Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, by Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift (Princeton University Press), $35.00/£24.95
In the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien’s narrator hearkens back to a time when “[t]he Shire … had hardly any ‘government.’ Families for the most part managed their own affairs.” Fast forward to our own age, which has already for centuries been, as Kant famously put it, the age of critique, to which everything must submit. What is curious is how long the institution of the family escaped critique.
In Family Values, Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift call on the family to justify itself. The book presents an “analysis of the values at stake in raising children, and an investigation of the institutions and practices that those values justify.” The authors present themselves as foxes in the henhouse: what is justified, they think, is an institution “that closely resembles the conventional family,” but with differences that, they claim, traditional advocates of family values could only find unsettling.
The family finds itself in question on two counts: first it generates social inequalities; second it shelters relationships of domination, with parents making life-shaping choices for children incapable of consent. As Rawls asked in his Theory of Justice, “Is the family to be abolished then?” Though they are egalitarian liberals, Brighouse and Swift answer No – in brief, because they are also human beings. More fully, to the question of “whether and why children should be raised by parents, rather than by state functionaries,” they answer: “Yes, because there are distinctive and weighty contributions to well-being that can be realized only when parents and children enjoy an intimate, loving relationship.” In other words, they appeal to what they call familial relationship goods, goods unavailable in institutions other than the family more or less as we know it now, with a small number of adults having primary responsibility to raise children in a sphere of relative autonomy.
The authors’ apology for the family appeals to the interests of both children and adults, though the interests of children come first. Children “need a special kind of relationship – a relationship in which the adult offers love and authority.” But as it happens “[i]t’s that kind of relationship that adults have an interest in too,” since it is such a relationship that can make for an adult’s well-being. The right to parent children, however, is conditional on an adult’s “being a good-enough parent”; but here it happens that, given children’s interests in having secure relationships, the bar that a parent has to meet in order to count as “good enough” would rule out only the very bad, guilty of abuse and neglect.
More unsettling is the authors’ observation that “our argument for the adult right to parent does nothing to establish a right to parent any particular baby – and so provides no principled objection to the redistribution of babies at birth.” They contend further that a child has no claim against her biological parents that they raise her, all other things being equal. These moments in the book, however, are markedly underdeveloped, and so they are unsettling more because they are superficial than because they are provocative.
With respect to parents’ authority over children, Brighouse and Swift acknowledge that “value-shaping is an inherent part” of the parent-child relationship and argue only that a child must be raised to enjoy some measure of autonomy, such that she may become the author of her own life. The book’s argument concerning the inequality-generating consequences of the family is more original. Here the authors deploy the familial goods justification of the family in order to limit parents’ rights against the state and to make room for the state to pursue egalitarian goals. They argue that, “[a]s long as there is ample space available for parents to realize … important familial relationship goods,” the state may rightly act with the goal of “breaking the connection between those goods and the other forms of advantage” that families produce.
The argument here occasionally goes off the rails. Though the authors point more than once to bedtime stories – say Tolkien’s – as the paradigm of an activity that confers advantage but appears justified because it creates family closeness, even stories remain suspect in the end: “Bedtime stories may indeed be crucial for familial relationship goods, but can parents really claim a right to read them in a world where their opportunity costs can be measured in the lives of others?” The reader might be forgiven for looking back to a time when “[t]he Shire…had hardly any ‘government.’” It also should be noted that the authors do not establish that the state has an obligation to pursue egalitarian goals.
The important question the authors raise, however, is what a child-centred politics would look like. And this is an important insight toward such a politics: at least some traditional advocates of family values have “failed to acknowledge the ways in which some parents’ insistence on their supposed right to confer advantage on their children results in a failure to fulfil other parents’ – and children’s – genuine rights to familial relationship goods.” Poverty has a way of destroying family.