The Ethics of Parenthood

The Ethics of Parenthood

The Ethics of Parenthood

The Ethics of Parenthood


In The Ethics of Parenthood Norvin Richards explores the moral relationship between parents and children from slightly before the cradle to slightly before the grave. Richards maintains that biological parents do ordinarily have a right to raise their children, not as a property right but asan instance of our general right to continue whatever we have begun. The contention is that creating a child is a first act of parenthood, hence it ordinarily carries a right to continue as parent to that child. Implications are drawn for a wide range of cases, including those of Baby Jessica and Baby Richard, prenatal abandonment, babies switched at birth and sent home with the wrong parents, and families separated by war or natural disaster. A second contention is that children have a claim of their own to have their autonomy respected, and that this claim is stronger the better the grounds for believing that what the child's actions express is a self of the child's own. A final set of chapters concern parents and their grown children.Views are offered about what duties parents have at this stage of life, about what is required in order to treat grown children as adults, and about what obligations grown children have to their parents. In the final chapter Richards discusses the contention that parents sometimes have an obligation to die rather than permit their children to make the sacrifices needed to keep them alive, arguing that a leading view about this undervalues both love and autonomy.


When we are young, our parents have our lives in their hands, to an extraordinary extent. They have enormous influence on what our lives are like, and more to do with the kind of person we become than anyone except us. As we grow up, we grow away from our parents, increasing our forays into the larger world and doing ever more of what they once did for us. Still, it is hard to think of any other extended human relationships in which one party is as deeply affected by what the other party does or does not do.

Our relationship with our parents changes when we become adults and take up whatever our culture expects of adults, but it does not ordinarily end. Our parents are still our parents, not just people who were our parents once upon a time. Often parents and their grown children are deeply fond of one another, and even when the relationship is strained and distant, each retains a remarkable power to affect the other.

This is a book about how parents and children ought to treat each other at the different stages of this uncommonly long and uncommonly powerful relationship. I try to say what the parental obligations are while a child is young and under the parent’s care, and also what obligations the child has to them during this period. Then I analyze the moral relationship between a parent and a grown child, including what obligations each has to the other and why they have these.

Of course, it would be a rare child who wanted only to be a figure of obligation to his parents, and an unfortunate child whose parents thought of him only in that way. It would also be a rare parent who wanted her children to take her only as someone to whom there were certain duties to be kept. Instead, children ordinarily want their parents to love them, and parents ordinarily want their sons and daughters to love them as well. This is true not only while the child is young but also when he or she has become an adult. So an account that spoke only of the obligations of parenthood and only of the obligations children have would miss what we hope to have at the heart of it all, and what can make it so sweet and so rich. There is one chapter below on loving one another, and points about love between parent and child are also central to the accounts of filial obligations and of a parent’s decisions about how her life is to end.

The chapters fall into three categories. The first group concerns the significance of being the biological parent of a child. Presumably that ought to matter, but why should it matter? What is it about being the biological parent that ought . . .

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