Parents’ Rights

by Harry on September 28, 2006

I see that Adam Swift is giving an interesting-looking paper on “Parents’ Rights and the Value of the Family” at the UCL political theory seminar next month. All right, I’m being coy, we co-authored it, but since I never directly post anything on my own non-existent web page, I wanted to encourage people who might be interested to read it.



Ben 09.28.06 at 4:19 pm

You know, I’ve seen a couple of your co-authored papers (with Adam and Marc Fleurbaey) but never seen you…


harry b 09.28.06 at 6:42 pm

What are you suggesting, Ben? Maybe lacking a webpage casts doubt on my existence?


ben 09.29.06 at 3:06 am

I’m not sure what I’m implying. Maybe just it’s about time you came to Oxford!


a 09.30.06 at 1:05 am

“Parents may not deliberately indoctrinate their children [e.g. in their faith].” Sorry that strikes me as pretty silly. Sure I can consider a meaning of “should” where parents should not indoctrinate their children in their faith, but that’s not the meaning that most people use.


harry b 09.30.06 at 7:54 am

By “may not” we mean “are not morally permitted to”. You think they are? Sure, no-one can stop them (that’s part of our point). But think of it from a first person perspective: “Am I morally permitted to indoctrinate my children?”. Could reflective people of good will really answer that question with “Yes”?


a 09.30.06 at 8:02 am

“You think they are?” Yes I think they are, and I think most people think they are.
“Am I morally permitted to indoctrinate my children [with my faith]?” Yes again, and again I would think most people would reply yes. (So, I guess I am either not reflective nor of good will.)


harry b 09.30.06 at 8:39 am

Well, of course, most people could just be wrong; and of course I haven’t done a survey. But we did choose ‘indoctrinate’ carefully. People are morally permitted (and I think they might be morally obliged) to expose their children to their own values, religious beliefs etc. But they are also obliged to recognise the possibility that they are, themselves, mistaken about matters of value and religion, and that they have an obligation to their children to ensure that they have the intellectual and emotional resources to recognise and correct mistakes. Indoctrination deprives them (or runs an unacceptable risk of depriving them) of those resources. So, do you still think its permissible for you to indoctrinate your children? As opposed to the many permissible things we mention in the paper which will, indeed, make it likely that they come to share your faith, but fall short of indoctrination?


harry b 09.30.06 at 8:41 am

PS — I’m trying to give reasons here, rather than just invoking reflectiveness and good will. And both of us are open to the possibility we’re wrong. But I haven’t seen good arguments that indoctrination is morally permissible, and even if there are good arguments I suspect they would be orthogonal to what it is that makes the family valuable.


a 09.30.06 at 9:50 am

Sure I can be wrong – I agree with that one! But I repeat – sure it’s permissible for me to indoctrinate my children. Perhaps this turns on what you mean by “indoctrinate”. For instance, I don’t think parents have the right to torture or physically abuse their children in order to ensure their children believe in their religion. But here the “indoctrination” is wrong because the indoctrinating (?) acts are wrong. Do you have an example of indoctrination which you think is wrong where one cannot point to specific acts, aiming to achieve the indoctrination, which are wrong?

I’m not sure what you mean when you say that one can be “mistaken” about a value. And while I imagine people understand they can be mistaken about their religion – e.g. they admit it is possible that Jesus actually did not rise from the dead on the third day – I imagine many think it is not possible for them to be shown they are mistaken or, less strongly, that the possibility is simply moot – I imagine that’s what faith is all about.

As a side point I don’t see why indoctrination deprives people of the resources to recognise and correct their mistakes. Again, perhaps I am simply misunderstanding what you say, but it would seem that there have been many cases where people have been brought up to be flame-throwing religionists, but then have subsequently stopped believing. Their parents indoctrinated them but also gave them the resources to develop non-belief. Does indoctrination somehow imply a permanence of believe in the person subjected to it? (But, just to be clear, I think indoctrination of faith in religion is permissible even if, somehow, this indoctrination could be guaranteed to be permanent. Or at least, that’s what I would say off the top of my head…)


harry b 10.01.06 at 2:21 pm

a — thanks for all that — I’ll try to respond in the week (I spend the weekend not indoctrinating my kids!)


Tracy W 10.01.06 at 4:50 pm

An interesting article.

I wonder if you have read Judith Harris’s _The Nurture Assumption_? She presents some strong evidence that parenting practices (as separated from parents’ genes) do not have a significant impact on childrens’ adult personalities – eg studies of identical twins separated at birth show that their personalities are correlated about as much as identical twins brought up together. Instead she argues that children are socialised by their peer groups, and presents some evidence in support of that.

If Judith Harris is right, then concerns about parents indoctrinating their children are a lot less important. Parents do have some power to chose their children’s peer group in our modern world, but beyond that there’s not much they can do to change things.

And we know, historically, that new ideas have arisen without them being indoctrinated by their parents. Eg the abolitionist movement, the suffragist movement, the Impressionsists. I think the article overweights the effective control parents can have over their children’s beliefs, let alone the children’s adult beliefs.

There is a noticeable gap in the paper. In the introduction it says If, for example, the state decided to redistribute children at, or soon after, birth, from what it deemed less suitable to what it deemed more suitable parents, would it be violating the rights of parents (as opposed to merely harming them, or doing some wrong to the child)? This implies that in the absence of parents having parental rights, the state would therefore by default have rights to redistribute children. But no such argument is presented in the paper, nor can I see a reference to another paper which might explain why a state would have rights to redistribute children.

But, more importantly, and less spectacularly, they have the power to make their children’s lives miserable or enjoyable (within limits, at least at the enjoyable end). We do have these powers over those with whom we engage in adult relationships, but they are usually, to some extent, reciprocal.
Umm, from my memories as a child, I could definitely make my parents’ lives more miserable or more enjoyable too. Have you ever being around a screaming child?


leederick 10.01.06 at 7:14 pm

I’m puzzled too. What Harry means by parent is ‘someone in a parenting relationship with a child’ and he thinks ‘no-one who will do an adequately good job of raising a child should be prevented from being a parent’.

Now I just can’t see how this impugns redistribution away from people who would be adequately good parents to those who would be good parents. The concern is that adults who would be adequately good parents would be left childless if this happens (because of a limited supply of children). But – if there’s a limited supply of children – adults who would be good parents would be left childless if this didn’t happen. Either way, people are going to be left childless if there is a limited supply of children. Given that this will happen under both scenarios, I can’t see how it can impugn one of them.

As far as I can see redistribution would only be problematic if some people had an greater interest in a particular child than other people do (say their biological child), but the fundamental parents’ rights approach doesn’t seem to allow this. So far as it is concerned everyone has the same interest in forming a parental relationship with a child. If they all have identical claims, I can’t see why one group being childless is worse than the other group being in the same situation. Am I missing something?


Michael Kremer 10.02.06 at 7:31 am


I am trying to figure out what is meant by “indoctrination” and what you think would be forbidden in this connection. My OED defines “indoctrination” in the primary sense as simply “instruction” or “formal teaching.” Now, when I was married in the Catholic Church, I was asked the following question: “Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” and had to answer “yes” for the ceremony to proceed. I am interested to know whether you think I thereby took on an obligation to do something that I am not morally permitted to do. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells me:

“Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children in the faith, prayer, and all the virtues.” (section 2252; there is a lengthier description at sections 2223 to 2229. This discussion emphasizes repeatedly parents “responsibility for the education of their children” including the “the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children” and describes how parents “should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the faith” beginning “in the child’s earliest years.” For example, parents are told that they are to teach their children “to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God” and to “to educate them in the right use of their reason and freedom,” as well as to “to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions. … that will best help them in their task as Christian educators.”

Again, I would like to know if, in following out what my Church teaches me is my duty and responsibility towards my children, I am doing something morally impermissible.

Let me note a couple of things in more detail. One of the prayers my children have learned to recite is the Creed. They recite this every Sunday at Mass. Have they been indoctrinated in learning this prayer, which is an outright statement of faith? Could I take them to church at all without so indoctrinating them? And again, is my taking them to church them morally impermissible?

Furthermore, my children have been received into several of the sacraments of the Church (reconciliation, Eucharist, confirmation), and each of these sacraments is only entered into after a course of instruction which enables them to understand what they are doing in receiving the sacrament. Was I doing something morally impermissible in sending them to catechetical classes and sacramental preparation classes?

Do you realize how fundamental all of this is to the religious life of the Catholic Church? Do you really understand what you are saying is morally impermissible?

I do not need to apply this only to Catholicism. Similar remarks will apply to various forms of Judaism, preparation for the bar mitzvah, study of Torah and Talmud, and so on, I believe.

I have fond and loving memories of my own parents’ teaching my faith to me. I do not see how they could have been doing anything morally impermissible. Their instruction has given me much of what is most valuable in my life. Elizabeth Anscombe has what seems to me a lovely discussion at the beginning of her paper “On Transubstantiation” (
“It is easiest to tell what transubstantiation is by saying this: little children should be taught about it as early as possible. Not of course using the word “transubstantiation”, because it is not a little child’s word. But the thing can be taught, and it is best taught at mass at the consecration, the one part where a small child should be got to fix its attention on what is going on. I mean a child that is beginning to speak, one that understands enough language to be told and to tell you things that have happened and to follow a simple story. Such a child can be taught then by whispering to it such things as: “Look! Look what the priest is doing … He is saying Jesus’ words that change the bread into Jesus’ body. Now he’s lifting it up. Look! Now bow your head and say ‘My Lord and my God’,” and then “Look, now he’s taken hold of the cup. He’s saying the words that change the wine into Jesus’ blood. Look up at the cup. Now bow your head and say ‘We believe, we adore your precious blood, O Christ of God’.” … If the person who takes a young child to mass always does this (not otherwise troubling it), the child thereby learns a great deal. Afterwards, or sometimes then (if for example it asks), it can be told what the words are which the priest says and how Jesus said them at the Last Supper. How he was offering himself up to the Father, the body that was going to be crucified and the blood that was going to be shed. So he showed that on the next day, when he was crucified, his death was an offering, a sacrifice. You can tell an older child how from the beginning priests have offered sacrifices to God (and to other, false, gods too) bringing animals, the best that people had, and offering them on altars: that this was how gods were worshipped, for sacrifice is the principal sign that something is being worshipped as a god. Jesus was a priest offering himself and what he did at the Last Supper showed that that was what was happening the next day on the cross. You can tell the child how he told the Apostles to do what he did at the Last Supper, and made them priests; and that that is why his words when used by a priest have the same power as they did when he said them at the Last Supper. … Thus by this sort of instruction the little child learns a great deal of the faith. And it learns in the best possible way: as part of an action; as concerning something going on before it; as actually unifying and connecting beliefs, which is clearer and more vivifying than being taught only later, in a classroom perhaps, that we have all these beliefs.”

This appears to be precisely what you think is a kind of twisted misuse of a parental right of association, when you write “it is impossible to allow people to take their children to church without allowing them to use that right to try to indoctrinate their children in their faith.” But for a Catholic parent it is impossible to “take children to church” without “indoctrinating them.” If no effort is made to explain to them what is going on, and later to involve them in what is going on in a way that makes cognitive as well as affective and practical demands on them, then parents ought not to be bringing children to church at all. Do you think they should be brought merely as specatators to something their parents, inexplicably, do? As Anscombe says in the same article: “The worship that we learn to give at the consecration carries with it implicitly the belief in the divinity and the resurrection of the Lord.” Taking children to church can hardly be separated from teaching them what is going on there.


harry b 10.02.06 at 8:15 am

I have to be pretty brief, so can’t give full answers. I have puzzled a lot about The Nurture Assumption, but I am all-but-certain that her findings, while quite relevant to policy prescriptions, are entirely irrelevant to the fiundamental moral questions at issue in our paper. It would take a long explanation to make that persuasive, and I guess Adam and I need to do that in the book. ANyway, I’ll try to write a post about it in the next few days (but that’s not a promise, I have a ten day old baby in the house, and however irrelevant I am to his wellbeing, hhe’s pretty relevant to mine).

on redistribution: the bechmark against which we are comparing our view is the view that familial arrangements should be designed in the best interests of children. On this, not at all silly, view, only children’s interests play a role in justifying arrangements, which means that in principle the ideal would be to ensure that children are raised by those who would do best by them. For many children those will not be their natural or adoptive parents. The state is the guarantor of justice of last resort, if you like, so the state does, on the “child’s best interests” view, have the right to redistribute (though it’s actions must be strictly guided by the moralm imperative mentioned).

Indoctrination. Some people have said that our view reifies the western bourgeois family, to which I have quipped “Oh no, its the western bourgeois protestant family we reify”. I don’t really mean it. I do think there is soemthing wrong in evangelising your children if you specifically intend to block their ability to come, in maturity, to scrutinise, revise, and possibly reject, the values you are instilling in them. Doing so stunts their moral growth, and intends to deprive them of the ability to use good judgment in addressing issues of how to live their lives. If Catholicism requires you to do that, too bad for Catholicism.

But of course I don’t really think that Catholicism, at least in societies that are pluralistic, does require you to do that, and I don’t think that most parents of good will who try to instill their values and beliefs in their children conceive of what they are doing that way. They think that they are passing on good values the best they can, knowing there is no guarantee that the society they live in will provide their children with such resources (in most of our cases, knowing something worsem, which is that there our powerful forces in our society which want to instill false and bad values in our children so they are available for exploitation of various kinds), but confident that our children will question what we have taught them, and, indeed, in some of what we do trying to provide them with the resources to do that questioning in an emotionally and intellectually responsible way. If Catholics are not allowed to do the latter I’ve known a lot of bad Catholic parents. So I think a goodd deal of activity that might look evangelistic from the outside and might even be conceived by the parents themselves as evangelistic, is legitimate and perhaps even obligatory as long as it is accompanied by other activity that fosters a critically evaluative stance in the adult the child will become.

Ok, I said brief, and I obviously didn’t mean it –I have to stop, excpet for the rider that only I, and not Swift, should be held responsible for anything I say that is not actually in the paper.

My need for terseness might make me seem more combative than I am — I’m v. interested in what people think about this stuff, and, as I said to a, entirely willing to find that I’m wrong.


a 10.02.06 at 10:56 am

“I do think there is soemthing wrong in evangelising your children if you specifically intend to block their ability to come, in maturity, to scrutinise, revise, and possibly reject, the values you are instilling in them. Doing so stunts their moral growth, and intends to deprive them of the ability to use good judgment in addressing issues of how to live their lives. If Catholicism requires you to do that, too bad for Catholicism.”

Well, if that is an implication of your theory, then it is more like too bad for your theory! By that I mean, you seem to be enouncing ex vido moral first principles and then deducing conclusions. It would seem that, if your conclusions result in something which causes you to dismiss the moral beliefs of over half the planet, then perhaps you should recheck your first principles.


harry b 10.02.06 at 11:07 am

Come on, a. Suppose I proposed a theory in 1800 claiming that women should have equal rights with men. Who should revisit their beliefs?


harry b 10.02.06 at 11:33 am

Or, to give an empirical example, surely I do not have to reconsider my belief that the doctrine of transubstantiation is false just because Catholics believe it.

Theories should be tested against widely held views, but I don’t see why the mere fact that a widely held view contradicts a theory, when the theorist has given reasons, should force him or her to change his or her view.

All that said, I don’t think that Catholics do all hold the rather strong view about the permissibility of indoctrination that you sort-of-endorsed and which is the version that I reject. At least some if not many Catholics reject it.


Tracy W 10.02.06 at 2:03 pm

The state is the guarantor of justice of last resort, if you like, so the state does, on the “child’s best interests” view, have the right to redistribute (though it’s actions must be strictly guided by the moralm imperative mentioned).

Is it?

I can’t see any reason to believe, on an empirical or theoretical basis, that the state does have the “child’s best interests” at heart more often than parents.

In a democracy, it is highly likely that any politician determining policy when a child is a year-old, will be out of power or retired by the time that child can vote at 18 – which rather mutes the incentives for the state to have a child’s best interests at heart.

In a dictatorship, the incentives are of course even more muted by the dictator not having to stand for election at all.

Nor do I see how ‘guarantor of justice’ implies a right to redistribute children. It does imply right to protect children from assault, murder, etc. But that’s a more limited right than what you appear to be talking about – of redistributing children on a normal basis, without the parents having necessarily committed any crime.

I think you are missing a simpler argument for parental rights by starting off with the assumption that in the absence of a right for parents the state has a right to redistribute children (or take them to live in orphanages).


harry b 10.02.06 at 2:13 pm

tracy, we may be talking past each other. Of course actual defenders of the “best interests of the children only” account are well aware that actual states have mixed motives and limited information at best, as am I. What they think, though, is that the children’s interests trump all other interests, and that whatever arrangement best advances those interests would be justified. Our argument is that, even ifd (per impossibile according to you) the state would do a better job than parents, or it could and would redistribute in the best interests of the kids, it would still be doing something wrong, because it would be violating parents’ rights. In toher words, children’s interests do not (morally) trump all other interests (though, as I’ve indicated in my comments on the thread they have a lot of weight). DOes this matter for policy purposes — it might, in some circumstances. But what we are fundamentally tryng to do is carve out the space of moral reasons.


a 10.02.06 at 2:48 pm

“Come on, a. Suppose I proposed a theory in 1800 claiming that women should have equal rights with men. Who should revisit their beliefs?”

According to the 1800 “should”, women should not have had equal rights. The meaning of “should” has changed since – by indoctrination, I might add…

I’m not sure if you agree with that assertion, but if we take it as so, then it would seem that your intent is not to use what would be considered the standard meaning of “permissible,” but to use a different notion.


Tracy W 10.02.06 at 2:50 pm

Ah, while my first impulse would be that the state would be doing something wrong in taking children away from their parents as it had not yet been established that the state has a right to take children away from their parents.

I don’t think it is impossible for a state to do a better job, but I think it is definitely unproven that a state would, and the historical evidence is that states don’t do a better job.

There is also the debate over what being able to take away children would do to the state.


Tracy W 10.02.06 at 3:00 pm

I think a stronger argument against the idea that children’s interests trump all other interests is the one of organ donation.

Imagine that a child requires a heart transplant to survive, and a suitable living, adult donor has been found but no suitable cadaveric donations. Would anyone advocate killing the adult for the heart? (There was a kid at age 10 in my primary school who was over 5 feet tall already, while there are plenty of adults smaller than 5 feet, so assume size difference isn’t a factor).

Or, to take a less extreme circumstance, if it could be shown that an adult’s political activities were causing embarrassment for a kid with their peers, would someone therefore argue that the adult should be stopped from engaging in said political activity?

Or, assume that the state could raise children in their best interests, what if that led the state into becoming an effective dictatorship? Would that be right?


Tracy W 10.02.06 at 4:20 pm

I do think there is soemthing wrong in evangelising your children if you specifically intend to block their ability to come, in maturity, to scrutinise, revise, and possibly reject, the values you are instilling in them. Doing so stunts their moral growth, and intends to deprive them of the ability to use good judgment in addressing issues of how to live their lives.

Coming back to Judith Harris again, does it make a difference to your thinking, if it is not in fact possible for parents to do the indoctrination they may want to do? If a parent can’t stunt a child’s moral growth, or deprive them of the ability to use good judgement in addressing issues of how to live their lives, then is it a relevant moral consideration that some parents might want to do so?

Of course, a parent can stunt a child’s moral growth or deprive them of the ability to use good judgement by beating a child about the head until the child suffers severe brain damage of the required type. But I think everyone agrees that such a beating is criminal, as are beatings that do not result in brain damage, the state has a role in prosecuting such assaults, and such an assault is a million miles away from the methods that appears to be contemplated in the paper of a parent trying to indoctrinate a child.

And, incidentally, though I find Judith Harris quite convincing, she does not argue that parents are irrelevant to children’s lives – just that parenting styles are pretty irrelevant to children’s final personalities and beliefs aside from a parent’s indirect influence on the child’s peer group. Physical care obviously is very relevant to a child, and parents can obviously teach a child a wide variety of useful skills, and a parent has a lot of power to make their child’s lives happier or sadder during childhood – even if this does not impact on the child’s adult life.

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