Rebirth of Reason


Objectivism and the Status of Children: a Tentative Suggestion
by Matthew Humphreys

Following a number of recent threads on SOLOHQ and other discussions offline concerning the rights of children, I decided to try and get all my own thoughts on the matter together; and it struck me that the whole topic of children is quite a sticking point for Objectivism and indeed libertarianism in general. Objectivism seems to have little to say about their rights or about children in general, except to say that raising them is a great responsibility not to be undertaken lightly and I believe some favourable comments regarding the Montessori education system. I don’t claim that I have the perfect solution, and I expect that I myself may develop my thoughts on these issues in the future, but I do believe that this issue requires much more discussion in Objectivist circles, and I’d like to submit the following as a sort of "working document", an effort to prime discussion of the issue.

First off, lets consider whether children have any rights. This is a bit of a “no brainer” – Objectivist arguments over the status of late-term fetuses and the like will doubtless continue, but on the basis of Objectivist principles I’m not aware of any effort at arguing that a fully born child is without rights. Today’s “status quo” grants children basic rights to their lives and not to be assaulted, but not much else. The full rights of an adult (or to be more accurate, the full rights that an adult is recognised as having in the relevant jurisdiction) don’t come until many years later, at an arbitrary age set by the state (usually with a few other equally arbitrary points along the way where a teenager attains the right to have sex, smoke, drive, join the army or whatever). Until that time, the status quo has the effect of giving parents a great deal of rights over their children (parents can dictate a child’s religion, the information and entertainment to which they are “exposed”, and within certain limits the manner in which the child is educated etc) as well as making them responsible for the child’s basic well being. In most civilised jurisdictions, most children are also forced to spend half the waking day in school for over ten years. With the exception of compulsory education, most Objectivists seem willing to accept the spirit if not the letter of this “status quo” i.e. that in an Objectivist society children would have some limited rights but would otherwise live under the authority of their parents until they are deemed to be adults. It is with this that I find myself compelled, in all good conscience, to take serious issue.

In so far as Objectivist individual rights can be seen as integrated, in that all of them together are necessary for an individual’s life, arguing that an individual attains some rights at birth but others at an arbitrary stage sometime later strikes me as contradictory and irrational. Some so-called libertarians (non-Objectivist as far as I’m aware) attempt to resolve this by arguing that a child has no rights whatsoever and ought to be treated as the property of his parents until he becomes an adult. Thus the child has no rights of his own but is protected from murder, assault, kidnap etc as an extension of his parents’ property rights. In one sense that isn’t entirely illogical, but from an Objectivist perspective, treating a living, developing being as property to be done with as the owner pleases is so nonsensical that I hope I don’t have to bother with a full refutation here.

So, what to do? To grant a child full rights from the moment of birth might be consistent, but also monumentally unworkable due to the immaturity and lack of knowledge of the children. It is necessary therefore for the rights of the child to be in a sense entrusted, or vested to the parents or other guardians (my thanks to Joe Rowlands for pointing out during one of our recent debates the problems with a previous formulation of this idea), but there ought to be a stipulation in law that this is the case. In the case of a very young child the effect of this would be that parents and guardians were allowed able to override the child’s immediate autonomy where and only where not to do so would be to the child’s detriment, for instance some sort of restraint to prevent the child running off of a cliff or into oncoming traffic, or slapping his hand away if he’s about to get burned.

In some respects the implications of this wouldn’t differ much from the status quo – parents wouldn’t be able to inject the child with heroin or sexually abuse them, just as they can’t now. But as children mature into teenagers, who might reasonably be expected not to deliberately walk off of a cliff, matters would become more complicated. There ought in effect to be a large (though limited) “sphere of freedom” – actions which a teen is able to do without the assistance of his parents and which the parents wouldn’t be able to interfere with. For instance parents ought not to be able forcibly restrict a teen’s access to information and entertainment where the teen has the means and the wherewithal to obtain such material. This presumes someone is willing to supply him with such, which of course no one might be due to non-governmental factors such as social disapproval (government age restrictions on alcohol and tobacco sales and the like would of course not exist in a laissez-faire economy). So parents wouldn’t be able to arbitrarily prevent a teenager from exploring religions other than their own (or for that matter Objectivism). Christian parents not happy about their teenager using the proceeds of his paper round to buy The Fountainhead or an issue of Playboy? They can go complain to the shopkeeper if they want, but otherwise, tough luck. There would be no right to “confiscate” (i.e. steal) such items. Their child is going to break free of their religious indoctrination whether they like it or not. Parents also wouldn’t have the right to beat up children for disobedience or for that matter anything else. (Though I’m happy to accept, due to points made by Lindsay Perigo, David Bertelsen and others in the recent discussions, that that law shouldn’t bar a relatively gentle cuff in situations where a very young child is plain refusing to listen to reason).

Driving lessons, introduction to alcohol and so on could all come when the parent accepted the child or teen was ready for such activities. In this sense it might be said that parental authority, or at least parental discretion, would increase in these matters. Sexual activity would occur when the individual was ready, in many cases in the mid-teens (as often happens now, in violation of whatever arbitrary age of consent the state sets up). There ought of course to be laws in place to prevent children being induced into sex by pedophiles, and so serious is the issue that perhaps in this one instance some qualified age of consent must be endorsed, but dealing with the matter in terms of age difference rather than a wholly arbitrary blanket age (for instance making sex illegal with anyone say three years younger where the younger person is a child or teen). In addition there probably ought also to be an absolute bar on sex with a child who has little or no independent knowledge of sexuality. Of course, until an individual posses full rights, there are a few things that would remain outside the “sphere of freedom”, where parental discretion would be necessary (again, in the interests of the teen). For instance, all binding contracts (as distinct from more immediate purchases) would have to be approved by the parents. This would, one hopes, protect teens and young children from being induced into various detrimental activities (child porn and the like).

The only remaining question is at what point individuals ought to be officially recognised as fully possessing their rights, and by what mechanism. My solution would be that this occurs when the individual, preferably with the consent of the parents, is ready to accept all the responsibilities that go with being an adult. In a largely Objectivist society, I suspect this would often be at somewhat younger ages than the present arbitrary standards, but might I suppose in some instances be older. But what of instances where parent and offspring disagree? For instance situations may develop where a serious disagreement with parents causes a young teen to wish to claim his full rights. The most obvious solution is for the courts to develop some maturity standard, just as there is now a standard of sorts for declaring seriously mentally ill persons to be legally incompetent. Such a standard ought to take into account age, academic achievement, clear signs of maturity (or lack of) in the individual’s behaviour and instances of the individual having fended for himself for various periods etc.

And that said, I shall conclude this article, and hope for a constructive debate.
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