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