So many disputes in our liberal democratic society hinge on the tension between inequality and fairness: between groups, between sexes, between individuals, and increasingly between families.They give a history lesson about this argument, which you can read if you want to do. Here's my version of it:
I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.
The power of the family to tilt equality hasn’t gone unnoticed, and academics and public commentators have been blowing the whistle for some time. Now, philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse have felt compelled to conduct a cool reassessment.
Swift in particular has been conflicted for some time over the curious situation that arises when a parent wants to do the best for her child but in the process makes the playing field for others even more lopsided.
‘I got interested in this question because I was interested in equality of opportunity,’ he says.
‘I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’
Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.
So, what to do?
According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.
‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’
Plato argued in favor of abolishing the family in the Republic, though it's not clear how much that was just a thought experiment. Aristotle rejected the idea outright in the Politics II.2, on the grounds that abolishing the family means abolishing the state. The argument he gives is an early form of the principle of division of labor: the family is more diverse and also more self-sustaining than an individual, and a city more than a family. By eliminating the family in order to give the state greater unity (of which 'less inequality' is a kind), you would end up decreasing the ability to sustain the state.
And indeed that is true. The state is capable of surviving even major disruptions in large part because people can rely upon their families for so much. If the family fails, the state has to pick up a lot more weight -- and, in taking on a vast multiplicity of tasks for which it is unsuited, it becomes far more fragile.
Swift doesn't concede the value of the family to the stability of the state, arguing instead only from Aristotle's formulation of the tragedy of the commons. Rather, he decides that "it is in the interest of the child to be parented, and be parented well." He ends up concluding from this that there may be a higher value than equality (heaven forfend!), and that we shouldn't force parents not to read to their children even though being read to as a child confers advantages later in life.
There's an additional point, which is that a state that tried to abolish the family would become unstable for another reason: parents would unite in destroying it. That doesn't seem to occur to him, but he's an Australian. The value of revolution to the moral health of society is more classically an American point.