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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “What justifies parents’ influence on their children?” written by Yutang Jin

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This essay was a finalist in the Graduate Category of the 2nd Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford Student, Yutang Jin

In a family, parents can exert enormous influence on their children. Parents tend to implant in their children’s mind, for good or ill, values and ideas which go on to guide their whole lives. This essay focuses on this relationship and discusses what justification we can have for parental influence over their children.

The dominant discourse in addressing the parent-child relationship is that of moral rights. I argue, however, that the liberal discourse of rights, sound as it may be, has lots of drawbacks that disqualify it from being a cogent account of family relationships. I then go on to craft a Confucian framework whereby to discuss how parents and children should behave to each other. My main argument is that parents’ influence is justifiable insofar as parents comply with moral rules that regulate their relationship with children, and these rules are subject to public justification and rectification.

One way to think of where parents’ discretion over their children ends is to be found in the liberal tradition of rights. According to natural rights theories, children are entitled to basic human rights as any others. This account, however, suffers two drawbacks. First, childrearing prima facie demands more of parents than providing basic needs as prescribed by general human rights. The second problem is what I call a ‘redistribution dilemma’, namely that it fails to convincingly account for why a child should not, upon their birth, be redistributed by the state to suitable stepparents in a way that makes her future life better off than if she stays with her biological parents. If parents do not have natural rights to rear their own children, then, a priori, any influence becomes illegitimate.

For many, the key to addressing the problems above lies in making sense of parents’, instead of children’, rights so as to reconcile parents’ interest in rearing their own children with children’ interest in being properly cared about. Brighouse and Swift’s theory (2006) holds that the fact that parents take an interest in rearing their own children not only grants parents more leeway in family relations, but also helps to moderate, or even solve, the ‘redistribution dilemma’. The theory sparks off a worry among liberals that parental influence may easily trespass the legitimate boundary of parenting, up to the point of endangering children’s potential to individual autonomy upon their adulthood. Clayton (2006, 2012), in response, appeals to the theory of justice and public reason, arguing that the practice of parenting is proper only if it serves to cultivate in children a sense of justice, which in turn gives them wherewithal to lead an autonomous life in the future.

The dilemma confronting Clayton is that if we want to teach children anything at all, he has to allow for parents’ disposition to influence, if not coerce, their children, which leads back to the question of autonomy. In response to this dilemma, Hannan and Vernon (2008) propose a rolebased theory, distinguishing between parents’ interest in raising their own child and the responsibility incurred by assuming parents’ role, and argue that it is parents’ role, rather than interest, which gives rise to that role, that grants them rights and duties. This approach not only avoids being trapped in the ‘redistribution dilemma’, but also grants parents a full range of discretion compatible with the principle of autonomy.

What perplexes me in this debate, however, is that the discourse of rights shies away from explaining a concept of paramount importance and controversy, namely, that of autonomy, and supposes that finding a way leading up to it in childrearing is all there is. What I cast doubt on is precisely this discourse of individual autonomy. Indeed, what concerns philosophers is how one should, within the conventional boundary of family, rear a child in order to make her, upon adulthood, an autonomous person open to myriads of possibilities that life lays upon her. I doubt, however, if talk of individual autonomy makes much sense in the parent-child relationship, especially in respect of its concern over possibilities. If influence is, by necessity, to diminish some possibilities in favour of others,
constraining parents’ influence should be the last thing we resort to as the vacuum left by the departure of parents risks being arbitrarily occupied by others not entitled to parenting.

The concept of individual autonomy, I contend, is far more amorphous than liberals assume. If we define capability of influence, either spiritual or physical, as a kind of power relations, I contend that this kind of power relations permeates every aspect of human life such that individual autonomy constitutes only a figment of liberal imagination. Given that we are all immersed in various kinds of relations, we are liable to shape, or be shaped by, others’ actions, and in this process, subjugate one another (Foucault 1982, 2002). The bare concept of autonomy is, in this context, an abstract, non-actualised state in which nothing real takes place. As long as we engage in particular activities, we start to assume different roles and come to influence, or be influenced by, others.

The family relationship is a particular one as parental influence prevails over children, not vice versa. Children’s vulnerability is to be overcome, not by appealing to the abstract, dysfunctional idea of autonomy, but by recourse to the rules governing the parent-child relationship that restrain both parents’ and children’s behaviour. This is the very idea of Confucianism on family life – it does not seek to impose on persons abstract ideas of individuality, but to govern their relationships and make them treat one another with dignity and respect. In Confucian philosophy, giving birth to a child means not only a biological process, but a moral process of paying tribute to forebears; parents should love their children and inculcate in them the idea of ‘Great Man’ (Junzi), both morally and
intellectually, and children should in return respect their parents in a humble manner (Analects, Liren).

In this sense, it is parents’ role in the parent-child relationship that justifies their influence on their children. This relationship-based approach, on the one hand, abstains from the controversial idea of autonomy; on the other, gives guidance to parents as to how to rear a child in a civilised manner. Despite its merits, one may be tempted to claim that there exists in my account no place for individual human rights, a fact that may put children in infinite danger. We should also not forget Mill’s accusation of Asians’ voluntary submission to governing rules (Mill 2015).

In response, my objection is not to the idea of rights per se, but to the grounding of rights on some grand theories as if they can be deduced from the abstract. Moral rights, if they exist at all, are not to be deduced from abstract, often untenable assumptions, but to be found in public justification that people make to one another in everyday moral practice (Williams 2006). It should be made clear that morality is not topdown, but comes from below. That morality cannot be deduced from topdown principles means not that we can define it in whatever way we please, but that morality should come from individuals’ belief and go beyond it up to public justification shared by a wide locality. This justifies my claim that the topdown theory of rights is unfounded in real life.

My second reply – a stronger one – is that the framework of individual autonomy should be supplanted by the framework of relationships altogether. In the latter, individuals are not individuals tout court; they are individuals in relationships – couple, parent-child, ruler-ruled etc., which make sense of their existence. In the Confucian account, every person resembles a point in complex patterns of reticulation, not a monad in a tabula rasa. An individual, by herself, has no value or
significance, as much as a point in mathematics bears no weight or significance; a point makes sense only in a network of relationships. The network, in return, holds dear each point as lack of any means the desuetude of relationships around it. In this sense, people do not, in a relationship, happen to play roles – they are these roles (Rosemont 1988). These roles are governed by rules inherited from tradition, contemplated by reflexion for change and rectification. This explanation
helps to illuminate the parent-child relationship – there is no monad out there to which parents are required to refer; parents and children understand each other in concrete terms, to wit, in terms of their relationships and the rules that connect them together. The rules, it follows, are not there for children to blindly follow, as is assumed by Mill, but open to contemplation and meditation, and therefore to rectification.

Further criticisms may be levelled against my approach even if we recognise its merits discussed above. One may direct me to those cultures in which it is morally permissible, or even desirable, to separate children off from their biological parents, or in which children are completely subordinated to parents such that there is no way whatsoever for them to go against their parents’ will. Hard cases as they may be, my response to the first is that the practice of separation is permissible so long as it grounds itself on public, moral justification in that locality. The redistribution of children here is not dictated by topdown principles, willy-nilly chosen by the state, but by morality shared by all inhabitants. There is no more of ‘redistribution dilemma’ as there is no a priori liberal prescription that children be raised by biological parents first. My response to the second case is that as long as there are possibilities of children coming up with their own critical ideas, at however great a cost, this practice of parenting is justifiable. The point of my approach, so to speak, is not a kind of consequentialism that aims to maximise possibilities, which are liable to be restricted by other influence, if not their parents’, but a way of life that makes it possible for children to engage in
public justification when they become adults. In this light, to force a child into a particular religion is justifiable insofar as parents comply with moral rules, not of their own contrivance but of public justification in their locality, and do not extinguish children’s capability of meditation altogether.

Talk of rules in the abstract is certainly a tricky business, as the rules are always intertwined with power relations and some rules, by and large, stand for the influence exerted by the powerful. Of his I have no doubt; yet what matters is to confine the powerful to a duty to give a public account of why these rules should be obeyed, and to avoid any chance of the powerful hiding away from the public scrutiny when they exert influence. The danger of referring to autonomy and rights is precisely that the state comes arbitrarily to substitute for public morality in the business of prescribing parents’ and children’s behaviour, in the process of which all that we value about family life is in peril of ebbing away and replaced by alien ideas conjured up by pundits favoured by the state.

In this essay, I have proposed a new way of looking upon family life and the parent-child relationship. I have argued that the influence of parents is justifiable as long as it complies with rules that are subject to change and contemplation. Should my contention stand, it can shed light, not only on our relationship with children, but the whole realm of relationships that has long been disturbed and confused by the intrusion of liberal discourse of rights. The moral always comes from a practice, which, in my context, consists of relationships brought about by different people engaging in various activities, and what we count as having moral significance is only to be found in these relationship and their justification. To quote Bernard Williams, ‘in the beginning was the deed’.


Brighouse, Harry & Swift, Adam (2006), ‘Parents’ Rights and the Value of the Family’, Ethics, 117(1), 80-108.

Clayton, Mathew (2006), Justice and Legitimacy in Upbringing, OUP, Oxford.

Clayton, Mathew (2012), ‘Debate: The Case against the Comprehensive Enrolment of Children’, The Journal of Political Philosophy, 20, 353-64.

Confucius et al., Analects.

Foucault, Michel (1982), ‘The Subject and Power’, Critical Inquiry, 8(4), 777-95.

Foucault, Michel (2002), Archeology of Knowledge, Routledge, London.

Hannan, Sarah & Vernon, Richard (2008), ‘Parental Rights: A Role-Based Approach’, Theory and Research in Education, 6(2), 173-89.

Mill, John Stuart (2015), On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and Other Essays, OUP, Oxford.

Rosemont, Henry (1988), ‘Why Take Rights Seriously? A Confucian Critique’, in Rouner, Leroy S.ed., Human Rights and the World’s Religions, UND, Notre Dame.

Williams, Bernard (2006), Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Routledge, London.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Many scholars today are exploring this idea of relationaity vs. individual autonomy. Jin Yutang makes some good arguments. What a fortuitous name, too! Did his parents choose the name because of the great scholar Lin Yutang? For further reading on theories promoting interconnected realtionships over individual autonomy, I would suggest the newest book by Henry Rosemont, Jr., Against Individuality: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion (Lexington Books 2015). In this book Rosemont not only takes on the idea of autonomous individual selves which he believes to be a false concept, but he also makes a case against capitalism as a sustainable system. Rosemont says the “celebration and defense of freedom comes at the expense of social justice, and peace.”

  2. Anthony Drinkwater

    Hello Yutang Jin
    Whilst I could agree that the current fashion for “autonomy above all” poses some problems, I think you are throwing out the baby with the bath water
    You write that a practice
    “…is permissible so long as it grounds itself on public, moral justification in that locality. (It) is not dictated by topdown principles, willy-nilly chosen by the state, but by morality shared by all inhabitants.”
    Hopefully, you realise that this logic can be used to justify female genital mutilation, child marriage and a whole host of other practices. It is therefore, IMHO, insufficent.

    Later, you write :
    “In this light, to force a child into a particular religion is justifiable insofar as parents comply with moral rules, not of their own contrivance but of public justification in their locality…”
    I’m sure that Islamists everywhere will welcome your view.

    I see that you qualify this by adding “…and (insofar as they) do not extinguish children’s capability of meditation altogether.”
    But what is this except an appeal to a “top-down principle” that you seem to deplore so much ?

  3. This is an interesting paper. I think, though, it too quickly assumes a parent’s ability (within non-pathological realms)to influence the adult whom the child will become. The willingness to discuss genetic influences upon human traits of all types, which began tentatively with the rise of behavioral genetics, undermined vast swaths of research on parenting effects (not including systematic abuse and neglect.) For a very good discussion of whether any direct effects of normal parenting have been shown to exist I recommend “Parenting and the Child’s World: Influences on Academic, Intellectual, and Social-emotional Development (Monographs in Parenting Series) 1st Edition”, which I reviewed in “Metapsychology” some years ago. See also the interesting question of “child to parent” effects which muddies still further the issue of parenting effects. A second point:
    I see the goals of parenting as three. In the first two, the child is stakeholder 1. The protect the child’s right to experience a childhood and 2. to act so as to preserve the ability of the developing adult, whom the child will become, to choose to be the person he or she will become. In the third goal the parent is the prime stakeholder though the child, as child, is likely to benefit as well. This goal is for the parent to receive the somewhat unique and diverse and wonderful benefits of a parent-child relationship.

  4. Hello Yutang Jin, please visit where you will find an interesting device that seeks to explore the zone that lies between the child’s need for self-realisation and the parent’s need to exert reasonable control. Best regards, Michael PS if the link given is disabled, phone my secretary, Yvonne, on Nottingham 9734888 and she will give you access.

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