Children are marginal cases.
Talking about ethics in terms of autonomy, or rights — Kantian ethics — famously leaves children, especially very young children, in an odd place. I have addressed this elsewhere in a couple of specific applied issues. In this post, I wanted to talk about the greater theoretical issue.On Kantian ethics, we grant autonomy in virtue of respect for our fellow humans’ ability to set and pursue their own ends. That is what makes a being intrinsically valuable for a Kantian. Inclusion in the moral community is predicated on a being’s rationality.
Young children, it turns out, are not so good at setting and pursuing ends that are actually in their interests. As parents, we are regularly stepping in to stop them from pursuing their ends. Their ends of not going to the doctor’s office, of eating only cookies, of playing with a power cord, of deciding their education. To respect their autonomy, as we do for an adult, would be to mistreat them.
Kantian ethics works reasonably well when talking about relations between adults, just as Newtonian physics works very well for a certain scale of object. But for very small things, Newtonian physics does not have all the answers. Likewise, there are cases where Kantian ethics falls apart. These are cases where rationality is not present – not just young children, but the severely cognitively disabled, people suffering from dementia, people in comas, and animals. These are referred to as the “marginal cases,” as if they are not a major, major part of our moral life. But our treatment of these people and animals is not at all incidental to our moral life. And Kantian solutions to how to treat marginal cases start to become tortured and ad hoc. The easiest thing to say about children is that we are custodians of their autonomy, and are responsible for seeing that they become as capably autonomous as possible. First of all, we’re not very good at that. If there are people who regret no decision their parents have made for them, who have no wish that their parents had done something differently, then I’m guessing those people are few and far between. But more importantly, what, then, are our obligations to those with severe cognitive disabilities, children with terminal illnesses, the comatose, and animals?
There are various ways of hashing this issue out while still retaining talk of rights. Again, they seem strained. Everyone agrees we must admit these marginal cases as worthy of moral consideration, but how?
Kant himself suggested that what was wrong about mistreating animals was not that they were themselves worthy of moral consideration. On his view, how could they be? It was that cruelty to animals encourages the worst in humanity. Which first of all, is a bit odd – is there really no wrong done to the animal? Just the practitioner? And it is odd in a second way – it sounds very much not like a Kantian argument, but a virtue ethics argument. In virtue ethics, it is not a specific kind of act that it wrong or right. Rightness and wrongness is a matter of developing virtuousness and avoiding viciousness. About aiming to be a certain sort of person. So on Kant’s view on animals, cruelty is not wrong as an act, but because it enhances a certain character trait – a vicious one.
It is looking at these marginal cases that enhances the appeal of virtue ethics over Kantian ethics to me. For suddenly the marginal cases are not marginal at all. We don’t have to twist ourselves into a knot to explain why we must care for our children without receiving their consent for all we do. We don’t have to give up on the severely cognitively disabled, or say that our obligations to them are only in virtue of their resemblance to someone more truly worthy of moral consideration. We can say that kindness and compassion are what we should aim to exercise in the treatment of the not fully rational. We can also say that it is a virtue to help others who are not presently able to exercise their rationality learn how to do so – and thus explain why we owe children and the cognitively disabled help in becoming self-reliant.
Then the marginal cases are no longer marginal. They are as central as any other.