U of T alum publishes new book on parental rights and responsibilities

Published: January 30, 2018

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Joseph Millum completed his PhD in our department in 2005 (his dissertation, The Adaptation of Morality, was supervised by Prof. Paul Thomson), and he is now a bioethicist for the Clinical Center Department of Bioethics and the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States.

Dr. Millum’s new book, The Moral Foundations of Parenthood has just been published by Oxford University Press. The book explores a distinctive account of parental rights and responsibilities by deriving them from more basic moral principles with a view toward integrating moral parenthood into wider moral theory.

We asked Dr. Millum about his research, and how his interests and work have been informed by his time at U of T.

“My interest in the ethics of parenthood was inspired by being a TA in Tom Berry’s bioethics class the year I graduated with my PhD,” he says. “We were discussing commercial surrogacy and the articles the class read all seemed to assume views about who the ‘real’ parents were. Moral parenthood was the first topic I worked on after the dissertation.”

“I used to sit in the evenings at Future Bistro [on Bloor Street],” recalls Dr. Millum, “drinking a pint of lager and writing about parental rights.”

As he completed his postdoc at the NIH, Dr. Millum was convinced he wanted to write a book about parenthood. “The final product reflects both my philosophical training at Toronto and the world of medical ethics that I’d entered at NIH,” he says about the book.

“I’m asking, and trying to answer, fundamental philosophical questions about how we acquire parental rights and responsibilities and what those rights and responsibilities consist in. At the same time, I want the theory to have teeth. So, I apply my views to practical questions about parenting. For example, I talk about non-traditional families, about corporal punishment, and about whether parents can use one child as an organ donor for another.”

In his introduction to the volume, Dr. Millum writes that “such a theory can help us identify who the parents are and tell us what they may do to and for their children, what they should and should not do, and what claims they have against others who might interfere or assist.”

“I learned a lot about how to be a philosopher at U of T,” says Dr. Millum. “There were great ethicists around, of course—Wayne, Tom, Gopal, and Sergio, for example—and they provided models for how to think and how to articulate ideas.”

But Dr. Millum says he learned the most from his peers at U of T: “We read each others’ work, shared the insights we’d picked up about academic life, and supported one another.” Notably, Dr. Millum thanks fellow U of T graduate students Michael Garnett, Danielle Bromwich, Kirstin Borgerson, and Doug MacKay in his book.

Congratulations on the publication of your book, Dr. Millum!