Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Children's Rights continued

Rather than put this in the comments, I'll put it in a new post.

Katie wrote:

One model of the parent-child relationship claims that parents are the trustees of their children (the potentiality of adulthood held by the child gives the child claim to him/herself). As a trustee, the parent is required to serve the "best interest" of the child (defined by some as the means by which to secure rationality for the child).

This is a pretty good way to look at it. I would frame it a bit differently: parents are stewards of children. We start with the default principle that they are in the best position to know the child's "best interests" because they have the strongest incentives to do the right thing and because they know the children best and can therefore determine what their "best interest" is. Note how this is a Hayekian argument in the sense that it focuses on knowledge and incentives.

And yes, parents who accept stewardship of their children do have some positive obligations to them - minimally, to keep them safe from physical harm, nourish them, and do their best to bring them to functional adulthood. However, as Katie notes below, determining when these obligations have not been minimally met and what to do about it when they haven't been met are very difficult indeed.

This model raises the question of when the state must intervene, or whether the state can intervene in the parent-child relationship at all. It could be argued that when the "best interest" of a child is not being served, the state can step in. But, what is the "best interest?"

Indeed. People differ on what "best interest" is and what is "best" for individual children can vary greatly. Of course things that we, as wealthy Westerners, would take for granted as being in the best interest might not be possible for the children of the poor or from other cultures. Even in the West, penalizing poor parents for being poor by arguing that they are "neglecting" their kids and should have them taken away seems brutually unfair. There is a difference between neglect and abuse, and not all forms of neglect require state intervention. It is always worth asking the comparative institutions question: "as compared to what?" Even if we think parents aren't serving the best interest, will the state do any better for the kids by taking them out of the home? If not, are there less intrusive and dramatic forms of intervention that can help kids without punishing parents (again, this is not about abuse, but many things that we might think of as neglect)? Better yet, are there ways that other social institutions can get involved? What can houses of worship and other institutions of civil society do to help parents be better parents?

How does one secure rationality? Isn't it up to the parent to decide? And if this is true, isn't it unlikely that a parent will admit that he/she is not working in the "best interest" of his/her child?

Determining when "the line" has been crossed and parents are no longer to be trusted as the best steward for children is extremely difficult, and more so when you ask the comparative question from above. My default is to set the bar high, given that I think parents are always in the best position, but that doesn't mean there aren't cases where I think the parents need to have their parental rights attenuated. How exactly to do that and what the alternatives are remain tough questions.

But, then, how does one avoid arbitrary coercion in the parent-child relationship? This seems circular to me.

You can't avoid it; it's part of the relationship. And when we talk about children, coercion is just fine. Now if by "arbitrary" you mean abuse, that's a different story.

One last point: I do think it's probably better to talk about "parental rights" than "children's rights." It's certainly true that children have more rights than they used to and parents somewhat fewer. However, the constitutional law on this issue is all in terms of parental rights. The question you are asking is "when do parents fail their children so severely that their parental rights should be attenuated, suspended, or completely eradicated?"

If you'd like to read my thoughts on the family as a social institution, check out the draft of my forthcoming Cambridge Journal of Economics article here.

6 Comments:

Blogger Katie said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:33 AM  
Blogger Katie said...

Thanks for your input, Steve. It seems to me that when it comes to parental rights, as with most things, the more local the issue is kept the better. If rights need to be attenuated, after the parents themselves, social institutions, etc. that understand the local situation (therefore the "feasible best interest," I suppose it could be termed), will be the most well suited to handle the situation. To me, the imposition of "one-size-fits-all" state policies in the home sounds like a recipe for disaster.
As a side note, "arbitrary coercion" was referring to abuse. I think this misunderstanding of terms is a perfect example of how easy it is, even in the world of language, let alone action, to confuse the status of a parent-child relationship. What one child might call "arbitrary coercion," another child or parent might call "care."
Finally, I would agree that, in regards to the abortion issue, the rights of the mother trump the rights of the "potential." Whatever one's position ethically, the choice to alter one's life for the sake of another's must be made by the already rational adult. In my opinion, there is no other option. As with the argument made in favor of the sale of parental rights, it seems that in most cases, the "best interest," of a child whose mother wants to abort would be abortion itself.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Finally, I would agree that, in regards to the abortion issue, the rights of the mother trump the rights of the "potential." Whatever one's position ethically, the choice to alter one's life for the sake of another's must be made by the already rational adult. In my opinion, there is no other option. As with the argument made in favor of the sale of parental rights, it seems that in most cases, the "best interest," of a child whose mother wants to abort would be abortion itself.

Are you willing to take this statement to its natural logical conclusion? =)

8:54 AM  
Blogger Katie said...

As always :)

9:04 AM  
Blogger Priscillia said...

So should an irrational adult lose their rights? For example, does a crackhead mother lose the right to an abortion? If rationality is the argument for who gets the right to decide life, you'd have to be very very clear on what is rational.

How does your "class" system work? Mother trumps baby/fetus, does mother trump dad? does mother trump the state?

9:48 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

3 scenarios for you, Katie. :)

(1) A mother gives birth. She decides that it isn't worth it to go through the rigors of (a)adoption or (b)raising the child. Is she justified in ending the life of the infant?

(2) A mother gives birth. Doctors tell her that it is almost certain her child will have severe mental retardation, and will never be able to develop her rationality to her full capacity. The mother does not wish herself or her child to go through the emotional and physical trauma. Is the mother justified in ending the life of the infant?

(3) At the age of 13, a young teenager is involved in a horrendous car accident that severely damages his brain. Doctors are unable to repair the damage, and state that the boy will live, but with the mental capacity likened to that of an ape. Is the mother justified in ending the life of the teenager?

11:12 AM  

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