What Do Parents Owe Their Children?

Our esteemed ringleader Mr. Cleveland has prodded me to do a post on “children’s rights,” following last week’s discussion of abortion. My musings here are largely based on a paper (PDF) I did a number of years ago.

What do parents owe their children? And may these obligations be legally enforced? Most of us rightly think that children are unlike adults in two ways. First, children have a right to positive provision that adults may not enjoy. Parents have a duty (that ought to be legally enforced) to provide for their children’s basic welfare. Allowing your child to starve or expelling it into the street like a trespasser is both morally wrong and punishable. Second, parents (and perhaps the state) enjoy the right and indeed obligation to treat their children paternalistically in order to guide their development to full rationality. They have the duty and therefore right (“ought” implies “may”) to prevent their children from, e.g., taking harmful drugs or having sex before the age of maturity. Libertarians would certainly say that no one has the right to prevent sane adults from doing these things. So how do we justify this moral distinction between children and adults?

Rights are correlative with obligations. So if children have a right to provision, parents have a duty to provide it. But to whom? Are parents’ duties actually to their children as such? Ordinarily, we think of rights as alienable, i.e., you can waive them if you want. But children don’t have the ability to consent to waiving their rights. So there’s still something a bit weird here. And what about parents’ duty/right to treat children paternalistically? Do children have a duty to obey their parents?

My answer is no, children do not have a duty to obey their parents. First, many children are too young to understand moral duties, so clearly they can have no moral duties. Second, children did not consent to being born or to living in the family in which they find themselves. So how can you acquire a positive obligation to obey someone else if you never did anything positive to assume such an obligation? And how could such an obligation, if it exists, suddenly disappear at maturity?

I would argue that children have rights in virtue of the rationality they will eventually enjoy. If raised tolerably well, children will grow into fully rational, capable adults with the regular panoply of natural rights.(*) Children as children may not know what their best interests are, but as adults they will. If those interests are compromised, it is ultimately the mature, self-aware adult who suffers. (The transition from childhood to maturity is gradual and continuous, but I’m using binary categories here for clarity.)

Parents have a duty to promote the development of their children into rational, capable adults. Depriving them of the necessities of life and of intellectual development violates their children’s rights. Moreover, parents have a duty to try to protect their children from their own harmful behaviors, and any positive action that anyone else may undertake to harm a child’s basic interests is wrong. On this basis, it is appropriate for a government to enforce “age of consent” laws for sex, drugs, etc. to prevent harms accruing to children who don’t know any better, and to buttress the parents’ right to safeguard their children’s development. The children may not realize any harm now, but the self-aware adults who they will become will.(**)

That selfsame respect for the rationality of a person that requires us to treat children paternalistically requires us to treat adults nonpaternalistically. Libertarianism, as a distinctive moral philosophy of natural rights, only makes sense if we draw clear distinctions among rational persons, not-yet-rational persons, and nonrational nonpersons. Treating adults paternalistically is wrong precisely because it is like treating them like children, the not-yet-rational. It disrespects them as persons. Utilitarianism, by contrast, makes no distinctions on the basis of rationality: both children and adults may be treated paternalistically. As a matter of practice, children probably require more paternalistic treatment than adults, but whenever adults tend to make systematic errors about their own interests, it’s appropriate on utilitarian grounds for others (the government) to “nudge” them in the right direction – libertarians reject this view. In the end, then, what seemed like a paradox for libertarianism – different rights for adults and children – turns out to be essential to the core of the philosophy.

(*)It may be argued that normal adults aren’t rational all the time. But what I mean by “rational” here is that a person has the capability for logical reflection and comprehension of moral rights and duties. This doesn’t mean that the capability is always exercised.

(**)Ages of consent are admittedly arbitrary, and there may be some children below the age of consent who are mature enough to make rational decisions about the prohibited behaviors. Ideally, I would favor a high age of consent to protect the rights of even “late bloomers,” along with a judicial emancipation procedure that would allow people below the age of consent to acquire some or all of the rights of maturity.

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38 thoughts on “What Do Parents Owe Their Children?

  1. Jason, thanks for this sensical post. (I’ve always been puzzled by people who purport to be puzzled by moral differences between adults and children. These are people in the grips of a theory, and not a very plausible one.) But I do want to challenge one idea, and that is the idea that children have no duty to obey their parents.

    This seems most clearly wrong when children are reliant on their parents for guidance as to their own well-being, as children obviously are deeply, when quite young, to diminishing degrees as they age. The relation of parents to children you characterize gives parents I think an appropriate form of authority over their children, and a commensurate duty in the children to submit to that authority. But of course that authority is conditional on being in that relation, and taking seriously the responsibilities of parents as trustees of their children’s adulthoods and futures. (I don’t think that quite makes children’s duties duties to themselves, but the telos of that relation clearly is their own healthy growth and life.)

  2. Mark, Thanks for the thoughts. I do think that children ought to give due consideration to their parents’ wisdom & therefore err on the side of obedience. But the motivation for obedience there seems to be not a duty to obey as such, but a duty to do what is in your own long-term best interests. If, as I think you imply, a child had parents whose judgments were so suspect and unreliable that obedience would like as not harm one’s long-term interests as promote them, then the child should not even taken obedience into account, and should simply act on his own judgment.

    I’m just thinking about the debate over whether there is a duty to obey the law. If we factor out whether the law is just or good or not, and consider the case where both obedience and disobedience would have no harmful consequences (such as running a red light with no one around), I would say there is no reason to obey the law. In the same way, if we imagine a scenario in which obedience and disobedience to one’s parents are completely indifferent in respect of consequences, I don’t think there would be a reason to obey. Now, the counterfactual there is unlikely to be true in most families. So if you have good, reliable parents, obedience is likely to be a shortcut to better consequences, and thus it is better to obey.

    1. Jason, the view you are giving here is the one I was trying to resist. Let me see if I can explain what I mean (but I’m not confident).

      1. The thought that children ought to “give due consideration” supposes that they are equipped to exercise judgment. If they are (better: to the extent they are), then I don’t think parents’ authority continues in those ways. Parents provide advice, not authority. They provide authority precisely when the capacity to exercise judgment isn’t yet developed. But genuine authority isn’t just advice: by itself it is reason-giving, not evidence of reasons that exist independently. They have that authority because of their relation with the long-term well-being of the child, but that doesn’t mean that their standing is as it were transparent with respect to (or reducible to) the reasons that long-term well-being affords.

      And of course, as you suggest, I think that authority is conditional. Bad parenting is a problem to be solved, not an inconvenience for an account of parental authority.

      2. I think the analogy with the law isn’t useful. Mostly this is because the adults the law governs aren’t children. I doubt whether there is any duty to the law that doesn’t reduce to sources of obligation that are independent of the law. But that’s because I think the relation legal authorities stand in with respect to citizens is precisely not the relation of parents to children.

      1. Here are the horns of the dilemma I’m thinking about… To the extent that children can exercise judgment, they can assess the worthiness of their parents’ commands and thus whether or not they should be obeyed (on grounds independent of parental authority). But to the extent that children cannot exercise judgment, I would question whether they have moral duties at all. Can you be obligated to do something if you don’t know what it means to be obligated to do it? Now, I suppose the horns can be threaded as follows… At certain stages of development, children know enough to be able to realize that they don’t know what is best for them. Those children can be taught to exercise judgment in whether to obey or not, but not necessarily in more detailed, complex areas.

        Additionally, I do worry about the logical grounding of legitimate parental authority. Is it a duty of gratitude that children owe? Good parents look out for the long-run best interests of their children; therefore, children should obey their parents (if they are good). But as a general account of legitimacy I think we might both agree that gratitude doesn’t work… If someone does an unlooked-for favor for me, my gratitude doesn’t generate a moral obligation to do something in return. Of course, children are different from adults… But the way in which they are different has precisely to do with the disjuncture between present condition (not full rationality) and future goal (full rationality), thus making it the case that children may not be the best judges about what promotes their long-run interests. So a child who knows enough to know that she doesn’t know everything can be taught that it is best to obey her parents, because parents generally “know better,” but how do we get from there to: You ought to obey your parents, whether or not doing so promotes your long-run best interests, simply because they are your parents? And do parents really need that independent grounding? Does it make a difference?

      2. I see your point, Jason; I think that’s what makes the problem a hard one. I also think it is a unique one: we shouldn’t try to get the results to fall out of a general account of legitimacy, or vice versa. Certainly gratitude won’t do it. Children are morally unlike adults in significant ways. We have to treat the problem as singular at the same time we recognize commonalities and continua. That’s what makes it so tough.

        I do think you thread the horns of the dilemma much as you suggest. Children do not, in my experience, need to be taught either obedience or disobedience. Both come naturally. And they can know the difference long before they are capable of exercising good judgment over the wide range of conditions they may be asked to obey in.

        I’m inclined to say: children have reason to obey their parents precisely because of the nature of the relationship they have; one in which parents are (ideally) acting as trustees for their grown-up progeny.

        I want to focus on the relationship, not the particular decision or judgment. And I want to claim that they have authority, rather than just offering advice. Why? We are, by hypothesis, only dealing with cases in which the child is incapable of good judgment. So now if we make the reason-giving force of the parental determination conditional on it being good or right, we push back the question: who makes that call? Not the child. Not the parents (we know what their view is!). That opens the door for a party we can want on the scene at best only in the most egregious cases of parental abuse. I think under no conditions do we want the state judging particular cases of decision-making.

      3. And I want to claim that they have authority, rather than just offering advice. Why? We are, by hypothesis, only dealing with cases in which the child is incapable of good judgment. So now if we make the reason-giving force of the parental determination conditional on it being good or right, we push back the question: who makes that call? Not the child. Not the parents (we know what their view is!). That opens the door for a party we can want on the scene at best only in the most egregious cases of parental abuse. I think under no conditions do we want the state judging particular cases of decision-making.

        Ah, I see, that makes the issue a little more poignant. Well, I think we would still agree that in those rare cases where parents demonstrate their lack of legitimate authority/good judgment, there needs to be an external failsafe. And even if one thought that parents have no independent grounds of authority over their children, one could still argue that, given well-known facts of human biology & psychology, parents will in the vast majority of cases try to do their best for their children – and we should assume so unless proven otherwise.

  3. Argues children are people with special (positive) rights, but limited (negative) rights. Whence rights, then?
    I would argue that children are property to be used as we wish, and society via social pressures will determine what is acceptable behavior towards ones children. (Notice how corporal punishment is less acceptable than 20 years ago? Or how much more support there is for breastfeeding?)

    Argues from the assumption the state has a right to exist, if only to protect children. Then expect every action of the state to be “For the Children”. Because the state which exists to protect children from any harm will find harm in every action where it needs to worm its way in “For the Children”.

    Makes no mention were the obligation to care for children comes from. It can only be self-imposed.

    Speaking of binary states children are either rational or they are not. If they are rational they are people and should enjoy the rights and responsibilities of every adult, if they are not rational, how can you deny that someone else should make decisions for them? Then how can they be treated (in the theoretical sphere at least) differently from very smart animals?

    You’re essentially arguing for a third class of thing in the universe, where we already see people and property, but why, would you not agree that computers may one day become sentient? The day before they were sentient would you argue that they were something other than property? I would say that they are like seeds which require certain elements of care-taking if the seeds are to turn into a flower.

  4. I would argue that children are property to be used as we wish

    That position is – and I mean this in the precise sense of the word – abominable.

  5. If a child is a person, how can you defend aggression against a person, in the guise of punishing a child for some transgression? A time out or a spanking then becomes initiation of force.

    If a child is a person, can you support abortion?

  6. Two things I should notify you of at this point:
    1) I’m trying to argue from the most logically consistent point of view
    2) I’m NOT advocating any of the abominable activities you may be imagining at this point. (Child labor, cannibalism, selling children, incest, or any combination of the above) Quite the opposite actually, if you continued to read my earlier post, I’m suggesting that through shunning and peer pressure we attempt to prevent people from doing these things, not through the use of force vis-a-vis, the state.

    /further I’m not trolling (ask Seth Cohn or Dennis Goddard about this same conversation we had at porcfest) and I have 4 children of my own (14, 3, 2, and 1) who I am trying to raise to be thinking, rational, reasonable beings.

    1. Brian, from my perspective the problem you have here isn’t really an issue with the state (I don’t have the views of the state Jason does — I think — but I still reject your view for precisely the same reasons he does). It’s a moral problem. You are trying to give a digital treatment to an analog problem. Children are like animals (very smart or not!) in some ways, unlike them in others. They are also like their adult parents in some ways, unlike them in others. You can if you wish (1) affix moral standing to have claims on others to “rationality” and (2) make rationality a binary matter (you have it or you don’t), but there’s no obvious reason to do so when pretty apparently people are capable of responding to reasons in different ways at different points in their lives, and that difference matters as to how we ought to treat them.

      If you really take the property view seriously — and you take rights to property seriously — you really have no principled objection to any of those horrific ways of treating children. The fact that other people don’t like it when someone does so is no more of a reason than it is in other ways of treating property. Pets might be the closest case, but we may do all kinds of things to pets that nobody thinks we may do to children.

  7. Brian – Fair enough, but it still sounds as if you’re saying it’s not morally wrong to do these things to your kids. I think that’s just wildly implausibly incorrect. Imagine that you maim a child now. When that child grows up, it will suffer. Did the maiming violate anyone’s rights? Surely the adult who grows up in suffering had his rights violated. But then whose rights were violated, if not the child’s? Or another scenario – imagine giving a child a slow-acting poison. The child experiences no ill effects now, but when he grows up the poison takes effect, and the adult dies. Was the person murdered? Surely yes. But whose rights were violated – the adult’s or the child’s? Both – they’re the same person! So if adults have rights, children also have rights.

    But do children have the exact same rights as adults? Of course not. Adults are rational; children are not yet rational, but they have the potential for rationality (animals and objects do not). Adults have rights in virtue of their rationality; children have rights in virtue of their potential rationality. To harm a child in a way that the child will not experience or understand until older is to disrespect that child’s ultimate rationality and therefore to violate the rights of the child.

    1. Fair enough, but it still sounds as if you’re saying it’s not morally wrong to do these things to your kids. I think that’s just wildly implausibly incorrect.
      I’m glad you can see that I’m making a distinction between moral and immoral.

      Imagine that you maim a child now. When that child grows up, it will suffer. Did the maiming violate anyone’s rights?
      Whose child is it? You have violated the child’s owner’s rights.

      Surely the adult who grows up in suffering had his rights violated.
      This presupposes that the child will survive to adulthood and will grow into a rational being at that time.

      But then whose rights were violated, if not the
      child’s?

      the child’s owner

      Or another scenario – imagine giving a child a slow-acting poison. The child experiences no ill effects now, but when he grows up the poison takes effect, and the adult dies.
      So essentially we are all murderers because we gave life to someone who will eventually die? (So I was in essence responding earlier when I brought up the question about genetic mutations.)

      Was the person murdered? Surely yes. But whose rights were violated – the adult’s or the child’s? Both – they’re the same person! So if adults have rights, children also have rights.
      Adults do not automatically have rights, rational beings have rights, and this isn’t a point for quibbling over. I’m saying just because you are sexually mature doesn’t make you a person. Whereas I am also saying just because a person is sexually immature that also does not make them property. So giving a slow acting poison to a child should be treated in the same way as the car accident question I proposed earlier, if it can be proven that the act was deliberate and the action was fatal (interesting point, what if the action had effects similar to a lobotomy?).

      But do children have the exact same rights as adults? Of course not. Adults are rational; children are not yet rational, but they have the potential for rationality (animals and objects do not).
      Adults have rights in virtue of their rationality;

      I would agree.

      children have rights in virtue of their potential rationality.
      I don’t see how that follows. Potential for x is not equal to x therefore cannot be treated as x.

      To harm a child in a way that the child will not experience or understand until older is to disrespect that child’s ultimate rationality and therefore to violate the rights of the child.
      If I reject the premise as above, I must also reject this conclusion.

  8. Am I responsible for the congenital defects my child is born with? Am I deliberately maiming them by bringing them into existence (when you take into consideration the number of genetic mutations you pass on to your children)? What right does one have then for freedom from abuses at the hands of nature (or God)?

    If I ran over a child in the street (purely as an accident) would I owe restitution to anyone? They wouldn’t have been married or earning an income so if they are a person do I owe anyone restitution? If that child is property I obviously owe it to the parents of that child to try and replace that child (as best as one can do).

    If children are people, why can’t they contract out to do all those horrible things that I mentioned earlier?

    You assume that each or any child will ultimately become rational and that I need to respect potential rationality the same way that I respect actual rationality.

    1. Our discussion won’t get anywhere if you just state your views and don’t respond to my arguments. But I will respond to your points…

      Am I responsible for the congenital defects my child is born with? Am I deliberately maiming them by bringing them into existence (when you take into consideration the number of genetic mutations you pass on to your children)?

      Of course not. Keeping a person alive despite injury is not the same as causing injury to the person (unless the person sincerely wants to die).

      If I ran over a child in the street (purely as an accident) would I owe restitution to anyone? They wouldn’t have been married or earning an income so if they are a person do I owe anyone restitution? If that child is property I obviously owe it to the parents of that child to try and replace that child (as best as one can do).

      If the child is not property, you still owe restitution to the parents. If someone kills an adult family member, you still owe restitution to the family members.

      If children are people, why can’t they contract out to do all those horrible things that I mentioned earlier?

      To repeat: “But children don’t have the ability to consent to waiving their rights… I would argue that children have rights in virtue of the rationality they will eventually enjoy.”

      You assume that each or any child will ultimately become rational and that I need to respect potential rationality the same way that I respect actual rationality.

      No, I argue that you need to respect children in virtue of their potential rationality and adults in virtue of their actual rationality, and the ways in which those two types of respect play out in practice are different.

      1. Keeping a person alive despite injury is not the same as causing injury to the person (unless the person sincerely wants to die).
        But in this case the ultimate cause of injury and existence are one and the same.

        If someone kills an adult family member, you still owe restitution to the family members.
        Which family members? The members must have some claim to the productivity of the eliminated person.

        To repeat: “But children don’t have the ability to consent to waiving their rights… I would argue that children have rights in virtue of the rationality they will eventually enjoy.”
        If they can’t waive the rights, how are they then people?
        This temporal argument could also be construed as, Since one day you will be dead, today I must treat you as if you were dead.

        No, I argue that you need to respect children in virtue of their potential rationality and adults in virtue of their actual rationality, and the ways in which those two types of respect play out in practice are different.
        I agree we should respect children and treat all living things humanely.

        The place where we differ then is when the rights of an individual begin, and I’m arguing that until you exercise rationality in your actions you have no rights and are therefore property, because it can’t be guaranteed that one will be a rational individual in the future.

  9. I think that this is an important post, and that the two debates are interesting. I do not want to insert myself in them, but to merely “push back” a little on your paragraph 3. I think it has many assertion and assumptions that are contestable, or at least unsupported (including the ones with which I might agree).

    My list would include:

    “Rights are correlative with obligations.” (Isn’t there a big difference between “negative” and “positive” rights, with “affirmative” and “negative” duties?)

    “So if children have a right to provision, parents have a duty to provide it.” (Ancient Sparta? The mid 20th century kibbutz?, etc., etc.?)

    “Ordinarily, we think of rights as alienable, i.e., you can waive them if you want.” (Ironic that you say this during this time of year).

    “But children don’t have the ability to consent to waiving their rights.” (Is it that they don’t have the “ability,” or are not in possession of the capacity to form an expression of consent we are willing to respect?)

    Of course, you may have fleshed these out in your paper, and if you have, I apologize for raising issue with them here. If you haven’t, I’d like to see your thoughts on them. For libertarians, these issues are at the heart of the most important questions, and the insecurity that many people feel with our approach to public policy.

    1. Marcus – Some thoughts on your thoughts…

      “(Isn’t there a big difference between “negative” and “positive” rights, with “affirmative” and “negative” duties?)”

      I ultimately don’t think that the distinction between negative and positive rights bears scrutiny, but I understand what people mean when they use the terms. I just meant that, as a definitional matter, whatever one believes about “positive” & “negative” rights, every right must correspond to a duty. Jim had a good post about this issue:
      https://pileusblog.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/rights-and-duties/

      “(Ancient Sparta? The mid 20th century kibbutz?, etc., etc.?)”

      Natural parents can certainly voluntarily alienate their responsibilities to their children to another responsible party. I wouldn’t say that collectively raising children is inherently wrong, or that adoption is wrong. But then the party that takes on those responsibilities has a duty to perform them.

      “(Ironic that you say this during this time of year).”

      Well, “ordinarily” is indeed doing some work in that sentence. 😉 There are a few truly inalienable rights in my view. I can’t give you the right to kill me at an unspecified future time of your choosing. I can’t give you the right to make me your slave for life. In short, you can’t alienate your right to self-determination to an arbitrary power – and that’s what the Founders thought the British Crown was asking them to do. For the most part, though, rights are valuable precisely because they are alienable. I can alienate my labor to an employer in exchange for her alienating part of her property to me, etc.

      “(Is it that they don’t have the “ability,” or are not in possession of the capacity to form an expression of consent we are willing to respect?)”

      Here’s the gloss that I would be most comfortable with: Children don’t possess the capacity to form an expression of consent [to alienating their rights] that we ought to be willing to respect. I wouldn’t presume to make claims about what all of us do think (witness reader Brian Hewson’s positions above)!

  10. There’s way too much brain power in the room here, so let me muddle things up a bit by bringing it down a notch with a couple points and some meandering after:

    1: While not directly related to *parental* rights, it is common (like, almost always) that there is a strong correlation between parental instruction which the child is expected to obey and the parents’ property rights. I sometimes use this with my own children when our judgment differs. “Even if you disagree with my opinions, you live in my house. If you want to do things your way, go get your own house.” That’s usually effective at settling the argument more persuasively than “because I said so.” While this chunk of rights theory is neato, in practice I think it’s rare that children are subjected to parental rights totally divorced from the parents’ property rights which might simultaneously provide legitimate authority. Runaways maybe?? I’d call them ‘adults’, to be honest…

    2: Even with the property rights argument in my back pocket, I assert the morality of parental rights and responsibilities, which have corresponding childrens’ rights and responsibilities. We might argue over the meanings or applications of the words “duty” or “obligation” (I’m not the scholar you are, I just pretend and use big words for effect sometimes). Nevertheless, I believe children ought to obey their parents. The caveat is this: parents ought not abuse their children. Substitute the word “have a duty” for “ought” if you like.

    I see the parent / child relationship applied above as an image of the government / subject relationship. While that may be useful, it opens up a can of worms. It might be better to use the God / people (creator / creature) image than the government / subject image. Even that breaks down, though, as parents (unlike God … spare me the non-Christian arguments to the contrary for now) sometimes abuse their natural authority.

    I think the confusion between power and authority muddles the picture, both with parents and government. Asserting parental authority doesn’t mean the same thing as parents should be all-powerful (eg. to abuse their children). Stated differently, parents have rights based on authority, not rights based on power (to do evil). While children have a duty to obey parental authority, I would concede that they do not have a duty to submit to abuse. Likewise with spousal abuse, slave-owner abuse, government abuse, and so on.

    With that fuller picture in mind, I suggest that we have a duty to obey our parents (while we’re growing up) in as much as they are genuinely authoritative (v.s. abusive). If we’re incapable of understanding whether they’re authoritative or not (“not yet rational”?), we must rely on others to intervene on our behalf in questionable cases until we can do so ourselves (we become adults … which is *not* a binary progression, IMO). Likewise with government and, I’d even say, God.

    There are obvious differences between the three paradigms, though. For now I’ll skip the divinely-derived-authority arguments and stick to more universally acceptable ones. Parents are more like God than government from an authoritative standpoint. Their authority naturally contains elements of creation and (advantageous) knowledge. Parents, however, are limited in both (not all-knowing, nor the sole creative agent) and imperfect (not always righteous). Government, on the other hand, has no natural authority by virtue of creation (it creates nothing on its own) or knowledge (likewise). It may have authority from consent, and (separately from that) it may be righteous. In as much as *either* of those are the case, I would argue government has authority that ought to be obeyed.

    Again, I am avoiding stating the obvious (from the Christian point of view), that all authority is divinely derived. Oops… I guess I said it. Unfortunately, ignoring that foundation necessarily requires adoption of an incomplete (and incorrect) view of life… libertarian philosophy is great and all, but clearly incomplete. Also, I’m avoiding the general topic of conditional v.s. unconditional [rights / obedience / obligation / etc.]. That one is too big for this discussion, IMO. Meanwhile, in conclusion…

    Unrighteous power is not the same thing as authority. I don’t believe any human being is under any obligation to obey unrighteous power *on its own merit*. I would defend that view both scripturally and philosophically. Our obedience to unrighteous power should only be based on higher legitimate authority (which, by the way, as rational adults we can only accept voluntarily), expedience, or some other reasonable justification. Parents, on the other hand, are naturally authoritative and their children ought to obey them so long as that remains the case.

    V-

    1. Parents’ right to provide instruction & discipline to their children is indeed “related to” cohabitation & property rights where the family resides. But I would say that it is so related because living together on the same property indicates that the parents have assumed the duties of parenthood, rather than transferring those duties to someone else. Imagine that you’re a squatter in a developing country. You don’t own the land that you’re living on, and you don’t have permission to be there. (Maybe that’s wrong – there are all sorts of circumstances we would have to know to make that judgment – but we can set that question aside for this purpose.) But you have kids living with you. It seems to me you nevertheless have the right to bring those kids up in accordance with their future best interests, and children should obey, even if you don’t have property rights where you’re living.

      I suggest that we have a duty to obey our parents (while we’re growing up) in as much as they are genuinely authoritative (v.s. abusive).

      I agree, I think. What I’m not so sure about is that children have a duty to obey their parents even when it’s unclear that the specific command that the parents are giving is in the child’s best long-run interests (that is, that the relationship between parents and children itself gives parents authority & thus an independent reason for children to obey them, regardless of the consequences of that authority in any particular instance). Same thing w/ government btw. I’m not sure that there’s a duty to obey the government simply because it is the government, rather than a duty to do what is right. God is different because in the Christian theology God is perfect, so it really doesn’t matter. If God commands something, it must be the right thing to do, so disobedience must be the wrong thing to do.

  11. I’ve enjoyed parsing through some of these responses – there’s a good discussion going on here. But as I felt during previous conversation on this topic, I’m not sure this logical flip in regards to children is really being fleshed out properly. I think the more Rothbardian points are being dismissed far too casually. And I think this issue is too important to simply push asside.

    On the one hand, it seems to be that we’ve established a positive sense of obligation upon the parents of children – after all, they are responsible for them. This is fair enough. On the other hand, the justification for such positive obligation(s) doesn’t seem to lie solely in the realm of causal responsibility regarding the parents per se, but rather in the realm of realizing the (rational) inadequacies of children. I have to wonder, is it the synthesis of these conditions that creates positive obligations on the parents (and subsequently the removal of some of the child’s rights) or is it simply one or any of these conditions that creates it?

    Let me quickly outline four examples:

    1. A 15-year-old child who is still fairly immature (irrational) and physically developed

    2. A 15-year-old child who is completely mature (rational) and physically developed

    3. A 15-year-old orphan who is still fairly immature (irrational) and physically developed

    4. A 15-year-old orphan who is completely mature (rational) and physically developed

    5. A 18-year-old adult who is still fairly immature (irrational) and physically developed

    What are the obligations of either the parents OR society to these individuals? What are the rights of these individuals in relation to the demands of parents or other adults? This is where some of the confusions sets in for me:

    The first example would seem to be the most common. We have a child who is not mentally developed. Therefore we say he has some obligations to his parents and his parents have some obligation to him (because they are his parents and he, as a child, is irrational).

    In the second example, we have a child (legally) who is completely mature (mentally). I run into this, as I’m sure many of the readers do, fairly. Some kids are smart and capable enough to probably be fine without any parental oversight at all after a certain age (provided they could secure employment with various age restrictions in place). It seems that part of the justification for positive obligation on behalf of the parents is that children are irrational or incapable. But this is a blanket statement. Not all children are incapable. Is it the actual, not generalized, incapability of any specific child that creates such obligations? Do the parents still “owe” something to such a child?

    In the third example, we have an immature child with no living parents whatsoever. In this case, I’d like to find out if positive obligations are exclusive to the actual genetic parents of the child, or if we, as individual adults, have a positive obligation to the child because he is mentally incapable.

    In the fourth example, we have a completely mature child with no living parents. Tangential to the previous examples, I’d like to know if we, as individual adults, have positive obligations to this child. If so, is it simply because of his age (irrespective of the parental connection or his capabilities)?

    In the fifth example, we have what is ostensibly an adult – but one that is completely immature. We all know many of these people. But I’d like to extend this example to make it more clear. I’m not talking about individuals who are simply “stupid” or make bad decisions per se, but rather individuals who are – in a real sense – not mentally mature. This can be due to any number of factors; environmental, physical, etc. Parents (at least in the ad hoc sense) are not a factor here. Do we, as individual adults, have positive obligations to these people. They are obviously not children, but they are certainly incapable.

    I think we need to suspend our moral sensitivities in order to address this question properly. It’s easy for any of us (including me) to find the idea of parents abandoning their children “abominable.” There’s no virtue in it in any egalitarian sense to say the least. But if we’re going to have a serious philosophical/ethical discussion about children, we have to entertain the serious questions – regardless of how they offend their sensibilities. I know personally that questioning ethical assumptions can be very off-putting to some people, and it’s very frustrating when (as a libertarian) people simply dismiss your ideas without question because they offend ethical norms. Prostitution, pre-marital sex, drugs, gambling – these are hypotheticals that can be very offensive to various individuals, including some libertarians.

    But we know better than to dismiss those questions just because they make us feel a little “icky.” We have to seriously entertain those ideas and stray from simply demonizing the questions themselves as being somehow immoral. They are serious questions, and they have very serious implications to our philosophy. I’ve enjoyed the light discussion on this blog about the subject, but I’ve yet to see a philosopher (in any camp) adequately address the subject. So let’s not be so quick to view it as open-and-shut as we seem to be making it.

  12. But my question is why we should bother entertaining philosophical premises that engender abominable (what I mean by that is, “deservedly abhorrent”) conclusions? There are perfectly reasonable, alternative philosophical premises that lead to more intuitively appealing conclusions. Moreover, those premises are more consistent with an underlying philosophy that sees persons as deserving respect in light of their rationality or potential for it. There’s just no good philosophical grounding (that I can think of) for a philosophy that puts a child on the same moral plane as a stone.

  13. But, Jason, isn’t that the same line of reasoning that many of our utilitarian “opposition” (I want to use this word politically but loosely) use to justify things like welfare, social security, universal health care, etc.? I’m not even saying that your conclusions are wrong here – hell, I generally agree. But I think it’s worth fleshing out a philosophical basis for your beliefs, however intuitive you find them to be.

    Many progressives find that the very conservative/libertarian philosophical premise of negative rights (in general) engender “abominable” consequences in much the same way; the starving poor, sick children, handicapped elderly – I think they would also suggest that there are perfectly reasonable alternative philosophical premises that lead to more appealing conclusions…namely ignoring negative rights (even if temporarily or sparingly) in light of nominally positive ones.

    Isn’t this the crux of the political and ethical argument for libertarianism and to a lesser extent conservatism – that we don’t employ means that conflict with our proposed ethical (even if egalitarian) norms?

    I agree with you nominally – that there has to be a view which does not simply dismiss children as property. On the other hand, I’d like to be more cautious in how we arrive, philosophically, at that conclusions. I don’t feel that way because I differ so much in my moral conclusions – but rather because I feel that creating positive obligations on people simply because of the incapability of other individuals, or simply inequity for that matter, is far too ambiguous and subjective a supposition. It drives a stake into the heart of many classically liberal assumptions about property, peace, cooperation, and violence.

    At the end of the day, I believe you’re 100% morally correct in your conclusions. Just as I believe that progressives of many stripes are 100% morally correct in their conclusions regarding charity. But we know better than most people that it’s often a fine line between virtue and legal obligation. It’s perfectly reasonable to believe that there is a consistent libertarian angle that justifies certain obligations. And I’m certainly more than open to it (in fact, I’m practically begging for it). But jumping to the conclusion that such obligations really exist declares one of two things, in my mind:

    Negative liberty, philosophically, is inconsistent and positive rights do exist (IE: the case for the political redistribution of property and labor becomes less ambiguous)

    OR

    Our egalitarian ends – subjective as they may be – trump philosophical/ethical assumptions. (IE: rights, in any real sense, do not exist. Social/political utility is the proper measure of right and wrong.

    ————————————————————————

    Again, I’m not trying to stir up a hornet’s nest here. We agree in our conclusions – morally speaking. I guess I’d just really like to see someone (much smarter than me obviously) incorporate such ethical norms without dissolving the primary ones we already hold. It’s the same reason why I admire and respect people who regard themselves as “thick” libertarians but I’m hesitant to make the intellectual jump.

    1. Cross, there are two threads in your argument that seem to me really important but worth distinguishing.

      One is the claim about methodology. You worry about arguments that end with claims that some conclusion is “abominable,” since (i) that’s too easy a card to play, too often, and (ii) it’s often played against libertarian commitments. I think you are right to be suspicious. On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to see how we can avoid playing it at some point or other. Sooner or later we all get to claims that we think are simply unacceptable. The question is how quickly we do so, and maybe how widely shared are our judgments that those claims are unacceptable. In the case of treating children as property — given the high view libertarians normally hold on the authority to treat one’s own property without accountability to others for how we do so — I agree with Jason that that’s close to being a reductio for an account of parent-child relations. Probably what will end up happening is the weakening of what it means to hold property. People being the property of other people is not a way we want to go. I think you might agree with this take overall, so I’m not quite sure if I understand your concerns about Jason’s claims to that effect.

      BTW, I’d think libertarians might well agree with progressives in some ways about the starving poor, the handicapped, and so on. A society in which such people are ignored or treated as morally insignificant is not a society anybody should aspire to live in or bring about. I think on that point we can and should agree with welfare liberals. We disagree with the institutions and practices they propose for taking those concerns seriously, in part precisely because their institutions liberate decent human beings from taking responsibility for the care of others incapable of caring for themselves. I think that is a strength of libertarian thought, not a weakness.

      The second point is one about negative and positive rights and obligations. Libertarians who believe in contract believe in positive rights. If we agree to an exchange, I grant you a positive right to what I am giving up, and vice versa. What we think is that such rights are not enforceable absent their being undertaken voluntarily. Though I’m not sure how hard I’d press this argument, one could make the case that the positive rights children have against their parents are voluntarily granted in just this way (except in cases of involuntarily conception; indeed, for my part I have not sure how to think that e.g. children conceived in rape have enforceable rights against their mothers). Those are mostly marginal cases; the vast majority of children are the products of actions that people perform voluntarily, so why should libertarians shy away from saying that these acts, like acts of contract, can establish enforceable positive rights?

      As I say, I’m not sure how hard I want to press this case, mostly because I think the special (and difficult) nature and status of children makes it both difficult and unwise to try to think about them with more general theoretical tools. But this line of argument might have some legs to it anyway.

      1. Mark, first I’d like to thank you and Jason for the generous responses. I think it’s great that both of you take the time to further the discussion intimately with your readers. There are many blogs which I like where contributors seem very detached from feedback…this is obviously not the case here.

        I think you understood most of the argument I was making. But I’d like to clarify a couple of things – seeing as I’m not the most concise writer and I’m sure that some of my contentions might have been misunderstood.

        To your point about children and people in general as property: I’d just like to point out that it is certainly not my view that people should be viewed as external property – far from it. In fact, coming from a more Natural Law perspective (loosely) on property and individual rights, I find that idea quite “abominable”…and I don’t think this ethical conjecture is inconsistent with my view of negative rights either. In fact, I think the negative rights view makes a stronger argument against viewing children as property than the moral-consequentialist view.

        That being said, I’d like to argue that the two threads of contention you’ve identified from my previous post aren’t entirely separable – from my point of view. Yes, I hold that the methodology of those who base arguments purely on effect or utility in contention, but that is PRECISELY because of my views regarding negative liberty. As you pointed out, libertarians should (and often do) support many of the same egalitarian ends that liberal progressives support. Of course, the critics of libertarians hold that point in contention, but I think most of us here realize that libertarians consider themselves to be fairly egalitarian.

        You are also right, in part, that we (libertarians) disagree with the practices and institutions they propose because we believe they are not pragmatic ways of achieving those egalitarian ends. And there are even some people who are libertarian purely in this consequentialist way. But the main thrust of libertarian philosophy, in an idealogical sense, is deontilogical at its core in my opinion. This is why the concept of negative liberty is so important to many of us.

        In other words, if we could somehow prove tomorrow, economically perhaps, that surrendering 75% of the product of our labor to social programs yields greater social utility – and a more egalitarian outcome – I’d contend that most libertarian-minded people still wouldn’t be fine with the government taking from people. It’s the stealing, the control, the aggression – these stand in defiance to the libertarian claim (negative rights) first and foremost…not the sum or result of such utilitarian action(s). In my mind, the libertarian looks suspiciously at the person who claims we must murder the innocent to save lives.

        Regarding contracts and having children – I’m not sure this analogy is ironclad. I don’t know if we can really conflate the explicitly voluntary consent of contractual agreements and their inherent obligations with ethereal positive obligations brought on by explicitly voluntary actions. Yes, both actions are equally voluntary. You’ll find no argument there. But I’d like to see exactly what contract you believe I’ve consented to simply by taking any given action on that sole basis. I’m sure in some moral sense, you could abstractly view positive obligations as moral-contracts, but this seems utterly and entirely different than actual contractual obligations (and also very different from the restitutive obligations inherent to a political or social structure of natural rights).

        In fact, it seems (legally) as superfluous as making a claim that anyone who walks backwards with red shoes is voluntarily agreeing to give those shoes away to a homeless person. Alright – I understand that contracts bind me to legal obligations, even in a positivistic sense (voluntarily). And I understand that I might bind myself to a personal moral obligation to clothe the homeless. But it’s not clear to me that you can just make a blanket claim that people endeavoring in any given action are somehow making a contractual agreement to perform some other action – or anything legally equivalent for that matter. To me, this is no different than people claiming that you have a positive obligation to involuntarily fund social programs because you are voluntarily employed. A moral obligation, maybe – a legal obligation, I’m not quite so sure. It seems to me that the only true positive obligation I might incur from voluntary action (without an explicit contract) is an action that violates negative liberty in some regard – compensatory obligations.

        And I think that’s where it breaks down for me. I think it might be best to view things like this through two separate prisms of ethics – one of justice and one of morality. Justice would entail the enforcement of negative obligations (non-aggression/fraud/coercion). And that would be the entire and proper scope of legal force. Other issues involving what I consider to be more subjective and ambiguous (positive) obligations would be outside of the scope of legal force. I think a lot of us (especially libertarians) understand the danger of putting concepts as ambiguous as charity and mercy into the realm of legal enforcement – as we know this could ultimately mean anything from from minimalistic positive obligation to literally being regarded as a mean to the end of others – slavery. And that is precisely why I feel it is so important to peel back this subject carefully, and to not be so quick to disregard the philosophical consequences of our positions.

        I don’t want to have to philosophically regard the rights of children as something as subjective as charity – trust me. On the other hand, I don’t want to start talking about positive obligation in such a way that we start pulling virtue into the sphere of justice and just start legislating away our individual sovereignty in the name of whatever kind of social moralizing the mob has in mind on any particular day. So hopefully, you can at least understand my frustration. I just don’t think the issue is as simple as it’s being made out to be. Then again, I could be completely wrong. Maybe there’s an angle out there I just haven’t considered yet.

        In any case, thanks again for the feedback!

      2. Cross, I agree with you on (at least) two things and disagree with you on one.

        I agree that it is great that Jason and the other bloggers on this site invest in responses to our comments as they do. That’s one reason I like commenting on them.

        I also agree that whether else this issue is, it is not simple.

        But I disagree about positive obligations and rights. I wasn’t suggesting that having children is some sort of contract. What I was arguing that
        (i) we libertarians do think there are such things as positive rights and correlative obligations (and coercively enforceable ones), but
        (ii) we insist that such rights and obligations come into being only in virtue of some voluntary act by the person encumbered by the obligation, such as making an agreement or contract, and
        (iii) it’s not implausible to see producing new persons (babies) as one such voluntary act, capable of encumbering the person engaging in that act with positive obligations, and conferring correlative rights on (some) others.

        The connection between act and obligation is not arbitrary, as is the case with your red shoes and the homeless. It’s a reliable and important causal feature of our world that we bring new and dependent beings into existence by engaging in certain sorts of acts.

        I don’t want to conflate justice and beneficence any more than you do. But, having committed to myself to some beneficent course of acting by agreeing to undertake it, it does become a matter of justice that I fulfill the obligations to others that I’ve voluntarily assumed. I don’t see why a similar story might not be told about our obligations to those we voluntarily choose to bring into existence.

  14. Well, I’m still waiting to be convinced that a third category of objects exist in this universe. (A group with positive rights) Mark has offered an interesting option with his implied contract during coitus. The contents of the contract would be what then? That any child created from any physical act would be treated as humanely as possible in order for them to one day to be human. But wouldn’t that still imply that they were objects?

    1. Brian, I don’t think this requires a third category: I think all of us are capable of having positive rights. We just think this occurs when others voluntarily grant them to us.

      And to be clear, I am not claiming that having sex constitutes making a contract. I am arguing that it is plausible that doing so voluntarily is like entering into a contract in virtue of its capacity to create positive obligations.

  15. “(i) we libertarians do think there are such things as positive rights and correlative obligations (and coercively enforceable ones)

    (ii) we insist that such rights and obligations come into being only in virtue of some voluntary act by the person encumbered by the obligation, such as making an agreement or contract, and

    (iii) it’s not implausible to see producing new persons (babies) as one such voluntary act, capable of encumbering the person engaging in that act with positive obligations, and conferring correlative rights on (some) others.”

    I might have a much more radical view of libertarianism but I don’t agree with this at all.

    (i) There are such things as positive obligations (as brought about by voluntary contract, or the voluntary violation of one’s negative liberty), but I would contend there is not such thing as positive rights….that is, in my mind, a right being something that we hold intrinsically – existing without the interaction or consent of others. When I sign a contract to give you my house, I have an obligation to give you the house or at least the value of the house. When you burn down my house, you have an obligation to compensate me for my house. But you, as an individual, have no inherent RIGHT to my house from a neutral standpoint of existence. This issue might seem semantic but I think there is a subtle difference between a right and an self-incurred obligation.

    (ii) I agree that all positive obligations come into being due to voluntary actions. However, not all voluntary actions induce positive obligations upon the actor. I would contend that only compensatory obligations drawn from the violation of negative rights incur positive obligations without the consent of the actor. Any claim to the induction of a positive obligation upon an actor who has not consented to such an agreement, or has not violated the negative liberty of another being, is arbitrary.

    (iii) see “ii”.

    “The connection between act and obligation is not arbitrary, as is the case with your red shoes and the homeless. It’s a reliable and important causal feature of our world that we bring new and dependent beings into existence by engaging in certain sorts of acts.”

    Is it the “importance” of the proposed obligation what you use to gauge whether it’s arbitrary or not? It’s pretty damn important that people are employed so that they can feed themselves and their families. Does my firing of an employee create a positive obligation for me to secure their employment elsewhere first? Their state of being unemployed is the direct result of my voluntarily choice to disassociate myself with them. How is such a proposed obligation any less (philosophically) arbitrary than the positive obligation brought on by the voluntary act of sex?

    I’m simply trying to discern what distinguishes one voluntary action that does not explicitly create positive obligation(s) from any other voluntary action which somehow binds us explicitly to some predetermined positive obligation(s). I don’t philosophically understand why my example is de facto arbitrary while yours is not (other than the simple claim that it is so).

    1. Cross:
      (i) If you define “rights” such that they exist only involuntarily, then of course it turns out that there are no positive rights whatsoever. But then you will have to have a new word for the counterparts to obligations that are enforceable. Call these “shrights.” Then libertarians must accept that there are shrights: among them shrights to property and to having contracts enforced. Our dispute, then, is not about rights, but about shrights. (But your definitional move simply does not fit the way most people — libertarian or otherwise — use the term “right.”)

      (ii) and (iii) Once you grant that voluntary actions can create obligations (and rights, or shrights), then it is arbitrary (that is, without rational basis — not simply important, which is a different consideration) to insist simply that only contracts do so. There is at least a strong prima facie moral case, I’d contend, that voluntarily bringing into existence new people, and absolutely dependent, is such an act. Suppose you could create new people just by waving a magic wand. Would it be plausible to suppose that you had no responsibility to those very people not to bring them into existence with no responsibility for them? That seems to me quite incredible. The basic features of ourselves, our lives, our natures, and our interactions that make sense of our moral relations with each other (our obligations and rights/shrights against each other) resist such a conclusion.

      As to cases like employment: there are two voluntary acts there, not one. Each side agrees to a relationship of employment at will. (If you were “employing” them without their consent (that is, enslaving them), then, yes, I’d think you would have an obligation not simply to cut them loose when they had become dependent. But that’s a degenerate case, because the slavery already muddies the water.) That by itself is sufficient to explain why your firing of me, when I’ve agreed to work for you, doesn’t create some further obligation on your part, let alone right (or shright) on my part.

      What is the full story of the conditions under which voluntary actions create obligations? Good question, and I don’t know the answer. But likewise I don’t have an answer to the question, what are the conditions under which binding (enforceable) agreements are created? Acts of will are required, sure, but what does that mean? As we both agree, simple answers about children are in short supply. I do think that making sense of the pattern of human moral relationships requires that we not think that people can be causally responsible for the existence of new dependent beings without bearing moral responsibility for doing so. And if that responsibility is enforceable, we are talking about rights. It seems to me the burden is one someone wanting to claim that there is no such responsibility, but — as with all burden of proof arguments — that’s a matter of judgment.

      1. Mark, again thank you for the generous reply. I don’t want to drag this on because I think you’ve made several great points, but I remain unconvinced (philosophically, not morally). So I want to quickly respond to what you’ve said here, but I’ll let you be after that. And, of course, I’ll take responses (if any) into serious consideration. The court is still out on this one for me.

        On rights, “shrights,” and obligations: I wasn’t trying to quibble over semantics. When I, personally, use the term “right” I mean something very specific…and I’d argue that its common use is probably also much different now than it used to be. An obligation, in my mind, implies a debt. You owe something to someone. Obligations (in general) are not defined as being absolute….that is to say that some are voluntary. I’m morally obligated to be nice to my neighbors. That obligation is voluntary and largely self-imposed. All rights are inherently obligations (of other people). Not all obligations, however, are rights. A right, in the sense I mean it, is an obligation that exists simply because you exist…it requires no action to be created…voluntary or not. When I say I have a right to free speech, it means, as a human being, I’m endowed with a will to speak that I can exercise freely – that is to say, other people have an obligation to withhold from infringing upon my will to do so.

        Likewise, if I have a right to purchase a house, it simply means other people have an obligation to withhold from infringing upon my will to purchase a house. That right is not contingent upon my purchasing of the house…it exists whether I choose to exercise it or not. And even when I sign a contract to purchase a house, and thereby create positive (even legal) obligations upon myself and the seller, this does not create a “right” to the house. I always had a “right” to purchase a house. I think conflating rights and obligations (of any stripe) has a lot to do with the confusion in the current political landscape. It’s why we (society) don’t see a disconnect between a right to bear arms and a right to health care. Conflating moral and legal obligations with de facto rights is something I’m not a fan of. So while it may seem like I’m just being caught up in the minutia of the terms, I want to be very clear about what I mean. That being said, legally enforceable positive obligations certainly exist…I will not refer to them as rights.

        I’ve never argued that voluntary acts can’t create obligations. I’ve argued that I haven’t been given a clear definition of how a voluntary act, without contract or infringement of another’s rights, can create such obligations. It’s not clear exactly what criterion you’re using for determining that any given voluntary action creates positive obligations, whereas I feel like my definitions are very clear: either you explicitly voluntarily agree to such an enforceable obligation, or you have infringed upon another beings liberty, for which you are obligated to compensate them. Can there be somewhat of a fuzzy area there? Sure. But not nearly as fuzzy as the jump from “Voluntary acts CAN create obligations” to “THIS voluntary act creates obligations.” You’re telling me that some fruits can be apples, therefore this fruit is an apple. But that’s not a logical defense.

        That’s why I previously asked about the qualitative nature of such obligations instead of the more generalized notions of how it’s “rational” or “moral.” Here you seem to imply that because we bring a being into existence, we’re responsible for them. Alright, then why does that obligation ever cease? I’ve been led to believe that this is because those beings are not self-sufficient. But then it seems that it’s the incapabilities of a given being that creates positive obligations on others. Or, if it’s a synthesis of the two concepts, then there would seem to be some difficulty in addressing various scenarios – orphaned children, mentally handicapped adults, children who are fully capable of being fully self-sufficient and rational, etc.

        Certainly a moral obligation to care for children exists. It’s when we start saying that moral obligations are enforceable that I get a bit antsy. As you can tell, I’ve never been one to want to conflate moral obligations with normative ethical assumptions (Natural Law). In terms of intellectual influence, it’s hard to deny that our sense that it’s wrong to steal, for instance, is greatly influenced by, say, religious dispositions. But I’m much more comfortable leaving the intersection of negative liberty and the 7th Commandment at coincidence; I don’t want to find myself arguing people out of inventing some positive moral obligation for me to honor the 1st. What turns the violation of negative liberty and contractual agreements into positive obligations seems clearly defined to me. The criterion for what turns moral obligations or voluntary non-contractual actions into positive obligations are much less clear.

      2. All that being said, Mark, I know you’re much smarter than I am. My interest in philosophy and political science is amateur, and I realize that you’re probably drawing on a fairly decent wealth of knowledge on the subject. So I’m very open to the possibility that I’m just completely off my rocker here…I’m just looking for someone to draw out this conclusion clearly, so I can understand exactly how they got there. At the end of the day, however, it does seem like integrating children in ethical and political frameworks is a pretty daunting task. Rest assured, although I don’t currently see the dots connecting from a philosophical standpoint, I agree completely in moral disposition, and my feelings (morally) about parental obligation are probably just as strong as your’s. I don’t want anyone to think I’m alright with throwing a baby into a dumpster or anything crazy like that. I’m just looking for a good way to incorporate this particular moral obligation into my ethical framework, but it might just be a lost cause. In any case, thanks again for the food for thought!

  16. Cross, again I agree with you more than I disagree. I think we at a point where we are hamstrung by imprecise vocabulary. I don’t think in the end we can treat either ‘right’ or ‘obligation’ as fundamental normative terms; there are too many distinctions they bury. I’d rather work with the narrower and blander “reasons for action,” but there’s a reason we use the language of rights and obligation: it cuts a lot of corners! Still, you reach a point where you need the corners, especially for a thoroughgoing moral theory or libertarian (or other) theory of political obligation, and I think that’s where we are.

    Also I grant you that the line I’ve peddled here doesn’t say much about a lot of hard cases. And no problems over the nature of institutions licensed with coercive power are solved in the least. In the end I think the best thing it might do is press us to think harder about just the issue you bring up about my position: what should we think about the conditions under which we can rightfully be thought to have undertaken voluntary obligations to others? I think we’ll have made progress just to recognize that answers to that question as not as easy as we might think.

    Thanks for the exchange!

  17. Parents owe their children love, a sense of self worth, belonging and stability. These are something all parents owe their children, but to legally enforce it? No I think we’d all like to see our parents doing these things because they genuinely care and not because of some legal obligation. My own mother used the argument that she was not legally required to do much for me at a very young age. That is sick. You should do these things for your kids because you WANT to.

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