Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift ask an interesting question about conferring advantage on children in their new book Family Values. We do all sorts of things that confer advantage, from reading kids bedtime stories to sending them to private schools. All these things get in the way of fair equality of opportunity, they say, giving children a leg up just because they happen to be born into better off, more educated families. But where should we draw the line? Which of our advantage-conferring practices, as parents, can be justified? Actually, they focus on a narrower question: which of these things can be justified "by appeal to the value of the family and must be permitted if people are to realize that value in their lives"? (p. 246)
Their answer is that advantage-conferring practices can be justified by appeal to the value of the family only if they are needed for intimate family life. Reading bedtime stories is fine, even if it does confer advantages over others, and so is attending church together. Here's a passage that conveys the general idea--
Without substantial opportunity to share himself intimately with his child, in ways that reflect his own judgments about what is valuable, the parent is deprived of the ability to forge and maintain an intimate relationship, and the child is deprived of that relationship. The loss is to the core of what is valuable about the relationship. The loss is to the core of what is valuable about the relationship. Imagine that parents are barred from engaging in these or relevantly similar activities, or, less drastically, that such activities are made very difficult: the opportunities for realizing the familiar relationship good that justify the family would be severely limited. (p. 125)Their paradigm case of a practice not justified along these lines is sending kids to private school. That confers an advantage that interferes with equal opportunity and isn't necessary so that parent and child can enjoy an intimate, mutually satisfying family life.
This way of drawing the line is going to validate some of what affluent parents do, but also condemn a lot of what they do. So let's see, what gets validated? (Most of these examples aren't theirs.)
- Bedtime stories, they say. I'm not so sure. Possibly I could have as much quality, intimate time with my kids if we watched a little TV before bed. But let's let that pass. Bedtime stories are in.
- Going to museums. This confers an educational advantage, but maybe it passes muster, if my child and I love being together at museums in a way we don't love being together at, say, a bowling alley.
- Traveling to national parks. There's definitely an educational advantage conferred, but it might be OK, since vacation time does generate family intimacy, and I just can't enjoy Disneyland in the way I can enjoy a national park.
- Buying high school students laptop computers so they can easily manage schoolwork, access online assignments, etc. The computers confer an advantage and aren't necessary for family intimacy. Yes kids appreciate the gift, but only briefly so, and laptops actually tend to make kids retreat from the family.
- Flying around on college trips so kids can decide where to apply "early decision". All of that confers an advantage, reducing fair equality of opportunity, and doesn't do much for family intimacy. (Stress, arguing, etc.....)
- Music lessons. All advantage, not a lot of intimacy, considering the stress over the years about practicing, performing, etc.
Though not a libertarian, I am drawn to what many libertarians say about the family. My personal liberty to spend my own money includes liberty to spend on my kids, because "children themselves form part of one's substance." They "form part of a wider identity you have" (Robert Nozick, The Examined Life, p. 28). If I may buy myself a laptop and thereby have advantages over other workers (Brighouse and Swift don't say otherwise), I'm very tempted to think I can also buy my kids a laptop. The worry that all kids ought to start life on an equal footing falsely presents kids as totally distinct from their parents. But that's a huge thing to try to argue, especially in a quick blog post.
I have a more modest objection to what Brighouse and Swift are saying about when it's OK to confer advantages. Suppose I have all sorts of money to spend on laptops, books, education, and whatnot, for myself. I may secure those advantages for myself; presumably I'm entitled to them, on their view. What kind of family life would I have if I bought myself a laptop and then told my kids they couldn't have one, because they needed to remain on a level playing field with other children? Imagine this happening again, and again. "X is fine for me, but not for you!" Conferring advantages (without an intimacy payoff) may actually be necessary for a family life that's internally harmonious and egalitarian. An alternative would be that I don't get to have a laptop either, but that would put an awfully heavy burden on parents. Do they really have to make themselves less competitive at work, once they have kids?
Surely there are some ways of conferring advantage on children that are illegitimate (I can think of several that amount to outright cheating). I'm just not entirely convinced that as many things are illegitimate as the authors claim.