Prof. emerita Brenda Almond: A philosophical view of families

19.6.2013 | Prof. Brenda Almond has spent a career weighing up moral and ethical questions facing liberal societies, most recently in relation to the current debate about the family.
In Western countries, the traditional family consisting of biological father, mother and their children is in decline. This is also the case on a legal level: divorces are easier, children born out ot wedlock enjoy more rights, and marrying doesn't "pay off" financially any more in several countries. As adults in families have more and more options—who is upholding the rights of the children involved, asks Brenda Almond. Her viewpoint is not derived from party politics, but from Kantian philosophy. Besides being a professor emeritus of philosophy, she is a founding member of the Society for Applied Philosophy and has writen books on social philosophy, ethics, bioethics and education.
Prof. emerita Brenda Almond
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(© Brenda Almond)

Prof. emerita Brenda Almond

Prof. Almond, a central theme of your current work is the importance of the family in societies. How would you define the family in philosophical and ethical terms?

I defend the biological understanding of the family, the one that humans share with other species: that is male, female, and their joint offspring. This differs from the social construct of the family as a group artificially put together by human beings. Until very recently you needed a male and a female to create offspring, but now we can create family groups socially or scientifically that do not have genetic ties. I perfectly accept though that it isn't always possible for people to live in a biological group, and I don't say that we shouldn't call some arrangements a family—for example, when they involve adopted children.

You generally take a non-utilitarian approach to ethics. How do you use this approach when thinking about the family?

Utilitarians tend to think in terms of cost-benefit arguments. They like to ask what is best for the people immediately involved. My position is more Kantian, and I take a wider view. For example, since I consider marriage mainly as an arrangement for the bearing and raising of children, I think that you have to take a much broader view of interests than a standard utilitarian one. You have to think not just about what the adult couple or single person wants, but also about the interests of any children that may result. Then you have to place that in the wider context of society itself, which in most Western countries is built around the biological conception of the family. Not only culture, literature, and art, but the layout of houses, villages, and towns are premised on the understanding of a family group as parents and their children.

You wrote a book in 2008 about the fragmenting of the family, in which you talked about the effects the breakdown of this unit is having on society. What are some of the social issues caused by the breakdown of this core unit?

When there are children involved, family breakdown will very often mean the complete disruption of their social situation, with a change of school, change of house, possibly new siblings to adapt to as a result of their mother's or their father's new relationships. It can be a very traumatising situation. Of course, we know that there are people who manage very good arrangements that they are satisfied with and which their children may seem to be satisfied with too. But I think nobody has really worked out how you can create a situation in which children really do keep a full relationship with both their parents.

For example, I'm really rather skeptical about shared staying arrangements. It's one thing for a child to live in one house and come back to his or her own bed at night, but something very different to have the child repeatedly packing up and going to and forth between two houses. That's a practical aspect of how breaking up affects children. But the key ethical aspect concerns the consideration that goes into deciding whether to break up or not. I suppose that's where my rather Kantian position on the family and on marriage comes in. It's the underlying notion of a promise, and the understanding of a promise as something that someone else can rely on.

You described the biological and genetic ties between individuals as among the most important aspects of the family unit. Can you tell me a bit more about the reasoning behind this view?

A lot of it is practical, because the arguments for knowing your genetic relationships can be as simple as the health aspect. For example, to wrongly believe that you may have inherited a damaging genetic condition, or, on the other hand, that you are free of genetic risks that you are actually susceptible to, can have serious long-term consequences. To rob someone of access to their genetic origins seems to me a criminal thing. Also, I have concerns about the enormous growth in the clinical transfer of gametes and the way in which so many people dismiss its significance, thinking it's just a matter of moving raw materials about. There are things about the genetic relationship that make it special, not least the real resemblances between parents and their children.

What are some of the ethical and philosophical issues thrown up by modern reproductive technologies?

Well, let me give you one example. I recently worked with a group mostly made up of family lawyers that produced a big report for the London-based Centre for Social Justice called "Every Family Matters". I contributed to a section about reproductive medicine in which we wanted to draw attention to problems about birth certificates for children born by donor-assisted reproduction. Adopted children have the right to access a document that informs them of who their genetic parents are, but this is not the case for all donor-conceived children or children born using donor eggs.

My own view is that when known facts of key importance to a person are deliberately concealed from them by public authorities, they are being deprived of a basic right—a right to knowledge of their own identity and origins. That report was intended to influence policy, but the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was rushed into UK law. I don't think that many MPs realised how the proposals in that Bill embodied fundamental changes to the meaning of the family: motherhood as well as fatherhood.

As for the broader philosophical aspects, I do, of course, accept that utilitarian considerations have a role, but not one that trumps other philosophical traditions. I would say that, apart from the Kantian considerations I mentioned, the Aristotelian notion of flourishing is relevant. The idea that flourishing may be dependent on being able to see and reflect on your life as a whole. Perhaps the most important thing to consider is that the human flourishes best in a certain kind of biological unit—a unit in which a sense of themselves and their own personal identity provides people with a link between past and future. They no longer see themselves as atoms in a world of individuals but as part of the wider pattern of society and a link in a sequence of generations.   (© Helen Jaques / AcademiaNet /
Questions were asked by Helen Jaques for AcademiaNet and

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