Engaged parenting is hard work. That is one reason most of us prefer to have a co-parent. But why stop at one? As I argue in a recent article, I don’t think there is a good and general answer to that question. Some people are committed to an existing two-parent family, or to starting one, but there is no reason why society should endorse that family form as a norm.
We are used to thinking of parents as couples, not only romantically, but also as being two – no more and no less. Society is becoming more accepting of one-parent families, and some women now plan for solo parenting and seem to be doing fine. Three parents, however, still seems a bit much to most people.
There are historical explanations for these limiting thoughts. Most obviously, it used to be the case that exactly two people were involved in biological procreation. Though donor insemination took place in some clinics throughout the 19th century and gradually became more known and accepted, donations to single women have become prevalent only in the past decade or so, and only in some countries. Surrogacy, in which three people can be biologically involved, was first achieved in 1986 but is still rare. Interestingly, it is normally taken for granted even in surrogacy cases that there can be only two parents, though there are obviously three biological procreators.
Biology cannot fully explain the widespread presumption that a family should have exactly two parents. Adoption has taken place throughout history, and there is no biological reason for why adoptive parents should be any particular number. I suspect that the two-parent norm is underpinned less by biology than by the combination of two ideas – that parents should be romantic partners, and that one should only have one (official) romantic partner.
The second of these ideas – the monogamy norm – has been fiercely challenged by some philosophers lately, and defended by others. However, this idea by itself does not explain our inclination to prefer two-parent families. We can easily imagine a society where any romantic couple who were planning to start a family would look around for the third person to complete their team of parents. People in this society might think that you obviously need at least one parent who is not biologically related to the child. This simple thought experiment shows that, unless we take the position that all parents must be lovers (and why would we?), commitment to monogamy does not explain the two-parent norm.
It seems that the historical explanations for why we are used to thinking of families as having exactly two parents provide no moral reason for insisting that they do. Against this background, some philosophers have argued that it is illiberal or discriminatory to fail to recognize the many existing families where the number of people in a parenting role differs from two (e.g. Metz, Cutas, Brake, Brennan and Cameron). These philosophers typically invoke the idea of liberal neutrality – i.e. that the state, and perhaps public debate and opinion, should be neutral between different ideas about the good life.
However, I do not believe that liberal neutrality should be accepted as a restriction on what state and society should do. I believe that laws and social norms can be justified if they in general are conducive to good outcomes, and in particular if they are conducive to good outcomes for children. If these benefits are large enough, they may morally outweigh some unfairness to outliers who do not benefit. This is why I wrote an article where I try to assess the pros and cons of having a larger or smaller number of parents in a family. My thinking was that if some particular number, or some interval, is generally best for all involved, then society should push that number or numbers, by social norm-setting and/or legislation.
For some time, I believed (and argued in several talks) that families of 4-5 parents must be ideal: it would do much to ensure sufficient resources (material and emotional) for the children of the family, while each parent would have a relatively small work load, and at the same time all parents could still form an intimate connection to the child (attachment theory, for example, seems to allow at least this many attachment figures from an early age). In a recent blog post on ways to promote multi-parenting, Anca Gheaus seems to assume this perspective. However, I have come to doubt that 4-5 is the ideal number.
One reason to be somewhat skeptical of many parents is that each parent might be less engaged the more parents there are. In general, people tend to take less responsibility if there are many others around who are equally up to the task. With increasing numbers of parents, aggregate loss of engagement will occur with smaller individual reductions, for simple mathematical reasons. If a family of one parent adds a second, there will be more engagement in total as long as the two each contribute more than 50% of what the one contributed before the addition. However, if a family of four parents add a fifth, any individual reductions over 20% cause a loss of total engagement.
Another reason to prefer smaller families is that they face less risk of conflict. The more co-parental relationships there are, the more likely that one of them will go sour. Mathematics are again relevant, since the number of one-to-one relationships increase faster than the number of individuals: two people have one relationship, three people have three, and so on. (Solo parenting of course guarantees zero co-parenting conflicts, though it does not exclude the possibility of other conflicts that might affect the child.)
However, I do not find that these possible disadvantages for many-parent families are sufficient to outweigh the possible benefits. More parents do mean more material resources (unless some parents are so self-absorbed and/or destitute to cause a net loss to the children), and possibly more emotional resources as well. More parents also potentially contributes more variety, and should ensure against total loss of parenting, and against being exposed only to poor parenting. My article considers all of these dimensions, as well as some others.
If I had to choose a number, I would go for three. From my own experience of parenting with one co-parent, I think one more would have gone a long way towards making life easier and more enjoyable for both children and parents, without too much complication or dilution of responsibility. However, my considered opinion is that no number or interval is best in general. Society should therefore remain neutral, except to cap the number of parents at some number where it becomes psychologically and practically difficult for children to have intimate close personal relationships with more people.