Back in the middle ages, people thought of children simply as little adults. Modern psychology has destroyed that theory. But then, what is a child?
Tomorrow (Sunday November 19, 2006) Ken and I will discuss children with Tamar Schapiro. Children certainly pose a lot of problems -- but are they philosophical? Coincidentally I gave a few lectures on John Stuart Mill's great little book On Liberty recently to Stanford frosh. In thinking about that book one philosophical problem about children comes up, for Mill thinks the central principle of liberty he argues for in the book does not apply to children.
In the Introductory chapter of his essay On Liberty John Stuart Mill states, as the central thesis of his essay...
one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
This is the so-called "Harm Principle" or "Principle of Negative Liberty". Adherence to some version of the Harm Principle seems to me a necessary condition of any political philosophy deserving to be called a form of liberalism (a compliment for a political philosophy, in my opinion). Although formulated differently, and resting on a much different philosophical basis than than on which Mill (at least claims) to rely, Rawls' first principle of Justice, ("Each person should get an equal guarantee to as many different liberties--and as much of those liberties--as can be guaranteed to everyone else at the same time") stakes out a similar claim.
Mill goes on immediately to say, however
Mill claims to defend his concept of liberty on utilitarian grounds, but there is a considerable measure of what seems like "self-actualization" ethics that seems to enter into his defense of liberty. Mill obviously values interesting, complex, autonomous, people, people who march to the beat of some drummer coming from within. Many of us find the value of such people and of society that accomodates and appreciates them more immediately compelling than any utilitarian principles that on which such values might be somewhat shakily based.
If you think that such autonomous individuals, individuals with some capacity to form and criticize their own beliefs and goals, are the true subjects deserving of the liberty Mill advocates, then there is a good case for a long period of diminished liberty in which the habits, skills, and knowledge necessary for such autonomy are instilled. But what about all of those who make it to adulthood without developing such habits, skills and knowledge?
On the other hand, even during the period of development, is there really a principled difference between the extent to which methods of rational persuasion rather than force should be used to protects a person from the consequences of his or her own actions?
Based on experience, rather than philosophy, I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I've seen many parents who resort to force in controling their children when they should be using persuasion. On the other hand, I've seen parents using methods of rational persuasion when it seems to me that right response would be, "Do it because I said to do it." I've made both mistakes myself. Still, this is mostly a seat of the pants judgement on my part.
Philosophically, it seems Mill might have developed a more nuanced theory, where it is always correct to use rational persuasion to the extent that the individual in question has the capacity for rationality, and there is time and energy to do so.
In any case, there seems to be a lot to talk about, so I'm looking forward to tomorrow's discussion with Ken and Tamar Schapiro.