Future of family

By Samantha Brennan
November 16, 2012

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Editor's Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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As we all saw recently with the release of the new Canadian census data, the Canadian family is changing.

For the first time, fewer than 25 per cent of us live in the traditional nuclear family made up of mom, dad and kids at home. But probably we didn’t need the census to tell us this.

The rise of single-parent households, singles living alone, same-sex couples and couples without children is obvious just by looking around. 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, some people call them — in other forms, too.


It’s an exciting time to be working on academic issue related to the family.

I work in the fields of moral and political philosophy and one of my research areas is children’s rights and family justice issues. Traditionally, the fields of moral and political philosophy haven’t had much to say about justice and the family, instead viewing the primary relationship of political significance to be between adult individuals and the state. The family is either assumed to be just or thought of as somehow beyond the scope of justice. But two groups of philosophers have pointed out that both assumptions about the family fall short.

Feminist philosophers such as Susan Moller Okin, have pointed out assuming families are already just or are beyond the scope of justice is a mistake. For example, as long as women do an unequal share of work in the home, women won’t be able to participate equally in political and economic life.

Building on feminist work, egalitarian political philosophers examine the tension between egalitarian commitments and the rights we give parents to make choices for their children. For example, Adam Swift asks whether parents can send their children to private schools and still live up to their ideals. Western postdoc Angela White and I maintain a parent’s right to smoke is limited by children’s right to smoke-free homes (and cars) and that, ethically speaking, parents ought not to smoke in their own homes or motor vehicles.

My work is connected to both feminist political philosophy and egalitarianism. I’ve argued for a developmental account of rights for children, which start out protecting children’s interests but end up protecting their choices, as rights do with adults. With the philosopher Robert Noggle, I’ve argued parents’ rights are best conceived of as ‘stewardship rights,’ rights shaped by obligations to promote the well-being of the child. In addition, I’ve looked at a variety of ways which parental rights and children’s rights interact.

Often my work involves PhD students in philosophy. With Jennifer Epp, I’ve been exploring how children’s control over their sexuality, and over their sex and gender orientation, is an important part of childhood well-being. With Bill Cameron, I’ve argued children can have more than two parents and the law ought to recognize multi-parent families when doing so serves the best interests of the child.

Next summer with Sarah Hannen, a postdoc at Stanford, and Richard Vernon, a Western Political Science professor, I’m organizing a workshop on the ethical obligations associated with the choice to parent. Titled Permissible Progeny, the workshop will be held in June 2013 and bring more than a dozen philosophers and political theorists working in this area to Western to share their research.

Here are some more of the many questions about the family we need to think about philosophically as face the next 40 years:

  • Childlessness is becoming a growing trend in North America. Are those who chose not to reproduce just selfish? Or, from a self-interested point of view, is it ever rational to have children?
  • People are exercising choice in selecting family structures that suit their lives. Along with same sex couples we also see a variety of multi-parent households. What kinds of multi-parent households, if any, are able to best achieve ideal parenting goals?
  • Are the life stages associated with childhood changing? ‘Childhood’ is itself a culture and time- specific idea and perhaps our categories are changing as more young people remain economically dependent on their parents throughout their twenties. Do we need to think differently about the categories of child, adolescent, and young adult?
  • How should families balance the needs of family members at different stages of life? For the ‘sandwich’ generation, how ought one to balance the needs of one’s parents and one’s children? What’s fair within the family?
  • How will the changing roles of men affect justice within those families based on opposite sex marriages? The philosopher Colin Macleod says, “with any luck - the question posed almost exclusively to women of how they manage to have a successful career and a family will cease to seem sensible (either the question will make just as much sense when asked of men with children or it will seem more generally silly because professions and social norms will have developed so as to fairly and feasibly accommodate family life and career.”
  • And there are other ethically important family relationships that I and other philosophers have begun to address. What do I owe my siblings? Are there obligations that follow from being cousins? What makes someone a good aunt or uncle? These family relationships are nonconsensual and yet they have a moral pull on us.
  • Are family structures just about choice or are the limits on the kinds of family I can choose?

Samantha Brennan is a Philosophy professor in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.


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