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The Ethics of ParenthoodReview - The Ethics of Parenthood
by Norvin Richards
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by John D. Mullen, Ph.D.
Mar 1st 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 9)

Parenting has not been a consistent topic of philosophical inquiry and debate compared, for example, to what philosophers have devoted to science or politics.  Jeffrey Blustein broke important ground in 1982 (see: Parents and Children: The Ethics of the Family) but the issues in that fine volume were not taken up by philosophers with much enthusiasm.  As a result this well-argued work is a welcome addition to philosophical literature.

The title employs the term 'parenthood' rather than 'parenting' for good reason.  Parenting is an activity.  Parenthood denotes a personal, social and legal standing, and Richards has much to say about that standing.  He includes detailed arguments concerning why birthparents should be the first choice as a child's guardian parents; what the state's role should be as guardians of the child and what the criteria should be for the removal of a child from his or her parents.  On issues of the practice of parenting, Richards deals with the goals of child rearing; moral education; relationships of parents to adult children; caring for elderly parents and others. 

Richards' method of reasoning is broadly dialectical.  He poses an issue, an approach to it, elucidates the pros and cons of the approach, provides a better candidate, pros and cons and so on until he's comfortable with stopping.  Reading Richards might be somewhat like eavesdropping on Socrates talking with himself.  It could be that a non-philosopher would wish, "Why doesn't he just get to it?" but watching a good philosopher in action can be an interesting matter, and along the way one is likely to find his or her own ideas shaken by Richards' thinking.

A good deal of the early part of the book deals with the tug of war that occurs between the parent, usually a biological parent, and agencies of the state.  Should the state be allowed to withhold a child from his or her biological parents and give the child to others to raise?   Under what circumstances?  The underlying issue is:  Once the child is born, who should care for it?  Most assume that those who create a child have simultaneously created the moral right to raise the child.  But what "most assume" is often what philosophers are obligated to question.  Richards asks why birthgivers should be the preferred child rearers.  To base the preference solely upon genetic kinship would imply that the sperm of a rapist or of a sperm donor creates a right to be called Daddy.  And of course there are legitimate social groups that do not give over child rearing exclusively to the biological parents.  An alternative to the biological connection argument would be to see the birthgiver-to-infant relationship as one of ownership; the child is the birthgiver's property.  This runs into all sorts of problems, as one might imagine.  Richards argues against handing over to the state the job of making the initial parenting assignment.  However he bases his conclusion not upon inalienable rights, of either parents or children.  He has an interesting point that one parental duty is to be a counterweight to the propagandizing and person-shaping power of the state.   

In the end, Richards' concludes that preference be given to the biological parents.  I agree with this conclusion but I find his reasoning to it a bit odd.  He argues that the right of biological parents to keep and raise the child they produce is a corollary of a more general right, which is, to be allowed to finish what one has begun.  I have never before seen the right to finish what one has begun discussed.  Of course such a right would have all sorts of qualifications, e.g., assuming what has begun does not violate others' rights, etc.  And it's not immediately clear how different this right is from the oft-cited negative right to liberty.  But still it strikes me as odd that so fundamental and emotionally charged practice as the rearing of the children we produce should derive its legitimacy from so abstract and bloodless a right as continuing what one has begun.  It seems rather like justifying the right to speak out against one's rulers by citing the right to part one's lips.  The other point about Richards' approach is that it considers the issue only from the standpoint of the parent.  It's the parent's right to continue what the parent has begun.  Most would agree that young children have rights as well, for example, the positive right to be well cared for. 

I agree that there are no inalienable rights to raise the children we (so often cavalierly) produce.  There could be societies that are just and yet do not grant child-raising preference to the biological creators.  The preference could rest with the community, for example, in the spirit of "it takes a village".  If this is true and widely accepted in some society then child rearing would be one among many exceptions to the general right to be allowed to continue what once has begun.  After all, one has no right to continue building a house that one has begun to build without permission on another's property. 

I believe a better approach would be to rest the biological parenting preference upon the existence of a social contract.  The point is that if a person produces a child in a setting in which there is a clear and shared social expectation that the child should remain with the birthparent(s), unless and until the person proves unfit, then that person has the right to rear the child.  It is the prior social expectations and social commitments, coupled with the fact that no other rights are violated, that form the foundation of the preference given to biological parents in those settings.          

The issue of the foundation of parenting rights, which is as well the foundation of what a child has the right to expect from parents, permeates much of the early chapters Richards' book.  Other questions such as how the state should deal with parental abuse and neglect will rest upon how this earlier issue is resolved.  It is a credit to Richards that his book is so tightly argued as to tie disparate questions together.

Richards has some wise points to make in his chapter on "raising a child", a chapter that deals with the goals that a parent should adopt in carrying out his or her responsibilities.  He notes that parents should never allow themselves to consider the life of the child as the only important element of their own life.  He is wise to argue against the idea that the grown child's happiness should be the primary goal of child rearing.  In this discussion Richards makes an important distinction, between what a child is naturally good at and what a child is desirous of.  These sometimes coincide, but not always.  Thus in thinking of goals a parent might have for a child, neither what the child does well nor what the child likes to do, can be overwhelming.  Richards argues that the most a parent should strive for (as opposed to hoping for) is that an adult child be "reasonably" content with his or her life.  On the other hand he writes, "... there is room here for parents to have a particular version of a good life in mind for their child and to try to get the child to follow that path, including life within a particular religious tradition." (p.156, italics mine)  This is followed by, "... parents can't impose their version of a good life on an adult child ..." (p. 156)  I don't know what to make of the claims on the one hand that parents have the right to "try to get" their child to follow some path but not to "impose" the path.  In addition, I would argue against the rightness of requiring a young child to practice a specific religion or any religion at all, but not in this review.

Richards' discussion of parenting goals and later of moral education raise an issue of the degree to which a philosopher should be cognizant of and consider what can be accomplished as he or she argues for what people should try to accomplish.  Along these lines I wish Richards had considered what psychologists have been able to show about how much healthy, non-pathological parenting is likely to affect the lives of adult offspring.  The last two decades of studying "parenting effects" have been incredibly interesting and rich.  Suppose, to take just one example, that Judith Rich Harris is correct that the effects of non-pathological parenting are largely limited to the home environment (see her The Nurture Assumption, 1998 and No Two Alike, 2006.  For opposing views see, Parenting and the Child's World, 2001. All three are reviewed at Metapsychology Online Reviews.)   If Harris and others, the others being from the behavioral genetics camp, are correct then the usual philosophical discussions of child rearing, including moral education, would have to be seriously revamped.  If Harris and the others are correct, the effects of genetic factors plus the effects of non-home-life environmental upon the shaping of adults leave little room for the influences of specifically targeted child rearing (excepting pathological abuse and neglect).  These studies should find their way into philosophical discussions of parenting.

Caveats aside, this is an excellent work of philosophy that deals with a subject that is, considering its importance, vastly undertreated.  It is not an easy read.  Many will consider its method frustrating.  But it certainly belongs in libraries of colleges with undergraduate and graduate programs in philosophy, and its arguments deserve to be taken seriously in discussions of personal and social ethics.


© 2011 John D Mullen


John D. Mullen is Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at Dowling College in New York.  He is the author of Hard Thinking, 1995; of Kierkegaard's Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age, 1995; and co-author with Byron M. Roth of Decision Making: Its Logic and Practice, 1990.  His "Nature, Nurture and Individual Change" appeared in Behavior and Philosophy in 2006.  


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