Families, argue Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift in their new book “Family Values”, are a “problem” for proponents of the egalitarian ideal. “One does not have to favour anything as far-fetched and widely discredited as equality of outcome,” they write, “to be concerned about the unequalising influence of family background.”
It’s clear that children born into different families have unequal life chances. But, Brighouse and Swift observe, there is disagreement among political philosophers and social theorists about “how much, or what aspects, of that inequality count as unjust.” After all, it is surely reasonable for parents to assume that they have the right to do things that benefit their children and not others. But are there ways of conferring advantage on their children that parents don’t have a right to engage in? For example, is there a difference, morally speaking, between sending your children to an elite private school and reading them bedtime stories or helping them with their homework? This is among the questions that Brighouse and Swift consider in a book that is analytically rich and—to liberal egalitarians, at least—philosophically and politically provocative.
I spoke to Swift, who teaches political theory at the University of Warwick (Brighouse is a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States), and began by asking him what he and his co-author mean by “the family” for analytical purposes. For instance, does their analysis require that a family contain two parents, one of each gender?
AS: What we’re interested in when we talk about the family is the parent-child relationship. And that relationship can exist between just one parent and a child. It could also exist between three parents and a child. So we’re definitely not assuming a two-parent family. And we’re not assuming a heterosexual family. The idea is to look at what is valuable in parent-child relationships and infer from that what families would need to be like to achieve what is valuable—and the answer is that you don’t need to have two parents, they don’t need to be heterosexual and they don’t need to be biologically connected. It’s a kind of revisionist view of the family.