06 May 2015

Is Having a Good Family an Unfair Advantage?

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Adam Swift

Joe Gelonesi, at ABC (Australia), talks with two sophisters who are “investigating the problem.”

So many disputes in our liberal democratic society hinge on the tension between inequality and fairness: between groups, between sexes, between individuals, and increasingly between families.

The power of the family to tilt equality hasn’t gone unnoticed, and academics and public commentators have been blowing the whistle for some time. Now, philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse have felt compelled to conduct a cool reassessment.

Swift in particular has been conflicted for some time over the curious situation that arises when a parent wants to do the best for her child but in the process makes the playing field for others even more lopsided.
Swift and Brighouse needed to sort out those activities that contribute to unnecessary inequality from those that don’t.

Swift and Brighouse grudgingly concede that we probably shouldn’t simply abolish the Family. Private school, on the other hand…

What we realised we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children’.

The test they devised was based on what they term ‘familial relationship goods’; those unique and identifiable things that arise within the family unit and contribute to the flourishing of family members.

For Swift, there’s one particular choice that fails the test.

    ‘Private schooling cannot be justified by appeal to these familial relationship goods,’ he says. ‘It’s just not the case that in order for a family to realise these intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships you need to be able to send your child to an elite private school.’

In contrast, reading stories at bedtime, argues Swift, gives rise to acceptable familial relationship goods, even though this also bestows advantage.

‘The evidence shows that the difference between those who get bedtime stories and those who don’t—the difference in their life chances—is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t,’ he says.

This devilish twist of evidence surely leads to a further conclusion—that perhaps in the interests of levelling the playing field, bedtime stories should also be restricted. In Swift’s mind this is where the evaluation of familial relationship goods goes up a notch.

‘You have to allow parents to engage in bedtime stories activities, in fact we encourage them because those are the kinds of interactions between parents and children that do indeed foster and produce these [desired] familial relationship goods.’

Swift makes it clear that although both elite schooling and bedtime stories might both skew the family game, restricting the former would not interfere with the creation of the special loving bond that families give rise to. Taking the books away is another story.

‘We could prevent elite private schooling without any real hit to healthy family relationships, whereas if we say that you can’t read bedtime stories to your kids because it’s not fair that some kids get them and others don’t, then that would be too big a hit at the core of family life.’

So should parents snuggling up for one last story before lights out be even a little concerned about the advantage they might be conferring?

    ‘I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally,’ quips Swift.

Read the whole thing.

Harry Brighouse

8 Feedbacks on "Is Having a Good Family an Unfair Advantage?"

T. Shaw

The meretricious morins will not rest until they have sunk everybody to an equal low-level of depression and squallor.


The late Senator Moynihan pointed out many years ago that this is all part of the liberal process of “defining deviancy down”.

Dave J

Ah the progressive mind and its struggle with the concepts and application of “fairness” and “equality”. To what lengths are they willing to go; lobotomies for those harboring strong feelings of guilt regarding their unfairly obtained advanced degrees?


Wrote this comment elsewhere: Do you ever get the feeling we’re racing headlong toward the world of Harrison Bergeron?


It’s obvious. Abolish families. Children are the property of the Almighty State, anyway.

Dan Kurt

Read the essay: Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature here: https://www.mises.org/library/egalitarianism-revolt-against-nature-0

or, listen to it being read here:

Dan Kurt


Humanity is incompatible with egalitarianism.


In my humble opinion to tell a parent that they cannot or should not read totheir child because it might disadvantage a child whose parents don’t read to them is “hate speech”. The logical thing to have said would be to tell the parents who are failing their children to do more. But to shame parents for teaching their children is stupid.


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