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This is a review of two books:
Procreation and Parenthood: The Ethics of Bearing and Rearing Children by David Archard and David Benatar (ed.)
The Family: A Liberal Defense by David Archard
The review appears twice in Metapsychology.
Procreation and Parenthood: The Ethics of Bearing and Rearing Children (PP) is a collection of six original essays, half of which are devoted to the ethics of reproductive choices and the other half to the ethics of parenthood. As the editors note, the book aims not so much at providing a comprehensive overview of the main ethical approaches to procreation and parenthood, but rather to add some novel contributions to the existing literature. This does not mean that the book is reserved for a specialised audience. For those who are not familiar with the topic, the editors have included an introductory section specifically intended to situate the various essays within the broader debate. And even taken separately, each contribution does a particularly good job of framing the context and the relevance of the particular arguments it develops, making it possible for the reader to critically appraise the value of its conclusions.
The first part of Procreation and Parenthood brings to the fore questions dealing with the moral acceptability of reproductive decision-making. To some extent, these questions are not new: when considering whether or not to bring a child into existence, prospective parents have always faced moral questions related to the environment into which the child would be born -- be it in social, economic or affective terms. Likewise, societies at large have long been concerned with the question of whether reproductive freedom should not sometimes be restricted, such as in the case of severely disabled persons or in conditions of dire poverty. At the heart of these various questions lies a more fundamental one: can parents ever harm a child by bringing it into existence, given that the alternative would be the child's non-existence? Due to new developments in reproductive technology however -- some of which making it henceforth possible for potential parents to determine the biological characteristics of their future children --, the number and complexity of questions dealing with the 'ethics of bearing children' have drastically increased : To what extent should potential parents be free to use reproductive technologies? Do they have an obligation to have a child free of diseases where there is a choice? Or is it morally wrong to aim at the avoidance of diseased or disabled children?
Tim Bayne, Michael Parker, and David Benatar all argue that the interests of future children can and must be taken into account when deciding whether or not to bring them into existence. More specifically, they all agree that procreative decisions can and should be morally assessed in terms of their effects on the interests of the children that will be brought into existence, and not only in terms of their effects on the interests of third parties or on the overall amount of suffering in the world. Each of them can in fact be seen as elaborating on a particular implication of this basic claim. So Tim Bayne is primarily concerned with determining the benchmark at which a life is worth starting and supports the 'parity view': according to him, the level of well-being which determines whether a life is 'worth starting' coincides with that which determines whether a life is 'worth continuing'. Michael Parker, for his part, purports to determine the extent of potential parents' duty of beneficence toward their future children, and this, within the specific context of assisted reproduction. He rejects the idea of a duty to have the child with 'the best opportunity of the best possible life' as undetermining, paradoxical and self-defeating, and proposes instead that of a duty to aim at producing children with an 'ordinary chance of a desirable existence', taking into account one's own and others' experiences. While he admits that beneficence can sometimes trump reproductive freedom, it remains unclear whether he also believes that children can be harmed by being brought into existence. For David Benatar, by contrast, there is no room for doubt: reproductive conduct can clearly harm future children and there is no reason to treat this harm differently from non-reproductive harm. More specifically, he argues that the interests of future children can be sufficiently weighty to defeat or restrict the right to reproductive freedom, and that our common (and often excessive) views about the scope, strength and bearers of this right should therefore be reconsidered.
The second part of the book deals with two different aspects of parenthood. The first concerns the institution of the family: What, if anything, justifies children having parents, that is, particular adults entrusted with their exclusive care, rather than a system of collectivised rearing? Or put differently: What justifies according to adults the right to act as parents and consequently the right to exercise the rights of a parent (ie, to make choices for the children they have in their care)? And what if the institution of the family hinders the achievement of justice? May the values or the interests promoted in and by the family be sufficiently weighty to trump considerations of justice? Or should the family be restricted in its autonomy, if not abolished, in the name of justice? The second aspect of parenthood concerns the allocation of children to particular 'guardians': How does one become a parent? Which adults have what rights and what duties with respect to a particular child, and in virtue of what relevant fact(s)? Would it be morally acceptable to proceed to a parental lottery and randomly allocate children to adults? Or can certain relationships between adults and children be identified as relevant for the grounding of parental rights and duties (such as, for instance, the fact that the adult has caused the child to exist, or that he has contributed genetic material to the child)?
Given the central place of these questions in Archard's The Family: A Liberal Defense (FLD), it is worth reading the two books in parallel. As its title indicates, this monograph aims at providing a defense of the family (not only of the institution of the family, but also of some forms of family) within the particular context of a liberal society, and so, in the light of well-defined principles and priorities such as equal freedom, fair distribution, and official neutrality. One (among the many) merits of that book is that it brings into light the numerous, and sometimes unexpected, implications of a liberal approach to the family. So Archard calls into question not only the proprietarian view that adults have the rights of property owners over the children they have created, but also, and perhaps more controversially, the widespread view that adults have a basic right to found families or to act as parents. He also argues against certain liberal thinkers (such as Matthew Clayton and Joel Feinberg) that a liberal approach to the family does not require parents to exclusively raise their children in the light of liberal principles, but may allow them to bring up their children to believe in a particular comprehensive doctrine, if these children are also provided with the means of assessing this doctrine when reaching adulthood. Archard's book touches upon many aspects of the family ranging from its definition to the different kinds of rights involved in parenthood to the relationship between family and justice, to the future of the family, etc. In the following, I will concentrate on two aspects that are also addressed in the second part of Procreation and Parenthood. I will start with the institution of the family and its potential tension with considerations of justice, on the basis of Archard and Colin Macleod's contributions. I will then turn to the question of the grounds of parental obligations and contrast two different accounts of parenthood, the 'causal' account (Archard) and the 'voluntarist' account (Elizabeth Brake).
Justice and Families
Macleod's contribution concentrates on the tension existing between the ongoing strong valorisation of parental responsibilities and demands of justice, with a special focus on the minimal standards of global justice. He admits that the family allows the realisation of distinctive values or relationship goods for both parents and children -- most notably, intimacy, cherishment and creative self-extension -- , and that the importance of these values or goods justifies parents being permitted (and even required) to devote special attention and care to advance the interest of their children and so to display a greater concern for the well-being of their own children than for that of other children. But as he notes, supporting this view does not commit one to the view that there are no limits to the way parents may pursue these values or goods. Actually, even those who strongly valorise parental responsibilities acknowledge that the legitimate exercise of these responsibilities is constrained by the existing distribution of property rights: parents may only use material resources to which they have widely and conventionally recognised rights. For Macleod, however, this does not go far enough: the existing distribution of property rights is marked by a long history of basic human rights violations and can therefore not be simply accepted as fixing the parameters within which parental duties can legitimately be exercised. What this entails, according to MacLeod, is that 1) parental duties may be weaker and more qualified than commonly believed, and that 2) the conflict between demands of justice and parental duties can to some extent be avoided -- namely, by properly appreciating the circumstances in which these duties arise, by accepting to discharge them in materially more modest ways, and by redistributing a portion of one's material resources to the global poor children. This is not to say that there are no difficulties in reconciling justice and parental duties, but according to MacLeod these are more psychological and political than normative. Importantly, he does not believe that there is any 'inherent' conflict between justice and parental duties. As he notes, a just world is conceivable within which all parents could satisfactorily discharge their parental duties without depriving others of their just share of resources and opportunities (PP 144,149).
Archard departs from this position in at least two respects. To begin with, he doubts that the family can be justified by pointing to the goods it allows to realise, because this presumes that these goods ought to be valued by everyone and hence violates the central liberal principle of neutrality between different conceptions of the good. According to him, a liberal defense of the family should not appeal to the intrinsic value of the interest that individuals have in acting as parents, but only to the instrumental interest that both children and society have in there being parents. To be sure, Archard does not deny that children are a public good enjoyed by all members of society, nor that family support benefits society as a whole. But according to him, the fact that parents derive great value from having children means that they are doubly advantaged: not only do they enjoy the public good of children, but they are also supported in their choice of life. Moreover, that support is unfair in several respects. First, the childless are not supported to the same extent in their pursuit of non-parental interests. Second, the costs of parental support are shared by parents and by the childless alike, which means that the latter subsidise the former to do what the former value, without being themselves subsidised to do what they value. Third, parents are allowed to pursue an interest that reproduces social and economic inequalities and that therefore subverts justice on the ground that this interest is valuable. As a result, and this brings us to a second disagreement with MacLeod, Archard is skeptical about the view that there is no necessary conflict between the family and justice. According to him, we should acknowledge that the family inevitably poses obstacles to the achievement of (liberal) justice and that these obstacles are the price that must be paid for want of (non-familial) alternatives that could do a better job in fulfilling the role that the family is intended to fulfill, namely, 'providing care, guidance, and protection in respect of children'.
Now, it goes without saying that the extent to which the family and justice can be said to conflict, as well as the nature of that conflict, is a function of the conception of justice one endorses. In this respect, it is worth recalling that the conception of justice MacLeod is working with is relatively modest: the illegitimacy of existing property rights is primarily accounted for in terms of past violations of basic human rights and redistribution should chiefly aim at the elimination of present absolute deprivation. MacLeod seems to take it as an advantage that his argument makes no reference to principles of cosmopolitan egalitarian justice (which, it should be said in passing, he also endorses, but leaves here aside for the sake of argument). Presumably, this allows him to meet his targeted opponents (namely, supporters of a strong valorisation of parental duties) on their own ground. But the drawback is that liberals are unlikely to be convinced by his conclusion that parental duties and duties of justice need not necessarily conflict. They will be quick to point out that parents -- even if they accept to discharge their parental duties in materially more modest ways -- will often, if not inevitably, transmit differential (dis)advantages to their offspring (be it in terms of knowledge, affection or social network). And insofar as these (dis)advantages are morally arbitrary, they will also be quick to question the legitimacy of resulting shares of resources and opportunities, even if these allow the satisfaction of basic human rights. As we have seen, one of the reasons Archard mentions for liberals to worry about the institution of the family is precisely its tendency to generate social and economic inequalities across generations. Perhaps more disputable, however, is Archard's claim that family support unfairly privileges parents over the childless. He acknowledges that parents may incur significant costs in raising their children and even suggests the possibility of an argument from justice supporting their being subisdised (on the ground that the childless may otherwise unfairly benefit from the sacrifices made by parents to produce the public good of children) (FLD 80). But apparently, it makes a difference to him why parents produce that public good (eg, whether or not they made a choice) and whether or not they enjoy from doing so. As he notes, parents are not like altruists who renounce their favourite life-plans in order to produce a public good: the fact that they value the pursuit of parenthood means that by being subsidised they are also supported in their choices of life, and this, at the expense of the childless. It remains unclear, however, why parents' subjective attitudes with regard to parenthood should have such an influence on the fairness of parental support. Would an 'involuntary' mother then have a stronger claim to parental support than a mother who chose and enjoys parenthood? Should any disadvantages that the latter may suffer as a result of her choice be seen as burdens willingly incurred, deserving no compensation? An alternative would be to focus on the importance that the public good of children be realised and to emphasise that parental support is first and foremost aimed at enabling children to become well-functioning members of society, and thereby, at ensuring the smooth running of society itself. The fact that parents are thereby also supported in their choices would only be a side-effect and, arguably, not necessarily an unfair one. For not only would the situation of the childless be even worse without the public good of children and thus without parental support, but given the many (educational, job and leisure) opportunities that a liberal society can be expected to make available to its members, it is also not clear in what sense the childless would be less supported in the pursuit of their own lifestyles.
The ground of parental obligations
Assuming that the institution of the family is justified (even with qualifications), the question remains of how to determine which adults have parental obligations toward what particular children. What justifies an adult having the obligation to care for a child, and what is the scope of this obligation? Archard defends a causal account of parental obligations: those who are causally responsible for bringing a child into existence incur thereby a basic duty to protect and care for that child because it is they who brought it about that a vulnerable human being will suffer and most probably die without protection and care. This, Archard emphasises, does not entail that causal parenst also necessarily have rights toward their offspring: he rejects the 'parental package view', according to which parental duties and parental rights come together as a package, and endorses instead the view that parental rights and parental duties have different sources and therefore different justifications. Nor does this entail that causal parents must themselves provide the care in question: they can discharge their basic duty by ensuring that a willing and capable other takes on the responsibilities of acting as a parent. Hence Archard's claim that child abandonment can in some circumstances be morally permissible, namely, when procreative agents can be assured that there are adequate social arrangements to give the child a reasonable chance of a minimally decent existence.
Brake's main objection to causal accounts is that they leave an explanatory gap between a causal understanding of parental obligations as 'procreative costs' and the way parental obligations are construed in a number of contemporary societies. According to her, if parental obligations arise as compensatory obligations for having placed a child in a needy situation, then all they require is to provide the child with the means of subsistence until it can survive on its own. Yet, as she points out, parental obligations are often taken to be much more weighty is scope and in duration, especially in contemporary Western societies. Causal approaches cannot account for the fact that parental obligations are attached to socially constructed parental roles, whose requirements vary from one society to another and from one time to another within a society. She therefore proposes an alternative, 'voluntarist' account of parental obligations. The main thrust of her argument is that parental obligations are special obligations and that, since they cannot be seen as compensatory obligations, they must be incurred through voluntary undertaking, and more specifically, through voluntary acceptance of the parental role and its related obligations. To counter the objection that involuntary procreators would then owe no child support or could even simply abandon their offspring, Brake notes that her 'voluntarist' account does not rule out the existence of general duties of rescue, legal child support obligations, and even of procreative costs.The blamable conduct of reckless repeat male procreators can, for instance, be explained by pointing to the costs they impose on women by making them pregnant, without having to assume that causal fathers have special obligations to their offspring.
Before confronting these two accounts, it worth noting that Archard does not deny that parental responsibilities can arise from voluntary undertakings: he indeed distinguishes between the obligation to ensure that someone acts as a parent, which can only fall upon causal parents, and the responsibilities of acting as a parent, which can also be incurred by people who did not cause the child to exist, through their (explicit or tacit) voluntary acceptance of the parental role. That said, the question (raised by Brake) remains of whether a causal approach is able to accommodate the (changing) scope and duration of parental role obligations. A possibility would be to say that procreators who fail to ensure that someone (be it themselves or someone else) assumes parental responsibilities as they occur in their society disadvantage – and so harm – their children, and hence that fulfilling one's compensatory obligations toward the child requires fulfilling one's socially assigned parental obligations. This line of argument would fit with Archard's 'embedded' notion of a basic duty of care as a duty to ensure that one's children "have to the same degree [as any other children] enough of an open future" (FLD 49). But Brake dismisses it on the ground that it is society, and not procreators, that is responsible for determining what is to count as a disadvantage. It is far from obvious, however, why procreators could be assigned compensatory obligations for bringing it about that a child will suffer important disadvantages (and so for placing a child in a harmful situation) if they fail to ensure that socially assigned parental responsibilities are fulfilled with regard to that child -- and this, even if they cannot be held responsible for the way disadvantages are defined in their society. If this is correct, the question would be to determine whether and to what extent 'voluntarist' accounts can still be said to have greater explanatory power than causal accounts. A fruitful field of investigation in this regard would be their respective attitudes toward 'involuntary parents'. For reasons of space, however, this is a question that cannot be pursued here.
© 2012 Sylvie Loriaux
Sylvie Loriaux - PhD - Radboud University Nijmegen (the Netherlands)