Parental Responsibility

Undoubtedly, the paradigm case for the vulnerability model is parental responsibility towards infants and young children. The human child is dependent upon its parent(s) (or other adult caregivers) for all of the most basic necessities for survival, such as food, clothing, shelter, safety, etc.: "Indeed, biologists remark that the most salient feature of the human infant is its severe and protracted vulnerability. Man is more helpless for more of his life than virtually any other species. Somebody must be assigned the special responsibility of looking after the young. Who that is will, of course, be a matter for social determination; typically it will be the biological parents, at least in the first instance; but sometime it will not.

Whoever is picked out, however, the more basic point remains that those special responsibilities flow fundamentally from the child's special vulnerabilities" (Goodin 1985, 33). Here, the idea of vulnerability seems to be extremely appealing, both in terms of the generation of moral responsibilities on the part of parents towards their children as well as the specific contents of the moral duties that follow from them. Human infants and young children, as a particular class of moral patients, are particularly vulnerable to various kinds of neglect and abuse. They can be harmed by the failure of caregivers to provide them with adequate nourishment, shelter, and protection from various sorts of risks and threats, which is why responsible parents "child-proof" their homes.

Young children can also be improved in various ways, for instance, by providing them with educational opportunities, training, and privileges of various kinds through which they can develop their capacities and talents. Their parental or other caregivers are normally believed to have strong moral responsibilities to protect them from harm and to do many things which directly or indirectly benefit those children who are under their care. In this respect it is important to note that the ethics of care extends Goodin's VP by adding to it duties to benefit or improve the subjects of care, rather than only to protect them from harm. The VCP differs from the VP in this important respect. Under the VCP the responsible parties to the vulnerability-care relationship have specific moral duties to benefit the objects of their responsibilities in specific ways. The VCP combines what are commonly thought of duties of beneficence with those of nonmalefience, where both sorts of duties are understood as applying to both acts and omissions.

Duties of nonmaleficence are often thought of as stronger than duties of beneficence, and duties to avoid directly causing others to be at risk of harm are generally thought to be stronger than duties to prevent risks and threats that one did not directly cause. It is a curious fact that the English language seems to lack a specific term that corresponds to "vulnerable" but which means susceptibility to be benefited or made better off than one is.

One might suggest that the term whose meaning is closest to this sense is "corrigible"; to be corrigible is to be susceptible to improvement or benefit, or at least, that is the sense in which I shall employ that term here. So we can also posit a parallel moral relationship of corrigibility:

The Corrigibility Relation: A is corrigible to B with respect to C because of D.

The notion of corrigibility will be useful for discussing what are commonly thought of as duties of beneficence. Given this these terminological stipulations, we can describe in general terms four classes of moral responsibilities to avoid or prevent harm to the vulnerable or to help the corrigible that moral agents can have:

(I) Responsibilities to avoid harming others.

(II) Responsibilities to prevent harm coming to others.

(III) Responsibilities to benefit others.

(IV) Responsibilities to avoid preventing benefits coming to others.

In (I) if B acts in certain ways B would make some moral patient A worse off than they would otherwise have been. In (II) if B refrains from acting in certain ways A would be made worse off than if B had acted in those ways. In (III), by acting B makes A better off than he would have been had B not acted, and in (IV) B would make some moral patient better off than they would otherwise be by not acting. It is also worth noting that in (I) and (III) the agent is the direct cause of the harm or benefit in question, while in (II) and (IV) they are the intervening or indirect cause of the benefit or harm.

Parental responsibilities being the paradigm case for the ethics of care and vulnerability combine all of these kinds of special duties. Parents, can of course, delegate or assign some of their responsibilities to care for their young children to others, e.g. teachers, family members, or day-care workers. It is important to note that responsibilities can in general be delegated or reassigned in this way, which is one reason why I prefer to use the term 'moral responsibility' rather than 'duty'. When a parent delegates or reassigns his or her parental responsibilities, say to a baby-sitter or teacher, the parent or primary caregiver retains a supervisory responsibility to see to it that her designees are capable of adequately discharging the kinds of responsibilities appropriate for those placed under their care.

That the vulnerability of human infants should play a role in shaping the ethical responsibilities of parents or other caregivers carries strong intuitive appeal. The Christian icon of the mother and child is universally understood as representing the special moral relationship of care and vulnerability that exists between mothers and their children. The VCP has a dominant role in understanding and explaining the sorts of special moral responsibilities that mothers and fathers, and perhaps other family members, have toward a certain class of moral patients, infants and young children, who because of their immaturity are specially vulnerable and dependent on others for their care and protection.

But perhaps this not so clear when we consider other types of family relationships. Goodin argues it is implausible to analyze parental responsibilities on the model of promises and contracts where the agent comes to acquire a particular responsibility as the result of his or her own voluntary choices. One generally does not choose ones children in the way one chooses friends, business associates, or others we deal with on a daily basis. But, of course, this does happen sometimes when children are adopted. Other cases in family relations, however, are far from obviously associated with the vulnerability-care model. So let's examine some more of Goodin's arguments for extending the VCP to other kinds of special moral relationships.