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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

May 8, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Picking up from yesterday’s post, we’re back with two Australian philosophers who’ve decided that the best way to bring about social equality (and presumably financial equality) is to hamstring good parents, making them more like bad parents (ABC, 5/1/15). Really. To briefly recap, Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse recognize that children from healthy, functional and usually intact families strongly tend to do better than those from broken, dysfunctional families. That contributes to inequality. So, instead of considering positive alternatives for kids in less than ideal families, their approach is to make good families worse.

So the philosophers briefly consider simply doing away with families altogether, but reject the idea because of all the benefits good parents confer on their kids. But they then move on to what parenting behavior “we” should “allow” parents to engage in. I pointed out that the philosophers scrupulously avoid any mention of just who would police their dystopian regime, how or what would be the punishment for parents who did insufficiently badly by their children. I guessed they omitted those details because the police, prosecutors and courts actually fining or sending to jail the best parents might look a tad (a) odd and (b) Orwellian to many people. So the two opted for the theoretical, keeping the actual out of sight.

But eventually they got down to cases.

The test they devised was based on what they term ‘familial relationship goods’; those unique and identifiable things that arise within the family unit and contribute to the flourishing of family members.

For Swift, there’s one particular choice that fails the test.

‘Private schooling cannot be justified by appeal to these familial relationship goods,’ he says. ‘It’s just not the case that in order for a family to realise these intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships you need to be able to send your child to an elite private school.’

In contrast, reading stories at bedtime, argues Swift, gives rise to acceptable familial relationship goods, even though this also bestows advantage.

‘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,’ he says.

Hmm. So behaviors that supply children with “familial relationship goods” are OK, but everything else would not be “allowed” by the state. Now, since the two philosophers only offered one example each of what’s to be permitted by the state and what’s to be prohibited by it, we’re left to imagine what else might be deemed acceptable in their Brave New World and what would land Mommy and Daddy behind bars. Reading to children by parents is fine; sending them to private schools isn’t.

Of course Swift’s assumptions are many and mostly wrong. For example, he would prohibit private schooling under the assumption that all private schools are better than all public schools, a patently false notion. He then changes “private” schools to “elite” schools. But whatever the word, it’s clear that Swift would simply rid the world of all private schools, or at least the good ones. So under his rule, here in the U.S., it’s “bye-bye” to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and hundreds more private institutions for students of all ages. Would those institutions cavil a bit at being required to close their doors due to an entire absence of students? Could be. But that’s another practical matter that doesn’t concern the philosophers.

But even with those odious elite schools gone from the educational landscape, the kids would have to get an education somewhere, so where would they go? Well, they’d go to public schools where the smart, hard-working kids would naturally outstrip their slower classmates. Would their parents then start demanding elite classes composed of the best students? Surely we couldn’t have such a thing. Better to simply bore to death the smart kids in the interests of equality.

So what’s actually meant by the concept of “familial relationship goods?” It’s vague at best and Swift doesn’t go out of his way to elucidate. But from where I sit, it doesn’t look like education itself can possibly constitute an FRG. Apart from parents helping with homework, I’d say education, that’s largely conducted away from parents and the home, has nothing to do with FRGs. The necessary conclusion is that anything to do with education, except possibly helping with homework, would simply be out of parents’ hands.

Food? Obviously, parents feed children when they’re little and provide food when they’re older. Clearly that is an FRG because of the natural bonding that goes on in the process, so parents would presumably be allowed to feed their children. But what about good food? Should parents be permitted to provide high quality food to their children or should “we” in the interests of equality, all be required to provide only the worst food. After all, as long as the goal is equality, it must be acknowledged that many parents can’t afford high quality food, so surely all parents would be required — again under threat of criminal penalties — to feed their children only food that the poorest and neediest of society can afford.

Housing? The analysis is the same as above except that housing can scarcely be considered an FRG at all, much like elite schooling. But children need shelter as we all do. So again, I think the correct analysis of Swift’s proposals is that everyone should have shelter, but no one should have shelter that’s better than the worst shelter society has to offer. Does that mean cardboard boxes for everyone? Who knows? And Swift isn’t saying.

Swift offers parents reading to children as an FRG, but fails to address the problem of illiterate parents or those who simply don’t read to their kids for whatever reason. It seems to me that, if we are to truly take the problem of inequality head-on, parents of all sorts must be prohibited from reading to their children. After all, if some don’t, and if reading confers a benefit on children, then, in the interest of abolishing inequality, we must prohibit parents from reading to their children. Again, just how anyone would know, and what the jail sentence should be for reading to one’s kids, I can’t guess. Another wrinkle to be ironed out later, I suppose.

Even though Swift eschews any mention of the practical aspects of his plan, preferring the theoretical, he’s not very good at that either. His goal is equality for all, but he also wants to maintain what’s best for kids. Put simply, those two are incompatible. Short of literally housing everyone in cardboard boxes, prohibiting parents from reading to their kids and an vast array of other unworkable and inane policies, if we try to do well by kids, some parents are going to do better than others, some parents will remain together and some won’t, some will be literate and others won’t, some will be violent and others won’t, etc., etc. All of that will generate inequality. Swift can’t have it both ways, but it’s not at all clear that he even sees the contradictions in his absurd idea. If he does, he’s not letting on.

Bad as his theorizing is, when it comes to basic knowledge of his subject, he’s every bit as deficient. Having made a hash of his notions that a third-grader wouldn’t swallow, he moves on to demonstrate his profound ignorance both of recent history and child well-being.

‘When we talk about parents’ rights, we’re talking about the person who is parenting the child. How you got to be parenting the child is another issue. One implication of our theory is that it’s not one’s biological relation that does much work in justifying your rights with respect to how the child is parented.’

For Swift and Brighouse, our society is curiously stuck in a time warp of proprietorial rights: if you biologically produce a child you own it.

‘We think that although in practice it makes sense to parent your biological offspring, that is not the same as saying that in virtue of having produced the child the biological parent has the right to parent.’

Then, does the child have a right to be parented by her biological parents? Swift has a ready answer.

‘It’s true that in the societies in which we live, biological origins do tend to form an important part of people’s identities, but that is largely a social and cultural construction. So you could imagine societies in which the parent-child relationship could go really well even without there being this biological link.’

Gee Adam, it’s hard to be so utterly wrong in so many ways in so few words. It’s actually awe-inspiring in a perverse sort of way.

Perhaps I should start with the idea of biological parenting as a “social construction.” Not to be blunt, but no, it’s nothing of the kind. Indeed, it can’t be. We know that because humans of all societies and cultures, in all parts of the world at all times have done the same thing, i.e. parented their own biological offspring to the extent that they could. So does every species of mammal and just about every species of bird. According to Swift, those too are just “social constructions.” Look at the quotation above; I’m not making this up.

And why do mammal parents do that? They parent their own offspring because their bodies produce various sex hormones that produce the parenting behavior that our offspring require in order to survive to maturity, or even at all. Without those hormones, we social mammals would never have evolved. Something needed to convince adults to risk their safety and well-being to nurture and protect offspring and those hormones were it. Biological parents produce those hormones. Other adults don’t. That’s why biological parents care for their kids. Swift might want to gather a few basic facts before opening his mouth. His current MO is too embarrassing.

He’s as ignorant of the law as he is of biology. Someone apparently told him that parents own their children. They don’t. I don’t know how to say it any more succinctly than that. Slavery in this country and his is illegal. People don’t own each other here anymore. It’s as simple as that. Parents care for their kids and have the legal right to do so. Often they act on their behalf because they’re adults and the kids aren’t. But ownership? No. If Swift has children, he could test his theory by trying to sell one of them or perhaps putting one up as collateral for a loan, but I wouldn’t advise it.

And speaking of legal rights, Swift seems unaware of them too. His claim that one does not acquire parental rights to one’s child “in virtue of having produced the child.” Actually, that’s just wrong. In fact, at least across the English-speaking world and the EU, biology is precisely what does confer parental rights. Indeed, only occasionally does anything else.

Given that he knows essentially nothing about the simplest, most basic aspects of his chosen topic, it comes as no surprise that he seems to believe that taking children from their biological parents must confer a benefit on them. (Of course, as I pointed out yesterday, his entire idea seeks to harm children in order to bring about equality, so maybe he’s not concerned about what’s good or bad for kids. Who knows?) But whatever the case, Swift exhibits no awareness of the mountain of scientific literature demonstrating positively that children do better in the care of their biological parents than in any other parenting arrangement. Does he care? Is he interested? No, he’s just shooting from the hip and can’t really control what or who he hits.

The absurdity doesn’t stop there. If anything, it gets worse when Swift says that we “could imagine societies in which the parent-child relationship could go really well even without there being this biological link.’”

We could indeed, but that would make those societies imaginary. But to find actual societies in which biological parents were routinely separated from their children who were then raised by strangers, we need look no further than Swift’s native Australia. For some sixty years, from 1910 to 1970, aboriginal children were taken by the tens of thousands from their parents and raised by whites. That’s a version of what Swift is promoting that’s well known to Australians, so it’s strange that he fails to mention it. Maybe it’s because that program is today so reviled as a violation of the most basic human rights of aboriginal Australians. He might want to think about that, but by now there’s a lot for him to ponder, none of it flattering to his ideas.

Swift’s ideas are absurd enough to suggest they’re some sort of satire. After all, the name Swift has already been attached to a “modest proposal” that was not much more outrageous than Adam’s. But it’s invariably a feature of humor that, one way or another, it lets readers/viewers know it’s humor. In Jonathan Swift’s case, the proposal to solve the problems of starvation and overpopulation in Ireland by eating children was too over the top to be anything but tongue in cheek.

Today, Adam’s ideas are almost as extreme, and so we might make the mistake of taking them as satire. Alas, I fear that’s not the case. Would that it were. That’s because Swift early on identified himself as opining in the cause of “social justice,” and frankly nothing social justice warriors say is too outlandish for them to take seriously. After all, who would have guessed at any time that we live in a “rape culture,” but ask a social justice warrior and he/she will make it clear that the matter isn’t even open for discussion.

So why not ignore harming children in order to promote equality, why not ignore social science and biology alike, why not ignore the law? And while we’re at it, why not promote draconian increases in governmental power in a quixotic quest to bring everyone down to some lowest common denominator for the sake of equality that even the author of this weird idea admits won’t eventuate?

The truth is that these people will say anything and take themselves seriously. Given their track record of influencing public policy in the most harmful and unnecessary ways, sadly, we should too.

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