It has always surprised me to hear children referred to as though they are some kind of consumer product or accessory. Or the way parenthood is framed as a ‘lifestyle decision’ rather than something to do with reproducing the human race (and contributing the nation’s future tax payers).
This way of thinking has led to quite a lot of negative and punitive commentary including during the recent election campaign when we heard that mothers in the workforce – not dads apparently – are selfishly reproducing and bludging off the system through paid parental leave.
Underpinning this complaint is often the belief that if women have children they really should stay home all the time with them and not take a paid job from a male breadwinner. No matter how inaccurate or contradictory these ideas may be, it’s high time the reasons they are regularly recycled got some attention.
The bells really started ringing about the tenor of this discussion when I read Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel’s latest book What money can’t buy, which outlines how much market thinking has infiltrated our lives.
We’ve changed from market economies into market societies where just about everything is for sale, he explains. Little wonder we talk about humans as though they are products, and having children as selfish, particularly when reproduction itself is now for sale through surrogacy.
Sandel argues that we need to ensure some parts of our lives are not subject to wholesale market forces, including parenting.
During a recent interview before delivering a keynote speech at a global sustainable development conference in Thailand, he told me that these days we confront many ethical dilemmas as parents and citizens. But the question of what we could lose when we outsource significant amounts of parenting – particularly as more and more women enter the workforce – is a vexed issue.
It’s also the source of much guilt for women who need or want to be employed.
“The burden of this dilemma should not fall on women but on parents generally,” he said. “Clearly it’s a good thing to provide the social institutions that enable women to participate in the workforce and yet the women then have to figure out how to do this in a way that removes the risks associated with family life and childhood. It’s very difficult.”
Of course, he added, family life wasn’t under threat simply because women or indeed parents were in paid work. There were many other ways in which market thinking and values have had an impact on family life and parenting and this was only one of many.
Surrogacy, for example, raises the question of the extent to which turning pregnancy into a paid job risks commodifying reproduction capacity and children. The same question can be raised about childcare and the role of markets, he said, and it needs to be the subject of meaningful discussion.
One of the aims Sandel set for his latest book was to get people talking about these topics and examining what they believe and value, and why. And he’s found the message is resonating as many people confront complex issues such as the clash between paid and unpaid work and gender roles for women.
“Many people are searching for moral frameworks and principles to inform their own ethical stance whether in business or in public life or in everyday life. The general public is aware of something professional economists would deny – that economics is not a value neutral science of behaviour.
“Standard economic reasoning with its emphasis on efficiency and growth is a kind of moral reasoning even if economists are not aware of the ideas underlying the references they make. The main reason to write the book was to encourage a more vigorous public debate about the role of markets and market thinking.”
Recognising that economics and indeed the norms of business organisations are not ‘value neutral’ is a useful framework when it comes to examining some of the gender issues women confront.
Equally, identifying what we really value as parents, workers and citizens is a crucial step in having a much clearer and more productive discussion in business about women’s participation and progress instead of accusing mothers of getting a free ride or suggesting they just go home. It’s a debate we need to have.
(If this is a topic that interests you Sandel suggests having a look at his free online course based on his teaching at Harvard)