Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Thoughts on Children's Rights

To carry on the previously initiated discussion on children's rights...

Rights can be distributed categorically: Adults have full "rights," as they have full rationality. Children also have rights, as they have potential for rationality--the parents must regulate the allocation of these rights. And objects have no rights, as they have no potential for rationality.

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

A second question that I typically hear in arguments about child-adult-irrational adult arguments is that some adults have needs similar to children (i.e. the sick, homeless, etc.). To this, I would respond that children have rights to positive goods from their parents because they have potential rationality that must be fostered so that they might develop into fully rational adults. However, unfortunate adults do not have these welfare rights because they are already fully rational, or have passed through the "potential for rationality" stage.

Just a modest proposal...what are your thoughts?

7 Comments:

Blogger See Jay run said...

Katie, thank you for the post. I am curious as to when the 'potentiality of adulthood' might begin? Is conception a reasonable point from which to protect the 'potentiality of adulthood'? And would conception, if acceptable as a valid starting point, provide a negative claim to be free from harm (death) to a 'potential rational human', as well as a positive claim from the 'potential rational human' against the mother (primarily) to provide for its best interest, i.e. to secure at least the minimal provisions toward the hope of rationality, i.e. life?

10:13 AM  
Blogger Katie said...

Clyde,
it seems that you are getting at the abortion issue with your comment, and for good reason. I don't exactly feel qualified to answer your questions, but I'll do my best.
First, there is reasonable evidence to assume that most people don't think of embryos in the same way as they think of people. For example, one study offers a hypothetical in which a drug exists that can prevent all miscarriages. This drug becomes a requirement for all pregnant women. However, the body is able to recognize seriously deformed embryos on its own in some instances, resulting in what some would consider to be biologically "necessary" miscarriages. Given this, it's difficult for me to imagine people accepting this anti-miscarriage drug as a requirement for the sake of saving an embryo. For a "potential human," it might be a different story. So, in response to your first question re: whether conception qualifies a "potential human," I would answer, no, as, generally people consider embryos and humans to occupy different categories.
Keeping with the Kantian rationality theme, I think a better distinction could be at the point where the fetus has developed a human brain (once it can sense pain, and experience multiple states, such as sleeping and waking). I think this occurs around 7 months.
Finally, the question of whether securing the rights of a "potential" violates the rights of the mother, and/or works for or against whatever can be deemed as working for the "best interest," is a personal, moral qualification that must be made by each mother individually.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

The potentiality argument has always seemed suspect to me, or at least incomplete. I don't have a better argument at the moment, but here are a few problems I see with the potentiality argument. They all have to do with the fact that "potential" is an ambiguous term. For instance, while it is easily argued that children will grow to be capable, rational adults, ceteris paribus, it's not as easy to determine what potentiality actually means.

1. How far back does potentiality extend? Clyde touched on this issue. Is it at conception, or, as Katie posits, at the beginning of continuous brainwave activity? Katie, you state that people "consider" embryos and humans to occupy different categories. While this is often true, I don't think it answers the strictly ontological argument that Clyde presents. Whether people see embryos as persons/humans or not does not necessarily make it so. If that were our criterion, then libertarianism would be wrong. =)

Your biological argument is interesting, though. You claim that the body is sometimes able to recognize deformed embryos and initiates its own natural abortion. I've heard this argument before, and it does make sense to a certain degree. However, a couple points arise: (1) The body doesn't ALWAYS do this, so it seems suspect for us to determine that, "Well, the body SHOULD have self-aborted this embryo because it SOMETIMES does." (2) Taking this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion allows for dangerous assumptions to be made about the inherent worth of certain human beings.

But I digress. On to my second question about potentiality:

2. To what degree does potentiality extend? Here's an example. The word "potential" implies some sort of future attainment of said potential. But in the case of a mentally handicapped individual, the "potentiality" for that individual to attain what we would consider normal rational capacity of a human being is not likely to occur.

If, though, the argument is that the mentally retarded person has some nebulous "potential" that cannot be actualized, that seems like a somewhat specious claim to me. In strictly rational calculations, I don't see an inherent difference (in terms of "potentiality") between a mentally handicapped individual and an animal with relatively high rational capabilities (e.g. a dolphin or ape). (Please note that I am in no way trying to disparage the mentally handicapped; I'm simply showing the logical conclusions derived from the potentiality argument as I see it.)

So with these problems in mind, one of three options is possible:

1. The argument holds true as is, with the logical conclusions accepted.

2. The argument holds partially true, but terms need to be more rigorously defined.

3. The argument is fallacious.

I'm guessing it's somewhere in the vicinity of (2); perhaps someone smarter than I can help?

1:15 PM  
Blogger See Jay run said...

I want to thank you both for your comments! I shall have more to add after I ponder them.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Steven Horwitz said...

Quick comment on the abortion issue: another way to look at it is not whether or not the fetus is a human being, but what outlawing abortion means for real, live adult women. Suppose we think life begins at conception (I don't think meaningful life does, but suppose...) and that therefore abortion is murder. Do you think laws declaring it murder are enforceable? Should the punishment be the same as other murder? Should both the doctor and the pregnant woman be charged? Who will detect and report them? Are you prepared to deal with pushing abortion back "underground" and what that means for women and doctors?

Asking some consequentialist questions here complicates and already very complicated issue. My own view is that we cannot decide when life begins with any certainty at all, so instead we have to recognize that there is a multiplicity of ethical beliefs here and to consider seriously what the consequences of alternative policies might be. And then we choose among the ones that create the fewest problems.

For me, the damage to what is at best potential humanity is less important than the damage to actual humanity that attempting to outlaw abortion would create.

5:09 PM  
Blogger Priscillia said...

"My own view is that we cannot decide when life begins with any certainty at all..."


Then how does a woman know to check if she's pregnant? There must be a recognizable difference inside of her. If by certainty you mean the exact moment at which she is pregnant, one loses the context because an abortion occurs when a woman knows she is with child/tissue. It doesn't happen "just in case" she is pregnant...that would be the morning after pill which only works if the egg is not fertilized.

1:36 PM  
Blogger eponcz said...

Understandably the conversation often turns to abortion when there are discussions of children's rights -- however, there are many children who are out of the womb who need consideration. What to do when parents do not care for their children -- who is looking out for their best interest? The child welfare system is in dire need of some help -- the juvenile justice system seems to be struggling. There are many injustices being served to children who are out and about, being abused and overlooked in the wider world.

While the discussion about abortion is an interesting abstraction, perhaps there should also be a deeper discussion of the kids who are 5, 10, 15 who are beaten, neglected and left without a true "trustee."

http://childrensrightsandlaws.blogspot.com/

7:18 AM  

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