A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 11 September 2014

What are the rights of Children? Part One

This is (hopefully) the first in a series of posts discussing the raising of children from the perspective of political philosophy.

A topic in political theory which is particularly close to my heart is how children can and should be raised, and what claims they have on parents and on other agents. I recently attended my first academic conference, and while there I encountered three papers within this area.

The first paper, Is obligatory child support possible in a private law society? A contractual approach, by Lukasz Nicolaus Dominiak, was presented as part of a workshop on The Current State of Libertarian Political Philosophy. He was responding to the position set forth by Herman Hans Hoppe and by Murray Rothbard, which states that parents have no natural positive obligations towards their children any more than they do for any random person in the street, and therefore that mandatory child support represents unjust aggression towards the parent compelled to pay it. Lukasz argued that in a stateless, common-law society couples would sign contracts and that these contracts would specify child support to be paid in the event of a separation. He had what seems to me to be rather a confused argument that child support would be lower in such a society than it is in ours (the argument being that the current system of courts turns the parent with children into a monopoly. What, I wonder, does he see as the "product" being sold by this monopoly?) and some sound economic analysis to demonstrate various ways in which child support would vary from couple to couple.

My opinion, and I think that of everyone there (including Lukasz) was that, regardless of how accurate this was in a predictive sense, it relied on a set of moral premises one of which is completely unacceptable: Rothbard's account is far too permissive towards bad parents. According to Rothbard, if a child is left by its parents to starve, this is no violation of its rights; moreover, it would be impermissible for an outsider to violate the parents' property rights in order to rescue the child. Lukasz, I believe, thought that such behaviour by the parents (apart from being despicable, or course) would represent the abandonment of guardianship rights over the child, leaving another person free to homestead that right by taking the child in. My own preference would be to construct some account of how the child acquires positive rights against the parents, but this is proving problematic, as I will explain in my second post of this series.

I'm not certain I understood the main message of the second paper, Injustice and the Child's Perspective by Christina Schuees. It had references to Plato (bad) and to Miranda Fricker (good), and the most I got from it was the idea that children are the victims of various kind of injustice and are not in a position to do anything about it.

Finally, Gunter Graf and Gottfried Schweiger presented their work-in-progress Securing Justice for Children. Who is responsible for what? I liked this paper. It was clearly set out, which made it easy to tell where they were making howlers. There was at least one point in the conference when I felt like saying "OK, I understand your conclusion. Please could you provide an argument for it?" This was not one of them, for the simple reason that they were clear about this being a work in progress and the arguments not being fully worked out. One of the howlers was that, in the absence of arguments, they still had a conclusion (and one which sounded awfully like "We need world socialism!"); that said, it was an excellent demonstration of why all philosophy should be analytic philosophy and for that I thank them. I intend to refer to this paper in the third post in this sequence.

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