I recently became a father. Well, when I say recently, I mean just over a year ago (October 2019). Being a parent raises a number of practical and philosophical questions. Should you have children in the first place? How do you care for a newborn? How do you give your child the best start in life? Is it wrong to give your child special treatment over other children/people? Does being a parent give meaning to life that was previously absent?
Ordinarily, I am inclined to prolonged and frequent spells of philosophical self-reflection. The examined life and all that. One thing that has surprised me about becoming a parent is how little of this I have done on the subject of parenting itself. Perhaps this is not unusual. Perhaps the first year of parenting tends to be dominated by the practicalities of caring for a child and not its philosophical import. But now that I have settled into a somewhat predictable routine with my daughter (fingers-crossed!), I have a bit more time for my usual ruminations.
And there is plenty to ruminate on. In this article, I will focus on one issue in particular: the nature and value of the parent-child relationship. We have many relationships in our lives. They are often a source of value. Think about your friends and intimate partners, for example. Few of us would do without them. The parent-child relationship is both different from and similar to these other kinds of relationships. What I want to consider are its structural features and how these affect both the value of the relationship as a whole. I’ll be folding some of my own thoughts, from my first year-and-a-bit of parenting, into the discussion as I go along.
One thing I won’t be focusing on in this article, though it does linger in the background to some extent, is the ethics of having children. Some philosophers are anti-natalists. They think it is wrong to have children. Most people are pro-natalist. They think it is desirable, perhaps even obligatory to have children. I’ve examined the views of these different camps elsewhere in my writings. I won’t do so at any length in what follows. It’s a bit late for me to engage in this debate anyway since I am now already a parent, but I will pass some occasional comments that touch upon the anti versus pro natalist debate as we go along.
1. The Nature of the Parent-Child Relationship
Relationships come in many different forms. The relationships we have with our friends and intimate partners ought to be voluntary (in the sense that we ought to be able to choose our friends and partners) and broadly egalitarian (in the sense that no one party should dominate or subordinate the other to suit their needs). Of course, friendships and intimate partnerships often fall short of these ideals, but when they do there is generally considered to be something defective or problematic about them.
Not all of our relationships are voluntary and egalitarian. Our workplace relationships, for example, can be relationships of inequality: one person (the boss) might be deemed to have more control and power than another (the employee). In addition to this, sometimes our workplace relationships are involuntary in nature: we don’t always get to choose who our colleagues are; they are chosen for us. This doesn’t necessarily make these relationships ethically defective; it’s just makes their ethical qualities distinctive. Bosses, for example, might have different (more burdensome) duties than employees and there might be a greater need for compromise and toleration among colleagues than there would be in purely voluntary relationships.
What about parent-child relationships? In some respects, they are a sui generis phenomenon - unique in human experience. From the child’s perspective, they are never voluntary: they never get to choose who their parents are. The sole exception to this, perhaps, is when the child reaches maturity and can legally or practically emancipate themselves from their parents. But even then their parents remain their parents: they cannot eliminate them entirely from their lives or sense of self-identity. Sometimes the relationships are involuntary from the parent’s perspective too — e.g. in cases of rape or forced pregnancy or where there is an absence of birth control — but among most of my peers this is rare. Most people I know voluntarily choose to become parents. Or, as might be more true in my own case, voluntarily assent to other people’s choice to become parents.
Parent-child relationships are also highly asymmetrical. There is, as Christine Overall puts it in her book Why Have Children, both inherent asymmetry in the relationship — because the child never chooses their parents — and contingent asymmetry — because during the early years the child is highly dependent on their parents for survival. Furthermore, during these early years, parents can shape their children’s lives in ways that can have permanent or long-lasting effects. This dependency can reverse later in life. When children mature, they can become relatively independent beings, and when parents reach a state of extreme old age, they often become highly dependent on their children for their survival. Such are the cycles of life — cycles that highlight, to some extent, the flaw in thinking that any of us is ever truly independent from anyone else.
Despite the inherent and contingent asymmetries in the parent-child relationship, there is still a role for equality. A child is not a thing to be toyed with or experimented upon by its parents. A child is — or at least will become — a person in their own right. As such, they deserve — or at least will come to deserve — the same level of respect owed to all human beings. What started as a highly asymmetrical relationship will become more egalitarian over time.
Finally, it is worth commenting on the role of unconditional love (or affection and respect) in the parent-child relationship. It is often said that parents do, or at least should, love their children unconditionally. But this seems like an unrealistic and undesirable standard. I think, instead, a parent’s love for their child should be highly robust and resilient. It should be able to endure lots of ups and downs, but it should also have some limits. If a child turns out to be a mass murderer or serial killer, it’s hard to see why a parent should be obliged to love them (though, of course, they may still have a deep bond and natural affection for them). What about a child’s love for its parents? Well, again, ideally it seems that this should be robust and resilient too, but given the asymmetries in the parent-child relationship, it does not seem fair to hold a child to the same standard as a parent.
2. The Value of the Relationship as an Argument for Becoming a Parent
According to some philosophers, the unique structural properties of the parent-child relationship, and the effect it has, in particular, on parents, provides a potential justification for having a child. Christine Overall is one defender of this view and she introduces it at the very end of her aforementioned book Why Have Children.
This is an interesting book. In it, Overall argues that the decision to have children is ethically fraught and that people often don’t treat it with the level of ethical scrutiny it deserves. And while she rejects a strongly anti-natalist stance, such as the one defended by David Benatar, she also rejects the notion that there is an ethical duty to have children or that having children is an especially noble or desirable thing (if you are interested in her arguments, I covered some of them in more detail in this article). It consequently comes as something of a surprise when, in the final chapter, she argues that anyone who has thought about having children should not miss out on the opportunity to have one (though possibly, as she herself puts it, “no more than one”). In other words, Overall’s view is that while it is not obligatory to have children, nor essential to the well-lived life, it is permissible and can contribute to the well-lived life, in the right conditions.
What’s the argument for this? It’s a little difficult to unpack, but here’s how I read it:
- (1) A flourishing life is a good thing and humans are, ceteris paribus, justified in aspiring to live one.
- (2) There are many different pathways and elements to a flourishing life; we are free to choose among these pathways and elements as we see fit (provided we do not violate some other ethical duty in the course of doing so).
- (3) Having a child and experiencing the parent-child relationship can be an element in a flourishing life due to the unique nature of the parent-child relationship (and, for at least some people, having a child does not violate other ethical duties).
- (4) Therefore, having a child can be justified as an element in a flourishing life.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that this is a rough-and-ready formulation of the argument. It won’t win any prizes for its logical precision. But it does give us enough to subject Overall’s argument to some critical evaluation.
The first two premises of this argument strike me as being relatively uncontroversial. Of course we are justified in trying to live a flourishing life. That said, the ceteris paribus (“all else being equal”) clause is crucial in both of these premises: our flourishing ought not to come at the expense of some other ethical duty. To take an extreme case, perhaps I could live a very worthwhile and enjoyable life by killing my closest rival at work (let’s assume I can live with the guilt). But I would not be justified in doing this: my flourishing cannot take precedence over his right to life.
The third premise is the crucial one. What is it about the parent-child relationship that leads to flourishing? Overall walks a fine line in response to this question. She accepts that many times the choice to have a child is not justified and that parents can do it for poor reasons. But when undertaken for the right reasons — and when parents accept the independent personhood of their children — the decision can be transformative. In a critical passage, she highlights some of its potential benefits:
[in becoming parents, people find that] many other abilities have a chance to flourish; their ability to observe; their understanding of human development and psychology; their courage and tenacity; their appreciation for play; their artistic, musical, scientific, or athletic abilities; and their understanding of their own place in the social world…In choosing to have a child, one is deciding both to fulfil one’s sense of who one is and at the same time aspiring to be a different person than one was before the child came along. In becoming a parent, one creates not only a child and a relationship, but oneself; one creates a new and ideally better self-identity.
I buy this argument to an extent. Certainly, my own experience of parenthood suggests that it helps to cultivate positive character traits. For example, before my daughter was born, I worried that I was too obsessed with myself, with my own work and success, with my own projects and ambitions, to be a good parent. I worried that I would resent my child for taking up my time and attention, for taking me away from the things I once valued so dearly. Since she was born, I have been pleasantly surprised by how little this has been true. The reality is that I positively enjoy spending time with her and caring for her. In doing so, have had to develop capacities that had I lacked or had left to atrophy (patience, playfulness etc). Indeed, if anything, I resent my work now for taking me away from her. The experience has suggested that I am, perhaps, less selfish and self-obsessed than I previously supposed. In short, I have found the experience to be self-transformative and, dare I say it, I might even be a better person as a result.
Still, this argument sits a little uneasily with me. I have two major worries. The first is that in suggesting that the decision to become a parent can be justified insofar as it transforms me (the parent) into a better person it seems like the argument endorses an egotistical and selfish motivation. It doesn’t seem like it respects the independent personhood of the child at all. If we buy the argument, the child is just a project for self-transformation.
Overall tows a fine line in this regard. She accepts that some parents do have children for selfish and unjustifiable reasons but counters that, with the right motivation, having a child can be “self-oriented…not inevitably selfish” (2012, 217). That’s a subtle, perhaps meaningless, distinction. My way of reasoning it out is to say that in becoming a parent I have developed attributes that have to do with caring for another person (attributes that have to do with me but are largely other oriented in nature). In other words, I may be a better person by becoming a parent but only to the extent that I am better at caring for and relating to another person. In this respect, being a parent might be similar to any charitable project that you find fulfilling: you get something out of it but only because other people do too. In this sense it is a win-win. But this comparison with charitable work also highlights the oddness in choosing the parental pathway to this kind of flourishing. Why did I have to create another person — one with whom I have a unique and asymmetrical relationship — to develop these more altruistic character traits? Why couldn’t I just do this with other, already existing, persons? Surely, there is something selfish, and perhaps even a little grandiose, in creating a dependent person for this purpose? I’m not sure I will ever wrap my head around that.
This links to my second worry. Having a child is a morally risky business. There are risks to the mother as she bears the child. There are risks to the child once it is born. There are also potential risks to me and to my relationship with the child’s mother. What if I didn’t find myself transformed by becoming a parent? What if it turned out I was as selfish and resentful as I feared I would be? What if I am not able to meet the challenges of parenthood as my daughter matures? Will I have harmed another person (or persons), irrevocably, as a result of my self-oriented (if not selfish) decision? Overall is fully aware of the moral risks — indeed the majority of her book is about them — but she gives them quite short shrift at the very end. She says:
Having children is morally risky. And the ideas I have explored in this chapter must not by any means be interpreted as a claim that parenthood is the only or even the primary path to a flourishing life. But it is one such path…if, after taking into account all the issues in this book, you are still considering whether to have a child, I continue to say, “Don’t miss it”.
I guess the argument here is that if you are the kind of person who would read her book and consider the ethical risks of parenthood, and if despite this you still seriously consider having a child, you should give it a go because of the potential to create a unique and mutually fulfilling relationship. That may well be true. It may be the case that someone like me is in a better position to minimise the risks of parenthood than someone else. But it still seems like an awful risk to take. The potential harms of parenthood — to oneself, one’s intimate partners (if any), and one’s child — seem to outweigh the potential benefits. If there are other pathways to a flourishing life, then why not try those instead? How can anyone justify the risk? That’s another question I will probably continue to struggle to answer.
In sum, the parent-child relationship is a unique one. It has a number of unique structural properties — involuntariness from the child’s perspective; a high degree of dependency at the outset — and can be a source of great value. If my experience is anything to go by, it is possible to be transformed, arguably for the better (though it is still early days), by entering into this relationship. But choosing to create that relationship remains risky and difficult to justify. And I say this as someone who has taken that risk.