Welcome to another NDPR Forum, this one on Joseph Millum’s The Moral Foundations of Parenthood (OUP 2018), recently reviewed in NDPR by Liezl van Zyl. As always, all are welcome to join in on the discussion.
From the OUP blurb: “Most people believe that parents have moral rights and responsibilities regarding their children. These rights and responsibilities undergird the nuclear family and are essential to the flourishing of its members. However, their basis and contents are hotly contested. Do a child’s genetic parents have a right to parent her? The importance of genetic ties is affirmed by many people’s gut responses, everyday talk, and many court decisions, but the moral justification for tying parenthood rights to genetics is unclear. Parents are routinely permitted to make far-reaching decisions about their children’s medical care, education, religious practice, and even how to punish them. When can parental rights be limited by the interests of the child or society?
“In The Moral Foundations of Parenthood, Joseph Millum provides a philosophical account of moral parenthood. He explains how parental rights and responsibilities are acquired, what those rights and responsibilities consist in, and how parents should go about making decisions on behalf of their children. In doing so, he provides a set of frameworks to help solve pressing ethical dilemmas relating to parents and children.”
From the NDPR Review: “An alternative strategy, and one that I find more reasonable, is to give up the attempt to base parental rights and duties in a single concept or principle.
“This is the strategy Millum adopts. His theory of moral parenthood has four parts. (1) Parental rights are based in desert: they have their origin in parental work, that is, work directed at the flourishing of a child. (2) The content of some of these rights is grounded in the interests of children, whereas the content of others is grounded in the interests of parents. (3) Parental responsibilities arise through certain voluntary actions that gain their significance from social convention. (4) Their content is determined by children’s justice-based claims. Millum faces two important challenges when it comes to defending his theory. The first is to show that it is more successful than competing theories in accommodating our considered intuitions about parenthood. The second is to show that the theory is unified and coherent, despite drawing on a number of different values and principles. In my opinion, Millum meets both of these challenges. In what follows I highlight some of the central aspects of the theory, and indicate the advantages it has over existing theories.
“Millum’s theory gives what I consider to be plausible answers to a number of controversial cases. [I]t explains why accidental fathers can have parental responsibilities without having parental rights. It also explains why absentee biological fathers who were deliberately excluded from a child’s life, but then shows up at some later point, can have an interest in forming a relationship with a child and yet not have a moral right or claim to do so. The theory has some interesting implications for non-traditional families created through artificial reproductive technology, divorce and remarriage, and same-sex partnerships, most notably that a child can have more than two real parents. Although his theory doesn’t automatically resolve all disagreements, it offers a framework in terms of which such issues can be discussed. Consider, for example, the case of surrogate motherhood. Surrogacy is often viewed as a form of adoption: the surrogate is the real mother, but promises to transfer parental rights and duties to the intending parents. Against this, others argue that the intended parents are the real parents from the outset, and that the surrogate is merely gestating the baby on their behalf. As we’ve seen, Millum argues that some parental work can be contracted out, which is what happens in the case of hired caregivers. But whether the same is true in surrogacy depends on whether gestational care is the kind of parental work that can be contracted out. Millum points out that there is a limit to the amount and type of parenting work that others can do on behalf of parents. Generic work, such as clothing, feeding, and comforting a child, can be fulfilled by proxy parents, but responsibilities to provide filial goods, such as an intimate relationship or loving bond with parents, cannot be contracted out. In the case of surrogate motherhood, then, the question is whether gestational care is best described as providing generic goods or filial goods. Research on maternal-fetal attachment and, in particular, surrogates’ own perspectives on their pregnancies, appear to support Millum’s view: gestational care can be contracted out, which means that one can give birth to a baby without becoming a parent.”1