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The ethics of parenting

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L156-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

To be a parent comprises two different functions, procreating and childrearing. In practice, they are usually bundled: most procreators also rear their offspring, and hence are their parents in both senses.

However, procreation and childrearing are distinct analytically, and sometimes also practically. People have always procreated children whom they could not or did not want to raise. And the rise of artificial reproductive technologies makes it possible for increasing numbers of people to raise children whom they did not procreate.

Moreover, the two aspects of parenting lend themselves to different normative analyses. The most relevant ethical questions concerning procreation are: is it ever morally permissible to procreate? Under what conditions is procreation permissible? Do people have a right to procreate as often as they wish? Could there ever be a duty to procreate? What duties do procreators have towards their offspring? Is one of these duties a duty to rear one’s offspring oneself? And does being somebody’s procreator entail that you have a right to rear that person? All talk of rights in this entry refers to moral rights, unless indicated otherwise.

The main ethical questions about childrearing are: is the family a legitimate institution, or should we raise children in state institutions? What are the grounds of a right to rear in general? What are the grounds of the right to rear a particular child? What rights do rearers have in relation to their children? What duties do they have? And what are the tasks and virtues of parents?

A common and widely acknowledged feature of both the ethics of procreation and the ethics of childrearing concerns how parenting impacts third parties – that is, individuals other than parents and their children. Neither procreation nor particular ways of rearing children can be legitimate if they are conducted in ways that violate third parties’ rights (Vallentyne 2003). For instance, procreation impacts on ecological sustainability. This is why some philosophers believe that one can only exercise the right to procreate once or twice (Overall 2012; Conly 2016). More generally, to settle issues of intergenerational justice, one must first address questions concerning the population size in each generation (Meijers 2017). Further, it is plausible that childrearers’ actions can generate negative externalities – for instance, due to children’s inadequate socialisation – which childrearers ought to rectify or compensate.

Procreation also raises questions of non-person affecting value, such as optimum population size (see also: Population and ethics).

Citing this article:
Gheaus, Anca. The ethics of parenting, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L156-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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