What Does a Fair Society Owe Children - and Their Parents?
73 Pages Posted: 28 Jul 2004
What role do - and should - parents play in a fair society, taking that term in a Rawlsian sense? Over time, our society's demands on parents have steeply increased, while the economic rewards of child-rearing have diminished. Slowly but surely, a combination of technological, social, and legal change has transformed modern parenthood into an extraordinarily demanding social role. But should we understand the economic costs of modern child-rearing to be a matter for public concern? Or should we, instead, conceive of parenthood as an essentially personal endeavor - a private project?
In this article, I challenge the private project view, drawing on a line of argument that I develop in my forthcoming book, No Exit (Oxford University Press, May 2004). Using principles adapted from the work of Rawls and other liberal egalitarians, I argue that a fair society does owe a special obligation to parents. Society expects - and needs - parents to provide their children with continuity of care, meaning the intensive, intimate care that human beings need to develop their intellectual, emotional, and moral capabilities. In effect, social and legal institutions convey a common message to parents: Do Not Exit.
Society's No Exit command to parents is grounded in a deep and appropriate commitment to human dignity and equality. Still, we can acknowledge the moral and emotional satisfactions of parenthood while also recognizing that parents provide continuity to their children at considerable cost to themselves. The No Exit constraint severely limits the ordinary jobs, and ordinary lives, that parents can choose to live. In response, a fair society ought to take measures to lighten the autonomy burden of child-rearing. Society may fairly expect parents not to exit, but it should not ignore the consequences for parents' own lives.
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