Fairness Over Family

May 11, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Family ValuesHow important is it to be fair?

This is the question that Adam Swift, professor of political theory at the University of Warwick, and Harry Brighouse, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, wrestle with in their book, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships.[1] For Brighouse and Swift, the answer to the question of fairness is evident, even if it is admittedly difficult. Being fair is of preeminent importance. Indeed, being fair is so important to these professors that they are willing to severely inhibit one of society’s most cherished institutions in order to achieve their vision of equality: the family.

In their introduction, the authors explain that the family “poses two challenges to any theory of social justice.” One is the liberal challenge, which questions whether it is best to have a child’s parents “determine what [a] child eats or drinks, where she sleeps, what television programs she watches, what school she attends.” Liberals see it as “one of the state’s tasks to protect its citizens, and its prospective citizens, from undue interference by others, including their parents.” Though not advocating for the abolition of the family altogether, these authors do look at the family with a fair amount of skepticism.

The other challenge the family poses to social justice is the egalitarian challenge, which:

… focuses on the distribution of goods and opportunities between children born into different families … Economists tend to focus on expected income over the life-course; sociologists investigate chances of social mobility; philosophers typically think in more abstract terms such as resources or opportunities for well-being. But however we frame or measure the inequality, it is clear that children born into different families face unequal prospects.

For Swift and Brighouse, these “unequal prospects” between families just won’t do. Indeed, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Swift offers an example of an unequal prospect that particularly troubles him:

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.[2]

How does one deal with the challenge of unequal prospects between families who do and do not read to their children before they go to bed? Swift answers:

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.

Swift and Brighouse stretch their apologetic for equality as far it can go. Even if a parent won’t stop reading bedtime stories to their children, the fact that there may be other children out there who don’t get read bedtime stories should at least make that parent feel occasionally guilty for “unfairly disadvantaging” those other children.

This line of reasoning is very strange to me. Although I would agree that equality is important in its appropriate context, I would not consider it to be of highest importance as Swift and Brighouse do. Here’s why.

As a Christian, I know – and can empirically verify – that sin has en inevitably entropic effect on society. Thus, to seek equality by trying not to “unfairly disadvantage” others rather than by pursuing what is advantageous for others will only create an equality of increasing pain, suffering, and wickedness, which, interestingly enough, is precisely what the Bible affirms as the only way in which, left to our own devices, we are all truly equal: “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). It is hard for me to understand why Swift and Brighouse would advocate guilt over a good thing for the sake of equality with a bad thing.

As I think about Swift and Brighouse’s near deification of equality, I can’t help but think back to an era before 1954 and Brown v. Board of Education when “separate but equal” schools for black and white kids were commonplace in our educational system. Part of the offense of “separate but equal” schools was, of course, that they were not, in fact, equal! But for the sake of argument, let’s say we were able to create schools that were truly separate but equal. Let’s say they had equal funding, equal caliber teachers, and even equal outcomes. My guess – and my hope, quite frankly – is that we would still be indignant at such an arrangement. Why? Because even if such an arrangement could keep in tact the value of fairness, it would break the law of love. After all, it’s hard to love someone when you intentionally separate yourself from someone for no other reason than the color of his skin.

This is the danger in Swift and Brighouse’s proposal. In their efforts to orchestrate fairness between families, they undermine families themselves. They advocate limiting the ways in which parents can love their children, thereby breaking the law of love, for the sake of a disadvantageously normed equality. But families who struggle do not need families who are in better shape to be equal to them out of misplaced pity, they need families who are in better shape to serve them, mentor them, sacrifice for them, and, ultimately, love them. They need these families to be a family to them. Such an arrangement will not create perfect equality. But, then again, though Swift and Brighouse may be loath to admit it, perfect equality is not possible. Beautiful love, however, is. This is why we should strive for love – even over fairness. And where can love grow best? The family.

Maybe we should keep it around.

_________________________________

[1] Harry Brighouse & Adam Swift, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[2] Joe Gelonesi, “Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?” abc.net.au (5.1.2015).

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. harry b  |  May 26, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    I think you might not have read the book. It is all about why children need parents (and need to be raised in families) and why it is so good for adults to raise children; and so, as you say, despite its unfairness we should keep the family (there is a clue in the title of the book). We think the family is so valuable that society should go to great lengths to make sure that everyone has reasonable opportunities for a flourishing family life, in fact.

    Reply

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