Over the past fifty years, the United States has seen a dramatic revolution in family life. Marriage rates have cratered, fertility rates have fallen to all-time lows, and the question of whether the government should take an interest in strengthening families (and if so, how) has attracted attention from both sides of the political aisle.

This course will introduce fellows to both the philosophical and the empirical aspects of policy-making on issues related to the family. Fellows will read five rival understandings of the family and its role in society—from Plato through contemporary feminism—and then apply their thinking to current family policy debates. We will examine some of the most salient topics in family policy, including childcare, the child tax credit, and pro-natal policies. At the end of the week, fellows will have learned to think more clearly about the ways in which political philosophy does, and does not, bear directly on decisions made in the world of public policy.

Image: Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl, Family Portrait, 1804, National Gallery of Art

Patrick Brown on pro-family economics


Daniel Burns

Daniel Burns is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Dallas. His research in political philosophy focuses on the relation between religion and citizenship. He has recently served as a staffer for the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee and as a full-time contractor for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Patrick T. Brown

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society. Prior to joining EPPC, Patrick served as a Senior Policy Advisor to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee (JEC).

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions:

  1. Does Plato’s account of sacred familial bonds still describe how Americans experience family life today?
  2. Does Locke’s account of the contractual basis of marriage and family life offer a more reasonable basis for family-related public policy than Plato’s account?
  3. What are the most important areas of agreement between Plato and Locke on the family? What are their most important areas of disagreement? Would their disagreements have any bearing on questions of contemporary public policy?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Rousseau claims that traditional gender roles are not only useful to society but also beneficial for individual happiness and true gender equality. Are these believable claims?
  2. Mill advocates only for legal equality of opportunity between the sexes, not for any legal interventions to correct past inequities or prevent future discrimination. Is this consistent on his part? Or do his arguments point toward a more active government role in advancing the social status of women?
  3. What would contemporary American society look like if we listened more to Rousseau? Or to Mill?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Does the equality of the sexes require Okin’s “genderless society”? If not, then why not? Or if so, then are her policy prescriptions the best way to achieve that society?
  2. What are the social goals that proponents seek to advance through greater funding of childcare? What are some of the objections to broader funding of childcare? Are these fundamentally irreconcilable?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What are different ways someone on the political left might conceive of the family as an institution in today’s policy debates, and how does that differ from someone on the political right? What are the major fault lines?
  2. What are the best examples of contemporary policy debates that illustrate how the different anthropologies of the family drive different political positions and stances?
  3. Are we entering a new era of family policy? Are the debates over the family the same as in the 1970s or have they shifted?

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