Interview with Mike Austin: Conceptions of Parenthood

July 28, 2008
Posted by Joe Gorra

We interviewed Mike Austin, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University, about his recent book, Conceptions of Parenthood. The book is part of Ashgate’s “Studies in Applied Ethics” series.

What do you try to accomplish in Conceptions of Parenthood?

In the book, I argue for a pluralistic understanding of the basis of parental rights and obligations. A conception of parenthood, as I define it, is an account of the grounds for the special rights and obligations of parents. The book is unique insofar as it is the only existing work that comprehensively analyzes the different views put forth by philosophers, defends a pluralistic understanding of the foundations of parenthood, and incorporates this pluralism into a stewardship conception, or meta-conception, of parenthood. I then consider implications of the stewardship view for political, social, and personal issues related to family ethics, such as the religious upbringing of children and proposals for requiring parenting licenses.

What got you interested in this important subject?

I was looking to write on something in applied ethics, and was considering topics related to bioethics when I was pointed to some of the philosophical literature on parenthood. I wanted to work on something that was both philosophically substantive but highly relevant to daily life, and the parent-child relationship fit the bill. Plus, as a parent with 3 daughters, it was of course highly relevant to my own life!

Who are some important thinkers in this discussion?

Brenda Almond’s recent book, The Fragmenting Family (Oxford University Press), is a very important work which includes a defense of a more traditional view of marriage and family. David Archard has written two important books–Children, Family, and State (Ashgate) and Children: Rights and Childhood (Routledge)–as well as several journal articles. Mary Shanley’s Making Babies, Making Families (Beacon Press) also addresses many important issues.

Briefly outline what you take to be the the main claims and objections to the different conceptions of parenting?

In the book, I reject “proprietarian views” which seek to ground parental rights in ways similar to property rights, insofar as the child is the product of the parent’s labor or self. My primary objection is that it is immoral to conceive of humans as property. I also reject “biological conceptions” because there are counterexamples to both the necessity and the sufficiency of a genetic or gestational tie to the child for the acquisition of parental rights and obligations. This does not mean that biological ties are unimportant, but rather that they are unable to generate parenthood on their own. When they appear to do so, I argue that it is the causal element that is morally relevant. I reject “best interests” accounts because they fail to adequately take into account the relevant interests of parents and the state. I defend consent and custodial relationship conceptions of parenthood, with certain qualifications. One of the most significant aspects of the book is my argument in favor of a causal conception of parenthood, which includes the claim that if you cause a child to come to exist in the relevant manner, you incur special obligations to the child. This is controversial in contemporary moral philosophy because most ethicists want to defend the view that giving consent to taking on special obligations is a requirement for incurring such obligations. This is a view I believe to be false, and in the process of defending the causal conception I explain why. I ultimately defend a stewardship conception of parenthood. That is, once one becomes a parent through consent, causation, or a custodial relationship, one should act as a steward who holds the child and the child’s life in trust for the child in the present, for the adult the child will become, and on behalf of the community as well.

You reject an “absolutist” and “quasi-absolutist” view of parental rights. Please state what these views are and briefly state your reason for this rejection.

Absolutists hold that parents have absolute control over their children’s lives, even to the point of killing them. Hobbes, Jean Bodin, and Robert Filmer are representative of such a view. The “quasi-absolutist,” as I define them, stops short of claiming that parents have the power of life or death over children, but believes that parents should always have the final say in other matters pertaining to their children. They should be able to determine the religion of their children, their form of education and moral outlook, as well as what medical care they may receive. The view I defend is that there are particular cases in which parents should not have final say, and the state should be able to intervene (e.g. serious medical issues). I also think that parents do not have the right to determine the religion of their children, though they do have the right to seek to influence their children in favor of their religion in a wide variety of ways.

What are the relevant factors pertaining to the legal and moral obligations of parents?

The foundation of the rights and obligations of parents as I describe it in the book are certain fundamental interests of parents and children, including physical and psychological well-being, intimate relationships, and the freedom to pursue that which brings meaning and satisfaction to life. I think that the state should have clear guidelines as to when intervention is justified, limited to the undermining of fundamental interests of children by parents, though the practical outworkings of this are difficult to implement in a just manner.

How do you think philosophical discussions about ethics, parenthood, and the family should proceed?

I think that we need to examine and criticize the assumptions made about human nature and social life in the more radical proposals, such as “children’s liberationism,” which states that children should have the same legal rights as adults. My view is that discussions of family ethics must be subsumed under a more general understanding of the relationship between human nature, ethics, and human fulfillment. While I am critical of views in family ethics that focus solely on the interests of children, it seems to me that many who advocate large changes in our understanding of the family or who want to abolish it fail to sufficiently consider the interests and welfare of children as well as the society they will create and inhabit in the future. Personal freedom and autonomy are important, but they are not the sole value to be accounted for in this area of inquiry. Finally, in a different but related project that I’m working on dealing with family ethics that is more explicitly Christian, I try to employ some insights related to the Trinity to family life, and consider what implications this aspect of God’s nature might have related to family life for those with Christian commitments.

Mike Austin is an associate professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY. His other books include Running and Philosophy (Blackwell, 2007), Football and Philosophy (University Press of Kentucky, 2008), and Wise Stewards: Foundations of Christian Parenting (Kregel, forthcoming). He has a blog, Morality and the Good Life, which deals with issues in personal, social, and political ethics at