By Ldorfman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 


When Aldous Huxley created a dystopia without marriage, sexual reproduction and parenthood he was satirising a world he hoped would not eventuate. The best part of a century later there are people writing scripts for the family that should be satire but are in real earnest. They may sound far-fetched, but, with Huxley’s Brave New World materialising before us, it’s as well to know what else the intelligentsia have in mind. This includes intellectual exile, at least, if you don’t agree.

Australians listening to a public radio interview last month were flabbergasted to hear British political theorist Adam Swift talk about the unfair advantage that parents who read bedtime stories to their children create for them compared with children who do not have this experience. What? The rumour quickly spread that some academic weirdo wanted to ban bedtime stories. Some choice comments were posted online, including the ultimate solution: banning the loudspeaker for such nonsense — the ABC.

Well, it wasn’t quite as bad as it sounded. Not in that respect anyway, since Swift and his American colleague, philosophy professor Harry Brighouse, have thought carefully about bedtime stories and a number of other things certain parents do for their children — helping them with their homework, eating meals together, taking them to church, kicking a ball around with them in the park – and have given them the tick of approval.

Although these interactions, typical of loving families, seem to contribute more to social inequality than financial advantage does, the philosophers concede that banning them is not the way to level the playing field. They come under the heading of “familial relationship goods” – things that arise within the family unit and contribute to the flourishing of family members, and that should be “allowed”.

What ‘we could prevent’ parents doing

But there are things that, if they had their way, society would “not allow” parents to do for their children. These include leaving them an inheritance and sending them to an “elite private school”. This is quite unnecessary for building those family relationships which allow members to thrive, Swift opines.

“We could prevent elite private schooling without any real hit to health or family relationships, whereas if we say that you can’t read bedtime stories to your kids because it’s not fair that some kids get them and others don’t, then that would be too big a hit at the core of family life.”

“We could prevent”; “allow”; “not allow”. Does this language begin to irritate? And don’t you pick up a hint of regret that Swift and Co cannot control what goes on at bedtime or Sunday dinner so as to more easily bring about the egalitarian paradise which is their real concern? Big Brother? Anyone?

No automatic right to parent ‘your’ child

But it gets worse. When Swift and Brighouse – who have set all this out in a book, Family Values: The ethics of parent-child relationships – use the word “family” they are not talking about the traditional norm of married mum and dad raising the children they have generated. You might have guessed that already; few academics these days would regard that even as an ideal, and these two all but repudiate it.

A family for them boils down to “the parent-child relationship”, which could amount to just one parent and one child, or three parents and a child, or even more parents, although Swift draws the line at 10, which would be a committee, “and there aren’t any parents there at all.” 

A parent is whoever happens to be doing the job of parenting – including, you know, all those relationship things that one person can do so well on their own… The word “parent” has nothing to do with biology (sex or gender is, of course, irrelevant) and the persons who produced a child should get rid of any idea that they “own” it – that is, have an automatic right to parent it.

Will it be necessary to pass a test and get a certificate? We’ll return to this later.

Has the child a right to be parented by its biological parents? Nope, says Swift. Although, currently, biological origins form an important part of people’s identities, “that is largely a cultural construction” and we can “imagine societies in which the parent-child relationship could go really well even without there being a biological link.”

Societies in which, no doubt, Big Brother would play a decisive hand.

“We do want to defend the family against complete fragmentation and dissolution,” adds Swift piously. It is a statement that only makes sense from the purely functional view he takes of the family: what matters is what “parents” do, not who they are. Nobody really needs the woman who carried them in her womb to tend them as infants, and if she thinks she needs “her” child, that’s already a bad sign. All you need is the right inputs (of love, stories, education…) to produce the right outputs. Ergo, equality.

Reproductive caring units

But by discounting existential realities that form the basis of the family, Swift and Brighouse already sign off on its dissolution. It would be more honest to do what other futurists have done and ditch the word “family” altogether.

What about “reproductive caring units”?

That’s the term Swedish professor of practical philosophy Christian Munthe, and colleague Thomas Hartvigsson, propose in their contribution to a 2012 collection of essays, Beyond the Nuclear Ideal.

In “The Best Interest of Children and the basis of Family Policy: The issue of reproductive caring units,” they explain how RCUs can accommodate both the requirement of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that, “In all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration,” and RCUs which vary as to the sex, gender, sexual orientation and number of adults in them, as well as by the origin of children who have “entered” one or other RCU through such mechanisms as surrogate motherhood and donor insemination.

They systematically refute objections to each of these structures, with the exception of those consisting of very old (or terminally ill) adults, and possibly the single adult, although the latter’s deficiencies could be largely compensated for “through economic support and well-developed social support structures (such as publicly funded daycare).” However, they defend the single mother or father (by choice) by arguing that, if one adult is not as good as two, then two (the traditional nuclear family) must not be as good as three. Such is the dazzling logic of “practical philosophers”.

If any single RCU turns out to be detrimental to the good of their children, they add, society can intervene. But since prevention is better than cure, society might want to take the approach proposed by Hugh LaFollette , who wants all parents to be licensed after demonstrating their ability to provide their child with emotional stability and responsiveness, as well as meeting its physical needs.

Banish those who disagree

The bottom line for the Swedish experts is: we must not let the fact that some people do not like the new RCUs hold us back, even if opponents include “some well-established ethical traditions” whose proponents “often figure strongly in societal debates on family and reproductive policy”; they are simply denying children what is in their best interest.

You see, we know that being born of a surrogate mother in Nepal from sperm originating in a male same-sex RCU and an egg from goodness knows where, and being brought up without a mother or even a resident female person in the home, can be in a child’s best interest because there are researchers constantly telling us it can. They have the evidence that such children are already doing just fine.

Anything to the contrary we can safely ignore, because it comes from the wrong sorts of people. Susan Golombok, a British expert on the family whose research on lesbian and gay families (or RCUs) is cited far and wide, knows how to deal with them. She told The Independent that she simply excludes from her reviews of the literature any studies conducted within or funded by “right-wing religious organisations”. Easy peasy.

Studies conducted by left-wing, gay rights advocates who seem to find it easy to get plum university jobs and interviews with prominent media, are, of course, above suspicion. That’s how things work in today’s brave new world, and how it is possible, by following human instinct and reason, that any of us could end up like Bernard Marx or Helmholtz Watson – in exile.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet