming. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, a number of states began providing regulatory statutes constraining parents’ latitude in picking their kids’ names. Today, the rules vary from state to state. For example, New Jersey prohibits numerals as names, so one cannot be named “71” or similar. In a Twitter-like manner, Massachusetts limits the word count of name, middle name and surname to only 40 letters. California prohibits diacriticals, such as in José or René. Nebraska prohibits obscene names. Connecticut and Michigan laws do not require names on the certificate at all, so a child can go nameless. Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland and Montana have no limitations whatsoever.
Unites States is hardly the only country that regulates child naming. Some, such as Portugal, have a list of government pre-approved names, so parents can choose from the list. Others, such as North Korea prohibit parents in using the name of the country’s president to name their child.
The motivation behind many of these legal provisions varies. In most American cases, limitations derive either from procedural difficulties that would arise if persons were allowed to have certain names, such as in the cases of unusually lengthy names, as well as diacritics that require administrators to use more advanced keyboards, or from the belief that some names are insulting to their bearers and users alike.
Apart from slurs and obscene insults, the meaning of names has been rarely considered a yardstick for governmental regulation. This is because American lawmakers are not too eager to meddle with an issue that has traditionally been considered a matter of privacy, the domain where individual will reigns supreme. For example, in Henne v. Wright, the Eight Circuit court held that:
[A] parent’s right to name his or her child is protected under an extension of the right to privacy that is founded upon the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of individual liberty.
The combination of demands for administrative simplicity and the respect for parental individual liberty has lead to seemingly absurd situations, where certain letters and symbols in names are legally prohibited, such as René, while names such as “Adolf Hitler” are not.
Although the current US law defers to parental discretion in choosing the baby names, while restricting only administratively difficult or obscene examples, that doesn’t mean there are no broader ethical guidelines for child-naming that should inform not only legal measures but also good-hearted parents who approach the question of naming their child seriously. These guidelines provide certain moral constraints on the parents’ creativity in choosing their children’s names. So, what are those?
First, it is important to note that parental discretion in raising children is not unlimited. This extends even beyond obvious cases, such as child abuse, into values parents inculcate in their children. Namely, as some philosophers have claimed, while parents can justifiably teach their child ideas and traditions they deem valuable, at the same time they cannot prevent the exposure of the child to alternative values and lifestyles. For example, as Jeffrey Morgan suggested, a homophobic parent could teach the child that homosexuality is an abomination, but he or she:
[W]ould not have the right to prevent her child from participating in educational programs designed to combat discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Second, while it may be clear that parent’s latitude in naming children is not unlimited, it is not clear what exactly could provide the standard for establishing those limits. Following the regulation in some countries, such as France, some suggest that if there is an overwhelming likelihood that a name will harm the child’s emotional well-being and social development, its use should be considered unethical and should be legally prohibited.
But, it is still unclear how a name can be harmful to a child. More probably, the harm comes from other people who react to the child’s name and act in ways that are harmful to his or her emotional or intellectual development. Names are symbolic denominators and, as such, do not have harmful properties. The harm in a name is a matter of social context, and not of a certain ‘essence’ in the name. So, why regulate the name instead of the behavior and attitudes of others towards it?
The alternative answer could argue that certain names limit, rather than expand or are neutral to, child’s future prospects and opportunities for a flourishing life. Some names have that effect by constraining the scope of meaning and symbolic worth that is ascribed to a person when his or her name is uttered in a social context. For example, the meaning of “John” is nearly limitless because there are (and have been) so many Johns that no particular John determines the name’s meaning and its symbolic worth. As a result, every new John will have a nearly unlimited opportunity to provide his own meaning and generate authentic symbolic worth associated with his own name. His opportunities to lead an authentic and meaningful life will not be a priori limited by the symbolic narrowness of the name he got from his parents.
Contrary to that, the name “Adolf Hitler” is not unlimited in meaning because of the overwhelmingly strong example of a particular Adolf Hitler that determines the symbolic worth of that name. The poor New Jersey kid bearing that name will have a narrow scope of opportunities to generate an authentic symbolic worth of his own name. His opportunities to lead a life in which his personal uniqueness will provide the meaning to his name are significantly narrowed by his parent’s naming act.
Still, even this proposal has to walk a tight rope between the name’s inherent meaning and its social context. Obviously, it should not apply in some cases, such as the one recently reported in the media, when a man called José dropped one letter from his name — becoming Joe — and by doing so exponentially increased his employment prospects. In this case, the symbolic worth of the name “José” was not determined by reasonable means but by a prevalent anti-Hispanic prejudice. As for “Adolf Hitler”, its symbolic worth stems not from a public prejudice, but from the established fact that the Adolf Hitler was a criminal and mass murderer.
Most parents wish the best for their children. We try to feed them healthy foods, teach them manners and surviving skills. We pay for their education (if we can) and delight at their success. But, some of us are not too conscious about the ways our first interaction with the child — giving her a name — can affect the child’s prospects for leading a happy, flourishing and successful life. Eva Braun from New Jersey can be healthy, learn to speak Mandarin and graduate from Harvard by the time she is 26, but her entire life will be painted by the fact that she was named after a person whose public utterance will evoke memories of the most gruesome crimes in the history. In cases like this, a name may not be destiny for a person, but it will certainly make the job at creating her own a bit more difficult than it has to be.
Eldar Sarajlic is a moral and political philosopher from New York. As of Fall 2016 he will be Assistant Professor of Critical Thinking at City University of New York — Borough of Manhattan Community College.