BSocSc Politics and International Relations / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Children, Family and Social Justice

Course unit fact file
Unit code POLI31032
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The family is a profoundly influential political and social institution. This course considers some of the key debates about the demands of social justice as they apply to parents, children and the family and considers their practical implications for public policy and individual conduct. Some of the questions we consider are as follows:

·         Is it ever morally wrong to procreate? And if so what legal limits can be placed on potential procreators?

·         What moral rules apply to the regulation and use of procreative technology, such as IVF, gamete donation, surrogacy, and genetic selection?

·         Is it fair that the costs of a child’s upbringing are shared with non-parents? Should parents alone carry that burden? What does this mean for the welfare state?

·         How should child-custody be determined? Should a child always be placed with the best possible parents or do biological relations have fundamental importance? What does this mean for current practices?

·         What does justice permit parents to do with for their children? Can they enrol them in religious organisations? Can they advantage their children at the expense of others through bequest and private schooling? Should private schooling be outlawed? Should inheritance be taxed at 100%?

·         In what way does justice apply to the inner workings of the family? Should the household division of labour be fairly shared across gender lines? What sorts of parental leave policies does justice favour?


The unit aims to:

• Inform students about the way that philosophical disputes about values, interests and rights underlie everyday practical debates about public policy regarding children and the family including, but not limited to, custodial disputes, the use of reproductive technology, religious enrolment of children and the voting age.

• Inform students about the positions that have been taken by different theorists working in this area and the debates about the relative strengths and weaknesses of these positions.

• Equip students with the skills necessary to take a stand on both the theoretical and practical questions and to engage in debate with others.

Learning outcomes

By fully participating in this course students will gain:

·         An understanding of scholarly and public debates regarding the family and children in relation to social justice, including the ethical, legal and practical aspects of those debates.

·         An enhanced capacity to analyse and evaluate competing arguments within contemporary public and academic debates about the family as a political institution and child as subjects of social justice

·         A developed ability to formulate rigorous arguments and philosophical positions so that you can defend against other positions.


The course covers three sets of normative issues and their public policy responses. The first addresses issues around procreative practices, such as genetic selection, wrongful life, the limits to procreative autonomy. The second addresses issues around being or becoming a parent, such as the significance of biological ties, the interests of children and the interests of parents in determining custody. We will discuss the possible practical consequences of these positions for questions about adoption, surrogacy and post-separation custodial disputes. The third addresses issues around upbringing, including issues around how to balance the value of familial partiality and the value of equality, how to think about parental influence and children’s autonomy, especially with respect to religious enrolment, and the age of majority. We will discuss possible public policy responses regarding the voting age, schooling, and inheritance tax and whether the family should be insulated from any kind of governmental interference.

1.       Introduction

2.       The Right to Procreate

3.       Procreative Technology

4.       Children’s Rights

5.       Sharing the Costs of Child-Rearing

6.       Parental Rights: Genetic, Gestational and Intentional Accounts        

7.       Parental Rights: Interest Based Accounts

8.       Parental Partiality - Conferring Advantage

9.       Parental Influence - Comprehensive Enrolment

10.    Justice of the Family and Justice in the Family

11.    Review

Knowledge and understanding

Students will gain knowledge and understanding of the various values and interests at stake when thinking about procreation, upbringing and the family; knowledge and understanding of how to argue about their relative weight; and knowledge of the implications of the philosophical positions for public policies, such as those around inheritance tax, the use of reproductive technology and welfare provision for families.

Intellectual skills

Intellectual/Practical/Transferable/Employability Skills and Personal Qualities

Students will gain the following skills and personal qualities:

·         An ability to understand and precisely define complex and contested concepts, such as justice, rights, interests etc.

·         An ability to deploy abstract reasoning in practical contexts, such as public policy debates

·         An ability to think imaginatively and creatively about problems as they present themselves and their more abstract structure.

·         An ability to work and think independently and to arrive and conclusions that others may disagree with and offer reasons for their conclusion.

·         A respect for precision and clarity is explanations.

·         A charitable disposition towards those who fail to articulate precisely and clearly their positions and an ability to spot and resolve quickly inconsistencies and ambiguities in those positions.

·         An ability to understand positions from texts

·         An ability to speak and write in a persuasive manner that anticipates problems.

·         A disposition to get to the bottom of any particular issue and see past rhetoric and bad argument.

·         An ability to understand how abstract reasoning applies to and helps us understand practical matters, including those around the upbringing and procreation.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Clearly explain different positions and reasons for holding them. Charitably engage in argument with others. Clearly re-construct complex and difficult arguments from texts and discussions. To be an independent thinker and independent worker. The confidence to engage in debate and discussion over highly politically charged issues relevant to important areas of public policy, such as questions about parental rights, reproductive freedom and what makes a good upbringing.

Assessment methods

Two essay worth 50% each (2,000 words EACH)

Feedback methods

Politics staff will provide feedback on written work within 15 working days of submission. Students should be aware that all marks are provisional until confirmed by the external examiner and the final examinations boards in June. For modules that do not have examination components the marks and feedback for the final assessed component are not subject to the 15 working day rule and will be released with the examination results. You will receive feedback on assessed essays in a standard format. This will rate your essay in terms of various aspects of the argument that you have presented your use of sources and the quality of the style and presentation of the essay. If you have any queries about the feedback that you have received you should make an appointment to see your tutor. On assessments submitted through Turnitin you will receive feedback via Blackboard. This will include suggestions about ways in which you could improve your work in future. You will also receive feedback on non-assessed coursework, whether this is individual or group work. This may be of a more informal kind and may include feedback from peers as well as academic staff

Recommended reading

For an excellent overview of many of the most important questions we discuss see: Hannan, Sarah, “Introduction: On The Morality of Procreation and Parenting” in Hannan, Sarah, Samantha Brennan, and Richard Vernon, eds. Permissible Progeny?: The Morality of Procreation and Parenting. Oxford University Press, 2015.


Other useful introductory sources include:

  • Brake, Elizabeth and Millum, Joseph, "Parenthood and Procreation", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.
  • Archard, David William, "Children's Rights", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Tutorials 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Liam Shields Unit coordinator

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