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.
I am a quantitative sociologist with an interest in family and social inequality. Several of my research projects have addressed informal caregiving. One example of this research is an analysis of spouses’ division of eldercare in Britain. An interesting aspect of this topic is the intersection of gendered roles in the couple with filial obligations towards their respective parents. My analyses showed that more couples reported caring for the wife’s parents than for the husband’s parents. The most common arrangement was that the child-in-law was not involved in caregiving, but in 40 to 50 percent of couples children-in-law supported their spouses and both spouses provided care for the parent(-in-law). This was much more common in married couples than in unmarried couples. Even if spouses were involved, the child still tended to provide more hours or husbands and wives provided similar hours of care.
Couples’ parent care was predominantly structured along kin relationships but it also showed gendered patterns. A higher proportion of wives helped their husbands and they provided on average more hours of care for his parents than husbands did. Husbands were more likely to support their wives if these worked full time whereas wives provided care for their parents-in-law irrespective of their husbands’ employment situation. Therefore, women’s increasing involvement in the labour market should lead to an increase of care provided by sons-in-law but one can also expect that it will reduce the hours of eldercare provided by daughters-in-law.
My current project addresses a different kind of caregiving, namely fathers’ childcare involvement. After decades of strong increases in fathers’ childcare times, the UK Time-Use surveys from 2000 and 2015 show that this increase has come to a halt. I am only examining fathers who lived with a partner and at least one child aged 14 or younger. These fathers spent about the same time doing childcare in both years – on average about one hour on weekdays and 100 minutes on weekend days. It is important to point out that these figures comprise all times when fathers reported childcare as primary or secondary activity. There is no clear agreement among researchers about how secondary activities should be treated in time-use analyses. I argue that including secondary activities is particularly important in analyses of childcare since childcare is often part of multitasking. Ignoring reports of childcare as secondary activity would lead to considerably underreporting childcare activities and the resulting constraints on parents.
Past findings about increasing disparities between high and low-status fathers’ involvement have raised concerns about the consequences for children. These disparities arguably form part of a more general pattern of divergence between the living conditions of children born into high-status groups and low-status groups (Putnam 2015). As father involvement enhances children’s development, unequal levels of father involvement are seen as contributing to the disadvantages of children from low-status groups.
My analyses reveal a further divergence of father involvement in the new millennium between fathers from different status groups. On weekend days, the difference in childcare time between high- and low-status fathers increased from nearly half an hour in the year 2000 to 52 minutes in 2015. This difference results from two changes: a widening gap in the proportion of fathers who get involved in physical care and the opening of a gap in the minutes of interactive care among fathers who provided such care. In both cases, high-status fathers were more involved than low-status fathers.
Interactive care – reading, playing or talking to a child – is regarded as particularly important for children’s social and cognitive development. More time in interactive care by high-status fathers compared to other fathers fits into the broader narrative of widening disparities of children’s resources. Having said this, the finding is only weakly significant, so it warrants confirmation by further studies.
The increase in the proportion of fathers who get involved in physical care on weekend days can be interpreted in a different way. Father involvement in childcare is relevant for gender equality in the domestic sphere (Goldscheider et al. 2015). In this context, fathers’ involvement in physical care is important because it is regarded as more burdensome and less desirable than interactive care. The increasing participation of high-status fathers in physical care on weekend days could indicate a relief of mothers’ childcare duties in these couples. This would also be in line with established class differences in gender-role attitudes. Whether the change actually signifies a more equal distribution of childcare among high-status couples on weekend days depends on mothers’ hours of care. The next phase of the project will look more closely into this matter.
My analyses cannot explain why the trend of increasing father involvement has come to an end in the UK. The introduction of paternity leave in Britain in 2003 and several subsequent policy changes should have encouraged fathers’ involvement. Mothers’ increasing level of employment should also have led to increased levels of father involvement since mothers’ employment tends to draw fathers into caregiving. It is possible that the stagnation of father involvement in the new millennium is owed to labour-market pressures after the 2008 recession. Lower levels of job security might have reduced fathers’ willingness or scope for prioritizing involvement in childcare. Future research should examine whether changes in the labour market have put particular pressure on fathers, especially on those from lower status groups.
Goldscheider, F; Bernhardt, E & Lappegård, T (2015): The Gender Revolution: A Framework for Understanding Changing Family and Demographic Behavior, Population and Development Review41(2): 207-239.
Henz, U (2010): Parent Care as Unpaid Family Labor: How do Spouses Share?, Journal of Marriage and Family72(1): 148-164.
Henz, U (2009): Couples’ provision of informal care for parents and parents-in-law: far from sharing equally?,Ageing & Society29(3): 369-395.
Henz, U (2018): Recent Trends in Fathers’ Involvement with Their Children in the United Kingdom: Stagnation and Social Differences. Unpublished manuscript.
Putnam, RD (2015): Our Kids. The American Dream in Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Ursula Henz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE)
My interest in demography, ethics and public policy started in my first doctoral year at the LSE under the late Brian Barry. Brian always nudged me to try and incorporate normative political theory considerations into positive political economy analysis. My first book, Divide and Pacify, attempted to make sense of the historically unprecedented government-promoted early and disability retirement booms in 1990s post-communist Europe. This was a demographically not-yet-aging region, where short-term political tactics set in motion pathways toward the strongly pro-elderly oriented welfare states we see today. With Clara Sabbagh, we subsequently studied the remarkably strong and internationally consistent perceptions of intergenerational injustice among young people, and of pensions injustice among adults.
Another book, Ageing Populations in Postindustrial Democracies, co-edited with Achim Goerres, in turn attempted to infuse a sense of empirical variation and political-institutional refinement as a counterbalance to increasingly shrill and alarmist assertions about ‘gerontocratic’ welfare states dominated by unholy baby boomer alliances of ‘greedy grey’ voters and ‘myopic’ or populist politicians. Achim and I are currently working on a book on Global Political Demography. Demography is not destiny: governance cultures matter more than pure population aging in explaining policy biases and grey power – or their absence. With Markus Tepe, we similarly tried to inject empirical and institutional qualifiers into sweeping claims about how population aging causes gerontocracy politics in pensions, pension cutback delays, and elderly-biased welfare states.
Recently I have been thinking about how to measure the intergenerational justice of public policies in rich democracies. At the invitation of the Bertelsmann Foundation I developed a four-dimensional snapshot indicator of intergenerational justice (IJI), including a new measure of elderly bias in social spending (EBiSS). And I discussed reform ideas, including the ‘parental proxy votes for children’ thought balloon launched earlier by demographer Paul Demeny, philosopher Philippe van Parijs and others. I was also part of the team that developed the first Active Aging Index for the Commission, in the context of the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations.
I have also been thinking about the need for a wider humanities education (foxes and hedgehogs; STEM and Shakespeare!) and the potential of early human capital investment policies to provide future foundations for an aging Europe. And with demographers Robert Gal and Lili Vargha we have asked what resources generations give each other. From different angles, the latter two papers both argue that notwithstanding decades of ‘social investment states’ rhetoric, we actually observe surprisingly little state investment in young people.
Looking at public policies alone offers an incomplete and biased picture of intergenerational transfers. It’s a proverbial case of looking for a lost car key only where the streetlight shines at night. The reason is a key asymmetry in modern societies. Working-age people pay taxes and social security contributions to institutionalize care for older persons as a generation. But they invest substantial private resources (money and time) to raise their ownchildren, often with large social returns. Once one also incorporates these family resources, counterintuitive and radically different conclusions follow. Children actually receive more than twice as many per-capita resources as older persons in Europe – but not from policies. We live in pro-elderly welfare states within child-oriented societies.
A key ethics and public policy question is therefore: why do states not take a greater role in helping families raise children? Economist Nancy Folbre, sociologist James Coleman, and political philosophers Anne Alstott and Serena Olsaretti, among others, have forcefully argued that children are also public goods. Their contributions will later benefit all of society, including non-parents. Since children are also ever scarcer in aging societies, we ask: why has child investment not been socialized much morethan we can observe in reality? Robert Gal and I plan to keep investigating these questions and their normative implications in the near future.
Pieter Vanhuysse is professor of comparative welfare state research at the University of Southern Denmark
My interest in questions of demography and justice started with my PhD dissertation, in which I developed a conceptualisation of gender injustice using the capability approach (defended at Cambridge University, 2002). Some of that research is theoretical, for example my account of gender justice (which was published in a book edited by Jude Brown); some of that research tried to build the bridge between theory and empirical evaluation, such as this paper in Feminist Economics.
Since my methodological commitments are with understanding real-world problems, research aiming to contribute at institutional design, and non-ideal theorising, the analysis of unjust gender inequalities inevitably brings one to think about issues of justice and care work, as well as justice between parents and nonparents. In the period 2006-2011, I directed a VIDI-project on ‘social justice, demographic change, and the new welfare state’. Anca Gheaus contributed several papers to this project (see her profile here), as did Anders Schinkel who wrote a fine paper on ‘Filial obligations’. I also (co-) authored several papers analysing which policies could advance justice in the area of gender, parenting and care work, including a paper co-authored with Anca Gheaus defending an egalitarian design of parental leave systems, as well as a paper arguing for compulsory citizens’ duty to care.
In recent years, my interests have shifted back to economic inequalities, but also expanded to ecological justice (those two questions, together with questions on agents of change as well as nonideal methods, will be part of my ERC CoG project Fair Limits that runs until 2022). I have two unpublished papers on procreative freedom in the context of climate change, and am trying to argue that, if one were to have individual emissions entitlement (a ‘carbon card’), procreation-related emissions should not be taken from that card (in other words, procreative parenting is ‘special’ and not morally equivalent with consumption-based forms of emissions.) Since I’m trying to do too many other things, progress on those papers is slow. Working on this question has also reaffirmed my conviction that not all questions of justice can be properly addressed with the resourcist framework, but that, in this case, the capability approach, in itself, doesn’t have the theoretical resources to make this argument. Yet as I’ve argued in a book on the capability approach that was published earlier this year, this should not be seen as a critique on the capability approach, but simply follows from its proper interdisciplinary, multi-purpose understanding.
Ingrid Robeyns is Professor of Ethics of Institutions at Utrecht University.
Since I started my studies in political philosophy, I have been interested in the political theory of the family, and the political theory of immigration, broadly conceived. At the moment, I am pursuing questions at the intersection of both areas. In particular, I am interested in proposing feasible immigration and citizenship arrangements that are particularly sensitive to the interests of children. The motivation for this project springs from the realization that current immigration and citizenship arrangements are not only poorly equipped to protect children’s interests, but can also, at times, contribute to the vulnerability that the most marginalized children face in their lives.
One question that is very relevant for this overall project is the question of what grounds the right of children to acquire citizenship (I address this question in Ferracioli, forthcoming). Traditionally, political philosophers have paid little attention to the citizenship arrangements of liberal states, and have focused primarily on their immigration arrangements. Indeed, their focus has been on advocating for their preferred theory of justice in migration on the assumption that liberal states would also ensure that their citizenship laws and policies would not conflict with what justice requires, by for instance, ensuring that no one would be rendered stateless (But see Baubock 2006; Shachar 2009; Carens 2013 for exceptions). However, as I hope to show in the remainder of this discussion, current citizenship arrangements fail to track children’s interests even when they don’t lead to statelessness, and even when they don’t conflict with the demands of a just immigration arrangement.
To illustrate the problems with our current citizenship arrangements, consider the following citizenship principles that currently apply to children: (i) citizenship should be granted to those who have been born in the state (jus soli), (ii) citizenship should be granted to those who have at least one parent who is a citizen of the state (jus sanguinis), and (iii) citizenship should be granted to permanent immigrants who have legally resided in the state for a significant period of time (jus domicilii). There are compelling reasons for thinking that jus soli, jus sanguinis, and jus domicilii, whether employed alone or in combination, fail to do justice to children.
Consider first the principle of jus soli, which applies to children who are born within the borders of the state. The problem with this principle is that children do not always reside in the same state where they were born. Some children immigrate immediately to another state after birth and so are placed from the very beginning of their lives in a position where they lack full membership in the state that is arguably in a position to advance a number of their interests. Now it is certainly true that the adequate application of jus soli across the globe can prevent all children from growing up in a position of statelessness. The problem is that we should not only care about the predicaments that arise when one lacks citizenship altogether, but also care about the predicaments that arise for those who lack citizenship in their state of on-going residence. This is because citizenship provides reliable access to a number of rights that are important for children’s lives to go well (Ferracioli, forthcoming)
Consider next the principle of jus sanguinis. One problem with this principle is that not all children have a parent who is a citizen of the state where they reside. Even worse is the fact that some children do not even enjoy the benefits of a parent-child relationship, as it is the case of those who have lost their parents or have been abandoned by them. Yet, both the fact of lacking a citizen parent and lacking a parent all together can place children in a position of extreme vulnerability, which is of course made all more acute by the subsequent denial of citizenship on the basis of that vulnerability.
Finally, consider the norm of jus domicilii adopted by most states that accept that permanent immigrants should be granted citizenship after many years of legal residence. One problem with jus domicilii is that not all immigrant children who reside in a state do so after having been granted legal access to its territory, and so are typically not eligible for citizenship, no matter how long they have resided there (Bhabha 2014). Children who seek asylum in a state but are neither granted refugee status nor returned to their state of origin have a strong claim to enjoy reliable access to important rights and benefits in their state of residence and yet are typically not entitled to citizenship via jus domicilii. The same is true of children who ‘illegally’ cross international borders with their parents or other family members. These children cannot consent to such dangerous immigration projects, and yet, they are particularly vulnerable to suffering human rights violations as a result of the precarious socio-political position in which they and their families find themselves. Again, the very fact that renders these groups of children particularly vulnerable to all forms of abuse and violence (i.e., their lack of legal authorization to be in the territory) weakens their claim to enjoy secure access to important rights and benefits that come with citizenship.
Given these shortcoming, I believe that the right of children to citizenship should depend solely on the actual relationship between child and state, and not on their place of birth, family lineage or long-term residence. The idea is that a child’s claim to citizenship is distinct from that of an adult, and separate from that of her parent(s) (if she has one), and that any child who resides in a liberal state has a right to acquire citizenship there. The foundation of this right lies on the unique paternalistic relationship between child and a liberal state, a relationship that gives the latter a duty to act on what is in the former’s best interests. I have called this citizenship principle Jus Paternus (Ferracioli, forthcoming).
In future work, I hope to investigate the implications of giving center stage to this paternalistic relationship in our theory of citizenship rights. After all, our views of social justice, global justice and parental rights will change dramatically once we recognize that the state owes much more to its resident children that is currently assumed.
Baubock, Rainer. 2006. "Stakeholder citizenship and transnational political participation: a normative evaluation of external voting." Fordham L. Rev. 75: 2393.
Bhabha, J., 2014. Child migration and human rights in a global age. Princeton University Press.
Carens, Joseph. 2013. The Ethics of Immigration. Oxford University Press.
Ferracioli, Luara. Forthcoming. Citizenship for Children: By Soil, by Blood, or by Paternalism?
Shachar, Ayelet. 2009. The birthright lottery: Citizenship and global inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Luara Ferracioli is Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney
In my current research I am attempting to answer a number of questions about justice and parenting. These questions include: How should the right to parent a particular child be determined in the first instance? When should those parental rights be re-allocated? and What support is owed to parents from others in society?
In many jurisdictions, biological parents are initially allocated legal parental rights and they only lose those rights if they are suspected of abusing, neglecting or otherwise seriously mistreating the child. The level of support offered to parents varies from place to place. In some societies, support is quite generous, in others there is little or no support. It is a matter of great consequence how child-rearing is regulated through laws, policies and social norms. It not only matters for children themselves, whose whole lives will be determined by the quality of care they receive. It also matters for the parents of those children, who may receive adequate or inadequate support; it matters for would-be parents, who may wish to adopt a child or utilise private or state-sponsored fertility treatments; and it matters for what I call third parties, such as grandparents, who may become estranged from their grandchildren after a post-separation custodial dispute, and even non-parents who, as tax payers, have an interest in the levels of state support for parenting and the effectiveness of family policy more generally.
The practical importance of the questions is one of the reasons I am interested in carrying out research in the hope of answering them. Another reason is that until relatively recently questions such as these were neglected by political philosophers. In recent decades new ground-breaking work has sought to challenge established understandings of the family, including its distinctive value and its justificatory power. The radical potential of this new research makes it is a very exciting area to work in. Perhaps a final reason for my interest in this area, and in the distribution of parental rights in particular, is its relation to questions of distributive justice, which was the subject of my doctoral training and early research that sought to clarify and defend sufficientarianism (Shields, 2016a).
It is possible to see the distribution of parental rights as a problem of distributive justice. In distributing opportunities to parent we distribute certain benefits and burdens, thus affecting the overall distribution of benefits and burdens. Children stand to benefit from being parented well and can be burdened by being parented badly or worse than they otherwise could have been. Parents stand to benefit from the goods of parenting, would-be parents are burdened by being denied those goods. Grandparents and relatives can be benefitted by the relationships they establish and are burdened when they are severed, and non-parents may benefit from living in a society where the next generation are just and productive citizens and burdened by contributing to social support for parenting more than they might otherwise. Importantly, benefitting some of these representatives will likely mean burdening others, and so justification of child-rearing regulation may make essential reference to ideals of equality, priority or sufficiency in assessing the distribution of those benefits and burdens.
Like others writing in the area, I see child-rearing/parenting arrangements as justified when the interests of all relevant representatives are taken into account and given their appropriate weight. While some have taken a child-centred approach, and focus exclusively on the child’s interests (E.g. Dwyer, 2006; Hannan and Vernon, 2008; Vallentyne, 2002), others have taken a dual-interest approach, and focus on the child’s and the parents’ interests (Brighouse and Swift, 2014; Clayton, 2006). I wish to take a broader approach and argue that third party interests, including the interests of grandparents and tax payers, are also important. Conceptualizing third party interests, and drawing out their practical implications, is one of the tasks I am currently working on. I will now explain my current thinking about two aspects of this task: the ‘current parents/prospective parent distinction’ and ‘third party interests’.
The Current Parent/Prospective Parent Distinction
In the most well-developed dual-interest accounts the difference between current parents and prospective parents is not fully appreciated, and this is of some consequence for how we think about the justification of child-rearing arrangements.
Most accounts that find the parents’ interests relevant articulate an account of the parents’ interests that is held both by current and prospective parents. Some understand this as an interest in the relationship goods of parenting (Brighouse and Swift, 2014), others as an interest in intimacy relationships (Clayton, 2006), and others as creative self-extension (Macleod, 1997 and 2015). But we should notice that this is an interest in the activity of parenting and so it is possible for a person who is not currently engaged in this activity, such as an adult who wishes to become a parent, to possess this interest.
If prospective parents and current parents both possess this interest, then the interest gives us no more reason to keep children with their current parents or re-allocate them to prospective parents, assuming the child would be no worse off if re-allocated. But usually we think that current parents have some stronger claim to continue parenting and so we should look further for a parenting interest that helps us to distinguish current parents and prospective parents by looking for an interest in continuing to parent to supplement the interest in the activity of parenting. However, if we find that no such interest can be identified we should be open-minded enough to accept the surprising conclusion that follows that it does not require some special justification to re-allocate children to prospective parents for the child’s own good.
A final comment on this distinction. We should be mindful of the possibly troubling implications of finding a compelling interest in continuing to parent in a world where opportunities to procreate are not equal. In such a world, those with superior opportunities to procreate, by the natural lottery or by being better able to purchase private fertility treatment, thereby have superior opportunities to acquire an interest in continuing to parent. We might think that this is unfair because those who have inferior opportunities are doubly disadvantaged and can become parents only if others fail to do a good enough job or seek to relinquish their parental rights. In response to this, and acknowledging any force than the interest in the activity of parenting has, we might look to develop a principle of equality of opportunity parent, which would make available state-sponsored fertility treatment so that this unfairness can be dealt with. But this in turn has significant costs for those who would be asked to contribute to state-sponsored fertility treatment, including those who conscientiously choose not to become parents. This may lead us to restrict contributions to this support to parents themselves. Some of my research related to the ‘current parent/prospective parent distinction’ is published as Shields (2016b and 2016c).
Third Party Interests
What I am calling “third party interests” includes the interests of those who are neither parents (current or prospective) nor children. There is a distinction that we can make within the category of “third party interests”, that is between the interests of relatives, such as grandparents, family members and perhaps close friends, and of non-relatives, such as the tax payer. I will now discuss one issue I am currently thinking about with respect to each of these two types of third party.
Familial relationships of all sorts can be valuable for us. Children’s relationships with their grandparents, their uncles and aunties, and adult friends of the family can be a source of flourishing. However, much like the case of ‘current parents/prospective parents distinction’ this is not acknowledged by the prevailing theories. This strikes me as odd because relatives seem to be able to make a similar case to parents in arguing from their interest in establishing or continuing intimate relationships. While a relative’s relationship with a child may not be as intense as the relationship that child has with her parents, it may, in many cases, come fairly close in its quality and accounts of the parental interest could be extended to include the interests of relatives. We might ask: What is the distinction between the interests of parents and the interests of relatives? Is it merely a matter of degree or is it different in kind? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I hope to make some progress in thinking about them soon, and take as my starting point this comparison with the interests of parents.
One possible important implication of taking the interests of relatives seriously is that it may place constraints on post-separation custodial arrangements whereby parents awarded custody may have a duty to provide reasonable access to the child for the relatives, so that a relationship can be maintained. If, in the final analysis, we find that the interest of some relatives is often similar to that of parents, then this will follow often. If instead the interest of parents has strong priority over the interests of relatives, then exclusion may be permitted, though access may also be granted on child-centred grounds, possibly at the parents’ expense.
A further possible important implication of taking the interests of relatives seriously, is that it could help to underpin a widely shared conviction that when parents are unable to adequately care for their child granting custodial rights to a close relative, possibly a blood relative, is the better than any non-relative alternative. If relatives have a strong interest in continuing that relationship that is not possessed by prospective parents, then this would provide a reason for preferring relative to non-relative custody for a child.
While it would be most uncharitable to deny that the basic rights of third parties are not taken into account by existing theories of parental rights, they may have claims that are relevant to justice in child-rearing that are not based on their basic rights. Clayton recognizes this, but dismisses the need for a separate analysis of the interests of third parties when he says that the interests of others in society are in children becoming just citizens (Clayton, 2006: 60). I think he may be right in thinking that one powerful interest of third parties is in children becoming just citizens, but I don’t think that it is true that this interest exhausts their interests nor do I think that the fact that they have this interest would entail that no separate analysis was needed. Let me explain briefly and tentatively why I am inclined this way.
First, we should consider that the child themselves has other interests, such as those in her well-being, which may conflict with her interest in becoming a just citizen. If there are cases where the child’s own well-being conflicts with her interest in becoming a just citizen, for example, imagine the child can become a just adult citizen more quickly and enjoy less of the intrinsic goods of childhood or the child can become a just adult citizen more slowly and enjoy more of the intrinsic goods of childhood (see Macleod, 2010 and 2016, and the rest of the Symposium on The Nature and Value of Childhood). It would bear on this question whether others too had an interest in the child becoming a just citizen since this would add perhaps decisive weight to the case for the child becoming a just adult citizen more quickly. When we aggregate the interests of all tax payers, we may find this consideration is overwhelming in many cases.
Second, it is not obvious that third parties’ interests in how productive children will be is illegitimate. It too might have its root in concerns for distributive justice. For example, if the child is more productive this may create more social product that can be used to better satisfied the correct principles of distributive justice by improving the position of those third parties who are the worse off. If actions could be taken to ensure that the adults that children become are more likely to exercise their right to occupational choice, for example, in ways that are optimal for distributive justice or whose parents will utilise training or genetic enhancements to increase their productivity, this may be favoured only once we account for the interests of third parties. However, this line of thought does seem to assume that we can have unenforceable duties of justice, which some will deny, see the debate on the basic structure.
Third, referring to the interest we all have in being “just” cannot end the matter since we are, when working out which interests are relevant to questions about child-rearing, trying to work out what justice itself demands. So this response may appear question begging.
These are some preliminary thoughts though these questions.
My current research will attempt to develop a complete theory of justice in child-rearing through a clarification of the interests of parents, children and third parties and their relative weight. Such an account will enable us to answer many of the most practically important questions about the regulation of child-rearing, including questions about the provision of fertility treatment, the initial and subsequent allocation of child-rearing rights, and the nature and extent of social support for parenting.
Brighouse, Harry, and Adam Swift. Family values: The ethics of parent-child relationships. Princeton University Press, 2014.
Clayton, Matthew. Justice and Legitimacy in Upbringing. Oxford University Press: 2006.
Dwyer, James G. The relationship rights of children. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Gheaus, Anca (ed.) “Symposium on The Nature and Value of Childhood”, Journal of Applied Philosophy (2017): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/japp.12280/full
Hannan, Sarah, and Richard Vernon. "Parental rights: A role-based approach." Theory and Research in Education, 6.2 (2008): 173-189.
Macleod, Colin M. "Just Schools and Good Childhoods: Non‐preparatory Dimensions of Educational Justice." Journal of Applied Philosophy (2017).
Macleod, Colin M. "Parental competency and the right to parent." In Brennan, S., Hannan, S. and Vernon, R. ed.s Permissible Progeny?: The Morality of Procreation and Parenting, Oxford University Press, 2015.
Macleod, Colin M. "Conceptions of parental autonomy." Politics & Society 25.1 (1997): 117-140.
Shields, Liam. Just Enough: Sufficiency as a Demand of Justice. Edinburgh University Press, 2016a.
Shields, Liam. "How bad can a good enough parent be?." Canadian Journal of Philosophy 46.2 (2016b): 163-182.
Shields, Liam. "Parental rights and the importance of being parents." Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (2016c): 1-15.
Liam Shields is Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Manchester
The meaning of personal, intimate relationships for ethical and political thinking has been fascinating me for a long time. I wrote a doctoral dissertation about distributive justice and the ethics of care, then I shifted my focus to normative questions in childrearing and to the nature and value of childhood.
My general interest in caring relationships has initially led me to explore the value of non-parental care for children; to my surprise, I concluded not only that it is valuable for children to experience long-term caring relationships with other adults than their parents, but that, moreover, we owe them such relationships. Because they are not yet fully autonomous, children need to be paternalised; because they are particularly vulnerable, they need to be protected from potentially detrimental monopolies of care. If we ensure that each child can relate to, and rely on, some other adults in addition to her parents, this will diminish the risk of abuse and neglect. And it will give children with less good parents a chance to experience adequate care from an adult who can take personal interest in the child and her development; these are powerful prioritarian arguments in favour of partial socialisation of childrearing. Finally, given how extremely demanding it is to parent well, and how likely we are to have personal flaws, I assume that even the best of parents make systematic mistakes with their children; care from additional adults might be able to correct some such mistakes, by giving children a chance to recalibrate their understanding of good relationships.
But an interest in child wellbeing doesn’t exclusively motivate my account. I believe that, in spite of their immaturity, children have full moral status. We owe them duties and it seems unjust to impose on them those relationships that best suit our, rather than their, interests; many forms of parental monopolies are unlikely to be justifiable by appeal to the children's interests. Children’s moral status also imposes limits on the reasons that can legitimately guide parental action even before the relationship with the child starts. Seeking to have a child who displays a particular characteristic merely because this would please the parent is unfair: Children cannot choose their parents and, if they have the same moral status as adults, this provides a reason why would-be parents do not choose their children for self-interested reasons, either.
Another stream of my work concerns the right to parent. This is intriguing: the most plausible understanding of parental authority is fiduciary – exercised for the sake of the child’s interest. And yet, we allow adults to take charge of the lives of children merely because they could procreate them and in the privacy of familial spaces, mostly unregulated. For a while, I was convinced by theories that ground the right to parent by appeal to both the child’s interest in having parents and the adults’ interest in rearing. I noticed these accounts failed to explain why adults have the right to parent particular children and tried to fill this gap: We come into the world through the bodies of other human beings, a.k.a. mothers, with whom we are, at birth, already in an intimate albeit unusual sort of relationship. If breaking such relationships would harm the newborn - as well as the gestational mother! - this is a good reason to give the right to rear particular children to particular adults (as long as those adults satisfy a threshold of competence.) While I still believe that adults who would make good child-rearers have a powerful interest in having intimate, long-term and protected relationship with children, I now resist the claim that they may also exercise authority over children. Whether or not the exercise of authority over particular children would advance adults’ flourishing, it seems to me that the only way to justify such authority is by pointing to the interest of the child. To the extent to which biological connections between parents and children are relevant for settling the question of who should parent a given child, the gestational link is more likely to do the work than the genetic link. This allows us to solve many custody disputes. I am also increasingly sceptic of the practice of surrogacy.
These days I’m mostly thinking about how the fact that we start life as children bears on a host of substantial normative issues. If adults have an interest in raising children, powerful enough to entitle them to an opportunity to do so, and if relationships between overlapping generations are governed by egalitarianism, this is the basis of an argument that explains why it would be unjust to allow human exctinction and why environmental sustainability is a matter of justice. Perhaps children have unique or priviledged access to a number of highly valuable goods and they are owed direct, non-competitive access to these goods; this may put limits on how early it is permissible to start training children for future competitiveness. Finally, my work in progress is about two pro tanto reasons to favour equality of (some kinds of) outcome for adults: first, because delivering justice for children may be incompatible with certain inequalities of outcome between parents; and second because any legitimate form of childrearing makes fair equality of opportunity an unfeasible principle. It may take a book to explain all this.
Anca Gheaus is a Ramón y Cajal Fellow in the Department of Law at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra
My doctoral research applied T.M. Scanlon’s contractualism to the problem of intergenerational ethics in order to determine how good a life we are obliged to give future people both in terms of their genetic material and the environment into which they are born. I used the contractualist method to devise what I called ‘reason-balanced sufficientarian’ principles to guide individual procreative decisions, the allocation of natural resources, the imposition of risk, and permissible population sizes. My work on population size attempted to reject the familiar repugnant conclusion, but also to consider its opposite: human extinction.
There is a significant amount of financial and intellectual investment being put into preventing human extinction. The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge, for example, aims to “steer a small fraction of Cambridge’s great intellectual resources, and of the reputation built on its past and present scientific pre-eminence to the task of ensuring that our own species has a long-term future” and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford lists as one of its aims “to research into interventions that could reduce the risk of outcomes that would end Earth-originating intelligent life.” Furthermore, some philosophers see the fact that a theory permits human extinction as a reason to reject that theory.
Yet, there has been a surprising lack of philosophical research into why we should be trying to reduce the risk of human extinction at all. My research tries to identify why (if at all) it would be wrong not to. That is, I am not interested in why it might be regrettable if we went extinct, but why it would be wrong, since I believe wrongness gives us more useful guidance in what we ought to do and ought not to do.
There seem to be at least four identifiable reasons people might think human extinction wrong: 1) Many billions of future people would not have the opportunity to exist; 2) Our cultural and intellectual progress and intelligent life would be lost; 3) People existing at the time the extinction starts to unfold could experience physical suffering in the process of extinction and/or premature death; 4) People who know the extinction is about to occur could suffer non-physical harms such as despair or hopelessness, and others might suffer a loss of autonomy (if extinction were to occur, say, through involuntary sterilization). Which reasons apply will of course depend on the way in which extinction occurs.
In a recent paper ‘What’s Wrong with Human Extinction?’ in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, I approach the issue from a person-affecting contractualist perspective and conclude that human extinction is only wrong for reasons (3) and (4). This means that extinction is not wrong in itself, and would only be wrong if it caused involuntary physical or non-physical harms or premature death. However, contractualism makes some assumptions that aren’t necessarily shared by all ethical theories, in particular the idea that interests can’t be aggregated and that all reasons must be held by persons as opposed to impersonal values—both assumptions crucial to the rejection of reasons (1) and (2) above.
My project is to apply a variety of other ethical and political theory positions (including utilitarianism, anti-natalism, Rawls’ Original Position, and libertarianism) to the question of human extinction. I aim to show that, contrary to what many philosophers might initially think (and might hope!), most ethical and political positions either actively endorse, or at least passively permit, human extinction. This will have implications on work being done both inside and outside the philosophical community. Outside of philosophy, the resources put towards preventing extinction should perhaps be refocused less on continuing or prolonging the existence of our species, and more on ensuring its demise is as harmless as possible. Within philosophy, as I said earlier, some use the fact that a theory would permit extinction as a reason to reject that theory (e.g. Tim Mulgan. Future People (Oxford University Press, 2006)). But if most, if not all, ethical and political theories do in fact at least permit extinction, then we will either need to abandon all of them, or reconsider our intuitions about extinction.
In addition to my work on human extinction, I have published on the non-identity problem (‘Contractualism and the Non-Identity Problem’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 19(5)) and am co-editing (with Gustaf Arrhenius, Krister Bykvist & Tim Campbell) the Oxford Handbook of Population Ethics, expected in 2018.
Elizabeth Finneron-Burns is a Teaching Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Warwick and an Affiliated Researcher in Philosophy at the Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm, Sweden. She defended her DPhil in Political Theory at Oxford in 2016, supervised by Simon Caney. Before starting her doctoral research, she was an undergraduate at Queen’s University in Canada, completed an MSc in Political Theory at the London School of Economics, and worked for several years as a policy advisor in the Ontario government.
A good deal of my research focuses on how theories of justice should acknowledge and incorporate the distinct interests and claims of children. This project is related to more general interests I have in contemporary theories of justice and democratic theory. One theme in my work concerns educational justice both with respect to how access to education should be distributed to children and with respect to the appropriate objectives of education. I have defended an egalitarian conception of educational justice in which all children are entitled to equally education and I have criticized sufficientarian and neo-republican accounts of educational justice. Although I believe that autonomy facilitation is a crucial facet of children’s education, I am also interested in exploring the ways in schools should be sensitive to fairly securing non-preparatory goods of childhood for children.
In a recent book (co-written with historian Ben Justice) Have a Little Faith: Religion, Democracy and the American Public School (University of Chicago Press 2016) we investigate the place of religion in American public education. We argue that against the background of religious pluralism, democratic education should facilitate the acquisition of autonomy by children and should equip them with the knowledge and skills integral to democratic deliberation animated by an ideal of public reason. An excerpt of the book recently appeared in The Atlantic and another excerpt will appear in the May 2017 edition of The Humanist. In a related vein, Christine Tappolet and I are editing a volume for Routledge entitled Philosophical Perspectives on Moral and Civic Education: Shaping Citizens.
A different theme of my research about children and families concerns the nature of parental authority in relation to both the vulnerability of children and their status as juvenile agents – beings with some but not fully mature agential capacities. Samantha Brennan and I have recently argued that the moral right to parent is conditional on parents meeting a threshold of competency. We contend that extremely homophobic parents fall short of this standard and do not, consequently, have a moral right to parent children. Although the special vulnerability of children grounds special duties to protect and promote the interests of children, some work of mine considers ways in which children, in virtue of their emerging agency, have prerogatives to expose themselves to risks do not serve their best interests.
In addition to research on children, families and justice, I am interested in determining what role considerations of individual responsibility should play in an egalitarian theory of justice and how political institutions can facilitate informed and respectful democratic deliberation.
The following are recent papers related to these themes:
Children and Justice Generally
“Are Children’s Rights Important?” in Philosophical Foundations of Children’s and Family Law, Elizabeth Brake and Lucinda Ferguson (eds), Oxford University Press, (forthcoming).
“Distributive Justice and the Family” in The Oxford Handbook of Distributive Justice, Serena Olsaretti (ed.), Oxford University Press (forthcoming).
“Just Schools and Good Childhoods: Non-preparatory Dimensions of Educational Justice”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, June 2016 DOI: 10.1111/japp.12227.
“Freedom as non-domination and educational justice”, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, Vol. 18, No. 4, 2015: pp. 456–469.
“Justice, Educational Equality and Sufficiency” in Justice and Equality, Colin M. Macleod (ed.), Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2012: pp. 151-175.
Parental Authority and Children’s Vulnerability
“Doctrinal Vulnerability and the Authority of Children’s Voices” in Vulnerability, Autonomy and Applied Ethics, Christine Straehle (ed.) Routledge 2017.
“Fundamentally Incompetent: Homophobia, Religion, and the Right to Parent” (co-authored with Samantha Brennan) in Procreation, Parenthood, and Educational Rights, Jaime Ahlberg and Michael Chobli (eds.), Routledge 2016.
“Agency, Authority and the Vulnerability of Children” in The Nature of Children’s Well-being: Theory and Practice, A. Bagattini and C. Macleod (eds.), Springer, 2014: pp. 53-64.
“Democratic Deliberation and Electoral Reform” in Should We Change How We Vote? Evaluating Canada’s Electoral System, A. Potter, D. Weinstock, & P. Lowen,(eds.), McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017: 74-86.