Forthcoming: Laurence D. Houlgate, ed. Family Values: Issues in Ethics, Society and the Family Belmont, California: Wadsworth 1988

Parenthood: Three Concepts and a Principle

William Ruddick, New York University


Summary. Disputes about pediatric, educational, and other child-related matters may reflect more general concepts of parenthood, including parental rights and responsibilities. These concepts may be child-centered, focusing either on a child’s needs or on a child’s development. Needs and development are not wholly distinct or in competition, but some parents may emphasize one or the other and, in case of conflict, favor one over the other. Such emphasis and preference tends to distinguish parents as child-carers and parents as child-raisers (in most cases, adult-raisers). So distinguished, these kinds of parental focus involve different temporal perspectives (present and future), as well of different categories of assessment and analogies (associated with nursing and teaching).

A third concept of parenthood widens the focus to include family members, present and future, as well as past or departed members. Parents who think of parenthood as family-making and maintaining are very like political rulers and are appraised in quasi-political terms.

When these concepts come into conflict there are at least three principles which may be invoked to resolve matters: the Amish Parent-perpetuating principle, the liberal Option-maximizing principle, the Life-prospect principle -- a principle that allows parents to foster life-prospects that may eliminate a number of alternatives, as well as blocking life-prospects that, on reflection, they think could never lead to lives for their children that they, the parents, could accept. This Life-Prospect Principle draws on notions of a life ("biographical," or, better "psychosocial") that is distinct from biological existence, and helps formulate parent-child relationships better than the usual notions of autonomy, best interests, and rights--all of which presuppose fully distinct individuals. But a parent and a child share a life that is never fully transcended, even when a child is leading a life of his or her own.

This principle can be applied to various educational and medical issues to frame questions and suggest answers in ways superior to those of the Option-maximizing principle, a principle which requires parents to deny or minimize the importance of life-prospects that most favor. Admittedly, LPP requires more complex self-reflection about parental hopes and repugnance, including consideration of often complex epistemic issues about deep parental values and their possible revision, especially when they threaten the on-going connections between parents and children.

For support LPP may appeal to Liberty, defined by freedom from interference of authorities in various matters crucial to leading a life, especially freedoms with regard to work and forming and maintaining a family. Liberty, so construed is different from Autonomy defined in terms of the maturity and rationality needed for self-governance. LPP may also appeal to current work in the Ethics of Care which makes maintaining personal relationships a basic, underived good. LPP’s requirement that the life-prospects parents foster must be jointly acceptable of both parents and child serves the very purpose of maintaining parent-child relationships throughout childhood and beyond.



In parental practices and disputes, there are often three distinct governing thoughts at work, namely,

1. parents tend, or care for their children;

2. parents raise their children; and

3. parents make and maintain a family.

Although normally compatible and intertwined, these distinct notions may come into conflict, especially in disputes between parents and doctors or teachers, or between parents themselves. After sketching these notions, I’ll consider examples of these disputes and underlying parent conceptions, as well as three principles for resolving them. Of the three, I’ll argue for the Life-prospect principle (LPP) that falls between two extremes, namely, the Parent-perpetuating principle (PPP) that gives parents too much power over their children’s future lives and the Option-maximizing principle (OMP) that gives them too little.


1. Parenthood as child-caring

Caring for children involves various activities--attending to them, feeding them, protecting them. Perhaps ‘child-tending’ is the better term, for it focuses on parental activities, not the sentiments that ‘caring for’ may suggest. Of course, parental activities are often prompted by affection, but much effective child-caring involves little affection--contrary to the usual sentimental accounts of mothering. Nonetheless, I’ll use the more familiar ‘child-care,’ but mean ‘child-tending.’

These child-caring activities are in part defined by law, religion, and analogies with other work. The law regards parents as their children’s guardians from birth (or earlier[1]) until maturity--the age at which young people officially no longer need parental protection or support.[2] As child-carers, parents are traditionally compared to gardeners planting and tending saplings and offshoots,[3] or to shepherds tending their flocks, or to nurses caring for the ill and helpless. (‘Nurse’ and ‘nurture’ are cognates.) On certain religious views, God the Creator appoints parents to protect the innocent souls and spiritual welfare of the children whom He entrusts to them.

One striking feature of child-caring is its temporal focus on a child’s present needs, especially those that require continuous or frequent satisfaction. This explains the distinctive appraisals we make of parents as child-carers. So conceived, they are praised for being attentive, responsive, patient, devoted, and generally responsible. Likewise, they are blamed for being deficient in these respects, as most teenage or drug-abusing parents are supposed to be. Or, alternatively, parents are blamed for "smothering" their children with too much attention or being too patient , hence too permissive or indulgent of their children’s misconduct.

Mothers are especially subject to such criticisms. Still regarded as the primary care-takers, they are held to a strict standard often pictured by doting mothers serenely cradling a nursing child or securely holding the hand of a toddlers. Fathers are held to a lesser standard of care, perhaps because of stereotypes of masculinity that make them less suited for attentiveness, responsiveness, and patient care of the helpless or dependent.

Although focused on present needs, the care even of very young children may have some future aspect. Parents worry about inculcating bad habits through the ways they feed their children or respond to their crying. These short-term concerns lend themselves to more long-range parental concerns about a child’s developing character, trustfulness, expression of feelings, and the like. For many parents, whatever the immediate satisfactions of caring for a young child, this work is motivated primarily by their larger child-raising project.


2. Parenthood as raising children

Sooner or later, most parents come to form and guide their parental activities by ideas of what they want their children to become in adulthood. At the outset they may think of themselves as artists with large creative powers. But just as artists work within often narrow constraints of materials, genres, and taste, just so parents must take account of children’s biology, temperament, peers, and culture. Nonetheless, most parents try to shape their growing child’s character, values, and tastes to favor or exclude certain adult outcomes. Raising a child, in short, is raising an adult.

In their child-raising parents are subject to various distinctive appraisals. They are judged to be realistic or unrealistic in their hopes for a child; open- or narrow-minded in the interests they allow or foster, or the lessons they instill; supportive or retarding of a child’s development; deftly guiding or relentlessly pushing a child in certain directions.

It is striking how many of these same assessments apply to teachers, but this should not be surprising. Parents are their children’s earliest and often their most influential teachers in a variety of matters--language, emotional expression, domestic skills, moral matters. How much and how long parents may control their children’s education is, of course, a complex legal and moral issue in many locations. Some parents battle public school teachers over books and topics they think morally subversive (Heather has Two Mommies; techniques of safer sex, Socialism), or they seek to supplement the standard "one-sided" curriculum (with Creation Science, ROTC, Wall Street investing techniques). Or, against children’s wishes, parents may shift their children from public to private school to prepare them for life in a special social class, or remove them from school altogether so that they can begin to assume their allotted roles in a religious community. Again, such parental efforts at educating their children may persist through a life-time, prompted especially by emerging or persisting political and religious differences.


3. Parenthood as family-making

These first two parental concepts are child-centered, the first focused on the current needs of a child, the second on the adult prospects of a child. But for many people parental thoughts have a wider, longer family-focus on the family. Some children are conceived in order to start, or enlarge a family, to commemorate a family member lost through death, or to satisfy parents’ desire for grandchildren. Likewise, contraceptive or abortive efforts often have familial motives, for example, not to shame or burden one’s parents, or to postpone one’s own family-making or family-enlarging to a better time.

Such familial thoughts about parenthood reflect the fact that all births are familial events: Most children are born or adopted into a family of parents and siblings, and even first children have a larger family of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. And if death or separation deprives a child of immediate relatives, children will nonetheless feel their presence through the tales they are told or invent and the prayers they are taught.

Parenthood conceived as family-making or enlarging has itself distinctive temporal features. Starting a family has a point in time, but the family one starts or enlarges may have no intended or foreseen end. Indeed, having children may be a way of creating or continuing a family with no end--for some people, a reassuring kind of immortality in the face of death, or, at least, a possible perpetual continuity with subsequent generations (subject of course to the fortunes of fertility, disease, war--and children’s continuing procreative desires).

In addition to these temporal features, parenthood as family-making carries distinguishing spatial, or topological features. Child-tending may require fences and shelter that protect children from the elements, animals, kidnappers, while child-rearing requires rooms and other places for instruction, practice, study, and playful time-off. But for family-making and maintaining, what matters most is a home. Parents may make a home for their family in various places--trailers, caves, tree-houses, or even welfare hotel rooms (but not welfare shelters, aptly named), so long as it remains a place of relative security and easy return.[4]

In addition to these distinctive features of time and place, there are special assessments of parents as makers and maintainers of a family.[5] They are judged to be fair or unfair, restrained or overbearing, beneficent or exploitative and dictatorial in the use of their power. Relatedly, parents may create a secure or fearful home, a hospitable or clanish home, a cooperative or competitive homelife, a loyal or disloyal family feeling.

These are the very terms in which political rulers are assessed. Like rulers, parents wield economic and psychological power, as well as the threat of physical force, over their children, aging parents, and other family dependents. Not surprisingly, philosophers have found political analogies the most illuminating of parental roles. Aristotle likened fathers to their children’s sovereigns. Locke assigned regal powers to both mothers and fathers, for the purpose of raising children to neither need nor desire monarchs in adulthood.

The dangers of such parental power is obvious from exercises of political powers. As in political communities, some family members have the power to define those common values and hence dissent, as well as the power to silence dissent so defined through shame or the threat of expulsion. Bernard Shaw aptly noted that a man’s home may be his castle but a prison for his wife and daughters.

Despots aside, traditional families are still liable to various political faults, including subversion of civic values and communal life.[6] Plato made family ties impossible for the Guardian class by making conception communal and paternity untraceable. Families, he thought, were acquisitive and hence corrupting of civil servants.[7] More seriously, families like nations tend to be clannish, defining themselves by contrast with "inferior outsiders." This identity so defined often set limits to the kinds of acceptable outsiders who may enter or marry in. Such family clannishness is a society’s racism or xenophobia writ small--small enough for children to readily read and enact in school.[8]

On the other hand, families may foster civic virtues by preserving (and embellishing) tales of virtuous ancestors who were Abolitionists, political opponents of corrupt officeholders, volunteers in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. The desire to emulate family saints or carry on a family tradition of political courage may be more influential that the moral admonitions of school teachers and clergy. Like parental maxims, family stories may have directive influence throughout life.


Conflicts of parental notions

Despite differences in analogies, appraisals, spatial requirements, and temporal perspectives, these three concepts of parenthood are often harmoniously combined, for better or for worse. As I noted, the ways parents define and respond to a young child’s needs may reflect their concerns with character formation, as well as the child’s intended family rank and role. In many families, young girls may be fed less and later than their brothers, thereby being trained to contribute more to daily family life and preparing them for adult roles as wives and mothers.

Yet conflict of the three parental concerns and concepts is always possible and is often invoked in parental disputes. A mother may insist that a young daughter’s need for corrective eye surgery, a matter of tending, should take precedence over the father’s insistence on private school for an older son, an expense integral to his child-raising ambitions. The father may argue that the son’s education will eventually bestow rewards on all the family, including better suitors and a larger dowry for the daughter.

Sometimes physicians and probate judges will be drawn into such disputes, or themselves become disputants. Physicians often seek temporary guardianship of children whose parents refuse clearly beneficial treatment, such as chemotherapy for leukemia, as in the publicized case of Chad Greene.[9] For court intervention, however, a condition need not be life-threatening. Kevin Sampson’s mother kept him home from school, protecting him from the ridicule occasioned by his disfiguring, but operable tumor of the head and neck. Again protectively, she refused consent for surgery out of fear for her son’s life, a fear the surgeons dismissed as excessive.[10] The court sided with the surgeons, regarding them as having the proper parental regard for the child’s educational and social development.

On occasion, it may be the physicians who take the role of child-tending protectors against parents who are focusing, as zealous child-raisers, solely on long-range consequences. Growth hormones provide an example. Appealing to the social and occupational advantages of height, parents concerned with raising a child might insist on hormonal treatment for a child whose predicted full height would otherwise fall in the lowest percentile of his society’s normal range. Pediatricians might well refuse, wishing to protect the child from a long, arduous treatment with uncertain promise--a refusal parents would find short-sighted and overprotective. In the pediatricians’ view, by contrast, the parents will seem negligent of the child’s current welfare, focused too narrowly and distantly on the child’s adult condition.

Growth hormones for a child who has inherited parents’ achondroplastic dwarfism may provide a conflict of a different sort. Rather than a dispute between a child-protecting physician and a child-raising parent, the dispute may between a child-raising physician and a family-making and maintaining parent. Suppose that parents with achondroplastic dwarfism refuse to have their second child treated with growth hormones on the following familial grounds:

Our first son was treated with success: several years of treatment with growth hormone put him into the low end of the normal height range by the age of 7. But, as he grew, it became difficult for us to restrain or protect him, physically. Moreover, he became increasingly embarrassed by our height and refused to bring his friends home, even for birthday parties. If pressed, he would admit that we worked in the circus, but he said we were musicians, not clowns. His intention is to leave home as soon as possible and support himself by whatever work he can find, preferably far away. We don’t want to raise another child like that!

Admittedly, a small person has fewer job options than other people, but a small son would not have to stay in the circus, even if that is what we might hope and help him prepare for. Employers in other fields are becoming more accommodating, thanks to anti-discrimination law, TV exposure, and efforts of Little People of America to foster both self-pride and public acceptance. But regardless of the work he does, he and we will have the rewards of continuing family ties that his brother has foregone.

Clearly, it is not the burden of treatment on the child, but the burden of his normal growth on the family that is at the heart of the parents’ refusal of treatment. How might physicians or judges respond? How should they? Are there any principles which address this case and argument?



One such principle is that proposed by Joel Feinberg in criticizing a US Supreme decision that permitted the Amish to end their children’s public schooling at 14, two years short of the legal limit.[11] The Court majority accepted the Amish argument that the continued existence of their 19th century religious farming community was at stake: if their children attended public high school, they would be less likely and less able to take up their roles in the community. Feinberg argued that the Amish violate their children’s "right to an open future," namely, the right to be "permitted to reach maturity with as many open options, opportunities, and advantages as possible."[12] This complex right has as its general basis the right to autonomy or self-determination, that is, "the sovereign authority to govern oneself, which is absolute within one’s own moral boundaries (one’s "territory," "realm," "sphere," or business")."[13] Of course, like other adult rights, the child’s right to autonomy is a right-in-trust, to be fully granted when a child has developed the capacities necessary for its exercise. On this view, it is a principal parental duty to help a child to develop the capacity for autonomy.

Do the dwarf parents violate this liberal, Option-maximizing principle (OMP)? Yes, although perhaps not to the extent that the Amish, Hasidim, and some local social elite (Boston Brahmins?) do. Admittedly, the dwarf parents are not trying to reproduce their own lives through their children, but they are reducing the son’s adult options by keeping him small in the hope that this physical likeness will favor continuing family ties. To that extent his future is less "open" than it would be with medical treatment.

But should we accept Feinberg’s Option-maximizing principle and so condemn them for this violation? At first glance, his principle seems far superior to the principle of parental self-perpetuation (PPP) of the Amish, Hasidic, or Boston Brahmin parents, for it is more realistic in the assumptions it makes about the future and less coercive of children’s interests and activities. (Being realistic and uncoercive, recall, were positive assessments of parental child-raisers.) The greater realism lies in allowing for a wider range of future contingencies in social circumstances and in a child’s aptitudes and interests. Amish parents must count on the stability of their 19th century rural community, despite the increasing encroachment of late 20th century culture, as well as on their children’s continuing acceptance of their mothers’ and fathers’ strict division of labor and recreation for their own lives. To insure that compliance, the Amish must be more coercive than Hasidim and Boston Brahmins whose worlds are far less isolated, even if still rigidly defining. And, of course, all these parental self-perpetuators need to be more coercive than the Feinberg liberal fostering a variety of options for a child’s eventual choice.

Even so, Feinberg’s Option-maximizing principle may itself require parents to make some unrealistic assumptions, especially about their own capacities for parental self-denial. If their children are to "reach maturity with as many open options, opportunities, and advantages as possible," they may have to give up or at least reduce the importance of their own ideals for their children’s lives. A number of adult occupations require early and steady preparation (for careers in music, athletics, Talmudic scholarship, acrobatics). Such early specialization will almost certainly leave a child quite unprepared for a whole range of occupations which jointly are more promising, financially and otherwise. Does the OMP allow such specialization? It would seem not.

If OMP does rule out such specializations, however, then it requires that these parents forego to abandon their fondest parental hopes and goals in favor of more likely, but less rewarding lines of work and kinds of life for their children. Such restrictions are, I think, unrealistic: How can we expect parents to raise children whole-heartedly for a whole range of lives they regard as all inferior to the life they are able and eager to foster for their children? (Think here of a cook having every day to set out a vast smorgasbord. What incentive does she have to cook, if her specialties are bound to be lost or ignored among the vast array of other dishes, many of which she herself has little taste for?)

Moreover, even if far less coercive than PPP, the OMP may still require coercive methods to get children to cooperate with the parents’ optimizing program. Suppose the parents’ informed assessment of future societal demands and opportunities prescribes not only the computing, literacy, and Spanish skills taught in school, but also social skills like public speaking, Mandarin, and golf that are not. Few children will accept such heavy bookings without resistance, nor can the parental pressures required be easily construed as autonomy-training. (Again, think of a child being forced to sample too many dishes from a smorgasbord.)

To steer between the parental extremes of parental self-perpetuation and parental self-denial, we need a principle that requires parents to allow for deviations of their children’s circumstances and interests from their own, but nonetheless allows them to raise their children to reflect parental ideals and to maintain family ties. One such possible guide is a "Life Prospects Principle" (LPP). It requires that parents provide life-prospects, or possibilities for a child that

1. jointly encompass a range of likely societal changes; and

2. each of which would be acceptable sooner or later to both parents and child.[14]

The first condition is meant to rule out narrow parental ambitions for a child that make unrealistic assumptions about the child’s future life circumstances--whether conservative Amish assumptions of social stability or radical Marxist assumptions of revolutionary change. The greater the uncertainty about those long-range circumstances, the greater the range of life-prospects parents should foster or allow. But, as the second condition makes clear, in this provision for the future, parents need not include life possibilities likely to cause them or their child deep distress if the child were to realize any of them.

Before applying this principle to the dwarf parents, let us examine the meaning and epistemic demands of this proposed principle. The ‘life’ of ‘life-prospects’ refers to the patterns of aims, activities, and relationships that characterize most human existence, not to the biological matters they depend upon. It is this sense of ‘life" in which we talk of leading, shaping, or judging our lives--what some philosophers have called the "biographical" sense of ‘life.’[15] As for "prospects," they are the opportunities defined by social and psychological categories in a culture, as well as the even more general conditions of human existence. As such, they include the forms of love and work a culture approves, or at least accepts. (In late 20th century, North Atlantic societies, almost all kinds of computer work are approved, while gay and lesbian domestic partnership and child-rearing are increasingly accepted, even if not endorsed.)

In the second condition, I speak of realizing, not choosing a life-prospect. Choice plays a far smaller part in patterns of love and work than liberal or autonomy theorists presuppose. Much about the lives we lead are the result of chance, temperament, the influence of others. Even if we have several life-prospects in our youth or later, there may be no moments or deliberative decisions that mark the realizing of one or the other. Hence, the occasional shock when on reflection someone sees clearly the course of their life, much as a sailor without a compass, chart, or visible destination suddenly realizes the course she is on across a bay with few landmarks or buoys.

Our concern is with the parental attempts to influence that course, however, inconstant or ill-defined or unchosen it is. To continue the analogy, to what extent may they try to set the course and the kind of boat and sail a child will have? And how much do they have to know or predict about weather, currents, water depth, and sandbars to responsibly and safely influence course and conveyance?

LLP may seem to impose an impossible epistemic burden. The first condition requires parents to make informed predictions, for example, about social and economic circumstances that will define a child’s occupational and other social possibilities and rewards many years hence. The second condition requires them to make similar long-range assessments of what they and their child will find an acceptable life for the child, then an adult. The Utility Principle and other consequentialist principles also require long-range predictions, but there is something especially problematic about predicting one’s own future attitudes about deeply felt matters. It would seem either too easy or too hard--too easy, because if I hold them strongly, I must feel that they are, as firm convictions, very unlikely to change-- or too hard, because in order to assess the likelihood of my strong convictions changing, I will have to imagine becoming a very different person.

Let’s see how these epistemic matters play out in two cases, one of parental opposition to a child’s dreams, one of parental dreams for a child. Suppose a daughter wants nothing more that a classical ballet career, but her mother refuses to let her take ballet class for the variety of reasons our three parental concepts identify. The mother fears that ballet training will be physically harmful, foster eating disorders, seriously limit her daughter’s intellectual and social development, and make a stable marriage and family almost impossible. Her daughter, of course, thinks her mother exaggerates the dangers and underestimates her own chances of success and family life.

If the mother’s fears are to satisfy the LPP’s first realism demand, they will need to be grounded in evidence wider than anecdote--a difficult task in so far as ballet directors, like surgeons, are not eager to record or share such data.[16] Would LPP’s second mutual acceptability demand be less of a challenge for the mother’s objections to meet? In addition to her fears about her daughter’s physical, intellectual, and social well-being, the mother has moral and political objections to the whole ethos of classical ballet, especially its celebration of sylphlike, regal, or prince-worshipping women. She could take no pride in her daughter, however successful, serving these oppressive ideals of femininity.

But how sure can she be that her attitudes won’t change? Even strong attitudes wax and wane, especially under pressure from children’s passions and attachments. She may have already, for example, come to appreciate, or at least tolerate, her daughter’s passions for certain popular music, or clothes, or spiritualism just because they were her daughter’s passions. And if she allowed her daughter to dance, wouldn’t a mother’s pride in her achievements be all the more likely to change her assessment of classical ballet, even of Sleeping Beauty?

Perhaps, but given her strong moral and political critique of classical ballet, the mother would have to think of herself undergoing a sea-change in her attitudes. But to imagine such a change might require imagining herself becoming a person she can no longer identify with or recognize. Such radical conversions do occur. Parents who renounce a child who marries outside the faith, or makes a public commitment to a partner of the same sex, have been known to becoming reconciled to their child when she gave birth to their first grandchild. But even though such radical conversions are known to occur, they are necessarily unpredictable in one’s own case. Like a religious or political conversion, they result from the impact of unique personal experiences, "bolts from the blue," and as such, are unexpected.

Admitting the possibility of radical change, the mother could still appeal to self-image or self-conception to justify her certainty that she would continue to disapprove even if her daughter were to become a star. There is, however, one more possible source of change she must consider, namely, the possibility of deeply and permanently alienating her daughter by her adamant, disparaging opposition to ballet. Vividly imagining that possibility, the mother might find her animus somewhat lessening, at least enough for her to foresee that she could tolerate or accept her daughter’s life in ballet, even if she could not endorse or approve of it.

I have formulated LPP in terms of "life prospects acceptable to both parents and children" in order to allow for just such modification of principled opposition into grudging acceptance. Foreseeing the need for such accommodation to maintain connection with her daughter, she might begin now to make concessions. ("Well, so long as you maintain your weight, your school grades, and interest in some contemporary dance companies, I’ll let you take two classical classes a week.") In so doing, she would act as if she did have some doubts about the convictions she holds, without the self-denying thought that they are really not convictions after all. She can, thereby, meet the epistemic demand without imaginative self-denial.

A converse case of a child’s grudging acceptance of his parents’ dreams will bring out other facets of the LPP’s conditions. Consider academic parents who push their son to excel in school, but not just to improve his college and career options: they want him to have an academic career, repeating their successes or compensating for their disappointments (in the universities they did or did not get into, and even in the scholarly fields they pursued or wished they had pursued). What cautions, or limits might LPP set on such parental projects?

Like many self-referring parental projects (of professional golfers, musicians, real estate investors, Mafiosi), this runs several risks even when children cooperate. Self-deceptively overestimating their son’s ability or ambition, parents may well expect him to have greater success than he achieves. Ironically, he may find his prospects acceptable, but they do not when they realize that those prospects are less than they had hoped. For them, there has been no appreciable difference between what is acceptable, or tolerable, and what is worthy of approval: any life of his they can accept must be a source of pride for them.. But aware of the risk their disappointment and disapproval poses to continuing close ties with their son (and his wife), they may have to draw that distinction, or alter their criteria of what is praiseworthy.

Their son’s fulfillment of their ambitions may, ironically, force the same reflections and revisions of original ambitions for him. Suppose he does excel as they had hoped, but at the cost of two divorces and loss of his children’s custody--and, for them, close ties to grandchildren. Supposing (like the Amish) they assumed that the academic world they had known would remain stable, and they made no allowance for the strains on family life new conditions of academic competition imposed (fewer tenure-track lines, more and earlier publication, more trips for consulting and conferences, visiting appointments abroad). Belatedly, they may come to revise deep-seated, self-identifying values in the light of their regrets about costs their son was in fact willing to pay for success, but as it turned out they were not. Had they able in advance to take such costs into account, they would have been able earlier to modify the goals toward which they drove him. .

In these two academic cases, as with the ballet scenario, LPP’s second condition of "eventual mutual acceptability" proves more difficult to assess in advance than it seemed, largely because of what in the various circumstances the parents would eventually find acceptable. This is not a problem for adherents of the Option-maximizing principle: the options which parents must maximize need not take account of the parents’ own desires for a child. In each case, the question is, Would fostering or discouraging this life-prospect seriously reduce the range of prospects the child would otherwise have? (Probably, ballet more so than academic training, but both are significantly reductive.) But, as I have argued, disallowing strong parental preferences and ambitions threatens to make parenthood a kind of self-denying servitude for anyone whose parental aims are more selective than that of a life-prospects smorgasbord.

After these explorations of how LPP might guide deliberation and judgment, let us return to the dwarf parents who refuse consent for growth hormone therapy for their child. Do the dwarf parents violate LPP, as I have been developing it? Arguably, not. In their family-maintaining efforts, they do not try to make their son replicate their lives, or stay within their own hermetic world. They do not restrict his education to circus arts, but rather argue that he will have many options in the larger world, despite his small size. But they are willing to sacrifice the greater options normal height would provide in order to keep him closely related to them. So long as they are aware of the risk they are taking of angering and alienating him by their refusal, they would seem to be satisfying the conditions of LPP.

Let’s consider a final case that extends LPP into life and death issues and shows both its utility of LPP and its limits. Consider a familiar case of an infant born with Downs syndrome and a life-threatening constriction of the gastro-intestinal tract. Does LPP allow a parent to withhold consent for life-saving surgery? Suppose, with the LPP in mind, she insists that the child will have no life-prospects that she deems acceptable. Even if she did not already have other children to care for, she could not devote herself to the care of a child with such limited prospects, whatever the special care and education others might provide, and if he did survive to adulthood, she could not tolerate the thought of him living in a sheltered community of people with similar or worse disabilities. Her conclusion: Since he could not have a life she could foster and accept, it is better that he not live.

"Better for whom--her or the child?," we might ask. The LPP does not take up the lives of parents and children separately assessed, but rather a child’s life-prospects as assessed by the parents whose efforts provide and develop them. The more appropriate challenge under LPP is to ask, "Are her assessments of life-possibilities fully informed?" Probably not. Despite much favorable publicity about Downs children, the public no doubt still overestimates the special care they need and underestimates their developmental capacity and the special rewards they provide their parents and siblings, at least in many, if not all cases. But, granting all that, she may still refuse consent on the ground that one cannot tell at birth how severe the Downs disabilities may be and that she will not gamble on her child being one of the less disabled, dependent, and educable ones.

Such reasoning cannot, I think, be faulted on grounds of LPP properly applied. Of course, she would face objections based on more familiar principles from religion and law. Many physicians would invoke a child’s right to life, on religious or other metaphysical grounds. Hospital lawyers would invoke laws that forbid discrimination against handicapped persons in medical treatment, arguing that the operation is routinely performed on infants without disabilities. I will, however, not try here to weigh LPP against these general rights to life or non-discriminatory medical treatment. These rights are too complex to discuss briefly, and so too is the meta-issue of how rights or principles are to be weighed or ranked when they conflict.[17]


Backing for LPP

The liberal Option-maximizing principle is founded on the alleged general right to Autonomy. Is there a general right or some other wide moral considerations that would justify LPP? The right to Liberty will serve here if properly distinguished from the right to Autonomy with which it is often conflated. Unlike Autonomy, Liberty is not a notion of self-governance, but of freedom from governance by those in power, especially governmental authorities. More specifically, Liberty is constituted by a variety of specific freedoms such as freedom of movement and association, especially in matters or work and family life. In family matters, many women in recent years have gained the freedom to choose, refuse, or leave a marriage partner, and to use various means or assistants in avoiding or producing pregnancy and childbirth. Such liberties are clearly crucial for leading a life not subject to control by authorities, political, religious or domestic. But since such liberties are equally important to children when they become adults, parents are not morally free to extend their early authority over children into a child’s adult years. Accordingly, parents cannot so limit a child’s life-prospects that the child will have to lead a life he or she does not want. Both conditions of the LPP are meant to rule out such parental restriction of a child’s future liberty, while at the same time allowing parents the freedom to raise children in ways that give their own lives purpose and hope.

In exercising their limited parental freedom, parents clearly cannot do anything that would deny their children the same degree of parental liberty in their maturity. Hence, LPP as liberty-preserving over generations rules out the kinds of arranged marriage parents often make to insure that their grandchildren will be of their own class, race, or religion. Even in inheritance tax law allows "generation skipping," the LPP does not, at least in matters of parental liberty.

I do not mean to suggest that a principle of liberty, or the value of liberty is a foundation for LPP. Liberty derives its value from the value of lives, not vice versa.[18] Therefore, the value of life-prospects does not derive from the value of liberty, any more than it does from the value of autonomy.

I have may have drawn the contrast between Liberty and Autonomy too sharply. They are clearly close relatives. Witness the role of rationality and maturity in each. For Autonomy, these are defining properties; for Liberty, they are moral and legal preconditions. But even this contrast is dropped by theorists who use rationality and maturity to distinguish Liberty from "license." Nonetheless, Liberty’s greater scope and specificity make it better suited than Autonomy for moral analysis of familial and other personal ties.

Liberty and Autonomy aside, further support for LLP can be found in feminist work under the rubric, "the ethics of care." Although not always explicit, much of this writing assumes that preserving of human relationships is a basic good underived from other values.[19] As we have seen from several cases, LPP’s "mutually acceptable" condition serves this good, as well as the goods of Liberty and of a psychosocial life of one’s own. Recall that it was the dwarf parents’ desire to preserve their parent-child relationship through childhood and beyond that prompted their refusal, and, likewise, it was the same desire that might prompt the mother to try to moderate her opposition to ballet, when no other consideration would.

In closing, I should make clear that I do not think of the Life-Prospect principle as having the authority or clarity of application to serve as a moral decision procedure. (Recall its inconclusive role in the Downs syndrome case.) The most we can ask of any moral principle, however, is that it formulate an important moral factor that we might neglect or distort without its help. In so doing, it can enrich moral deliberations that are oversimplified, or occasionally tip the balance in a moral stalemate. The notion of life-prospects parents that foster or foreclose is, I suggest, just such an important moral factor. In invoking this notion, the Life-prospect principle defines the scope and limits of parental selection of those prospects, with due respect for each of the parental concerns that distinguish the three common concepts of parenthood I have identified. When those concerns of child-caring, child-raising, and family-making conflict with regard to pedagogic or pediatric decisions, the Life-prospect principle can help clarify the conflict, and on occasion help resolve it (as in the academic and sectarian cases). Accordingly, the principle would seem to deserve a place in our moral repertory, even if it is not as clear and user-friendly as I might wish.





1. Increasingly, women are charged with negligence and abuse if their infants are born with conditions due to alcohol or drugs taken during pregnancy.

2. Traditionally, girls become mature when old enough to gain a husband’s protection, and boys when capable of self-protection. In the Middle Ages, male majority was set by adding the 2 years needed for military training to 19, the age at which boys were judged strong enough to wear and wield armor.

3. In an earlier essay, "Parents and Life-Prospects," (in Having Children: Philosophical and Legal Reflections on Parenthood, eds., Onora O’Neill & William Ruddick, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, section 2) I contrasted guardians with gardeners. I was not thinking of routine watering, feeding and spraying, but rather of gardeners’ horticultural work of pruning, training, and shaping plants. Horticulture is clearly more akin to the raising of children, the second parental concept I take up shortly.

4. Robert Frost’s famous lines caught these aspects: "Home is the place were, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in," says the farmer as he watches a former worker returning across a field. Or, as his less quoted wife replies, "I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve." -- "Death of a Hired Man," first published in North of Boston (London 1914).

5. Henceforth I’ll use "family-making" to cover both adding children (by birth, adoption, or remarriage) and family-maintaining. Since family ties need constant adjusting, mending, altering, and reviving, this expansion is apt. (Compare the theological view that God sustains the world through constant recreation.)

6. See Michelle Barrett & Mary McIntosh, The Anti-Social Family (London: Verso/New Left Books 1982).

7. Plato, Republic, Bk. V.

8. Militaristic rhetoricians get the connection. Witness, the recruiter’s call for men to fight abroad against a foreign enemy who, if undefeated, would invade the "Homeland," rape wives and daughters, and leave families with alien, unwanted children of mixed-race.

9. Despite its high cure rate, the parents sought to spare him the "torture" of further leukemia chemotherapy. Defying the order, they fled with him to Mexico for an unproved, but less toxic treatment with the extract of apricot pits. The boy subsequently died.

10. In re Sampson, 317 N.Y.S. 2d 641. Although a Jehovah’s Witness, she did not think that blood transfusion would imperil her son’s prospects for heaven, if imposed by the physicians.

11. "A Child’s Right to an Open Future," in Whose Child?, eds. William Aiken & Hugh LaFollette (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield 1980), reprinted in Joel Feinberg, Freedom and Fulfillment, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1992).

12. Ibid., p.130.

13. Ibid., p.142.

14. a slight revision of the principle as I first proposed it in "Parents and Life Prospects," op.cit., section 3.

15. A better term might be the psychosocial sense of ‘life’ for those attitudes, aims, and social relationships need not have the coherence or distinctive, unifying themes that biographies, as narrated stories, require. Children’s lives develop within, and often remain intertwined with, their parents’ lives in ways that do not provide such literary features, let alone the highly individualistic, even careerist features that some philosophers presuppose in their use of "biographical life." It is this partial identity of the lives of parents and children that is both the aim of family-makers and maintainers, as well as the opportunity for parents’ excessive, coercive, or unrealistic attempts at control.

16. One doctor estimates that 1 in 5 classical ballet dancers suffer eating disorders, 20 times the incidence in white middle-class (girls and) women. New York Times, 7/16/97, C15.

17. I take up these matters in an essay for a project on prenatal testing for genetic disability at the Hastings Center (Garrison, New York), sponsored by the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute’s ELSI (Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications) Program. A collection of this papers will be published in 1998/9 by Georgetown University Press, Washington D.C.

18. See James Rachels and William Ruddick, "Lives and Liberty," in The Inner Citadel: Essays on Individual Autonomy, ed. John Christman, New York: Oxford University Press 1989.

19. This theme is most prominent in the work of Carol Gilligan (In a Different Voice) and Nel Noddings (Caring), as well as in more recent work by Hilde and James Lindemann Nelson (The Patient in the Family) and Sara Ruddick.(in Norms and Values: Essays in Honor of Virginia Held, forthcoming).