How Procreation Generates Parental Rights and Obligations

In Michael Cholbi & Jaime Ahlberg (eds.), Procreation, Parenthood, and Educational Rights: Ethical and Philosophical Issues. Routledge (2017)
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Philosophical defenses of parents’ rights typically appeal to the interests of parents, the interests of children, or some combination of these. Here I propose that at least in the case of biological, non-adoptive parents, these rights have a different normative basis: namely, these rights should be accorded to biological parents because of the compensatory duties such parents owe their children by virtue of having brought them into existence. Inspried by Seana Shiffrin, I argue that procreation inevitably encumbers the wills of children in otherwise morally objectionable ways. Such subjection generates duties to compensate children, even if the child’s life is on balance a benefit to her. The right to procreate is thus conditioned on prospective parent’s willingness to compensate for the harms of procreation. And because parents bear such compensatory duties, they must be accorded permissions (i.e., rights) to fulfill these duties. These rights include familiar exclusionary rights to promote children’s welfare, etc. Moreover, because subjecting children to harms or the risks thereof violates their autonomy, parental duties (and rights) include the provision of education and other goods that enable their subsequent autonomy as adults. Grounding parental rights in compensatory procreative duties avoids problems associated with appeals to the interests of children (e.g., that these interests do not seem to generate exclusive parental rights) or to the interests of parents (e.g., that these interests do not appear strong enough to permit the creation of a new, vulnerable human individual).

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Michael Cholbi
University of Edinburgh


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