Skip to main content

Justice and the Family: An Analysis of the Normative Significance of Procreation and Parenthood in a Just Society

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Family Justice (Justice and the Family: An Analysis of the Normative Significance of Procreation and Parenthood in a Just Society)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-02-28

The family - the site of procreation and parenthood - is integral to the existence and continuation of society; moreover, having and rearing children involves substantial benefits and burdens for parents, children, and society at large, so salient questions of justice arise about how our social and economic institutions should distribute these benefits and burdens among all parties involved. This project’s overarching objective is that of developing a normative framework for assessing how the benefits and costs of children should be distributed between parents and non-parents and between contemporaries and across generations.

To pursue this objective, the project addresses three related sets of questions in family justice: 1) Parental Justice – Do parents, insofar as they have and raise children, have claims of justice to sharing the costs of children with non-parents? 2) Childhood Justice - What are the claims of justice that we have as children, how do they relate to those we have as adults, and who bears the correlative duties? 3) Intergenerational Justice - Do all contemporaries, regardless of whether they are parents or non-parents, have the same obligations of justice towards future generations?

The framework the project develops is of practical and philosophical importance. Practically, it is needed to evaluate public policies such as those that socialise the economic costs of children through child-tax and universal publicly funded education, or population policies that aim at controlling or sustaining fertility. Philosophically, addressing neglected questions of family justice is important because they are central to the problem of distributive justice, which is how our main institutions should be structured “so that a fair, efficient, and productive system of social cooperation can be maintained over time, from one generation to the next” (Rawls 2001: 50). Procreation and parenthood are necessary to maintain a system of social cooperation over time, from one generation to the next, so questions concerning the fair distribution of the costs and benefits of procreation and parenthood occupy a central place in a theory of justice.
The project has tackled questions in all three areas it identified. (For an overview, see Olsaretti, "The Family and Justice in Political Philosophy", 2021.)

An exploration of Parental Justice involves: i) formulating a positive case for socialising the costs of children when children are public goods; ii) exploring whether it is unjust to socialise the costs of children when adding children creates negative externalities (e.g. because of pollution or overpopulation). The project has pursued both these tasks. Regarding i), several possible arguments for socialising the costs of children have been analysed (Olsaretti, “The Costs of Children”, 2018): some claim that parents suffer a disadvantage (e.g. in welfare or autonomy) if the costs of children are not socialised; others that parents perform a socially valuable function and are exploited unless the costs of children are shared. In her book on Parental Justice (under contract, Oxford University Press), the PI offers a version of the second strategy which meets several challenges (Trifan, “What Makes Free-Riding Wrongful”?, 2020). As for ii), some arguments for why socialising the costs of children may be unjust to non-parents have been shown to be unsuccessful (Olsaretti, “Children as Negative Externalities?”, 2017). Whether a defensible alternative to socialisation is to hold children liable for their own costs has also been addressed (Magnusson, “Parental Justice and the Kids Pay View”, 2018).

Three sets of questions about Childhood Justice have been addressed, concerning: i) Foundational issues, i.e. whether existing theories of well-being can capture children’s claims (Cormier, “Is Children’s Well-Being Different from Adults’ Well-Being?”, 2019) and how to affirm children’s rights despite the so-called Non-Identity Problem in moral philosophy (Magnusson, “Children’s Rights and the Non-Identity Problem”, 2019); ii) Whether parents have special rights and obligations to meet their children’s claims (Olsaretti, “Liberal Equality & the Moral Status of Parent-Child Relationships”, 2017; Magnusson, “Can Gestation Ground Parental Rights?”, 2020), and how to reconcile these with other demands of justice (Olsaretti, “Equality of Opportunity & Justified Inequalities”, forth.); iii) The justification of the exercise of authority over children within a liberal perspective, which requires that authority serve the interests of its subjects to be legitimate. This entails constraints for what views of the good parents and the state have the prerogative to impart in children (Cormier, “On the Permissibility of Shaping Children’s Values”, 2018; “Must Schools Teach Religious Neutrality?”, 2018; “Creating Civil Citizens?”, 2019), and for adults’ moral right to parent (Spotorno, “Homophobes, Racists and the Child’s Rights to be Loved Unconditionally”, 2021).

Both new and old questions were tackled about Intergenerational Justice. How views about parental justice bear on and are in turn affected by views of intergenerational justice, and whether parents’ obligations can be appealed to in order to justify constraints on population growth, have been examined (Olsaretti, “Egalitarian Justice, Population Size and Parents’ Responsibility for the Costs of Children” (2021). How some well-known puzzles that arise in the context of arguing for obligations to future persons, including the Non-Identity Problem and the Asymmetry, can be surmounted, has also been discussed (“How to Reject Benatar’ s Asymmetry Argument”, 2019; “Introduction”, 2019).

The project´s core team presented their work at around 50 academic events in Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Germany, Holland, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the US and the UK.
The project´s research advances debates beyond the state of the art by showing the centrality of social reproduction for theories of justice. More specifically, the PI´s research on parental justice accomplishes two perspective-changing tasks. First, it brings to view the hitherto largely unacknowledged role which an unexamined commitment to sharing the benefits and the costs of children plays in most theories of justice. Whether society at large should share the costs of children, including the costs they will impose as added adult members of society, is nothing other than the question of whether citizens should be paying for their fellow citizens’ claims to their fair shares. Exposing this fact has significant implications. It means that it is not open to theorists of justice to uphold universal obligations of distributive justice while treating parents as liable for most or all the costs of having and rearing children. Moreover, to retain their commitment to a society in which citizens must share one another´s fate, theorists of justice must defend an account of parental justice. The second tasks the PI´s research on parental justice accomplishes is the development of that account, which she argues can be embedded within a duly revised version of resource egalitarianism. Besides vindicating the claims of parents, this research shows how taking seriously the importance of the family as a site of social reproduction directs us towards a novel understanding of justice which does not unfairly favour self-interested lifeplans.
Banner Adopted for the Family Justice Project