For The Record

The line between private choices and those where the public has a stake can be a blurry one, as Meredith Harbach, professor of law, explained in a panel discussion on campus in February.

Childrearing is one example: The U.S. typically sees it as a private endeavor where parents make decisions and care for children as they see fit, Harbach said, while in some other countries there’s more of a collective sense of responsibility. While it has many positives, the U.S. approach isn’t without consequences, such as a hesitation to intervene until a child is in immediate crisis, whether from abuse or poverty.

Harbach, speaking at the Ethics of Choice Conference, wondered if a shift in public opinion could lead to a more cooperative model, where all citizens feel a responsibility for ensuring that parents have the financial and social support they need. She proposed a variety of opportunities where the state could better partner with parents to protect child well-being, from expanding the definition of child harm to include poverty and systemic inequality, to legislation to better balance child care and work, and ensuring that parents have access to basic resources.

“I want to move from a model that focuses on parental power and state power that are constantly in tension,” she said, “to one that prioritizes the responsibilities of the state to children, of the state to families, and of families to children.”

The conference, organized by the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, brought together scholars and experts from across the university and 15 other institutions to debate a wide range of ethical issues. Harbach was one of several Richmond Law professors among the conference’s 42 speakers.

Allison Tait, associate dean for faculty development and professor of law, chaired a panel discussion titled “Wealth Gains and Gaps” that explored how lending practices often undermine the economic stability of low-income families while providing benefits to high-wealth families. The discussion was moderated by Christopher Corts, professor of law and legal practice.

Families and individuals whose wages are too low and who have little job security often incur debt to meet basic needs, Tait said. But their borrowing choices often are limited to predatory lenders with high fees, such as payday loans and check-cashing services. On the flip side, high-wealth individuals can actually take advantage of debt, using it to generate income and assets and avoid taxes — a system wherein the rich get richer.

That tension, Tait said, raises questions about how to open up possibilities for everyone to thrive. “We talk about helping people make the correct choices to get to their own flourishing,” she said, “and how their flourishing can be supported by communities and by the state.”