Age in the Coronavirus Age
As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic took off, the intergenerational framing of the issues started spreading. What triggered such a framing is probably the higher hospitalization and mortality rate among 50+. This has led in turn to a series of important questions.
Age in triage
The first one has to do with the use of age as a triage criterion, for allocating access to intensive care unit (ICU) beds in short supply. The issue gained visibility, even though in several European countries, ICU beds never actually reached their full capacity. The COVID-19 crisis led to revising recommendations for access to hospital beds and other scarce health care resources such as respirators. In such recommendations, the use of the age criterion was questioned in some cases (e.g. Belgium), accepted in others (e.g. Italy). Yet, was it challenged or endorsed for the right reasons?
Recommendations were often drafted by actors from the medical sector focusing on the medical efficiency of medical interventions. What was then questioned or recognized was age’s ability to serve as a good predictor of the chances of success of a medical intervention. Some recommendations considered it sufficiently reliable, and others not. However, focusing on age as a predictor of medical efficiency misses other important functions of the age criterion. Crucial in this respect is the fact that the age that a person has reached is a key criterion for anyone concerned about inequalities between short-lived and long-lived persons, or about improving the situation of short-lived people in priority. The length of one’s existence is one of the essential resources that one can dispose of to pursue the projects that give meaning to our lives. Hence, the use of an age criterion in access to life-saving care can be seen as a way of reducing inequalities in longevities, or avoiding to worsen them through health care.
From that perspective, if we have to choose between saving a young and an old patient, it does not matter so much whether the young patient is in a better shape than the old one – and whether age is a good predictor for that. What matters is instead that if we don’t allocate access to an ICU bed to the young patient, she will end up having lived a much shorter life than the other, already old, patient. This is a very different way of understanding the age criterion than the one focusing on age as a reliable proxy for medical efficiency purposes. From that perspective, challenging the reliability of age as a proxy is off target.
In addition, to those rather attracted to a lottery option, being somehow averse to “playing god” and to deciding on any substantive criterion, one can respond that age can itself be read through the lottery prism under certain conditions. By using the age criterion, it is the lottery of our date of birth that is used to determine access to medical resources.
Of course, I am not saying that reducing inequalities in longevities or maximizing the longevity of the least well off should trump all other possible goals of a triage system. Yet, I think that anyone aiming at equal concern towards competing patients in COVID-19-like circumstances should take age seriously in the broadly egalitarian spirit just characterized. And it remains an open question to social scientists why the medical profession has actually not taken this perspective on age more seriously. Perhaps it results from their focus on efficiency more than on equality. And perhaps this focus is itself driven by the mistaken view that efficiency concerns are more internal to - or in line with - medical (as opposed to social) criteria than are equality concerns. This bias is probably also unnoticed by the general public either because of the fact that efficiency and equality concerns often converge on the same age criteria (in cases where the age criterion is endorsed) or because of the increasingly widespread view that age should simply be seen as equally problematic as gender and race (in cases where the age criterion is rejected). Yet, age is special, in a manner that, I submit, renders it normatively different from sex and race, for reasons I explain shortly. We should closely scrutinize the many age-based practices that our societies are involved in. But we should also be cautious about too quickly rejecting each and every age-based policy as “ageist” in some morally problematic sense.
A key building block in any reasoning on the age issue is the lifetime view, a view according to which any age-based differential treatment should always be assessed from the point of view of its impact over people’s entire lives, as opposed to its isolated impact only at a particular time or during a given phase of their existence. The lifetime view is a family of views. And anyone endorsing distributive concerns should take a stance on it, be it to endorse it, reject it, or adjust it. What the view says is that it is generally unjustified to merely look at the impact of an age-based rule at a given moment in time or for a given part of someone’s life, without asking whether this rule also increases inequalities over people’s entire lifetimes, rather than being neutral or even “isogenic” – meaning in the latter case that some age-based rules may actually reduce lifetime inequalities, hence generate more equality. The use of age in deciding on access to ICU beds is arguably a case in point of such an isogenic use.
Note that endorsing the lifetime view does not necessarily commit us to endorsing the view that beyond a certain age, people’s life is supposed to be “complete”, in the sense of fully accomplished in its core respects. The latter view would justify an age threshold beyond which entitlements would significantly drop in strength and/or change in nature. What the lifetime view merely stresses is the need to assess how people are likely to fare over their entire life under various policy scenarios. And plausible versions of the lifetime view claim that for the purposes of such a lifetime assessment, different persons´ longevity may matter a great deal. As a result, a concern for the short-lived as being disadvantaged may command some degree of preference for the young.
Besides the use of age in triage, a second issue concerning justice and age has quickly become salient in the COVID crisis: the disaster experienced in care homes. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis will trigger reflection about care homes: whether they should exist at all, which minimum safety requirements they should meet, how they should be funded, what their purpose should be, etc. Without denying the uncertainties we were facing, let us assume, realistically I think, that we could have done much better in care home in countries like Belgium, France or Spain. Interestingly enough, it is a challenge to anyone taking the age criterion seriously and endorsing the lifetime view to explain what is wrong with the very high mortality rates experienced in care homes. Since they reduce inequalities between short-lived and long-lived persons, some people may hastily conclude that defenders of the lifetime view should rather see such high mortality rates as… welcome.
There are at least two ways of avoiding such a conclusion. The first one stresses that the lifetime view does not need to disregard efficiency concerns. If our principle of justice is sensitive to whether lives could have been easily saved, a defender of the lifetime view does not need to accept what happened in care homes. Of course, if letting older people die in care homes were absolutely necessary to save younger lives, the story would be different. But I submit that this is not a realistic description of what happened.
Alternatively, rather than stressing that our principle of justice needs not be exclusively concerned about reducing inequalities, we may also consider that it is the scope of the lifetime concern that should be properly understood. Aiming at maximally improving the situation of the short-lived or more generally of the least advantaged over her lifetime may be constrained by other values. These can include a rejection of social segregation or a sense of minimum decency that should apply at any moment in time, regardless of people’s respective ages. And it is plausible that the way in which we have let old people die in care homes failed to comply with such requirement. In short, those concerned about age-based policy should look both at the lifetime perspective and at what may point at failures of such a lifetime perspective, taken in its pure form, to capture our moral intuitions on the matter.
Sacrificing the young
As we entered lockdown a third age-related issue emerged. Somehow, as our elderly members were dying at shocking rates, often being treated with so little recognition that they sometimes didn’t even deserve being included in the mortality statistics, the idea of “sacrificing the young” started being invoked by authors especially concerned with (the stringency of) lockdown. There is no question that, had we properly anticipated what has happened, a lockdown so restrictive as the one that has been imposed in e.g. Spain or Italy could have been avoided. It is also clear that the lockdown itself has led and will continue to lead to major impacts on people’s lives, regardless of whether the absence of lockdown would have done better. The question is whether we should adopt here an intergenerational framing again, such that lockdown advocates should be blamed for having disregarded the interests of the young.
Here, I would stress three considerations. First, in line with the lifetime intuition above, it is important to assess the impact of lockdown on the young not only as an age group, but more importantly as a birth cohort, all along their current and future lives. It is likely that the COVID-19 crisis will have durable scarring effects on all of us, throughout our lives. It might have stronger ones on those who belong to more recent birth cohorts as a result of e.g. the fact that economic sectors that have been especially affected are also those in which youth employment is more important.
Second, I doubt that this special impact in itself generates separate obligations towards the young, e.g. of a reciprocity type. What it does is add to all the other dimensions of what we are already expected to be transferring to the next generation. It could very well be that the world we are passing on is less favorable than the one we inherited, as a result of climate inaction, the way in which we unleash financial markets, etc. The effect of the COVID-19 crisis and of our (non-)reaction to it on the various generations at stake should simply be treated as part of this whole inheritance package.
The third and last point is about the “sacrifice” rhetoric. I don’t think it was fair to apply it specifically to the young, at a time in which we were letting our elderly parents die in care homes or in ICUs at rates that a proper preparation could have avoided. There is no contradiction in simultaneously claiming that we sacrificed the elderly through our messy reaction and that the lockdown will have a possibly lasting and more marked effect on some generations, an effect that any theory of justice between generations that incorporates at least some distributive concern should take seriously. Doing that does not require that we shift the focus of the word “sacrifice” from those who irreversibly lost their life – often without even being able to exchange a few last words with their close relatives -, to those who may still recover from it, especially if surviving overlapping generations really care about acting fairly towards one another. And of course, as we start knowing more about both the virus and the effects of lockdown, the differential impact on different cohorts should be an important element to consider in deciding how our control strategy should evolve.
Axel Gosseries is a FNRS Research Professor and a Professeur extraordinaire at the Chaire Hoover, Louvain-La-Neuve. He has published extensively on intergenerational justice and his books and articles have appeared in various languages. After agreeing to write for Demography, Ethics and Public Policy, Axel proposed to write a post on the intergenerational dimensions of the ongoing Covid pandemic rather than a profile on his most recent academic project. We thank Axel for this timely contribution to DEPP.
Archard, D & A. Caplan, 2020. “Is it wrong to prioritise younger patients with covid-19?”, BMJ, April 22
Bou-Habib, P., 2011. “Distributive justice, dignity and the lifetime view”, STP, 37(2): 285-310
Ehni, H.-J. & H-W Wahl, 2020. “Six Propositions against Ageism in the COVID-19 Pandemic”, JASP, 32(4-5): 515-525
Fleurbaey, M., M.-L. Leroux & G. Ponthière, 2014. “Compensating the dead”, JME, 51: 28-41
Gosseries, A., 2014. “What makes age discrimination special? A philosophical look at the ECJ case law”, NJLP, 43(1): 59-80
Kerstein, S. & Bognar, G., 2010. “Complete Lives in the Balance”, AJB, 10(4): 37-45
McKerlie, D., 2012. Justice Between the Young and the Old, Oxford: OUP, 240p.
In contrast to earlier thinkers, who viewed children as little more than the property of their parents, contemporary philosophers working on the family now see children as right-holders to whom duties of justice are owed. This, in turn, has prompted a significant shift in our understanding of the content and distribution of parental rights, where only those who meet a minimum threshold of parental adequacy are morally eligible to parent a child, and where the authority they may exercise over their children is seriously limited by their children’s rights. Curiously, however, a similar shift has not yet occurred in our understanding of procreative rights: it is still widely accepted that adults are permitted to bring children into existence under virtually any conditions they choose, and that the act of creating a child automatically generates a right to parent that child.
One strand of my research explores the tenability of a more demanding account of procreative responsibility. It is based on the idea, sometimes attributed to Joel Feinberg (1992), that our view about the permissibility of procreation must be informed by our view about what children will be entitled to if and when they exist. David Archard (2004) refers to this as the birthright claim and summarizes it in the following way: “If a child should be guaranteed a set of rights, then no child should knowingly be brought into existence without a reasonable prospect of enjoying these same rights.” (404) Of course, at this level of description, the birthright claim is just a view about the implications that the rights of existing children have for the permissibility of procreation, and as such, it does not commit us to any particular view about what rights children have and is logically consistent with the view that children have no rights at all (Wilkinson, 2010, p. 86). In fact, Feinberg (1992) himself appeals to the birthright claim in support of a surprisingly undemanding view of the permissibility of procreation: because he assumes that children only have rights to lives that are ‘worth living’, he thinks the birthright claim will only proscribe acts of procreation that result in children with lives not worth living, or lives that are so low in quality as to make non-existence preferable.
However, when paired with a more familiar account of existing children’s rights, the birthright claim supports a more demanding and intuitively attractive account of the permissibility of procreation. Let us suppose that all children have—at the very least—rights to the satisfaction of the basic interests they require to lead minimally decent lives as children and to grow into independent and functional adults. These interests include, but are not necessarily limited to, their interest in adequate health, nutrition, shelter, protection from neglect and abuse, and access to adequate parental care, to name just a few. People can of course reasonably disagree about what should be on this list, but the individual items on the list are less important than what they collectively work to establish, that is, a minimally decent standard of living that all children have a right to enjoy. If we agree that all existing children have a right to this, then, according to the birthright approach, we should also think that all future children have a right to be born into conditions in which they have a reasonable prospect of enjoying a life that meets that standard.
There are many different objections that might be raised against the birthright approach. Some critics have argued that the birthright approach is simply ad hoc--that while appealing to a child’s right to be born into minimally decent conditions might allow us to account for an intuitive moral wrong in some cases of procreation, we do not always have reason to attribute such a right to children independently of the fact that it allows us to account for that moral wrong. Other critics have objected to the invocation of rights in the sui generis context of procreation. For example, critics have argued that rights cannot be intelligibly ascribed to children who do not yet exist; that disadvantaged children would retrospectively waive their birthrights to the extent that they endorse their existence; and that children would lack a legitimate complaint about the violation of their birthrights insofar as their only alternative was non-existence. In my paper “Children’s Rights and the Non-Identity Problem,” I address each of these objections and explain why they fail to undermine more demanding principles of procreative responsibility like the birthright approach. Presently, however, I am interested in exploring an important objection that arises once we accept the birthright approach as a coherent action-guiding principle: that it would prohibit innocent victims of injustice or disadvantage from permissibly having children. This type of objection is nicely summarized by David Wasserman (2005, 138), who writes,
the claim that children are entitled to the satisfaction of such a higher standard [than a life worth living], even if unavoidable impairment precludes it, seems ad hoc, with disturbing implications. It would condemn parents of limited means and prospects, or in hostile or unstable social environments, from having any children, even children expected to have lives worth living despite their privations and hardships.
In other words, endorsing a more demanding account of procreative responsibility may have the effect of excluding more prospective parents from permissibly having children, including those who cannot secure minimally decent conditions for their children due to circumstances beyond their control. If this implication seems harsh or unfair—as Wasserman and others claim it does—then it appears to count as a consideration against more demanding accounts of procreative responsibility.
How should a proponent of the birthright approach respond to this objection? In general, it seems like they have two main options: either (1) they can concede the objection and explain how it can be accommodated by the birthright approach (call this the conciliatory response); or (2) they can reject the objection and explain why it should not be accommodated (call this the non-conciliatory response). David DeGrazia (2012) is an example of a philosopher who endorses the conciliatory response. On DeGrazia’s (2012, 168) account of procreative responsibility, prospective parents have a presumptive duty to ensure their children are born into conditions in which an extensive list of basic needs are satisfied, though they are morally “off the hook in those circumstances in which their inability to meet a basic need is a consequence of external circumstances and not their own character deficits or pathology.” This conciliatory view apparently allows DeGrazia to maintain his more demanding account of procreative responsibility while avoiding the unsavoury implication that “most adults in some developing countries who would be loving, attentive, and resourceful parents should refrain from having children.” (169)
Is the conciliatory response defensible? Despite its initial appeal, I think it is vulnerable to at least three important worries that ought to be taken more seriously. First, the conciliatory response seems potentially out of step with the way that we treat similar constraints on action deriving from injustice or disadvantage. From the point of view of the birthright approach, the general structure of the dilemma facing disadvantaged prospective procreators is as follows: due to circumstances beyond their control, a pair of agents cannot exercise one of their own basic rights (or realize one of their own basic interests) without violating the basic rights of another person. In other cases that share this structure, it is not obvious that the agent is morally permitted to exercise the right in question, even if the interest it protects is very basic or important. Consider, for example, the closely related case of parenting. It is generally accepted that children have a right to minimally decent parental care, and that persons who are either unable or unwilling to provide that care are morally ineligible to parent. In this case, attaching a certain amount of weight to children’s interests has the effect of disqualifying some persons from permissibly parenting, even when their inability to satisfy a child’s interests is due to circumstances for which they are not personally responsible, e.g. a lack of parenting competence that is rooted in a traumatic upbringing of their own. However, the bare fact that a particular conception of children’s rights disqualifies some persons from permissibly parenting does not necessarily count as a consideration against that conception, particularly if there are strong independent reasons for endorsing it. While we might have an obligation to offer assistance to such persons, or to take certain measures to improve their capacities or resources, it is an odd response to increase their eligibility by weakening our conception of children’s entitlements or exempting them from the requirement to provide their children with minimally decent parental care. I am thus inclined to agree with David Benatar (2015, 417), who worries that the conciliatory view is an ad hoc exception, or a form of moral gerrymandering “designed to limit the number of cases in which procreation is judged to be morally wrong.”
The second worry about the conciliatory response is related, and has to do with our social response to constraints on action deriving from injustice or disadvantage. Continuing with the analogy of parenting, consider three possible responses to a person who, through no fault of their own, lacks the resources or emotional capacity to provide a child with minimally decent parental care. One response is to simply conclude that they are ineligible to become a parent and to insist on their obligation to refrain from becoming a parent. This response seems insensitive to the strong interest that many people have in becoming parents. A second response is to revise our conception of eligibility and exempt them from the requirement to provide their child with minimally decent parental care. This response seems insensitive to the strong interest that children have in receiving minimally decent parental care. However, a third possible response—one that is sensitive to the interests of prospective parents as well as children—is to acknowledge the unfortunateness of their position and take certain measures to improve their capacities and resources, to a point at which they can permissibly pursue their parental aspirations. Indeed, if we think that the opportunity to become (and remain) a parent is sufficiently important, then we should view the plight of disadvantaged prospective parents as a form injustice to be rectified. On this view, the inability to permissibly become a parent due to injustice or disadvantage is itself a form of injustice or disadvantage, one that can ground duties of assistance in others. In many societies, these duties of assistance are discharged through the provision of a variety of family support services, including parental subsidies, counselling, educational programming, and the like.
Something similar can be said in the case of disadvantaged prospective procreators: the inability to permissibly create a child due to injustice or disadvantage is itself a form of injustice or disadvantage that can ground duties of assistance in others. However, in simply exempting disadvantaged prospective procreators from the duty to ensure that their children are born into minimally decent conditions, the conciliatory response cannot account for these duties. It therefore fails to register an important feature of the situation—that the inability of the disadvantaged to procreate permissibly gives us an additional weighty reason to respond to their disadvantage—and it supports a set of norms that is worse from the perspective of children’s interests.
However, a third and final worry is that the conciliatory response may also support a position that is, at least in one way, worse for prospective procreators. Arguably, prospective procreators do not merely have an interest in procreating; they also have an interest in doing so in a way that is consistent with the rights of the child they bring into existence. When a set of procreators are exempted from the duty to ensure their child is born into minimally decent conditions, they may be able to realize their interest in procreation, though the realization of this interest may be tainted by the knowledge that it has come at the cost of their child’s enjoyment of their basic rights. This might be better for them than a scenario in which they are morally barred from procreation, though it is worse for them than a scenario in which their inability to satisfy a child’s birthrights gives rise to duties of assistance.
In summary, then, the conciliatory response seems potentially deficient insofar as it (a) is out of step with the way that we treat structurally similar cases, (b) fails to generate duties of assistance, and, as a result, (c) supports a set of norms that is arguably worse for both prospective parents and the children they bring into existence. Does this mean that we should endorse the non-conciliatory response? This response faces some strong and very understandable intuitive obstacles, though I think that some of these obstacles can be overcome by recognizing that the moral constraints placed on disadvantaged prospective parents give us an additional weighty reason to respond to their disadvantage. I am currently exploring this line of argument further in a work-in-progress titled “Procreative Responsibility in Unjust Conditions.” Whether it can vindicate the birthright approach against Wasserman’s objection remains to be seen, though I am confident that defending a position on this question is much more complicated than many commentators have tended to assume.
Archard, David. “Wrongful Life,” Philosophy, 79(309), pp. 403-420.
Benatar, David. “Procreative Permissiveness,” Journal of Medical Ethics, 41(5) (2015), pp. 417-418.
DeGrazia, David. Creation Ethics: Reproduction, Genetics, and Quality of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Feinberg, Joel. “Wrongful Life and the Counterfactual Element in Harming,” in Freedom and Fulfillment: Philosophical Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Wasserman, David. “The Non-Identity Problem, Disability, and the Role Morality of Prospective Parents,” Ethics, 116(1) (2005), pp. 132-152.
Wilkinson, Steven. Choosing Tomorrow’s Children: The Ethics of Selective Reproduction. Oxford: Oxford University
My research over the past few years has mostly been on issues of justice pertaining to the family, childhood and education policy. While I am still completing some of my work on childhood justice, I have recently started working on a new 6-year research project on “The Ethics and Politics of Interpersonal Relationships and Loneliness”.
One of the core findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a massive empirical study on happiness and health conducted over almost eight decades, is that positive human relationships are “key” to health, longevity and happiness over the course of a life. Meaningful personal relationships, such as friendships, romantic relationships, and parent-child relationships, are also essential to self-esteem and self-respect at all stages of life, and they provide individuals with the support they need to realize their projects and attain desirable positions in society. Unfortunately, some recent empirical evidence suggests that loneliness is on the rise across age groups, affecting many individuals who have few, bad or otherwise unfulfilling relationships. This is a major public health concern. As the work of neuroscientists and psychologists such as John T. Cacioppo and Julianne Holt-Lunstad show, chronic loneliness is associated with poor mental and physical health, declining cognitive abilities, early death and low psychological well-being, among other negative outcomes. Compared to those who are lonely, isolated and have low-quality relationships, individuals who are socially connected and have healthy loving bonds are thus seriously advantaged along several dimensions that seem relevant from the point of view of liberal-egalitarian justice.
Yet, moral and political philosophers are only beginning to consider the question of what the liberal state and individuals should do, if anything, about the unequal distribution of meaningful personal relationships and the growing problems of loneliness and social isolation that characterize our societies today – problems that are likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic we are currently facing.
The general aim of the project is to contribute to theorizing the demands of justice in the area of personal relationships, by addressing a series of neglected questions in contemporary moral and political philosophy concerning love, human connection and loneliness: Which inequalities in the sphere of intimacy and relationships (if any) are unjust, and why? Are citizens owed (opportunities to access and maintain) friendship and love as a matter of justice? Should the liberal state adopt policies aimed at combating loneliness and/or social isolation? If so, which ones, and on what grounds? Does the liberal state have an obligation to recognize and promote a plurality of family forms and models of intimacy? Should the liberal state educate children and young adults to be good friends, lovers, family members? What else can, and should, schools and universities do to promote justice in the domain of interpersonal relationships today? A significant portion of the project is indeed devoted to examining the unique role of educational institutions in combating and preventing loneliness, promoting healthy and just relationships and fairness in the distribution of access to intimacy. As part of this, I am currently working on developing an account of the proper aims, legitimacy and moral importance of compulsory relationships education in liberal democracies.
Many people believe that parents enjoy extensive moral options with respect to how they raise their children. For instance, they believe that parents are morally permitted to give their children a religious or non-religious upbringing as they choose: they are permitted to enrol their children into particular religious practices and to encourage them to believe in and develop a motivation to follow the teachings and rituals of that religion.
The main liberal response to this widespread view has been to argue that parents' moral options are constrained by children’s rights to what Joel Feinberg calls ‘an open future’. According to this view, children have a moral right to an upbringing that will equip them with the wherewithal to reflect on various conceptions of religion and what makes for a good life so that as adults they are in a position to adopt, revise and pursue the conception they find attractive. Nevertheless, on this view parents may still enrol their children into a religious practice provided that arrangements are in place to ensure that their children’s minds are not closed.
A more radical view, which I have sketched (2006, 2014) and am now currently elaborating and defending at greater length, which will appear in a book entitled Independence for Children, is that parents are not morally permitted to enrol their children into particular religious practices. I believe that parents and other educators are duty-bound to provide children with an upbringing that gives them the ability and motivation to honour their duties of justice to others and equips them with the skills to make their own informed decisions about which religion or conception of the good is worth pursuing. However, I also believe that parents are not morally permitted to encourage their children to adopt a particular view of religion, or make their children practise one as a child, even if the encouragement and enrolment are consistent with their children developing a sense of justice and the capacity to make informed choices for themselves later in life.
My main argument for independence for children involves extending to children’s upbringing Rawls’s ideal of a society that is acceptable to everyone consistently with regarding themselves as free and equal (Rawls 1993). Rawls believes that political principles must not be justified on the basis of controversial ideas about religion or what counts as a successful life, because to do so would inevitably involve citizens being required to live under institutions that they do not fully endorse. Endorsement of the rules that constrain us, and their justification, is part of what it means for us as citizens to govern ourselves. Therefore, many Rawlsians insist that, when acting in our capacity as lawmakers or citizens, we should not appeal to truths or beliefs about religion that inform how we live our non-political lives. Instead, we ought to proceed on the basis of ideals and reasons we can share with others in virtue of our status and interests as free and equal citizens.
I believe that a similar argument applies to the relationship between parents and children. Children suffer a violation of their self-government if, in their infancy, their parents make them participate in religious activities that they (the children) retrospectively reject when, as adults, they look back at what their parents did to them. For example, suppose your parents made you attend Church and encouraged you to adopt Christian beliefs as children. Suppose, in addition, that as an adult you believe that religion is superstitious nonsense. In that scenario, part of your life is shaped by others’ religious ideals that, on the basis of your considered reflection, you believe to be thoroughly mistaken. That is a violation of your independence. A parent ought, instead, to raise her children according to ideals that her children can share or endorse regardless of the conception of the good to which they devote their lives. So, she should not seek to perfect her children’s lives; she should respect their claim to live independent lives.
Independence for children represents a conception of parental morality, a conception of how parents ought to treat their children—what they are morally permitted or required to do to, for or with their children. But it also represents a perspective for thinking about the legal rights and duties of parents and schooling more generally. In a related project funded by the Spencer Foundation, Andy Mason, Adam Swift and I are writing a book in which we separately identify the implications of our different conceptions of parental and political morality for issues concerning whether faith schools should exist and be funded by the state. My distinctive contribution is a chapter entitled ‘Against Religious Schools’, which argues for the phased abolition of schools that promote controversial religious or irreligious views. However, together, we also try to identify the right policy for the regulating existing faith schools in England given that they are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
My views about political morality and the moral status of children have also led me to work with David Stevens on a series of papers addressing how the school curriculum should be arranged and whether teachers ought to be permitted or required to encourage students to adopt particular beliefs about morality, politics, religion, sexuality, and natural history. We are sceptical of education policies that prioritise the study of world religions over, say, philosophical conceptions of what a good life involves, but we defend the view that directing students towards the right view of justice should have a more prominent place in the school curriculum than it currently has.
Alongside my writing about children and education, with Andrew Williams I am writing a book that examines the moral, political and legal philosophy of Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin is often lauded as one of the most important legal philosophers of the Twentieth Century. His political philosophy has not received as much critical attention. One reason to write the book is to encourage students and researchers to take his political philosophy seriously, because in my view, apart from Rawls, no one has got closer to identifying the truth about political morality than Dworkin.
Matthew Clayton is Professor of Political Theory at the University Of Warwick
In my research I consider several related questions relating to children’s place in contemporary liberal theory. The motivation for my work is that lots of theorists think about childhood in the wrong way. Too often, philosophers begin by thinking through what a just society composed of only adults would look like. When they’ve come to an answer they’re happy with, they then apply their thinking to what they see as the side issue of children. I believe that children and childhood are more morally significant than this, and that an adequate account of justice for children forces a more significant reconceptualization of theories of justice.
I have explored these questions since my PhD research at the University of York which I completed in 2010, and since coming to Bristol five years ago have been working on a book on the subject that will be published in March of 2020 titled Liberalism, Childhood and Justice. The book builds on and develops arguments I have already published in a series of academic articles published in The Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Politics, Philosophy and Economics and The Journal of Applied Philosophy. In the book I consider how childhood affects foundational questions of distributive justice, whether a state charged with protecting children’s interests can or must be neutral with respect to contested ethical questions and the rights and responsibilities of parents.
On foundational questions, I take up the question of the right metric of justice. This debate follows Amartya Sen’s question, ‘equality of what?’. Those committed to broadly egalitarian principles of justice need to consider the currency that is to be equalised across persons. Other distributive theories face a similar issue, for instance those who think justice is about giving people ‘enough’ must answer what currency people must have enough of. In the existing literature two dominant approaches have emerged. Resource based theories believe justice should be about distributing goods that are widely held to be useful things for pursuing various plans of life. By contrast, Welfarists believe that justice should more directly track a measure of how well a person’s life is going. I show that the resource answer is a good one for adults whose plans and preferences are known, but a poor one for children whose future character is (in part) an output of the very social institutions that principles of justice regulate. Knowing which children benefit most from a particular social scheme means assessing the effects of those institutions on their character and personality, as well as the resources the scheme distributes to different groups of children.
Much of my existing work has been on the issue of state neutrality and its implications for childrearing. Leading liberals like Rawls, Dworkin and Larmore believe that the state must be neutral on matters of the good. According to them the state cannot, for instance, fund opera houses or literature festivals because we believe that a life engaging with such culture is richer than one that does not. Nor may states criminalise things like drug use or prostitution because of the supposedly empty or unedifying nature of lifestyles containing such activities. Matthew Clayton, an important contemporary thinker on childhood, believes that parents must also be neutral in this way. He believes that parents cannot encourage their children to follow particular pursuits, or induct them into cultural or religious practices. I have argued against this neutral view, both when applied to the state and parents. I show that while it often seems attractive when the subject of justice is conceived as an adult, it is much less persuasive when applied to children. Children require guidance from others on how to live well. For this reason, I argue that children are owed an environment that contributes to their development, not only towards being good citizens but to living flourishing lives.
What constitutes human flourishing is obviously hard to define and highly contested. In my work, I’ve prioritised several elements of wellbeing. These are intimate long-lasting human relationships, the development of one’s talents and abilities and access to the natural world. There’s obviously much more to living a flourishing life than this, but I’ve tried to show how these elements provide guidance for what kind of education and upbringing children are owed. For instance, defenders of liberal neutrality tend to see education as mainly being about raising good citizens. The reason its permissible for the state to force parents to send their children to school (or provide equivalent education at home) because schooling is necessary to acting as a good citizen. I think that while this is true and important, it misses a great deal of why education is important. Teaching children to read literature, or play music or learn history are good things for the state to do because they contribute to the current and future ability of children to live well.
In the book, I apply this framework to two policy questions, whether parents have a right to purchase expensive education for their children and whether society should subsidise parenthood (through child support payments or free childcare). I suggest that the right way to evaluate both policies is whether they would create a society in which the worst-off citizens have an opportunity to live well. This contrasts with an alternative framework which assess the fairness of transfers against a supposedly fair market outcome. I suggest that institutions like private schools are usually unjust, at least supposing the state provides good schools, because they disrupt egalitarian relationships between members of society. I then argue that states should subsidise parenting, because doing so protects a relationship which is hugely valuable for many people and gives citizens the ability to combine becoming a parent with a wider range of jobs and lifestyles.
In my future work, I plan to continue research on childhood and flourishing and to broaden my focus to encompass issues relevant to the elderly population. On childhood, I’m looking at how different states have understood ‘good parenting’ and whether this is something states can effectively promote through training courses or other targeted interventions. My suspicion is that too often ‘good parenting’ is synonymous with various middle-class cultural practices, and that state interventions blame poorer parents for their children’s bad outcomes when the best explanation is economic and structural rather than because of poor parenting. Continuing my focus on personal relationships, I’m also working on a paper exploring how elderly citizens can be better integrated into society and have more flourishing relationships with others, particularly with children.
Tim Fowler is Lecturer in Political Theory at the Unicersity of Bristol
In my work, I explore the impact of family norms on the development and use of reproductive technologies. I am also interested in the normative challenges that technologies raise for the ways in which norms about reproduction and the family are conceptualised. For example, in several papers I discuss questions of access to reproductive technologies by older women (Cutas 2007, Cutas & Smajdor 2015, Cutas, Smajdor and Hens 2017). In two papers, I challenge the view that children ought to have no more (Cutas 2011) and no less (Cutas and Smajdor 2017) than two parents. In a forthcoming paper, I problematize legal initiatives to connect fatherhood status to genetic parentage when the fatherhood presumption is questioned (Cutas and Smajdor 2020).
Whether the relation between two or more individuals is called a ‘family’ depends on normative assumptions about the kinds of relationships that people should be in, and has implications on the way in which their claims are met, socially and institutionally. Whether one’s desire to become a parent deserves medical attention depends on normative assumptions about the kinds of environments in which children should be born: children should be conceived naturally and born to their parents who are young, heterosexual, and married to each other. This is not only the ideal relationship between parents, but also between adult romantic or sexual partners (Cutas 2016). One may ‘experiment’ in one’s youth with other forms of intimacy, but monogamous romantic relationships are what one should aim for in adulthood. Romance and sexual intimacy are at the core of our closest personal relationships: everything else is secondary and may be invisible in the eyes of the law (Cutas and Chan 2012). According to Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”. This holds even when such protection may be detrimental to the members of the family (Cutas and Smajdor 2017). Against this background, normative choices are presented as conceptual definitions, and the outliers are left to make their case and gain legitimacy – and permission – from their standing point as other than the default: other than the fundamental group unit of society.
This framework is at the basis of much of the current status quo in the regulation of close personal relationships, human reproduction, and family life. While marriage and legal parenthood include predefined bundles of rights and duties, other kinds of relationships do not. Insofar as regulations have been changed to accommodate other family forms, this has been done in an incremental manner with the nuclear family still the default. For example, infertility tends to be defined as non-conception in the heterosexual couple. ‘Clinical infertility’, according to the World Health Organisation, is ‘a disease’ that manifests itself in a couple’s failure to produce a child after more than one year of unprotected sexual intercourse. This definition, and variations of it, are part and parcel of the regulation of fertility treatments, alongside other considerations such as marriage or long-term cohabitation between partners.
A single woman or a same-sex couple cannot produce children in this way. Unlike the clinical infertility of the heterosexual couple, the incapacity of these other individuals or couples is seen as circumstantial: its causes are social, not clinical. People could always pair up with individuals with whom they are reproductively compatible (i.e. heterosexual) and then if after a certain amount of time they have not produced a child, they may aspire to the diagnosis of clinical infertility. The single woman is not infertile just because she may, for example, lack fallopian tubes. When she has a male partner and a pathology that prevents reproduction is known, the waiting time may not be required: so they may be diagnosed, as a couple (though they may still have to have lived together and/or been married to each other for a certain amount of time in order to gain access to treatment). A woman who does not suffer from any pathology preventing her from reproducing may be eligible for treatment. She will be on the receiving end of much of the procedures, even if it is established that it is her male partner who suffers from a pathology, or when no pathology is found at all. Her incapacity to reproduce with her current partner is not seen as circumstantial and she has a legitimate medical need for treatment even if she could reproduce with someone else. Where this framework is in place, the single woman or the same-sex couple are not seen as having such a need, because they are not infertile, even if they may not be able to reproduce without medical assistance, whatever they did.
The aim of fertility treatments is not to restore a function: it is not to make the couple able to conceive and have a child via sexual intercourse. It is, instead, to bypass that capacity and provide the couple with a child. What is treated is the desire to have a child: if not for this desire, there would be no need for treatment. Yet it is not the intensity of the desire, or of the suffering of its frustration, that determine access to or priority for fertility treatments. The single woman or the same-sex couple may well be suffering more: at least the couple have each other; at least the heterosexual couple have a chance to reproduce together, or to qualify for adoption where same-sex couples are barred. Such are however not relevant considerations in legislatures where only heterosexual couples’ suffering deserves medical attention or financial support. Moreover, it tends to be taken for granted that this desire is not to have just any child. It is the desire for a child who is obtained from the reproductive material of both members of the couple; failing that, a child obtained with reproductive material from at least one member of the couple; and only failing that, a child who is not genetically related to the couple. Therefore, from the perspective of this definition, fertility treatments treat the suffering caused by the incapacity to fulfil the desire to become the parents of (preferably) a specific kind of child, and only of certain sufferers, depending on their relationship status and other non-medical considerations (Smajdor and Cutas 2015).
The more people’s lives have diverged from the ideal of the nuclear family, the more scrutiny they have faced. Although significant progress has been made, this model is still the norm. Separating its elements – or aiming to reorganise its parts – has led to significant conundrums: if a child’s social parent is not the same as her genetic parent, and both (or all) claim legal parenthood, whose claim should prevail? How – if at all – should genetic connections with people who are not members of one’s legally sanctioned family be recognised? Why can a mother and daughter not share legal parenthood of a child they are raising together? Socio-cultural changes as well as technological innovations – including, not least, the capacity to detect mismatches between genetic and social parenthood – rip at the seams of the nuclear family model. This makes more evident the need to reflect on the justification of norms in close personal relationships, reproduction and the family and, perhaps, to refine and revise them.
Daniela Cutas is Senior Lecturer in Practical Philosophy at Umeå University and the University of Gotheburg.
I pursued my PhD studies as part of the ERC-funded Family Justice research project at Pompeu Fabra University, where I wrote a dissertation on the ‘question of parental justice’ (coined as such by Olsaretti 2013; Bou-Habib and Olsaretti 2013). This is the question of what, if anything, a just society owes parents in virtue of having and raising children.
The thesis, titled ‘What Do We Owe Parents? Distributing the Costs of Children,’ investigates the grounds in virtue of which parents, qua parents, can raise claims of justice to having the costs of children socialized. I conclude that the case for parents is far from secured, for two main reasons. The first is that the most widely endorsed case for sharing the costs of children rests on an insufficiently explained and defended principle of fairness (or Fair Play). Secondly, the most promising avenue for grounding parents’ claims of justice is their claim to enjoying equal autonomy, which would be jeopardized if the state did not socialize some of the costs of children. Here, too, however, existing accounts of what grounds individuals’ autonomy-based complaints are unsatisfactory or, more often, incomplete.
In the thesis I dealt with the first major gap I identified in the parental justice literature by developing a new, systematic account of the Fair Play principle. I concluded that this account, which I call the Shared Preference View of Fair Play, does not support a fairness-based case for sharing the costs of children. The view does, however, have important positive implications beyond the parental justice debate. First, it provides a systematic defence of Fair Play as a principle of special obligation in the face of widespread skepticism about its plausibility, which is a significant theoretical contribution to the Fair Play literature itself. Second, the Fair Play principle I propose has the capacity to establish special obligations in a wide range of contexts. Most importantly, it provides a basis for political obligation.
I defend this new account of Fair Play, as well as its implications for the wider debate on political obligation, in a recently published paper in the Journal of Political Philosophy: ‘What Makes Free Riding Wrongful? The Shared Preference View of Fair Play.’
In a more recent research project, which is an outgrowth of my thesis, I take up the task of filling the second gap I identified in the literature on parental justice. The problem is that arguments which seek to establish autonomy-based claims of justice are typically incomplete in two ways. The first issue arises under the assumption that once someone has autonomously made certain life decisions, some burdens must be left for them to bear if we are to respect their capacity for autonomously shaping their own lives. But we seem to lack an independent account of which burdens associated with an autonomously made choice (here, the choice to become a parent) should count as autonomy-undermining, and which ones should count as autonomy-promoting. Hence the need for what I call ‘principles of autonomy stakes,’ which would enable us to make that distinction. The second form of incompleteness we face with autonomy-based arguments is that, even once we have such an account of autonomy stakes, in order to establish that certain individuals have an autonomy-based complaint against the state we need an account of what the state actually owes citizens by way of promoting their autonomy. For it is not necessarily the case that the state is committed to mitigating any and all deficits of autonomy for their citizens.
Another project I am working on lies at the intersection of procreation and immigration, in particular as the two can be seen as providing some (partial) answers to the problems posed by population ageing. My main aim is to investigate the ways in which states may permissibly manipulate procreation and immigration in order to intentionally affect the size and structure of the population.
Population ageing is a phenomenon affecting virtually every country in the world today, as the number of people retiring from work increases relative to the number of working-age persons. In developed countries, population ageing is caused by the combination of increased life expectancy and decreased fertility. This is expected to have various adverseeffects on the economy, according to the 2015 United Nations Report on World Population Ageing. One crucial worry stems from the fact that most countries fund pension schemes, health care benefits, and other welfare measures by taxing the working population. A diminishing workforce therefore raises the prospect of a fiscal crisis that calls for governmental action.
Two potential demographic strategies are available to states for mitigating some of the effects of population ageing. One is increasing fertility through pro-natalist policies. The other is boosting the working-age population through opening up the borders to certain immigrants (‘replacement migration’). Contemporary political philosophy has, for the most part, treated procreation and immigration in isolation. However, examining these two practices through the unifying lens of their demographic impact can provide new insights for evaluating either practice and for determining what states may permissibly do to tackle population ageing.
Isabella Trifan is a Social Justice Postdoctoral Fellow at the Social Justice Centre, Concordia University, Montréal.
Who is responsible for the creation of human beings? For a long period in human history that was a relatively easy question to answer, but with the advent of so-called ART (assisted reproductive technology) that is no longer the case. On the one hand, the biological linkage of motherhood splits between the genetic and gestational ties; on the other hand, in many legal systems sperm donors are discharged from the conventional duties attached to parenthood when procreation follows the “natural path”. The possibility of using mitochondrial replacement therapy for the avoidance of certain genetic diseases has added even more complexity to this scenario.
“Responsibility”, moreover, is an ambiguous term. As the legal philosopher Herbert Hart famously pointed out, we might refer to someone as being “responsible” as the person who “caused” something to happen; or an individual who acts in a certain role, or with a distinctive capacity or liability. As a political and legal philosopher working at the intersection of Law and Bioethics, I am interested in knowing whether, contrary to widespread beliefs, creating people itself might be considered as a harmful activity for which procreators could be liable. There is a large literature dealing with the “externalities” caused by bringing people to exist, but occasionally judges have faced the difficult challenge of deciding whether existing constitutes per se a harm for the individual who was created. You may be familiar with those “wrongful life” cases – instances of harsh genetic diseases that may only be prevented by abortion- and also with those deliberate decisions to give birth to children with certain impairments such as deafness that may not be deemed so severe as to make life something absolutely regrettable, although some philosophers such as David Benatar have claimed that all human creation is actually a case of wrongful life because the tragedies of life – including our unavoidable death- outweighs its many joys. All those cases meet with the philosophical problem of “non-identity” raised by the late Derek Parfit.
We also face cases in which some people are brought into existence in order to save existing siblings. In these “savior-sibling” cases, a prenatal genetic diagnosis along with HLA-typing is performed in order to select the “healthy and useful” embryo and give birth to an individual who might subsequently act as a donor in a stem-cells’ transfusion to the ill brother or sister. Are those savior-siblings being treated instrumentally? Is procreation itself being corrupted? These are legitimate concerns that merit careful consideration but on my view, given certain conditions, those objections may be surmounted.
However, my main focus is and has been on the liability/role aspects of responsibility when procreating, namely, who should bear the parental duties and rights, what is the scope of those obligations and whether the use of ART makes any difference. Drawing on work by Elizabeth Brake among others, I am critical of our current legal framework and the gender asymmetries it creates by attributing parental responsibilities to men merely in virtue of their “inseminating” role. In my view, such a framework lacks coherence when (1) on the one hand, it makes it possible for single women to access artificial insemination (AI); (2) it grants women access to abortion but (3) still assigns parenthood to every men as a result of the mere fact of being the natural inseminator, irrespective of the way in which such insemination took place.
I have argued on grounds of fairness in favour of the permissibility of what we could call “financial abortion” by men who act with care in order to avoid insemination and who are not willing to be fathers; I have also developed arguments defending private arrangements between men and women (be they single women or lesbian couples) for insemination beyond the clinical setting of artificial reproduction.
Pablo de Lora is Professor in Philosophy of Law ay Universidad Autonoma de Madrid
If humanity were to go extinct, how bad would that be? How should we prioritize research and resources across many different threats to the long-term future of our species? How can we make trade-offs between the number of people who are alive now and the number who will ever be born? These are the ethical questions that form the backbone of my research.
Existential risk research aims to promote the long-term interests of humanity by better understanding the threats to our future and how we might respond to them. It owes its existence in no small part to the field of Population Ethics since it was in the writings of people like Henry Sidgwick and Derek Parfit on this subject that people first began to engage with the mismatch between the limited efforts being taken to mitigate the risk of human extinction and the enormous ethical costs that such a catastrophe would bring.
My research into this area began via the same route and my own attempt to resolve some of the intractable problems currently facing certain views about population ethics. In particular, my PhD thesis explored the hypothesis that there may be multiple irreconcilably different values that governed what it would be best for us to do when it came to future generations. Some of these are reducible to a single conception of ‘utility’ or ‘well-being’ while others cannot be so reduced, although they may still form part of a broader conception of what we call ‘Quality of Life’. Human extinction, I argued, would be doubly tragic because it would not only involve the loss of all the potential future happiness that members of our species might go on to experience, but also these other, less tangible, goods that related to our growing achievements, our aesthetic sense and our ability to engage ethically with the universe around us.
I still believe that this is, if not the right answer then, at least a step in the right direction to understanding the tragedy of human extinction. However, since I started working more deeply in this field, as a Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, I have come to question whether my role as a philosopher should be coming up with the right answers at all, or whether I can put my talents to better use helping others to understand the implications of their own ethical position. I have thus started to work a lot more at understanding as much as I can about the nature of the threats that we face and on connecting these to the wide variety of ethical perspectives that exist in the world.
In a recent paper, co-authered with Phil Torres, we examine a range of these perspectives, from virtue ethics, Kantian deontology, contractualism and consequentialism, and argue that there are at least five ways in which we might view human extinction as bad, and that all of these perspectives gave us reasons to be extremely sensitive to at least two of these; although no perspective seemed to care about all of them. These were:
1. Human extinction would likely involve a massive loss of life and also a loss of auonomy and hope to very many people. It would thus be amongst the greatest harms that we could conceivably cause for most people now living.
2. Human extinction would remove rational agency and human understanding form the world as we know it, and potentially from the entire universe. It would be the frustration of every, or at least almost every, purpose or intention people have ever had
3. Human extinction would be the end of our collective story as a species and a violation of the intergenerational social contract in which we gratefully receive the benefits and wisdom of those who have come before us and seek to pass on even more of these to those who will come after us
4. Human extinction will cause many potential future people, who could have experienced even more potential future happiness, never to exist
5. Human extinction will remove from the world all of the best things in life that we have special reasons to value and treasure, from science and art to romantic love and universal compassion.
Of course, different theories may still disagree about just how much worse human extinction might be to other things. However, even arguing that this is important can imply a bias towards ethical theories that care more about relative values (like consequentialism) rather than those that see value as absolute. As we point out in the paper, Kant would almost certainly have felt we had a perfect duty to prevent human extinction if we could, and whilst that may only place it on the same level as our duty not to murder it still places it remains a perfect duty, which seems like something we should care a great deal about.
This convergence can sometimes break down when one turns from the question of whether human extinction is bad to how we should go about avoiding it, however, even here the differences between ethical approaches often appear to be less in practice than they appear in theory. Partha Dasgupta and I have recently been putting together a symposium of papers about population ethics as a global challenge. We have submissions from all sorts of ethical traditions, including Utilitarianism, Human Rights theory, traditional Akkan philosophy from Ghana, Intergenerational Justice and Non-Ideal Theory. These different approaches diverge on many points, such as the relative importance of conformity in reproductive decision making and the distribution of the burdens and benefits of parenthood. However, all agree that global population is becoming an increasingly serious issue that is not only driving destructive environmental change but also holding back poor people and developing communities from increasing their standard of living. These authors also agree that this has now reached such a point where the ethical imperative to have fewer children is one that people can see and understand for themselves, so we need to discuss population just as much as a problem for personal ethics as for public policy.
Since realizing this, I have sought more and more to take my work outside of academia. In 2017 I took part in the BBC's New Generation Thinkers scheme and was able to put together a radio documentary on population ethics that was broadcast last month. I also helped to found, and am now an advisor to, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations, which seeks to represent the interests of future people in the UK parliament.
I believe that both in terms of population ethics and existential risk, the world is reaching a tipping point. It appears that as many as 18% of everyone who ever lived might be alive right now. That is both a very scary statistic, but also a sign of how much potential we have to change our future. We need to start seeing population ethics as less about criticising others for their reproductive choices and more about helping our species navigate the many risks we face and achieve our true potential.
Simon Beard is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at University of Cambdridge.
If parents have special duties to equip their children for a flourishing adulthood, does this require them to act on climate change? If the ‘global affluent’ has a shared duty to organise for climate change mitigation and adaptation, what does this require of parents in terms of training the next generation? Do parents owe their children a ‘climate conscious’ upbringing anyway, as part of enabling them to live and thrive as a moral agent. If having children is itself bad for the environment, what should parents do about that?
These are the questions addressed in my current research on climate change and parental duties. Such normative dilemmas fit well with both my longstanding interest in collective responsibility and individual climate duties, as elaborated in my book, Climate Change and the Moral Agent: Individual Duties in an Interdependent World, and my more recent work at the intersect of population, global justice and climate justice. They also fall within a curious gap in the literature. Given the plethora of literature on both climate change and moral duties, on the one hand, and on the other what parents owe to their own children, it is puzzling that almost nothing has been said on the pressing normative question of what duties fall on parents in the context of climate change, and comparatively little on what they owe, in general, in the face of failures of global justice. My arguments, accordingly, are focused on climate change but have implications more generally: for what means to be a good parent in our decidedly imperfect world.
Many of us in this generation have shared (or what I have called ‘weakly collective’) duties to coordinate to act on climate change. This is now a familiar moral claim. Ultimately owed to the victims of climate change, such duties of climate justice are defended either negatively, on the basis of contribution to harm, or positively, on the basis of capacity to aid. This itself is an important starting point for this project. However, parents also have a special shared duty to coordinate for effective action on climate change: a duty held over and above any such more general duties. Or so I contend in my paper: ‘Do Parents have a Special Duty to Mitigate Climate Change?’ The shared duty here is of a peculiar kind, being derived from special duties held by each duty-bearer to other specific individuals. Cooperation is ultimately owed by each parent to her own child or, in the case of one of my arguments, to her further descendants.
The claim is that parents are required to protect their children’s fundamental interests from climate change, whether we assume a causal account of parental duties (acquired because a parent causes her child to exist in a state of vulnerability) or an intentionalist one (on which parents implicitly commit to care for their children and prepare them for adulthood). The interests in question include not only those central capacities directly at risk from climate change, such as health, but also the important indirect interests that today’s children have in not seeing their immediate descendants condemned to great suffering, and in reconciling their own central interests and relationships with the perspective of the moral agent. On one line of argument, conditional on an expanded causal derivation of parental duties, parents owe it directly to their more distant descendants to coordinate to act on climate change.
The rest of this project defends and elaborates individual duties, whether as derivative of or as independent of such shared duties. Undoubtedly, getting the next generation ‘on board’ will be a crucial part of any effective collective response to climate change. But do individual parents have a duty to bring up their children informed of the moral challenges around climate change, and motivated to respond to them. If they do, why?
Such individual action might be defended as a necessary part of effectively promoting progress at the collective level (whether as parents or as those sharing positive or negative responsibility for climate harm). It might also be defended as as in some other way following from the need to respond to collective injustice, for example, on the basis of fairness among duty bearers. Such arguments are widely discussed (by myself and others) in the context of individual emissions-cutting duties, and part of this project will be to consider their application in this context. However, I have also argued that parents owe it directly to their own children to educate and motivate them regarding climate change. This is the claim defended in my paper ‘Justice, Integrity and Moral Community: Do Parents Owe It to Their Children to Bring Them Up as Good Global Climate Citizens?’. The argument is two-part. The duty to educate one’s children about climate change follows from the duty to develop their moral capacity. However, both this and the more controversial duty to motivate good global climate citizenship can also be defended by appeal to a combination of factors: on the one hand, the unique parent-child relationship; on the other, the fact that parents have climate justice duties of their own.
Finally, the project turns to the negative environmental implications of having a child: the single highest emissions-causing decision most of us will make. A lively normative debate rages on whether this means parents should have only a small family, or even no biological children at all. My work in progress contributes to this debate, rejecting, for example, an individual duty to have no children. However, this is not its primary aim. Rather, I defend the general-level insight that potential parents must take morally seriously the negative environmental ramifications of procreation. Or, to put it another way, we do have at least some responsibility for the expected carbon footprint of any children we freely choose to have. This then grounds a unique negative defence both of a parental duty to bring up ‘good global climate citizens’ and of a duty much more generally defended: to promote and contribute to the mitigation of climate change.
Elizabeth Cripps is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh.