February Reading: Brake, ‘Willing Parents’ (2010)

This month’s reading, by Elizabeth Brake, is the second in the reading-group series. Contributions welcome (from members of the network or beyond) in the comments.

Brake, Elizabeth (2010) ‘Willing Parents: A Voluntarist Account of Parental Role Obligations’ in David Archard and David Benatar, eds., Procreation and Parenthood: The Ethics of Bearing and Rearing Children, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 151-78.

Hardimon (in January’s reading) draws a contrast between between contractual and non-contractual roles, according to the source of the role’s obligations. When he discusses family roles they are put in the non-contractual camp, but he never discusses the role of parent save in passing, usually in the context of discussing filial obligations to parents.

Brake argues that we should treat parental obligations as having a voluntarist source. The standard alternative (the causal account) is to see parental obligations as derived from the parent’s having caused someone to exist.

While this network is about roles in general, rather than any particular role, the case of parenthood quickly puts generic considerations under the microscope, as can be seen from Brake’s core argument summary (quote from p. 155-6).

“My case turns on how obligations are incurred. The general outline of my argument is as follows (although the premises will need qualification):

(1) Special obligations only arise through voluntary undertaking or as compensation for some harm.
(2) Parental obligations are special obligations.
(3) Thus, parental obligations are either the result of voluntary undertaking or else owed as compensation for some harm done to the child. (1, 2)
(4) Parental obligations are not compensatory obligations.
(5) Parental obligations arise through voluntary undertaking. (3, 4)”

A causal account is defended by David Archard in the same volume. Brake has also co-authored (with Joseph Millum) an SEP entry on the ethics of parenthood, sections 4 and 5 being most relevant here. But the chapter itself reads perfectly well without this background. Its abstract is here.

2 thoughts on “February Reading: Brake, ‘Willing Parents’ (2010)

  1. Alex Barber

    (Apologies for not turning on the comments option when I posted this last week – still learning the ropes, or the widgets! AB)

    Before I read Brake’s paper I had assumed voluntarism about parental duties would be hopeless: you can’t just walk away from children because you ‘never signed up for this’. Now I am not so sure. The final sections (p. 169 to end) pull together an impressive range of sensible observations (how consent can be tacit; why voluntarist parenthood needn’t be like a job for which one applies in competition with better candidates; how talk of deadbeat dads is lazy stereotyping; etc.). It is still a radical proposal, but that is hardly an objection.

    There is an interesting move at the end of p. 171 – interesting for our general thinking about roles, and also for parenting in particular. Brake considers whether being in a role (e.g. parent) non-voluntarily might nonetheless generate morally binding obligations. The child-of role is non-voluntary, after all, yet we (arguably) have filial duties. She responds by citing Hardimon as suggesting that filial duties are rooted in identities one is born into (which is also why they are non-voluntary). And as she points out, one is NOT born into parenthood or the associated identity. This brings out what I thought was an ambivalence in Hardimon’s paper (the January reading), and raises a question.

    The ambivalence: although he talks a lot about identity in the context of both non-contractual and contractual roles, Hardimon never quite says the identity generates the obligations. Rather, it is reflective acceptability that does the justificatory work for non-contractual roles, and it is contractuality for contractual ones. Is that how others read him?

    The question: can reflective acceptability ground the obligations of non-voluntary (and socially sustained) roles? And is parenthood in its current form(s) sometimes such a role, pace Brake?

  2. Sean Cordell

    Hello all

    Thanks Alex. What an interesting paper on a specific role topic, on which I’m woefully under-read. I’m most persuaded by Brake’s argument that there is a big explanatory gap between parties bringing a child into existence and those parties thereby incurring parental social role obligations. But this inclines me towards pluralism not just about sources but also the types of ‘parental’ obligations to children. That is, there may be special obligations that ‘causers’ have to particular children they cause, but these obligations are different and separate from social role obligations which attach to the social role of parent (and which it seems obvious can and should attach to some causally unrelated parents such as adoptive ones).

    To try to explain how this contrasts with the other views set out in the chapter: If I have things right, the causal view holds existence causing as sufficient for grounding parental obligations, and the weak voluntarist allows that existence-causing may be just one source of parental obligations among others. But it seems to me that existence-causing may be sufficient for grounding some kind of moral obligation(s) – for example to pay minimal ‘procreative costs’ – without being sufficient (or necessary) for grounding social role obligations. This is to agree with Brake that existence causing is not sufficient to ground parental social-role obligations.

    The difference between this roughly formed view and Brake’s, however, is that that Brake’s does not see ‘causer obligations’ as special obligations of the causer to the child they caused, whereas the roughly formed view does. In the discussion of the ‘deadbeat dads’ objection, Brake construes duties to ‘deadbeat descendants’ as general ones that are owed by anyone in a position to discharge them. But the foregoing discussion of procreative costs – which arise by virtue of being caused – makes me think that causers bear some obligation(s) that aren’t reducible to – or apt for a reductive explanation in terms of – general obligations. As should be obvious, this is currently no more than a thought in progress!

    Cheers everyone,

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