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Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships

Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships

by Harry Brighouse

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The family is hotly contested ideological terrain. Some defend the traditional two-parent heterosexual family while others welcome its demise. Opinions vary about how much control parents should have over their children's upbringing. Family Values provides a major new theoretical account of the morality and politics of the family, telling us why the family


The family is hotly contested ideological terrain. Some defend the traditional two-parent heterosexual family while others welcome its demise. Opinions vary about how much control parents should have over their children's upbringing. Family Values provides a major new theoretical account of the morality and politics of the family, telling us why the family is valuable, who has the right to parent, and what rights parents should—and should not—have over their children.

Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift argue that parent-child relationships produce the "familial relationship goods" that people need to flourish. Children's healthy development depends on intimate relationships with authoritative adults, while the distinctive joys and challenges of parenting are part of a fulfilling life for adults. Yet the relationships that make these goods possible have little to do with biology, and do not require the extensive rights that parents currently enjoy. Challenging some of our most commonly held beliefs about the family, Brighouse and Swift explain why a child's interest in autonomy severely limits parents' right to shape their children's values, and why parents have no fundamental right to confer wealth or advantage on their children.

Family Values reaffirms the vital importance of the family as a social institution while challenging its role in the reproduction of social inequality and carefully balancing the interests of parents and children.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Brighouse and Swift raise some important issues and come to some conclusions that are bound to be controversial, which is exactly why this book is so important and so worthy of considerable thought and debate. The work is scholarly and well documented, with 30 pages of notes and bibliography accompanying the 181-page text. That's a welcome distinction over the political diatribes that often cloud family value debates. . . . Highly recommended."Talking Ethics

"This thoughtful work addresses tensions between the liberty of parents to raise children as they see fit, parents' duty to ensure that children develop the capacity for autonomy, and the role of the family as an obstacle to fair equality of opportunity."Choice

"It presents and negotiates the issues at stake in exceptionally nuanced, elegant and meticulously-crafted ways."—Gideon Calder, European Journal of Political Theory

"In their clearly written and elegantly structured book, Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift develop a normative account of child-rearing that deftly weaves together positions associated with both the political left and the right. . . . Their principled account of the rights of parents and children is the best of which I am aware, and I expect it to set the standard for discussion of these issues for some time to come."—George Sher, Social Theory and Practice

"Family Values is an original, important, and well-written book that will influence the discussion concerning the moral status of the family for years to come, and it can be recommended to any reader who is interested in this topic."—Jörg Löschke, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

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Family Values

The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships

By Harry Brighouse, Adam Swift


Copyright © 2014 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-5254-3


Liberalism and the Family

The liberal challenge to a normative theory of the family demands an account of who should have the right to decide what with regard to children's upbringing. Children are individuals distinct from their parents, individuals whose interests it is the state's job to protect and promote. Yet, we will argue, children have a crucial interest in a relationship in which they are subject to their parents' authority, and many adults have an important interest in participating in the kind of relationship where they get to exercise that authority. How to think about the allocation of rights, and what rights—rights to do what exactly?—should be held by whom, is thus a complex issue.

By the end of part 2, we will have presented our basic justification of the family, understood as a way of raising children that gives parents an important sphere of discretion over their children's lives—albeit one that is limited by the duty to provide what children need (what they have a right to). This is our account of the basis of adults' right to parent (and the child's right to be parented). In part 3, we will go on to explore in greater detail the proper content of parents' rights over their children, focusing particularly on the ways in which parents may (and may not) legitimately confer advantage on their children (chapter 5) and shape their values (chapter 6). This is our explication of the rights of parents: what it is exactly that the right to parent gives you a right to do to, with, and for your children. To determine whether parents have rights, and, if so, what they are, a substantive investigation of the goods at stake in the parent-child relationship is needed. What is it about the value of the family, and the parent-child relationship in particular, that makes it so important to protect it with rights, and what rights are needed to protect it?

All this talk of rights may alarm some readers. Never mind the liberal challenge to the family: what about the family's challenge to liberalism? Isn't it a crucial feature of loving familial relationships that they resist liberal categories? For some, the very project of developing a liberal theory of the family, and of conceiving parent-child relationships in terms of rights and duties, is misguided. We disagree. This chapter sets out the ways in which the family might be thought to pose problems for the liberal framework, and defends our adoption of that framework from the objection that it simply cannot do justice to—or, perhaps, fails adequately to care about—the ethically significant phenomena attending parent-child relationships.

Liberalism and Communitarianism

We should start by clearing the decks. Liberalism is widely misunderstood and much maligned, so in order to get to the real issues we need to deal with a red herring. According to some critics, liberalism neglects the significance of attachments, relationships, and communities for human beings, positing people as atomistic, rational, autonomous, self-interested individuals. If that were an accurate picture, then it is not hard to see how liberalism and the family would be at loggerheads. The family is where we experience our most important attachments and relationships, a realm not of rationality but of emotion and intimacy, a sphere of commitment and self-sacrifice.

If liberalism were the problem, communitarianism might seem like the solution. Certainly many of those advocating family values, and those most concerned about the social pressures that threaten them, have identified themselves as "communitarian." The Communitarian Network website announces that "communitarians have been in the forefront of efforts to strengthen and rebuild the family and to restore a child-centered focus to both our marriage culture and our public policy." The Responsive Communitarian Platform urges us to "start with the family," claiming that "fathers and mothers, consumed by 'making it' and consumerism, or preoccupied with personal advancement, who come home too late and too tired to attend to the needs of their children, cannot discharge their most elementary duty to their children and their fellow citizens," and claims that "child-raising is important, valuable work, work that must be honored rather than denigrated by both parents and the community." Over twenty years ago, an influential group of communitarian thinkers claimed that "society is not fostering a family-friendly environment and has a responsibility to do so; economic pressures on parents, especially mothers, are mounting and the popular culture is making the raising of children an ever more challenging task." David Popenoe tells us that "communitarians believe that the highest social value should be placed on parent-child relationships and the fostering of a child-centered society."

If one has to be a "communitarian" in order to see that relationships and attachments are valuable for human beings, or to acknowledge the significance of commitment and self-restraint, then we are communitarians. Much of our argument, indeed our very category of "relationship goods," may well strike the reader as "communitarian" in spirit, and we have no wish to deny the substantial overlap between our position and the "pro-family" concerns of communitarians. But this appreciation of "community" neither conflicts nor even contrasts with our liberalism.

That caricature set aside, we can move on to two of the more serious objections to our—indeed any—attempt to construct a liberal theory of the family. Both start from the observation that liberalism is fundamentally a political philosophy, a theory about the proper role of the state, specifically concerned with the proper regulation of a political community's public life or collective arrangements. If that is the right way to think about liberalism—which it is—then the idea of a liberal theory of the family might immediately look confused. The family, it might seem, belongs to the private, not the public or political, sphere. What goes on within it must then be beyond liberalism's remit, a matter for people to decide in their capacity as private individuals, not for citizens collectively to determine. And insofar as philosophers do attempt to conceptualize relations within the family in terms developed to deal with interactions between citizens in the public sphere—in terms of rights and duties, with a focus on autonomy and rationality—they must be failing to capture the true nature, and distinctive value, of familial relationships. To apply liberal categories to relations within the family is incoherent (because, for liberals, the family must be private) or inappropriate (because the family is properly conceived as a realm of intimacy, love, and emotion, not rights, duties, and autonomy or rationality) or both. Either way, liberalism is not the right place to look for a theory of family values.

Both these objections have mainly been articulated by feminists concerned primarily with relationships between adult men and women in the family, but they are at least as pertinent to parent-child relationships, in some ways more so. For even if, as we shall argue, it is a mistake to think that liberalism regards the family as private, the idea that children in some sense belong to their parents continues to influence many who reject the once-common view that wives belong to their husbands. Similarly, the inapplicability of liberal concepts such as rights, duty, rationality, and autonomy seems plainer in the case of familial relationships between parents and children than it does in the case of familial relationships between adults. To be sure, the feminist critique of the "ethic of justice" developed in large part via a claim that women's moral experience differs from men's precisely because of their more direct involvement in caring, nurturing relationships with their children. In that sense, the parent-child relationship, and the inappropriateness of applying justice categories to it, were indeed a crucial part of that story. Still, even those doubtful about the more general case for an "ethic of care" over an "ethic of justice" may feel that liberal categories are particularly unhelpful for our understanding of the moral relationship between parents and children.

The Family and the Private Sphere

Let us start with the suggestion that liberals regard the family as part of the private sphere, and so can have little or nothing to say about it. For some, of course, this is all to the good. On this view, what liberalism gets right is precisely that the state has no business meddling with people's personal lives—and what could be more personal than their relationships with their children? For others, those for whom "the personal is political," this inability to engage with matters within the family is a crucial weakness, since it renders liberalism inert in an area of life where individuals—typically women and children—are highly vulnerable to oppression, exploitation, and injustice. We think that both responses, approving and disapproving, are misconceived. Both misunderstand the sense in which liberal political philosophy argues for a distinction between the public and the private, and both are wrong to think that liberals regard the family as on the "private" side of that distinction. It is true that, as a matter of historical fact, liberals—along with other political philosophers—have tended to argue that the domestic or familial sphere lies beyond, or prior to, politics. Indeed, we can plausibly trace the origins of political philosophy to Aristotle's distinction, in his Politics, between the oikos, or household, and the polis, or political community.8 So the suggestion that politics should not extend into family matters does indeed have a long, and in some ways distinguished, history. Still, we should not confuse the general idea that some matters should be "private," in the sense of being properly beyond the authority of the state and subject only to the judgment of the individual, with any particular view about what those matters are. Liberals' belief in the value of individuals' autonomously choosing their own way of life does indeed commit them to some version of the public-private distinction. Its content is a separate question.

We cannot simply posit "the family" as belonging to the private sphere and therefore immune from legislation. What should be left free from legislation is precisely what we need to decide. If there are any familial matters where individuals' judgments should be regarded as authoritative, they will emerge from careful consideration of what is valuable about the family, not by taking for granted that it is a private institution. As David Archard puts it: "We cannot say that the family is, as a matter of fact, a private institution and therefore ought not to be subject to state supervision and control. Rather, we must show that the nature of familial life and activity is such that these are properly beyond the scope of legal and political governance."

The point of the idea of a private sphere is to specify a range within which individuals are, or should be, free from political regulation. Families are made up of more than one individual, so the very idea of the family as "private" can involve confusion—the misconception that an individual can claim that his (or her) relations with family members are a matter to be determined by him (or her) alone. The idea of the family as private might make sense if all family members were there as a matter of choice. In that case we could think of it as a voluntary association, and it could be that the terms of that association were indeed something in which others had no legitimate interest, something that should be a matter entirely for the voluntarily associating individuals to decide. Even in associations formed by adults, though, we need to think carefully about the context and terms of the association. Is the choice to associate genuinely voluntary or are some parties effectively constrained—by social norms, by lack of alternatives—to accept unfair or exploitative terms? Do parties retain an effective, and not merely a formal, exit option if they decide that they no longer wish to continue the association?

Feminists have rightly drawn our attention to worries of this kind, and cast serious doubt on the view that familial arrangements between adults are an exclusively private matter. But with a focus on parent-child relationships things are surely more straightforward. We cannot regard children as participants in a voluntary association. They are nonconsenting nonadults. The claim that how parents treat their children is no business of the state makes sense only when understood as asserting that children are somehow extensions of, part of, or perhaps the possession of, their parents. Only then can parents' claim to a private sphere be thought to cover their treatment of their children.

Such views must surely be rejected. The doctrine of patria potestas gave Roman fathers absolute property rights over their children, including the right to dispose of them as property and to kill them, and Lockean arguments about the acquisition of property through labor might seem to support the idea that children should count among their parents' possessions. But children are separate human beings. To regard them as owned by their parents, and so properly subject only to parental power, is to fail to recognize the important role the state can and must play in protecting children from their parents.

The same applies to less fully proprietarian accounts that might be invoked to justify giving parents extensive rights to control their children's lives by assimilating those rights to the parent's own proper sphere of individual freedom. Robert Nozick regards children as "part of one's substance ... part of a wider identity you have"; Charles Fried believes that "the right to form one's child's values, one's child's life plan and the right to lavish attention on the child are extensions of the basic right not to be interfered with in doing these things for oneself." For William Galston, "the ability of parents to raise their children in a manner consistent with their deepest commitments is an essential element of expressive liberty." For Eammon Callan, 'the freedom to rear our children according to the dictates of conscience is for most of us as important as any other expression of conscience, and the freedom to organize and sustain the life of the family in keeping with our own values is as significant as our liberty to associate outside the family for any purpose whatsoever." Such perspectives do not distinguish sharply enough between one's rights over one's own life and one's rights over other people's. Our account will not reject the idea that parents have some rights over their children, nor that there are important aspects of the parent-child relationship that must be treated as private. There are indeed places within the family where the state cannot properly go, where it is important that it is parents who have authority over their children. But, for us, those rights and that authority are quite strictly specified, limited, and conditional. They are not grounded in any general claim about the family's being part of a private sphere.

Talk of the private sphere invites us to conceive that which should be private in spatial terms, as if there were some places—such as the home—that the state does not have the authority to enter. It can easily seem as if the mere physical location, being at home with one's family, puts one in a place where one is—or should be—beyond the reach of the state, as if one's front door marked the boundary between the public and the private. But this conceptualization of "the private" as designating a literal space is misleading. What is private is just what is not properly subject to political authority. Its content is given by a range of activities—paradigmatically concerning sex and religion—that are judged to be areas of life where the individual must have the freedom to decide for herself, free from political interference. These are not literally spatial "areas," though they may often coincide with them. Thus, for example, we are inclined to think of the bedroom or church as private spaces because they are the typical location for activities where the state has no legitimate role. But the reasoning does not identify a particular place as private and judge that whatever goes on there is no business of the state. Rather, it identifies activities concerning which individuals should be left free from regulation to make and act on their own judgments, and, sometimes, derives from that claims about places where the state's monitoring or surveilling presence would be inappropriate.


Excerpted from Family Values by Harry Brighouse, Adam Swift. Copyright © 2014 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include On Education and School Choice and Social Justice. Adam Swift is professor of political theory at the University of Warwick. His books include Political Philosophy: A Beginners' Guide for Students and Politicians and How Not to Be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent.

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