Mudd Center speaker discusses role of parents

Tommie Shelby says if the father does not want to support a child, it is immoral to make him do so


Ellen Kanzinger

Tommie Shelby discussed the meaning of parenthood and the justice of parental obligations in a speech titled “Procreation and Parental Responsibility: The Case of Disadvantaged Black Men.”

If biological fathers use contraception or make it clear prior to conception that they do not want to be moral fathers, they should not have parental responsibilities like paying child support, said Tommie Shelby, Mudd Center for Ethics speaker.

Tommie Shelby discussed the meaning of parenthood and the justice of parental obligations in a speech titled “Procreation and Parental Responsibility: The Case of Disadvantaged Black Men.”

Shelby is the sixth speaker in the series of Mudd Ethics talks on race and justice in America. He is a professor of African and African American Studies and Philosophy at Harvard University.

Reading from the manuscript of his upcoming book, Shelby discussed what circumstances must be present so that someone has parental obligations over a child. He focused in on the role of moral parenting, defined as having moral rights or responsibilities of parenthood over a child.

Shelby said that although society has an obligation to see to the welfare of children, our current standards of child support are unjust because they force fathers who did not agree to be moral parents to pay child support.

The idea that voluntary sex implies accepted obligations of parenthood is unfair based on the “asymmetry in reproductive freedom,” Shelby said. Women have the option of getting an abortion or putting a child up for adoption, hence a woman’s point of decision about whether to be a parent doesn’t have to come until birth while the man makes his decision at the time that he has sex.

“If neither sexual partner uses contraception and this fact is known to both, then the male partner has implied his acceptance of parental responsibilities should a child be created from his sperm,” Shelby said.

Shelby said that our commonly-held view that men who don’t pay child support are deadbeats or immoral is often wrong because morally, some of these men should not have been asked to pay. They might be parents in a biological sense but not in a moral way, a distinction that Shelby says is an important one to make.

According to Shelby, if a mother is poor and needs financial help it should come from the public, not from a man who is not morally the child’s father.

During his stay at Washington and Lee, Shelby also visited Professor Melina Bell’s Philosophy of the Family class which required a reading of the first part of his manuscript.

Junior Stephanie Foster, a student in Bell’s class, said that Shelby’s perspective is interesting.

“The common view holds that a lot of people think parental obligations arise just from a child existing,” Foster said.

Foster says that the first part of Shelby’s manuscript deals a lot with the reproductive rights of women and how it is wrong to demand that poor women hold up their side of the bargain – to refrain from having children in poverty.

The other side of this issue, Foster said, is that it is morally impermissible for non-consenting fathers to be asked for child support, even in a just society.

Angela Smith, the director of the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics, said that her goal with the program this year was “to be very intentionally interdisciplinary” with the series. The Mudd Center brought in a sociologist, psychologist, a couple of philosophers, and law professors and a novelist just this year.

Smith said that when she thinks about applied ethics she believes that it is important to get a diverse group of opinions.

“I think it was useful to have Professor Shelby present a more general framework,” Smith said. She also said she would have liked to see him bridge more towards the concrete and practical based on the audience for the talk.