Equality No Matter the Road: Too Much Parental Care


Equality above all else reads like an intentionally absurd dystopic novel.

As if the short story “Harrison Bergeron” had come to life, two British philosophers, Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse,  ‘philosophize’ on the unfair advantages bestowed by loving parents. In order to achieve equality the two academics stated:

‘What we realised we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children.’

There is no debate that the way parents interact with and treat their children will have an impact on their future, their lives and even their economic opportunity. To conclude, however, that inequality exists because some parents do a better job than other parents and thus must be limited is not just a scary proposition – it borders on laughable. (Thanks for “allowing” us parents at least some activities).

Dictating the limits on parental care and guidance for fear of unequal consequences is the fulfillment of the picture painted by Kurt Vonnegut, in which a totalitarian regime is bent on maintaining equality no matter the means used. Handicaps are doled out to equalize society complete with weights and auditory shocks.  Even deadly force is used for those who will not comply.

The authors state that the family is necessary in many regards by providing benefits to both children and parents, however they conclude that some benefits conferred by loving parents would not pass a test based on the family’s purpose “to realise these intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships.” Apparently anything that does not pass muster, such as private schools, should be prohibited to reach their egalitarian goal. Theirs is a proposal for a legal regime focused on preventing unfair advantages much like the one in “Harrison Bergeron.”

Swift and Brighouse rationalize that central aspects of familial relations should center on the aforementioned love-based test, stating that a complete abolition of the family does not “feel right.” However they appear to suggest that the state should impose limitations on what advantages should be allowed in family life. The two hypothesize:

‘We could prevent elite private schooling without any real hit to healthy 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.’

How gracious to allow bed time stories since it is sufficiently related to the ‘core of family life.’ (How did any of this pass their “feel right” test?) It is also no grand conclusion that eliminating elite private schooling would appear egalitarian and may even result in a more equal society (though I highly doubt as much because unintended consequences usually abound in this type of social engineering). However the implications of their conclusions likely lead to justifications for further restrictions such as limiting family vacations in time or scope so as not to incur unnecessary or unfair educational advantage. Even further, allowances might be restricted, early entrepreneurship may be limited, and early contribution to retirement may be discouraged. Swift and Brighouse clearly feel that allowing families to remain mostly intact is an important aspect of society.  But only as long as it does not get in the way of egalitarian ends.

This thinking is more and more pervasive in progressive thought. It has a Machiavellian flavor. Though softer in execution, it appears to be just as ends-driven.  At its essence, this mode of thought prioritizes egalitarian results above the means of achieving such results. Certainly Kant would protest. Instead of treating families, parents, and children as ends unto themselves, they are merely the means whereby equality will be achieved. In their ends-over-means calculation Swift and Brighouse are willing to significantly limit one of the most efficient and effective means of passing down information and helping children develop into functional adults – that of good, loving parenting.

These considerations rely on erroneous assumptions.  The first among many is the idea that equality is the central societal goal.  We spend a significant time debating equality in politics, academics and even daily discourse, but such debate is far from settled.  The conclusions these two big thinkers reach could only be justified if equality were the most valued goal. Autonomy and self-determination are competing values, however, that prevent this from being whole-hardheartedly accepted.

Strangely Swift and Brighouse advocate that the best way to reach an egalitarian society is by preventing parents from bestowing too much on their children for fear of others having less.  This assumption is contestable.  Not only is it failing to correctly or consistently measure the major benefits parents bestow on children, it fails to make the case that when one child benefits it is at the expense of another. For this to be accurate, we must assume that we are dealing with scarce resources that can be redistributed.  How one person sharing knowledge with another person excludes another third party from that information is completely unaddressed.

Take the bedtime stories example. The two philosophers admit it is an unfair advantage but concede that it may be sufficiently central to the love-based test to merit survival as a family practice.  However this example itself demonstrates that one of the primary benefits a parent may bestow on a child is information and educational values.  Economically this bears out. George Gilder has pointed out that the major difference between us and the caveman is not a biological advantage but an accumulation of knowledge or information.

Parental love, nurture, care or even education are not scarce resources where if one child benefits it is at the expense of other unrelated children. How, then, is reading to a child or even sending the child to an elite private school a disadvantage to another child? Swift and Brighouse fail to demonstrate how this is so. It strains the imagination to justify such an oppressive system of parenting based on the assumption that one child receiving information prevents another from accessing that same information.

Last, in this creepy tale of intentional intellectual damnation, is the idea that parents should police themselves to prevent or mitigate possible inequality.

So should parents snuggling up for one last story before lights out be even a little concerned about the advantage they might be conferring?

‘I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally,’ quips Swift.

So occasionally I should remember, while reading to my three children (which I or my wife do daily), that this love, attention, and education is somehow robbing some other child of this opportunity and to tone it down. You know… for equality.  This argument reads like a satirical dystopian short story. It leaves the reasonable reader either amused at the absurdity or frightened that it could become reality.

James C. Devereaux is an attorney and freedom fanatic. Questions, complaints and hysterics can be sent to james@reasonedliberty.com or follow him on twitter @jcdevereaux1.

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