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Review of "The Ethics of the Family"

By Stephen Scales, Adam Potthast, and Linda Oravecz (Editors)
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010
Review by Christian Perring on Nov 25th 2014
The Ethics of the Family

This large edited collection has 432 pages.  It starts with a one-hundred page introduction to moral theory and its relevance to family ethics, written by the editors. It is followed by 24 papers by academics from a variety of kinds of department; most are in philosophy by several are in sociology, law, or communication.  The papers are based mainly on conferences papers from the 10th International Conference on Ethics Across the Curriculum: "The Ethics of the Family"

This collection has some interesting papers, some useful papers, and some that are worth skipping. It is unlikely that anyone would read the whole book: rather, it could be worth finding one or two papers that would be useful to readers for particular purposes. The decision to include the "Introduction" to moral theory is an interesting one. It seems designed to be used for teaching purposes: it includes extracts from some well-known philosophers such as Mill, Kant, Rawls, Aristotle, as well as they psychologist Carol Gilligan. It seems a fairly standard introduction, and maybe it would be useful to readers, but there are plenty of other introductions to ethics available on the internet and in many textbooks, and I can't really imagine who would prefer to use this one. It would be a strange decision to use this book as a textbook for an undergraduate course, since conference papers are not very approachable for students new to philosophy.

The main interest of the book is in the subsequent four sections:

  • Love, Sex, and Marriage
  • Parents and Children
  • The Family and the Larger (Moral) Community
  • Family Practitioners, Law, Ethics, and Emerging Technologies

The section on marriage addresses relatively standard issues on the nature of marriage and to what extent marriage can take diverse forms and yet still be legitimate. There's also a paper on the relation between sex, love, and moral obligation. These are certainly interesting issues, but they have received plenty of attention in the literature.  So it is in the last three sections that the book's potential for being useful lies.

These sections do well at examining a broad range of issues.  Charles Zola examines some of the literature on the responsibility of adult children to care for their aging parents, and turns to Aquinas's theory of prudence for a source of illumination. Suk Choi provides a useful account of Confucian ethics to discuss filial piety. Ernani Magalhaes gives a rather straightforward analysis of the morality of getting children to believe in Santa Claus. A previously published paper from 2002 by Stephen Scales is republished here, on the topic of intergenerational justice.  Michael McFall argues in favor of licensing parents as a way to prevent bad parenting and child abuse. Yvette Pearson addresses similar issues, with focus on the intentions of the people who cause a child to come into existence.  Wade Robinson argues that children are moral agents and should be encouraged to engage in moral reasoning. All the papers in this section are thoughtful, carefully argued, and useful as introductions to the particular subjects they address.

The next section is more mixed.  There's a nice paper by Eric Silverman on reconciling an impartial ethics (such as Kantian deontology) with the partiality we have to our loved ones, where he offers a useful summary of a paper by Velleman on the topic, provides criticisms and ends with an alternative approach. Jeff Buechner addresses the group nature of a family and uses the work of Margaret Gilbert on social facts to investigate whether there may be a distinctive family rationality that is different from individual rationality. The other papers in this section are less innovative, not advancing the scholarly conversation so much, although they may well interest less specialist readers.

The final section focuses mainly on medical ethics and legal issues. They deal with assisted reproduction, the cognitive neuroenhancement of children, organ donation, the ethical dilemmas faced by attorneys appointed to represent the best interests of children, and the ethical obligations of social workers.  So these papers are of more specialist interest, and are not at the heart of the topic.  Nevertheless, they are worthwhile for those who want to think more about those topics in relation to the family.

Cambridge Scholars Publishing puts out an alarming number of edited philosophy books: nearly anyone putting together a conference in philosophy will be invited by them to publish a collection of papers from the conference, and this means that the quality of their books is often not particularly good.  Libraries and individuals should be cautious before purchasing their books, especially since they tend to be fairly costly: this book currently sells for a little over $70. But in this case the editors have brought together a number of useful articles in an area that is of growing interest. The papers here are worth reading by philosophers and other theoreticians interested in the moral problems raised by families.


© 2014 Christian Perring


Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York

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