It looks my wife and I had better be a little more judicious about our son’s bedtime stories. We wouldn’t want to confer disadvantage on every other child in the world.
A recent episode of The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s program The Philosopher’s Zone featured would-be philosopher kings Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse. Under the guise of “rescuing” the family from what they deem the very sensible view that it must be abolished for the sake of human equality, Swift and Brighouse perform an abstract vivisection of the institution.
The power of the family to tilt equality hasn’t gone unnoticed, and academics and public commentators have been blowing the whistle for some time. Now, philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse have felt compelled to conduct a cool reassessment.
Swift in particular has been conflicted for some time over the curious situation that arises when a parent wants to do the best for her child but in the process makes the playing field for others even more lopsided.
The “problem” is that good parents actually raise their children well—better than bad parents. This gives the well-raised children certain advantages in life, and the two myopic philosophers cannot distinguish delivering such advantages to one’s own children from disadvantaging everyone else. And it’s not just a matter of one family having wealth and resources that the other doesn’t.
Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.
While the obvious answer would be to forcibly abolish the family, they think that might be just a little too drastic. After all, they’ve found that allowing families to raise children does provide certain goods that cannot be provided any other way. While this in no way absolves the family of its inherent inequality in their view, it does indicate another factor that must be balanced against it, and so tolerating some aspects of the family might become a possibility.
Naturally, Swift and Brighouse have developed a systematic solution to this balancing act.
‘What we realised we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children’.
So how does this parse out when it comes to the actual decisions that parents are “allowed” to make for their children? Some practices are right out. Private schooling is apparently unconscionable as it creates inequality without providing any of the “intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships” that justify tolerating the family. (They don’t mention homeschooling, but I suspect they might require the fainting couch if anyone brought it up.) Other practices, such as reading bedtime stories to your child, are a little grayer and more difficult to evaluate.
The evidence shows that the difference between those who get bedtime stories and those who don’t—the difference in their life chances—is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t,’ he says.
This devilish twist of evidence surely leads to a further conclusion—that perhaps in the interests of levelling the playing field, bedtime stories should also be restricted. In Swift’s mind this is where the evaluation of familial relationship goods goes up a notch.
Bedtime stories do create that special intimate bond despite the gross inequalities they inflict. So Swift would graciously permit parents to continue the practice, as long as they don’t go overboard.
‘I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally,’ quips Swift.
Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Wouldn’t affirming these kinds of archaically wholesome activities chain people to the benighted past we’ve left behind? Fear not:
‘When we talk about parents’ rights, we’re talking about the person who is parenting the child. How you got to be parenting the child is another issue. One implication of our theory is that it’s not one’s biological relation that does much work in justifying your rights with respect to how the child is parented.’
For Swift and Brighouse, our society is curiously stuck in a time warp of proprietorial rights: if you biologically produce a child you own it.
Biology is just so arbitrary, after all. When parents bring their child home from the maternity ward, why must society be condemned to the outdated notion that they leave with the one they brought in? Surely philosophers can do better than random biology:
‘Nothing in our theory assumes two parents: there might be two, there might be three, and there might be four,’ says Swift.
But they do throw one bone to the traditionalists:
‘We do want to defend the family against complete fragmentation and dissolution,’ he says. ‘If you start to think about a child having 10 parents, then that’s looking like a committee rearing a child; there aren’t any parents there at all.’
Ten parents? Ha! Let’s not go there; that would just be crazy.
I’ve written several times before that the West needs to rethink its slavish devotion to equality. If you’re looking for a reason why, I think Swift and Brighouse have just provided the platonic ideal. We have no need of their rationale for tolerating the family because the modernistic indictment they choke down can be utterly rejected.
Excellence in parenting does not disadvantage anyone. On the contrary, raising virtuous kids is a boon to society as a whole. Young men and women who have been raised well will prove a blessing to their friends, to their neighbors, to their employers, to their nation, and one day, to their own families who will multiply that love still further. Hobbling them by taking away their advantages will never redistribute those advantages to those who are not raised so well. It will merely reduce the inclination and ability of those who might have helped them.
There is a word that describes one person looking at the advantages of another and considering them a disadvantage to himself: envy. This vice goes to war against every human excellence and ultimately erodes every beneficence that a society might provide. To enshrine envy in our philosophies and social structures is merely to institutionalize vice. Accordingly, the fact that the family is inherently unequal is not a drawback, but an asset.
The radicalism framed as moderation of poor philosophers like Swift and Brighouse serves only one useful purpose: giving us all a preview of what we can expect from social justice warriors and equalitarians if we do not reverse course and regain our sanity. We can’t say we weren’t warned.