In Their Best Interest?: The Case Against Equal Rights for Children

Cornell University Press (1992)

Abstract

Proponents of children's liberation (CL) argue that there are no morally relevant differences between children and adults. Consequently, special protective laws that limit children's freedom are unjustified, and should be abolished. Protectionists reject the premise of this argument, and hence also the conclusion. Proponents of CL mostly fix upon the capacity for instrumental reasoning as the criterion that should separate autonomous from non-autonomous individuals. I argue that most children are substantially worse at instrumental reasoning than most adults, and although drawing a line between the two categories has an arbitrary element, outstanding exceptions on both sides can be justly accommodated. Furthermore, the capacity for instrumental reasoning is a necessary but not sufficient basis for equal rights. A morally decent society is more demanding of individuals than the skeptical or libertarian one that most plausibly grounds CL. To construct and live in such a society requires both prudence and morality. But there is evidence that children need protection and limits to develop these traits. So there are morally relevant differences between children and adults after all, and the argument from justice fails. The utilitarian arm of the argument also fails: because of these morally relevant differences, CL would have worse consequences than those envisioned by its supporters. Parents would lose important authority, and there would be more homeless children. Consequently, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged persons would become larger and more irreversible.

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Laura Purdy
Wells College

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