Featured Philosop-her: Samantha Brennan

Samantha Brennan

Samantha Brennan is Professor of Philosophy at Western University, Canada. She is also a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, an affiliate member of the Department of Women Studies and Feminist Research, and a member of the graduate faculty of the Department of Political Science. Brennan received her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her doctoral thesis “Thresholds for Rights” was written under the supervision of Shelly Kagan. Brennan’s BA in Philosophy is from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Brennan has a broad range of research interests in contemporary normative ethics, applied ethics, political philosophy, children’s rights and family justice, gender and sexuality, death, and fashion. In addition to her interests in parenting and in philosophy, Brennan is also an avid cyclist, practices Aikido, and likes to move heavy weights around in the gym. Not surprisingly, this has led to a side interest in philosophy of sport. You can read her new blog here.

Rethinking the Moral Significance of Extended Family Relationships

Samantha Brennan

While it’s almost a cliché now to note the neglect of the family in the history of moral and political philosophy, it’s also now no longer true. In recent years moral and political theorists have turned their attention to parent-child relationships, the family, and the state.[i] One aspect of family life which has been overlooked however is family relationships that fall outside the narrow scope of the nuclear family.

It’s as if moral and political theorists criticized the picture of the state relating to its citizens as too abstract and individualistic, and substituted instead relations between nuclear families and the state, including intra-familial relationships in considerations of justice. That’s fine and an improvement over Hobbes’ mushroom model (“Let us return again to the state of nature, and consider men as if but even now sprung out of the earth, and suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity without all kind of engagement to each other . . .”) but the families once excluded, now included look remarkably like the model of the state just criticized as overly abstract.

Moral and political theorists working on justice within the family have tended to focus solely on children and parents, ignoring the rich diversity of family structures which often include, multiple parents (such as step-parents, adoptive and foster parents in open adoptions, polyamorous and polygamous families) as well as aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings etc. Real life is messy, and rarely matches the theorists’ abstractions, and that can be dangerous when the details that get tidied up and hidden away, are ones that matter morally.

While the family never has been as neat and tidy as our theories make it out to be, it also seems to be getting messier. As the new Canadian census data makes very clear, the Canadian family is changing. For the first time the census recorded that fewer than 25% of Canadians live in the traditional nuclear family made up of mom, dad and kids at home. Single parent households, opposite sex couples deciding not to marry, singles living alone, same sex couples, and couples without children are some of the other forms families are taking. Around the world, and throughout time, families are often larger than the nuclear family, many taking the shape of multigenerational households. And now we see creative, intentional relationships—families of choice—in other forms too.

My own work on ethics and the family makes this mistake too, focussing on parent–child relationships, to the exclusion of others. Consider the arguments Bill Cameron and I give in the paper How Many Parents Can a Child Have? Philosophical Reflections on the “Three Parent Case.” In that paper we argue that recognizing the diversity of patterns of lives which support the well-being of children serves to recognize both the best interests of the children and respect parental rights. Our question was, roughly, how many parents a child can have in light of the creation of alternative models of family? This work pushed past the nuclear family, looking front and centre at alternative family models, but the focus remained on parent-child relationships, their limits and their justification.

I think moral and political philosophers need to explore the significance of extended family relationships and pay more attention to the kinds of goods that these relationships make possible, both for adults and for children. Extended family relationships are good for adults and for children and they make possible a kind of creativity in family role and blend chosen with biological or legal family relationships in ways that are philosophically rich and interesting. There are a range of relationships that fall into the category of “extended family” but let’s concentrate here on that of aunt or uncle.

Unlike the parent-child relationship where it looks as if there is a moral bedrock—the obligations of parents might have different shapes in different cultures, there is some moral minimum parents must do to care for their children to ensure their needs are met and their rights protected—the roles of aunt and uncle don’t just vary widely between time and place, they also vary a great deal within a culture, indeed within a family. Aunt and uncle are such flexible roles that it doesn’t seem to be required that one even be a biological or legal family relation.

Think too about the very wide variety of ways that one can be a good aunt. Good aunts might allow visiting runaway children to watch television until hours, have popcorn for dinner, and paint toe nails in bed. Childless aunts and uncles are especially prone to this role of half grown up (lives alone, has job) but not quite grown up yet (can eat chocolate at all hours and have a messy room). Aunts and uncles might allow visiting children to use dangerous tools (with supervision) and again cook unorthodox dinners. In families that are less traditional or stable, aunts and uncles, might instead be the beacon of order and sanity. A friend talks about taking his nephew, a young teen raised by his “hippie” brother and wife, out shopping for a suit and tie. He taught him which knife and fork to use when confronted with multiple options and later plans to teach him about pairing wine with meal choices and about how to tip.

What made me start thinking about extended family in the first place? First, a personal anecdote. As a young adult in my twenties, in grad school, I knew I wanted children in my life but I wasn’t, yet, committed to the idea of becoming a parent. I was an idealist and I imagined, as I think many young people do, that my generation would do things differently. I thought of co-operative parenting, of communal living, and of alternative family arrangements. Instead, those friends having children also got married, and parenthood looked like this incredibly private, intimate thing. There was no easy access to the children of other people and it seemed as if what I wanted was a more open model of parenting. I’d need to be the parent, inviting others in, rather than the other way round. In the end my partner and I had three biological children and we’ve also opened our home though foster parenting, for a short period of time, to other children as well. We’ve involved other adults in the raising of our children and live very close to extended family who are very involved in our children’s lives.

What benefits follow from extended family relationships?

·      Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift offer an account of parental rights that’s grounded in the goods of parenting. I agree with lots of what Brighouse and Swift have to say about the goods that children bring to the lives of parents but children can also bring goods to the lives of non-parents. Philosophers might want to think more broadly about the goods that relationships with children can bring to all of our lives. We might also want to consider the interests that adults who do not become parents have in the lives of children. Not all childless adults are childless by choice and as economic and environmental factors push us to smaller families, it may be that children, and relationships with them, are goods best shared when that is a viable alternative. There is also considerable burn out and stress associated with parenting in a nuclear family and sharing the work of parenting with extended family can benefit parents as well.

·      Anca Gheaus puts forward the view that we have an obligation to have some care of children provided by non-parents in her paper “Arguments for nonparental care for children” (Social Theory and Practice, 37(7), July 2011). She explains three existing arguments for non-parental care and then sets out five of her own new arguments. The arguments stem from considerations of well-being, duty, and fairness. Although the arguments Gheaus offers are put forward as arguments for a universal system of child care they might well also be seen as arguments for the involvement of extended family. Many of the considerations she offers insofar as they count against exclusive parental involvement will speak in favour of the involvement of other adults, including aunts and uncles. Given that there is a risk that care by parents can go wrong, it’s also a fair thing, as fairness requires us to spread the risk, and limit the damage, that failed care entails for children on Gheaus’ view.

·      It’s also important that we respect that work that non-parents do in helping to raise children. In an opinion piece in the Guardian, “Sorry, but being a mother is not the most important job in the world,” Catherine Deveny writes that it’s time to drop the slogan. She says, “It encourages mothers to stay socially and financially hobbled, it alienates fathers and discourages other significant relationships between children and adults.” The part of her claim that I’m interested in is the claim that over valuing mothers, indeed over-valuing parents, discourages other significant relationships between children and adults. Writes Deveny, “The deification of mothers not only delegitimises the relationship fathers, neighbours, friends, grandparents, teachers and carers have with children, it also diminishes the immense worth and value of these relationships.”

It’s time for philosophers to think beyond parent-child relationships when we think about the family.


[i] See Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift’s Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, Princeton University Press, 2014 and Family-Making Contemporary Ethical Challenges, Edited by Francoise Baylis and Carolyn McLeod, Oxford University Press, 2014 for two very recent examples.

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  1. Pingback: Featured Philosop-her: Serena Olsaretti « Philosop-her

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