≡ Menu

Desyllas: Three Theories of Parental Obligations

Interesting post by Jake Desyllas:

Three Theories of Parental Obligations

One of the most important philosophical questions relating to the family is whether parents have enforceable positive obligations towards their children. How you answer this question depends on your theory of the relationship between parents and children. Here are 3 major theories of that relationship:

  1. The Theory of Parental Ownership

  2. The Theory of Parenting as Charity

  3. The Theory of Parental Responsibility

The first two theories deny parental positive obligations. The third affirms them.

The Theory of Parental Ownership

The theory of parental ownership views parenting as a kind of property ownership. In this view, parents are the owners of their children and children are the property of their parents. This is an ancient theory. Versions of it have been expressed by Aristotle, codified in Roman law, and argued by Hobbes. This is the main line of argument:

  1. Parents create a child

  2. Creators rightfully own what they create

  3. Therefore parents rightfully own their children

  4. Owners can do whatever they want with their property

  5. Therefore parents don’t have any positive obligations

Sometimes this theory is modified to say that parents may have obligations towards other adults that indirectly influence their treatment of their own children. For example, some posit that a parent must inform other adults before abandoning a child in case other adults would like to adopt. Another example is the idea that parents must ensure that they do not raise children who will aggress against other people. Yet these kinds of obligations are ultimately not to a parent’s own children but rather to other adults.

The Theory of Parenting as Charity

The theory of parenting as charity denies that children can be owned. It views children as self owners who have rights. According to this view, parents do have some negative obligations: they must not to actively abuse (aggress against) their children. These are the same general negative obligations that any adult has towards another adult. However, according to this theory, parents do not have any positive obligation to provide care to their children if they don’t want to (or if they stop wanting to). The theory of parenting as charity has this main line of argument:

  1. Parents create children

  2. Children are temporarily helpless

  3. Creation itself is not a source of obligation

  4. Helplessness itself is not a source of obligation

  5. Therefore there are no enforceable parental obligations (making any parental care a voluntary act of charity).

Why isn’t creation a source of parental obligation? One argument given is that if this were the case, parents would be obliged to care for their children forever and this is taken as self-evidently false. Why isn’t helplessness a source of obligation? The argument is that the mere fact that some person is in need does not logically create an enforceable obligation on any other person to provide for them.

The Theory of Parental Responsibility

The theory of parental responsibility also denies that children can be owned. It differs from the theory of parenting as charity in that it argues that obligations can come from a different basis than merely the act of creation or the fact of a child’s helplessness. The core argument is as follows:

  1. People are responsible for the consequences of their actions

  2. As a consequence of creating a child, parents have put another human being (the child) in a state of peril.

  3. Children cannot consent to being born

  4. Since the child did nothing to create their state of peril nor consent to it, the child’s peril is entirely the responsibility of the parents

  5. Therefore parents have a positive obligation to do whatever is necessary to remove the child from a state of peril, since not doing so would constitute an act of aggression as a form of tort.

The Libertarian Error on Parental Obligations

Most postwar libertarians who addressed this question have denied the validity of enforceable parental positive obligations. For example, Murray Rothbard, Wendy McElroy, Walter Block, and Harry Browne all denied them. Libertarians usually justify denying positive parental obligations by arguing some variant of the theory of parenting as charity. Rothbard provided a detailed defence of this idea. He saw the needs of children as just a subset of the more “general problem of the sick or the helpless”. Although Rothbard never used the term charity in relation to this, I think it is a logical name for this theory.

I believe that the denial of parental positive obligations is a huge error in libertarian theory. Only the theory of parental responsibility (which affirms enforceable parental obligations) is logically defensible. A few libertarian thinkers have argued for variants of this theory in the past. Herbert Spencer, Nathaniel Branden, and Doris Gordon all made arguments along these lines, but only in scattered fragments. In present times, Stephan Kinsella is the main proponent of this idea, although it is not the focus of his work. I believe parental responsibility is the correct theory and the only one that is ultimately compatible with the broader principles of libertarian philosophy. I’m currently researching this subject and will be addressing these arguments in more detail in future.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Chris Orton June 22, 2024, 11:39 pm

    Glad to know I’m not the only libertarian nut-bag out there with the correct view. It’s hard to stand alone.

Leave a Reply

© 2012-2024 StephanKinsella.com CC0 To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to material on this Site, unless indicated otherwise. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.

-- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright