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Equality of Opportunity and the Family

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Family background has long been recognized as a source of inequality. A wide-range of factors differentially influence parenting styles and upbringing. Even before we consider that children have quite different personalities and needs, it is clear from inequality in family wealth and differences in employment that family background will influence a child’s prospects in the labor market, in education, in health, in civic participation and overall well-being. While a good deal of this inequality might be remedied by progressive social policies that address employment practices, gender inequality and wealth inequality, we have reasons to think that some inequality in opportunity will remain in a just society simply because parents should be able to treat their children differently from other people’s children. For example, I may read bed time stories to my children but if I do so I do not also need to read them to other children on my street, even if failure to read to everyone on my street exacerbates inequality.

Debates about the conflict between equal opportunity and the family explore three possible options. First, we could subordinate our concern for equality of opportunity to our concern with the family. Second, we could subordinate our concern for the family to our concern with equality of opportunity. Alternatively, we might think that some careful weighing of the values at stake is required. For instance, we might think that only some of the demands of familial partiality, those related to intimacy such as bed-time stories, are sufficient to out-weigh concern for equality opportunity but that equal opportunity is an important principle and we ought to try to equalize upbringings in many ways when we can do so without sacrificing the goods central to the family. Other advantages some parents give their children are not related to intimacy, such as paying tuition for an expensive boarding school. If we take this option then those advantages will not be justified.


Archard, David, and Colin MacLeod, eds. The Moral And Political Status Of Children. Edited by David Archard and MacLeod, Colin. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Notes: This edited collection contains important papers on the treatment of children including several which explore the rights and responsibilities of parents to their children and of states to both parents and children.

Brighouse, H.. On Education. Routledge, 2006.

Notes: This book is aimed at a broad audience and defends a particular view of the aim of education, to promote flourishing of children, and draws out its implications for educational policy in the curriculum, school funding and the ethos of the school. In particular, Brighouse argues that flourishing requires that all people have open to them objectively valuable ways of life that they can autonomously pursue.

Brighouse, Harry, and Adam Swift. “Legitimate Parental Partiality”. Philosophy & Public Affairs, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 37, no. 1 (2009): 43-80.

Notes: This paper argues that the scope of legitimate parental partiality is determined by the goods that justify the family in the first place. The paper sets out an account of familial relationship goods and argues that these have priority over equality of opportunity, but only partial acts between parents and children that are necessary to realize these goods are legitimate.

Brighouse, Harry, and Adam Swift. “Parents’ Rights And The Value Of The Family”. Ethics, Ethics, 117, no. 1 (2006): 80-108.

Notes: This paper argues that parents have fundamental rights over their children grounded in the interest in parenting.

Clayton, Matthew. “Justice And Legitimacy In Upbringing”. In. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Notes: This book sets out an account of justice in child-rearing that utilizes the idea that the parent-child relationship is similar in structure to the state-citizen relationship and should be governed by the same norms. Clayton argues that parenting should be guided by public reason, in that all exercises of parental rights should be free from reasonable disagreement on the part of the child.

Duncan, Greg J. Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, And Children's Life Chances. Edited by Richard J Murnane. Translated by Greg J Duncan. Russell Sage Foundation, 2011.

Notes: This edited collection contains several essays that combine social science and normative theory and consider the obstacles, including family background, to equal opportunity of children today in the US, with a specific focus on education.

Fishkin, James S. Justice, Equal Opportunity, And The Family. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983.

Notes: The book defends a real conflict between equality and liberty in the case of equality of the family and equal opportunity. The book sets up an inconsistent trio of claims that many of us find attractive. The first is about the principle of merit, the second about equality of life chances and the third about the autonomy of the family. The book explores some ways of coming to terms with these tensions in ideal theory and in the real world. 

Fowler, Timothy Michael. “The Problems Of Liberal Neutrality In Upbringing”. Res Publica, Res Publica, 16, no. 4 (2010): 367-381.

Notes: The paper sets up a dilemma for political liberals in their treatment of children. The paper argues that political liberalism’s demands on upbringing are exhausted by the requirement to produce reasonable citizens, but that this may not rule out the inculcation of harmful beliefs by parents.

Lazenby, Hugh. “One Kiss Too Many? Giving, Luck Egalitarianism And Other‐Affecting Choice”. Journal Of Political Philosophy, Journal of Political Philosophy, 18, no. 3 (2010): 271-286.

Notes: The paper address the conflict between parental love and equality of opportunity. The paper explores how this problem relates to luck egalitarianism in particular and how it is part of a moral general problem of other-affecting choice.

Mason, Andrew. Levelling The Playing Field: The Idea Of Equal Opportunity And Its Place In Egalitarian Thought. Oxford Political Theory. Oxford Political Theory. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Notes: This book sets out and defends an account of when a playing field is level for the purposes of equality of opportunity. The account contains an appeal to meritocratic allocation of advantaged social positions with a number of policies that aim as removing inequality in circumstances, such as social background.

Miller, David. “Equality Of Opportunity And The Family”. In Toward A Humanist Justice: The Political Philosophy Of Susan Moller Okin. Toward A Humanist Justice: The Political Philosophy Of Susan Moller Okin. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Notes: This paper addresses the question of whether the family and equality of opportunity can co-exist and examines a number of different ways of understanding equality of opportunity and how that effects the answer to the question.

Munoz-Darde, Veronique. “Is The Family To Be Abolished Then?”. Proceedings Of The Aristotelian Society. Proceedings Of The Aristotelian Society. JSTOR, 1999.

Notes: This paper explores the possibility of abolishing the family and asks whether people would have reason to prefer that arrangement, which may fare better with respect to some justice requirements, such as equality of life chances.

Schoeman, Ferdinand. “Rights Of Children, Rights Of Parents, And The Moral Basis Of The Family”. Ethics, Ethics, 91, no. 1 (1980): 6-19.

Notes: This paper argues that the importance of intimacy prohibits anything more than an clear and present danger condition applying to parental rights since the possibility of intimacy requires that participants, and not the state, determine the terms of such relationships.

Schrag, Francis. “Justice And The Family”. Inquiry, Inquiry, 19, no. 1-4 (1976): 193-208.

Notes: This paper argues that the perspective required from justice is different from and inconsistent with that of the family since the family requires the establishment of relationships that are constituted by partiality and favoritism.

Swift, Adam. “Justice, Luck, And The Family: The Intergenerational Transmission Of Economic Advantage From A Normative Perspective”. In Unequal Chances: Family Background And Economic Success. Unequal Chances: Family Background And Economic Success. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Notes: This paper addresses the inequalities that follow from familial partiality and proposes a framework for thinking about which ways of transmitting advantage are legitimate and which are not.

Swift, Adam. How Not To Be A Hypocrite: School Choice For The Morally Perplexed Parent. Routledge, 2003.

Notes: The book examines the many values related to educational choice, including equality of opportunity, the value of education, parental partiality, and parents’ rights and brings these to bear upon real world policies and decisions about school choice.