Messing with the Master Plan

You perhaps have heard the comments made by Adam Swift during an interview on Australia’s ABC Radio National. Swift is a Professor of Political Theory at Warwick University and he has been doing research, with Harry Brighouse, on family values. Swift and Brighouse published a book entitled Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships last August. According to the blurb on Amazon, the book “provides a major new theoretical account of the morality and politics of the family, telling us why the family is valuable, who has the right to parent, and what rights parents should–and should not–have over their children.” I have not read the book, so I will not comment on what it contains. From the description I just quoted it sounds both interesting and frightening. I say scary because when someone starts talking about the “morality” of family I get nervous. The family is an institution created by God, so its morality is unquestionable. I am also somewhat troubled by the question of who has a right to parent. While I agree that the act of procreation does not a parent make in any sense other than biological, if we start questioning who has a right to parent we are necessarily implying that some people do not have the right to parent. When we reach the conclusion that some people have the right to parent and others do not, we also necessarily imply that someone, or some group of someones, have the right to determine who has the right to parent and who does not. This notion should trouble us all. Still, it is not the book itself that led to Swift’s rise to national, even international, attention. That was due to the comments he made during his radio interview.

In that interview, Swift said that from a purely utilitarian position it would seem desirable to eliminate the differences between families and the resulting gaps that can impact educational opportunity, material provision, employment and more. “One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family,” Swift said. “If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.” Plausible maybe…if we were all robots or the human differences that make us unique could be eliminated. Swift is not the first one to speculate on this, though; Plato suggested it a couple of millennia ago. Aristotle did not agree with Plato though, and Swift tends more toward the Aristotelian position. So that’s a relief, at least. Swift and his colleague determined that the parent-child relationship is valuable and in the best interest of the child. That did not satisfy them though, as they wanted to know which familial activities contribute to the social inequalities that exist in the world. “What we realized 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 this was what Swift and Brighouse set out to examine. Again, I maintain that this entire notion should scare us all. Do we really want to explore the possibility of forbidding parents from doing certain things because of the possibility that it might disadvantage someone else’s child? Of course we should prohibit things like cheating and bribery, but behaviors that are not illegal should be permitted and even encouraged because, again, where do we draw the line? Who decides where we draw the line? For example, my daughter wears eye glasses. Would Swift and Brighouse suggest that by purchasing those for her I am providing her with an unfair advantage, since many children around the world do not have parents who can purchase glasses for them?

Here is how Swift and Brighouse address that question. They developed a test for what they call “familial relationship goods.” Joe Gelonisi, who condicted the interview for ABC Radio National in Australia described “familiar relationship goods” as “those unique and identifiable things that arise within the family unit and contribute to the flourishing of family members.” That is a quite a broad stroke in my opinion, so what Swift and Brighouse have to say about these goods would be interesting indeed. What would be some examples of acceptable and unacceptable familial relationship goods? Providing a private school education for one’s children is not an acceptable example, Swift said. “Private schooling cannot be justified by appeal to these familial relationship goods. It’s just not the case that in order for a family to realize these intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships you need to be able to send your child to an elite private school.” Hmmm… I could convincingly argue that a private school education is not necessary for “intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships” but then I could just as convincingly argue that homeschooling provides a greater opportunity for such relationships that public education does–so are the parents who homeschool the only ones providing legitimate familial relationship goods? While he did not address homeschooling in his interview (that I can find), and I do not know if he addresses it in his book, I suspect Swift would argue that homeschooling is an illegitimate familial relationship good too, providing homeschooled children with an unfair advantage, particularly when the homeschooling is done by highly educated parents and/or in conjunction with the opportunity to travel extensively or pursue other private instruction in athletics, music or art.

What really got everyone’s attention was Swift’s assertion that parents reading bedtime stories to their children is an acceptable familial relationship good, but not one that parents should necessarily feel good about. “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,” Swift said. He continued:

You have to allow parents to engage in bedtime stories activities, in fact we encourage them because those are the kinds of interactions between parents and children that do indeed foster and produce these [desired] familial relationship goods. We could prevent elite private schooling without any real hit to healthy family relationships, whereas if we say that you can’t read bedtime stories to your kids because it’s not fair that some kids get them and others don’t, then that would be too big a hit at the core of family life. 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.

I have read innumerable stories to my children, at bedtime and otherwise, and I can say without hesitation that it has never once even crossed my mind that in so doing I was somehow “disadvantaging other people’s children.” Sure, I am aware that children who are read to are likely to perform better academically and more likely to develop both a love for reading and a greater level of literacy, but the fact that not all parents read to their children does not mean that I am disadvantaging someone else’s child. Indeed, the reality is that those parents who do not read to their children are the one’s disadvantaging their own children, if we must use that word. There is no need for me to feel guilty about reading to my children just because not all parents do. There is no need for me to stop reading to my children in some bizarre attempt to level the playing field.

So overwhelming was the backlash against Swift’s comments that he was forced to take to his faculty page at Warwick to refine his position. “We would never discourage anybody from reading their children bedtime stories, nor criticize them for doing so. Where parents are not willing or able to provide that kind of help, then they should be encouraged to do so, and where necessary supported in doing so,” he writes. The hullabaloo was a result, Swift says, of “careless polemical journalism” which “has seriously misrepresented my views and led to a barrage of abusive emails.” I am certainly not suggesting that Swift should receive any abusive e-mails, and I have not contacted him, but when one writes a book and goes on the radio to tout a theory regarding the appropriate role of families and the advantages that may result from some parent-child activities, one must also be willing to accept that the theory is going to be examined, critiqued and perhaps even attacked. Swift concludes his explanation about his position (and presumably that of Brighouse, as well) like this:

We argue that the various means by which parents confer advantage on their children are not all equally important for loving family life. In our view the grounds for protecting elite private education, for example, are considerably less weighty. We also think it is good occasionally to be mindful of the children who, due to factors entirely beyond their control, are disadvantaged because of lack of loving attention from parents. Of course many will disagree with those views. But if you have read or heard that we object to bedtime stories, or want to create a level playing-field between children in different families, then you have read or heard someone who has misunderstood our theory.

I do not think I would have a problem with the notion that elite private education is not necessary. I would, however, defend wholeheartedly the right of any parent desiring to do so, and able to do so, to provide such an education for their child(ren). (Please note that this position is not purely a result of the fact that I am the administrator of a private school, either; I believe that one of the fundamental rights a parent should have is where and how to provide the best possible education for their children). Swift says that he does not favor creating a level playing field among families, yet it certainly seems that he is suggesting that a more level playing field should be desirable and that, when it does not exist, parents should at least feel guilty about it. I fail to see how this will benefit anyone.

By the way, what has received far less attention, no doubt because this notion is much more politically acceptable these days, is Swift’s suggestion in the radio interview that “parent” is a position that is not restricted to the biological parents and that the number of parents may be more than two. “Nothing in our theory assumes two parents: there might be two, there might be three, and there might be four,” Swift said. “Politicians love to talk about family values, but meanwhile the family is in flux and so we wanted to go back to philosophical basics to work out what are families for and what’s so great about them and then we can start to figure out whether it matters whether you have two parents or three or one, or whether they’re heterosexual etcetera. We do want to defend the family against complete fragmentation and dissolution. 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.” It is a relief to know that Swift thinks parenting by committee is not a good idea, but again, who decides how many “parents” is okay? If two, three or four are all acceptable but ten is not, who gets to decide where between four and ten that line is drawn? In reality, this is only an additional attempt to redefine what “family” is and what it means, and it is all connected to the redefinitions occurring the areas of gender and marriage, as well. After all, if one can decide what gender to be, regardless of the biology, and if we can change what marriage means, why not adjust what “parent” means too?

Ultimately, all of this chaos and confusion comes from our attempts to mess with that which God has already determined. God created human beings, male and female, God created the family and God created both the ability to procreate and the responsibility to parent. When we mess with the master plan–really the Master’s plan–that’s exactly what we end up with: a mess.

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