Skip to content

What grounds paternal obligations?

Last week, Laurie Shrage caused a bit of a stir on the blogosphere with her controversial article on the Stone, a New York Times philosophy blog, entitled “Is Forced Fatherhood Fair?”  In the article, Shrage challenges the prevailing notion that unwilling fathers should be forced by the state to pay child support.  This is unfair, Shrage argues, because unwilling fathers never consented to conceive or raise the child, and (unlike the mother) lacks the freedom to have the child aborted or given up for adoption.  Shrage’s article raises a number of interesting issues, including whether US restrictions on reproductive rights mean pregnant women are analogously forced to give birth and the issue of whether a policy could adequately distinguish between ‘willing’ and ‘unwilling’ fathers.  Here, though, I would like to focus on the central question of whether unwilling fathers have a moral obligation to financially support their children.

This issue rests on the larger question of what grounds obligations towards children in general.  Tim Bayne and Avery Kolers have plausibly suggested that any account of parental obligation will be pluralistic – we should recognize a number of distinct sufficient conditions for parental obligation, reflecting the varied structure contemporary families may take.  With this in mind, I will discuss four options to ground parental obligations: communal, consensual, causal and biological.   Only two of them – biological and causal – could sensibly justify the obligation of unwilling fathers to their children, but each faces particular problems of plausibility and counterintuitive implications.  These do not exhaust all possibilities, but they are some of the most prominent in the literature.  In the end, some degree of bullet-biting will be necessary – something will have to give.

Four models

Communal obligations towards children are a cornerstone of the welfare state.  As children are members of society, liberal societies will extend to them the general provisions of welfare, including education, healthcare, and direct financial support.  Indeed, such obligations are stronger than general welfare duties insofar as children cannot be said to be responsible for their predicament.  Unwilling fathers in a welfare state will then owe obligations to children via the taxes they pay, a portion of which will go towards welfare programs.  But this obligation is very indirect, not singling out fathers per se, nor their children in particular.  One might wonder whether unwilling fathers should bear a disproportionate burden of welfare support for their children, but such a duty would have to be grounded in reasons other than general communal duties.

Consensual obligations certainly make sense as a sufficient condition for parental obligation.  Entering into voluntary contracts is an exercise of individual autonomy, and having children in particular is a central case of exercising reproductive autonomy.  Demanding that parents fulfill obligations they agreed to is quite respectful of this autonomy, and assuming the conditions of consent were appropriate, would be perfectly fair.  The consent model (unlike the causal and biological model) also helps explain why we treat adoptive parents have similar obligations as biological parents.  But again, this won’t help a defender of financial obligation of unwilling fathers, as unwilling fathers did not consent to have a child – hence their unwillingness.  One could argue that they provided tacit consent by having sexual intercourse, but it is not at all clear that such an action could come anywhere near the usual conditions of information and voluntariness that are needed to make consent morally transformative.  In addition, it would be especially hard to argue for consent in cases where the father agreed to the use of contraceptives – in such a case, the father was if anything explicitly conveying an unwillingness to become a father.  It is this lack of consent that Shrage (as well as, a decade earlier, Elizabeth Brake) relies on for her case against the financial obligations of unwilling fathers.

Causal obligation, by contrast, could be used to justify the obligations of unwilling fathers – though it is a dubious general model, even as a purely sufficient condition on parental responsiblity.  James Lindemann Nelson has defended this model against the consensual model by drawing an analogy to the responsibility that comes from causing unintentional harm to others.  While conceiving a child is not a harm, a related principle that causal contribution is sufficient for responsibility would explain why unwilling fathers bear financial obligations to their children: they are a proximate cause of the creation of the child.  This view has a few odd implications, however, indicating that it proves too much. As Nelson accepts, it indicates that sperm and egg donors can be held financially liable for the well-being of resultant children, even if the non-biological parents consent to waive such responsibility (the duty is to the children, not the non-biological parents, and so the non-biological parents don’t have the right to waive the duty).  Perhaps more disturbingly, it implies that fertility doctors involved in in vitro fertilization are financially responsible for the well-being of the resultant child.  This is because doctors did proximately cause the existence of the child, and their actions can, in conjunction with the contributions of the mother and father, be considered roughly sufficient for the creation of the child.  But these implications appear somewhat absurd, at least as radical and potentially unjust as Shrage’s proposal to obviate paternal financial duties.

A natural move at this point is to advert to biological relation as the basis of obligation.  It may not necessarily release sperm and egg donors from duty (at least in its general form), but it at least excludes fertility doctors.  And it has strong intuitive support, aligning well with related familial duties to (even long-lost) parents and siblings. This may be the most intuitively attractive option, but it faces a larger problem of philosophical justification.  What, exactly, is it about biological relation that can plausibly be said to matter morally?  Mere genetic similarity is itself intuitively implausible, as that would imply one would have strong parental obligations in cases of freak genetic coincidences where unrelated individuals have a very similar genetic profile.  Moreover, the fact of genetic similarity does not itself seem very morally important – perhaps it is relevant in evolutionary terms, but it is not clear why we should care about it. One could rely on a more specific kind of biological process – participation in sexual intercourse resulting in impregnation and childbirth – but again, it is not clear what makes that morally relevant independent of general causal considerations.


             Each option for defending the financial obligation of unwilling fathers, then, faces significant philosophical difficulty.  Communal and consensual accounts could not justify the obligation, while causal and biological stories either are counterintuitive or lack convincing grounding themselves.  At the same time, Shrage’s proposal is itself counterintuitive.  Something has to give.  So where do we go from here?  If one has a strongly intuitionistic approach, the biological model (where participation in a process of sexual intercourse resulting in pregnancy and childbirth is sufficient for obligation) is probably the best option.  While it might lack in philosophical grounding, there are relatively few counterintuitive implications (at least that I can think of).  This would support the obligations of unwilling fathers, and personally it is the option I am most attracted to.  But a more theoretical approach may well support Shrage’s account, insofar as the consensual and communal models enjoy stronger theoretical support based on autonomy and political theory, compared with causal and biological models that rely more on intuitions about cases.

            Whatever direction one takes, one should be upfront about the intuitive and philosophical costs of each approach, which may well have implications beyond the question of whether unwilling fathers should be held financially responsible for their children.

Share on

11 Comment on this post

  1. “If one has a strongly intuitionistic approach, the biological model (where participation in a process of sexual intercourse resulting in pregnancy and childbirth is sufficient for obligation) is probably the best option. While it might lack in philosophical grounding, there are relatively few counterintuitive implications (at least that I can think of).”

    One counterintuitive implication might be that would-be fathers should accordingly be given a stronger right to assert that the mother’s pregnancy — for which he is causally responsible — should be terminated or that the child should be adopted, as long as such options remain for the mother.

    1. Hmm…does that really follow on the biological model? The claim is merely that a certain kind of biological relation is sufficient to justify the existence of an obligation towards the child. I don’t think that implies the father has a concomitant right to decide about termination. Termination rights are determined by a very distinct sort of bodily relation – not the fact that the mother engaged in sex or gestation, but something like the fact that the fetus resides in her body (the right still applies, I think, when a woman undergoes artificial insemination, but probably not when another woman acts as a surrogate; in the latter case, the surrogate has the right to decide about termination, not the biological mother). Perhaps the biological model would give some limited control over adoption – that is, the biological father could choose to take the child himself if the mother chooses to give the child up for adoption. But that hardly seems counterintuitive.

      As for Benatar – FWIW, I find his account both of harm/benefit asymmetry in bringing into existence, and the idea that one can harm someone by brining them into existence, implausible. But supposing that Benatar was right, this would indeed give stronger support to the causal model of parental responsibility – the unwilling father owes the child a good deal, as he caused significant harm to the child. The counterintuitive implications for sperm/egg donors and fertility doctors remain, but then Benatar is of course perfectly willing to accept wildly counterintuitive implications and could easily just bite the bullet on them.

      1. You may be correct.

        To clarify, though, my sense is that if parental obligation obtains through a biologically rooted causal path that enjoins two equal agents (the parents), then the authority to terminate a pregnancy (or to bring it to term) becomes more difficult to disentangle as an autonomous matter falling to the mother alone. I think the biological-to-logical nexus introduces a strong basis for considering the mother’s “bodily relation” to the fetus against a countermanding “bio-causal relation” to the fetus shared by both parental agents (who presumably acted with foresight). The problem comes into sharper relief, I think, if we allow the view — as Benatar would — that parental obligation can and should include the duty to terminate a pregnancy in order to avoid the harm to a person of being brought into existence.

        I should mention that I am convinced by Benatar’s account of hedonic asymmetry and I am equally persuaded that antinatalist conclusions follow perforce. I won’t derail the thread over this unpopular point of view; I just think it is important to note.

  2. I think that a viable solution to this problem lies in the gray zone of all the possible four approaches stated above. The points that address the issue in each approach should be included in the combined approach while the weaker points should be omitted.

    I propose a system which makes the mentioning of consenting biological parents in a birth certificate of a child, necessary. In absence of a consenting biological parent (as in case of unwilling fathers, artificial inseminations and surrogate mothers ), a non-biological parent can be mentioned ,who is consenting to take up the financial costs of rearing the child, can be mentioned in the birth certificate. Now, the consenting parents (biological or not ) mentioned in the birth certificate will be legally bound to take up the financial responsibility of the child. Needless to say, but the consenting parents will have to provide their signatures in a legal document as a proof of their consent. On being adopted, the birth certificate of the child can be changed to include the new consenting parents and waive off the older parents of their legal duty.

    This system is by no means perfect and might still fail to address many issues. I propose this as an example of a mixed approach that can be taken to address the burgeoning issue.

    1. That seems to me a sensible proposal, at least insofar as it clarifies the sufficiency of consent for parentage. But it also seems to imply that a father who declines to put his name on the birth certificate cannot be forced to pay child support. So, your approach ultimately mirror’s Shrage’s in making no financial demands on those who father children but refuse to support those children. That may in the end be a defensible policy – Shrage has her supporters – but I’m not sure it’s truly mixed.

  3. To start with I would differentiate between two classes of unwilling fathers. There are unwilling fathers who intend to have a child and those who do not. An example of the former would be someone who intentionally fathers a child simply because he loves his partner even though he would rather not be a father. Initially such father might well support his child simply because he loves his partner. However if his loves fades so may this support. I would suggest any father who intentionally fathers a child, and has made an autonomous choice to do so, can be held responsible for his actions and should help maintain his child. It is possible that a very small subset of the class of intentional fathers may not have made an autonomous decision to become a father. I will not consider these fathers further. I am concerned with unwilling fathers who father a child unintentionally.

    Let us consider a driver speeding recklessly. Let us assume this driver mounts the pavement and harms a pedestrian due to his reckless speeding. The driver did not intend to harm the pedestrian but nonetheless he would be held responsible for his actions and be liable to pay damages. Now let us consider a man who does not intend becoming a father but nonetheless engages in unprotected sex. Let us assume as a result he becomes a father. It might then be argued by analogy he ought to be liable to pay some maintenance towards his child. It might at this point be objected that my analogy is not an accurate one. My objector might point out that in the case of the unintentional father the mother has the freedom to abort or have the child adopted, a freedom the father does not have. This point is made by Shrage. Let us revise the case of our speeding driver. Let us now assume that when he mounted the pavement a bystander could have pushed the victim out of the way. Let us assume he did not. It seems to me that in this revised case the reckless driver should still be held responsible for his actions and hence liable to pay damages. Moreover it seems this revised case of the reckless driver is very analogous to that of an unintended father. Prima facie it might be concluded that all unintentional father should be required to help maintain their children.

    I would argue this conclusion should only apply to most but not all unintentional fathers. I would argue if an unintentional father is deceived then he does not have a duty to help maintain his child. Let us return to our speeding driver. This driver does not intend to cause harm but nonetheless he is aware, or at least should be aware, that his speeding may cause harm and as a result is liable for any harm he causes. Likewise most unintentional fathers engaging in unprotected sex are, or should be, aware that they may father children and as a result should be liable to maintain these children. However some unintentional fathers may be deceived. Perhaps they are lied to about contraception. Such fathers may well have been unaware that they might become fathers and moreover this ignorance was not due to any fault on their part. I would suggest such fathers do not have a duty to maintain their children. See deceit and unintentional fathers at wooler.scottus.

    1. Makes sense, and your points are quite similar to James Lindemann Nelson’s in defending paternal obligations in most cases. But two things concern me. Firstly, is this case really morally analogous to the case of negligent harm? If you adopt Benatar’s view, like Chip Smith above, sure – but without that, I’m not sure it quite makes sense. The driver is liable to compensate the victim as an attempt to ‘make the victim whole’, that is, to mitigate the effects of the harmful action, at least to a certain extent. But unless one takes conception as a harm for which a child deserves compensation, I think you’ll need some independent justification for the demand of compensation.

      Secondly, are you just going to bite the bullet on financial implications for sperm/egg donors and fertility doctors? They, too, played important, direct causal roles in conception. The fact that they did so intentionally – unlike the unwilling father – only seems to bolster claims of their financial responsibility.

  4. I accept your points and will try to outline a tentative solution to the first one. I would adopt a position similar to Lindsey Porter (1). Porter points out that a biological parent is someone who causes a new person to exist. She then points out children are vulnerable. She proceeds to argue that because a biological parent is responsible for a child’s vulnerability he/she must take steps to remedy this situation. Now of course causing someone to be vulnerable is not the exactly same as directly harming her unless one accepts omissions can have the same moral import as actions. Nonetheless making vulnerable and harming are closely related. Consider a parent who fails to ensure his/her child receives her measles MMR jab. Such a parent makes his/her child vulnerable to catching measles. I will assume such a jab is completely safe and that parents should be aware of this fact. I would suggest in this situation such a parent fails in his/her parental obligation. If my suggestion is accepted does such a parent fail in this obligation because he/she makes the child vulnerable to measles or does he/she only fail in this obligation if the child actually catches measles and is harmed as a result? I would be reluctant to accept the latter conclusion. Of course others may be less reluctant than me. Nonetheless provided my reluctance is justified then making a child vulnerable in this case is morally equivalent to harming that child. It might now be argued if making a child vulnerable is analogous to conceiving a vulnerable child that conceiving a vulnerable child and taking no steps to remedy this vulnerability is morally equivalent to harming that child.

    1. Lindsey Porter, Adoption is Not Abortion-Lite, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 29(1), 2012.

    1. Thanks for pointing out Porter’s article, I read it with much interest. From my reading, Porter’s great contribution is less the vulnerability point, and more what she calls a bifurcated account of parenting. It’s definitely a causal account, but more nuanced than most: it identifies two distinct roles, the primary one of ‘maker’ that applies to mothers, fathers, IVF doctors, gamete donors, and anyone part of a certain sort of causal role in the making of the child (and, as you say, the child’s vulnerability), from a subsidiary role of parent-as-caretaker. All makers have an obligation to the child, either a Benatarian duty ‘to do one’s best to make existence not a misfortune for the child’ or a Kantian duty ‘to make the child content with her condition so far as one can.’ Traditional roles of parents-as-caretakers are one way to discharge that obligation, though not the only way (giving up for adoption, when the adoptive family could better provide for the child’s wellbeing, is another). This nicely explains how unwilling fathers have financial duties (qua makers) without taking on the role of parents-as-caretakers.

      But, the account still does not distinguish between IVF doctors (who are also responsible for the child’s vulnerability) and unwilling fathers. Porter is very much aware of the IVF doctor objection, and at times simply accepts that they do indeed have weighty (perhaps lifelong) duties to the resultant children, on a par with unwilling fathers. There is a sense in which a doctor ensuring a good birth can help discharge that obligation, but if that’s right then unwilling fathers’ obligations could similarly be discharged by assisting in providing a good birth (or providing financial support simply for the birth, not its wellbeing afterwards). This is much weaker than, I think, we intuitively want from unwilling fathers. So, on Porter’s account, either IVF doctors’ duties are too strong (they must pay child support just like the unwilling father) or the unwilling father’s duties are too weak (they just need to pay for a good birth, nothing more).

      On consideration, I think these problems stem from various models’ eschewing of biological importance. The intuition that there’s an important moral distinction in duties between the father and the IVF doctor seems to really stem from biology (as do intuitions about paternal duties), and any account that denies or minimizes the importance of biology will have trouble justifying those duties. But if we really think (as Porter does) that biology makes little moral difference, then perhaps we would have to give up on intuitions separating the duties of IVF doctors and unwilling fathers, and therefore question (as Shrage and Brake think) intuitions surrounding unwilling fathers’ duties altogether.

  5. Fathers could be given the same method as mothers to prevent from become unwilling parents and that is the option to kill their offspring. Mothers can abort their fetuses because they are not persons and they control their own body. A father would not be given the right to compel an abortion on the mother as that would infringe her control of her body, but the father should have the right to an after birth abortion before the infant becomes a person.

    The mother should not be able to wave the responsibility of the father as the father may use that to coerce the mother into waving the responsibility of the father just by threatening to have their offspring killed. Since a mother does not need the permission of the father for an abortion then father would not need the permission of the mother for an after birth abortion.

    Only by killing their offspring would the responsibility of the parents be relieved, that would avoid the case of parents just wanting to avoid the expense while keeping the benefits of having offspring. The mother and father would have consented to be parents if they do not kill their offspring before it becomes a person.

    A definition of when an infant becomes a person would be needed to distinguish a lawful after birth abortion from an unlawful murder. This definition of a person should avoid arbitrary conditions such as age and species and be based on the individual. Since killing cats, dogs, cows, and pigs are not considered murder then this definition of person would exclude humans who have the similar capabilities.

    One possible definition of a person is an individual who can communicate using language.

Comments are closed.