a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Having slaves and raising children

When I said yes to co-writing a book on surrogacy, I thought it would be just a straightforward application of my general view that moral rights over children, including the right to custody, are grounded in children’s own interests rather than in any interest of the right holder. And in a way it is: in a nutshell, I argue that custody is a prerogative, and hence cannot be sold or gifted. A practice that permits people to transfer it at will is illegitimate. But, along the way, I’m making interesting discoveries; one of them is just how far one may push the analogy between holding slaves and raising children in a world like ours, which has not yet fully outgrown the long tradition of denying rights to children. Many contemporary philosophers of childrearing should find the analogy plausible, even if they don’t share my view about the justification of the right to custody. Let me explain.

You may be familiar with the widespread criticism of surrogacy as a form of child-selling, or child trafficking. This is a very serious charge because, as Bonnie Steinbeck notes, if it’s correct it implies that children of surrogacy are treated like slaves: deemed to be proper object of commercial transactions. One way to resist the charge, particularly popular amongst political philosophers, such as Richard Arneson or Cecile Fabre, is to say that it’s not the child who’s really being bought and sold – or, presumably, gifted in altruistic surrogacy – but merely the right to parent the child, as well as gestational services and, sometimes, gametes. Now, perhaps this defence can be accepted by those who, unlike me, believe that the right to parent partly protects adults’ own interest in being parents. If you have a right to parent – as long as you are competent enough, according to most versions of this view – because the right protects your interest, then maybe you are free to sell, or gift, the right to properly licensed intentional parents. But is this enough to dispel the deeper worry that children’s treatment continues to be, to some extent, on a par to that of slaves? Not really. (“Continues” because our ancestors, the Romans, gave fathers the legal powers to kill, and sell, their children.)

The moral right to custody consists of a bundle of moral rights, some of which are powers over the children. If there is any consensus in the philosophy of childrearing, it is that children may be paternalised, i.e. that some controlling of their lives is not wronging them. The consensus stops here, however, because philosophers disagree about the nature, and therefore the extent, of parents’ moral rights. Again, some believe these rights protect strictly the interests of the child*: others think they also protect some of the parents’ interests – for instance an interest in autonomy. Those who hold the former view also agree that parents’ legal rights far exceed their moral rights. For instance, parents can irreversiblymodify their children’s bodies without medical indication, for religious or aesthetic reasons that children may laterdisown, deny their children medically recommended treatments, enrol them in educational and religious practices independently from how such enrolment serves the child’s interests, paternalise them in excess of what is justifiable given the development of the child’s autonomy, and prevent them from establishing or continuing beneficial relationships. All in all, a lot of morally unjustified controlling!

But this is exactly how many of us understand one of the main wrongs of slavery: the holding of unjustified control rights over another person. For neorepublicans, this is the charge against it; and their claim that slaves have a serious grievance even when their masters don’t exercise their rights, drives the intuitive appeal of neorepublicanism. Yet, one need not be a neorepublican to see what’s wrong with some people having unjustified legal rights to control others’ lives.

If so, then in societies where (even licensed) parents hold legal rights in excess of their moral rights, children are, to some extent, morally on a par with slaves. The difference is that the law allows more limited mistreatment of children than it permitted in the case of slaves in slave-owning societies. Moreover, perhaps the arc of children’s history does bend towards justice: the extent of parental legal rights has been shrinking over time. While it’s still bending, those who say that surrogacy is a bit like slave-trafficking have a point. But – and this is not properly appreciated in the literature – their point depends on parenting itself being a bit like slave-holding. A morally very complicated type, moreover: for what is an individual parent to do? Upon reading Pettit, the benevolent slave-owner can free their slaves. But relinquishing custody in favour of the state** would hardly serve the child’s overall interest. Nor can the solution come from universal refraining to have children. The only way, then, is for us to collectively rethink the practices that define childrearing.

* And of third parties, in children who are brought up to be autonomous and properly socialised members of the community.

** Which, in its guardianship capacity, would be bound by the child’s best interest principle.

I work on various issues concerning justice. I am particularly interested in the relevance of personal relationships to moral and political philosophy. I published papers about gender justice, parental rights and duties, the nature and value of childhood, the goods of work and the ideal-non-ideal theory debate.



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  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking post, Anca!

    Freeing children entirely from families doesn’t seem attractive indeed, but I see two ways of reducing their enslavement:

    a) Mandatory public education to reduce families’ grip on their children
    b) Educating children to autonomy, to reduce domination both by families and by the State.

    I guess these measures are more easily defended from a republican than from a liberal perspective.

    • Thank you Pierre-Etienne! I agree that these (and, I think, other) measures could lessen children’s domination, and also that republicanism is particularly well-suited to address the issue. In fact, I discuss republican childrearing (here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0032321720906768), to a similar conclusion. At the same time, I suspect that republicans have to struggle more than liberals in accepting any form of childrearing as entirely unobjectionable. The reason is that even parents whose legal rights are not in excess of their moral rights must have some discretionary power over their children if they are to be able to give children intimate caring relationships. (And I assume that such relationships are very important for children’s wellbeing and development.) If so, childrearing, according to republicans, always involves a tradeoff: more/enough wellbeing for children at the price of some domination. What do you think?

      • Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

        I think you’re right: childrearing seems more challenging for republicans! I had never thought about this.

  2. Julia Hermann

    Thanks a lot for this, Anca! I find the parallel between childrearing and slaveholding really interesting. And now I am thinking about what led to the abolition of slavery and whether we can learn anything from that for how to abolish practices of childrearing that treat children comparable to slaves. An important difference between the two practices (slavery and childrearing) seems to be that slaves were mistakenly taken to lack certain capacities that slave-owners had, or not having these capacities fully developed, whereas children indeed differ in capacities from adults. The capacity for autonomy for instance is developed over time, as is the capacity for critical reflection and the capacity for understanding the (long term) consequences of one’s actions. So unlike in the case of slaves there are reasons for treating children differently from adults and granting particular adults certain rights over children.
    Following up on what Pierre-Etienne suggested, childrearing should always serve the development of the capacities needed for being a competent (moral) agent. Parents should not have the right to treat their children in ways that hinder the development of those capacities. I agree with Pierre-Etienne that mandatory public education is important although in some political systems such education also interferes with the development of autonomy etc.
    Well, much more to think about…

    • Hello Julia, I am curious what you think about the following worry: maybe children could acquire full autonomy faster than they currently do, if we gave priority to training their autonomy at the expense of giving, or allowing, them to have other (learning) experiences. For instance, if we cut out some of their playtime. Would this be a desirable way to go? (I have doubts.)

      • Julia Hermann

        It would certainly be a bad idea to give them less time to play. But I think that this is not a plausible scenario, since I believe that playing contributes to the development of autonomy. I read that at least at a certain age, children learn the most by way of playing. I think that this holds in particularly for free play where children use their imagination, engage in role plays and so forth.

        • Yes, it’s hard to overestimate the developmental importance of play for children (maybe for the rest of us, too??) But let’s try this: imagine there’s no developmental gain to be had from playing for more than 4 hours a day for, say, a 10 year old. But there’s a lot of fun and maybe aesthetic value to be gained by even more play. Yet, the cost is a slight delay in autonomy. (After all, if you play less maybe you can train earlier to take more responsibility for yourself, etc.) What to do?

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