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The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Childhood and Children: Chapter Summaries

Read the contributors' summaries of their chapters in The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Childhood and Children.


Chapter 5: Philosophical Thinking in Childhood, by Jana Mohr Lone

Wondering is a part of life for most children, often inspired by marvel at being alive in the world. Plato refers to wonder as the origin of philosophy. Although it is generally acknowledged that children engage in wondering, adults do not ordinarily consider wondering and reflection about philosophical issues as an important aspect of children’s lives.But children do wonder about philosophical questions, and they are capable of contributing unique insights to philosophy.

This chapter begins by examining whether children are capable of engaging in philosophical inquiry at all, which leads to an analysis of the related issue of what it means to do philosophy. The chapter then explores children’s philosophical thinking and, in particular, children’s epistemic openness, and considers the value of philosophy for children, arguing that the failure to listen, solely on the basis of age, to children’s ideas and questions is a form of epistemic injustice. The chapter concludes by claiming that paying attention to children’s philosophical engagement can help raise awareness about what a philosophical approach can offer to our combined thinking about ethics, social and political problems, and other important issues.

Chapter 6: The Moral Status of Children, by Agniezska Jaworska and Julie Tannenbaum

We address an issue at the core of how people treat and interact with one another in human society. It is generally accepted that humans owe respect and consideration to one another: people have rights that others need to respect, and the life of each person has special value that deserves recognition. The question we focus on is why people matter morally in this way. What is it about a person that makes him or her highly important?

Philosophers have offered competing answers to this question, but many of the criteria they propose do not capture well our intuitive sense that children matter morally in the same way as adults. Some accounts point to cognitive sophistication as the reason for why people are morally important, but young children are not yet sophisticated in this way, and so this can’t explain why young children matter morally. Some accounts point to less demanding features, such as having experiences and a life narrative, as the explanation of why a creature is morally important, but this puts children on the same moral footing as most animals. Some accounts point to potential for cognitive sophistication, or membership in a species that is cognitively sophisticated, but it’s unclear why these criteria are morally relevant. Some accounts point to relationships as the reason why we morally matter to one another, but this makes our moral status problematically contingent on the existence of a relationship. Our own account attempts to avoid such problems and thereby better explain why children matter morally as much as adults.

Chapter 7: The Value of Childhood, by Patrick Tomlin

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Chapter 9: Children's Rights, by Robert Noggle

I begin by asking why we might want to say that children have rights to various things, instead of saying that adults have obligations to provide those things. The answer is that saying that children have rights says something important about their moral status that cannot be said simply by saying that adults have obligations to children. I then discuss two different approaches to rights—one which sees them as protecting choices and one which sees them as protecting interests—and trace out their implications for children’s rights.

Next, I discuss two 20th century children’s right movements, and I suggest that one reason why they had very different goals was that they differed over how best to think of children’s rights. I then explore some recent work on specific rights that are often attributed to children, such as the right to have basic needs met, the right to an open future, the right to so-called “relationship goods,” and rights to those things that make childhood a distinctive and intrinsically valuable phase of a human life. I conclude by discussing the worry that talking about children’s rights might warp our view of the moral nature of parenting.

Chapter 11: Paternalism Towards Children, by Kalle Grill

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Chapter 12: The Age of Consent, by David Archard

In my chapter on consent I look at what consent is, why children are thought incapable of giving or withholding consent, how that makes a difference in various areas of their lives, and how we might protect the interests of children in the absence of consent.

Like others, I see consent as a remarkable power to transform how we stand, morally, to others, one that is exercised through words or deeds. Essentially by consenting to something I make it alright for others to do things that would be wrong if I did not consent. But having the power to consent requires certain capacities that children are thought to lack – of understanding and of decision-making.

This makes a huge difference in matters of sexual choice, medicine and politics. If children cannot consent there are other ways we might protect children – such as giving a power of consent to representatives, or imagining what they might consent to if they could. And we can also give children a say in things that matter to them and take account of their views. Finally, perhaps, we should not do anything to a child that removes their ability, as adults, to consent or not to certain things.

Chapter 14: The Right to Parent, by Anca Gheaus

Parents make major decisions about their children's lives, whose details they also control. They can determine whether or not their children lead good, flourishing childhoods, and exert a heavy influence on their children’s future. Children are beings with the same moral status as adults, in the sense that their interests count as much as those of adults. Therefore, one would expect that the right to parent should be held only by individuals who are able and willing to put their parental power in the service of children. In fact, philosophers often appeal to the interests of would-be parents in their accounts of the right to parent.

In the chapter I distinguish between several questions: Why does a right to parent exist in the first place – why is parenthood, rather than alternative ways to rear children, a legitimate practice? On what grounds does one acquire a moral right to parent in general? On what grounds does one acquire a moral right to parent a particular child? On what grounds can one retain the right – for instance, in custody disputes? And what does the right consists of? I explain how appeal to children’s and would-be parents’ interests provide different, and sometimes incompatible, answers to these questions.

Chapter 16: Parental Partiality, by Jonathan Seglow

Affluent parents who pay for their children to receive an expensive private education, or who subsidise their university fees, or use their connections to help them secure an internship, often say that they only want them to receive the best start in life, and who can argue with that? Not to care about one’s children’s future prospects seems heartless after all. On the other hand, we know that some children succeed much more than others. My contribution to the Handbook interrogates this conflict.

Part of the problem is an empirical one: more privileged parents typically have more time, resources, and connections, than less fortunate ones, and can help to transmit also to their children the kind of mindset necessary to prosper in a competitive market economy. But there is also a deeper philosophical issue: we believe both that parental partiality is natural, even praiseworthy, but also that all children should enjoy equal opportunities, and succeed as far as their talents will take them. Given the fact that families are a major obstacle to the latter, there is no easy solution (short of abolishing the family) to this conflict, but we can make a start by clarifying the values and principles at stake. For example, if the parent-child relationship is valuable because of the loving intimacy at its heart then it won’t be much damaged by redistributing resources towards worse off families.

Chapter 18: Parental Licensing and Discrimination, by Carolyn McLeod and Andrew Botterell

In order to protect children from risks associated with bad parenting, some philosophers have recommended that all parents be licensed, in much the same way in which drivers of motor vehicles and many professionals, such as physicians, are licensed. In this chapter, we clarify what parental licensing is, describe philosophical theories about it, and assess these theories in terms of how well they deal with problems of discrimination in parental licensing.

We argue that philosophers who write on parental licensing tend to pay insufficient attention to forms of discrimination that can be inherent in, or result from, systems of parental licensing. For example, despite the fact that many of these philosophers call for universal parental licensing, their theories tend to reinforce what philosophers have called “biologism” or “bionormativity”: the privileging of families formed through biological reproduction over families formed in other ways. While much of our discussion focuses on biologism, we also touch on other forms of discrimination that parental licensing can cause or exacerbate, such as classism, sexism, homophobia, racism, and ableism. Our view is that any adequate proposal in favour of parental licensing must take worries about discrimination seriously. Unfortunately, most proposals in philosophy fail to do so.

Chapter 19: Ethical Challenges for Adoption Regimes, by Jurgen De Wispelaere and Daniel Weinstock

If and when to become a parent is commonly regarded as amongst the most private of decisions. The state has no business intervening in an area characterised by intimacy and privacy amongst two (consenting) adults. (Things get a bit complicated when considering minors, a topic addressed elsewhere in this Handbook.) Surprisingly, the same doesn’t quite apply when thinking how to become a parent. Here it very much matters whether one decides to proceed with natural procreation or whether one opts for assisted reproduction or adoption. Where state intervention is commonly resisted in cases of natural procreation and limited to questions around eligibility for funding support in the case of assisted reproduction, adoption by contrast is highly regulated with the state being an integral part of the adoption process.

The purpose of our chapter is to offer an ethical analysis of adoption regimes –- understood as the different ways in which the state simultaneously regulates the demand and supply side of the adoption process, and its normative justification for doing so. We are interested in what (if anything) justifies the very different treatment of prospective adopters (and adoptees!) when compared to prospective parents who opt for natural or assisted procreation. Does this inequality amount to an injustice or are there in fact good reasons for the state to involve itself more directly with the adoption process? And if some measure of unequal treatment is justified, have current practices of screening and monitoring prospective adopters nevertheless gone too far? In our chapter we suggest that current adoptions regulations aimed at protecting children from neglect or abuse may cause harm to some children who fail to find an adoptive family.

Chapter 20: Gender and the Family, by Amy Mullin

My focus in “Gender and the Family” is on the impact of the gender of both parents and children on the parenting relationship and on parents’ and children’s lives outside the family. I use ‘gender’ inclusively to include biological sex, gender roles, gender expression, and gender identity, and outline the challenges and opportunities involved in parenting a child whose gender identity and gender expression do not conform to the sex they were assigned to at birth.

I examine the extent to which gendered roles still impact the division of domestic labour, how rigid gender roles can sometimes damage family relationships, and how social science research is sometimes misused to suggest that a child will not flourish unless raised by a mother and a father. I conclude with a discussion of how gendered roles can impact the willingness of adult sons and daughters to provide care to their own parents when they need it. I hope to have shown that the influence gender has on the family is complex and multi-layered and that it raises important issues for public policy and for ethical inquiry.

Chapter 24: Childhood and Sexuality, by Samantha Brennan

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Chapter 26: What's Wrong with Child Labor?, by Philip Cook

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Chapter 27: The Vulnerable Child, by Mianna Lotz

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Chapter 28: Childhood and the Metric of Justice, by Lars Lindblom

A theory of justice must present a criterion and a metric of justice. The metric explains what should be distributed according to the chosen criterion. Accounts of the metric of justice has standardly been constructed with the characteristics of adults in mind, but I argue that justice must take the characteristics of both children and adults into account. I identify responsibility and neutrality as core issues in this debate, and investigate two major areas of in this discussion.

The first is the Agency Assumption; standard theories of the metric assume an ideal of autonomous agency that makes them inappropriate for children. The second area concerns the intrinsic goods of childhood, and the idea that there are some human goods that are only, or especially, valuable in childhood. I, then, ask if the metric should be revised in order to incorporate such goods. The debate on childhood and the metric of justice is ongoing, but it seems to me that it promises to lead to further development in the theory of justice and to make room for children, and childhood as something more than preparation for adulthood, in our account of what justice demands.

Chapter 31: Schooling, by Gina Schouten

My chapter addresses difficult moral questions about children’s schooling from the perspective of a feature of the concept schooling that distinguishes it from the concept education: Schooling is coercive. Schooling coerces children into being physically present in schools, into learning certain things, and into becoming certain sorts of people, much of which the children themselves will recognise as valuable only much later, if they ever do. Schooling coerces children’s parents, who are required to accept schooling for their children that meets curricular requirements, whether the parents endorse those requirements or not. This involves subjecting children to ideas that some parents deem worthless or even positively harmful. Finally, through the appropriation of funding, schooling coerces taxpayers, not all of whom share the funding priorities that guide the dispersal of appropriated funds.

The work of this chapter involves showing that thinking of schooling as coercive education is illuminating, because many debates over contemporary schooling can fruitfully be understood as debates about the coercion it involves. If successful, this could provide a framework for thinking about complicated questions in educational ethics more generally, and it could bring those questions into the broader philosophical conversation about justifiable coercion.

Chapter 32: Children and the Care System, by Gideon Calder

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Chapter 36: Children and War, by Cécile Fabre

Children are the main victims of war. They are deliberately targeted by combatants; they are used as shields; they are killed as collateral damage, for example when a bomb lands on their school; they are routinely raped and physically abused by soldiers; they are often forced to flee their homes, and suffer disproportionately from war-induced hunger, thirst and diseases; war leaves them orphans, resourceless and at the mercy of the economic-cum-sexual predatory practices of adults. At the same time, it is estimated that there are several dozens of thousands of child soldiers worldwide, some of whom commit atrocities. Yet those children too are victims.

In my contribution to this volume, I wanted to explore the very difficult ethical questions which war raises for our treatment of children, both as victims and as perpetrators of very serious war crimes. It is an important topic, simply because millions of children worldwide are caught in wars, and because we (citizens, leaders, soldiers) often seem powerless in the face of this suffering. I hope that my contribution will help us make some progress in devising robust moral principles for how to handle those children.


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