Family, ethics and the

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L025-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 14, 2024, from

3. Economic conceptions of families

For many social scientists, a family is a household, a group of cohabitants who stand in various kinds of economic relationships, actual or potential. Kant and other family traditionalists have claimed male heads of family to have property rights in their wives and children (see Property). In many cultures, parents regard early support as an investment that children repay by working in or outside the home, by suitable marriages, and eventual care in old age. Adult children often regard their grandparents and parents as stewards of family assets to be used and distributed with due regard for the next generation (see Future generations, obligations to). So viewed, a family produces, consumes, accumulates and transmits economic goods.

This approach focuses on what for most families are principal sources of distress and dispute, namely, distribution of labour, goods, and economic responsibilities. It also helps expose unexamined divisions of family labour, for example, the unpaid labour of women who maintain the home and care for the young, ill and elderly family members who otherwise would need public services. In some areas of family life, economic assessment of women’s traditional work is explicit, for example, in the hiring of substitute home childcare workers or gestational (‘maternal’) surrogates – practices often criticized for having a financial aspect that subverts the natural affection that ideally motivates the bearing and rearing of children.

Economic analyses are most compatible with utilitarian moral theories: both share the ideal of a quasi-calculus (of costs and benefits, or positive and negative utilities) for reaching principled decisions on actions or policies, for individuals or for groups with disparate interests or preferences (see Utilitarianism; Rational choice theory). In general, however, both approaches seem to ignore or discount a variety of morally relevant factors (fairness, needs, altruistic and selfish motives) that seem important in family matters. Moreover, both seem to presuppose individuals, with clearly distinguishable preferences and interests. But those families that do satisfy this requirement are not likely to have the solidarity, or intimacy, or communal history that other accounts of the family take to be definitive or primary (see Solidarity). Families composed of rational, self-interested, negotiating utility-maximizers seem like temporary roommates, not people who share a life over their lifetimes. This criticism does not, however, count against economic analyses less reliant on a calculus of individual interests.

Citing this article:
Ruddick, William. Economic conceptions of families. Family, ethics and the, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L025-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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